I recently finished going through Yoram Hazony’s book “The Virtue of Nationalism” which I have come away from with really mixed thoughts. Some things resonated with me incredibly powerfully but there were other areas that left me somewhat concerned. What follows is an attempt to articulate what I imagine are both the good and the bad that can be derived from it.
Definition of terms
I will confess when I first heard the title of the book I was a little perturbed, Nationalism to me at its worst was associated with Nazism. Yet Hazony early on articulates a belief that “the world is governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference” and later on defines a nation as “number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises.” Yet even this definition, whilst it might work for Hazony, I struggled to map onto other countries consistently. This is namely down to the definition of Tribes. I was also conscious that this differs from Orwell’s definition of terms he used in his essay on the topic…
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism
This is where I got my distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Hazony by contrast states early on in his writing that he “will not waste time trying to make nationalism prettier by calling it ‘patriotism,’ as many do in circles where nationalism is considered something unseemly.” but it seems, if forced, that Hazony’s ‘Nationalism’ is Orwell’s ‘Patriotism’ or at least close it. Yet I find it strange that Hazony doesn’t even give a passing mention or engagement with Orwell’s essay on the topic in the book when they are talking about such similar things.
Primacy of the nation state
The reason for any differences between Orwell and Hazony on this topic is that the book itself lays out a defence for the primacy of the nation state by drawing on the example of Old Testament Kingdom of Israel as an archetype of the ideal state of human society. Hazony himself, is the president of the Herzl Institute a Jewish research center devoted to study of the Hebrew scriptures and political thought. This latest book of his convincingly argues that Protestant Christians, in their love for the Bible, saw a model in Israel for their own political structures to emulate. This gave rise, in time, to the Anglo-American model of the nation state that had come, at least until the aftermath of World War 2, to dominate the world stage. Since the end of the world war, however, the world has began leaning instead into supranational political structures. Structures that Hazony see’s in distinctly imperialist terms, which he articulates at length. In Hazony’s own words…
The new world they (imperialists) envision is one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights – all of which evolved in the domestic context of national states such as Britain, the Netherlands, and America – are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism
Which sounds a lot like some schools of Roman Catholic social and economic thinking that I happen to agree with. The distributist writer Joseph Pearce wrote…
Burdened by materialism and mechanism, humanity has enslaved itself to the rule of the Giants. In economics, global corporations rule the roost, assisted by international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Small businesses struggle to survive in a system weighted unfairly in the direction of the Giants. In politics, power continues to be centralized into larger and larger entities which are further and further removed from the needs and aspirations of ordinary people and families. In the United States, the Federal Government and the Supreme Court erode the power of the individual states; in Europe, the essentially undemocratic European Union continues to swallow up smaller sovereign states with its voraciously secular appetite. Everywhere, the small and the beautiful are being threatened by the big and the ugly. Small business is threatened by big business; small government by big government.The Hound of Distributism, Small is Beautiful Versus Big is Best, Joseph Pearce
The nation state, Hazony argues, is a form of golden mean between imperialism and anarchism. The nation itself being at its root founded in the family (the most basic social unit), multiples of which constitute clans, which fold into tribes and ultimately come together to form a nation. Where the nation negotiates how these different bodies interact with one another anarchism rejects this leading to incessant contestation and an absence of peace. At the other end of the spectrum imperial powers ensure peace within their borders but at the cost of their occupants often feeling unrepresented and dispossessed by those who lord it over them. The Nation therefore, to Hazony, is like Goldilocks Porridge, not too hot and not too cold, it’s just right. Nationalism we learn is to see the society one lives in as a corporate expression of oneself. As one’s family thrives, you feel yourself thriving, the same can be said for your nation.
