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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.

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