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Why we should read... 'Selected Works' by Mikael Nalpantian (Sovedagan Krogh, Yerevan, Armenia, 602pp, 1979) Armenian News Network / Groong February 21, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 'Our nation's present is miserable, here subjugation and poverty speak loud.' Mikael Nalpantian (1823-1869) famous among Armenians mainly for two poems, 'Liberty' and 'Childhood Days,' is also unquestionably the most enduring of that group of intellectuals and political activists who formed the avant-guarde of the mid-19th century Armenian national revival. He made outstanding contributions in virtually every sphere - educational, linguistic, aesthetic, philosophic, literary, economic and political - rendering the ideas of the Enlightenment and the European revolutions relevant to the Armenia of his day. He died at 37. Yet what he bequeathed us testifies to a man of genius whose writings remain of utmost relevance to contemporary society. Nalpantian was driven by a profound dedication to those grand ideals which inspired the best of the men and women of his age. 'Within the limits of our powers' he proclaimed 'it is our bounden duty to serve mankind.' He also insisted however, and that without contradicting his humanist convictions, that 'the essence and purpose of my life is to secure and defend the rights of the oppressed Armenian nation.' Today if the people of Armenia are to overcome the terrible national disintegration they are suffering, they can do no better than to first travel the path prepared by Nalpantian. There they will find vital components for a programme to salvage them from yet another century of misery and possible annihilation as a nation. A. The model national intellectual Nalpantian was a relentless critic of all social injustice and political oppression. He declared war on the ignorant, bigoted and despotic Armenian clergy and its secular allies who exploited the common person like any ruthless feudal dictator. This corrupt and venal elite, essentially agents of Ottoman and Tsarist domination in Armenia, claimed to be the sole legitimate representatives of the people. No, said Nalpantian: 'In our nation today there are now alternative views and alternative paths; there are now other flags and now there must be battle.' A Renaissance man, a polymath of broadest erudition, his outlook was built on the best achievements of international (and this, by the way, includes Armenian) knowledge and culture. He had an expert grasp of philosophy, natural science, aesthetic theory, economics, politics and history. He also had a thorough knowledge of Armenian and Caucasian history, its nations' developments and their social problems. It was on the basis of this vast stock of knowledge that he began to challenge both colonial rule and the tyranny of the clergy in Armenia. So long as even a trace remains of the ills that he so uncompromisingly and brilliantly criticised, Nalpantian's writings will retain a contemporary stamp. Nevertheless his essential modernity is to be found not in any particular analysis but in an intellectual approach marked by a refreshing synthesis of the concepts of 'reason', 'humanism' and 'nationalism'. In an era when the clergy's religious and social obscurantism ruled the roost in Armenia, Nalpantian courageously rejected faith and obedience as guiding principles of life: 'Because freedom cannot subsist within the terms of command and obedience. We ourselves acknowledge only conviction, which is not blind, and which unlike a command does not abuse our comprehension. We acknowledge conviction because it derives from conscious examination of facts and causes.' Rational investigation of all phenomena, unencumbered by dogma, prejudice and blind faith must be the starting point for all action so that: 'In defending or condemning people or their actions we must proceed only from those unquestionable results that derive from free thought and healthy rationalism.' Here Nalpantian's use of the term 'healthy rationalism' is no rhetorical flourish. It is a critical element of his entire thought. It is used in refutation of that concept of 'reason' which is reduced to a neutral, academic, abstract philosophical category devoid of human or social significance. For Nalpantian, reason is a category of human knowledge and must therefore be driven by a humanist and a democratic impulse. As human beings 'human life must be our essential concern. Nothing must concern us besides the real and essential needs of men and women.' Indeed knowledge that does not serve the end of human progress 'that is not built upon the experience of human life and that does not refer back to that life, is empty and deceptive.' Therefore knowledge and with it 'healthy reason' must serve 'the happiness of all', without regard for distinctions of race, gender, religion or nationality. Today, when the notion of objective and socially useful knowledge is widely ridiculed, the relevance of Nalpantian's approach must surely be self-evident. He offers us an irreducible and unquestionable criterion for judging all national or social issues: how and to what extent to they satisfy the 'real and essential' needs of humanity. B. The Armenian national revival Reviewing the fate of the European revolutions of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Nalpantian remarked bitterly that the slogans of 'liberty, equality and fraternity have left an imprint only on a few pieces of gold (or) have been condemned to vanish behind numerous layers of white paint.' He was determined that this would not be so in the case of the Armenian struggle. Noting how such slogans had been abused by minorities he set about infusing the concept of 'nation' with a humanist and democratic substance. In doing so, he never deviated from the premise that: 'To improve the condition of mankind, that alone is real knowledge: take whatever course you will but let that be your ambition.' Nalpantian took account of the oppression inflicted upon tens of millions of people by the Russian, British and Ottoman empires. In response to their claims that imperial rule helped 'civilise savage and primitive peoples' Nalpantian retorted: 'We cannot overlook the fact that their conception of civilisation is very different from ours. Prisons are their schools, police and soldiers their teachers, the chain is their instrument of instruction and exile their school of morality. And the gallows and execution their path to ''eternal happiness''' In such a world system 'oppressed peoples can secure their liberation only by means of the national struggle' which itself is a stage in the monumental project of liberating the whole of humanity from the shackles of oppression, poverty and ignorance. Being a patriot and nationalist of the best sort Nalpantian rejected the chauvinist, undemocratic - 'blind and fanatical' - nationalism of the imperial powers who 'for the purpose of their own feast are happy to slaughter another's cattle'. He advocated a democratic and popular nationalism which would remain 'free of criticism' only on condition that it too accepted 'the equality of all other nations' and only when such nationalism 'worked to better the conditions of mankind as a whole.' Having established this international terrain, Nalpantian moves to defining the internal structure of the nation. 