In This Review

Liberalism's Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik
Liberalism's Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik
By Ira Katznelson
Princeton University Press, 1996, 185 pp

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 wish to have" in America.

"In the 1960s," Katznelson begins by reporting, "I forswore the label 'liberal' as tainted by racism, imperialism, militarism, and class domination." Smudges on the label "socialist" he apparently found easier to abide. But time passes, and today he can announce, "I have come to value politics grounded in the liberal tradition." He even admits unwincingly that "the elimination of private property is neither possible nor desirable." But while for all practical purposes he is reconciled to liberalism, he considers it twice deficient. It is not egalitarian enough, he declares, and it does not embrace religious and ethnic diversity to the proper degree

and in the proper way.


In Letter One Katznelson argues, first, that liberalism is insufficiently egalitarian and, second, that its shortcomings in this essential area can be remedied by reaching out for nourishment to the great socialist tradition. He defends these claims with esprit and grace. But do they make sense? Has not liberalism always been a mixed bag, frequently including within itself a sharp dispute between egalitarian and anti-egalitarian schools? (Consider the differences between John Rawls and Milton Friedman.) At times Katznelson admits as much, discerning "an egalitarian thrust within the liberal tradition." While repudiating public ownership and the equalization of income or wealth, many self-identified liberals nevertheless favor the relief of desperation, a generous bottom floor, and decent opportunities for all. Why need liberalism study at the feet of socialism to be sensitized to the ordeal of the poor?

Katznelson is on a more promising track when he lambastes the libertarian fantasy of a wholly unregulated private economy, which he rightly believes can inhibit realistic public discussion of economic policy. He also correctly protests what he considers "the right wing's successful capture of the meaning of 1989," although he leaves his objection undeveloped. For the last thing the end of communism teaches is that all government intervention in the free market is vicious and undesirable. On the contrary, what the postcommunist experience makes palpably clear is the extent to which thriving market economies presuppose effective liberal states, capable of enforcing contracts, stabilizing the currency, breaking up monopolies, regulating banks to maximize available long-term credit, and investing in infrastructure and skills. Creating a minimal state has proved breathtakingly difficult throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union because it is nearly impossible to concentrate enough power in uncorrupted and politically accountable hands to repress force and fraud in exchange relations while leaving private dealmaking otherwise largely unconstrained.

To be sure, classical liberal theory accepts economic inequality, cheerfully or regretfully, as an inevitable side effect of growth. Tolerance for income inequality, most liberals agree, is a necessary precondition for the emergence and maintenance of a productive agricultural economy, capable of lowering the cost of subsistence goods relative to wages. To wipe out the archaic scourge of famine, it was necessary to break loose from the archaic inequality taboo.

But liberals have also advanced political arguments favoring tolerance of economic inequality. A strong central government with dangerous discretionary powers is necessary, at least for national defense and the repression of organized crime, but such a government can be held in check only by a well-functioning civil society, and civil society can be built most safely and durably around private property -- an institution that necessarily yields significant inequalities of welfare. Few liberals would subscribe to Katznelson's narrative of loss, in which "capitalism privatizes political power" that once upon a time was publicly owned or democratically controlled. Liberal theory, on the contrary, presupposes that capitalist elites, while their disproportionate and morally dubious power looks repugnant from a standpoint of ideal fairness, appear less heinous when compared to historical alternatives such as warrior, theocratic, landed aristocratic, or bureaucratic elites. To assign government the task of relieving the indigent is reasonable, moreover, but the power to rectify all inequalities must not be irresistibly strong because tomorrow it may be cruelly misused for partisan, sectarian, or personal ends.

Katznelson does not attack these arguments because, to tell the truth, he tacitly accepts them, mentioning euphemistically the "distasteful" or "unpleasant" consequences of excessively egalitarian policies (meaning Stalinism). This recognition leads him to a "self-limiting socialism" advocating a more equitable income distribution -- that is, a "tilting" of the playing field a bit more toward the poor than anti-egalitarian liberals would like. Thus he does not go much beyond liberalism but more or less joins the old debate between weak-state and strong-state liberals, siding with the latter on how to strike a proper balance between society's justifiable need for state help and society's justifiable worry about state interference.


