Books come to you in your moment of need for them. I’m sure I would not have “understood” Michael Walzer’s now classic Exodus and Revolution had I read it in graduate school like I probably should have. New intellectual currents give the book a much sharper punch than might have been the case in 1985 when it was first published. For me those currents have to do with broader intellectual currents after 9/11, particularly claims about religion and political theology, and, how they converge, for me at least, in aesthetic questions about images.
The book only seems to be a simple reading of the Exodus narrative in terms of liberation and revolution. I’m sure I would have noticed, as well as appreciated Walzer’s opposition to rightwing polticial and religious Zionism that appears in the book’s concluding chapter; and then left it at that. Others I’m sure did, but I would not have noticed the principled stance of a liberal opposed to all forms of radical “messianic” political thought, the kind of political theology that is still in vogue today among political thinkers and critics much further to Walzer’s left.
ANTi-MESSIANIC: The Exodus model is anti-messianic, anti-apocalyptic, anti-radical. Walzer rejects messianic-apocalyptic models of political thought for the same reasons that I would. These models tend to depend upon violent political gestures, absolute forms of judgment, and the creation (and elimination) of enemies. (Schmitt is not mentioned in the footnotes, which makes one wonder just when and by whom Schmitt entered into contemporary currents of critical theory. Walzer cites Talmon, Norman Cohn, Lewis Feuer, Guenther Lewy, but you can read Schmitt between the lines.)
Shooting straight down the middle, the Exodus model is positioned not against monot so political model proposed by Walzer ends up being “liberal,” meaning “cautious” and “moderate.” It’s a model that can only provide partial satisfaction to the demand for justice, just “a long series of decisions, backslidings, and reforms” (p.147).
NO ENEMIES: What motivates this model of liberal political theory is more sympathy and sentimentalism than criticism and critical distance; sympathy being a fundamental feature of Walzer’s political theory. Solidarity with “the people” precludes absolute politics. The people are “frightened, stubborn, contentious, and the same time, members of the covenant…[T]heir very stiff neckedness is somehow admirable.” No matter how bad they get, their membership in the covenant excludes any programmatic distinction between friends and enemies. (p.148).
POST-HOLOCAUST: Walzer’s is a post-Holocaust form of Jewish political theory. He reminds me of Richard Rubenstein, Eliezer Berkovits, Emil Fackenheim, and Yitz Greenberg –theologians for whom the people Israel were far more important, religiously, than God and justifying God. Walzer’s solidarity with the people is the same solidarity with the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and with what would have been perceived in the 1970s and 1980s as an embattled Israel, surrounded by enemies out to destroy it. This reflex was “natural” to members of Walzer’s generation.
It could be, then, that the limit of the Exodus model is the limit of solidarity and sympathy, and that this is where this type of liberal theory cracks up. Or it could just mean that, over time, the “long series of decisions, backslidings, and reforms” will take different shape than the one sketched out and recognized by Walzer, new forms, more critical and self-lacerating forms of sympathy and solidarity.
AESTHETICS: The last thing that I’d highlight is the irreality of this kind of modeling. For bad and for good, that’s what happens when one turns to the Bible to do political work. The Exodus model is not a program. It has more to with images and the imagination than with anything simplistically empirical. I first noticed this in the preface, where Walzer notes the image of Exodus as narrative, as imagined, as a program of revolution and liberation that takes shape in tracts, treatises, slogan, and songs (p.ix); and then later, where Walzer refers to the endless repetition of a story “etched deeply” into political culture (p.134).
The aesthetics, the aesthetic etching of Exodus and liberation is summed up here, where Walzer describes its transformation into the messianism that he rejects. It becomes very clear that the model is no longer empirical or historical-historicist. No model ever is, not the models of political messianism, and not the liberal one proposed by Walzer himself. Like any image, they enjoy a brightness. “[T]here are alternative ways of dealing with failure…As the promise is postponed, so it is also elaborated, heightened, and ultimately transformed. It loses its precise historical and geographical dimensions, but it shines all the more brightly in mental space” (p.118).