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Two Concepts of Nationalism: An Interview with Isaiah Berlin

This interview was conducted at the end of the summer in Portofino, Italy.


NATHAN GARDELS: According to the late Harold Isaacs, author of I dols of the Tribe, today we are witnessing a “convulsive ingathering” of nations. Open ethnic warfare rages not far from here in Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union has been rent asunder by resurgent nationalist republics.

The new world order built from the rubble of the Berlin Wall has already gone the way of the Tower of Babel. What are the origins of nationalism? Whence this ingathering storm?

ISAIAH BERLIN: The Tower of Babel was meant to be unitary in character; a single great building, reaching to the skies, with one language for everybody.

GARDELS: The Lord didn’t like it.

BERLIN: There is, I have been told, an excellent Hebrew prayer to be uttered when seeing a monster: “Blessed be the Lord our God, who introducest variety amongst Thy creatures.” We can only be happy to have seen the despotism of the Soviet Tower of Babel collapse into ruin, dangerous as some of the consequences may turn out to be—I mean, a bitter clash of nationalisms. But, unfortunately, that would be nothing new.

In our modern age, nationalism is not resurgent; it never died. Neither did racism. They are the most powerful movements in the world today, cutting across many social systems.

None of the great thinkers of the nineteenth century predicted this. Saint-Simon predicted the importance of industrialists and bankers. Fourier, who understood that if glass was made unbreakable there could be no business for the glazier, grasped the so-called “contradictions of capitalism.” Jacob Burckhardt predicted the military-industrial complex. Not very much of what Marx predicted turned out to be true, except for the vitally important insight that technology transforms culture. Big Business and class conflicts are among its results.

They all thought that the imperial regime of the great states was the central problem of the twentieth century. Once these tyrannical conglomerations—the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire—were, together with colonialism, destroyed, the peoples under their heels would live peacefully together and realize their destiny in a productive and creative manner. Well, they were mistaken.

Although most liberal philosophers of the nineteenth century opposed the cruel exploitation of the “dark masses” by imperialism, in no case did any of them think that black, Indian, or Asian men could ever have states, parliaments, or armies—they were completely Eurocentric.

That, I suspect, changed with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. The fact that an Asiatic nation defeated a great European power must have produced an electric shock in the minds of many Indians, Africans, and others, and given a great fillip to the idea of antiimperialist self-assertion and national independence. In the twentieth century, no left-wing movement succeeded in Asia or Africa—in Indochina, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, or Iraq—unless it went arm in arm with nationalist feeling.

Nonaggressive nationalism is another story entirely. I trace the beginning of that idea to the highly influential eighteenth-century German poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder.

Herder virtually invented the idea of belonging. He believed that just as people need to eat and drink, to have security and freedom of movement, so too they need to belong to a group. Deprived of this, they felt cut off, lonely, diminished, unhappy. Nostalgia, Herder said, was the noblest of all pains. To be human meant to be able to feel at home somewhere, with your own kind.

Each group, according to Herder, has its own Volksgeist or Nationalgeist—a set of customs and a life style, a way of perceiving and behaving that is of value solely because it is their own. The whole of cultural life is shaped from within the particular stream of tradition that comes of collective historical experience shared only by members of the group. Thus one could not, for example, fully understand the great Scandinavian sagas unless one had oneself experienced (as he did on his voyage to England) the struggles of rough, doughty sailors against a great tempest in the North Sea.

Herder’s idea of the nation was deeply nonaggressive. All he wanted was cultural self-determination. He denied the superiority of one people over another. Anyone who proclaimed it was saying something false. Herder believed in a variety of national cultures, all of which could, in his view, peacefully coexist. Each culture was equal in value and deserved its place in the sun. The villains of history for Herder were the great conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Caesar, or Charlemagne, because they stamped out native cultures. He did not live to see the full effects of Napoleon’s victories—but since they undermined the dominion of the Holy Roman Empire, he might have forgiven him.

Only what was unique had true value. This is why Herder also opposed the French universalists of the Enlightenment. For him there were few timeless truths: time and place and social life—what came to be called civil society—were everything.

GARDELS: Of course, Herder’s Volksgeist became the Third Reich.

And today, the Serbian Volksgeist is at war with the Croatian Volksgeist, the Armenians and the Azeris have long been at it, and, among the Georgians and Russians—and even the Ukrainians and the Russians—passions are stirring.

What transforms the aspiration of cultural self-determination into nationalist aggression?

BERLIN: I have written elsewhere that a wounded Volksgeist, so to speak, is like a bent twig, forced down so severely that when released, it lashes back with fury. Nationalism, at least in the West, is created by wounds inflicted by stress. As for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Empire, they seem today to be one vast, open wound. After years of oppression and humiliation, there is liable to occur a violent counterreaction, an outburst of national pride, often aggressive self-assertion, by liberated nations and their leaders.

