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Gary Mickle:

The "Intrinsic Ideas" of Esperanto

One of the most common stereotypes about Esperanto-speakers is that they are people who daringly claim that their language could make people more peaceful and even bring about lasting world peace if it were adopted as the universal second language of humanity. This tale of incredibly naïve Esperantists has, admittedly, some basis in historical fact – but only a little. Esperantists have historically tended to exaggerate the value of a common language as a factor for peace and good will, but few, if any, have ever made the breathtaking claim that Esperanto alone could put an end to war. The association of Esperanto with a "peace" ideology has to a degree been the result of pure pragmatism. It was more acceptable than other ideologies within a social movement that needed an idealistic motive to rally around, yet consisted of people who differed very much over political and religious matters and who were especially prone to squabble about how Esperanto should or should not be linked to them.

L. L. Zamenhof, Esperanto's initiator, coined the term "intrinsic idea" (interna ideo in Esperanto) to denote the idea that Esperanto should be regarded by its users as a means to promote ethnic, national and religious tolerance, as well as just relations between language communities. Zamenhof abhorred the notion that Esperanto was no more than as a practical tool for communication. For over a hundred years, most users of Esperanto have either explicitly or implicitly accepted the intrinsic idea as they interpret it and some make frequent reference to it.

Zamenhof put it this way in an address to the 2nd Universal Congress of Esperanto in 1906: "… what impels us to work for Esperanto is … only the thought of the holy, great and important idea that is contained in an international language. This idea – which all of you sense very much – is brotherhood and justice among all peoples." Further on he described the first Esperantists as follows: "All of them had in mind only the intrinsic idea contained in Esperantism; all of them liked Esperanto not because it brought the bodies of people together, nor even because it brought their brains closer together, but only because it brought their hearts closer together." [1]

It would be ingenuous to ignore the dichotomous nature of the intrinsic idea as originally conceived. Though its ethos is fundamentally universalistic, it also refers – in the terms in which it is usually expressed – specifically to ethnic and linguistic communities and takes their relevance for granted. It is thus open to particularistic reinterpretations, which focus on these communities and what is presumed to be the proper way to maintain them and regulate their mutual relations. The ideological history of Esperanto may to a great extent be apprehended as oscillation between universalism and particularism. The contradiction between the two has provoked more fundamental ideological contention among Esperantists than the contradiction between what is traditionally regarded as "right" and "left". Radically universalist and radically particularist views on the political relevance of Esperanto differ so much from the conventional Esperanto ideology that they can best be seen as alternative (and mutually exclusive) intrinsic ideas in their own right, distinct from the standard version, which takes a middle course.

Jarosław Tomasiewicz, the chief exponent of the New Right in Poland and apparently a former Esperantist, made this observation in an article about Esperantists who advocate ethnism (a variety of small-ethnic-group nationalism): "It is possible to distinguish two tendencies in the international Esperanto movement. The first treats Esperanto as a tool to unify the human race. The second thinks that Esperanto should defend the diversity of the world by giving small languages and cultures a chance to defend themselves against being gobbled up by the languages of major nations." [2] Tomasiewicz, with whom I differ politically, has apparently seen the same fundamental ideological contradiction among Esperantists that I have.

A prime example of radical universalism among Esperantists is the workers' Esperanto movement, a large part of it, at least. It has traditionally been attached to the idea that Esperanto should serve the proletariat as a tool to facilitate self-education through direct political contact between workers from different countries, and as a means to free workers from the fetters of nationalist thinking.

The opposite "intrinsic idea", the particularistic version, is historically just as important as the proletarian one. It has been in fashion since the 1970's and has been promoted among Esperanto-speakers as a modernised expression of Zamenhof's original "intrinsic idea". Yet it differs from the latter significantly, in that it revolves around the notion that the worldwide introduction of Esperanto would help to maintain the vitality and even the very existence of ethnic groups, ethnic languages and ethnic identities. As one of the detractors of this now almost ubiquitous idea, I take issue with the often-made claim that it is a mere corollary of the Zamenhofan "intrinsic idea". I think it constitutes an ideology in its own right, and an expression of what has been called "complementary" or "generic" nationalism (as opposed to "exclusive" nationalisms). In its modern form, this ideology has often been expressed in terms that make it remarkably similar to New Right ethnopluralism.

