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Jürgen Habermas and the Abolition of German Ethnic Nationality

Jürgen Habermas speaking to an audience

Since the 1960s Jürgen Habermas has been one of the most celebrated and influential thinkers in the world. In 2007, he was listed as the seventh most-cited author in the humanities and ranked seventh in the “Top 100 Global Thinkers list” in 2005/2008 by Prospect Magazine and Foreign Policy jointly. In the English-speaking world, he is less known than Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Slavoj Žižek or Paul Krugman. But in terms of articles and books written about his ideas, he surpasses all of them put together by a wide margin. Among academics, Habermas does have the status of a great thinker.

While countless publications have been produced about his “emancipatory” effort to complete the “Enlightenment project,” no serious studies have been conducted addressing Habermas’s position on the self-determination of European ethnic majorities through democratic decision making. No one has questioned his taken-for-granted supposition that a “rationally reconstructed” politics precludes expressions of ethnic identity, pride, and preservation on the part of European peoples within their respective nation states.

Habermas’s preoccupation with the political conditions necessary for arriving at a universal understanding through dialogue is uncritically premised on the notion that universalism requires consensual values devoid of ethnic content. But it may be the other way around: there can be no stable and viable democratic citizenship unless there is open allowance in the public sphere for the collective ethnic affirmation of the people historically associated with the ancestral national homeland. The imposition of multiculturalism and mass immigration is, and has been, an undemocratic violation of the collective culture and individual rights of the established ethnic peoples. Habermas assumes that the Enlightenment can only be “completed” after the elimination of ethnic identity through immigration, but there is nothing in the Enlightenment tradition that supports his views, which should be categorized as Marxist ideas nurtured by the Frankfurt School.

Individual Rights and the Protection of Minority Rights

In this essay I am concerned only with Habermas’s basic ideas on the interrelationship between individual rights and cultural rights within European pluralistic societies in the face of mass immigration from non-Western countries. In the numerous English translations of Habermas’s work I am knowledgeable about, he has rarely addressed immigration and ethnic diversity in Europe except in a collection of essays published under the fitting title, The Inclusion of the Other (1999), but even here only one essay deals explicitly with immigration, namely, “Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State.” I shall focus on this essay, which is a commentary on Taylor’s essay on recognition, published in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (1994). This is the best commentary on Taylor’s essay in this book; there is certainly nothing substantial in the commentary by Princeton professor K. Anthony Appiah, in which he “speak[s] as someone who counts in America as a gay black man.”

Using the labels of rightist, centrist, and leftist cultural Marxist, Habermas can be classified as a centrist, perhaps slightly to the right of Kymlicka. His main objection to Taylor is that liberal societies do not need to integrate into their political life-world an “alien” notion of “collective rights” in order to deal with the struggles for cultural recognition by minorities; the theory of individual rights has been already constructed to deal adequately with these struggles. The demand for recognition by immigrant minorities is in line with the demand by members of economically disadvantaged groups, women, the disabled, homosexuals, and other minorities for equal rights.

The theory of rights when properly understood is by no means blind to cultural differences (p. 112).

The principle that individuals should not be judged on the basis of their race, gender, and class is not blind to “unequal social conditions.” Societies are not mere aggregations of isolated individuals in possession of natural rights outside a socio-cultural setting.

A correctly understood theory of rights requires a politics of recognition that protects the integrity of the individual in the life contexts in which his or her identity is formed. This does not require an alternative model that would correct the individualistic design of the system of rights through other normative perspectives. All that is required is the consistent actualization of the system of rights (p. 113).

Individuals with different sexual and cultural dispositions can actualize their rights when society does not place them at a disadvantaged position but affords them with reasonable opportunities for success as individuals. Rights cannot be understood in purely legalistic terms without consideration of the respective status and life chances of members of different groups. Women, for example, started to achieve de facto equal rights only when they successfully managed to gain

social-welfare policies, especially in the areas of social, labor, and family law…special regulations regarding pregnancy, motherhood, and the social burdens of divorce (p. 114).

Likewise, members of cultural minorities can achieve actual recognition of their own customs, practices and local culture within the system of individual rights so long as the government does not impose assimilation but ensures equal opportunity and prohibits discrimination and disrespect of the cultural ways of minorities.

Habermas disagrees with the way Taylor’s frames the concept of recognition in terms of the “survival” of the collective identities of ethnic and cultural minorities. A liberal state cannot be expected to guarantee the survival and advancement of the collective identities of minorities. Once immigrants arrive into a modern liberal country they should have the freedom to choose their cultural ways of life and should not expect the government to ensure their survival. The government should protect the right of immigrants to remain attached to their traditions, and disallow discrimination against them, and even offer subsidies to ensure equal opportunity, but in an open culture no cultural tradition can be expected to be preserved without criticism.

Moreover, the political order of the majority culture cannot be expected to be altered to meet the collective recognition of immigrants with values and practices that may threaten the system of liberal rights or may result in separate normative communities. A liberal state should require immigrants to assimilate into the political culture of their new homeland; immigrants cannot be permitted “to encroach upon” the constitutional principles of individual rights. On the other hand, they should not be coerced to assimilate to the day-to-day habits, customs, folkways, and foods of the majority culture.

