The nationalist aberrations of the early 20th century serve as a
constant reminder that
nationalism represents a potential threat to humanity – that is, to
reason and sensibility.
However, despite earlier predictions of its inevitable extinction,
nationalism have erupted throughout the world since the end of World War
Nationalism seems to be a phenomenon that the world will have to live
with. From this
fact ensues a heighten interest in its study.
In the social sciences, two opposing camps have emerged regarding the
The modernists, on one side, defend the idea that the
nation and nationalism
are creatures of the Enlightenment, dating from the 18th century. As a
modernism, one should mention, firstly, the Marxists (Eric Hobsbawm) and
Marxists (Benedict Anderson), who contend that nationalism is a recent
the suprastructure resulting from a capitalist mode of production (Hobsbawm,
A second group, to which Ernest Gellner belongs,
analyzes the nation
from the perspective of the process of modernization, which leaves
nations and dominated “traditional” nations competing against each other
1994a, 1994b). A third sub-group is represented by Elie Kedourie, who,
was vehemently antinationalist (Kedourie, 1993), without, however,
adhering to the
On the other side, the primordialists believe that the idea of nation
rests on a
primordial need to belong to a community, and that this need is prior to
position evidently has anthropological bearings. It is not surprising
that Clifford Geertz,
an anthropologist who had a considerable influence in many other fields,
literary theory, has defended such a position (Geertz, 1993). In this
context, one can also
mention Adrian Hastings, who criticizes the rather hard-to-defend thesis
that the nation is
an exclusively modern phenomenon (Hastings, 1997). As for Anthony D.
position tries to integrate both the modernist and the primordialist
Both camps assume that the idea of nation builds upon a pre-political
belittle or completely reject this sphere for the sake of higher
political goals, while
primordialists defend the concept of nation as a necessary condition of
Drawing on the primordialists’ position, one has then to establish the
sphere as a bulwark against the parochialism and bigotry that can arise
From the perspective of the modernists, nationalism itself must be
cleansed of any prepolitical
occurrences and reduced to a purely civic form. This antagonism between
pre-political and the political, between nationalism and civic law, is
known as the
opposition between ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism. In this
hierarchy is established where civic nationalism, which harbors the
ideas of universal
norms and democratic rule of law, is clearly conceived as superior to
which insists on pre-political traits.
In the Canadian political context, and more specifically the
debate, civic nationalism has gradually overridden ethnic nationalism,
the latter being
somewhat marginalized (the thesis of the “pure laine” nationalism is no
defended by any official instance or by scholars in Quebec). Civic
suffers from an important defect: while it can justify the elimination
or – in its less
extreme form – the “folklorization” of nations and nationalisms within
the country, it
cannot explain why this process should not extend to the continent and,
ultimately, to the
world (or, at least, to the Western world). If pre-political
justifications have no place in a
republican democracy, thus validating the repression of nations within
how is this type of justification legitimate between countries?
But the most import problem related to ethnic nationalism arises from
opposition to republicanism, which one can define by
1) the sovereignty of the people;
the active political participation of the people; and
3) a constitutional framework that
protects the minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
Even if one accepts nationalism
as a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition for political community,
how is it possible to
conceptually bring it into line with the idea of republican democracy?
Are these two
concepts not contradictory? So much so, that one precludes the other?
How is it possible
to avoid some ill-assorted eclecticism or syncretism and bring the
to one coherent interweaving of complementary ideas? Such a
harmonization of the two
concepts has, as of yet, never been achieved.
The debate seems to have been brought to a
stalemate because of the opposition between ethnic nationalism, with its
brand of pre
political (linguistic, cultural, historical, etc.) justifications, and
civic nationalism, with its defense of a political union based on universal rights. Many authors who
concept of nationalism in their work seem to struggle with establishing
proportion, if any, that should be allotted to one or the other.
Quebec, for example,
while Bariteau (1996) leaves no space for ethnicism, many others
abstractness of a purely formal and law-based society. Seymour (1999)
does allow prepolitical
elements to enter the argumentation, but he has difficulty eluding
contradictions. Bouchard (2000), for his part, adopts a balanced
incorporating elements of ethnicism and civic rights, but is not
interested, as a historian
and sociologist, in the philosophical problem of the conjunction of
I believe that an elegant solution to the problem of the colliding
concepts of ethnicism
and civic rights can be found in Habermas’s theory of communicative
1985). However, the task of relying on Habermas in the question of
nationalism is made
more difficult by the fact that Habermas himself never developed a
theory of nationalism.
In fact, his concept of “constitutional patriotism” seems to come close
to the notion of
civic nationalism, while rejecting ethnic nationalism. While such a
statement needs to be
qualified, it remains that Habermas considers only superficially the
nationalism, concerned as he is about overcoming the – in his mind –
obsolete model of
the Nation-State (Habermas, 1996).
The challenge is to develop a theory of nationalism using the main
Habermas’s communicative model of society, and to attempt to define
nationalism as an
objectification or, as it were, an incarnation of the very idea of
other words, I contend that democracy, when consistently thought
implies an idea of nationalism.
In this sense, the nation can be
understood not only as an
objective, although contingent, obstacle in a communicative space. It
does not only hold
that in the concrete process of self-reflection undertaken by a society
discussion, constraints of pre-political nature will necessarily occur,
differentiating the group engaged in a common communication process from
are objectively excluded.
Such a position is not incompatible with, say,
that of Benedict
Anderson. While Benedict Anderson was concerned with highlighting, from
perspective of cultural history, the importance of modern communication
production of the nation, my project will attempt to develop the idea of
communication from a philosophical perspective, one that includes its
practical as well as
its theoretical side. The thesis is that, far from simply opposing one
and republicanism are conceptually bound together, the latter leading
necessarily to the
former in its concrete application.
