Tzvetan Todorov – highlighted democracy’s ‘inner enemies’


Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian-French literary theorist and historian of ideas whose concerns in dozens of books ranged from fantasy in fiction to the moral consequences of colonialism, fanaticism and the Holocaust, died on Tuesday in Paris, The New York Times reports:

In “The New World Disorder: Reflections of a European” (2003), written on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, which the French and German governments and many Europeans opposed, Mr. Todorov urged Europe to abandon its “pacifism and passivity.” He told The New York Times: “Our potential enemies are no longer inside Europe. We must join forces to defend ourselves against these external enemies.”

Yet he did not see immigrants to Europe as threats. In his 2009 book, “Fear of the Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations,” he wrote: “One can demand from newcomers to the country that they respect its laws or the social contract that binds all citizens, but not that they love it: Public duties and private feelings, values and traditions do not belong to the same spheres. Only totalitarian societies make it obligatory to love one’s country.”

“France has lost an ardent supporter of democracy, an intellectual who was inquisitive about literature, art history, philosophy, and passionate about ideas,” said Jean-Marc Ayrault, in a statement for the French Foreign Ministry. “This was how he fought against totalitarianism and obscurantism. He was a man of the Enlightenment in an unstable world where freedoms are often threatened.”

The author of Passion For Democracy – Benjamin Constant, Todorov’s prescient analyses hinted at the populist threat inherent in democracy.

“The real democratic ideal is to be found in the delicate, ever-changing balance between competing principles, popular sovereignty, freedom and progress.,” he wrote in The Inner Enemies of Democracy. “When one of these elements breaks free and turns into an over-riding principle, it becomes dangerous: populism [evident in east Europeans’ hostility to refugees], ultra-liberalism and messianism, the inner enemies of democracy.”

Todorov was a signatory of the 2010 Manifesto for a New Europe which called on Europeans to “revive our belief in the powers of democracy” based on a “a culture of solidarity and common purpose beyond our differences.”

Threats to liberal values

“Todorov is at his best when he writes about totalitarianism. His analyses are sharply accurate and the interpretation of communism as a secular messianism is persuasive,” according to Vladimir Tismaneanu, author of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century:

What is lacking, however, is an emphasis on the moral dimensions of the Cold War; not to describe those decades in a Manichean way, but rather to acknowledge that communism was the opposite of humanism. It was the rule of rampant mendacity and moral turpitude. The communist project was fundamentally one meant to transform human nature, to transcend the human condition through an anthropological revolution. Post-communist ideologies, including neoliberalism, do not have such apocalyptic ambitions.

“Surely the main threat to the liberal values in our world is related not to excessive liberal self-confidence, but rather to a deficit of adherence to the basic values defining the democratic tradition,” added Tismaneanu, a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy and the Advisory Committee to the NED’s Penn Kemble Democracy Forum:

This is what Arthur Koestler identified as a mortal danger: the relativisation of our values and the underestimation of the indispensable distinction between good and evil. True, the new populist oracles abuse the term freedom. Nevertheless, one needs to recognise that there is a paradoxical interplay between the exaltation of human rights as a new political religion and the failure to address the daunting challenges created by the rise of religious fundamentalisms, first and foremost neototalitarian Islamism.


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