• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Thoughts on Nationalism

July 2019


Within the bounds of the bien pensant, constrictive and suffocating though they may be, the term nationalism has come to be regarded as a dirty word. To be judged as such is, so far as the generally degraded state of our English language is concerned, no longer so devastating a blow. It’s neither a grave nor a debilitating fault to be labeled “dirty” by a language so attracted to filth, and it certainly doesn’t decommission the word’s use. Many equally sordid and ill-applied words continue to exist (with a fair amount of currency, no less) among which we number such words as fascism, socialism, populism, and Marxism to name but a few, but nationalism is the word with which we’re presently concerned.


As are the cases with at most two of those other four words listed above, the placement of nationalism along the spectrum of acceptable discourse and genteel taste lies very much toward the fringe. And if it’s to be so positioned, one might as well do so with every ounce of accuracy that can be mustered; its placement is at the periphery of the right. Situated as such, one can appreciate the fact that it’s not a word toward which even the most careful of speakers will dare to inch, however scrupulous they may be of their rhetoric and confident of their stance. Having said it, much less celebrated it or even acknowledged its worth, one rolls into an otherwise cordial political talk a veritable apple of discord—an apple by whose mere entrance even the most unassailable party can be ruined. The risk thereafter is not the judgment of Paris but the judgment of pundits. The wrath of the latter, as we’ve repeatedly learned, can be just as severe as that of goddesses spurned.


To extol, then, the virtues of nationalism (assuming, of course, that any virtues inherent to it exist) is voluntarily to welcome upon oneself a mound of opprobrium and abuse. It’s to embrace the role of contrarian and provocateur, a task always best taken up by the philosopher. He is, after all, the man to whom we turn when strife arises, uniformity of thought becomes pervasive, subtlety is required, and persuasion of argument is needed to carry on the fight.


The warrior-philosopher is in this case Yoram Hazony, a Jewish scholar of deserved renown. In his straightforwardly-named book, The Virtue of Nationalism, a book whose thesis is its candid title, Hazony presents a convincing defense of nationalism as the most desirable of political ideals. He conceives of it as the strongest and most resilient of methods by which a state might be constructed. A man of Israeli extraction, American education, and a worldly erudition that alone stimulates the mind, Hazony sets forth to make a case that’s rather unnatural to the Western ear. He says that if prosperity is to be our end, individual sovereignty—one country respecting the right of its neighbor to decide its own course—must be the means by which it’s achieved.


Nationalism, when viewed through the lens of his acumen and understanding, is at its most fundamental level a bond amongst a people between whom mutual loyalty is shared. But this “mutual loyalty” is no superficial sentiment by which a people is possessed. It’s not something that develops overnight nor even, for that matter, after the passage of a decade or twenty years. Rather, it’s a deep and historically significant bond, one that requires the accumulation of many years and many tribulations through which a people jointly struggle to reach a certain level of maturation and strength. This mutual loyalty is forged by battles won and sacraments shared, by languages preserved and commonly-held heroes exalted.

Absent from this understanding of mutual loyalty is any reference to biology. There’s no mention of the tone of one’s skin, the ineffaceability of one’s race. We’re to be told by Hazony that race matters not in this, his loftiest conception of nationalism, a conception against which reality tends to grate.


In their most recent manifestations, every nationalistic movement of which I’m aware has tended toward the expression of some doctrine of racial superiority. Most notably and recently, this has been witnessed in such politically restive nations as Germany, Poland, Hungary, and even right here in the ever-enlightened U.S. We thus seldom hear of the term nationalism without the word “white” attached as though a suffix before it. Doubtless, this would seem a good reason for nationalism’s confinement to the bin of “dirty words”, but Hazony makes explicitly clear that one’s epidermal endowment, one’s pigmentation of his skin matters to nationalism not. A shared history, narrative, religion, and language, are the most important pillars upon which both nation and nationalist are built. The shared culture begotten of these things is all that matters and, at least theoretically, there is no room for race.


Throughout his work, Hazony invokes the memories of two other philosophers, each of redoubtable prestige and intellectual force. The two are Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill—one of the continent, the other of the isle, but both ancestrally of Scottish blood. The former was a starry-eyed idealist and closet imperialist, a man for whom “perpetual peace” on earth was the greatest of all public goods. Kant considered his idea achievable only if the frustratingly disparate and often belligerent states would finally join together and conduct themselves as one. Having done so, Kant maintained, they’d create a kind of supra-national government by which only the most salutary and peaceful of laws might be drafted and enacted for the benefit of a world grown weary by war. Mill’s position approximates Hazony’s own. A British empiricist athwart the German idealist, Mill recognized the utility of the nation and the particularity of the inhabitants by whom it was populated. Its political boundaries, he contended, should exceed no further than those of its geography and each state must be the sovereign of itself—and itself alone.


