The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions

The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions

by Michael Walzer


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A thought-provoking reflection on why secular national liberation movements are so often challenged by militant religious revivals

Many of the successful campaigns for national liberation in the years following World War II were initially based on democratic and secular ideals. Once established, however, the newly independent nations had to deal with entirely unexpected religious fierceness. Michael Walzer, one of America’s foremost political thinkers, examines this perplexing trend by studying India, Israel, and Algeria, three nations whose founding principles and institutions have been sharply attacked by three completely different groups of religious revivalists: Hindu militants, ultra-Orthodox Jews and messianic Zionists, and Islamic radicals. In his provocative, well-reasoned discussion, Walzer asks, Why have these secular democratic movements been unable to reproduce their political culture beyond one or two generations? In a postscript, he compares the difficulties of contemporary secularism to the successful establishment of secular politics in the early American republic—thereby making an argument for American exceptionalism but gravely noting that we may be less exceptional today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300223637
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Eminent political theorist Michael Walzer, an emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, served as coeditor of the political journal Dissent for more than three decades.

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The Paradox of Liberation

Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions



Copyright © 2015 Michael Walzer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21391-1


The Paradox of National Liberation


National liberation is an ambitious and also, from the beginning, an ambiguous project. The nation has to be liberated not only from external oppressors—in a way, that's the easy part—but also from the internal effects of external oppression. Albert Memmi, the Tunisian Jew who wrote perceptively about the psychological effects of foreign rule, makes the critical point. The Jews will have to be delivered from "a double oppression: an objective external oppression made up of the ... incessant aggressions inflicted on [them] and an auto-oppression ... whose consequences were just as harmful." One of the consequences of these two together is the internal domination of traditional elites, the mediators of foreign rule—the men and women, mostly men, who move back and forth between the subject nation and its rulers, negotiating with the rulers, bribing them when necessary, accommodating their demands when that seems necessary, making the best of a difficult and often humiliating relationship. The figure of the "court Jew" has parallels in every nation ruled by foreigners, and one of the aims of national liberation is the elimination of this role and the defeat of the people who made it their own.

But another, even more important effect of this doubled oppression has to be overcome, and that is the passivity, the quietude, the deep lethargy of the dominated people. No nation can live for long under foreign rule, or, like the Jews, in exile, without accommodating to its condition and making its peace with the powers that be. Early attempts at resistance are repressed, often brutally; after that, resistance goes underground, where it finds expression in common complaint, mockery, and evasion. Leftist scholars have contrived to celebrate this sort of thing, and it ought to be celebrated. But the larger, sadder story is one of accommodation, the practical alternatives generally being less attractive. Accommodation will be more or less profound depending on the severity of the conditions that have to be accommodated and the number of years, or decades, or centuries during which those conditions prevail. In the sphere of politics, accommodation takes a variety of forms: fatalistic resignation, withdrawal from political activity to familial or communal concerns, even acceptance of the political "superiority" of the foreign rulers. In this last case, the local culture is reconceived as somehow unsuited to politics, devoted to higher, more spiritual pursuits. "They," the British, the French, Europeans generally, have a talent for politics; they have the ruthlessness necessary for imperial domination; "we" submit because we are focused on more important things; ruthlessness is alien to us.

Even liberationists like Mohandas Gandhi, who didn't want to imitate the ruthlessness of imperial rulers, believed nonetheless that the old accommodation had to be overcome; it was necessary to "train the masses in self-consciousness and the attainment of power." Gandhi's "constructive program" was aimed at producing men and women who were "fit" for independence, capable of "managing [their] own affairs"—though not, like the British, everyone else's. This task should rightly have preceded national liberation but was, in all my cases, unfinished at the moment when independence was won. From the beginning the constructive programs of the liberationists met with difficulties.

Once people have settled in and adjusted themselves, one way or another, to a particular version of foreign rule, the men and women who suddenly appear and offer to liberate them are likely to be regarded with suspicion—as Moses was when he tried to explain to the Israelites that they were about to be delivered from Egyptian slavery. Here the biblical text tells a classic story, which is repeated again and again when young and enthusiastic liberators first encounter the people they mean to liberate and find them frightened and reluctant. The liberators soon discover that they need (in modern terms) to "raise the consciousness" of the people before liberation is possible.

What can this mean except to oppose the people's already existing consciousness, which has been shaped by oppression and accommodation? Raising consciousness is a persuasive enterprise, but it quickly turns into a cultural war between the liberators and what we can call the traditionalists. Raising consciousness can be a tense business. It's possible for a charismatic leader like Gandhi to adapt the traditional culture to the needs of national liberation, but adaptations along these lines are likely to face fierce opposition; their success may well be brief. And even Gandhi was deeply opposed to many aspects of Hindu culture, especially the fate of the "untouchables." He was assassinated by someone committed to a more literal, or more traditional, or perhaps more radically nationalist version of Hinduism.