Let us come back to the idea of an “incarnation” of democracy. Generally
speaking, I understand democracy as a political organization, which
opens a public space
in which public discussions are central to forming public opinion and
will. In this sense,
such issues as the concentration of the press or access to the public
marginalized groups are considered more important than the questions of
in parliament and of polling systems, even though these questions are
relevant. In this idea of democracy, the pivotal concept is
therefore speak of “communicative” or “deliberative” democracy.
become such a central concept in democracy because the latter has always
claimed to rest on rationality. In an effort to avoid its subjectivist aporias, rationality has
been defined, most notably by Habermas, in inter subjective terms.
rationality – or rational democracy – can be realized through
communication, i.e. through
discussions that follow strict universal rules (Habermas, 1981).
With the idea of communicative democracy in hand, one can, in theory,
types of pre-political determinations as irrelevant, making nations
obsolete. Since reason
is a universal attribute of mankind (“the most evenly distributed thing
in the world”, will
say Descartes), it doesn’t matter what race, religion or creed one
belongs to. One only has
to adhere to the idea of democracy in its communicative form – that is,
a political culture
of public discussion or deliberation – to enable the cohesion of a grand
Anglo-Saxon, and Western societies in general, are built on such a
construction, and Habermas himself envisages statehood in this way.
However, this theoretical construction is completely blind to practical
considerations. For any factual communication to succeed, one must, for
a common language. In other words, a public space is a shared space that
shared language. This requirement of commonality may, admittedly, be
by the introduction of an interpreter. In a broader public and political
this type of compensation comes up against tough pragmatic restrictions
that impede its
feasibility. In Canada, for example, despite some efforts to bridge the
French and English
cultures, their relation is still best characterized by the idea of “two
solitudes”1. In fact,
given the presence of the First Nations of Canada, one would have to
speak of the “many
solitudes” in Canada.
Moreover, a common language is often not sufficient for factual
to succeed. Sometimes, world-views can be so divergent as to render any
arduous to a point that discussion may enflame conflicts instead of
solving them. The
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a case in point. Even in less extreme
cases, as in the
relations between First Nations and the dominant white culture in
Canada, for example,
true communication is made much more difficult due to fundamentally
Thus, no genuine commonality can be reached.
In some cases, history itself is a great enough obstacle for
communication. Let us
consider the Serbs and the Croats. These two cultures speak a common
Croatian, the result of a compromise between different dialects –
following the “Vienna
Agreement” of 1850. Yet, the dismemberment of Yugoslavia was a violent
national distinctiveness. Serbs still vividly remember that Croatians
formed an alliance
with the Nazis and oppressed the Serbs during the Second World War2.
run high, a factual communication is made much more difficult. That is
not to say that
time could not heal the wounds that make reunification unlikely today,
but one must
recognize the existence of a present day factual obstacle to political
So, if communication should be the fundamental concept in democracy,
recognizes that democracy needs to be bound by pre-political
determinants that will make
it factually possible. It is a matter, here, of identifying the factual
and practical conditions
that make democracy possible (such as language, world-views, history,
etc). The abstract
idea of democracy is of itself insufficient. This is where the concept
of “nation” comes
into play. In the context of communicative democracy, a nation will be a
that will allow factual discussions, the result of which will be a sense
This sense of commonality will form the ground on which the resolution
of conflicts will
have a reasonable chance of success. Obviously, even in a linguistically
space, conflicts of opinion will arise. However, one will be able to
rely on the
communicative potential of the public sphere to resolve any contention.
The situation is
markedly different where communication itself is hindered. It is hard to
expect a deep
sense of commonality between two linguistic communities with their
cultural references. The affirmation of difference in a context of
will thus make it more difficult to solve conflicts.
To be sure, the reason for the formation of nations is not external to
itself, in the sense that pre-political determinants unduly interfere
and democratic deliberation. It is rather internal to the idea of
democracy requires communication, and communication can be realized by,
things, use of a common language.
This model has the advantage of being able to explain why the claims of
rights were voiced for the first time in a context of nationalism: that
of the French
Revolution. In 1794, the French were shocked by the fact that a mere
twenty percent of
the population of France could speak French3. It was then decided to
eliminate the patois
of France and to universalize not only the rights, but the French
language as well. This Frenchificaton policy was not conceived in opposition to universal
rights, but as a means
of actualizing these rights.
Indeed, how can a citizen participate in
political life if he does
not speak the language of the public sphere? Thus began the tremendous
efforts to rid
Alsace from its Germanic language, the Northwest from Breton, the
Basque, etc. In the history of Canada, the Anglicization policies
followed a similar
pattern, as does the more recent effort by Quebec to Frenchify –
although less violently –
its territory (while respecting, one must add, the existence of its
To be sure, this paper does not defend any type of violent
peoples. It doesn’t even attempt to justify separatism or sovereignism
since models of
multi-national states could provide for the cohabitation of nations. The
purpose of the
argumentation was to establish the concept of nation within a discourse
rights and to show that, not only do they not oppose one another, but
that one is a factual
condition of possibility for the other. The construct of a nation,
although contingent (in
that it can take many forms contingent upon the given context), is not
arbitrary (in the
sense that communication must be actualized in a given context if it is
concrete). At best, this argument can be used by minority nations to
help justify the
recourse to nation-sustaining legislation in a context of universal
1 In reference to Hugh Maclennan’s novel Two Solitudes (Toronto, New
York and Des Moines, 1945).
2 This is by no means an exhaustive account for the schism between Serbs
and Croatians. One would also
have to add many other historical and religious factors.
3 See “Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d’anéantir le patois, et
d’universaliser l’usage de la langue
française” by Grégoire, available on the Web at
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