As an English Protestant and someone raised in the Church of England I found a lot of this resonated with me. I did query his taxonomy of social bodies being universally applicable, however, particularly where he compares the fledgling American colonies as tribes that subsequently aggregated into a nation. All the same, whilst I think he does overdo the ancient Israel analogy I do think there is something in it. Regarding his broader point about the nation serving as a ideal social body this is something that has long been recognised. Aristotle wrote in his Politics…
Beauty is realized in number and magnitude, and the state which combines magnitude with good order must necessarily be the most beautiful. To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled. For example, a ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a ship a quarter of a mile long; yet there may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing. In like manner a state when composed of too few is not, as a state ought to be, self-sufficing; when of too many, though self-sufficing in all mere necessaries, as a nation may be, it is not a state, being almost incapable of constitutional government.Aristotle, Politics, Book 7
The fact that someone like Aristotle determined such things independently of the Bible echoes the Apostle Paul when he wrote in his Epistle to the Romans…
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.Romans 1:19-20
That these patterns, and structures, we see emerging again and again are product of a divine law written in human nature that point us to something of God himself. In this instance the nation state is a reconciliation between the chaos of human anarchy and the order of imperialism. God is called the King of Kings precisely because he alone is the final authority and not a human Emperor or legislative body. As Paul himself said in an exchange with the Greek Philosophers of the Areopagus…
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’Acts 17:26-28
Returning to Hazony’s work, his argument against imperialism has an ancillary effect and this is a rejection of universal appeals, this includes notions like universal human rights. This is liberating in a sense but it is a double edged sword the he wields in that it can defend as much as it can expose a nation to criticism from its peers. At the same time this isn’t to reject all universal claims, only that what is determined to be such might vary from nation to nation. Some appeal to truth is necessary Hazony argues but the details are a product of national traditions…
British and American concepts of individual liberty are not universals that can be immediately understood and desired by everyone, as is often claimed. They are themselves the cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations.Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism
And on Twitter he has expressed similar sentiments…
Which I might not have agreed with several years ago but the rapid onset of changes in our society have shown to me how ephemeral what ‘truths we hold to be self evident’ really are nothing of the sort but came into being and are maintained by the traditions that bracket them. They are therefore delicate in a sense and need preserving.
Definition of Tribes
As a brief aside I do query Hazony’s use of the term tribes as an intermediate state between a family and a nation. Particularly because in his discussion of the West clans and tribes have not featured, to my knowledge, prominently, in the development of the nations. A country like England, and more broadly the United Kingdom, is made up historically differing cultures, languages, and people groups (eg Celtic, Saxon, Scandinavian, and Gaelic peoples). What has tied the United Kingdom together is a combination of force, culture, faith, and a multitude of mediating institutions. In this regard it doesn’t differ too dramatically from many other, particularly Protestant, European historic nation states. The Celts had tribes such as the Iceni, Brigantes, and Cassi but Celtic Britain was notably not a united nation until long after its conquest by the Saxons after Roman Withdrawal. This is a point that critics of Hazony make arguing he “appears unaware of the fact that scholars attribute the success of European nation states precisely to the weakness or absence of clans and tribes.” Moreso that European nation states, particularly Protestant ones were founded not on tribes but on the family…
An extensive literature documents how the Catholic Church eroded tribal and clan based loyalties by prohibiting cousin marriage, encouraging widows to remain unmarried, and advocating for marriage as institution for consenting adults. These developments, the practice of deferring marriage into one’s mid-20s (known as the European Marriage Pattern), and precocious urbanization meant that Dutch society consisted of small nuclear families, not tribes.Mark Koyama, A Nationalism Untethered to History, Liberal Currents
This wouldn’t be such an issue if Hazony didn’t make such a big point about the role the Bible played in the formation of the individual for Protestant nations. It played a massive role but the emphasis on the role of tribes I think shows that The Virtue of Nationalism is in great part about shoring up Jewish and Israeli self-conceptions of themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that endeavour but it does open him up to the criticism of being potentially overly simplistic on this point.
Whilst I agree that a nation is a family of families the definition of tribes seems a distinct, and not integral, structure that Hazony has great difficulty consistently applying to nations as they appear.
The depiction of Christianity
Another area I took issue with and one of the things I found most disingenuous is his treatment of Christianity when discussed in unqualified terms. Especially in the closing pages of the book where he lists it in the same breath alongside Islam, liberalism, Marxism, and Nazism as examples of imperial powers…
The desire for imperial conquest has a long history of being fueled by universal theories of mankind’s salvation. Christianity, Islam, liberalism, Marxism, and Nazism have all served, in the recent past, as engines for the construction of empire. And what all of them have in common is the assertion that the truths that will bring salvation to the families of the earth have at last been found, and that what is needed now is for all to embrace the one doctrine that can usher in the longed-for redemption.Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism
He makes this more explicit as his explanation, in part, for Anti-Semitism. For when any imperial power faces determined rejection it leads to, in his words, “intense and abiding hatred” of those who reject it and that “this is the story of Christianity’s hatred of the Jews, who rejected the Gospel’s message of salvation and peace. And it is the story of Europe’s hatred for modern day Israel, which has rejected the European Union’s message of salvation and peace”. Implying, the rejection and disavowal of Christ and his followers finds its place alongside the actions of the martyrs of Masada in the perennial Jewish struggle against empire.