'By the term nation,' he asserts, 'we must understand the common people and not those few families who have enriched themselves from the sweat and blood of the people.' National independence is to be cherished, but only if it helps to secure the 'real and essential' interests of the common man and woman. After all: 'We have not devoted our life and our pen to the rich. Behind their barricades of wealth they are protected even from the worst tyranny. But that poor Armenian, that exploited, naked, hungry and pitiable Armenian who is oppressed not just by foreigners, his own elite, his own clergy and his own ill-educated intelligentsia, that is the Armenian who deserves and demands our attention.' For Nalpantian nationalism is not a one-sided or abstract phenomenon serving only one sector of society. It is not merely a spiritual, mystical, metaphysical or cultural reality to uplift the soul of the intelligentsia. 'Abstract nationalism is senseless'. Naturally nation building requires the development of national language, art, literature and culture. But it is never reducible to these. 'Should we bother preserving our heritage, our language, our traditions, in a word our nationality?' he rhetorically asks. 'Only if these give you the right to enjoy the wealth of the land and thus free yourself from slavery and poverty.' C. Nation-building social justice and the economic question Developing his views on nationhood Nalpantian was adamant that 'if the issue of the economy does not feature at the very centre of nation-building, then nation-building is without foundation, it is based on false premises, it is bound to collapse.' Given that agriculture was the then dominant form of producing social wealth, Nalpantian wrote a remarkable book entitled 'Agriculture as the True Way'. The principles he advanced apply nevertheless to whatever form of wealth production is being considered. His argument is simple: no nation can be free while it is economically dependent on others. There is only one way forward for genuine national liberation: the development of an independent economy in the homeland. 'Only when the nation begins to cultivate its own soil (that is, develop its own economy), can one speak of trade (and economy) that is genuinely Armenian and national.' With acerbic wit Nalpantian criticised those widespread notions that the wealth of Armenian merchants in the Diaspora, in Tiflis, in Baku, in Bolis and further afield was testimony to an Armenian national revival. No, he said, because 'even if as a result of such trade hundreds are enriched, hundreds receive a European education, the state of the Armenian nation as a whole will continue to remain paralysed and static.' Trade for nations lacking an independent economy: 'is not national in anyway whatsoever and has absolutely no relation to the [Armenian] national interest ... Armenian merchants become servants of European interests ... Let me be frank, these people calling themselves traders and merchants are in reality only intermediaries for European powers. They do not serve the needs of the Armenian people.' An independent economy however is only a first, and by no means sufficient, condition for a genuinely national economy. It has to have a democratic and egalitarian foundation too. 'Of what use are a few millionaires amidst starving millions' he asks. The common man and woman cannot be 'be truly free if material need forces them to enslave themselves to another, just to obtain bread for their family.' Nalpantian therefore proposes a system of economy which recognises that the nation's wealth 'belongs to the people as a whole' and that 'every member of the community has an equal right to enjoy in perpetuity' the fruits of that wealth. It is worth noting that Nalpantian's approach anticipated many of the later theories of 'dependent development and under-development' elaborated by Third World thinkers to understand and overcome the backwardness and poverty of their own nations. Today, in the name of 'globalisation' many dismiss such ideas along with national independence as useless relics of the past. They conveniently ignore the fact that globalisation is essentially a euphemism disguising great power domination of smaller and poorer nations. Today through their control of global institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO, a few great powers dictate the economic policies of smaller nations, subordinating them to the interests of their own transnationals. Modern Armenia has become no more than a second-rate superstore for foreign produced goods, peddled, and this only sometimes, by intermediaries but available only to the tiny minority of wealthy citizens. As for the common people, these same unelected global institutions relentlessly insist on further cuts in welfare and other public expenditures depressing further an already poverty-level living standard. As a result hundreds of thousands are forced to flee the land of their birth. One cannot but recall the current Republic of Armenia when reading Nalpantian's remarks on the steady disintegration of historical Armenia while many around him were hailing 'an inevitable national revival'. In moving prose he describes how historical Armenia is being denuded of its best human resources as hundreds of thousands take the road of emigration. Meanwhile at home their land lay fallow and went to waste. It is as if Nalpantian spoke to the 21st century when he warned: 'Until our nation breaks out of this mould, until it effects an economic revolution, progress is impossible.' D. Nalpantian's heritage for the 21st Century Nalpantian remained faithful to his humanistic and national convictions. A restless activist and worker he set up links and collaborated with like minded Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople, London, Paris and Moscow. He engaged in underground activity smuggling literature and money in aid of the cause. He established links with Russian revolutionaries such as Herzen and Bakunin and built contacts with the Italian Garibaldian movement. For practising what he preached he was hated and reviled by the Armenian establishment and the Tsarist police. Ruthlessly attacked and persecuted by both, he was starved, imprisoned and driven to an early death. Near the end of his life he wrote: 'For a long while now I have learnt to suffer. On the pathway of my life I have never experienced any budding roses. My heart is a sea of blood. Yet I have so much strength than none could read my condition off my face.' Nalpantian died in exile - of persecution, illness and exhaustion. But so long as an Armenian nation and an Armenian state continue to exist his message remains totally relevant. An Armenian friend recently commented that whenever he visits poverty stricken Haiti and the Dominican Republic he 'can't help but think that Armenia's future won't be very different.' Excavating Nalpantian's legacy, using it as the intellectual brickwork for building a strategy for survival can help contribute to averting Armenia's apparently unstoppable slide into what Paryour Sevak called 'the new dark-ages'. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Mr. Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.