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Yoram Hazony Virtue of Nationalism cover

The Vice of Nationalism

“Nationalism” is rearing its head again. We should recognize that it conflicts with individual freedom.

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Occasionally we write about what we’re currently reading, watching or listening to — not at the level of a full review, but simply to point out arguments, perspectives and issues worth considering. This is one of those articles.

Nationalism is clawing its way back. At a rally last October, Donald Trump galvanized the audience by declaring himself a proud nationalist. Europe, too, is witnessing the growing influence of political parties advocating nationalism. Even as nationalism has entered the political mainstream, it remains intellectually disreputable.

But Yoram Hazony, a political scholar, wants to redeem nationalism and rehabilitate its reputation. His book The Virtue of Nationalism is bound to resonate with a swath of intellectuals and voters, here and in Europe, who thrill when Trump and other politicians hammer on nationalist themes. Hazony presents a conception of nationalism with soft edges, one that is supposedly compatible with some measure of liberty. And therein lies part of the book’s danger. It is calm, erudite, and theory-heavy. The book attempts to provide a serious, intellectual case for embracing nationalism.

When I first heard about the book, in an email exchange with Hazony about a year ago, I looked forward to reading it — not because I expected him to convince me, but because I always learn a lot from engaging with people I disagree with. Did I find the book convincing? No. But to engage with its argument is to see (or, see more acutely) why there’s a fundamental chasm between nationalism and a free society. Hazony’s case for nationalism is a philosophic repudiation of individual freedom.

The book’s argument is intricate, and here, rather than review the book as a whole, I want to draw out some of its crucial premises, because they are so telling.

The argument: From family to tribe to nation

Central to Hazony’s argument is the question: What kind of political order is best? For centuries, he contends, we in the West have faced two alternatives, “empires” (or “imperial” orders), enforcing universal political ideas — or independent national states. Imperial regimes, Hazony argues, are predicated on the conviction of having attained the ultimate political truth — and bringing it to all, by force if necessary. For Hazony, any embrace of universal political ideas leads to imperialist aims, animosity against those who resist those aims, and conflict.

Hazony repudiates the Enlightenment view of individuals as sovereign and capable of using reason to attain truths about the world.
By contrast, Hazony argues, it is only the “national state” that can lead to a stable political order. This is because it is built on the only foundation for social order: the mutual loyalties of family, and by extension a tribe. Such bonds extend from family and tribe to nation: the “national state” consists of an agglomeration of tribes who share a common language and history, and see themselves as a community. Accordingly, Hazony insists that we must reject “empire,” or “imperial” orders, mainly because these negate the particular character and needs of the nation.

The “order of national states” is best, Hazony writes, because it “offers the greatest possibility for collective self-determination.” [Emphasis added.] Thus there would be “many such national states, each pursuing its own unique purposes and developing its own vision of human life.”

The concept of nationalism that Hazony argues for in the book is allegedly distinctive. First, Hazony distances his view from racial theories of nationalism, arguing that one can be adopted into tribes, not only born into them. Second, and even more remarkable, the “national state” that Hazony envisions is uninterested in war-making, conquest or domination. The true nationalist, he writes, “knows that there is great truth and beauty in his own national traditions and in his own loyalty to them; and yet he also knows that they are not the sum of human knowledge, for there is also truth and beauty to be found elsewhere, which his own nation does not possess.”

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Nationalism, for Hazony, is peaceful because of its parochial orientation, whereas “empire” fuels conflict because of its claim to universal truth. What to make of this argument?

Unpacking Hazony’s argument

Hazony offers his narrow, unambitious conception of nationalism as the basis for a peaceful, stable political world order, but in fact it unavoidably sets the stage for conflict. His argument depends on an underlying philosophic view that pushes aside the crucial faculty — reason — that makes peaceful coexistence possible.