Zamenhof died in 1917. He had come in the course of his life to reject nationalism in an increasingly determined way. He also never claimed that Esperanto might one day "save" ethnic languages and ethnic cultures from extinction.

In 1914 he responded to a request that he join a newly founded World Association of Hebrew Esperantists as follows: "As for myself, I must regrettably distance myself from this matter, because I am a convinced homarano [i.e. an advocate of homaranismo, a doctrine intended to reduce strife in multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities by combating ethnic nationalism and promoting inter-religious dialogue (GM)] and I cannot become attached to the strivings and ideals of any particular ethnic group or religion. I am profoundly convinced that all forms of nationalism represent nothing but the worst misfortune for humanity, and that everyone should pursue the objective of creating a harmonious human race. It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples – as a natural act of self-defence – is far more excusable than the nationalism of peoples that oppress; yet although the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is unwise; both engender and support one another, and they constitute a vicious circle of misfortunes, from which humanity will never escape unless all of us give up our collective self-love and try to stand on completely neutral ground. That is why I, despite the heart-rending suffering of my people, do not wish to adhere to Hebrew nationalism, but rather to work only for the cause of absolutely just human relations. I am profoundly convinced that this will do my unfortunate people more good than nationalistic strivings." [3]

In 1915, in a paper entitled After the Great War [4], Zamenhof warned the future architects of a post-war peace settlement against trying to resolve ethnic conflicts by accommodating the territorial claims of various ethnic nationalisms in an "equitable" way: "refrain from making the redrawing of the map the whole essence of your labours, for if that were the case, your labours would be perfectly worthless". His conclusion was both radical and diametrically opposed to the ideology of ethnism, which prevails in much of the present-day Esperanto community: "Even if you did nothing else, if only you were to eliminate the ethnic names of countries (something easy to do), you would by that act alone achieve something of extraordinary importance; you would bring about a new era in the history of Europe."

Perhaps it was in his essay Essence and Future of the International Language Idea [5] (1900) that Zamenhof spells out most clearly his views on language preservation and the linguistic future of humankind: "We confess that however we wrack our brains, we are in no way able to understand what would be humanity's misfortune if one fine day it turned out to be the case that there were no more nations and national languages, but just a single human family with a single human language." Zamenhof called those that see such a development as a misfortune, "national chauvinists". As far as Zamenhof was concerned, the possibility of a "confluence of human beings into a single human people", though not a matter of current concern, was a future option for humanity that it was perfectly legitimate to think about. It is also obvious from the context that he was not using the expression "single human people" in a metaphoric sense, but was referring to a world without nations and national languages. He related that idea to Esperanto, saying that the international language would "make it easier for people to achieve that" – not that they had to, but it was something they could do, if they collectively so desired.

December 15, 2009 is the 150th anniversary of Zamenhof's birth, and plans are being made to commemorate that event. I do not expect that the ethnophiles that hold sway in the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) and some of the other organisations of Esperanto-speakers will think even for a moment of paying tribute to the consistently universalist and antinationalist outlook he developed in the course of his life and defended in his writings. That task falls upon a critical minority.


[1] Zamenhof, L. L.: speech delivered to the 2nd Universal Congress of Esperanto, reprinted in various places, among others: Zamenhof, L. L., Mi estas homo (ed. A. Korzhenkov), Kaliningrad, Sezonoj, 2006, pp. 168-179; also online at http://www.satesperanto.org/La-plu-aktualega-Zamenhof-parolado.html [back]
[2] Tomasiewicz, Jarosław: "Etnizm zamiast szowinizmu..." in Zakorzenienie Nr. 1 (3), 1999; online at http://zakorzenianie.most.org.pl/za3/04.htm [back]
[3] Zamenhof, L. L.: letter to Heller reprinted in Zamenhof, L. L., Mi estas homo, pp. 217-218 [back]
[4] Zamenhof, L. L.: "Post la granda milito (Alvoko al la diplomatoj)" reprinted in Zamenhof, L. L., Mi estas homo, pp. 229-233 [back]
[5] Zamenhof, L. L.: Esenco kaj estonteco de la ideo de lingvo internacia [Essence and Future of the International Language Idea] available online at ĉe http://i-espero.info/files/elibroj/eo%20-%20zamenhof,%20l.l.%20-%20esenco%20kaj%20estonteco%20de%20la%20lingvo%20internacia.pdf [back]

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