The second letter exhibits the same brio and imperfections as the first. This time around, the principle liberalism neglects is cultural pluralism. Focused on isolated individuals, liberalism does not notice that people are always enmeshed in groups, drenched in traditions, enthralled by shared norms, and caught up in the pursuit of collective aims. Naively or perversely, liberalism fails to realize that involuntary membership and adhesion shape human beings' most elemental preferences. Because it is simultaneously individualistic and universalistic, liberalism even denies culture and group life an honorable place in society. Katznelson gives liberalism some modest credit here, admitting it arose "to protect heterogeneity and cope with its perils." He goes so far as to allow that liberalism is "the only great political tradition to affirm and contain moral and group pluralism" (that is, the freedom to think and speak differently). But these concessions pale before the downpour of criticism to which Katznelson subjects liberals for failing to incorporate cultural pluralism in the manner he desires.

Liberalism is essentially culture-blind. It conceives of society rationalistically, as a network of consumers and producers, airbrushing out emotional solidarities and moral ties. It celebrates scientific inquiry, which has no use for local traditions. Obsessed with the evils of tribalism and fundamentalism, it elevates voluntary agreement or contract into a model for desirable social relations and does everything in its power to tarnish the nonchosen communal attachments of ethnicity and culture, just as secular humanism besmirches religion in the name of rationality. Liberals, Katznelson says, do not understand that cultural identities "order and confer meaning on people's lives," that "they are the stuff of beauty and nobility as well as danger." Referring to his own ethnicity and religion, the author avouches his "unwillingness to think these superstitious or provincial." To keep the faith, he believes, he must stand outside or against the Enlightenment to some extent.

To fathom this sinister side of Enlightenment liberalism and comprehend Katznelson's discomfort with it, one need only examine colonialism, that is, haughty Europe's subjugation of the non-Western world. The rights of man -- that universal and abstract, therefore nonexistent, being -- were in part a ploy by racist Europeans to delegitimate the indigenous cultures of soon-to-be-colonized countries. Secularism likewise is a parochial European assault on non-Western ways of life.

This line of reasoning, while spry and pleasurable to read, is unsatisfactory. First, Katznelson does not examine the relation between multiculturalism and other forms of social pluralism (the pluralisms of professions, classes, localities, and clans, or the pluralisms of social sectors: economy, politics, religion, family, science, art, education, law, entertainment, and so forth). This is a significant silence because the rise and spread of noncultural pluralisms -- along with literacy, industrialization, and migration from the countryside to the city -- have contributed a good deal more than liberal ideology to the weakening of family influence and inherited cultural identity.

Many other questions can and should be raised. Why, for instance, does Katznelson put away his critical sensibility as soon as he gets near the topic of cultural identity? Why does he not scrutinize the norm of loyalty to one's ascriptive group, even though unelected group leaders draw disproportionate advantage from their underlings' self-surrender? It may make sense to protect minorities against forced assimilation, say, by funding minority schools. But does Katznelson believe minorities have a right to be protected against their members' voluntary assimilation into the wider society and dominant culture? If so, what coercive measures would he allow? Why does he one-sidedly blame liberalism for the crimes of colonialism without inquiring if liberalism made any contribution to decolonization movements? What evidence would disprove the hypothesis that cultural groups cannot flourish in a liberal polity? Would Katznelson deny that the extravagant multiculturalism of New York City owes something to American liberalism? Finally, while liberalism, as he notes, is "incapable of taming the ferocity of human attachments," is he wise to intimate that he has a realistic scheme "to favor difference but stop the killing" in ethnic infernos such as Bosnia?


Then one comes to what is undoubtedly the most delicate point in the book: the Jewish question. Katznelson is clearly a decent man, so readers should refrain from overreacting or drawing false analogies but, rather, probe why he, in chapters freely mixing the personal and the theoretical, is astringent about Michnik's treatment of "the case of Poland's Jews." Katznelson knows that Michnik was raised in an assimilated Jewish household; that he, unlike many Polish Jews, did not leave the country in 1968; and that he explicitly takes as his guide in life democracy, civil rights, and individual freedoms rather than Jewish traditions, in which he has little interest. Whenever Michnik has been confronted with populist anti-Semitism, he has publicly proclaimed that he is a Jew. But that cuts no ice with Katznelson, who also complains of Michnik's lack of solidarity with the Jewish nation and the State of Israel, capping his recitation with, "So many recusals, so little affirmation; are Jews merely a metaphor for suffering?"

