Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018)

The contrast between this book’s refreshing exhibition of Burkean common sense and the broad-brush anthropological theorizing behind it inspires the reader to attempt to bring the level of the second up to that of the first. Although it contains scarcely a prescription or judgment that I would disagree with, I think GA can help to sharpen its underlying anthropology.

Given the current political context in which Israel’s legitimacy as a nation is constantly challenged by the descendants of those who did so little to save the Jews from annihilation, we can well understand Hazony’s impatience with narrow definitions and his desire to apply his category of the nation composed of tribes equally well to Israel, the United States, and to the United Kingdom—where the “tribes” include the Welsh and the Scots. The essential feature shared by all these “tribal” entities is that, whether or not historically pre-state groupings, they are (or were) largely autonomous societies subordinate in essential matters, in particular, those relating to the use of force, to the nation. Nonetheless, calling the 13 original American colonies “tribes” reduces the definition of the term to nothing but its intermediate status between family and state. The Bible describes Israel as originally made up of 12 tribes, but if the 13 colonies can somehow be compared to the 12 tribes, Hazony offers no criteria for doing so.

Hazony divides the overall configuration of human groupings into three broad categories: tribal society, which he calls “anarchy” to emphasize its constant warring and lack of central authority, the society of nations, where violence is expelled to the national borders (albeit without a discussion of the horrible wars of the 20th century that took the luster off the reputation of “nationalism”), and the world of empire, which seeks in principle to unite all relevant human societies into a single community, generally under the authority of a hegemonic national group.

The third part of the book (“Anti-Nationalism and Hate”) defends the superiority of the “Westphalian” system of nation-states against its postwar “imperial” detractors. For Hazony includes in the imperial category, along with the Roman and other empires of the past, history’s various universalist world-systems, religions, and political ideologies, and most prominently, the Kantian doctrine of “perpetual peace” through world government, which he sees as the “imperial” ideology of the European Union. This produces revealing rapprochements between “Europe” and such diverse entities as medieval Christianity, Marxism, and Islam.

I fully agree with Hazony that most doctrines of universal brotherhood generate self-righteous hatred for those who reject them, a paradox nicely reflected in that comble of mensonge romantique, the slogan Hate the Haters. Yet to speak of Europe under the protection of the pax Americana as an “empire” begs the question of whether this non-coercive relationship is not something truly new—as the European Union itself at one point showed promise of becoming, and may indeed show again.

GA begins with an important advantage over the naturalistic analysis of human groups that begins with the family and passes through clan, tribe, chieftainship, nation, empire… Starting with the family is a relic of the old “state of nature.” Although we can assume that families, presumably more or less nuclear, existed at the time of the originary event, the important point about human origin is that it could not have occurred in a family setting, but in that of proto-human “collective,” where it was crucial to find a new means of insuring peace among several potential (male) rivals to replace that of the old “instinctive” pecking-order system. The origin of language and ritual within this configuration would have given rise to the first human community.

It is this community that would commemorate the originary event, in ritual and eventually in legend and scripture, and above all, that would share language. We may assume that the multiplication of languages, as dramatized in the episode of the Tower of Babel, would have been, and largely still remains, the most fundamental indicator of the separation of human communities, generally in association with the pluralization of ritual and cultural practices.

In the biblical context, this separation would have preceded the emergence of Hazony’s category of “empire” from a multiplicity of “tribal” pre-state polities. But the Hebrew Bible commemorates above all the emergence of the Hebrew nation in the Exodus from its subjection to the Egyptian empire as a new phenomenon, indeed, as its key historical event, still celebrated by the Jews in their most important festival.

To rephrase the theoretical problem at the base of Hazony’s categories, we seek to understand what is it that defines in originary terms the overall configuration of the nation-state. Why has this political form dominated the world since the early modern era, and remained, even after the thirty years’ war of the last century, the most successful and most stable?

The linguistic unity that characterizes most nation-states is an indication of the state’s descent from the originary community, but the formation of modern nations like France, Spain, and England required in addition general literacy and a concomitant centralizing unification of language, as described in Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen (Stanford, 1976). This development was posterior by many centuries to the adoption of Christianity as well as to these nations’ political unification in the Middle Ages. In contrast, still-“emerging” nations like India, where literacy is far from universal, tolerate a far greater variety of languages than are found in more developed economies.

Similarly, in line with a point that has often been made, e.g., by “Spengler” (David P. Goldman), and that was given important substantiation in Seth Sanders’ 2009 The Invention of Hebrew (see Chronicle 435), the advent of the originary Hebrew nation was associated with alphabetic writing and a particularly high level of literacy.

