Two Visions of Democracy: Letter 3

Two Visions of Democracy: Letter 3


Dear Michael,

Your second reply helps me to assess the meaning of our dialogue and, above all, of the dialogue that Reset launched. It seems to me that two are the issues at stake in our correspondence: a) the extension to the Muslim world of what you have defined as “internal criticism” criterion; and b) the choice of dialogue, when dialogue is possible. Clearly, the former issue pertains essentially to the Muslims themselves in the sense that they have to start their internal quarrels and diasporas, their own “reformation” as it were. As you taught us, nobody can do what people themselves should do – this is, after all, very consistent with a democratic view of culture formation because it recognizes the value of autonomy and the direct participation of the actors in the building of their world of meaning and institutions. This approach excludes among others that war can be a means to create or implant democracy and moreover that democracy can be exported. It also acknowledges an important role to the external world, because “the others” can play a relevant role in indirectly supporting the internal critics in the manners the actual circumstances suggest.

The second issue pertains to us much more directly, because we can of course think that it is impossible or undesirable or even useless to enter in a dialogue with people whose doctrine paralyzes their critical mind and discourages “internal” unorthodox interpretation. When I stylized the two forms of multiculturalisms I had in mind precisely this mentality, which I proposed to compare with the Manichean spirit of the Cold War (which is still with us). I would like to make clear that I did not want to imply an analogy between yesterday’s Communists and today’s Muslims. Although both forms of dogmatism have been made an object of radical opposition and are similar much like all radical “enemies” are similar, it is a fact that their character and identity are very different. A secular religion and a religion of the book are different, although sociologists may tell us that the mental and social mechanisms that pertain to the formation, propagation and defense of a religious or religious-like faith are similar. But if we go beyond the abstract categorization of the sociologists, we know that the interpretation of the work of Marx and of that of God bring to outcomes that are very different, for reasons that are not an issue here and would require quite a different work.

But the sense of my reference to the Cold War was different: my goal was to claim against the Manichean habit of the mind and political culture practice that the Cold War produced. It is interesting to notice that in Italy, people who were irreducible enemies of any dialogue with the communists are now irreducible enemies of any dialogue with the Muslims. In Italy, Berman is not an author of the Left. to the contrary, his ideas are shared by the editors and the readers of Il Foglio, a right wing newspaper that has successfully translated the logic of the Cold War into that of a Clash of Civilization.

This makes sense of my reference to Bobbio. In my mind, Bobbio was one of the most interesting anti-anti-communists (different, for example, from Aron) precisely because he defeated the logic of the communists themselves, a logic that was oppositional on both sides of the Cold War’s barricades. Bobbio’s culture and practice of dialogue did not simply question communists’ dogmatism, but dogmatism. It questioned the very logic of the Cold War. His Socratic approach entailed an idea of the intellectual that is, in my mind, still very important to us and timing. His politics of dialogue was a democratic answer to Cold War politics because its object was to vindicate the learning potential of the democratic process and, conversely, the anti-democratic implications of dogmatism.

You ask whether the culture of dialogue is of some use in our time and with the problem before us. You raise a consequentialist objection. I think it is of some use, because its ethos is first of all good for us since it is our society that gets hurt by our dogmatic counter-dogmatism. Our societies are multiracial and multi-religious and a culture of dialogue is a better method to the solution of the several practical and cultural problems that emerge every day. People in Bologna who started collecting signatures for blocking the construction of a mosque are dogmatic; and their dogmatic can have negative consequence for all, not only the Muslim community, because fuels a climate of intolerance that may easily involve other cultural differences besides the Muslim one.

Furthermore, should we assess the value of a mental approach in terms of its potential for tangible success? Perhaps foreign policy and international relations are domains in which theory asks to be verified in terms of effectuality and tangible outcomes. But this is not what intellectuals should be worried about – better saying, they should aim at making non-ideal theory and ideal theory intertwine, but, to paraphrase Kant, they may better do their critical job if they don’t endorse the practitioner’s approach. Had Bobbio reasoned in terms of outcomes, he would not embark in that dialogue in 1954. In your words, that was a kind of “rest and recreation.” As we know it took several decades for the PCI to acknowledge publicly that the USSR was not their model.

But there is in fact a concrete outcome that the culture of dialogue may produce. To restate what I said in my article: “The politics of “block thinking”—or the assumption that there are monolithic and hence unchangeable cultures—is risky since it tends to thrust all the members of the culture in question (be it Islamic and Western) into the arms of those radical minorities that do really want their culture to be a unitary block under their leadership.” The Manichean spirit of contraposition would have the perverse effect of stopping the process of political secularization or simply advancing the “internal criticism” in the Muslim world besides making our society less free and open. Thus, although the culture of dialogue may not guarantee any positive or tangible result, it is valuable for the negative or preventive function she plays.

This is my better answer to your objection on consequentialism.


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