Tzvetan Todorov: Civilization Exists as Civilizations – Why Cultural Multitude is not a “Zero-Sum” Game


In 2008, the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov published the book Lapeur des barbares. Au-déla du choc des civilisations. In 2010, English and German translations followed. Reading Todorov’s The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations is a most inspiring experience. Based on a an enormous breath and depth of knowledge in anthropology, philosophy, sociology and cultural history, Todorov is providing a macro-set of concepts and analytical tools which do help to better understand that cultural multitude – both within nation states and the multipolar world system – is the catalyst for cultural strength and progress.

by Michael Liebig

Born 1939 in Sofia and raised in communist Bulgaria, Todorov emigrated to France in 1963 where he has made an exceptional career in the cultural sciences. His The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations[1] belongs neither to the category of short-winded “political/non-fiction” books nor is it academically detached study. There are certain methodological similarities between Todorov’s book and Immanuel Wallerstein’s European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. [2]

Do We need Barbarians?

In their German editions, both books carry the term “barbarians” or “barbarism” in the title. Todorov demonstrates convincingly that the term “barbaric” as a designation for social collectives is absurd. Yet, barbarism does exist as a way of thinking and acting manifesting itself in genocide, colonial exploitation, nazi concentration camps, gulags, or dropping atom bombs on cities. Auschwitz and Hiroshima show that “civilization” – in the sense of cultural and scientific-technological progress – and “barbarism” are not mutually exclusive.

Since the times of ancient Greece, the term “barbarian” has had a pejorative meaning or even meant the equivalent of “enemy image”. The barbarian isn’t just the “other” in terms of language, ethnicity or social behavior. The barbarian is an inferior being – “wild”, inhuman or even subhuman.

In the colonial era, (most) European colonizers viewed and treated the indigenous peoples of Asia, Africa, America and Australia as barbarians or semi-barbarians who had to be subjugated and “domesticated” (or killed, when resisting). The barbarian as an enemy image is, however, not necessarily restricted to non-European people.

Throughout the 20th century, the main enemy images in Europe had the attribution “barbarism.” In World War I, the belligerent states denounced each other as barbaric. In World War II, Nazi Germany treated the peoples of the communist Soviet Union as subhumans to be enslaved and (European) Jews as subhumans to be exterminated. During the Cold War, the American-led capitalist-democratic West viewed the Russian-led communism as a barbaric regime – and vice versa.

Islam as Enemy Image

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the enemy image of “European barbarians” vanished (except for the “Yugoslav wars”). But, during the 1990s, in the United States new enemy images were created: Islam and (in a more restricted fashion) China. Todorov doesn’t take up the issue of China, but focuses on Islam as the West’s new enemy image: Not just in its American (neo-imperial) “Clash of Civilizations”/”War on Terror” manifestation, but with respect to European right-wing populism which is mainly directed against Muslim immigrants.

Todorov presents a cogent refutation of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis: Huntington lumps together a billion Muslims – living in very different conditions on all five continents – into one entity: “Islam.” For Huntington, Islam is culturally backward and a religion of war. However, as Max Weber has demonstrated, even the great Arab-Islamic jihad of the 7th century was not religiously motivated – spreading the creed – but driven by power and economic aims. The issue was not mass conversion of subjugated peoples (which occurred gradually over several centuries) but the hefty taxation of non-Islamic believers (Christians, Jews or Persian Zoroastrians).

Todorov meticulously sets apart Islam and “Islamism.” Islamists are a tiny minority among Muslims who have instrumentalized religion and transformed it into a political ideology substituting non-religious political ideologies like liberalism, socialism or nationalism. The motivation of violent/terrorist Islamism is not religious, but social and political “ressentiment” – a key notion in Todorov’s book – against established political-military and/or economic powers of both the Islamic or non-Islamic world.

Todorov notes that the way of thinking of Huntington and Osama bin Laden – respectively essentializing and stereotyping Islam or the West – is very similar. And he points to the very practical consequences of this way of thinking: Islamist terrorism on the one side and the “war on terror” aerial bombardments and torture on the other side. Referring to the Algerian War (1954-62) and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Todorov emphasizes that torture is not an ultima ratio means to get vital information, but a particular cruel form of (deliberate) punishment of enemies in an irregular warfare.

European Right-Wing Populism

Todorov deals extensively with European right-wing populism, with focus on the Netherlands, Denmark and France. The key categories for understanding European right-wing populism, the mainly Islamic immigrant (sub-)culture, and the interaction between the two are ressentiment and “appreciation” (Anerkennung) – more precisely the lack or denial thereof. Appreciation as an existential necessity for human beings within collectives is an anthropological/philosophical leitmotiv in Todorov’s book.

