Coordinated by Andreea ZAMFIRA

Democracy against Nationalism.

The A.C. Popovici Case



Hyperion University of Bucharest



Abstract: This article seeks out to analyze the critique of democracy in Romania during the first half of the twentieth century. The starting point of this analysis is the opposition between nationalism and democracy theorized by the Romanian political scientist Aurel C. Popovici. We can find the origin of A. C. Popovicis conception in Eminescu’s critical attitude towards modern society and French liberalism. A.C. Popovici emphasizes the irreducible opposition between democracy, which is global and universal, and nationalism, which has the capacity to underline the cultural specificity of every nation. I will try to compare the way in which Popovici refers to democracy and nationalism with the approach of this ratio in Western societies (England or France). 


Keywords: nationalism, democracy, conservatism, modernity, Eastern society.





Aurel Popovici is one of the most important political thinkers of the beginning of the 20th century. Born in the then Austro-Hungarian administered Banat, he studies medicine and political sciences in Vienna and Graz. His intellectual path shall be decisively marked by his origins. Even since his time as a student he stands out through his protests against the abuses of the Magyarization policy, even being sentenced to serve prison because of Memoriul Studenților din România (The Romanian Students’ Report). In 1906 he compiles a project of federalization of Great Austria aiming to solve de problem of nationalities within the Empire and becomes close to the crown prince Franz Ferdinand, who was a sympathizer of this project. The assassination of the prince in Sarajevo in 1914 and the offset of the Second World War will cause the permanent termination of this project.

During his time in Bucharest he teaches German and manages the Sămănătorul (The Sower – archaic Romanian) magazine, after Nicolae Iorga quits. In 1910 he publishes a volume entitled Naționalism sau democrație. O critică a civilizațiunii moderne (Nationalism or Democracy. A critique of the modern civilization), gathering articles published within Sămănătorul during his management. This book and the one about The Great Austria are the most important works of A.C. Popovici.

Although an extremely knowledgeable writer and a refined political thinker, A.C. Popovici is an author that has almost been forgotten in our day. Except for his volumes being edited by Constantin Schifirneț there is no monograph dedicated to the thinker from Banat, and the studies on his mind -set are extremely scarce[1]. A possible explanation is that A.C. Popovici is a firm nationalist, and today nationalism is no longer currency. But, on the other hand there are several other nationalist writers that are discussed and commented on even today (M. Eminescu, N. Iorga or Nae Ionescu). The reasons of A.C. Popovici’s strange oblivion, not being an influential writer even in the inter - war period, can be connected, as C. Schifirneț suggests, to his project of federalization of Austria:


We consider that his paper Statele Unite ale Austriei Mari (The United States of Great Austria), suggesting the federalist solution, his attempts to convince Austrian authorities to put into action his federalist ideas, as well as his combatant attitude towards democracy were decisive for his future course by expressing ab initio reserves concerning his theses”.[2]


I have chosen to study here A.C. Popovici’s political vision because for me he is an important fraction of the multitude of conservative and nationalist Romanian thinkers in the 20th century. Then, by the trenchant opposition that he sketches between democracy and nationalism, A.C. Popovici’s vision had an important contribution in the radical critique of the democratic regimes in the inter -war period. Furthermore, by the fact that his vision is in a certain degree the result of the historical circumstances, it can offer an important indication of the manner in which a certain culture and political mentality came into being in our country, a culture whose roots are in my opinion still alive.





In the present study I shall handle specifically the analysis of the ideas and vision presented in Naționalism sau democrație. First and foremost A.C. Popovici describes himself as a conservative, explicitly relating to two masters of the conservative thinking: Edmund Burke, who was also considered the father of European conservatism and Mihai Eminescu, the man Popovici calls “our times’ signs prophet”[3], the author that probably had the most influential political vision among the Romanian conservatives. Popovici makes several references to Edmund Burke, and he dedicates an entire encomiastic article to Eminescu. It is true that we can find all traits of conservative thought in Popovici.

Firstly, we notice the exposure of the “reasonable” vision according to which the state is the result of a social contract coming from the rational will of individuals. Like Eminescu, who almost obsessively repeats, Popovici also states that “the state […] is not an artificial, drifting product. Its origin and entire existence is a product of nature and not a simple logical abstraction, not an intellectual construct”[4]. As such, societies, nations and states are the result of an unlabored historic evolution, of a certain population on a given land. So, we are dealing with the organic vision of society development, with all that it implies: gradual evolution, where as that of a plant that grows in time, any intervention from the exterior is improper and having a detrimental effect. The growth of a society has to begin with its own resources, represented by traditions, customs and beliefs, and not from formal rules inferred from an a priori lucidity.

Even more so the respective rules do not necessarily match all societies. Popovici is here in full agreement with Maiorescu’s conservative critique of the forms without substance:


“The language, beliefs and manners sustain a people, and new laws allow it to naturally grow further. But again, only if they match its character. Because this is the only way laws can be accepted by the people. This way, the people get «perfect» laws in the law book, in pockets with gazettes and speeches, while their souls are in discontent, revolt! Because the entire being of the nation, its whole nature had been drained by absurd, disastrous laws and theories”.[5]


The French Revolution enunciates its modern political principles in “The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” and it has, as such, through the abstract rationalism that it disseminates, a leveling effect on the way politics are made, irrespective of the development stage of a society. This “imperialistic” influence has a detrimental effect on many societies because it does not take into account their natural development rate and risks disturbing the social order in the name of some “imaginary” rights:


“I particularly advocate that natural evolution, that which is usually called development, advancement, is always disrupted artificially, especially for the past hundred years, by theories that have no grounding in what is natural, that is science, made by impulsive and hurried men, and which, for years, have been draining through their disciples the life of the European states under the pretext of bringing them in a «scientific manner» towards an I do not know what kind of uniform «world progress»” (original emphasis).[6]


Another common stance of conservative ideology that A.C. Popovici assumes is that of the difference between the political “theory” or the politics deduced from abstract principles and the political “practice” or politics as an art. The goal of politics is to adopt, with a certain restraint, from the principles acclaimed by the politic sciences only what can be beneficial for the society at a certain point in its existence. To make social changes originating from premade doctrines and ideologies can be just as harmful, if not even more so, than if no reform was made in that society.


