Friday, March 11, 2016

Where did 'national liberation' go wrong?

Review of:
Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions. Yale Univ. Press, 2015. 178 pp. (including notes and index).

Movements for "national liberation," which seek to free a people or "nation" from colonial rule or from other kinds of statelessness or national 'oppression', have a sometimes complicated relationship to the traditional culture and religion of the "nation" on whose behalf they act.  That relationship is the focus of Walzer's The Paradox of Liberation, which considers three national-liberation movements -- the Algerian FLN, the Indian National Congress, and Labor Zionism -- all of which achieved their goal of founding independent, (more-or-less) secular states only to be met with fundamentalist religious reactions roughly 25 years after independence.   

Walzer's main argument is that these three movements, in their drive to create "new men" and "new women" and new polities, were too dismissive of the religion and culture of the peoples they were seeking to liberate.  Of the leaders of these movements, only Gandhi consistently spoke to 'the people' in a traditional religious idiom (p.20).  Although the FLN and early Zionists made some religious noises (the FLN said it respected "Islamic principles"), their "long-term political agenda" was not "significantly influenced by their people's religion" (p.22).  According to Walzer, "[i]t is the absolutism of secular negation that best accounts for the strength and militancy of the religious revival" (p.109).   

On this account, the results of this "secular negation" were: an Islamist movement in Algeria that led to civil war in the 1990s; the growing strength of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) in India (where the BJP, the political party of this movement, currently is in power); and ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel (and its offshoot, the settler movement).  Walzer thinks an attitude of "critical engagement" with traditional religion on the part of the national-liberationists could have led to the creation of some kind of middle ground (though he doesn't use that phrase).  

Walzer's examination of the histories of these movements, however, suggests that this would not have been easy.  With respect to the case about which he is most deeply concerned, he acknowledges that the gulf between political Zionism and "the mentality of exile" (p.39) of traditional Judaism "was very wide, and it wasn't easy to find continuities" (p.46).  Indeed, as Walzer points out, a key part of Zionism's self-definition was and is its rejection of the traditional commitment to waiting for the Messiah and all that idea implied in the way of passivity and (perceived) weakness.  "[T]he anti-Semitic stereotype of the pale, stooped, fearful Jew is also a Zionist stereotype" (p.47), and Zionists replaced this stereotype with the image of the strong, self-sufficient pioneer.  Ironically perhaps, a rather similar image was later appropriated by the Orthodox Jewish settlers of the occupied territories, who see themselves as warriors for a cause.  The difference is that the Labor Zionists envisioned a state in which all citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, would enjoy the same rights and to which, as a result, they would feel the same ties (see the quotation from Ben-Gurion on p.99).

Within the secular 'negation' of tradition, it is, Walzer writes, "[t]he demand for gender equality [that] poses the greatest challenge to traditional religion and is probably the most important cause of revivalist zealotry in all three...cases" (p.115).  Citing the work of (among others) the Indian scholar Uma Narayan, he argues that the solution is to connect the quest for gender equality to "national narratives and religious traditions" (p.119), as some feminists are already trying to do.  The implication is that those who are unwilling to do this cannot succeed and will only generate an increasingly intense backlash.  

Hindu nationalism, ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and the political versions of fundamentalist Islam (whether, say, in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or, in perhaps the most extreme form, with ISIS) can be seen as part of a global religious revival, but The Paradox of Liberation, largely because of its case-study approach, pays little attention to such global dimensions.  The strongest criticism of this book will likely come from some on the left who will see Walzer as too accommodating of tradition and won't be mollified by, for instance, his quotations from Gramsci (see p.124) or his discussion of some Marxist and postcolonialist critiques of his argument.  Even if one disagrees with or is skeptical of Walzer's position, the book provokes thought and has the advantage of being very short, and the notes contain useful references for those interested in the histories of, and debates surrounding, the three 'revolutions' and 'counterrevolutions'.  In addition, there is a postscript on the American Revolution and why it differs from the three main cases.

ETA: There's some good material in the book's postscript that I may address in another post. 


hank_F_M said...


Go wrong? Was it ever right?

Many National Liberation Movements, were not simply throw out the the colonial power and let local political groupings have their day.

The leadership of these movements had a vision of how the independent (insert name) should be organized. A vision that was at least as central to them as expelling the colonial power. A vision not shared with many and often most of their countryman, and frequently opposed to the customs, beliefs, and interests of other groups.

Once the common goal was achieved, their were many powerful factions with mutually exclusive goals. A pretty good recipe for conflict, often violent conflict.

Since the leadership had goals that went far beyond simply driving out the colonial powers, National Liberation would never go right, especially form the point of view of some the leadership and others outside the country sympathetic to their goals.

LFC said...

Thanks for the comment.

