The Government and its People. Challenging Walzer´s Notion of "Political Community"

Scientific Essay, 2018

9 Pages


Table of contents:


1: Walzer’s Political Community

2: Political Community – What Michael Walzer did not see

3: A normative critique of Walzer’s communitarian philosophy




Widely accepted as Walzer’s most important work pertains his book ‘Just and Unjust Wars’, a scholarly publication discussing just war theory. Under what circumstances, if any exist, is it allowed to engage in the fighting of war? What rules govern the conduct of war, and what are appropriate responsibilities for wrongdoing in relation to war? ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ attempts to find answers to these questions by especially reflecting on the moral side of arguments and it manages to do this in a formidable way. As Wasserstrom notes: “few philosophical examinations of war are as comprehensive, sustained, and detailed.” (Wasserstrom, 1978).

When reading Walzer’s words, one becomes cognizant of his salient focus on political community. The political community he describes is the constitutive principal of government, creating it, but also bringing it to fall. It is this political community that determines much of his view on jus ad bellum, respectively when it is allowed for external powers to intervene in a foreign domestic polity.

The organization of our social life remains one of the most relevant realms of research scholars can delve into. It can open doors for further inquiries and attempt to resolve a plurality of research issues. Therefore, reflecting on Walzer’s political community to gain a better understanding of communities’ social organization, empirically and normatively, remains an important endeavor, even 40 years after the first version of his book was published. It is the notion of political community put forth by Walzer that will be discussed in the following paper. I will attempt to answer the question in which way Walzer’s perspective on political community is one that is incomplete and further a perspective which’s application is normatively highly objectionable. In the first chapter I shall explain what Walzer means when he speaks about political community and how the concept can be used to justify the use of force. Secondly, I will recite various omissions on Walzer’s part in regard to political community, respectively I will outline what he, in my view, did not see when he engaged in the theorizing of the communitarian concept. In the last chapter of my contribution, I will then analyze why Walzer’s notion of political community may normatively be seen as indecorous and even dangerous.

1: Walzer’s political community

How is the social life of human beings organized? Philosophers and political theorists embraced by the Enlightenment have argued that this organization takes place in form of a théorie du contrat social. What exactly this contract looks like and how the societal legal order is morally and institutionally justified varies among the various important thinkers. It is Rousseau’s version of social contract theory that I briefly want to discuss before exploring Walzer’s notion of political community.

Rousseau reinterpreted the social contract theory, according to a state of nature where people were really only contracting among themselves. While Hobbes had failed to distinguish between state and government, Rousseau demarcated both institutions from one another. In his thought, it was the people who constituted the state by contracting among themselves to establish a government which they could change or overthrow at will. The government was nothing but an administrator, one that, if the people deemed it necessary, could be removed at any time. It is thereby merely a transitory agent of the popular will, one that lives and dies in one form or another while the state as such continues to exist (Burrows, 1960). From a fundamental point of view, Walzer, talking about the organization of social life within the state, shares some of Rousseau’s positions. Walzer sees the state as being constituted by two entities: the political community (the state’s people) and the government. Much like Rousseau, he believes that the only obligations within a state society exist between the people themselves, or, as he calls it, the members of the political community. Walzer explains this matter by quoting Luban’s “horizontal” contract that bounds the members of the community to one another. According to Walzer, “there is no vertical contract – at least, not one that is mutually binding” (Walzer, 1980, p. 211). What he therewith expresses is that members of the political community are not obliged to defend the government against foreigners, rather it is the government that is bound to the citizenry to defend it against external powers. As in Rousseau’s contract theory, the people are the sovereigns protecting each other, the government is their mere instrument (Walzer, 1980).

But where does this political community giving the state its rights originate from? Here, Walzer’s and Rousseau’s ideas begin to diverge. According to Walzer, states’ rights are not the result of a series of transfers from individuals to sovereigns or exchanges among individuals themselves. As Walzer describes it: “over a long period of time, shared experiences and cooperative activity of many different kinds shape a common life” (Walzer, 2008, p. 54). This is a process of “association” and “mutuality” whereby an ongoing character is formed that the state claims to protect against foreign powers. What Walzer defines as character is the backbone of his just war theory: If the character of a political community does not “fit” with the government which is ought to be the community’s protector, then the state is not legitimate and, as Walzer lays out, “its own defense may have no moral justification” (Walzer, 2008, p. 54). First and foremost, then, whether or not a state is legitimate depends upon the “fit” between government and political community it claims to represent.