“Practical politics is not an exact science yet, but a sui -generis art. From the positive and certain results of sciences, even the so -called politic sciences, it can only take what it needs. It, not science! For political, not doctrinarian purposes. Because politics is neither an experiment laboratory nor a formula department, of «conceptions» of history or legal vocabulary, of theories about «historical law», of «natural rights», etc.” (original emphasis).[7]


Here we can certainly make a reference to Eminescu, who regards as “charlatans” those ideologists of the Forty-Eighters movement who believe that evoking certain principles from The French Revolution is a solution for the problems of any society[8].

In order to prevent a rupture from tradition and the radical reforms that the ideologues of the middle class are promoting, Popovici states, like Burke, that society is not the result of an agreement on which individuals settle upon at a certain time, but the result of an immaterial contract between the forefathers, the present and the next generations: “The sovereignty of the nation is not and cannot be the expression of our will, people nowadays. It does not contain only the ambition of the living. But also all the hopes of the dead. All their virtues and sacrifices for the country, for us, their descendants (original emphasis).[9]





Following Eminescu, A.C. Popovici is a radical critic both of the ideas of political modernity and the principles enunciated by The French Revolution, as well as a critic of democracy. Nevertheless, the two authors have different reasons for their critiques. Eminescu denies the ideas of political modernity starting from his critique of the way in which the modernization of the Romanian society took place. This modernization process, starting with 1829 with the entry of the Romanian provinces under the economical and ideological influence of the West, is accompanied by a paradoxical phenomenon: on the one hand we have the birth of a new structure, typical for a modern society (centralized administration, banks, bureaucracy, railway system, etc.), and on the other hand the demise of the small craftsmen (the ones that should have become the new bourgeoisie) under the pressure of the competition with foreign industrial goods.

Modern Western society is based on an industrialized economy with an added -value that enables the birth of a middle class. In relation to that, Romania has a double disadvantage: on the one hand it exports agricultural products (with low added value) and on the other hand it imports industrial products that carry a significant added value[10] The only thing is that, a modern political regime, in order to be effective, needs a strong middle class. In our case, in return, the middle class is made out of social strata dependent on the state that is “superposed strata”, as Eminescu called it: clerks, bankers, intellectuals, attorneys, etc[11]. So, lacking a middle class leads to the inability of putting into practice the principles of a modern constitution[12]. To this, we can also add the deterioration of the fate of the peasants in the second half of the 19th century, the social class that is considered to be the highest in number in Romania in the respective period of time and, according to Eminescu, the only productive social strata[13]                            

In consequence, the modernization accomplished by the liberal Forty -Eighters in the name of the principles of political modernity leads, at least on a short term, to the deterioration of Romanian society. Eminescu draws the logical conclusion, through a line of argument that starts from the social contract, through The French Revolution and the Forty -Eighters Movement to the decadence of Romanian society. This is an explanation for his alternative point of view on the state, as a product of nature and not the result of a rational contract between individuals.

Unlike Eminescu, criticizing modernity first and foremost because of its social effects, the reasons for A.C. Popovici’s critiques pertain to the national problem, more precisely the situation of the Romanians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That is because the Hungarian Forty -Eighters apply, in the name of the sovereignty of the people inspired by the French Revolution, a Magyarization policy, by people understanding mainly the Hungarian ethnics:


“Kossuth had foreseen the ideas of severance from Austria with the purpose of centralizing the power of Hungary in the hands of the Hungarians, that it may turn the multinational, historic and actual mosaic of Hungary into a homogenous nation. To this end, he started from the democratic concepts. He would only recognise in Hungary a single sovereignty: that of «the nation». Sure enough, the Hungarian one” (original emphasis).[14]


Therefore, this is how modern democracy, exercised in the name of the sovereignty of the people, can lead, when we are talking about a multi -ethnic state, to a conflict between the cohabitant nationalities. In this case, the Hungarians have the political power, and the ethnical “minorities” (Romanians, Serbs, Ukrainians, etc.) shall abide. As such, we have a first conflict between the democratic principles of people’s sovereignty (as the product of rational deduction that implies a universally -applicable process of governing) and the principle of nationality, which entails the preservation of historical, cultural and political identity of each people, or in other words, each ethnicity. Trying to avoid such a leveling centralization, Popovici proposes the project of a Federal Austrian State, based on a broad autonomy of all cohabitant ethnicities.

On the other hand, Popovici considers democracy as based only on a formal and quantitative procedure that, as it is applied to all societies had the tendency to erase all differences between them.


“The politician draws from modern politics, and these politics from the democratic ideology. In Paris, Rome, Athens, and Belgrade – same stereotyped accusations to the politics, like in Bucharest. It seems like they are the same politicians, same «independents» and the same gazettes. The differences are only of a formal, exterior character. Because all but a few start from the same constitutional principles”.[15]


We are dealing with an avant la lettré globalization. This universalist leveling platen that the democrat ideology and modern civilization have brought with themselves is opposed by the principle of nationality that is a qualitative principle.


“Nationality is specifically a pronounced individuality of the people. It is based on the existence of a common territory, on the conscience of a common origin, a common history and language and, partially, the realization of the existence of a common religion and mentality. Being national is living politically autonomous, so you can continue developing a particular culture”.[16]


This dichotomy qualitative nationality – quantitative democracy is assumed by A.C. Popovici, arising from the romantic difference between culture and civilization[17]. Through history, traditions and customs, culture is the holder of the spiritual identity of a people, while civilization, with its modern political and institutional forms, with the new technologies, has the tendency, through its leveling platen, to destroy authenticity and cultural differences. This is the source of A.C. Popovici’s rhetoric writings on Western culture, a “waiting staff” culture, just because it has lost its sense of tradition, while “superior culture” is based on the faith in God. From this point of view, a simple Romanian rural priest is for Popovici superior to a scholar from the civilized world that has lost faith[18].

