Ignored by Liberal Elites, Exploited by Extreme Right: The Left-wing Case for Nationalism

In an age of populism and virulent nationalism, Prof. Yael (Yuli) Tamir’s new book 'Why Nationalism' deftly explores issues that the liberal elites have ignored and the extreme right has exploited for its own ends

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People walk over Westminster Bridge wrapped in Union flags, towards the Big Ben and The Houses of Parliament in central London on June 26, 2016.
People walk over Westminster Bridge wrapped in Union flags, towards the Big Ben and The Houses of Parliament in central London on June 26, 2016. Credit: ODD ANDERSEN / AFP

“Why Nationalism,” by Yael Tamir, Princeton University Press. 224 pages, $24.95

It isn’t easy these days for someone identified with the left like former Israeli politician and political philosophy prof. Yael (Yuli) Tamir to say something good about nationalism.

Extreme nationalism led to fascism and Nazism, and inflicted on the whole world and the Jewish people in particular such horrors that concepts connected with nationalism are often perceived as deplorable. As a scholar of political thought and a student of philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Tamir, who served as Israel's education minister, knows that the historical picture is much more complicated.

In her new English-language book “Why Nationalism,” she courageously defends moderate and universal nationalist outlooks, masterfully distinguishes between these and the murky populist wave washing over societies worldwide and endangering the Western democratic order.

“Why Nationalism,” by Yael Tamir, Princeton University Press. Credit: Princeton University Press

In her analysis she restores to the forefront of the left’s discourse the need to address questions that have been shunted aside because of the focus on abstract individualism, which has ignored the real-life experiences and concrete consciousness of broad sectors of society. Thus many groups have been swept up by pied pipers who knew how to exploit these frustrations and gain legitimacy for authoritarian rulers and regimes that claim to speak in the name of the people.

Anyone who has studied the nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries is aware of its complex origins, among which are sometimes contradictions. On the one hand, the national movement was based on the French Revolution’s principles of popular sovereignty and upheld nations’ right to self-determination. This was the nationalism that supported, for example, the Poles’ right to free themselves from the tyrannical regimes that broke apart their country and annexed it to Europe’s three dominant powers — the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires and the Kingdom of Prussia.

This nationalism upheld universal values, and its clearest manifestation was a statement by the father of Italian nationalism, Giuseppe Mazzini, who said he achieved being a citizen of the world by being the son of his nation and his country. This is how nationalism — and support for the independence of Poland, Greece and Italy — became the cornerstone of the progressive political forces of the 19th century.

But alongside this universal nationalism, another breed of nationalism appeared — one that focused on itself and particularist, historical perceptions — and was aggressive, lusted for territories and viewed political power as the guarantor of cultural flourishing. Its most prominent prophet was German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, who saw in a united Germany under Bismarck the way to overall pan-European German political and cultural control, and the Roman Empire as the model for a large and united Germany. This control would ensure Germany’s hegemony against the Slavic peoples and French cultural hegemony.

It’s no coincidence that a strong anti-Semitic tendency accompanied this nationalism. Treitschke was a founder of the anti-Semitic party in the Reichstag. His statement that “the Jews are our misfortune” eventually became a slogan of the Nazi Party.

These two tendencies intertwined and the mix changed from one generation to the next. This can easily be seen in today’s Poland, and anyone who so desires can discover clear signs of it here among ourselves – in the transition from the hegemony of liberal Zionism that agreed to the 1947 partition plan to the tendencies in the nation-state law passed by the Knesset a year ago.

For this reason, one must remember that nationalism has two faces (Tamir talks about the “Janus face” of nationalism). Like English, Hebrew and many other languages distinguish between the “national,” which is rooted in universal values of the right to self-determination, and the “nationalist,” which is aggressive and destructive and doesn’t recognize the rights of the other. This distinction is clear to all scholars of nationalism. The two aspects are often intertwined and it’s not always easy to distinguish between them, but distinction is critical both methodically and morally.

Supporters react as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina July 17, 2019. Credit: \ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

Tamir’s 1993 book “Liberal Nationalism” discussed the need to distinguish between these two forms of nationalism; the work’s theoretical insights provide good background for her new book. Tamir later gained political experience in the Knesset opposition and as a cabinet member. Also, the Israeli reality, with all its uniqueness, provides a dimension that helps identify the phenomena Tamir explores.

The rise of extremist nationalist movements and populist and authoritarian leaders even in countries with a long and stable democratic tradition — certainly the way the rise of Donald Trump is changing the United States and the whole world — has produced a raft of studies on these phenomena. Tamir’s book, however, is outstanding in that it combines her background as a political philosopher with her many years of hands-on political experience, something that can’t be said of many scholars in the West who are now focusing on these issues but have never stepped outside the academic ivory tower.