What troubles Katznelson is that Michnik combats anti-Semitism "by asserting rationalist and universal principles" and has thereby "downplayed Jewish culture and particularity." After having fiercely attacked primitive forms of nationalism and censoriously devout forms of Catholicism, he has ended up siding with the very same Enlightenment that preached infidelity to cultural traditions, "was deeply hostile to Judaism," and did not allow the Jews "to define their own . . . system of rationality." And he committed a double folly in embracing liberalism, for liberals are chronically numb to "the value of deep cultural diversity." Although Michnik's reveling in "Polish authenticity" irritates him, Katznelson sees Polish Catholic culture as less culpable than the Enlightenment. Why does Michnik, despite his lineage, underemphasize the extermination of Poland's Jews? Because, Katznelson says, he is a liberal.

The argument is obviously far-fetched, but it has an underlying logic that deserves to be spelled out before being criticized. As a doctrine that urges the state to pull out of social and economic life, hands-off liberalism, Katznelson says, left cultural minorities exposed to the depredations of cultural majorities. Liberalism granted nineteenth-century European Jews "exit visas," allowing them to shed their Jewishness and debouch from their ghettoes, but liberals from the dominant culture did not genuinely accept such assimilating Jews as equal citizens. Duped by the abstract rights of man into relinquishing "the once secure confinement of compact spatial communities in a hostile environment," Jews took on "the status of unanchored and terribly vulnerable liberal citizens."

One may wonder how well shielded Central European Jews would have been if their lives had never been touched in any way by the Enlightenment or the rights of man. But the real problem with Katznelson's approach is moral rather than historical. Does he really believe that Adam Michnik has a special duty to stand up for minority rights simply because of his biological ancestry? (Or would he say, like a Rawlsian liberal, that every individual, regardless of ethnicity or race, has exactly the same duty to stand up for minority rights?) Why will Katznelson not allow Michnik, who is obviously something of a romantic patriot, to choose his cultural identification as he likes, especially since any choice he makes will cost him, not us, dearly? Katznelson should not dismiss these questions lightly, for if Michnik is still in any sense a man of the left, it is because he associates leftism with a vibrant affirmation of secularism and cosmopolitanism and trueness to one's sense of one's self.

My hunch is that Katznelson finds Michnik's failure to identify with his Jewishness distressing principally because he itches to impose an American cultural model on Eastern Europe. In the United States, as Katznelson himself mentions, it is possible to be an Italian-American or Polish-American. But this hyphenated pattern is fabulously uncommon, as the rarity of, say, Italian-Frenchmen or Polish-Germans suggests. In the United States, moreover, it became possible in the 1960s and 1970s for young Jews in New York City or Cambridge, Massachusetts, to join the mainstream of American society and nevertheless remain completely Jewish, without having to undergo any ordeal of assimilation and without toning down their Jewish gestures or habits or beliefs. But the unproblematic ease with which American Jews can now meld into the wider world while still cleaving to their roots is an improbable historical achievement. It seems pointless to berate Adam Michnik for failing to reproduce it in east central Europe.


When all is said and done, Katznelson does not demonstrate convincingly that he has gone beyond liberalism, not, at least, as that doctrine is articulated by classical liberal theorists or illustrated by societies routinely considered liberal. But one reason his book is gripping nevertheless is for its unintentional depiction of the latent clash between universalism and particularism, in the author's mind as in liberal thought. Katznelson's basic thesis is that liberalism must be embellished by fairness and cultural pluralism. But even if readers accept that, they still must ask: How do fairness and pluralism jibe? Are equality and loyalty wholly compatible? And how does Katznelson reconcile rebelliousness (toward economic hierarchies) with submissiveness (toward cultural norms)?