Another reason for A.C. Popovici to stand against democracy is this acceptation of the term. That is because for Popovici democracy is first of all direct democracy, on Rousseauist filiation. Or, direct democracy is generally unfeasible, with the exception of some small communities[19] Then, the fact that democracy is based on the sovereignty of the people entails the involvement of all citizens in political problems. The problem arising here comes from the fact that generally people are so ignorant when it comes to highly complex political problems. Hence, as Popovici ironically remarks, a shoemaker is asked to have more cognizance than a citizen called upon to express his political opinion:


“[…] according to the enlightened idea of a democrat, making shoes is a «social» business that has far more importance than ‘making laws’ and their safeguard. Because for shoemaking he, the democrat, requires licensed skilled workers, but he always and serenely places the affairs of the state in the hand of all tinkers (original emphasis)[20].


Because the sovereignty of the people that is so acclaimed in democracy, and democracy itself implies the political equality of all individuals, where there is really no equality, A.C. Popovici foresees the danger that a democracy easily degenerates into a demagogical or even authoritarian regime:


“[…] us, who consider ourselves sovereign atoms, we greatly appreciate always being told about «democracy» and we think of ourselves as the «true» power in the state. A delusion, like many others in life. As for reality, both now and before, there is little else than demagogy. And that leads any country and any people to perdition” (original emphasis).[21]


Thence, for Popovici, the danger of the democratic regimes is the fact that they allow demagogues access to power, hereby destroying the elite of society, whose true role is that of safekeeping and passing on the values of a nation. The main risk is the nation itself dwindling.

In all verity, notwithstanding his great political knowledge, A.C. Popovici displays the limitations of his notion of democracy while debating it[22] with Constantin Stere. Popovici’s entire perspective on modern democracy is questioned through the distinction Stere makes between the forms of state and the forms of government[23]. Therefore, Stere correctly points out that democracy is a form of state that has the tendency to assert itself everywhere in the modern age, from the simple reason that today there is no other form of legitimate sovereignty except the sovereignty of the people. Unlike the democratic state, that has the tendency to become universal, the forms of government define, through their constitutions, the way in which sovereignty is carried out. The forms of government are those that have to take into account the specific characteristics of each state.





  4. 1. Liberalism versus Nationalism


A.C. Popovici’s nationalist conception certainly reflects Eminescu’s influence. However, while Eminescu is a critic of democracy and of the 1848 liberalism, A.C. Popovici is an opponent of democracy and an adept of liberalism. According to Popovici, democracy with its inherent tendency to freedom, is irreconcilably opposed to liberalism that always privileges freedom at the expense of equality: “Any democracy is essentially egalitarian. And liberalism is the most categorical denial of the equality inferred from abstractions, theories and fantasies. True liberalism, as the English one used to be, does not start from dreams, but from the practice of life”[24] (original emphasis). The explicit reference to the English liberalism implicitly hints at E. Burke’s doctrine that promotes the freedom of those who hold the power at the expense of all citizens’ tendency to equality[25]. And for A.C. Popovici, freedom is an aristocratic and creative principle, unlike the principle of equality that is homogenizing and plebean. The duty of any state is to defend the elites’ creative capacity from the cosmopolitan threat of democratic egalitarianism[26].

A.C. Popovici’s conservative ideas thus gain a liberal nuance. And indeed, he finds the best conditions of any society’s development in the blending of the two political ideologies:


“[…] the normal life of a state, of a nation, needs only two parties: a conservative party, that needs to maintain, preserve the inheritance of the past, to defend historical continuity [...] and a liberal party that represents the necessary changes imposed by the times, but always with the intention to deepen, to strengthen the national character in the country and in the people” (original emphasis).[27]


Therefore, nationalist conservatism and liberalism are the factors that can determine the healthy and natural development of a society. However, liberalism is a positive factor only if moderate, i.e. it does not lead to democracy[28] But are nationalist conservatism and liberalism compatible from Popovici’s perspective?

If we refer to classical liberalism that is based on the inalienable rights that the individuals possess in a natural state, the civil society being a product of the contract between these individuals, then liberalism is incompatible with nationalism. Nationalism entails the individuals’ organic belonging to community and places community above the individual, while liberalism prioritizes the individual at the expense of community: “according to this (contractual, natural rights) conception, society is posterior to the individual and not the other way round, as organicism of all types claims; in the organicist vision, society is prior to individuals, or according to an Aristotelian formulation [...] the whole precedes the parts”[29]. One of the consequences of the liberal conception of the individuals’ inalienable natural rights is the minimal role of the state in society, the function of the state being to guarantee the protection of these rights.        

Notwithstanding A.C. Popovici’s nationalist and organicist outlook, there are passages where he sounds like a classical liberal, speaking about the minimal role of the state in society:


”But then, what does the state have to do not to create dissatisfaction for its people or peoples? To this I answer: the state should not be over -enthusiastic especially in matters that do not concern it. The main thing for it to do is: to grant its people or peoples the freedom they need to develop on their own, in their national and individual spirit, in accordance with their past and their specific nature”.[30]


One notices that in the above paragraph Popovici talks about the relationship between the state and the people or the state and the peoples. The employment of the singular “people” may make us think he refers to the all citizens of a state, but when one talks about “peoples”, we understand that the phrase means the ethnicities within a certain state. Thus, Popovici implicitly refers to a multi -ethnic state. And it is at this point that liberalism and nationalism intersect. While according to classical liberalism, the individual is the possessor of inalienable natural rights, Popovici transfers these right onto a nation, therefore a population that shares one ethnicity, language and customs[31].