What this suggests is that the modern nation-concept, as classically described by Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983), is characteristically founded on the adoption of a national language that is spoken, or at least understood, and read by the population as a whole. That within Spain, the Basque region and Catalonia have nourished strong, and in the first case, violent, separatist movements shows to what extent maintaining a sub-national language within the broader context of a national one is in tension with national unity. The same has been true in Belgium, where Flemish speakers prefer speaking English to French, and in Canada, where Quebec insists on the use of French even in federal activities, in reaction, it must be said, to the earlier refusal of federal officials in the province to use anything but English.

No doubt the conditions under which the citizens of a modern nation all speak the same language are very different from those in the early days of humanity. But the important thing about the “imagined community” of the nation is that it both retains and, through writing, reconstitutes, the trace of the originary sense of community in the fact that its members are assured in advance of being able to communicate directly with each other. This observation adds yet more anthropological substance to Jacques Derrida’s (and Roland Barthes’) fertile intuition about the “originary” importance of écriture.

As it leads me to add a nuance to Hazony’s welcome defense of nationalism. I appreciate Anna Wierzbicka’s warning (see Imprisoned in English, Oxford, 2013) that the increasingly global use of English has desensitized world speakers to the culturally specific meanings of English words like “experience” or “empirical,” which have no simple equivalents even in closely related languages. But for those who still retain hope that the West, and perhaps someday the world as a whole, will escape the dichotomy of nation and empire to create a new form of super-national culture, the apparently unstoppable proliferation of English as the world’s common language cannot be ignored. It is surely an unambiguous indication that, despite the need to restrain and manage the European process of de-nationalization, Western culture is moving toward a new kind of unity.

Just as wisdom tells us that we should know history so that we do not repeat it, history itself tells us that it never simply repeats, that its lessons are always new, a fact that justifies neither “realist” cynicism nor “idealist” utopianism, but rewards an open attitude to what Georges Poulet called le temps humain.

Thus while I see the value of Hazony’s hard-headed look at the necessary role of the nation-state in the current world, as well as his assessment that the current status of “post-national” Europe is an inheritance of WWII that is not sustainable without American military protection—the prolongation of which Trump, at long last, no longer sees as unambiguously in America’s interest—the future is another affair.

As Hazony clearly states, it is certain that under the present conditions of the European Union, the replacement of the American by a European military force would in effect be a reestablishment by peaceful means of the German Empire that the Nazis sought to impose by force (see pp. 152-54). I have already given a similar interpretation (see Chronicle 521, which makes reference to an article by Hazony) to Merkel’s welcoming of “migrants.” Germany is, finally, still not altogether a nation so much as the sempiternal locus of the European Empire, once Holy and Roman, now Secular and Global. Whether this be for good or evil can be determined only by experience. But one thing that seems certain is that the common language of any future European “empire” will not be German but English.

I recently returned from a conference at the Cardinal Mindszenty University in Warsaw in which speakers could use one of several languages.

I think largely because Poland was celebrating its centenary of independence—one of the few positive results of the First World War—most of the local speakers decided to speak in Polish, resulting in an inevitable failure to communicate with the invited foreign speakers, who included Ian Dennis from Ottawa and Tübingen philosopher Manfred Frank. Yet it was clear from conversations that virtually all the Polish attendees spoke at least adequate English, and that the few exceptions in the audience were not themselves members of the university community. In other words, without going to the expense of simultaneous translation, the conference could have been held entirely in English with only marginal loss of outreach to the local population.

I ended my talk with a positive statement about Polish nationalism, not to flatter my audience, but because I really believe with Hazony that the Hebrew-Israeli model of the nation is still a necessity in the postmodern world—and that “empire,” even in the apparently benign sense of Euro-American globalism, promotes an illusory and impotent pacifism. But I could also sympathize with professor Frank’s point about the value of the European experiment as a blueprint for creating, not simply a federation, but a kind of super-nation in which the representatives of what can still be called Western Civilization can learn to act in common. It seems clear, at the very least, that instead of viewing this phenomenon negatively, merely as a mode of resistance to the outsider imperialism of Islam, Europeans, and perhaps someday those of the Western Hemisphere as well, have no reason to fear a super-national expression of loyalty to what has clearly been the most successful civilizational formula in history.

If this loyalty can only be expressed in the “empirical” language of Hobbes and Locke—and Shakespeare—that is less a matter of esthetics than of the luck of history, beginning with the advantage of inhabiting an island near, but not on, a continent of competing nations. For it was this detached vantage point that allowed the British to most successfully inherit, and make available to the world as a whole, the national concept from a much earlier people, one inhabiting the fringes of an empire whose liberation from which inspired a new conception of the One God as the guarantee of the ultimate universality of the human in all its languages. It was this event among this marginal people that gave birth to the modern sense of nationhood, which after two millennia, it once more embodies.