Amitai Etzioni, 94, Dies; Envisioned a Society Built on the Common Good


Amitai Etzioni, the Israeli-American sociologist who drew wide attention and storms of derision by fathering the Communitarian movement, a vision of society in which people are asked to care less about their own rights than about one another and the common good, died on Wednesday at his home in Washington. He was 94.

The death was confirmed by his son David.

Born to German-Jewish parents who fled from Hitler to Palestine, Mr. Etzioni fought for Israeli independence, moved to the United States in 1957 and became an influential academic and political figure. He wrote prodigiously, taught at George Washington University, testified before Congress and advised presidents, prime ministers and other Western leaders on foreign and national policies.

Barely a decade after landing in America, Mr. Etzioni was famous, writing books and articles far afield from the turgid corners of sociology — provocative commentaries on the nuclear arms race, European security, the Vietnam War, America’s racial and educational problems, energy and inflation policies and popular worries over pornography, student unrest and topics ranging from sex therapy to Hollywood hoopla.

“Sometimes Amitai Etzioni seems to be a one-man profession,” Time magazine said.

He was appointed to commissions and advisory panels, invited to join editorial boards and television debates and showered with fellowships, awards and honorary degrees. He argued with Wernher von Braun on the Soviet-American space race, helped Betty Friedan in 1974 start an Economic Think Tank for Women, as it was called, to consider women’s “hidden economic power,” and was invited to lead a state investigation of a nursing home scandal in New York involving substandard conditions.

But of all Mr. Etzioni’s pursuits, none hit home with greater force than “communitarianism,” which he named, interpreted and promoted for two decades, starting in the early 1990s. It was not novel — liberals and conservatives had debated an unnamed middle ground for decades — but it captured imaginations with its sermonizing, political rhetoric and dashes of old-fashioned needlepoint virtues.

Communitarianism, with its emphasis on community, not the individual, staked out ground between liberal advocates of civil liberties and welfare rights on one hand, and conservative champions of laissez-faire economics and traditional values on the other. It never became a mainstream political movement, but it won significant followings in America and Europe.

Though the idea seemed simple, its implications spread out in all directions. Individual liberty and equality were the foundations, he said, but these depended on the good character of people who willingly embraced the responsibilities of citizenship. These, in turn, depended on healthy communities and institutions like the family, schools, neighborhoods, unions, local governments and religious and ethnic groups.

And its principles could be applied to larger national and international issues — a “communitarian” view of military and defense postures, federal spending priorities, educational goals, even East-West nuclear arms controls. After all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Soviet bloc were “communities,” and it all came down to people being good citizens.

“Strong rights presume strong responsibilities,” Mr. Etzioni told The New York Times in 1992, not long after issuing a “Communitarian Platform” signed by educators, economists, political leaders and feminists. “We hold that law and order can be restored without turning this country of the free into a police state,” the platform declared.

It called the family a “moral anchor” of society, and suggested extended child-care and parental leave benefits, flexible working hours and tougher divorce laws. It proposed more self-discipline and checks on misbehavior; national service for young people, wider participation in jury duty and military service; and an emphasis on orderly conduct enforced by the police.

In “The Limits of Privacy” (1999), Mr. Etzioni argued that infants should be tested for H.I.V. because their health was more important than a mother’s privacy; that governments should be allowed to break encryption codes to expose terrorists and pedophiles; and that a universal identity system would help catch illegal immigrants, tax evaders and deadbeat dads.

Controversies quickly arose. Communitarians criticized liberals, saying they ignored the importance of personal responsibility and reflexively blamed economic and political forces for poverty, drug abuse, crime and urban blight. Similarly, they criticized conservatives, saying they ignored corrosive economic pressures on families and communities and reflexively exalted free markets and self-interest as remedies for social problems.

Liberal critics called communitarianism a cloak for authoritarianism, and a throwback to the Moral Majority of the 1950s.

Mr. Etzioni was the author of more than 30 books. “The Limits of Privacy” was published in 1999.

“A lot of communitarian rhetoric appears to emphasize voluntary measures,” Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Times. “But the rhetoric is very slippery when it involves government in creating legal obstacles to divorce, indoctrinating through public schools or giving police more leeway to search suspects.”

Conservatives argued that communitarian ideas undermined individual rights by dictating boundaries of personal behavior and enforcing conformity through churches, public schools, national service and other coercive pressures disguised as campaigns of public spiritedness.

“The suspicion of charlatanism hangs over Etzioni,” The New Statesman, a progressive British journal, said in 1997. “It is, perversely, a measure of his extraordinary success. His communitarian movement, founded in 1990 by a handful of academics, has grown into a body of work and attitudes that have inserted themselves everywhere into the policy debates of the U.S., the U.K. and more widely, and it has achieved for Etzioni the status of a modern seer.”

Mr. Etzioni wrote for The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. He founded the Communitarian Network and its magazine, The Responsive Community. In 1995, he became president of the American Sociological Association.

At the peak of his influence, Mr. Etzioni conferred with President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands. He also met twice with Barack Obama when Mr. Obama was a presidential candidate.

In an essay in The American Scholar in 2014, Mr. Etzioni, referring to Mr. Obama, recalled: “In his book ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ he emphasized that individual rights must be balanced with social responsibilities. However, since he became president, communitarianism has been the philosophy that dare not speak its name.” Mr. Obama “has often drawn on its principles,” he said, but “never mentions communitarianism.”

He was born Werner Falk in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 4, 1929, to Willi and Gertrude (Hanauer) Falk. He recalled being beaten by children who learned he was Jewish. When he was 6, the family escaped to Athens, then to Palestine, where he grew up on a kibbutz and changed his name to Amitai Etzioni (Amitai means truth in Hebrew).

He left home as a teenager to join the Palmach, a Jewish underground defense force, and became a brigade commander involved in paramilitary actions before Israeli statehood. In 1948, he fought in Israel’s war of independence, and two years later began sociology studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954 and a master’s in 1956.

In 1953, he married Eva Horowitz. They had two sons, Ethan and Oren, and were divorced. In 1965, he married Minerva Morales, and had three more sons: Michael, David and Benjamin. His second wife died in a car crash in 1985. In 1992, Mr. Etzioni married Patricia Kellogg.

In addition to David, he is survived by his wife; his sons Ethan, Oren and Benjamin; a stepson, Cliff Kellogg; a stepdaughter, Tamara Kellogg; 11 grandchildren; and two step-granddaughters. His son Michael died in 2006. Mr. Etzioni and his wife lived at the Watergate complex in Washington.

Emigrating to the United States, he earned a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 1958. He began teaching at Columbia University and writing books on social change and international affairs. By 1967 he was a full professor, and from 1969 to 1978 was chairman of Columbia’s Institute for War and Peace Studies.

He became a senior adviser to President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and in 1980 joined George Washington University, where he continued to write and teach international affairs for more than 30 years, becoming director of its Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies.

He wrote more than 30 books, including “The Active Society” (1968), “The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society” (1993), “My Brother’s Keeper: A Memoir and a Message” (2003), “How Patriotic is the Patriot Act: Freedom Versus Security in the Age of Terrorism” (2004) and “Reclaiming Patriotism” (2019).

Communitarian ideas have had a modest revival in recent years in some intellectual circles, but even so, in his 2014 article in The American Scholar, Mr. Etzioni expressed concern that the school of thought he founded would be done in less by criticisms than by the fatal condition of being ignored by the wider public.

“Despite my confidence that the message I have hammered out would do the world a lot of good,” he wrote, “no one seems to be listening.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.



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