4. 2. The Spirit of 1848 in Ardeal


From this perspective, A.C. Popovici is the follower of the 1848 tradition of Ardeal, that defends the rights of the Romanian population in the Empire, especially through the character of Simion Bărnuțiu. In the 1842 protest he sends to the Magyar authorities in response to the decision of the Diet from Cluj to adopt the Magyar language as the official language in Transylvania, one finds the roots of a juridical philosophy that was very important to all the supporters of the national rights of the Romanians in the Habsburg Empire. Here is a passage from Barnutiu’s text:


“[...] each man or people (emphasis added), as a speaking creature has the right to live in this world and manifest their personality (jus subsistentiae personalis), to move their bodily force, their hands and feet, to earn their outer fortune, and the spiritual force [...] to earn their inner fortune: knowledge in various sciences, arts, foreign languages and native tongues (jus libertatis personalis); and these rights should be granted to all individuals and peoples equally (emphasis added), as all people and peoples are equal subl. n.), in this respect [...] (jus aequalitatis personalis) (emphasis added)”.[32]


  As Petre Pandrea demonstrates in his study about Simion Bărnuțiu, the Kantian philosopher Krug had a great influence over Bărnuțiu’s thinking in this text. Here is a paragraph from the German philosopher from whom Bărnuțiu explicitly gets inspiration:


“[…] although there is only one primordial right directly based on the nature of the material -rational being - that is the right to validate oneself as a person in the phenomenal world - which may be called the right to personality, since every person can be considered from three perspectives, this right can be divided into the three rights - of personal subsistence, of personal freedom and of personal equality (emphasis added)”.[33]


Certainly, Krug is a rationalist philosopher, of Kantian origin, and in the above paragraph he defines the individual fundamental rights: the right to existence, the right to freedom and the right to equality. These are the natural rights supported by the Enlightenment, which would be subsequently contrasted with the doctrine of historical law by the German authors. As we notice, as well as Krug, Bărnuțiu talks about the existence of the same fundamental rights, but unlike Krug, Barnutiu deals with a different topic of law: he does not mention only individuals, but people and peoples, too. This transfer of law from individuals to communities made by Bărnuțiu is made possible by the romantic concept of nation as an organism and by the ideas of Friedrich K. von Savigny’s Historical School of Law that have influenced Bărnuțiu.

P. Pandre claims that Bărnuțiu sustains “a synthesis between the doctrine of natural law and Savigny’s School of Organicist Historicism”[34], doctrines which are normally antagonist. On the contrary, the French theoretician Cécile Folschweiller considers that one cannot talk about a synthesis between the two theories, but rather a confusion between the individuals’ natural rights and the peoples’ rights: “il faudrait plutôt parler de la Confusion (consciente ou non?), tant apparaît profonde la divergence entre la Conception de la liberté ici mobilisée [la Conception sur la liberté nationale] et celle, principielle et juridique, issue des Lumières françaises (et allemandes jusqu’à Kant)”.[35] According to the French author this confusion is created by the Romanian language borrowing of the two concepts of “natural right” that Fr. von Savigny employs in his writings: naturliches Recht, the “natural” right that results from the living consciousness, practices and customs of a certain community, being a historical and particular right and Naturrecht, the Enlightenment “natural law” that is universal, springing from the rational and universal nature of all individuals[36].

Without claiming to solve this debate[37], we consider that the transfer of an individual’s natural rights to an ethnic community demanded by a Certain historical context, could not have been possible in the absence of an organic concept of the nation, itself based on the analogy between the individual and the society. It is the conception generated by Herder and the German Romanticism and which strongly influenced the ideas of the 1848’s spirit in Romania. Only in this way could the nation become a topic of law “the nation is considered an organic, natural structure, endowed with laws of development similar to the ones typical of living organisms. [...] Around 1848, the nation was not an arbitrary construction, neither fallible nor contingent. If it had been different, it could not have become the topic of claims based on the idea of natural right (emphasis added). In order to become socially and politically lucrative, nation had to be founded on natural criteria. [...] Nation [thus] becomes in -attackable, getting all the rights of a living organism”.[38]


  4. 3. National Liberalism


In his turn, A.C. Popovici acknowledges the legitimacy of the transfer of these rights from individuals to communities, spotting their origin in the French Revolution:


“The ideals of freedom and equality of the French Revolution initially referred to individuals. Soon, they were then taken over by social groups [...]. By the subsequent differentiation of these general ideas about freedom and equality, the principle of nationalities became foregrounded. If many peoples could replace the monarchic principle with their right to self -determination and their power, why would not other peoples have the right to set themselves free of the absolutism imposed by means of race to another privileged people?” (original emphasis).[39]


According to this text, individuals as well as peoples have the right to an autonomous existence, the free manifestation of their own identity and equality. Thus, as a consequence of the transfer of these natural rights from individuals to peoples, A.C. Popovici comes to talk about the existence of an ethnic or national right that he opposes to historical right:


“But in our case, the national fight was fought precisely between the historical -political and the national -political principles. Or, if you like, between constitutional rights founded on historical factors and national rights, claimed today. If, since then, since the beginning of these fights the national -constitutional principle had been acknowledged and applied, the multiple minority issues as well as the dualist crisis would have disappeared”[40] (original emphasis).


In this paragraph that raises the issue of minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Popovici highlights the opposition between minority rights or national rights and historical rights[41]. It certainly refers to the demands of the nations within the Empire, among which there were Romanians too. Those demands were justified by the transfer of the individuals’ natural rights to the ethnic communities, against the historical rights invoked by the Magyars over this nation, on account of their previous belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary.





