Painting depicting the story of Betsy Ross (Edward Percy Moran/Wikimedia Commons) 
  • Yoram Hazony attempts to take us back to first principles and rethink our implicit assumptions about nations and nationalism.

The Virtue Of Nationalism. Yoram Hazony. Basic Books. 256 pages. Rs 1,677.

Ever since the cultural turn in academia in the early 1970s, it has become de rigueur to disparage nationalism as a volatile and dangerous sentiment susceptible to extreme violence and prejudice. Nationalism was cast as an imagined community with the implication that it was a simulacrum whose substance came wholly from fabricated myths, rituals, and symbols. In this echo chamber, Yoram Hazony's The Virtue of Nationalism comes as a rare and welcome breath of fresh air that revives the idea and places it in context with other alternatives that have been offered over the ages.

Hazony looks to the Bible, specifically Devarim, to find his definition of nationalism. The scriptures actively promote the feeling of brotherhood among all members of the Jewish nation and Mosaic law would serve as their constitution; the king of the Jewish state, its priests, and prophets would all be drawn from among the brotherhood and each would have a role in preserving the traditions, customs, and laws of the community. Geographically, the boundaries of Israel are set by Moses as he expressly forbids the expansion of the nation-state into the neighbouring lands of Esau, Moav, Lot, and Ammon.

The ambitions of nationalism are clearly limited and not inherently expansionist or committed to world domination as critics are prone to hyperventilate. Hazony does not deny that there has been great violence in the past in the name of nationalism but that is also true of any other theory of mass organisation, ethics, and governance. This is an interesting proposition put forth by the author, that nationalism is not merely a feeling of cultural connectedness between people who do not know each other but properly seen, it also includes a system of ethics.

According to Hazony, the roots of nationalism are to be found in the structure of the family – individuals are biologically related in a family and share a sense of rights and duties, blood and belonging, vis-a-vis one another; the prosperity of one member is the success of them all. As families band together into clans, clans into tribes, and tribes into nations to provide better security and accomplish greater tasks, the loyalty commanded by the heads is transferred upwards towards common characteristics the members share, such as language, faith, or ethnicity.

Using the family as a model of organisation for the state is certainly not peculiar to the Bible – similar notions are found as far apart as China and Greece. Confucius clings to the metaphor a little too closely with the result that the ideal Chinese state tends towards authoritarianism; Aristotle sees the polis – state – as the full flowering of the family life but does not carry the analogy too far as he recognises that there is a difference in the nature of power within states and families, not just quantitatively but qualitatively as well.

The Virtue of Nationalism juxtaposes a localised nationalism with universalist ideologies such as imperialism, Christianity, Marxism, and Liberalism. Nations are inherently anti-imperial and therefore more stable, the argument runs, because its members are connected to each other through bonds not mediated by institutions of state. Nations are particular to geography, language, faith, ethnicity, or some other criterion that defines the community whereas the universalist aspirations of Christianity, Islam, Marxism, and Liberalism fall to the temptation of conquest and subjugation of the entire world to the one “true” doctrine of choice.

Cover of the book <i>The Virtue of Nationalism</i> by Yoram Hazony Cover of the book The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony

Hazony's depiction of nationalism as limited may be true in the Jewish tradition but it has had a very different history in Europe and Asia, at least. Halakha (Jewish law and jurisprudence) distinguishes between milkhemet mitzva – war of obligation – and milkhemet hareshut – optional war. In the first category fall, for example, the wars of Joshua against the seven nations while David's campaigns of expansion come under the latter classification. In fact, God prohibits David from building the Temple because he was “a man of battles and [had] shed blood.”

It is also problematic to portray imperialism as a universalist principle. Although imperialists have no bounds to their geographic ambitions, it is usually also true that the imperial quest is usually carried out in the name of a nation; the various nations that fall to a growing empire are neither treated nor seen as equals. We see this again and again from the Roman Empire to the pink-tainted map of British expansion. Rome expanded its citizen base only in the latter years to stave off a fiscal crisis brought on by decades of decadent emperors but ties by birth or marriage to the Italian peninsula and preferably Rome were favourable traits to possess well into the second century. Similarly, London scoffed at Mohandas Gandhi's idea that Britain welcome all inhabitants of its dominions as equal citizens of their empire. Hazony accepts this at one point, but not before an unnecessary discourse on the universalist instincts of imperialism.

