September 24, 2018

A word of warning: if you are a liberal with high blood pressure, you may want to give The Virtue of Nationalism, the new book by Yoram Hazony, a miss. I have rarely read anything so explosive. But it is absolutely fascinating.

According to Hazony, an Israeli political scientist, most Europeans have drawn entirely the wrong conclusion from the Second World War. They have too readily assumed that what went wrong with Nazism was an extreme form of nationalism, and that nationalism was, therefore, the thing that needed to be solved. Guided by this assumption, nationalism became a byword for racism and bigotry.

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But despite the fact that the Nazi party was called “National Socialist”, Hazony argues it was actually neither of those things. Hitler was an imperialist. He sought to establish a “third Reich”, modelled on the “first Reich”, which was the Holy Roman Empire. In other words, Hitler wanted an empire to rule over others. And the political wickedness of Nazism was much more to do with its desire for empire than for its celebration of the nation state. For Hazony, it was empire that led to the Holocaust not nationalism. And had Europeans drawn this conclusion, the debate over the European Union would look very different.

There are two basic forms of political order, Hazony argues: independent nation states and empire. The book’s title is obviously a spoiler as to his conclusion. A political Zionist, Hazony thinks the independent nation state is answer to the threat posed by empire builders. He wants to remind us of the pre-war order when the nation state was considered to be the guarantor of freedom and peaceful co-existence – as, for example, when Roosevelt and Churchill met in August of 1941 to sign the Atlantic Charter to reaffirm the principle of national freedom: “The right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

For Hazony, the political independence of national self-determination is a basic safeguard against tyranny. “Until not very long ago,” he points out, “support for the independence and self-determination of nations was an indication of a progressive politics and a generous spirit.” This view, he contends, is rooted in the Biblical ideal of independent kingdoms. Moses is instructed by God that the people of Israel are not to interfere with their neighbours:

“And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, for I have given it to the children of Lot for possession.” (Deuteronomy, 2:19)

The point about the Biblical ideal of a national kingdom is that it is where people are free and self-determining,  and absolutely not a launch pad for some wider imperial ambition.

The Enlightenment, on the other hand, begins at a totally different point when thinking about the state and draws a dramatically different conclusion. Beginning with John Locke, political order is built up on the basis of the individual “pursuing life, liberty and property in a world of transactions based on consent”. On this model there is no legitimacy to anything other than the individual choosing subject. Associations between people are only ever temporary alliances of individual agreement. All forms of group loyalty – family, tribe, nation – are merely aggregates of multiple individual wills and are only as strong as our latest calculations as to the advantage they bestow to the individual.

Alongside the emphasis on the individual, the Enlightenment also adopted a commitment to the ultimate value of the universal. “Act only on the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law”, was Kant’s famous categorical imperative. The individual and the universal are the flip sides of the same coin, and lead, as Kant argues in his book Perpetual Peace, to a belief that nation states should be dismantled in favour, eventually, of a single world government. It’s a version of this argument that is often used to justify the European Union – that nation states make war, and that an ever-wider union is a model of perpetual peace. For Hazony, however, “Kant was merely offering yet another version of the German-led Holy Roman Empire.”

Hazony concludes: “Dogmatic and utopian, [liberalism] assumes that the final truths concerning mankind’s fate have been long since discovered and all that remains is to find a way to impose them.” Hazony thinks this universal liberalism to be a kind of fourth Reich. The dream of the Holy Roman Empire has merged with the Enlightenment dream of an international state where “emperors and imperialists, dream of extinguishing all nations … and suffusing them all with a universal will bearing a single, universal salvation for all”.

Is that too strong? Well, here is one of the godfathers of neo-liberal economics, Ludwig von Mises: we must, he argued “create a frame of mind [of] nothing less than unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.”

No, this is where it starts getting strong. The crucial section of the book is when Hazony writes about two completely different lessons that can be drawn from Auschwitz – one in which nationalism is seen as the problem and, therefore, internationalism is seen as the answer; and another in which internationalism is seen as the problem and, therefore, nationalism is seen as the answer. Those who set up the state of Israel, for instance, took the second position, believing that a nation state i.e. Israel was to be the best way of protecting the Jewish people. But …

“Jews are not the only ones for whom Auschwitz has become an important political symbol. Many Europeans, too, see Auschwitz as being at the heart of the lesson of the Second World War. But the conclusions they draw are precisely the opposite of those drawn by Jews. Following Kant, they see Auschwitz as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism … According to this view it is not Israel that is the answer to Auschwitz, but the European Union.”

There are, therefore, he argues, two irreconcilable responses to the horror of the death camps. If you see nationalism as the cause of the Holocaust then – basically – you will see the dismantling of nation states as the right and proper response. Thus the European Union. But if you see empire and internationalism as the problem, then the answer is stronger nation states, especially for the vulnerable. Thus the state of Israel.

In other words, the two basic but opposite assumptions about what created the Holocaust inevitably lead to two completely opposite answers as to what should be the right response to it. For one position, nationalism is the solution. For another, nationalism is precisely the problem. For such as these, as Hazony puts it: “Israel is Auschwitz”. If you analyse nationalism as the problem, then more nationalism cannot be the answer. That is, if you believe nationalism is the problem, then “Israel is, is some important sense, a variant of Nazism”!

It is no coincidence, Hazony maintains, that Israel is constantly compared to Nazism by some liberal Europeans. Thus, he concludes, opposition to the existence of Israel is deep in the European marrow, it represents a “universal will [that] cannot abide a single, obstinately dissenting people, no matter how small”.

Drawing on Moses, Hazony presents a vision of the nation state in which independent nations are not built upon any sense of national superiority or desire for conquest. They don’t have to believe they are better than anyone else, or that other people should follow their way of doing things – just as my loyalty to my family doesn’t make me in any way hostile to your loyalty to yours. Nations can and should cooperate with each other for mutual advantage. But they should be extremely wary of transferring the powers of national sovereignty to trans-national institutions.

There will be those who believe federalism and subsidiarity represents a third way between nationalism and imperialism – though Hazony rejects such a move, arguing that federalism always seeks to accrue greater power to itself, thus always sliding towards a form of empire. If this is so, then the current debate about the future of the European Union is but the foothills of a much greater conflict about whether we see liberalism as a means of liberation or an empire that seeks world domination – Kant, von Mises etc.

If the debates about the European Union were not already vituperative enough, Hazony has doused the whole argument in ideological gasoline. This is one of the most controversial books I have ever read and I am still processing his conclusions.

I have little love for the EU, but the idea that it is a soft variant of Nazism feels far too strong, even for me. Yet throughout his argument I felt myself nodding away, especially in his attack on liberalism. But, as many will, I reacted instinctively against his comparison of liberalism with Nazism. Liberalism may try and collapse difference and seek to establish some universal order, but it clearly has nothing like the murderous intent of the Nazis. That said, Hazony warns us that even the most apparently benign variants of empire contain within themselves the capacity to turn to violence. And on that point, I fear he is quite right.