All that needs to be expected of immigrants is the willingness to enter into the political culture of their new homeland, without having to give up the cultural form of life of their origins by doing so. The right to democratic self-determination does indeed include the right of citizens to insist on the inclusive character of their own political culture; it safeguards the society from the danger of segmentation — from the exclusion of alien subcultures and from a separatist disintegration into unrelated subcultures (p. 139).

Immigrants Are Culturally Equal to Ethnic Germans in Germany

But just as a liberal state has no mandate to preserve traditional immigrant cultures, it has no obligation either to preserve the non-political cultural norms of the majority culture. Habermas believes that a key characteristic of modern liberal life-styles is that citizens are free to reflect about, say yes or no, to the cultural habits and traditions of their times. The very normative endorsement of the idea of rights presupposes a modern community in which individuals have come to agree — “intersubjectively” — that individuals should be free to fulfill themselves as human beings rather than accepting conditions in which they are not the authors of the laws and norms within which they coexist.

The only thing a liberal culture cannot tolerate is a fundamentalist rejection of liberal rights. In a liberal society citizens choose their own ways of life through their own critical capacities. A liberal society has a concept of the good life in its insistence that only those norms created or validated through intersubjective reasoning can be legitimate. To guarantee the survival of the majority culture of the German nation would be to deprive new generations of “the option of learning from other traditions or converting and setting out for other shores” (pp. 130-31). Germans need to realize that just as the cultures of immigrants cannot be preserved by the state, neither can the state guarantee the survival of German culture in the face of immigrants arriving with different lifestyles.

In these last two sentences, we can detect the central flaw in Habermas’s thinking: he draws the erroneous conclusion that Germany must become an “immigrant culture” if it is to live up to the theory of rights. He does not consider the possibility that liberal theory can recognize the rights of minorities, as it started doing in the nineteenth century, without thereby advocating mass immigration and integration of minorities from all over the world. This is what makes Habermas a cultural Marxist. In a rather deceptive manner, without openly telling his readers, he brings into a discussion about the rights of minorities inside European nations, the idea that European nations must become “immigrant cultures” as if this were an intrinsic liberal ideal.

It is worth going carefully over some of the key passages where he tries to superimpose onto the theory of rights, and the Enlightenment, the alien cultural Marxist request that Europeans must accept open borders.

Even a majority culture that does not consider itself threatened preserves its vitality only through an unrestrained revisionism, by sketching out alternatives to the status quo or by integrating alien impulses — even to the point of breaking with its own traditions. This is especially true of immigrant cultures (p. 131).

It is one thing to argue that an open culture that wishes to remain dynamic should welcome alternative ways of thinking and revisionist ideas, it is another to imply that this openness requires the integration of alien cultures. This passage is full of unwarranted, untested, and alien suppositions. Let’s leave aside for now the supposition that European nations are “immigrant cultures,” Europeans have always exhibited far more cultural vitality and originality since ancient Greece times, through Catholic-Gothic Europe, Renaissance Italy, and Elizabethan England, than in the immigrant-enforced cultures of Europe today.

Habermas adds:

The accelerated pace of change in modern societies explodes all stationary forms of life. Cultures survive only if they draw the strength to transform themselves from criticism and secession…through exchanges with strangers and things alien (p. 132).

These are clichés academics and TV stars love to repeat, devoid of historical substance and economic veracity. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China and numerous nations today are very dynamic economically and yet they are not advocating minority rights for immigrants; and while they have countless exchanges with strangers, they don’t allow aliens to become citizens. European nations produced the Enlightenment Habermas so cherishes within the context of rather stationary marriage laws and norms, educational standards and religious traditions, and without accepting aliens from Asia and Africa.

Liberal Nations Are Inherently Immigrant Nations

Underlying the entire discussion by Habermas is not a sincere preoccupation with what the theory of rights may have to say about minority cultural rights; it is an effort to promote the idea that Germany and all Western nations must become immigrant nations. In the last pages of his essay, he ceases the search for justifications for immigration within the theory of rights, and begins instead to rely on external Marxist concepts. He comes up with the phrase “from the moral point of view” to answer why European nations must accept immigrants. A major moral “obligation,” he says, is that, just as Europeans migrated to North America in search of a better life, so are people now migrating into Europe from the impoverished regions of the East and South, and since the Europeans who migrated benefited economically, and the countries of Europe also benefited from less population pressure, Europeans today should allow the impoverished peoples of the world to benefit from migration to Europe. Moreover, Europeans were responsible for colonizing and uprooting the cultures of the world, and now they should pay back by allowing immigrants.

There are numerous problems with this line of reasoning starting with the fact that the mass migrations to North America Habermas has in mind “from 1800 to 1960” were migrations into lands already transformed into European-nation states by earlier European settlers. These settlers did not migrate to existing nations, but themselves were responsible for the creation of modern nation states. Secondly, if we are going to talk about the costs of colonialism to Asia and Africa, we should also consider its benefits. Habermas implicitly accepts the Marxist argument that Europeans developed by under-developing the rest of the world, but while there is still much debate about the effects of colonialism on Africa and Asia, the argument that Europe developed by under-developing the Third World has been seriously challenged in numerous studies.

