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21 September 2019

On Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism


Yoram Hazony’s book1 has found many sympathetic readers myself among them – and has been deservedly praised by reviewers. I have a personal reason to think highly of the book. Over the last decades, we have been living in Europe in the grips of a political orthodoxy that brooks no dissent, the orthodoxy which, among other things, stipulates that nationalism should be condemned and that the best thing that happened in Europe after the Second World War was the ever closer union which put an end to the nationalist temptations.

For someone like myself who has been working in the European Union for some time and been exposed to this deafening rhetoric almost every day, the experience of reading Hazony’s book was like breathing fresh air. The arguments are stated not only clearly, but without those inhibitions and reservations that one encounters today in a public space that is infected by political correctness. The atmosphere of intimidation that is characteristic of our intellectual life did not affect the author. The book is exactly about what the title indicates: nationalism is a good thing, the nation state is the best political order and no alternative political arrangements such as empires or supranational systems can compete with it. This – let me add – does not prevent the author from acknowledging the limitations of some of his arguments. The book is both daring in its theses and carefully argued.

Hazony’s view of the nation and, consequently, the nation state is a version of how Aristotle conceived of the city state. The city state – Aristotle said – was a community of communities: households and small agrarian neighbourhoods. The nation – Hazony says – is also a community of communities: families, clans, tribes. Of course, the history of each nation is unique and usually turbulent, so this picture might have different versions, but generally this concept of the nation is, in my opinion, accurate. What is important, however, is that the concept contradicts an influential view, mostly liberal but not only, according to which modern nations are artificial constructs created by politicians and political ideologues at the time when the old societies were disintegrating under the influence of the capitalist economy and when the idea of a nation was to give atomised individuals a new sense of belonging. In this view, the nation is held together by a crudely contrived ideology of commonality that has little relation to reality, and the nation state is a collection of alienated individuals being fed by nationalist clichés and controlled by the government.

Hazony is particularly effective in criticising the contractual interpretation of the state based on the state-of-nature hypothesis. This is indeed a bizarre theory with a long history from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls and beyond. Granting that constructing a political theory usually presupposes a certain degree of simplification, we must admit that building such a theory on the notion of a human being that is entirely fictitious, that never existed and will never exist, is not only methodologically dubious but also of limited political use. It is like assuming that all human beings are blind, and then constructing the system of visual communication on this assumption. Such assumptions necessitate vigorous social engineering which will transform the existing society in such a way that it complies with what was assumed at the outset. For this reason, liberalism, like Marxism or feminism, has always been a theory that justified a profound intrusion in the political and cultural fabric of the society.

How is it possible that for such a long time this theory – or a theory of the state as an enterprise, a relatively recent intellectual invention – has been so influential? I think the answer is not so difficult. The theory is one of many offshoots of the Reformation, the fact that Hazony duly noted. It was Protestantism that came up with the idea of an inner-directed self-contained individual whose salvation or damnation did not depend on his works and whom no one could help in this respect, either a priest, or family, or a friend. Catholics never accepted this doctrine, theologically and politically. The human being has always been described as a part of his community, created by concrete moral traditions. The concept of tradition is a vital part of the Catholic Church’s teaching.

It is interesting why in Britain which seemed to be a society with particularly rich social fabric the philosophers were playing with the idea of the state of nature and free-floating individuals and envisaged a system of human relations that was so arid and uninspiring and so remote from reality. I always found it puzzling that the nation which gave the world William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, authors in whose works human existence scintillates with innumerable colours and discloses fascinating secrets, was so attracted to the belief that their society was based on a contract. Perhaps the Protestant revolution and then the political revolution which was a culmination of the former required some kind of theoretical justification. The concept was not new, of course; one encounters it in antiquity, but this time it well served a political purpose.

Hazony credits the Protestants with spreading the notion of the nation state and with initiating the process that led to their emergence in Europe. Their role in this process was indeed vital. But at the same time, they propounded the theory which conspicuously deviated from the actual experience, even from their own experience. This means that there was a revolutionary side to this version of Christianity and that in the future it would subvert the nation state. After all, the liberalism that has attained such a privileged position today is one of the consequences of this revolutionary impulse.

Hazony also directs his criticism at the European Union, seeing in it a form of “empire”, that is, as he defines it – a political project that seeks to bring peace and prosperity by uniting mankind as much as possible under a single political regime. One could, of course, think of European integration along the consociational rather than imperial lines, at least theoretically. But Hazony is certainly right about the actual practice of the EU: the principle of subsidiarity which was to keep the system from alienating itself from the member states and their societies has existed only on paper, being systematically violated by the European institutions, big players and the political majorities.

So, all in all, there is a lot in Hazony’s book with which I agree. I have however two slightly polemical comments. The first is that the concept of the nation- state is not and cannot be as clear as one would wish in order to dispel doubts in important controversial issues. Hazony writes that “because the national state inherits a political tradition that disdains the conquest of foreign nations, wars between national states tend to be relatively limited in their aims, in the resources invested in them, and in the scale of the destruction and misery they cause”.

Now, this is a very strong statement that not everybody would agree with. To give an obvious example: the war in the Balkans after the collapse of Yugoslavia does not corroborate Hazony’s statement. There is not a particular reason why all nation states or the majority of nation states should be moderate in their foreign policies, especially in Europe where the borderlines between nations have shifted quite often.

It would be inappropriate to solve this problem by including the imperialist policies in the definition of the empire and excluding them from the definition of the nation state. This would mean that a state such as Nazi Germany which looked like a nation state but conducted an imperialist policy was not a nation- state. This is a sort of argument that I am not ready to accept. I am not saying that Hazony makes this argument. What I am saying is that sometimes he too easily withdraws the label of the nation state from the particularly nasty cases.

He gives an example of the 18th-century Poland which disappeared from the political map of Europe, being partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia. This – one might think – would also weaken his thesis. But he answers that these were not national states. Well, Austria definitely was not. But I see no reason why not to call Prussia a national state. It was national and imperial. As for Russia, we have always had a problem with identifying her political system and her national identity. Certainly, Leo Tolstoy in his famous epic about Russia’s defence against Napoleon’s invasion and then a victorious march westward was speaking of Russia as a national state, not a state ruled by an absolute monarch. Anyway, I am not inclined to take the point that the nation states are moderate in their foreign relations. Some are, some are not.

The second comment is about the EU. Critical as I am of the EU, of the direction it is going, of the ideology it is serving, and of its lawless practices, I am not particularly convinced that all forms of integration should be excluded. First, integration is not the root of all evil. The United Kingdom is leaving the EU, but the British society once outside the EU will most likely continue to be under the gruesome monopoly of liberalism in the same degree as are now the loyal member states and as are Norway and Switzerland which have never been members of the EU. Being outside the EU does not make a country safe from the worst aspects of modern liberalism.

Second, some form of integration may be useful especially in Europe which has had a rather stormy history with many old national conflicts over territory and influence. The first stages of integration after the Second World War with the fresh memories of war horrors – were on the whole beneficial, including the European Economic Community. The major problem started with Maastricht and Lisbon when the new generation of leaders came and abandoned cooperation for the sake of political federalism and centralism. It then became an extremely risky project, with perils outweighing the advantages. For the last twenty years, the EU institutions have been courageously struggling with the problems they themselves created. And more is still to come.

 

Note:

1 New York: Basic Books, 2018.




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