Two Visions of Democracy: Letter 1

Two Visions of Democracy: Letter 1


Dear Michael,

I cannot but strongly agree with you that we should not be eager to bring “all the people” into the conversation. A culture of dialogue is not and must not be indifferent to whom our interlocutors are – we cannot dialogue with those who want eliminate us and threaten our life and with those who support them. I am not eager to bring terrorists into conversation! How could I?

In my intention, the argument I am advancing should take us to the opposite direction. The point of my argument is precisely that not all Muslims are friendly to or supportive of terrorism, which means that some and perhaps many are. My invitation to make distinctions and thus open the door to dialogue presumes that not all members of the Islamic communities are the same.

I think we should mobilize all our police forces to fight against the terrorists and their supporters and neutralize their wickedness capabilities – European countries have a long and effective tradition of anti-terrorism policy and citizens mobilization against terrorism; and the Left, the Left in which I always belonged, made the struggle against terrorism and its ideologues its primary goal for decades. The culture of dialogue can exist only if both interlocutors want it and if they have completely dropped any resort to violence. Without this basic and unquestionable premise no dialogue is possible.

On the other hand, however, only if we drop a Manichean attitude or what Charles Taylor calls “block thinking” we can see or recognize our potential interlocutors within the Muslim world. My animosity towards zealot and oppositional dogmatism (Manichaeism) rests on the fact that it compromises from the start any possibility for dialogue because it claims it already knows the interlocutor. The reference I made to the Cold War was to the climate of ideological contraposition it nurtured. In my view, the teaching coming from democratic intellectuals like Bobbio was that it is possible to defeat that climate by challenging the “block thinking” and its corollary that we cannot dialogue with our enemy, as if the enemy had one single face and spoke one and the same language. There is moreover another similarity with the Cold War climate, which pertains to the issue of trust.

This is precisely the question raised by Paul Berman when he says about Ramadan that he pretends to be an internal critic but avoids all opportunities to be critical. Very similar was the liberals’ objection against Bobbio when he started his dialogue on the principles of democracy with the Italian Communists: “How can you trust their sincerity? How can you be sure they are not simply walking a double-truck walk – dialoguing with you (and acquire legitimacy in the face of public opinion) and meanwhile promoting the overcoming of constitutional bourgeois democracy with their people?”

The question was well posed; there was no other solution but trying or desist from trying. Bobbio chose the former. To be sure, his politics of dialogue did not make his Communist interlocutors change their mind in 1954 – or better put, admit publicly they had to or should revise their doctrinal tenets – and in this sense it did not seem to confirm the trust in the transformative power of public discourse, one of the values of democracy. But it did open a pathway toward a pragmatic politics that in the long run won against communists’ doctrinal tenets. To use a fortunate expression by Jon Elster, hypocrisy (or duplicity) may be a social virtue because practicing the habit of dialogue, that is to say learning to follow rules and procedures, may have the effect of binding the behavior of the interlocutors, no matter what they actually believe. Has not been that, after all, the “virtue” of the parlamentarization of politics?

You say that the two kinds of multiculturalism and the two versions of democratic theory I proposed are themselves examples of a rigid Manicheanism. I acknowledge that my dichotomies were too quick and stylized (I did not have much chance given the length of the article). Yet it seems to me that Manicheanism is not the same as making dichotomies. Manicheanism means in my mind a pre-conceived classification of the enemy that presumes that we know all about it, and that what we know is radically evil and non-reformable. You seem to be perplexed by the fact that I use your theory of “criticism from within” to make my case and remind me that you also wrote “Moral Minimalism.”

I know very well that book, since I translated it. Perhaps I should have been more careful in rendering your thought rather than simply mention quickly that any criticism from within should presume the respect some basic principles or rights (respect for individual life and liberty), something you have called “thin” universalism. This is actually the necessary condition for toleration and a check on the risk of relativism that criticism from within may entail. In following your theory, one may say that after all if Italian democrats like Bobbio’s decision to enter into a dialogue with PCI’s intellectuals was also determined b the fact that PCI was a strong presence in the Italian society that could no be ignored – the politics of dialogue was in a way a form of “internal or connected criticism.”

Today, we cannot perhaps avoid discussing with the Muslims who live in our midst or close to our countries; and in relation to this new reality, dialogue may turn to be a new form of “connectedness” and an aid to internal criticism, for us as well as for them. I am aware that a secular political ideology like communism is not the same as an ideology that is shaped out of a religion; I have been always more than skeptical toward religion and strongly negative toward the politicization of religion. But as things are now (particularly in our societies), can we allow us the luxury of refusing conversation and dialogue? Although I never felt sympathy toward multiculturalism, I must admit that Taylor’s recent position on this issue intrigues me positively.

In order to stress your argument that we (leftist intellectuals) “should set limits on whom they talk to” you bring to the fore the analogy of the Crusades and ask me whether I think it would be possible to derive critical arguments against that carnage by discussing with those Christians who shared the holistic and intolerant view that justified the Crusades. But the logic of your analogy betrays the spirit of my article, because what I tried to say (perhaps poorly) was that all cultures, religious cultures in this case, are internally differentiated – Christianity did not have only fanatic friars or zealot crusaders in its midst, although the fanatics were the majority those days – yet not an overwhelming majority, because William of Ockham (himself a friar) was also a Christian voice in the Middle Age. The question is that if we embrace a “block thinking” we perhaps end up by seeing in the Crusaders’ Manichean theology the only expression of Christianity; and finally we risk becoming Manichean on our turn in presuming that Christian fanatics represented the whole Christianity in the Middle Age. You ask me whether I think you would oppose a politics of dialogue. I think you would not. Actually, I did not have you in mind when I stylized the Manichean attitude of Western intellectuals – in our current debate (in Italy but perhaps also the United States), the anti-dialogue position is after all the most representative one, for sure in the right-wing people (who, in Italy, like very much Berman’s ideas, by the way) but also among leftist people.

In fact, my argument in favor of a culture of dialogue has the presumption of building also on your ideas that a correlation exists between internal criticism and a thin universalism. As you said in commenting on some demonstrations in Prague in the eve of 1989, we might not have been familiar with the specific issues that those people had in mind when they called for “Justice” and “Truth” in their rallies, but we knew what a call for Justice meant and instinctively sympathized with them. This is, in my modest view, an approach that explicitly invites us to make our critical mind enlighten new avenues to an ethical culture of rights and freedom, within and outside our societies.

As ever,

Read Nadia Urbinati’s “Two Visions of Democracy”
Read Michael Walzer’s Response

Read Urbinati’s letter to Walzer (1)
Read Walzer’s letter to Urbinati (2)
Read Urbinati’s letter to Walzer (3)
Read Walzer’s letter to Urbinati (4)

This debate originally appeared in the Italian political journal Reset and Reset: Dialogues on Civilization. ©ResetDOC