Taking over a considerable part of ideas from the Enlightenment and the German historicism, via the spirit of the 1848 in Ardeal, A.C. Popovici attempts a synthesis between liberal principles and a nationalist conception. The present study continues with a critical examination of Popovici’s nationalist conception. I will do this starting from the characteristics attributed to any nationalist thoughts and ideologies by Isaiah Berlin[42], establishing the extent to which Popovici’s thinking meets the criteria of this ideology which involves:

1) the belief in the supreme need to belong to a nation;

2) the belief in the organic relation between all elements that make up a nation;

3) the belief in what is ours simply because it is ours;

4) when confronted with competitors for rivalry and authority, the belief in the supremacy of your beliefs[43].

Let us consider each of them:

1) the belief in the supreme need to belong to a nation states that every individual belongs to a particular community, whose way of living is different from that of other communities. This community is based on certain customs, traditions and values, that cannot be understood by individuals who are not its members. This means that people do not share certain universal values, such as good, truth or beauty, but rather that there is a plurality of values, irreducible to one other, that can even clash in certain situations.

This belief in the individuals’ inherent belonging to the national community is stated by Popovici several times when he claims that there is no “humankind”, only “nations”.


“The entire world civilization produces only nationalities. It cannot maintain and develop itself outside them. Humankind is an abstract concept, a word. It does not live and cannot live beyond the nationalities that compose it. No matter how strongly an individual wishes to plunge into «humankind», he can only fall into and merge with a nationality”.[44]


Therefore, no matter where an individual is born on the face of the Earth, he is not primarily characterized by his humanity, i.e. being a rational being or a being with an articulate language, but he is defined by his language, religion and traditions of his local community. A.C. Popovici rejects rationalist universalism in the name of a type of “sensitive” empiricism: “Who has ever seen a ‘flower’? Who has seen a «tree»? We have seen and keep seeing violas, carnations, roses, but ‘flowers’ is only in our minds. We have seen and keep seeing pear trees, plum trees, apple trees, but «trees» does not exist. [...] Humankind is a similar abstraction. There is no «humankind», only peoples” (original emphasis).[45]

Given that one cannot find “flowers” or “trees”, i.e. one cannot perceive the idea of flower or the idea of tree, but only certain flowers or certain trees, in an analogous manner we cannot find the attributes of “humankind” anywhere. They are only in our mind that associates certain features with an entity that is already the result of abstract thinking.

A.C. Popovici does not acknowledge the existence of humankind or humanity, since he considers these abstract realities a result of the democratic ideology, whose aim is to “level”the existence of all people according to certain standard procedures: “What does democratic civilization do? It sees only «people» and «humankind». In the garden of «humankind», it always takes care of the ‘flowers’ and it pulls out the carnations, peonies and roses in order to replace them with ‘flowers’” (original emphasis).[46] In his argument, A.C. Popovici certainly does not take into account the fact that nation, as well as humankind is also the result of an abstract thinking. One can perceive the presence of a certain nation or a certain individual nowhere. The language or the values of a nation are also the result of a cultural process that leads to abstract thinking, even if they have concrete forms of manifestation through speech or through the existence of certain customs or rituals. Therefore, the difference between nation and humankind is not the difference between concrete and abstract,but it is given by the difference between a lesser and a higher degree of abstract thinking. Of course, Popovici confers “concreteness” to the existence of a nation, probably relying on the metaphor of the organism that resembles a nation, therefore on the analogy between individuals and communities. However,one should not overlook the fact that this is only an analogy. And thus, we arrive at the second characteristic of nationalist thinking.  

2) As we have seen, the belief in the organic relation between all elements that make up a community, is a common feature of all conservative outlooks. Hence, it also emerges in A.C. Popovici’s case, where conservative organicism is combined with ethnicism and the romantic historicism.      

3) the belief in what is ours simply because it is ours. In other words, we believe that something is good, right, beautiful or true because it belongs to us. This belief is to a certain extent a consequence of the conception presented in the first point. If one does not believe in the existence of some abstract realities and universal values, then the sole criterion for judging value is a local one, that belongs only to me and my community. The almost unavoidable consequence of this conception is a reversal of the value criterion: something is not good or beautiful because it matches general criteria valid for goodness or beauty, but it is good or beautiful because it is acknowledged as such by me and and by those who belong to my community. Taking this reasoning to its extremes, one can say that what belongs to us is good or beautiful. This is the manner of thinking typical of a person who evaluates the supreme criteria of value in relation to belonging to a certain community.

A.C. Popovici is a representative of such a belief, especially when he criticizes Western culture, claiming that it is a culture that has detached from faith and traditions becoming a culture of “waiters”. Hence, from Popovici’s perspective, a Romanian country priest is superior to a cultured Western person, only because the former represents the authentic national culture: “The other, His Holiness, our village priest from the hilltop, lost in Europe, leads a patriarchal, reactionary and miserable life, according to our civilized valet or waiter. Here, dear reader if your mind and heart are in their right places, I am asking you: which of these two people is a real factor of culture from a Romanian national perspective?” (original emphasis).[47] Therefore, in the absence of a unique criterion of assessing different cultures, the sole available criterion becomes one’s belonging to a certain community, in the present case, one’s belonging to the Romanian nation. And Popovici fully confirms this aspect: “real culture cannot even be conceived unless in a national sense” (original emphasis).[48] Hence nationality becomes a criterion of value for a certain culture.

This manner of thinking is reconfirmed when A.C. Popovici talks about religion. From a nationalist perspective, the Supreme Being itself is conceived within the grid of certain national particularities. Thus, every people has a particular manner of conceiving its God: “despite all the philosophical abstractions, the conception of the English, German and of every strong nation is typical of such a nation, however cosmic God may be conceived. Even the catholic faith, despite its very old, Roman -imperialist universality, is more or less differentiated according to nations” (original emphasis).[49] Hence, God himself, which is the Good and the Truth, is filtered through the grid of national particularities by the nationalist A.C. Popovici. It is true that he does not suggest a complete identity between God or Church and the nation[50], but he specifies that these national particularities are linked more with the significance acquired by certain rites and the way in which faith in God modifies a certain particular mentality[51]. But the manner in which nationalist thinking in general or A.C. Popovici’s in particular, conceives the relation between the existence of God and that of a nation lays the foundation for an equivalence between God and nation or between religion and nationalism, which eventually leads to the possibility to employ religion from an ideologic perspective.  