I have taken this example, and all my examples, from the history of nationalism, but I want to stress that national liberation is a subset of that history, a piece of it, not the whole of it. Indeed, the liberationist project seems somewhat at odds with Webster's definition of nationalism: "a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations." There are certainly men and women with this sort of consciousness in all the national liberation movements —they form its right wing. Nationalism for them is a zero-sum game. But the "primary emphasis" of the movements' leaders is doubly different: first, they aim to achieve political equality with, rather than a dominant position over, other nations, and, second, they aim to liberate their own nation from long-standing traditions of authoritarianism and passivity—indeed, from its own historic culture. Liberation is closer to revolutionary politics than to national aggrandizement. Like the liberationist militants, revolutionaries set themselves in opposition to established patterns of submission, accommodation, and (what Marxists call) "false consciousness." They aim at a radical transformation. Social revolution requires a struggle against the existing society; national liberation requires a struggle against, rather than an "exaltation" of, the existing nation.

This is also, often, an antireligious struggle, for religion, as Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, teaches "a philosophy of submission ... to the prevailing social order and to everything that is." Nehru was repeating here the standard liberationist view, which follows from the fact that accommodation to foreign rule commonly takes a religious form—in part for the obvious reason that otherworldliness offers comforts that are always available, however bad things are here and now. But the secular militants of national liberation are mistaken if they describe the comforts of religion as nothing more than pie in the sky. Religion also generates fantasies of reversal and triumph and then, intermittently, revivalist and millenarian movements that are sometimes tumultuous but always ineffective. Millenarianism looks like opposition to foreign rule, and may be that briefly, but over the long run it is a form of political accommodation—for it doesn't produce a steady or persistent oppositional politics, and the millennium never arrives. Another, more concrete form of accommodation is resolutely this-worldly and doesn't look forward to apocalyptic events. In fact, most religions prescribe a regimen that can and should be established right now. It requires submission from ordinary believers and assigns an authoritative role to traditional religious leaders—who are often already local officials and judges, appointed by and submissive in turn to foreign rulers.

But neither millenarian nor traditionalist politics invites ideological commitment or long-term activism. Nor does either politics promise individual freedom, political independence, citizenship, democratic government, scientific education, or economic advance. It is for the sake of all these that the national liberationist or revolutionary militants need to transform the people in whose name they are acting—and that transformation requires the defeat of the people's religious leaders and the overcoming of the people's customary way of life. V S. Naipaul, writing thirty years after Indian national liberation, perfectly captures the attitude of the liberators toward the religion of the people:

Hinduism ... has exposed us to a thousand years of defeat and stagnation. It has given men no idea of a contract with other men, no idea of a state. It has enslaved one quarter of the population and always left the whole fragmented and vulnerable. Its philosophy of withdrawal has diminished men intellectually and not equipped them to respond to challenge; it has stifled growth.

National liberation, by contrast, is a secularizing, modernizing, and developmental creed. It is, as its opponents say, a "Western" creed, and to the nation about to be liberated, it is something entirely new. Indeed, newness is the mantra of the liberators. They offer the oppressed people a new beginning, a new politics, a new culture, a new economy; they aim to create new men and women. Thus David Ben-Gurion: "The worker of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] differs from the Jewish worker in Galut [exile] ... [He is] not a new branch grafted to an old tradition, but a new tree"—literally, in Ben-Gurion's eyes, a new kind of Jew. Similarly, Frantz Fanon: "There is a new kind of Algerian man. The power of the Algerian Revolution ... resides in the radical mutation that the Algerian has undergone."

We can gain some sense of what all this means from the history of the United States: what Ralph Waldo Emerson and his contemporaries called "the American newness" was achieved through the escape from Old World tyrannies and traditions. In American history, as in the history of ancient Israel, the victory of the new required a geographic move rather than a political movement. Indeed, the American experience led Louis Hartz to argue that the "only really successful revolution is ... a migration." But the same sense of starting over is present in all the cases of national liberation, even if the new beginning is in an old place.

Of course, this newness encounters resistance, which begins as a stubborn allegiance to the-way-things-have-always-been but soon becomes ideological and therefore also new: fundamentalism and ultra-Orthodoxy are both modernist reactions to attempts at modernist transformation. The slogan of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy, "Everything new is forbidden by the Torah," is itself a new idea; it would have made the historic accommodation to exile impossible. Jewish survival required a lively adaptability and a readiness for innovation. But the slogan works well against attempts to bring the exile to an end, and one can find similar examples of opposition to the newness of national liberation in India and Algeria. What is more surprising is the reappearance of this opposition after the achievement of political independence, when the defenders of traditional religion, themselves renewed and modernized, begin the construction of a counterrevolutionary politics.