Since the 1990s, rightwing populism has steadily grown stronger in Europe – parallel to the economic, social and technological changes which have mentally, materially and socially unsettled or even marginalized a significant section of the population across Europe. The atrophy of social cohesiveness and the “social state” since 1989 has generated wide-spread frustration – a melange of angst, envy, a sense of social impotence and latent aggression. Todorov summarizes this political disposition as “ressentiment”. The latter is directed against both the socio-economic privileged classes and those who are still weaker and more marginalized – like (Islamic) immigrants. Targeting immigrants, is much “easier” than opposing the rich and powerful in society – and that modus operandi has been chosen by right-wing populism. Right-wing populist parties in Europe articulate “politics of ressentiment.” They try to give it a reputable politico-cultural coating by promising the preservation of “national culture” against its subversion and gradual destruction by external forces – the (Islamic) immigrants, and, secondly, “Brussels”, i.e. the European Union.

Todorov doesn’t deny the existential importance of national culture (nationale Leitkultur). Quite the opposite: National culture is (and will remain) the basis for collective identity. And, national culture is the starting point for social appreciation, namely the reassuring sense of being part of a collective – speaking the same language and sharing the same habits and customs. Without national culture, societal cohesiveness (and the rule of law) would be unsustainable.

Todorov, however, does polemicize against the hijacking of national culture by the European right-wing populist parties, which deny the evident fact that all national cultures are hybrid and not “pure”. National cultures “live” by interacting with other cultures, not segregating from other cultures. Autarchic – more precisely, autistic – cultures are the exception, not the rule in human history. The viability and strength of an national culture manifests itself by the ability to draw upon other cultures and absorb components of other cultures. In reducing national culture to a means of segregation, right-wing populism is not strengthening, but “drying out”, depriving and weakening national culture.

Right-wing populism not only exploits and nurtures ressentiments in the majority, but generates (counter-)ressentiment in the (mainly) Islamic immigrant minority. A significant section of the Islamic immigrant community is unemployed and working in low-income jobs – in combination with low language skills and low educational levels. Immigrants are a key constituent of the modern precarity. As a consequence, among Islamic immigrants, the lack of appreciation on the side of the majority population is felt strongly – and further accentuated by the “politics of ressentiment” of right-wing populism.

Todorov’s conclusion is that right-wing populism and Islamism are goading each other – at the expense of societal cohesiveness and cultural vitality. Moreover, ressentiment is blocking self-reflection, self-initiative and self-development.

“Cultural Procreation”

Todorov’s basic idea is that cultural multitude is the rule (not the exception) in cultural history and a quasi-genetic source of cultural strength and vitality.

Yet, it should be emphasized again, Todorov is not propagating postmodern “multiculturalism”. As Todorov puts it: Postmodernism “absolutizes relativism and essentializes difference.” Todorov insists on the viability of the nation state with its national “lead culture”. He thinks that a “European state”, “European culture” (replacing national cultures) or even an “globalized culture” are delusionary constructs. (At the same time, he thinks that the project of European integration is an unique historical achievement and potentially a model for other regions of the world)

Human “civilization” is the offspring of a multitude of “civilizations” (in the sense of cultures). The diversity of cultures has been the genetic characteristic of human history – up to today and into the future. Because the diversity of cultures is a fundamental feature of the human race, there can be no meaningful “value ranking” among them. There are no “good” or “bad”, “inferior” or “superior” cultures, even though cultures do incorporate very different levels of scientific-technological progress.

All human beings share a common human nature and dignity, but they they all have been born into a specific culture. The basis of (diverse) cultures is the enormous diversity of languages. These languages incorporate (diverse) perceptions of the “world”, collective memories, ways of life and social rules which are passed on from the older (parents, teachers, “political” leaders) to the young. Thus, the diversity of cultures and the symbiosis man-culture are fundamental facts of man’s individual and social existence.

Principally, culture is not a matter of choice, even though adult human beings may choose (or be forced) to exit the culture into which they were born. But then they must adopt a new culture, because human existence depends on (and is inseparable from) a collective social setting and cultural identity. Human beings have material needs and they need “security” – both depend on social collectivity (family, tribe, society, state). But equally so, they do need appreciation within the collective. The continued denial of appreciation leads to ressentiment and conflict within society.

Todorov’s core argument is that the co-existence of majority and minority cultures in society is not an aberration. Cultural multitude is not a “zero-sum” game, but the “normal” way culture(s) have developed in human history. Being rooted in one’s own (national) culture and interacting with other (external) culture(s) is no contradiction. For sure in the 21st century, cultures change by interaction within the short span of a human life – yet they don’t loose their inner consistency.

At the end of his book, Todorov illustrates his central message that cultural multitude is the catalyst of cultural strength by going back to the origins of Greek and European culture: According to Herodotus, Europa was a Phoenician (Lebanese) princess who was abducted by Greeks, brought to Crete and married to a Cretan aristocrat. An (involuntary) Asian immigrant became the name giver of Europe. One may add: Was European culture undermined by “importing” a Near Eastern religion – Christianity? Or, what about the foundation of European modernity – Socrates, Plato and Aristoteles? Their writings had to be “re-imported” to Europe from Arab and Persian culture.


1Tzvetan Todorov, Die Angst vor den Barbaren — Kulturelle Vielfalt versus Kampf der Kulturen, Hamburg, 2010

2Immanuel Wallerstein, Die Barbarei der Anderen, Berlin, 2008

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