4) With respect to the last feature of nationalist thinking, the belief in the supremacy of your beliefs when confronted with the beliefs of some rivals, it must be said that this is an “offensive” feature if nationalism. A.C. Popovici’s thinking does not contain such a feature, probably because the aim of his nationalist conception is primarily to obtain rights for the Romanians in the Austro -Hungarian Empire and not to impose the Romanians’ supremacy over other nationalities. However, the potential of this “offensive” perspective of the nationalist ideology will be fully remarked especially in the interwar period, which is also the period when nationalist and totalitarian thinking in Europe reaches its peak. And interwar Romania is not avoided by these historical realities. One of the famous examples that illustrates this fact is Nae Ionescu who presents several references of the legionary ideology in a series of informal conferences during his detention period in the detention camp at Miercurea Ciuc: “The character of the nation: offensive and imperialist par excellence, i.e. an organism that can only live in expansion, life, dynamism. Consequently, the one who wants to know God will only do it by conquering the outside, strangling someone, hence the nation is dynamic, it is life, it is offensive and imperialist”[52]. Of course, this paragraph contains all the ingredients of nationalist thinking, that Nae Ionescu takes to their extremes: first of all, there is the analogy between nation and organism. The nation is like an organism that has reached its full maturity this time (it does not need to fight for the acknowledgment of its own rights, which are granted to it as a consequence of a natural evolution) and it needs to conquer the vital space for manifesting itself. Like the organism that grows and comes to naturally attack the environment, nation becomes expansive and imperialist. Then, if God is identified as a national God, in the way it is conceived by each nation, it is normal that every nation should fight for the existence of its own “God”. Therefore, by means of a national God, religion can become a mere pretext for political fight between several nations. It is just that in this way, starting from the premises of nationalist thinking and pushing this thinking to its limits, religion becomes an instrument of political ideology and nationalism can be turned into a mere pretext for aggression.





If we were to draw a conclusion to this brief examination of A. C Popovici’s political ideas, we notice that in his case the ideas of the English liberal conservatism meet with the ethnic nationalist perspective, leading to an original political doctrine. Burke is acknowledged as the master of the conservative thinking, and Eminescu is praised by Popovici and acknowledged as the most influent Romanian political thinker. The original perspective identified in Popovici’s conception is given by the blending of conservatism and liberalism with nationalism. In this blending, the nationalist is prominent, probably because of the historical context that demanded the Romanians to claim certain national rights. We have seen that in this respect, too, Popovici is a successor of the 1848’s intellectuals in Ardeal, as their ideas helped him synthesize liberalism with nationalism. His historical positioning, as a citizen of the Austrian -Hungarian Empire, also made him see a radical opposition between nationalism and modern democracy.

Popovici’s political ideas are important for understanding the context in which they were formulated, but also for understanding a certain trend of nationalist thinking that would contest political modernity and democracy in interwar Romania. However, if examined from a critical distance, these ideas exhibit their limits. If, according to Pierre Manent, nation and democracy go hand in hand, nation being necessary for democracy as it represents the framework in which the rules of democracy are manifested[53], still, nation has an ambiguous relation with democracy in the modern age. “Nation is both the condition for and the expression of democracy, as well as the reference point and the resource of the opponents of democracy. It is both the framework for self -government and the great principle opposed to self -government” (original emphasis)[54].

In the West, democracy comes to manifest itself within the nation, an alien framework to democracy, a historical inheritance of a past that had nothing to do with democracy[55]. In Eastern Europe, the national states are founded inversely, as they benefit from the formal framework of modern democracy. In other words, the West displays the evolution from a national background that at some point generates a democratic form, while the East presents a democratic form that generates a national background. But according to Manent, in this case the background and the form are alien or even opposed to each other. This aspect was theorized in Romania by Titu Maiorescu’s theory of forms without a background.

In the present case analyzed, not only does the author acknowledge the opposition between the democratic form and the national background, but he detects an irreconcilable opposition in this juxtaposition. Even if the democratic framework enables Popovici to claim national rights for the Romanians in the Empire, he still considers democratic formalism a strong enemy of the qualitative principle that he identifies with the nation. Popovici eventually chooses firmly: nation against democracy. This option is significant as to a certain extent it illustrates how political modernity was perceived in Romania.





BERLIN, Isaiah, Naționalismul, Adevăratul studiu al omenirii, Editura Meridiane, București, 2001.

BOBBIO, Norberto, Liberalism și democrație, Editura Nemira, București, 1998.

BURKE, Edmund, Reflecții asupra Revoluției din Franța, Nemira Publishing House, București, 2000.

EMINESCU, Mihail, Icoane vechi și icoane nouă”, Timpul, 14.XII. 1877.

EMINESCU, Mihail, Influența austriacă asupra românilor din principate”, Convorbiri literare, 1.08.1876.

FOLSCHWEILLER, Cécile, Les ambiguités de la thèse de l’Etat naturel et du modèle organiciste à Junimea, Studia Politica. Romanian Political Science Review, Vol. X, No. 2, 2010.

IONESCU, Nae, Fenomenul legionar, Antet XX Press, București, 1993.

MAMULEA, Mona, Toposuri romantice în fundamentarea filosofică a naționalismului românesc, Revista de filosofie, Vol. LI, No. 1-2, 2004.

MANENT, Pierre, O filozofie politică pentru cetățean, trans. Mona Antohi, Editura Humanitas, București, 2003.

MANENT, Pierre, La démocratie et la nation, Studia Politica. Romanian Political Science Review, Vol. I, No. 1, 2001.

