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.
Liberals, democrats, republicans thought that the great European imperial regimes were perhaps the central problem of their 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 peoples 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 left-wing movements might not have succeeded in, for example, Egypt or Algeria, or Ghana or Syria, or Iraq, if they had not come arm-in-arm with nationalist feeling.
Nonaggressive nationalism is another story entirely. I trace the beginning of that idea to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.