One inheritance from the Age of Enlightenment is the recognition in political thought of the individual as a rational being. It is reason that enables people to reach objective truth, grounded in observable fact, which everyone can come to recognize. That’s what enables us to communicate ideas and resolve disagreements through persuasion, rather than physical force. The principle of individual rights — itself a universal truth — is a recognition that each of us is a rational being and must be left free to set our own path in life according to our own best judgment. Politically, this principle endorses only persuasion as the means of resolving disputes and it bars the initiation of force from human life.

But Hazony repudiates this Enlightenment view of individuals as sovereign and capable of using reason to attain truths about the world. Instead, he writes, “no human being, and no group of human beings, possesses the necessary powers of reason and the necessary knowledge to dictate the political constitution that is appropriate for all mankind.” For him, it’s a mistake to think of the principle of individual rights as a universal political truth. It is rather a “cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations.”

Hazony argues that a national state fosters the creation of a particular kind of moral character in its members, and he repeatedly stresses his belief that individuals have an intense need to serve the well-being of the collective. (One wonders: Is this a universal political truth?) But the picture we get of group-centric society is peculiarly devoid of specific, real-world detail.

If we take Hazony’s claim seriously, we’d have to regard someone like Thomas Jefferson as some kind of “destroyer.” Clearly he was “ablaze” with a love of several universal truths.
What really happens in societies where reason and individual rights are dropped out of the picture, where each tribe/nation is left to do its own thing? At least two things are clear: First, such societies are highly tribal. People define themselves primarily, if not exclusively, by their tribal or racial identity, while viewing outsiders as less-than-human, because they were born to the “wrong” tribe/race. Second, and crucially, the door is left wide open for disagreements and enmities to be resolved through brutality, not persuasion, because outsiders are seen as innately inferior, wrong, unreachable. For example, consider the tribal wars that have decimated Africa. A notorious example is Rwanda’s tribal war in 1994, which claimed upwards of 800,000 lives. Or look at the repeated eruption of tribal/nationalist wars in the Balkans. There, during the early 1990s, we witnessed the return of “ethnic cleansing” and concentration camps. These are manifestations of tribal/national groups jockeying for collective self-determination.

Occasionally Hazony will mention in abstract terms that actual tribal societies, which are notorious for conflict and bloodshed, do have a dark side, but we get little else.

Hazony seems to view Israel as aligning with his distinctive conception of nationalism as parochial, unambitious, peaceful. But it is actually a counterpoint to his argument. In my book What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I analyze Israel’s character as a nation. Israel is a blend of nationalist/tribal elements (defining itself as a “Jewish” state) and individualist elements, reflected in its robust protections of individual rights and freedom. And because of those pro-freedom elements, Israel is non-imperialistic, unlike its more tribalistic neighbors (Syria, for example, dominated Lebanon for decades; Iran today holds sway over Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria). Israel’s remarkable virtues stem from the degree to which it lives up to the ideal of individual freedom. But many of its shortcomings, including some of its moral failings, derive from the country’s religious-tribal aspects, particularly the encroachment of religion into politics.

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The individualist aspects of Israel’s political system are not only at odds with its tribal/nationalist character. They are borrowed from outside. What’s good about Israel stems from the degree to which it has adopted and implemented the universal political truths in the post-Enlightenment approach that recognizes people as rational, sovereign individuals. These ideas are truths that anyone, regardless of race, tribe or ancestry, regardless of where they live, can and should recognize and embrace.

Universal truth leads to conflict?

And yet Hazony contends that any claim to universal truth is dangerous. It is at the heart of what he calls “empire” (or “imperial” orders), and it’s a wellspring for conflict. For Hazony, the Soviet regime is an exemplar of “imperialism,” because it claimed to have the ultimate political truth and proceeded to impose it as a universal idea through brutal conquest. Hazony writes that one can have “no better destroyer than an individual ablaze with the love of a universal truth.”

