Ridiculous Claims in Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism

President Trump recently said, “I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”  Trump didn’t give a definition of what a nationalist is or what that ideology entails.  Fortunately, political theorist Yoram Hazony recently wrote The Virtue of Nationalism where he attempted to define and present a persuasive argument in favor of nationalism.  This was a worthy goal as nationalism is currently a popular political ideology.  The time is right for a book that defines nationalist and coherently and consistently makes the case for it.  Unfortunately, The Virtue of Nationalism is not that book. 

Other reviewers have identified its many problems, so instead of writing another review, I’m going to list some ridiculous claims that Hazony makes in his book and some of the logical implications of those claims.  Those claims and implications are numbered below and come from his book and I identify them as one or the other.  They are my summaries of his claims and NOT direct quotes.

1.  Nationalists can’t do the bad things that nationalists are most known for, according to Hazony’s definition.

Early in his book, Hazony wrote that he “will not waste time trying to make nationalism prettier by calling it ‘patriotism,’ as many do in circles where nationalism is considered something unseemly.”  True to his word, Hazony wasted zero-time conflating nationalism and patriotism, the latter being different and mostly positive.  He just wasted most of his book arguing that any nation-state that attempts to conquer other nations is not really a nation-state. 

According to Hazony, a nation is combination of “a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises” (18) and that “the world is governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference” (3). 

Hazony contrasts nation states with imperialist states that have universal ideals that he claims leads to conquest.  Thus, nation-states cannot seek to conquer other nation-states as that would make them imperialist states because they do not respect the independent course of other nations.  According to Hazony, a state cannot be a nation-state and imperialist (dominating or seeking to dominate other nations) at the same time due to his unique definition that conveniently excludes the “bad” nation-states.  In my reading of the literature on nationalism, historian Douglas Porch was more likely correct when he wrote: “Colonialism was not, as Lenin claimed, ‘the highest stage of capitalism.’ Rather it was the highest stage of nationalism.”

2. Hitler and the Nazis were not nationalists.

Following his definition of nationalism, Hazony repeatedly claims that the Nazis were not really nationalists.  I know of no other serious historian of the Third Reich or other thinkers on nationalism who would go so far as to say that Hitler or the core ideology of the National Socialist German Workers Party weren’t nationalists.  They were, of course, nationalists.  The first point of their political platform was: “We demand the unification of all Germans in the Greater Germany on the basis of the people’s right to self-determination.”  The evidence that the Nazis considered themselves nationalists, that others considered them nationalists, and that they fit into the scheme of nationalism is so massive that it would be silly to run through it all. 

Hazony should have just argued that not all nationalists are Nazis and that very few of them have achieved or even attempted to achieve that level of evil – which would be perfectly reasonable and true statement!  Not all nationalists are Nazis (very few are, in fact), so this would have been a very reasonable acknowledgment for him to make that would barely even rise to the level of a concession.  Carlton Hayes wrote a useful taxonomy of nationalism with Nazism on one extreme and liberal nationalism on the other.  There was no need for Hazony to make the blatantly false historical claim that the Nazi’s weren’t nationalists in order to argue in support of nationalism in the modern world.

3. Europe has never had nation-states, even during the age of nationalism.

This is an implication of Hazony’s unique definition of nationalism and nation-states, not something that Hazony explicitly wrote in his book.  According to his unique definition, there were no nation-states in the so-called age of nationalism in Europe.  During the age of European nationalist in the 19th and 20th centuries, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, and other nation-states were imperialists too.  They conquered colonies and overseas territories populated by non-nationals that they ruled with ghastly humanitarian consequences.

If Nazi Germany was not nationalist because it conquered other countries, then surely those European nation-states in the age of nationalism were also not nationalist because they conquered other countries.  I asked Hazony about this and his response was unsatisfying (Figure 1). 

Figure 1

Twitter Exchange Between Yoram Hazony and Alex Nowrasteh


 Source: Alex Nowrasteh’s Twitter Account on September 19, 2018.

 4.  Nationalism has nothing to do with race or ethnicity (page 20 of his book).

Hazony makes this claim specifically about the ancient Israelites.  I’m not a Torah scholar so he may be correct in that specific case.  However, many other nation-states are explicitly defined by ethnicity.  The Latin root of nationalism is natio, which means tribe, ethnic group, race, breed, or other divisions by birth.  Hazony’s definition that a nation-state forms from “a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises” is highly correlated with ethnicity, to say nothing of the historical inaccuracy of his theory.  There is much research arguing that there is a link between ethnicity and nation. 

Hazony could have argued that nation-states can also be formed by civic attachments too, thus widening the definition as many modern scholars do so they can avoid the ugly implications of arguing for a race- or ethnicity-based nation-state.  However, Hazony specifically wrote that nations formed along civic lines are systematically unstable and impossible to hold together, at best temporary, and that they function poorly relative to nation-states created with the ethnicity-correlated attributes above (156-157).  The United States, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are four wealthy states that are functioning very well despite not being nation-states under his strict definition.

5.  Nation-states are governed by consent, not coercion. 

 Hazony makes this claim several times in his book.  Nation-states have police, courts, military, and other institutions to coerce individual compliance with its law and rules just as every government does.  Perhaps governments in nation-states require less coercion to govern well as they are more homogeneous, thus theoretically making it easier to reach more broadly held policy consensuses that require less coercion.  But that would be an empirical claim that Hazony does not address that is doubtful given the large and complex legal enforcement apparatuses of nation-states.     

6.  Tribes voluntarily combined to form modern nation-states.

As mentioned earlier, Hazony claims that nations are formed by tribes that voluntary combine.  Economic historian Mark Koyama thoroughly debunked this claim far better than I could have, so please read his review.  My only additional comment on this is that a thorough listing and description of all the historical situations where Hazony’s claim does not hold would fill many, many volumes and describe the history of virtually every country.  

We are living in a time of renewed nationalism.  Whether this is a temporary blip or a long-term shift remains to be seen, but there is a scarcity of modern books, articles, or other writings that can competently explain that political ideology and make the case for it.  Hazony’s book fails for many reasons, but his insistence on defining nationalism in such a specific way that excludes virtually all nation-states that have ever existed should be a big red flag to anybody interested in this topic.