The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony Part One

Nationalism is a dirty word. The mere utterance conjures up images of authoritarianism, racism and Nazi death camps. However, this vision of Nationalism couldn’t be further from the truth. Yoram Hazony contends that Nationalism for too long has been misdefined and unfairly slandered. In addition to denoting Nationalism as a love and loyalty to one’s nation, Hazony uses the word to denote a theory of the best political order–one that seeks to establish a world of free and independent nations and that stands in direct contrast to imperialism. In fact, there is an inescapable dichotomy in which one is forced to chose between two competing views: (1) the idealist vision of international government that imposes its will, even by force, on subject nations as it deems necessary or (2) the belief that nations ought to be free to determine their own course without the imposition of international government. Most concisely one must choose between imperialism or nationalism.

With that being said, Hazony writes that his intention is to make a case for nationalism as the best political order–an order of independent national states. He splits the book up into three parts: Nationalism and Western Freedom, The Case for the National State and Anti-Nationalism and Hate.

The first part provides a basic historical framework for understanding the contention between nationalism and imperialism as it developed in the West. It was the Protestant Reformation, inspired by the Old Testament, that renounced the authority of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, the next four centuries saw a political emphasis on national independence and self-determination as foundational principles for an order of independent nations permitting a diversity of governmental forms, religion and culture in a world of experimentation. It is this experimentation among the nations that elucidates what works and what does not. It was this Protestant order of the nations that collapsed from WWII and with the rise of the Nazis.

The second part concerns the argument for an order of independent national states as the best order. To Hazony there are three ways of organizing the political world that are known to us via experience–the order of tribes and clans found in pre-state societies (anarchy), an international order of the imperial state (empire), and an order of independent national states (Nationalism).

Part three provides a comparison between the hate of rival national or tribal groups and the hatred of universal ideologies toward dissenting nations, tribes and individuals. The book concludes with some interesting remarks on the relationship of nationalism to personal character.

Now, let us take a more detailed look at part one. Before I continue any further I feel as though I need to provide a definition of nation and a brief explanation of how nations come into being. Hazony defines a nation as, “a 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.” The origins of these nations have roots in cultural similarities and political alliances one tribe makes with another for the sake of protection from foreign invaders. These historical alliances build bonds between the members of different tribes and when such tribes unite under a single rule of law nations may form. These nations have special advantages particularly in driving war to the outskirts of the nation. These areas free from war create a space for agriculture, industry and trade to flourish. Thus, the desire for peace and prosperity drives tribes to collect into nations and possibly empires.

The politics of Western Civilization have largely been characterized by two antithetical visions of world order—nationalism and imperialism. These both have history in the ancient world as many empires sought to bring peace and order to the world via conquest. Ancient Israel upon receiving a “constitution” from Moses sought differently to establish a nation-state uniting the tribes of Israel and passively influencing the world as an example.

This order of the national state did not have much influence at first. Eventually Christianity became the state religion of Rome and adopted the Roman dream of universal empire for the sake of peace (pax Romana) to all nations ordered under one empire. It is this order that persisted in Europe for over 1000 years until the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press. At this point the Bible was available to all the peoples of Europe. Armed with the Old Testament and the ideal of establishing an order of the nation-state, the countries of western Europe declared their independence. This Protestant construction of order rebuilt western Europe on two founding principles: (1) The moral minimum for right rule; (2) The right of national self-determination. The former means that the ruler to rightly rule had to be committed to the people to provide them with protection, justice in the courts, etc. Essentially he must obey the ten commandments. The latter meant the right to govern oneself under their own national constitutions without conflict from foreign nations. This Protestant construction thrived on these dialectical tensions. On the one side the concept of natural standards which supersede the pronouncements of any government suggests that nations cannot do whatever they want. This makes government conditional. There are simply limits to right authority. One the other hand national freedom protects the institutions, traditions, laws and ideals of the nation against the claims of those on the side of universal church or empire.

Now, I have just explained what a nation is, in part, what causes them to form, but what exactly holds them together? To understand this we must understand the concept of “mutual loyalty.” Loyalty exists when one has taken another under the responsibility and protection of oneself. Thus, when two individuals have taken each other under the responsibility of this extended self, the bond forged is called “mutual loyalty.” These individuals then consider themselves as a single unit.‭ This sense of responsibility we feel for others in our extended self (whether family, tribe or nation) are the derivatives of many if not most of our political aims. These responsibilities exist whether or not we choose them, as we are thrust into a family, tribe and cultural inheritance. According to Hazony, the Lockean notion that all responsibility is a result of choice is therefore untrue and neglects “essential aspects of human nature and motivation without which no political philosophy can make sense.”

In addition to responsibility by choice, Locke’s order is one built on the foundations of the preservation of life and the expansion of property. Yet, Hazony argues that under such an order the institutions of the national state, community, family and religion appear to have no reason to exist. It is these institutions he argues, that have their foundation in and: “impart bonds of loyalty and purpose to human collectives, creating borders and boundaries between one group and another, establishing ties to future and past generations and offering a glimpse beyond the present to something higher.”

Since WWII this liberalism has become the new imperialism, most notable with the establishment of the EU and the sentiments of pax Americana. Modern ruling elites envision a world in which the liberal principles are transmitted to all the people of the world. Such a view supports the establishment of an overarching international order of arbitrary dictates. Naturally, this bears much resemblance to the empires of the past. Today, the lines have been drawn and neither side is going away. We must choose to rule ourselves or to give up that power to an international order. How we advance given these tensions is for us to decide.

2 thoughts on “The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony Part One

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