The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    Book Reviews

The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions by Michael Walzer

Jay Tolson

Michael Walzer has never thought small. The origins of radical politics, just war doctrine, equality, and toleration are among the topics on which the political scientist, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has shed invaluable light, usually by subjecting grand theoretical abstractions to the particularities of specific cultures, nations, and traditions.

The paradox explored in this short book, which grew out of the Henry L. Stimson lectures at Yale University, can be summed up in a single question: Why did so many states that gained independence in the post–World War II era and were founded on secular and democratic ideals soon face the powerful challenges of religious revivalism? Walzer’s inquiry into the inability of “the leaders and militants of secular liberation…to consolidate their achievements and reproduce themselves” focuses on three cases: Israel, where the secularist ideology of Labor Zionism now meets with powerful opposition from champions of a more messianic strain of Zionism as well as ultra-Orthodox Judaism; Algeria, where the secularist (and, briefly, democratic) ideals of the National Liberation Front have been repeatedly challenged and were nearly overturned by militant Islamists; and India, where the ambitious reform program of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress party has come up against the fervor and electoral successes of Hindu nationalists determined to assert their primacy within the constitutional order.

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