The difficulty of sustaining nations on abstractions such as liberalism stems from the inability to justify loyalty to the principle. The likelihood of changing our minds as we experience life and are exposed to more information means that any belonging to an ideal remains unstable at best. Hazony takes help from psychology to make the case that humans are social animals who have a need to belong to networks and believe in something greater than than the mere material of life. Here, he brings up a word not often seen in nationalism studies these days – loyalty – which is the crux of the debate. It is not easy, if at all possible, to have loyalty to an idea in the same manner one feels ties to a sibling or parent.

Hazony reworks several historical events to lend support to his hypothesis, in many cases problematically. For example, rather than see the Thirty Years' War from the traditional perspective of a conflagration between Protestants and Catholics, Hazony casts it as being primarily motivated by universalist impulses against local inclinations. While most historians would agree that the religious element ceased to animate the conflict as the years passed, the war remained an old-fashioned struggle for geopolitical dominance between France and the Habsburgs.

Perhaps the most jarring incongruity in The Virtue of Nationalism is how the second Christian schism is repackaged as a contest between universalism and particularism. At a certain level, it is undeniable that Catholic allegiance to their Pope made way for dual loyalties. However, it is hardly the case that Protestantism was a particularist creed any more than Christianity a sub-sect of Judaism. While the theological reorganisation gave monarchs their independence from Rome, the faith itself still believed it possessed a universal message. The recent Evangelical movement has strongly underscored this conviction.

The largest empire in the modern era was put together by Britain and it was Prussian militarism that sank Europe into the first of its cataclysmic convulsions of the 20th century. The United States began its expansionist project with Manifest Destiny and then eyed territories beyond; none of these countries were Catholic. What is disappointing is that these ill-considered examples are unnecessary and distract from Hazony's already persuasive defence of nationalism.

These weak digressions may conceal the real import of The Virtue of Nationalism, which is an assault on the cult of the solitary individual. Hazony traces the roots of this ideology to at least one of its origins, John Locke. Hazony finds the English philosopher's initial assumption that all people are rational and his utilitarian methodology in assessing rationality flawed. Contrary to Locke, Hazony argues that the fundamental unit of existence is not the individual or even the family but the community. Our ethics arise from our communal interactions as does our sense of self; in turn, these inform all our other beliefs and relations, such as liberty or nationalism.

This is at the root of the conservative worldview, that the community and family are prior to the individual. Ever since the early Liberals recast society as a collective of individuals, the idea has taken hold and grown to a point where it is not even questioned any more. The few who reject this modern normal have usually done so on theological grounds and have been easy to ignore in an increasingly profane world. By reviving a classical framework, The Virtue of Nationalism fires a broadside at not just the critics of nationalism but the entire Liberal project. Not only are the dangers of a universalist mindset compared against nationalism and found to be as dangerous if not worse, but individual liberty is argued to be mere license if not exercised within the bounds of community and morality. Thus, this is as much a work of political philosophy as it is about nationalism.

The Virtue of Nationalism is a short book and not written in a solemn academic tone despite boasting an impressive bibliography. Hazony would do well to realise, however, that his understanding of nationalism is peculiar to Judaism and not characteristic of all politico-cultural movements. The inadvertent contradistinction, however, should be most interesting to scholars of nationalism. Readers should beware that the chatty affectation of the book belies a profound sociopolitical weltanshauung and a powerful critique of Liberalism in all its guises. There may be some historical quibbles but they do not, oddly, take away from the overall argument and to narrowly focus on those would be to miss the forest for the trees. In an era of Liberal activist academia, Hazony's efforts to take us back to first principles and rethink our implicit assumptions is a welcome intellectual challenge.

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