The not so implicit accusation being alluded to here is that anti-semitism is an integral part of Christianity. That the degree to which a Christian isn’t anti-semitic is a degree to which they aren’t Christian. Whilst I can see the logic being used what I find disingenuous about this is the selective treatment employed by Hazony. By reading out of the Old Testament a precedent for an Israeli political philosophy of the nation he does not extend that privilege to those he chooses to attack. That when Protestants looked to Israel as precedent this wasn’t done because they were Christians but despite the fact they were Christians. Yet how does Hazony’s argumentation parse the temptation offered to Christ by the devil himself?
The devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore, if You will worship before me, all will be Yours.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written,‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”Luke 4:5-8
If one can read out of the Old Testament a political or spiritual philosophy shouldn’t one do so from the New Testament? Yet, to be fair, Hazony’s claims can be read out of the actions of Christians in history, as Alan Jacob’s said of the activist and spiritual writer Simone Weil…
When Simone Weil looks at various secular utopias, or attempts at creating secular utopias – from the French Revolution to National Socialism to Soviet Communism – and she asks, Where did this come from?, she says to her fellow believers, They learned it from us. That’s where they got it. They got it from us.Christianity and Resistance: An Interview with Alan Jacobs, Wen Stephenson interviews Alan Jacobs, The LA Review of Books
Weil, of course, talked of the “spiritual totalitarianism” of the Western Church of the later Middle Ages that might correspond with Hazony’s description of the Papacy and its relationship to the Holy Roman Empire (p21.), a predecessor of sorts in his eyes to the German Third Reich in its imperial aspirations (p200.). Yet this treatment by Hazony of Christianity, in my eyes, seems just as bad and disingenuous as Weil’s disdain of her own Jewish heritage which one article describes as…
In general she saw the Israelites of the Old Testament as cruel imperialists and their God as vengeful and violent. The lives of the patriarchs were ”sullied with atrocities,” she said, while the prohibition against idolatry encouraged ”the chosen people” to self-worship.Paul Lewis, THINK TANK; A Saintly Jew Whose Spirituality Rejected Jews, New York Times
The same article goes on to outline that her comparative praise for Ancient Greece was by contrast based on “selective reading” at best which I think is something than can likewise be said of Hazony’s reading of Church history. A reading which in places seems to take Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” as a plain statement of fact and treats the worst aspects of Roman Catholicism as a stand-in for Christianity when discussed without qualification. Hazony has no reference to the broader national traditions of Christian countries like Armenia, Ethiopia, the Christians of Asia, nor any reference to the Christians in its earliest centuries. He mentions the role of Protestants in the West but fails to note that this is far broader and common amongst Christians historically than he is willing to give credit for. I genuinely wonder how Hazony squares the below description of Christians in the 2nd century with his own description of their faith…
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus
In short, Hazony would have done well to take heed the words of TS Eliot on the topic “To identify any particular form of government with Christianity is a dangerous error: for it confounds the permanent with the transitory, the absolute with the contingent.” Still, the book isn’t about Christianity, so one cannot expect too much. Yet I can’t help but feel Hazony is being disingenuous and in the selective conflation he does, that Eliot warns against, underscores the more problematic implications of his work that have been expressed in different ways by critics.
Accusations of ethnonationalism
In the earlier quoted Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus it goes on to describe how the Jews and Gentiles treat Christians by saying “they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks” and I could not help but wonder how Hazony approaches the topic of ethnic and religious minorities in the ideal state he argues for. This isn’t treated as a dedicated topic in the book but in his defence of family, culture, language, and religion as formative building blocks of a nation state one cannot help but wonder what is the place of those whose religion, culture, or language differed or changed from that of the majority?
