- Comments on Nationalism & Democracy
Ghia Nodia's essay is comprehensive, nuanced, and filled with insights large and small. Even though Nodia believes himself to be disagreeing with much that I have written, we actually concur about many things.
There are a number of points where we are in complete harmony: First, it is true that nationalism and democracy (understood as distinct from liberalism) are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact two sides of the same coin. This becomes evident if one looks at both phenomena from a historical or sociological perspective. In Western Europe, nationalism played a vital role in liberating various countries from monarchical absolutism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Frankfurt Parliament of 1848 was equally German-nationalist and democratic, just as democratic and French-nationalist ideas were very strongly associated during the French Revolution. In our own day, nationalism is serving as an agent of liberation from communist dictatorship in a similar way.
When viewed sociologically, nationalism and democracy can be seen to have emerged out of the same process of industrialization. In this respect, Nodia may have misunderstood Ernest Gellner's observations about the relationship between nationalism and industrialization. Gellner did not mean to say that nationalism had a primarily economic function or represented the interests of certain economic actors; his point was that the economic process of industrialization created certain conditions under which nationalist ideas could flourish. Industrialization breaks down the old class lines typical of traditional agricultural societies, and necessitates the laying of a common linguistic and cultural groundwork upon which [End Page 23] a national economy can be built. It is thus no accident that nationalism, in the modern sense of the word, did not exist prior to the Industrial Revolution. There was ethnicity, racial feeling, and the like, but not the belief that homogeneous cultural-linguistic groups should be organized into sovereign states. Democracy, similarly, springs out of that same historical process by which illiterate and inert peasants were turned into increasingly educated, urbanized workers.
Nodia is also correct when he asserts that the major contradiction lies between nationalism and liberalism, rather than democracy. More precisely, liberalism combined with democracy implies the principle of universal recognition or universal individual rights. If, as I have argued elsewhere, liberalism is about the universal and equal recognition of every citizen's dignity as an autonomous human being, then the introduction of a national principle necessarily introduces distinctions between people. Persons who do not belong to the dominant nationality ipso facto have their dignity recognized in an inferior way to those who do belong-a flat contradiction of the principle of universal and equal recognition.
A further point on which we agree is that many proponents of liberal democracy do not understand the ways in which moderate nationalism can contribute to the success of democracy as a matter of practical politics. On an abstract level, the logical result of the principle of universal recognition is a universal homogeneous state where national borders disappear. (There is no reason, for example, why Canada and the United States should be separate countries.) But in the real world national distinctions do persist, and it is very hard to imagine stable democracies existing outside of these national contexts. In Western Europe, liberal democracies were constituted primarily within relatively homogeneous linguistic and cultural communities such as France, England, and later, in the twentieth century, Germany. Even in those developed, stable democracies, liberal democracy coexists with national identity, and national identity, despite the growing unification of the European Community, is at little risk of disappearing from Europe. It is really only in lands of new settlement, like the United States and Australia, that national identity can escape its ethnoracial aspect and become rooted in the principle of the liberal democratic regime itself. But in many other democracies like Japan or France this is not the case, and there is an intimate, continuing connection between democracy and a strong national identity.
Finally, I commend Nodia's rejection of the dogmatic liberal notion [End Page 24] that all manifestations of nationalism are bad. As Nodia suggests, Mikhail Gorbachev has recently been a major promulgator of this particular idea. His use...