I think "national liberation would never go right" is something of an overstatement. We could get down into the historical weeds and argue specifics, but I'm not sure how useful that would be. I will restrict myself to saying that at least w/r/t India and Israel, 'national liberation', as Walzer is using the phrase, did get some things right, esp. in the first decades after independence. Also, I'm not as convinced as Walzer that the religious counterrevolutions could have been avoided by a different attitude; this is a counterfactual question and opinions will, of course, differ.

Peter T said...

What's "going right" (or wrong), here? Politics moves on. The debates in Britain in 2010 are not the same as the debates in 1980. The three cases are utterly unalike. Israel was a settler project, initially heavily dependent on western backing and therefore careful not to openly offend western prejudices (the ethnic cleansing of 47-55 was kept out of sight; once a majority had been guaranteed, the minority could be offered formal equality); India was a partner in the raj, seeking to dissolve the partnership - a demand Britain had no means of resisting; the FLN found in nationalism the best way to unite Arabs against France - religion was not going to do the job.

Of course the issues changed after a generation or so. And religion has been rising in salience in many places - in post-Soviet Russia, in the US, across the Middle East, in Thailand and Myanmar. Be more interesting to look at where it has not risen.

LFC said...

Thanks for comment.

I certainly agree that "religion has been rising in salience in many places" and I mentioned this in the OP (see reference to "global religious revival" in last paragraph).

On the rest, the similarities/dissimilarities of the cases are debatable. Not everyone is a fan of, to put it mildly, or is interested in Walzer's particular preoccupations. His emphasis on 'critical engagement' w religion is sort of part of a larger argument he's been making for years about the need, e.g., for social criticism to be rooted in some 'connection' to the society being criticized. (See his The Company of Critics, which I've not read excepts bits and pieces, and, further back, Spheres of Justice, which I have read.)

He's not an historian, and the ways he uses history are, I think, legitimately open to criticism and scrutiny. Think I'll leave it at that for the time being.

LFC said...

p.s. on Israel, I think Ben-Gurion and his associates in the Labor Party (Mapai) really did have a vision of a secular state in which Jews and Arabs wd enjoy equality. Walzer has a long quote from B-G in '47 or thereabouts to this effect (don't have it in front of me right now). That it didn't work out that way is prob. something for which there's enough blame to be shared all around (albeit perhaps in varying proportions), even if one factors in the 'new' or revisionist histories of the '48 war. However, I can't really claim any detailed knowledge of this beyond what I've gathered at second or third hand.

Also, Israel was different from other 'settler projects' -- say, the settlement of N. America by English and other immigrants -- b/c of the historical connection of Jews to the land. Which is why, as Walzer points out, the Uganda plan could never fly even though Herzl favored it.

LFC said...

p.p.s. and this of course ties in w the Zionist view of the Jews as a 'nation' or 'people' defined by a heritage that is separate from and/or goes beyond religion. Which Walzer pretty much assumes is valid rather than constructing an elaborate argument for. He also recognizes the Palestinians as a 'people' entitled to their own state, though he more or less leaves it there w.o getting into the details of 'the 2-state solution' (to use a phrase that rings increasingly hollow the longer it doesn't happen).

LFC said...

A critique of the book by Richard Falk, which I've only skimmed:

JS said...

LFC — Getting to this very late, obviously. Having only read your review and Falk's, I actually think Walzer might be substantially wrong about India. This by Perry Anderson goes in almost exactly the opposite direction, arguing that Gandhi's vision for India, in particular, was deeply shaped by specifically Hindu traditions and ideologies, and that this is necessary to understand the later rise of Hindutva. I tend to think Anderson is closer to the truth. (Admittedly, I've only read the first half of the book, or rather—the essays, when they first appeared in LRB.)

LFC said...

js.-- Thanks. Just seeing this at nearly midnight, will comment/reply, albeit prob. briefly, tomorrow.

LFC said...

I think Anderson could be right, but I don't know. It's clear why Walzer quotes Nehru rather than Gandhi; the latter doesn't fit neatly into his argument, as he kind of acknowledges. Not having read The Indian Ideology (though I did see a review of it in Foreign Affairs some time ago), I can't say much more at this pt.

JS said...

Nehru's a better fit, that's certainly true. I'm not sure how much that helps the overall argument, but then, I also haven't read the book.

On another note, I really liked the Falk piece—though, man, it could've used a copy editor.

LFC said...

could've used a copy editor

Definitely. I'm not really familiar with the site/journal where the piece appeared, but it seems to be a fairly low-budget operation, so it wasn't going to get an Atlantic-caliber copy-edit or anything close to it.

Falk has been around for a *long* time, btw. A leftist and a noted international-law scholar, two things that don't go together all that often. Without looking it up, I don't know his exact age, but I would think he's got to be in his 80s. (Walzer, for that matter, is in his late 70s.)