Habermas, in the end, realizes that these “moral” reasons “do not, to be sure, justify guaranteeing actionable individual legal rights to immigration” (p. 142). What he means is that these reasons cannot be framed in terms of the theory of rights. I would say they are about instigating white guilt by using Marxist arguments about European past sins.

Habermas then says that these reasons “do justify an obligation to have a liberal immigration policy,” but this time by “liberal” he means a policy that is sympathetic to immigration in “relation to existing capacities” in Europe. He believes there is still plenty of space for immigrants, the more so due to shrinking populations there, adding that Europeans have a moral obligation “not to limit immigration quotas to the recipient country’s economic needs” (p. 142).

Finally, Habermas tries to justify immigration by claiming that Germany is a land of immigrants. The arguments he adduces here are quite revealing in exposing the low intellectual depths to which someone designated as a “great thinker” will go in order to defend mass immigration. First point he makes is that the population of Frankfurt (as of the early 1990s) consists of 26 percent foreigners, which somehow “contradicts” the image that Germany is not an immigrant nation. Even if we were to judge Germany’s immigrant character on the basis of this city’s racial make up, one cannot use recent immigration numbers to claim that a nation has been historically immigrant. This is an argument that pro-immigrationists are now using regularly, as the cities of Europe are filled with immigrants, but which really only amounts to the claim that their devious policies to impose racial diversity upon the historically homogeneous nations of Europe are working.

Expulsed Germans
Expulsed Germans

The next points are that since the early nineteenth century almost 8 million Germans have emigrated to the United States, while 1.2 million workers entered by 1914, and 12 million were displaced by the end of WWII, deported from Poland and the Soviet Union. Not clear what any of these points are supposed to mean; suffice it to note here that after the Second War, Europe experienced the opposite of what Habermas wants to imply; as a result of mass expulsions and movements of ethnic groups back to their original homelands, Europe saw a “massive process of ethnic unmixing,” in the words of Jerry Muller, resulting in the creation of ethno-nations throughout Europe. Within a few years after WWII, “for the most part, each nation in Europe had its own state, and each state was made up almost exclusively of a single ethnic nationality.” In the case of Germany, Muller observes:

Between 1944 and 1945, five million ethnic Germans from the eastern parts of the German Reich fled westward to escape the conquering Red Army, which was energetically raping and massacring its way to Berlin. Then, between 1945 and 1947, the new postliberation regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia expelled another seven million Germans in response to their collaboration with the Nazis.

The next point Habermas makes is the most bizarre: “by 1990 West Germany had integrated 15 million refugees, immigrants, and foreigners who were either German or of German descent” (p. 145). Apparently, we are supposed to believe that Germany is a multiracial immigrant nation because it took up millions of ethnic Germans expelled from eastern territories Germany lost after WWI and then WW II!

Affirmation of German Ethnic Heritage Is “Odious”

“In the face of this evidence,” Habermas concludes, the claim that Germany is not a land of immigrants should no longer be “put forth in the political public sphere.” To keep insisting otherwise can only be interpreted as the result of a “deep-seated mentality” characterized by irrational fears about immigrants, a mentality educators must bring an end to, however “painful” this may be. Habermas, for all his talk about how truth can only come about through “communicative action,” mutual deliberation and debate without controls set by the powerful, categorized Thilo Sarrazin’s book, Germany Abolishes Itself, with terms like “poison” and “odious” without engaging its factual contents but with the goal of suppressing its ideas within the public sphere.

The self-understanding of Germans as members of a nation must “no longer be based on ethnicity but founded on citizenship,” Habermas concludes. In a future article on Charles Taylor we will see how he advances a theory of cultural recognition for immigrants by relying, erroneously, on two European thinkers, Herder and Gadamer, who are, in truth, exponents of the importance of the national traditions and particular horizons of the majority cultures of European nations in the face of cosmopolitanism.

Habermas, a staunch advocate of the “Enlightenment project” to create nations based on universal values, may well have seen through the dangers of utilizing the “völkisch” ethno-nationalistic ideas of Herder, and of the prejudgments of Gadamer regarding the importance of authority and tradition as legitimate sources of knowledge. Habermas objected to Taylor by insisting that the theory of individuals rights already contained the intellectual resources for the promotion of immigrant multiculturalism. I have argued that the theory of rights cannot be used to support immigrant multiculturalism. It can be used to support the rights of minorities who have been historical inhabitants of European nations, as liberals started doing in the nineteenth century, but it cannot be used to endorse the already implemented program of mass immigration into Europe. Habermas appeals to extra-liberal arguments when it comes to making the case as to why European nations must become immigrant nations. He relies on ideas that are best designated as cultural Marxist in that they are about seeking a fundamental alteration in the cultural life worlds and ethnic composition of Europeans.

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