NEMOIANU, Virgil, “A jeffersonian neoconservatorist in the end of the century Vienna: Aurel C. Popovici”, România și liberalismele ei, Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, București, 2000.

PANDREA, Petre, Filosofia politico-juridică a lui Simion Bărnuțiu, King Charles II” Foundation for Literature and Art, București, 1935.

POPOVICI, Aurel C., Naționalism sau democrație. O critică a civilizațiunii moderne, Albatros Publishing House, București, 1997.

POPOVICI, Aurel C., Stat și națiune. Statele Unite ale Austriei-Mari: studii politice în vederea rezolvării problemei naționale și a crizelor constituționale din Austro-Ungaria, Editura Albatros, București, 1997.

SCHIFIRNEȚ, Constantin, “Aurel C. Popovici: a conservative point of view on the nation, Geneza modernă a ideii naționale, Albatros Publishing House, București 2001.

SCHIFIRNEȚ, Constantin, “Aurel C. Popovici on the federalist state organisation of the nations”, Geneza modernă a ideii naționale, Albatros Publishing House, București, 2001.

SEȘIANU, Romulus, Principiul naționalităților. Originile, evoluția și elementele constitutive ale naționalității, Editura Albatros, București, 1996.

STANOMIR, Ioan, Reacțiune și conservatorism. Eseu asupra imaginarului politic eminescian, Nemira Publishing House, București, 2000.

STERE, Constantin, Democratismul and A.C. Popovici”, Scrieri (Writings), Minerva Publishing House, București, 1979.

STRAUSS, Leo, Histoire de la philosophie politique, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1999.


[1] We would like to point out a few studies on Aurel C. POPOVICI: Virgil NEMOIANU, “A Jeffersonian Neoconservatorist in the End of the Century Vienna: Aurel C. POPOVICI”, România și liberalismele ei, Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, București, 2000 and Constantin SCHIFIRNEȚ, “Aurel C. Popovici: a conservative point of view on the nation”, and “Aurel C. Popovici on the federalist state organisation of the nations”, in Idem, Geneza modernă a ideii naționale, Albatros Publishing House, București, 2001.

[2] Constantin SCHIFIRNEȚ, Geneza modernă...cit., p. 102. We consider that his reservations concerning the works of Aurel C. Popovici were likely determined by his ideas concerning a possible Austrian federative state, excluding the existence of a Great Romania, and not his critical attitude towards democracy, taking into account that in the interwar period there was a relatively strong anti-democratic current.

[3] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație. O critică a civilizațiunii moderne, Albatros Publishing House, București, 1997, p. 92.

[4] Ibidem, p. 195.

[5] Ibidem, p. 135.

[6] Ibidem, p. 116.

[7] Ibidem, p. 117.

[8] For example, Mihail EMINESCU, “Icoane vechi și icoane nouă”, Timpul, 14 December 1877; Idem, Opere politice, Vol. II, Timpul Publishing House, Iași, 1997, p. 26. For a critique of political rationalism in Eminescu, see Ioan STANOMIR, Reacțiune și conservatorism. Eseu asupra imaginarului politic eminescian, Nemira Publishing House, București, 2000 (chapter “Secolul raționalist, tranziția și libera Engliteră”), pp. 140-195.

[9] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație...cit., p. 213. Also see Edmund BURKE, Reflecții asupra Revoluției din Franța, trans. Mihaela Czobor-Lupp, Nemira Publishing House, București, 2000, p. 138.

[10] Mihail EMINESCU, “Icoane vechi și icoane nouă”, Timpul, 13 December 1877.

[11] Idem, Opere politice...cit., p. 21.

[12] Mihail EMINESCU, “Influența austriacă asupra românilor din principate”, Convorbiri literare, 1 August, 1876; Idem, Opere politice...cit., p. 17.

[13] Idem, “Influența austriacă asupra românilor din principate”, Convorbiri literare, 1 august, 1876; Idem, Opere politice...cit., p. 17.

[14] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație...cit., p. 16.

[15] Ibidem, p. 142.

[16] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Stat și națiune. Statele Unite ale Austriei-Mari: studii politice în vederea rezolvării problemei naționale și a crizelor constituționale din Austro-Ungaria, translated by Petre Pandrea, Editura Albatros, București, 1997, p. 206.

[17] “Culture comes, as we already know, first of all from the cult a people has for the moral order of the world, its own order. Civilisation, in a narrow sense, is a technical development. It makes physical survival possible, by offering us the conditions and facilitations belonging to the material life, clothes, communication”. (Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație,…cit., p. 27). For the difference between culture and civilisation, Aurel C. POPOVICI, also see Geneza modernă...cit., pp. 109-111.

[18] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație,…cit., p. 38.

[19] Here is a relevant quote from this point of view: “Radical «true» democracy, is a simple mental abstraction that could never have existed and can never exist but in eternal promises and eternal deceptions, continuous reprimands and brotherly fighting. Democracy is a word. Because this is the nature of the peoples and in fact only one person or a group of people can govern them. Never, and for a thousand words, a people cannot govern itself“ (Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație…cit., p. 356).  

[20] Ibidem, p. 173.

[21] Ibidem, p. 358.

[22] The debate took place in 1908, through some articles between Aurel C. Popovici, the manager of Sămănătorul magazine and Constantin Stere, the manager of Viața Românească (Romanian Life) magazine.

[23] The forms of state are characterised by the way in which sovereignty is attributed, while forms of governing are dependant of the way in which sovereignty is exercised. See Constantin STERE, “Democratismul and A. C. Popovici”, Scrieri (Writings), Minerva Publishing House, București, 1979, pp. 579-584.

[24] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație,...cit., p. 359.