Less a philosopher than he was a literary prophet, there’s a third thinker upon whom Hazony might’ve done well to turn his attention, if only for a brief while. George Orwell, as prescient as he was a malcontent, wrote in his famous essay Notes on Nationalism his feelings regarding the subject at hand. Indeed, his Notes (published five years before his tuberculate-induced death) would come to be an influential source of guidance for the minds of those unsure as how to approach the topic in a post-WWII age. Though it pains me to say this, Orwellian proselyte that I am, Old George seems fundamentally to have misunderstood the concept of nationalism—especially as it’s now elucidated by Hazony in his work.


Orwell, having witnessed first-hand the horrors of the First and Second World Wars (and having played no small role in that of the Spaniards), seems to have conflated nationalism and its opposite—imperialism. Perhaps he was simply disadvantaged by his proximity to the time; he hadn’t the distance between himself and the ideologies of the continent that were flowering and, just as quickly, dying right before his very eyes. He was writing in the moment before the smoke had all cleared, and thus lacked the historical clarity of which we today are so gratefully availed.


But our leniency extends only so far. Orwell listed as nationalistic movements everything from Nazism, to political Catholicism, to Communism, to Zionism, and to Fascism. Legitimately, only one deserves the nationalist’s name and you could probably venture a guess as to which that might be. As a hint, it was a movement inaugurated by an Austrian writer named Herzl. Of the other three (Nazism, Political Catholicism, Communism, and Fascism), all held unabashedly imperial aims of which Orwell appears to have had no perception.


The Nazi agenda, explicated by Adolf Hitler himself, was one upon which the ideals first of European and then of universal conquest were based. It sought, in its third iteration, to construct itself in the image of the First Reich, a slightly more secularized name for what was the Holy Roman Empire. It would be to our detriment to forget that the Holy Roman Empire, at its most expansive moment, subsumed nearly every transalpine European state. This dominance of the continent was something upon which an overtly nostalgic, though certainly not a nationalistic Germany reminisced. This was the hegemonic glory to which it hoped to return with Hitler playing the role of Charles V.


Political Catholicism was equally, though certainly not as devilishly, desirous of a longer reach. At the least it wanted more than that which the constraints of the Vatican was able to afford. It too was anti-nationalist, though Orwell admits this not. The Pope was to be the one figure—at once pontifical and political—under whom an international community of believers worked and prayed. An intermediary between man and God, he was to be himself a man of imperial clout.


Communism was by its very formation an international political movement of unprecedented scope. I still read Orwell’s commentary on Communism in disbelief, incapable of understanding how the perspicacity of his mind allowed him to categorize it as he did. Perhaps his latent socialistic sympathies tempered his criticism of Communism in this regard. Nothing, in fact, could be less nationalistic than Communism, which openly celebrated its imperialist ideology with the red of its flag and the ubiquity of its song (its anthem, of course, was and is The International—a quite explicit call to the universal working man—and its monochromatic flag was a representation of the selfsame blood that coursed through every proletarian’s veins).


Finally, there was (and, if Portland, Oregon is any evidence of this, there distressingly continues to be) fascism. The ideology born of Mussolini and the black-shirted thugs by whom he was surrounded admittedly was a mixed bag. More than anything, though, it was intoxicated with thoughts of the reclamation of old land over which the country had once presided. To this desire, we ascribe the term irredentism—a term largely unknown in our own day but harrowing in that of Mussolini. The Italians—be it in Africa or in the Mediterranean Sea—pursued its irredentist agenda, its avaricious pursuit of the accumulation of occupied land, without scruple or constraint. Surely, it thought little of national boundaries and the sovereignty that determines a state.


Perhaps Orwell’s Notes were too easily to be refuted. It’s possible that, for this reason, a mind of Hazony’s capacity left them alone. A smaller man and mind as I am, I admit to feeling slightly sacrilegious in having taken up the case against Orwell, but I couldn’t read Hazony’s work and leave that of Orwell well enough alone. It’s informative to view them in contradistinction and crown the winner of this political feud.


From the tenor of my ramblings above, you might think me an avowed and happy nationalist. I seem veritably to be singing the praises of an ideology that’s currently so universally scorned. Yet somehow, resilient to the refutations, its popularity gains. My own position is more ambivalent and I’m not yet prepared to throw my support behind the nationalist’s side.

While I wouldn’t so hastily flatter myself by declaring nationalism my undergirding creed, I greatly appreciate Hazony’s argument—by which I’m mostly convinced. The recognition of this fact startles me yet. Nationalism has always been an ideal against which my liberal tendencies bristled. I was guilty of deeming it a “dirty word” and thus slashing it from my vocabulary. Now, having been benefited by the lens through which Hazony views the world, I can see that nationalism has its virtue and an appeal I can grasp.

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