I had better tell a particular story now or at least provide a brief example of what I am talking about, to avoid too schematic an account. I will begin with the Algerian case because it is in several ways the outlier among my three. First of all, French repression in Algeria was more brutal than that of the English in either India or Palestine, and it was mirrored in the brutality of the National Liberation Front's internal wars, in the FLN's terrorist campaign against European settlers (advocates of terrorism were marginal in India and a small minority among the Zionists), and also in the FLN's post-independence authoritarianism. Second, the commitment to secular liberation in Algeria, although it finds an avid spokesman in Frantz Fanon, was probably weaker than in my other cases. The most visible leaders of the FLN were indeed secular and Marxist, or at least socialist, in their political commitment. But the movement's initial manifesto, read over Cairo radio in 1954, called for an "Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam." There were people in the FLN who took this framework seriously—and who demanded immediately after independence that it be put in place. In the early years, however, FLN militants displayed little interest in Islamic principles, and the Soummam Platform of 1956, the work primarily of the internal FLN and its Berber leaders, actually left the principles of Islam out of its description of the movement's goal: "the birth of an Algerian state in the form of a democratic and social republic—and not the restoration of monarchy or of a theocracy." In Cairo a year later, a compromise was reached with a new text that called for "the establishment of a democratic and social Algerian republic, which is not in contradiction with the principles of Islam."

In any case, the leaders of the FLN did not spend much time learning about the principles of Islam. Sitting in a French prison, Ahmed Ben Bella, the future first president of Algeria, read the leftist publications of the Paris publisher Maspero and studied the works of Lenin, Sartre, and Malraux. In the aftermath of independence, he argued for something he called "Islamic socialism," which was, as his Muslim critics claimed, more socialist than Islamic. His chief advisors as president were Trotskyists. Ramdane Abane, one of the FLN's leading intellectuals and a defender of terrorism, spent five years in prison (1950–55), where he "applied himself to a voracious reading of revolutionary studies, Marx and Lenin—and even Mein Kampf." He had already gained his baccalauréat; he must have done all his reading in French. Many of the FLN militants, and a larger number of the intellectuals, were Francophone. The establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria was announced in French by Ferhat Abbas, then the head of the FLN. The FLNers were certainly committed Algerian nationalists: "It's not with you but against you that we are learning your language," declares a character in a novel by an Algerian writer (who wrote in French). At the same time, many of these nationalists were culturally Francophile or, perhaps better, Europhile: Hocine Ait Ahmed—a Berber and, along with Ben Bella, one of the "neuf historiques," the Historic Nine, founders of the FLN— concentrated in his prison years on English literature. Although militants like Ben Bella and Ait Ahmed aimed at ending foreign rule, they were remarkably at ease in a foreign culture.

Important Muslim scholars, organized in the Association of Algerian Ulama, condemned the eager reception of European culture by many Algerians, especially in the cities, and demanded the exclusive use of Arabic in Algerian schools. The association foreshadowed the Islamic revival of the 1980s and 1990s—whose militants fiercely opposed the bilingualism advocated by Mostefa Lacheraf, an old FLNer who was cultural affairs minister in the late 1970s. As Cliffort Geertz writes about similar reformist groups in Morocco, "These were oppositional Muslims ... Into what had been a fine medieval contempt for infidels crept a tense modern note of anxious envy and defensive pride." But the ulama were unable to produce a modern nationalist politics, and they were opposed in turn by Muslim "moderates." The moderates urged the French to allow the imposition of Islamic family law and to make many lesser concessions to Muslim sensitivities but, given that, had no further difficulty with French rule. Muslim officials in Algeria were fully engaged in the politics of subservience; the Soummam Platform contemptuously described them as "domesticated, chosen and paid by the colonial administration." These officials were the more immediate opponents of the FLN militants, whose political agenda included, as the writings of Fanon make clear, not only ending French rule but also overcoming the colonial mentality and the Algerian past.

FLN radicalism helps explain the highly visible role that women were given in the movement, not in the leadership—an absence that signaled things to come—but on the ground, in military (and terrorist) activities. Compare the role of women among Zionist militants, especially in the Haganah, the military arm of the Zionist movement. (The Indian National Congress had no military arm, but for the sake of symmetry, let me note Nehru's boast that Congress's political and social movements "have drawn tens of thousands of middle-class women into ... public activity" for the first time.) Putting women forward in the FLN was not an affront to the French oppressors; it was directed against the internal oppression of Algeria's religious tradition. Fanon, in his portentous way, makes this a central theme: "The militant man discovers the militant woman, and jointly they create new dimensions for Algerian society." And again: "The freedom of the Algerian people ... [is now] identified with woman's liberation, with her entry into history." And again: "[In the movement] the woman ceased to be a mere complement of the man. Indeed, it might be said that she pulled up her roots through her own exertions."


Excerpted from The Paradox of Liberation by MICHAEL WALZER. Copyright © 2015 Michael Walzer. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 The Paradox of National Liberation 1

2 The Paradox Illustrated: Zionism Vs. Judaism 34

3 The Paradox Denied: Marxist Perspectives 68

4 The Future of National Liberation 104

Postscript 134

Notes 147

Acknowledgments 163

Index 167

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