If we take this claim seriously, we’d have to regard someone like Thomas Jefferson as some kind of “destroyer.” Clearly he was “ablaze” with a love of several universal truths. For example, in the Declaration of Independence, he writes that human beings are created equal, and that they are morally entitled to live in freedom, rather than under tyranny. Even recognizing Jefferson’s personal failure to live up to his own conviction (he abhorred slavery but retained his slaves), it’s absurd, and grossly unjust, to put him in the same category as Lenin and Stalin, brutal tyrants responsible for the deaths of tens of millions.

To unpack Hazony’s argument is to see that his conception of nationalism is fundamentally opposed to the ideal of freedom.
It’s not only Jefferson who refutes Hazony’s claim; you could count as well Martin Luther King Jr., who famously gave voice to the universal ideal that individuals should be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. We can find many more counterexamples of thinkers and activists who, in the name of universal truths, pushed civilization forward.

The evil of the Soviet regime was not its claim to hold a monopoly on universal political truth. It’s that Marxism-Leninism is a false ideology, one that clashes with the facts of reality and human nature. It’s an ideology deeply rooted in group-centric premises, which we also find in Hazony’s argument.

Nationalism as a type of collectivism

For Hazony, as we’ve seen, the starting point and yardstick in political thought is not the individual, but the family, the tribe, the nation. This group-centric approach views the individual as subordinate. What matters is the collective’s self-determination, the development of its own vision of human life. Hazony’s approach therefore is a form of “collectivism,” which the philosopher Leonard Peikoff defines this way:

Collectivism is the theory that the group (the collective) has primacy over the individual. Collectivism holds that, in human affairs, the collective — society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc. — is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it; on his own he has no political rights; he is to be sacrificed for the group whenever it — or its representative, the state — deems this desirable.1

Collectivism was not just one, or even a prominent factor, but the defining feature of the Soviet Union. The proletariat came first, and individuals mattered only insofar, and for as long, as they served the needs of the collective. “You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs”: That’s a justification often attributed to Stalin. The “eggs” were human lives, and not a few — but millions, smashed in the name of serving the needs of the proletarian collective.

Or take another example, one invariably associated with “nationalism”: Nazi Germany. Hazony, a Jew and committed Zionist, is at pains to dissociate his conception of “nationalism” from the Nazis.

The National Socialist party, he acknowledges, clearly had “national” in its name. But a true nationalist, in Hazony’s conception, values peaceful coexistence. So Hazony contends that because Hitler wanted to replace the international order of independent national states with German dominance, he was not in fact a nationalist. Hazony classifies the Nazis as “imperialists,” because they sought to take their political vision global. Such classification obfuscates rather than clarifies. Why wouldn’t a nationalist, eager to subordinate and sacrifice individuals within his own nation to the collective, not be eager to do the same to outsiders?

Obviously, it’s true that the Nazis sought to dominate and conquer, but it’s impossible to look at their doctrines and policies without recognizing that Nazism blended racism and nationalism — two forms of collectivism. Listen to their leader:

It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation; that the position of the individual ego is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole . . . that above all the unity of a nation’s spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and will of an individual. . . .

This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture. . . . The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call — to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness — idealism. By this we understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifice for the community, for his fellow men.2

The point to take from this comparison of the Soviet and Nazi regimes is that collectivism was integral to what made them so destructive and aggressive. And it is this same premise that underpins “nationalism,” despite Hazony’s attempt to formulate a redefined, unambitious conception of it. To unpack Hazony’s argument is to see that his conception of nationalism is fundamentally opposed to the ideal of freedom.

The thrust of Hazony’s learned book is to urge us to turn away from a legacy of the Enlightenment: the focus on the value of the individual as a sovereign, rational being. Let us instead bury “nationalism” and dedicate ourselves to better understanding what’s required to defend a free society.

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  1. Leonard Peikoff, The Cause of Hitler’s Germany (New York: Plume, 2014), 7.
  2. Quoted in Peikoff, Hitler’s Germany, 1.
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Elan Journo

Elan Journo is a senior fellow and vice president of content at the Ayn Rand Institute. His books include Illuminating Ayn Rand (2022), Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: What Went Wrong After 9/11 (2021) and What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2018). Elan is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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