Attack in the name of democracy

At a recent conference in Budapest at Central European University (under attack by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian regime), an interesting distinction was drawn between the phenomena of the 1930s and what’s happening today. In the ‘30s, it was said, democracy was under attack by antidemocratic theories that upheld principles of authoritarianism and hierarchical leadership.

Today, the challenge to liberal democracy is coming from leaders claiming that they — not the traditional democratic institutions — are the true spokesmen for the people, not the “liberal elite.” This is an attack on democracy in the name of democracy, and it poses difficult challenges to anyone seeking to defend liberal democracy and its institutions: political parties, the courts, academia and the free press.

Prof. Yael (Yuli) Tamir. Globalization hasn’t created an alternative to national identity.Credit: Vardi Kahana

Tamir makes a unique contribution to this discussion by analyzing the implications of globalization for the internal political system in the West. She follows in the footsteps of Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, pretty much the only economist to warn years ago about the political and social repercussions of globalization, which, despite its achievements, has exacted a steep price.

According to Tamir, the liberal democracy that emerged after 1945 was based on a unique coalition — between the liberal intelligentsia, mostly from the established middle class, and large segments of the traditional working class and other weak social strata. The welfare state that crystallized after the New Deal and the victory of the Labour Party in Britain in 1945, which adopted the economics espoused by John Maynard Keynes, created a partnership of interests between these two groups.

Western liberalism realized it couldn’t limit itself to the middle class, but had to ensure relative well-being and economic security for the working class and lower middle class so that they wouldn’t be swept up by communism and fascism. Extensive social legislation and the consolidation of moderate center-left parties in Western Europe, along with the expansion of the social base of the Democratic Party in the United States, created political stability that cut across classes. This was based on a political structure in which moderate center-right parties such as the Christian Democrats were also partners.

The political basis for this alliance was a national solidarity that let representatives of classes with various social and ideological backgrounds work together. In this framework the national community was seen as the basis for protecting not only individual freedom but also the economic infrastructure of the welfare state, which even conservative parties adopted to a large extent. As a former education minister, Tamir adds an interesting dimension to the formation of this national consciousness; she analyzes curricula that were perceived as instilling a shared heritage beyond the historical class differences.

Trump supporters hug in San Diego, California.Credit: \ Mike Blake/ REUTERS

The strength of labor unions — which, in the 19th century, many liberals considered a threat to freedom of the individual — allowed an integration into this consensus, which considerably narrowed the social gaps and class polarization of the 1920s and '30s. This wasn’t an abstract solidarity; it was rooted in life itself and the human emotions, which were perceived as partners in the efforts to build a society that certainly wouldn’t be ideal or utopian, but that would let members of different classes feel at home in their own country. The statements in “The Communist Manifesto” that “The workers have no homeland” and “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains” were refuted by the political and social practice of the welfare state.

Breakup of the coalition

According to Tamir, this coalition that transcended class was gradually unraveled by phenomena that weren’t always connected to one another but weakened solidarity in various ways. Globalization brought prosperity, especially among the middle classes and the intelligentsia. However, it also gradually shifted the center of gravity of political decision-making from the elected bodies — national parliaments and governments — to huge multinational corporations that aren’t rooted in the economic interests of any particular society but rather are chasing profits on the international level.

At the same time, the rise of international institutions — and especially the European Union, with all its success in preventing war on the Continent — also shifted the locus of decision-making from elected officials in a nation-state to a faceless and alienated bureaucracy. The citizens of any given state could continue to elect a government based on their preferences, but the decisions were basically imposed from the outside — whether by bureaucratic orders from Brussels or by the international market forces on which the citizens of any given state have no influence.

The liberal intelligentsia wasn’t hurt by these developments. On the contrary, new and broader horizons opened to it in academia, which became more and more international, and at multinational corporations and transnational organizations. The people hurt were industrial workers and labor unions for which the collective agreements were no longer relevant in an economy that doesn’t take national borders into account. The political parties that were supposed to represent them became weaker and weaker.

A man at a pro-Brexit rally on Park Lane in London, December 9, 2018. Credit: Tim Ireland / AP

At the same time, the attention of parts of the liberal intelligentsia went to identity politics — of women, minorities, immigrants, LGBT people — for whom support for their rights is justified but came at the expense of support for universal principles of equality and distributive justice.

More and more groups of victims of these processes despaired of the political structure and its institutions — the political parties as well as the courts (an extreme example of this in Israel is the High Court of Justice, which avoids problems of universal social and economic rights). Trump and the Brexit supporters exemplify the turn toward populism and vitriolic nationalism by the classes that have been shunted to the margins because of these processes.