Whilst bearing this in mind I am an advocate for a form of particularism and do believe Hazony is right in sense that we cannot live according to universal principles alone. As E.F. Schumacher writes…
What do I miss, as a human being, if I have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer is: Nothing. And what do I miss by not knowing Shakespeare? Unless I get my understanding from another source, I simply miss my life. Shall we tell our children that one thing is as good as another– here a bit of knowledge of physics, and there a bit of knowledge of literature? If we do so, the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, because that normally is the time it takes from the birth of an idea to its full maturity when it fills the minds of a new generation and makes them think by it.E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered
Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live.
If I value Shakespeare I must, to some degree, ascribe ancillary value to his country, people, faith, and language by proxy. There is an inescapable particularism to loving the works of someone like Shakespeare that is discriminatory by outcome. I say discriminating not in a sense of holding prejudice but in the sense of what someone loves most dearly. Just as Orwell distinguishes a Patriot by his love of home against a Nationalist who is defined by his hatred of others. I necessarily discriminate when I say I love my son above all other children in the world and I love my wife above all other women. To love all the world’s children, and all the world’s wives the same is, in a way, to love none of them and most of all to cease to love my son and wife.
At the same time, however, as a Christian I remember I am called if need be to forsake this love for something greater. Something I think Hazony would see as inescapably ‘imperialistic’ when Christ said…
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.Matthew 10:34-38
This division isn’t in the Christian wielding of the sword but a willingness to subsume everything, including blood bonds, to the Kingdom of God. It is therefore the fact that I might love someone otherwise utterly alien to me because we are joined in the object of our affection, God himself. Because of my love for God I am compelled to treat people better than I would otherwise be at times tempted. That is partly what the parable of the Good Samaritan is about, both in the tale and in its telling. One stranger being willing to show grace to another. That is why the Apostle Philip, Jewish by birth and upbringing, after Pentecost went and preached to the Samaritans, two communities marked by considerable acrimony going someway towards being bridged by the Apostle’s faith and his willingness to put tribal loyalties aside for the sake of his faith. The Roman Catholic Theologian and Philosopher Thomas Aquinas said on the love of one’s neighbour…
Now the aspect under which our neighbor is to be loved, is God, since what we ought to love in our neighbor is that he may be in God. Hence it is clear that it is specifically the same act whereby we love God, and whereby we love our neighbor. Consequently the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbor.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 25. The object of charity, Article 1. Whether the love of charity stops at God, or extends to our neighbor?
This echoes what Christ said during his Sermon on the Mount following the giving of the Beatitudes…
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.Matthew 5:43-48
This ability to tear down boundaries is partly why liberalism and individualism more generally has its roots in Christianity. It’s why Pentecost results in the preaching of the Gospel to…
Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and ArabsActs 2:9-11
All of whom can be, despite remaining Pathians or Medes can also become brothers and sisters. It is also why the conflation of culture, faith, and nation within the Church is known by the term phyletism, generally considered by Christian ecclesiastical bodies that do determine such things as a heresy. This is also why I reject an ethnocentric claim like Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe’ as dangerously wrongheaded. Hazony himself does a brilliant job at showing the distinct role that the Protestant political imagination played in reconciling the universalism of the Gospel with the nation state. This is where a book like Larry Siedentop’s “Invention of the Individual” would be a good corrective in highlighting the ability of the Christian gospel to balance particularism and universalism…
Like other cultures, Western culture is founded on shared beliefs. But, in contrast to most others, Western beliefs privilege the idea of equality. And it is the privileging of equality – of a premise that excludes permanent inequalities of status and ascriptions of authoritative opinion to any person or group – which underpins the secular state and the idea of fundamental or “natural’ rights. Thus, the only birthright recognized by the liberal tradition is individual freedom.Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Christianity played a decisive part in this.