Although I am not allowed to say this to German historians, I believe that Louis XIV was principally responsible for the beginnings of German nationalism in the seventeenth century. While the rest of Europe—Italy, England, Spain, the Low Countries, above all France—experienced a magnificent renaissance in art and thought, political and military power, Germany, after the age of Dürer, Grünewald, and Altdörfer, became, with the exception of architecture, a relative backwater. The Germans tended to be looked down upon by the French as provincials, simple, slightly comical, beer-drinking yokels, literate but ungifted.

At first, there was naturally much imitation of the French, but later, as always, there was a reaction. Some devout German preachers asked, “Why not be ourselves? Why imitate foreigners? Let the French have their royal courts, their salons, worldly abbés, soldiers, poets, painters, their empty glory. It’s all dross. Nothing matters save a man’s relation to his own soul, to God, to true values, which are of the spirit, the inner life, Christian truth.”

By the 1670s, this pietist-national countermovement was underway; this was the spiritual movement in which Kant, Herder, Hamann, the sages of East Prussia, grew up. This clerical Francophobia, fueled, no doubt, by anti-Romanism, looks very like a grand form of sour grapes. That is when nationalist self-assertion begins. By 1720, Thomasius, a minor German thinker, dared to give university lectures in his own tongue, in German, instead of Latin. That was seen as a major departure.

The corresponding consequences of the deeper German humiliations—from the Napoleonic wars to the Treaty of Versailles—are only too obvious.

Today, Georgians, Armenians, and the rest are trying to recover their submerged pasts, pushed into the background by the huge Russian imperial power. Persecuted under Stalin, Armenian and Georgian literature survived: Isakian and Yashvili were gifted poets; Pasternak’s translations of Vaz Pshavela and Tabidze are wonderful reading—but when Ribbentrop went to see Stalin in 1939, he presented him with a German translation of the twelfth-century Georgian epic The Knight in the Tiger Skin by Rustaveli. Who, in the West, knew of later masterpieces?

Sooner or later, the backlash comes with irrepressible force. People tire of being spat upon, ordered about by a superior nation, a superior class, or a superior anyone. Sooner or later, they ask the nationalist questions: “Why do we have to obey them?” “What right have they…?” “What about us?” “Why can’t we…?”

GARDELS: All these bent twigs in revolt may have finally overturned the ideological world order. The explosion of the Soviet system may be the last act of deconstruction of the Enlightenment ideals of unity, universality, and liberal rationalism. That’s all finito now.

BERLIN: I think that that is true. And Russia is an appropriate place to illuminate the misapprehensions of the lumières. Most Russian westernizers who followed the eighteenth-century French thinkers admired them because they stood up to the Church, stood up to reactionary tendencies, stood up to fate. Voltaire and Rousseau were heroes because they enlisted reason and the right to freedom, against reaction.

But even the radical writer Alexander Herzen, my hero, never accepted, for example, Condorcet’s claims to knowable, timeless truths. He thought the idea of continuous progress an illusion, and protested against the new idolatries, the substitute for human sacrifice—the sacrifice of living beings to new altars—abstractions, like the universal class or the infallible party or the march of history—the victimization of the present for the sake of an unknowable future, that would lead to some harmonious solution.

Herzen regarded any dedication to abstract unity and universality with great suspicion. For him, England was England, France was France, Russia was Russia. The differences neither could nor should be flattened out. The ends of life were life itself. For Herzen, as for Herder and the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, cultures were incommensurable. It follows, though they do not spell it out, that the pursuit of total harmony, or the perfect state, is a fallacy, and sometimes a fatal one.

Of course, nobody believed in universality more than the Marxists: Lenin, Trotsky, and the others who triumphed saw themselves as disciples of the Enlightenment thinkers, corrected and brought up to date by Marx.

If one were to defend the general record of communism, which neither you nor I would be particularly willing to do, it would have to be defended on the basis that Stalin may have murdered 40 million people—but at least he kept nationalism down and prevented the ethnic babel from anarchically asserting its ambitions. Of course, Stalin did keep it—and everything else—down, but he didn’t kill it. As soon as the stone was rolled away from the grave it rose again with a vengeance.

GARDELS: Herder was a “horizontal” critic, if you will, of the French lumières because he believed in the singularity of all cultures. Giambattista Vico also opposed the Enlightenment idea of universality from a “vertical,” or historical perspective. As you have written, he believed each successive culture was incommensurable with others.

BERLIN: Both rejected the Enlightenment idea that man, in every country at every time, had identical values. For them, as for me, the plurality of cultures is irreducible.

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