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  • Comments on Nationalism & Democracy
  • Shlomo Avineri (bio)

Ghia Nodia's perceptive essay on nationalism and democracy brings out most clearly the ambivalent role that nationalism plays in the project of modernity. Far from being a primordial or irrational residue of traditional societies, nationalism as a political force (as distinct from mere ethnicity) is a profoundly modern phenomenon. As Nodia shows, it is inextricably bound up with the French Revolutionary tradition of popular sovereignty, as well as the Kantian doctrine of human personality and autonomy. Liberals who view nationalism as an atavism are as wrong as the orthodox Marxists who, beguiled by their master's dictum that "proletarians have no fatherland," tried to consign nationalism to the dustbin of history. As current developments show, national issues have become dominant in the political discourse of the postcommunist East.

This is evidenced not only by the violent eruptions in Bosnia, Croatia, Moldova, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, but also by the abysmal way that the newly independent Baltic states have been treating their Russian and Polish minorities, by the breakup of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, and by dozens of other flashpoints of actual or [End Page 28] potential ethnic strife. The list could be augmented by the threat hanging over the future of the 25 million ethnic Russians who live outside of Russia; the problems of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia; and the predicament of areas like the Kaliningrad oblast (formerly Königsberg in East Prussia), which is now part of Russia but is cut off from that republic by Lithuania and Belarus.

Anyone who believed that postcommunist political discourse would concentrate mainly on the issues of democratization and the development of market economies now knows better. Nodia rightly distinguishes between the liberal and the democratic ingredients that make up Western liberal democracies, and explains why the communist legacy has given an antiliberal version of nationalism a good chance of gaining ascendancy in many postcommunist societies. Leninist policies, followed also by Tito, gave territorial expression to national-linguistic entities and thus even dictated the form in which both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia would break up into discrete states, each burdened with numerous questions regarding national minorities and potentially contestable borders.

I agree with most of Nodia's vindication of nationalism in the context of modernity, but there are a few nuances that I would like to underline. A major reason why nationalism seems to run contrary to the universalist norms of liberal political theory has to do with the historic irony that so much of the work of formulating and disseminating universalist values was done under the political and intellectual hegemony of two specific cultures: the French and the English. In the light of the ideas of human rights popularized by the French Revolution, or the political liberalism and market economics spread through the dominance of England and later the United States, nationalism appeared as particularistic, petty, divisive, retrograde, and a deviation from universality. What are Breton folkways as compared to the riches of French culture and its glorious mission civilisatrice? What are the Gaelic-speaking communities of the British Isles' "Celtic fringe" if not an anachronism at the margin of the mighty English-speaking world culture? France and the English-speaking powers trumpeted, each in its own way, the victory of an ecumenical culture claiming a basis in rationality and universally shared values. They then elevated these historical cultures to the level of a truly catholic norm, and woe betide the Irish, the Zionists, or other peoples whose smaller-scale loyalties made them appear parochial, inward-looking, obscurantist, xenophobic, ethnocentric, or (worst of all) premodern.

In other words, this abstract universalism-which was nothing else than a hypostasis of a given, historical set of cultures-declared itself to be the sole norm of historical progress (even occasionally enthroning itself as the "end of history"), and then looked down on the cultures of small nations as both provincial and pernicious. At bottom, it was yet another example of the cultural imperialism of Great Nations-large [End Page 29] ethnolinguistic groups that preach universalism and see in their own assimilationist, triumphalist progress the inevitable unfolding of Reason in...


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