Courtesy Reuters

Liberalism in the Ruins: Having It All

In This Review

Liberalism's Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik

By Ira Katznelson
Princeton University Press, 1996
185 pp. $19.95

This unusual and inventive work by Ira Katznelson, professor of political science at Columbia University, is an insider's account, more testament than analysis, of "the impact of the wreckage of Soviet-style socialism on the left." Because the author's spirits are naturally buoyant, exhortation easily prevails over lamentation. Katznelson means to rally American liberals behind a stirring cause, "the renewal of the democratic left."

In pursuit of that, Katznelson has addressed two long "letters" to a Polish friend, Adam Michnik, Solidarity's legendary tribune, now editor in chief of his country's best-selling daily. This literary conceit, while it has its charms, is not altogether felicitous. Before 1989 Katznelson could plausibly connect his own political causes in the United States to those of intellectuals in far-off lands. Now, even though the world is no longer cleft in twain, American partisan struggles seem increasingly local and the problems of postcommunism in Europe very distant.

Katznelson nevertheless insists on informing his old friend that "liberalism needs socialism." Readers might wonder how Michnik himself will react to such a lesson. Will he cast off his nonsocialist liberalism, disassociating himself from Poland's free market reforms, and embrace an imagined third way "where liberalism and socialism meet"? After languishing in jail for his subversive ideas, will he bow to the revelation that liberal rights are frequently scams? Having escaped a regime that exerted lethal pressure on family life, will he now train a coldly critical eye on the distinction between public and private spheres? More generally, will inhabitants of poor countries react serenely when a professor from the land of plenty instructs them on the vices of capitalism and suggests experimenting with yet-untried economic models?

That Katznelson does not bother to tiptoe around Eastern European sensibilities is disconcerting at first, but his book's central claims are not really addressed to Adam Michnik and are certainly not meant to clarify the problems of contemporary Poland. His real purpose is "to engage in the fight for the kind of liberalism we should

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