Siedentop does, however, like Hazony stress that Western culture is a product of particular tradition, he elsewhere states “If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?” so Hazony isn’t totally off-base on this. Yet I struggle to see Hazony’s reasoning as not being a form of non-Christian phyletism. Despite this I can also see it as a form of conservatism that is defined not so much by what it rejects but what it loves. What the philosopher Roger Scruton calls oikophilia…
In the conservative vision, threats to one’s home, environmental or otherwise, are met by public spiritedness, by volunteering efforts united by what Scruton calls “oikophilia,” love of home. Politics then becomes modest, about compromise and enforcing the conditions that allow homeostatic systems to function properly. It also becomes localized, because it is only attachment to local civil associations that can solicit people’s loyalty and inspire them to accept the sacrifices that the common good requires. “Such associations,” he writes, “form the stuff of civil society, and conservatives emphasize them precisely because they are the guarantee that society will renew itself without being led and controlled by the state.”Peter Blair, An Environmental Conservatism? The Public Discourse
This love of home should be balanced with a love God to provide grounds for the love of one’s neighbour. It’s to the shame of Christianity that this hasn’t always been the case when it should have been.
I do think Hazony taps into something very real but its for this reason that I increasingly believe a Post-Christian West will see a rise in ethnonationalism and identitarianism as the faith which engendered, contextualised and lent strength to the aforementioned public spiritedness that used to mark our society declines. This is because people will increasingly look for other measures and associations to root themselves. The danger of Hazony’s writing is not that it will avert this trend but potentially exacerbate it when it is read in the absence of what Aristotle called “a right training for goodness” that is hard to come by in the absence of “right laws”. Given so many people in the West reject the faith that has shaped their society or are otherwise utterly ignorant of it I can see how Hazony’s writing can be fuel for the identitarian fires springing up throughout the Western world as people fall back on identities defined by ethnicity or political ideology.
Liberalism and conservatism
On the topic of liberalism Hazony can be hard to peg. Early on he quotes JS Mill in the affirmative by saying…
What is it that has hitherto preserved Europe from this lot? What has made the European family of nations an improving, instead of a stationary portion of mankind? Not any superior excellence in them, which, when it exists, exists as the effect, not as the cause; but their remarkable diversity of character and culture. Individuals, classes, nations, have been extremely unlike one another: they have struck out a great variety of paths, each leading to something valuable; and although at every period those who travelled in different paths have been intolerant of one another, and each would have thought it an excellent thing if all the rest could have been compelled to travel his road, their attempts to thwart each other’s development have rarely had any permanent success, and each has in time endured to receive the good which the others have offered. Europe is, in my judgment, wholly indebted to this plurality of paths for its progressive and many-sided development. But it already begins to possess this benefit in a considerably less degree. It is decidedly advancing towards the Chinese ideal of making all people alike. M. de Tocqueville, in his last important work, remarks how much more the Frenchmen of the present day resemble one another, than did those even of the last generation.John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Of Individuality, Of One
Hazony affirms this and yet rejects a liberalism that he sees as increasingly seeking what Mill called “the Chinese ideal of making all people alike”. He writes…
Liberal imperialism is not monolithic, of course. When President George H. W. Bush declared the arrival of a “new world order” after the demise of the Communist bloc, he had in mind a world in which America supplies the military might necessary to impose a “rule of law” emanating from the Security Council of the United Nations. Subsequent American presidents rejected this scheme, preferring a world order based on unilateral American action in consultation with European allies and others. Europeans, on the other hand, have preferred to speak of “transnationalism,” a view that sees the power of independent nations, America included, as being subordinated to the decisions of international and administrative bodies based in Europe. These disagreements over how the international liberal empire is to be governed are often described as if they are historically novel, but this is hardly so. For the most part, they are simply the reincarnation of threadworn medieval debates between the emperor and the Pope over how the international Catholic should be governed – with the role of emperor being reprised by those (mostly Americans) who insist that authority must be concentrated in Washington, the political and military center; and the role of the papacy being played by those (mostly European, but also many American academics) who see ultimate authority as residing with the highest interpreters of the universal law, namely, the judicial institutions of the United Nations and the European Union.Yoram Hazony, Liberalism as Imperialism, Adapted from the Virtue of Nationalism, National Review
The conjoining of liberalism with what Hazony defines as imperialism culminates in a ‘the international liberal empire’ that is probably best depicted by figures like Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and the EU. Hazony, it could be argued, is a nationalist (or to Orwell patriotic) conservative if we bear in mind that a Jewish conservatism might well look different to a Chinese or French expression. Conservatism itself, however, is still somewhat like liberalism in that, whilst rejecting a progressive view of history, admits the need for change over time, albeit in increments. This distinguishes conservative from reactionary politics. Hazony himself, in an article online, make the case for what he calls ‘conservative democracy’ as something opposed to liberalism which he describes in the following way…
For liberalism is not “only a form of government designed to permit a broad sphere of individual freedom.” In fact, liberalism is not a form of government at all. It is a system of beliefs taken to be axiomatic, from which a form of government can, supposedly, be deduced. In other words, it is a system of dogmas. About what? About the nature of human beings, reason, and the sources of the moral obligations that bind us.Yoram Hazony, Conservative Democracy, First Things
This means that liberal dogmas concern many of the same subjects that are at the heart of biblical political thought. However, liberal dogma offers a very different view from that of, for instance, the Hebrew Bible: Whereas Hebrew Scripture depicts human reason as weak, capable only of local knowledge, and generally unreliable, liberalism depicts human reason as exceedingly powerful, offering universal knowledge, and accessible to anyone who will but consult it. Similarly, whereas the Bible depicts moral and political obligation as deriving from God and inherited by way of familial, national, and religious tradition, liberalism makes no mention of either God or inherited tradition, much less specific traditional institutions such as the family or nation.