The immigration crisis and its cynical exploitation by the extreme right and its leaders have exacerbated the alienation among people who don’t understand why their governments are taking care of African refugees and not the victims of globalization in their own country. The positions of liberal — but critical — thinkers like Mark Lilla and Ivan Krastev serve Tamir as confirmations of the depth of the alienation of many liberals from the problems of the victims of globalization in the West.

She describes this turn toward vitriolic nationalism by the weak and the victims, who feel that their societies have turned their backs on them, quoting former British Prime Minister Theresa May: “Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.”

Reclaiming the sense of ‘togetherness’

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage attends a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, July 4, 2019. Credit: Vincent Kessler / Reuters

In the last part of her book, Tamir proposes a new social contract for recreating the class-transcending coalition that has disintegrated. The basis of this coalition must be a sense of social and human “togetherness,” not only economic interests based on solidarity among the various segments of society.

Globalization, according to Tamir, hasn’t created an alternative to national identity, people’s desire to be autonomous in a society that respects their culture, language and sense of home. This must be an open and pluralistic nationalism that respects differences but also recognizes the need to feel what the French Revolution declared — and didn’t always succeed in realizing — as its third principle alongside liberty and equality: fraternity, the solidarity that springs from a sense of belonging and partnership.

In addition to the importance of a sense of national solidarity, Tamir discusses the need to return to the concept of class. She stresses that the squeamishness in parts of the liberal intelligentsia about using this concept — sometimes for fear of being perceived, heaven forbid, as communists. This has only contributed to the deepening of the alienation among large segments of society from the liberal elites. When we stop talking about a “working class” or a “middle class” and talk about “the poor,” we deprive millions of people of their identity and pride.

When we transform someone from being a “worker” into being “poor,” we transform him from someone with an identity and an important social and economic function into a beggar at the gates. The problem isn’t poverty but rather the class patterns of the distribution of resources, which can’t be ignored.

Regarding this issue, Tamir follows a long tradition in the socialist movement in which many thinkers knew that one has to address the cultural aspects of modern society. The early Zionist Moses Hess, in a debate with his friend and intellectual sparring partner Karl Marx, argued that the idea that “workers have no homeland” isn’t true. He pointed to the profound cultural, historical and linguistic traditions that determine the consciousness of members of the proletariat.

Polish nationalists protesting proposals that their country compensate Jews whose families lost property during the Holocaust, Warsaw, May 11, 2019. Credit: Czarek Sokolowski / AP

Therefore Hess concluded that a solution to “the Jewish question” wasn’t possible in the framework of an abstract pan-European socialism. The Italians, who were winning independence, could only develop a socialist regime within a nation-state; so too for the Jews. After Italy gained its independence, Hess published his 1862 book “Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question,” which follows in Mazzini’s footsteps. In this work he proposes the establishment of a socialist Jewish state in Palestine that would draw not only on universal principles of social justice but also on the Jewish sources (the fallow year, the jubilee year, the protection of the widow and the orphan). With somewhat understandable exaggeration, he calls the biblical Moses a “social democrat.”

Thinkers like Dov Ber Borochov also tried to combine Zionism and socialism, as did Chaim Arlosoroff, who in his brilliant 1919 essay “The Jewish People’s Socialism” called for the establishment of Zionist socialism as part of an attempt to rehabilitate the international socialist movement after World War I. The Socialist International believed that international solidarity among the proletariat would prevent wars, but in the summer of 1914 it discovered that when put to the test most proletarians in the various countries were loyal to their own country, not to the abstract universalism of international solidarity.

Arlosoroff argued that a worker, too, despite his alienation from the high culture of his society, has a profound feeling of identification with his country and its language, culture and landscape. According to Arlosoroff, the recognition of this solidarity of the worker is the only way to prevent the proletariat from slipping into aggressive and extreme nationalism.

In her call for re-creating a coalition between the liberal intelligentsia, the working class and other strata in society, Tamir is aware of the technological and other changes happening around the world. In the words of Berl Katznelson, a founder of Labor Zionism, this is the alliance between the valley and the mountain — the Jezreel Valley of the workers’ kibbutzim and Mount Scopus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was Marx who recognized the need for this alliance when in one of his early writings he declared: “The head of [human] emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat.” In the changing circumstances, Tamir — both an Israeli patriot and a citizen of the world — argues the need for creating coalitions that transcend class. This, the national framework, for which there is no substitute, will lead to universal humanism.

Tamir concludes with cautious optimism. She’s aware that there are no magical solutions, but stresses that what’s happening today isn’t just a train wreck linked to one leader or another. Therefore, the creation of broad-based social alliances is essential if we want to halt the murky waves threatening liberal democracy.