(The review was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on February 9, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)
In the present milieu, it is a challenge to stand up for the traditional idea of nationalism. Nationalism has been converted into a pejorative idea by the liberal elite in the West after the 2nd World War. Anyone who stands up for the concept of cultural or ethnic nationalism based on language, history, or culture is branded by these liberals as Hitlerian, Fascist, and jingoist and a threat to human freedom.
It is heartening, in such a scenario, to find a scholarly book that courageously and unapologetically talks about the “virtue of nationalism”. That’s why Yoram Hazony’s book with the same title has been called by many a reviewer as a “provocative”, “radical” and, in one case, “dangerous” thesis. Hazony, who is the President of Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, has done a masterly work in this book by not only exploring the deeply religious and historical roots of the idea of nationalism but also boldly and effectively dismantled the left-liberal portrayal of nationalism as a scourge.
Branding nationalism as a retrograde concept is only a fad of the left-liberals in the last few decades. Hazony points out that from Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower; from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher; and from M K Gandhi to David Ben-Gurion, many world leaders had championed the cause of nationalism in various countries in various ways. In August 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt of America and Winston Churchill of Britain signed the Atlantic Charter that paved the way for the entry of America into the 2nd World War, they emphatically reaffirmed the principle of national freedom and insisted that they were committed to the “old ideals of Christianity”. Hazony dismisses the argument that nationalism was the cause of two world wars as “a simplistic narrative”.
Interestingly, his book argues that there had always been a conflict between the “two visions of the world order”, one wanting to create a universal empire and the other favoring national states. In that, while he describes ancient Greek, Babylonian and Catholic efforts as universalist, while the Old Testament and Protestant Biblical Christianity as rooted in favour of nationalism. He even calls the Thirty Years’ War, which had culminated in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, as essentially a conflict not between the Catholics and Protestants, but a war that “actually pitted the emerging national states of France, the Netherlands, and Sweden against German and Spanish armies devoted to the idea that universal empire reflected God’s will”.
Hazony attempts to equate Protestant order with nationalism and brands Lockean and Kantian ideals of human freedom and universalism as “utopian”. Taking the most important critique of nationalism head-on, he dismisses the propaganda that Hitler manifested all that was insidious about nationalism. “Hitler was no advocate of nationalism”, Hazony argued and insisted that he was a race supremacist with an imperialist mindset. The “Third Reich” Hitler talked about was modelled on the “First Reich”, which was the German Holy Roman empire. Hitler was candid and categorical about his view that Germany “must someday become the lord of the earth”. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Story), Hitler explicitly rejects national identities as “misbegotten monstrosities”, and declares his mission as “preservation and advancement of a community of physically and psychically homogeneous creatures” by “assembling and preserving the most valuable stocks of basic racial elements”.
Hazony minces no words in calling the “liberal construction” as “a form of imperialism”. “And like other imperialists, they are quick to express disgust, contempt, and anger when their vision of peace and prosperity meets with opposition”, he taunts them.
In his defence of nationalism, Hazony doesn’t mind taking a rather controversial position. He insists that an “overwhelming dominance of a single, cohesive nationality, bound together by indissoluble bonds of mutual loyalty” can only be the enduring basis for peace in a nation state. He even argues that a form of majoritarian nationalism, “whose cultural dominance is unquestioned, and against which resistance appears futile”, can only lead to a stable state. He described it as a “majority nation” and opined that such a nation “strong enough not to fear challenges from national minorities” can be able to grant rights and liberties to national minorities “without damaging the internal integrity of the state”.
Hazony thinks that a redrawing of national boundaries to conform to real boundaries of national majorities should become an instrument of diplomacy. In suggesting so, he does sound like a protagonist of majoritarianism, but he emphasises with equal vigour that the protection of minorities is a necessary principle because the failure in ensuring that would lead to a “fertile ground of disaffection”, and a “sphere of anarchy” in the national state.
Hazony castigates Christianity and Islam, whom he describes as “universalist religions seeking to establish the rule of a single empire on earth”, for hatred and violence. He equates them with Nazism and Communism and says that all these universalist movements tend to inspire hatred in their adherents.
The Virtue of Nationalism ends with the passionate pluralist appeal that each nation will find its own path to God in its own time and according to its own understanding. “Each nation judges in accordance with a perspective of its own. There is no human being, and no nation, that can claim to have captured the entire truth for all others”, Hazony quips, although he turns to the Old Testament narrative for justification, in which the God tells Abraham that he “will make of you a great nation… and in you will all the families of the earth be blessed”. Sadly, this narrative too may sound universalist to many.
In sum, The Virtue of Nationalism comes as a refreshing breeze in the cacophony of liberal anti-nationalist humdrum. Many arguments that Hazony makes in his thesis, including his definition of a nation as a group of tribes “with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and a past history of joining together against common enemies”, sound very familiar to the Indian nationalist narrative about nation and nationhood.
In the end, one cannot but admire not only the scholarship and profundity, but the boldness and candidness that one comes across in this refreshingly stimulating defence of nationalism.
A must for scholars of the nationalist school…