In this vision he rejects the idea of rights independent of a person’s obligations and affirms that an individual has obligations independent of consent. This marks him as a conservative who sees rationalist-liberalism (Kant) as a belief system distinct from empiricist-liberalism (Mill). Rationalist-liberalism Hazony (p27.) describes as having its roots respectively in a union of “the deductive character of the Cartesian method” derived by the French and “German philosophy” represented by Immanuel Kant’s idealism. A liberalism marked by an idealism reminiscent of Plato in reaction against the lived, Aristotelian, empiricism of what he ascribed to the English and their political traditions and later approach to science and engineering during the period he describes as “post-Westphalian Europe”.
Hazony, in his writings on nationalism, seems to echo the sentiment “no ideas but in things” of the poet WC Williams as the political bulwark against liberalism and its idealism. Nationalism itself being one of five defining marks of Conservatism he provides. These being:
- Historical Empiricism
- Limited Executive Power
- Individual Freedoms
All of which have their definition in what he constitutes as the Anglo-American tradition. As we see the final point on this is the point people might conflate with liberalism but it derives not from axiomatic principles but by point three, religion and the obligations it bestows. So whilst Hazony embraces statements made by a classical liberal like JS Mill he rejects the liberal-ism of Immanuel Kant.
In this aspect of his writing I find little to object to, if anything I find him incredibly flattering to the inheritance we have in the West thanks to English political thinkers on this topic. I couldn’t help but feel flattered by proxy being English myself. I realise, reflecting on my reactions to his writing, that by Hazony’s framing that such a reaction is a nationalist (or patriotic according to Orwell) one. This also helps me contextualise his nationalism even if I do still feel his views on religion as somewhat reactionary in this regard.
Having read the book I feel in many regards a great debt to Hazony for challenging and opening my eyes to a great many things I had previously been ignorant to about the political tradition of my own country and culture. I think his criticism of liberalism is a powerful one that will be of great benefit to conservative readers. That said I was thrown by what comes across in places as hostility to Christianity when he is so quick to praise many aspects of Protestant political thinking. I also wonder to what degree he can extricate his political thinking that draws so heavily from the Anglo-American tradition without recourse to Christianity. If anyone can do it a proponent of Judaism can and yet I think this does expose him to criticism of playing to a reactionary audience. I think this is something he could have guarded against as the rhetoric he uses seems reminiscent of language I’ve seen used by neo-pagan members of the far-right about Christianity being foreign and imperial. A biography of a neo-pagan convert who was involved in the KKK and committed several murders motivated by anti-semitism wrote…
I’d love to see North America’s 100 million Aryan Christians convert to the religion invented by their own race and practiced for a thousand generations before the Jews thought up Christianity.Frazier Glenn Cross, Jr, A White Man Speaks Out, Accessed from the CNN Belief Blog ‘The accused Kansas killer’s neo-pagan religion’
Odinism! This was the religion for a strong heroic people, the Germanic people, from whose loins we all descended, be we German, English, Scott [sic], Irish, or Scandinavian, in whole or in part.
