Commentary Magazine


Pandaemonium, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Nationalism & Its Discontents

Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics.
by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Oxford University Press. 221 pp. $19.95.

Pandaemonium, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, is the capital of hell. In Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s latest book, it designates the ethnic turmoil engulfing the world in the 20th century. Moynihan’s purpose is both to censure the shortsightedness of the world’s leaders for failing to foresee this turmoil and to warn of its abiding dangers.

In the 19th century, it was generally expected that the amalgamation of the world’s economies would cause nationalism to subside and ultimately to disappear. Socialists, in particular, regarded nationalism as a by-product of capitalist competition for markets and a weapon which capitalists used to divert the working class from its true international interests. Marx and Engels had no patience with the claims of the small nationalities inhabiting the great European empires, whose destiny it was, they believed, to assimilate and vanish. For liberals, nationalism was doomed by the operations of an integrating world market; for socialists, by the brotherhood of the international proletariat.

It did not happen that way. The 20th century turned out to be an age of rampant nationalism afflicting as much the great powers as the tutti-frutti of the Balkans scorned by Marx. Why this should be so is one of the fascinating questions of our time. Several causes come to mind, none sufficient and yet each, in some measure, necessary.

One explanation lies in the triumph of democracy and the attendant spread of mass education. The universal franchise has shifted the center of decision-making to the regions, giving rise to local politics which, in areas inhabited by ethnically diverse populations, assume ethnic forms: conflicts which in nationally homogeneous societies express themselves in social terms, here take on an ethnic coloring. The principle of popular sovereignty in and of itself institutionalizes national differences. Mass education further promotes ethnicity because, being geared to a lower level than elite education and having more pragmatic aims, it stresses the local and familiar at the expense of the universal.

At a deeper level, national conflict is but one expression of the “territorial imperative” that distinguishes the behavior of all creatures, from protozoa to primates. Survival depends on the bounty of nature: among nondomesticated animals totally, among humans in part, depending on the level of economic and scientific development. People identify with their homeland because it nourishes them. Just as birds chase away other birds that encroach on their nesting and feeding area, and primitive hunters and food gatherers drive out, if they do not kill, trespassers, so do otherwise civilized people assault and murder those whom they perceive as encroaching on their territory.

These are hard realities, embedded in the nature of living beings. It is futile either to ignore or rail against them. It is far more useful to devise ways that will encourage people to stay put in their native habitat. The current Völkerwanderung which results in the annual migration of tens of millions is fraught with the most horrendous possibilities of mass slaughter as native inhabitants defend their territory from the invaders.

It is to Senator Moynihan’s credit that he was among the earliest statesmen in this country to realize the destructive potential of ethnic discord. Both Washington and the Sovietological community were deaf to warnings that the multinational Soviet empire was bound, sooner or later, to meet the fate of all the other European empires and disintegrate.

Forty years ago, I offered a course on Soviet nationalities at Harvard—the first of its kind at my university and probably in the country. At the opening lecture six students turned up, two of whom promptly rose and left, explaining that they had wandered into the wrong classroom. In the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s, whether advising the radio stations that broadcast to the USSR or the Department of State, I found it impossible to convince anyone in authority that the USSR was not a free comity of nations, like the United States, but an empire held together by Russian Communists.

Whether this refusal to listen stemmed from ignorance, from Russophilia, or from the fear that an agglomeration of ex-Soviet colonies would cause more trouble than a Russian empire, it is hard to tell. As late as August 1991, days before Ukraine proclaimed its independence, President Bush, echoing Gorbachev, on a visit to Kiev sought to persuade the Ukrainians to find happiness under Russian rule. The New York Times still seems unable to reconcile itself to the fact that the Soviet Union is no more, playing up every disaster that has befallen the separated republics and ignoring the benefits that sovereignty has brought them.

Moynihan’s written prose, like his speech, is not a tranquil stream but a cascading torrent of ideas, citations, asides, and allusions. It is no easy matter to discern the central message in this teeming flow. The impression is one of a contradiction. Moynihan insists on the overriding importance of ethnic consciousness in our age, and at the same time laments it. The realistic observer and the moralist seem at odds with each other.

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A profound pessimism pervades the book. Moynihan cites, apparently with approval, Sir Isaiah Berlin to the effect that the 20th century is the “worst century that Europe has ever had” and how glad he (Berlin) is to be as old as he is. And the reason for the gloom is the prevalence of nationalism and racism. Moynihan does not see the process of ethnic subdivision and conflict abating in the years ahead, especially in Africa and Asia. The prospect, therefore, is of new global tension, no longer polarized between two ideological blocs but diffuse and, therefore, even more difficult to control.

I fully subscribe to Moynihan’s warnings that nationalism and the conflicts to which it gives rise are not a relic of the past but a living reality of the present and the foreseeable future. For the Western powers which wallowed in nationalistic passions for a century and a half, experienced their baneful consequences, and finally learned to keep them under control, it is easy to look down on nations which are only now becoming aware of their identity. Although the inhabitants of the earth live from day to day by the same clock, the clock of history shows different times for different peoples.

That said, the question remains: how can ethnic conflicts be contained? For this to happen, the great powers, which even in the era of the United Nations continue to run the world, must realize the deleterious effects of mass migrations. The defense of ethnic values and of the national territory should not be abandoned to the radical Right. The emergence in Germany and France of neo-Nazi movements is primarily due to the inability (or perhaps unwillingness) of liberals and socialists to acknowledge as legitimate the resistance of their fellow-citizens to the massive influx of foreigners. Fortunately, this has now changed as both Germany and France have taken measures to slow down the entry of immigrants, a phenomenon which has helped reignite nationalist passions one had hoped the two world wars had dissipated once and for all.

As for the rest of the world—Yugoslavia, Transcaucasia, Sri Lanka, and the many other regions where ethnic discord assumes forms akin to genocide—there is probably no other solution than to have the great powers step in forcefully to stop the slaughter. They are reluctant to do so, arguing that such violence, regrettable as it is, does not affect their vital national interests. But this is true only in a very superficial sense, on a narrow definition of national interest—in the sense in which the fate of German Jews under Hitler, or the fate of Czechoslovakia, menaced by the German dictator, did not affect the interests of Great Britain. Who, old enough to remember, can forget Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dismissing the German ultimatum to Czechoslovakia as a “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”? He and his countrymen found out soon enough who those people were, and what their “quarrel” meant to Britain.

It is hypocritical to speak of one world, as we routinely do, and confine it to the major industrial powers. Conflicts among nations have a way of spilling from their place of origin, no matter how remote: they poison the political climate and discredit the great powers who are unwilling to use their might to give substance to their lofty professions. In this manner, ultimately, inaction affects adversely everyone’s security.

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Senator Moynihan represents the country’s second most populous state and currently serves as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, in which capacity he carries out important negotiations on the budget. It is remarkable and certainly uncommon for a person with these responsibilities to have the vision and find the time to concern himself seriously with global issues of such complexity.

About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).




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