[25] According to Burke, democracy corrupts natural order, because the idea of equality between individuals is against nature. Society relies on order and on a hierarchy that imitates the hierarchy of the created world. Unlike Rousseau, who considers that the equality between individuals is given by their freedom to take part in the exercise of power, Burke considers that freedom is only for those who exercise power at the expense of the subordinated. Therefore, freedom is incompatible with citizens’ equality (Leo Strauss, Histoire de la philosophie politique, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1999, p. 770 and Edmund Burke, Reflexions sur la Révolution de France, trans. Pierre Andler, Paris, 1989, pp. XLI-XLIII).

[26] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație...cit., pp. 362-363.

[27] Ibidem, p. 351.

[28] “National conservatism and moderate liberalism, these are the conditions for a healthy development. I deliberately say: moderate liberalism, because I myself am certain that it is only through moderation that liberalism becomes national. By no means through its evolution towards radical democracy”(Ibidem, p. 106). For the multiplicity of possible relations between liberalism and democracy, see Norberto BOBBIO, Liberalism și democrație, trans. Ana-Luana Stoicea, Editura Nemira, București, 1998, pp. 74-99.

[29] Norberto BOBBIO, Liberalism și democrație...cit., p. 34.

[30] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație...cit., p. 157.

[31] This is Aurel C. Popovici’s definition of the nation: “Nationality is defined as: a people, who lives in the same territory, speaks the same language and has reached a homogeneous national consciousness, yearns for a common cultural-political ideal. The main characteristic of nationalities, that also gives it a great political importance, is represented by the national consciousness [...]. This is the cogito, ergo sum of nationality: a moral unity based on a common thinking” (Aurel C. POPOVICI, Stat și națiune...cit., p. 199).

[32] Simion BĂRNUȚIU, “Tocmeală de rușine...”, in Petre PANDREA, Filosofia politico-juridică a lui Simion Bărnuțiu, “King Charles II” Foundation for Literature and Art, București, 1935, p. 42.

[33] Wilhelm T. KRUG, Rechtslehre, apud Petre PANDREA, Filosofia politico-juridică...cit., p. 61.

[34] Petre PANDREA, Filosofia politico-juridică...cit., p. 75.

[35] Cécile FOLSCHWEILLER, “Les ambiguités de la thèse de l’Etat naturel et du modèle organiciste à Junimea”, Studia Politica. Romanian Political Science Review, Vol. X, No. 2, 2010, p. 253.

[36] Ibidem, pp. 252-255.

[37] In our opinion, Petre Pandrea does not really talk about “synthesis” in the technical sense of the word, that is the explicit presentation of opposed theses that eventually generates the synthesis. He explicitly demonstrates the influence of Krug’s thinking over Bărnuțiu and states that Bărnuțiu’s ideas result from adapting the German philosopher’s ideas to the historical context: “Krug’s philosophical foundation becomes the criticism of his own society with Bărnuțiu; applications are added and they are national; but the form remains far from Krug’s stylistics.” (op. cit., p. 65). There is no similar demonstration in Savigny’s case, and the Romanian commentator states that Bărnuțiu knows him via Krug, too. (op. cit., p. 57). He considers that Savigny’s influence is determined by the historical contexts and the similar roles held by Savigny and Bărnuțiu for their peoples (op. cit., p. 80).  

[38] Mona MAMULEA, “Toposuri romantice în fundamentarea filosofică a naționalismului românesc”, Revista de filosofie, Vol. LI, No. 1-2, 2004, p. 205.

[39] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Stat și națiune...cit., p. 200.

[40] Ibidem, pp. 110-111.

[41] For cases when the national law is opposed to historical law, see Romulus SEȘIANU, Principiul naționalităților. Originile, evoluția și elementele constitutive ale naționalității, Editura Albatros, București, 1996, p. 109.

[42] Isaiah BERLIN, “Naționalismul”, în Adevăratul studiu al omenirii, trad. Radu Lupan, Editura Meridiane, Bucharest, 2001, pp. 557-578.

[43] Ibidem, pp. 565-567.

[44] Aurel C. POPOVICI, Naționalism sau democrație,...cit., p. 72.

[45] Ibidem, p. 72.  

[46] Ibidem, p. 73.

[47] Ibidem, p. 38.

[48] Ibidem, p. 38.

[49] Ibidem, p. 259.

[50] Like the case of Nae Ionescu, who at some point became an exponent of the legionary ideology: “Chruch and nation overlap with us, the Orthodox.” (Nae IONESCU, Fenomenul legionar, Antet XX Press, București, 1993, p. 52); or “If the nation represents God on Earth, I am only interested in the God experienced by me, not by Hungarians, French, etc.” (Ibidem, p. 55).

[51] “There is a certain difference between the one in Italy and the one in Belgium, between the Polish and the German one. Not with respect to dogmas, not in ritual, but in the mind of the peoples and in the life practice” (A. C. Popovici, Naționalism sau democrație...cit., p. 259).

[52] Ibidem, p. 53.

[53] “Précisément la democratie, telle que nous la comprendons, vient à l’existence dans le cadre national” (Pierre MANENT, “La démocratie et la nation”, Studia Politica. Romanian Political Science Review, Vol. I, No. 1, 2001, p. 10.

[54] Pierre MANENT, O filozofie politică pentru cetățean, trans. Mona Antohi, Editura Humanitas, București, 2003, p. 95.

[55] “La difficulté politique pratique de la démocratie peut être résumée ainsi: le principe démocratique ne définit pas le cadre dans lequel il s’exerce. Par exemple, le vote d’autodétermination d’un peuple, acte démocratique par excellence, s’exerce dans un cadre déterminé préalablement par des instruments sociaux et des principes étrangers à la démocratie, et même le plus souvent contradictoires de la démocratie généralement, par la tradition confirmée ou corigée par la force. Avant que les Français, se considérant désormais comme une nation, pussent prendre pour eux-mêmes la souveraineté, il fallait que quarante rois – selon le slogan monarchiste – aient préalablement, par marriages et guerres, fait la France” (Pierre MANENT, “La démocratie et la nation...cit.”, p. 11).