Odin! Odin! Odin! Was the battle cry of our ancestors; their light eyes ablaze with the glare of the predator, as they swept over and conquered the decadent multi-racial Roman Empire.
And Valhalla does not accept Negroes. There’s a sign over the pearly gates there which reads, “Whites only”.
This is a point made by Rusty Reno in the wake of the Charlottesville protests in the US marking the effect of the West becoming ‘Post-Christian’. Yet it is clear his thought was not of Europe in this work but partly in making a case for the modern state of Israel. Hazony has been accused by his critics of being ahistorical in his use of the ancient kingdom of Israel as a means to provide a template for the formation of nation states. Yet I do not know how he would guard against people taking elements of his thought, and criticisms of Christianity as imperialistic, and employing them in the pursuit of ahistorical ideologies and doctrines vociferously hostile not just to Christians but also Jews. I think this book in many respects is really good but I feel like this is an Achilles Heel that goes unaddressed in the work and when in the hands of the wrong audience will generate more heat than light.
In light of the above I think Hazony’s read of the Anglo-American tradition in favour of the nation state is incredibly perceptive and the best aspect of this work. He has written about it in several places online, which I have linked to in this article, and fully recommend. I think one must also read such with the knowledge that the Christian faith is not accidental but a constituent part of it that one extricates at their own risk.
5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Hazony’s “The Virtue of Nationalism””
Does he discuss the role of colonialism in Britain’s history? It seems to me that an important part of the picture is our lauding the sovereignty of the nation-state… as long as it’s our nation-state; and love for others – as long as they are the same race or nationality. Contradictions often espoused by politicians and theologians alike.
He does talk about the fact that many European nations maintained their national tradition by developing imperial endeavours abroad. Whenever he mentions historical imperialisms he’s always critical of it.
He also argues that part of the reason for WW 1 was the lack of a German national tradition and a lack of a substantive empire abroad lead to the desire to build one in Europe upsetting the balance that had settled there.
Another criticism he has is of the British and French drawing up nations in the MENA region based on seemingly arbitrary lines rather than reflecting historic cultures and communities. This is why there is so much violence there today.
One area that would have been interesting is for him to look at Russia, both it’s imperial and communist stages and the deliberate and intentional movement of populations and subsequent use of ethnic rhetoric to justify it’s aggressive posture towards former Soviet bloc countries.
Does Hazony explain why it’s right for Israel to deny national self-determination or statehood to the Palestinian Arabs who agitate for it within his own country? I doubt it, but it makes me suspicious of his theoretical work as something other than a sophisticated dressing up of Likud-esque ethnic nationalism. I don’t know if he’s pro-Likud, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
I guess the irony in his work is that while I agree with his support for the national viz. the nation-state against supra-national organizations, he mistakes how this international order came about. I recommend you read, if you haven’t, Cain and Hopkins’ book “British Imperialism” which explains the empire as a project from financiers/service-sector who formed an aristocratic center to British govt (their “gentlemen capitalists”). From their work, it’s easy to see that a certain kind of nationalism became cosmopolitan would a certain core of elite could evolve outwards. Liberalism and free-trade, idealized by Cobden, was the ideology of the 19th century because the UK had comparative advantage. It was balled up for a supra-national Dominionism when profits were threatened during 1880s-1890s.
It seems to me that Hazony’s paradigm is far too historically light-weight, making do with radically bizarre typologies. Solidly communist Yugoslavia was very much a nationally oriented entity, and it was third-world nations, through a pro-UN stance, that sought to carve out their own international nationalism through anti-colonialism. Yet it was nationalist Israel (under both left-leaning, but especially under right-wing govts) that built a military and economic partnership with Apartheid South Africa.
As a post-script: I think his attempt to deepen the nation through an appeal to sentimental categories of family and tribe is, as you point out, a mistake. Instead, there have been rather fruitful forms of national existence out of clearly fictive realities and relationships. Despite the typical bad press, I think someone like Assad has pursued a strongly national, and generally popular, agenda that wars against the religious tribalism of Islamist al-Nusra. Secular nationalism seems like an oxy-moron for Hazony, but these national projects bore the brunt of antagonism and hatred from the Anglo-American empire (or the London-Washington axis, if you prefer) throughout the 20th century.