If there is no present “fit” and the government is therefore not rightfully representing the political community it is ought to represent, then the people have a right to rebel against the government. However, as Walzer even more critically emphasizes, the people also have the right not to do so for very different reasons (Walzer, 1980). What he ultimately wants to express is that it is for the members of the political community to decide whether or not to challenge the current state’s leadership. External actors do not know the historicity of the political community they may want to intervene in and are not accustomed to the community’s characteristics. Therefore, they have no right to perform such actions.

2: Political Community – What Walzer did not see

Next, I will show that Walzer’s picture is incomplete and that there are other significant factors that influence and interact with political community, factors that do not appear in Walzer’s theory on just war. By no means, however, shall I impute the non-significance of political community itself. Indeed, political communities that have existed for a long time, normally share political cultures with deep ramifications for how people think about goods and justice (Carens, 2000). I argue, and in my opinion Walzer has convincingly described, that political community is a powerful constitutive factor when talking about the organization of social life in an international system of states. What I want to do is point to out some of the omissions of Walzer and to draw a more complete picture of the institution described.

When reading Walzer’s texts, one quickly recognizes the impressive and authoritative role he comes to ascribes to his concept of political community. Much of its power thereby derives from the political community’s coherence as a unitary actor to determine the identity of individuals living within it. According to Walzer, the political community is in a unique and superior position to shape the identity of its subjects. Although Walzer does not state this explicitly, this must be the case as without this monopole on character formation, the political community could not fulfil the functions Walzer ascribes to it.

This view on political community is problematic. It is my opinion that subject’s identities within the political community are not as homogeneous – derived solely from the political community they are part of – as Walzer sees them. As Kukathas convincingly argues, the political community is only one sort of community that underlies the identity formation process of individuals. Besides the political community, in which, without question, individuals living in a certain state are subjected to, these individuals are also part of other communities. Therefore, a political community, such as any other community, is only a “partial community” (Kukathas, 2009, p. 89). While communities shape and influence the identity of actors living and socializing within them, there exists no community that can unilaterally constitute an individual’s identity because individuals are never solely locked into one single community. Individuals are part of a variety of different partial communities, including but hence not limited to their political community. Therefore, their identity and subsequent acting is not determined entirely by their membership in political community. This, as I would argue, more nuanced view which allows for a political community (all its members combined) that is more heterogenous in itself can help to understand an in my opinion wrongful view of Walzer. In regard to the struggle of self-determination within a political community, he argues that there is “no such thing as a bare balance of internal military might”. Walzer upholds this claim by arguing that armies and police forces are social institutions themselves, hence they will not fight (at least not for long) for a regime that acts in overtly oppressive ways against its own political community (Walzer, 1980). It is true that soldiers are part of the same political community as the citizens which they are forced to use their weapons against. Therefore, it would be logical that in a world where the political community is the only constitutive factor of an individual’s identity and thus the state’s society, that the executive forces would lay down their arms and rather fight with the people against a government that obviously does not provide the right “fit” between itself and the political community. However, as argued above, the political community is only a partial community and soldiers and police forces are part of more than just this one community. In this sense, it may be significantly harder to compel army and police to use their weapons against their government as they may be part of, for example, a military community, or a community of civil servants. These other partial communities also shape their identities and thus may create conflicting ones with the identity produced by the political community. The result is that the identity produced by another partial community, other than the political one, may prevail and that army and police may rather associate themselves with the government or stick to it for a significantly longer period of time, even though the “fit” is evidently missing.


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The Government and its People. Challenging Walzer´s Notion of "Political Community"
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government, people, challenging, walzer´s, notion, political, community, normative theory, international relations, philosophy, science, communitarian
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Fabian Hoffmann (Author), 2018, The Government and its People. Challenging Walzer´s Notion of "Political Community", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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