To unlock the secret of Katznelson's unfrightening radicalism, return briefly to the New Left and its affinity with Eastern European dissidents before 1989. When highbrow leftists used to espouse "critical theory," what they sometimes had in mind was a theory that could not itself be criticized, that is to say, a theory that under no conceivable circumstances could be associated with harm, injustice, oppression, or evil. What sort of theory is this? It is a theory that pillories the status quo, judged by some airy ideal, without offering any concrete alternative (which might possess some defects of its own). It is a talkative theory with immaculate hands. In this spirit, Katznelson roundly rejects Marxism "as a formula for social organization and revolutionary transformation" and embraces Marxism "as a critical tool with which to interrogate capitalism and prod liberalism to a reflexive recognition of its limits and silences."

This selective Marxism, critical but otherwise unarmed, helps explain why the pre-1989 dissidents "exhilarated" Katznelson. He was not merely snatching a vicarious courage by identifying with brave young rebels. Although Eastern European dissidents were virulently anti-Marxist, some American leftists plausibly viewed them as alter egos because they exuded a "familiar distrust of authority." Their anti-power ethos and disgust with bureaucracy were easily recognizable by participants in the American student movement. Their protests, too, were more expressive than strategic. Thus Katznelson can proclaim that "the democratic opposition in East Europe, speaking truth to power, was the very incarnation of 'left.'" Critical theory does not respond to power with power but answers wrongdoing solely with the flowers of individual conscience. Katznelson even commends '68ers in both Paris and Warsaw for "miniaturizing the concept of revolution," which sounds like waging a make-believe war with toy soldiers. Or rather, the rebellion was real enough to be exciting but not dangerous enough to risk seizing power. When Katznelson observes, "I think Michnik will discover that he and I remain children of 1968," he may be reminding readers that critical theorists should not be blamed because they have not been given the keys to the car.

Katznelson's humane attempt to supplement liberal theory, as he understands it, with generous doses of fairness and cultural pluralism may or may not help make America a more decent place to live. But the chances that such fine-spun lucubrations will remedy inequities and bigotries in unstable postcommunist societies anytime soon are vanishingly small. Classical liberalism, however, is just as dispiritingly deficient in some respects, in the post-Cold War world, as doctrinaire libertarianism or Katznelson's semisocialist multiculturalism. Classical liberalism is poorly equipped to conceptualize the postcommunist syndrome, first of all because the basic principle of liberal property systems ("give back what was stolen") is flagrantly implausible under scoundrel capitalism without rules, where well-placed officials larcenously scooped up public assets to inaugurate the system and entrepreneurial wealth remains inseparable from illegality, intimidation, and even contract killings. Similarly, the rule of law and majority rule are powerful principles, but they begin to operate effectively only after the fundamental questions -- Who is a member of the community? and Where are the borders of the state? -- have been answered. The rule of law and majority rule could not stave off the butchery in Bosnia. Indeed, the embarrassment of liberalism on the matter of state frontiers can be gleaned from the primary liberal claim about borders: they are perfectly arbitrary and therefore cannot be touched.

When borders, for whatever reasons, are up for grabs, political entrepreneurs may mobilize support for redrawing them along "cultural" lines. They will do so jingoistically, conjuring up imagined enemies against whom they offer protection or recalling historical injuries for which they promise sweet revenge. Problems can arise even where borders remain unquestioned when cultural diversity is nested into weak states. State weakness can be a problem in such cases, because a decent state has to shelter individual members of vulnerable minorities from majoritarian abuse. Katznelson's tale of nineteenth-century Central European Jewry draws attention to that truth. If the state is too disorganized or insolvent or corrupt to provide such protection, members of a vulnerable minority will naturally circle the wagons and subordinate themselves to whichever leaders can plausibly offer sanctuary, even if on illiberal terms (that is, when bosses are unquestioned, disagreement banned, and defectors killed). If Katznelson thinks solicitude for individuals in such cases demonstrates insufficient respect for the rich life of cultural groups, he has a real beef with liberalism and its privileging of personal over collective rights. If he is sympathetic to that approach, he is simply one more liberal who appreciates communitarian solidarities so long as they cause no unconscionable harm.

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  • Stephen Holmes is Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Chicago and Research Director at the Constitutional and Legislative Policy Institute in Budapest. His most recent book is Passions and Constraint: On the Political Theory of Liberal Democracy.
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