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  • Nationalism and Democracy
  • Ghia Nodia (bio)

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has led simultaneously to dramatic new gains for liberal democracy and to a resurgence of nationalism. Many analysts appear to regard these as contradictory phenomena, inasmuch as they consider nationalism to be fundamentally antidemocratic. I believe that this is a superficial view that distorts our understanding of what is happening in the postcommunist countries and elsewhere as well. In any case, the experience of the anticommunist revolution requires us to rethink not only the relationship between nationalism and democracy, but also many of the other basic ideas on which modern civilization is grounded.

The first major attempt at such a rethinking appeared on the very cusp of the great change when Francis Fukuyama's meditation on the "end of history" was published in the summer of 1989.1 Fukuyama's main idea, later developed at book length, was that the disintegration of communism left the idea of liberal democracy standing alone, with no viable ideological competitor in sight.2 Thus the posthistorical stage of human development, boring though it may be, has arrived, and there is no threat to the reign of liberal democracy.

Although I generally agree with Fukuyama's analysis, I do not share his mostly negative assessment of the role of nationalism in the advent, spread, and victory of liberal democracy. To put it simply, Fukuyama (despite occasional equivocations) agrees with the predominant Western view that democracy and nationalism are mutually hostile.3 If one wins, it can do so only at the other's expense. Democracy, moreover, has become a term linked to adjectives like "good," "civilized," [End Page 3] "progressive," "rational," and so on, while nationalism is associated with "backwardness," "immaturity," "barbarism," "irrationality," and the like. Given these valuations, Fukuyama's presumption that "irrationalist" nationalism does not present a viable alternative to democracy, and that history has thus come to a safe end, marks him as an optimist. Meanwhile, pessimists like Shlomo Avineri argue that nationalism, not liberal democracy, is the real successor to communism, which means that history will continue.4

But what if nationalism and democracy are not two separate things? What if nationalism is a component of the more complex entity that is called "liberal democracy"? In raising these questions, I mean to suggest that the idea of nationalism is impossible—indeed unthinkable—without the idea of democracy, and that democracy never exists without nationalism. The two are joined in a sort of complicated marriage, unable to live without each other, but coexisting in an almost permanent state of tension. Divorce might seem the logical solution to a Western liberal horrified by the twentieth century's experience of European nationalism, but this option stands revealed as nothing more than wishful thinking once real political forces are taken into account.

The manner in which the collapse of communism and the breakup of the Soviet empire occurred tends to demonstrate the validity of my approach. Conversely, the failure of mainstream Western political science to keep pace with developments in the postcommunist East is at least partly due to the West's one-sided understanding of nationalism and its relation to democracy.

This one-sidedness flows largely from Western social science's tendencies toward both economic determinism and value-laden judgments. When it is presumed that social developments cannot be explained in a really "scientific" way unless they can be traced to economic conditions, it is only a small step to the modern instrumentalist doctrine according to which nations and nationalisms emerge as a result of 1) industrialization and 2) mass manipulation undertaken by elites pursuing their own (ultimately economic) interests. This "scientistic" attitude, however, does not prevent many of the very same scholars who assume it from using "democracy" and "nationalism" as valuative rather than descriptive terms. Democracy is cast in the hero's role, and is not supposed to have anything in common with the nationalist villain.

Of course, no social scientist can completely avoid value preferences. I myself, for instance, agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is a very bad political system with one very good justification: all the others are worse. Still, the...


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