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The Nation Principle


Marburg, July 1952

Ad imperialism: Imperialism, i.e. the idea of empire carried by the nation, has perished because wherever the nation appears, it engenders nations according to its own principle. This is, concretely, how the “conquest” of the world by the West took place, except that it wasn’t a real conquest and that assimilation to the conquering people [Eroberervolk] was just as impossible as the introduction of its own law.

The real tragedy in this process lies in the fact that the West only set out on its triumphant course over the earth at the moment when expansion had become the only way out of the national problems that had become insoluble. The nation spread across the earth when it had been proven that nation-states do not have the potential of conducting world politics. Thus, Europe by definition not only exported the national idea but “nationalism” as a desperate flight from the collapse of the nation-state. In this process, or at its end, the “nation” separated itself from the “state,” hoping that the problem was with the concept of the state. With that began the tribal [völkische] stage of nationalism; one step further on this extraordinarily lopsided plain appeared race, in which the people [Volk] had also separated itself from the soil and had become a devastating [verwüstende] horde. Thus collapsed the holy national trinity of people [Volk]-state-territory. Today, after the collapse of the imperialist experiment and in light of the totally-totalitarian menace, we have states behind which the people [Volk] no longer stands; territories that will no longer be defended against foreign conquerors by their inhabitants; and peoples [Völker] that are neither organized and protected by the state nor “enrooted” in the soil. This is the space of the desert, in which the sand storms are unleashed.

(Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, pp. 216-7 (entry number 22), translation mine.)

Written three years after Arendt finished the original manuscript of The Origins of Totalitarianism, this very dense entry in Arendt’s Denktagebuch (“think diary”) revisits several of the main arguments developed in part 2, “Imperialism,” of that book. I will draw primarily on Origins to unpack it.

ernest renan

Ernest Renan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The “principle” of the nation mentioned in the first sentence is a term that appears throughout Ernest Renan’s 1882 essay, “What is a Nation?” Indeed, Arendt references Renan’s famous qualification of “the existence of the nation” as “a daily plebiscite” on the third page of “Imperialism,” and, in a footnote, cites Renan’s argument that nations are constituted by “the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down.” Renan’s main argument in “What is a Nation?” is that a nation is not a “natural” unit defined by race, language, or religion but an artifice that needs to be continually reconstituted through the consent of the members of the national community to sharing “a rich legacy of memories,” a “soul,” “spiritual principle,” or “moral consciousness,” and to the sacrifice of themselves for that “soul.” Arendt accepts this definition, and she also follows Renan’s critique of race thinking, or the substitution of an “ethnographic principle (…) for a national one,” which Renan considers “a very great error, which, if it were to become dominant, would destroy European civilization.”

Arendt not only follows Renan’s definition of the principle of the nation and his critique of race thinking: she also follows his description of the legitimacy of the nation-state. Renan writes: “A nation never has any real interest in annexing or holding on to a country against its will. The wish of nations is, all in all, the sole legitimate criterion, the one to which one must always return.” The nation-state derives its legitimacy from the idea of the “comity of nations” who all have the right to self-determination: this is the “nomos of the earth” in the age of the nation-state, to use the title of Carl Schmitt’s 1950 book, or, as Renan puts it, “the law of the century in which we are living.” (I mention The Nomos of the Earth here because Arendt’s next Denktagebuch entry is a critique of this book by Schmitt, which is in part concerned with the same topic.) This understanding of the legitimacy of the nation-state—“our nation state has the right to exist because all other nations also have the right to their own nation state”—is the basis for Arendt’s critique of “the idea of empire carried by the nation” in the period of imperialism that began two years after Renan’s essay, with the “Scramble for Africa” formalized in the Berlin conference of 1884-85 and culminating in the First World War. Her critique is that this idea is completely contradictory.


Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch

Would Arendt also agree with Renan’s evaluation of the world order of the comity of nations, this “law of the century”? Renan writes: “At the present time, the existence of nations is a good thing, a necessity even. Their existence is the guarantee of liberty, which would be lost if the world had only one law and one master” (for instance in a “European confederation,” which would “very probably replace them”). In the Denktagebuch entry, the apocalyptic image of the desert at the end clearly stands opposed to the nomos of the nation-state system, and at the end of “Imperialism,” Arendt imagines a world government in similarly apocalyptic terms. However, where Arendt departs from Renan is in his optimistic belief in the possibility to apply the nation principle universally and consistently. Renan writes: “If doubts arise regarding its [a nation’s] frontiers, consult the populations in the areas under dispute.” Arendt argues in “Imperialism” that the idea that each national community can have its own state on its own territory was always a fantasy, even if the calamitous consequences of this fantasy only manifest themselves in the twentieth century with the outbreak of the First World War, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, and the partition of the European territory into new nation-states that produce a massive amount of people who do not “belong” to the nation of the nation-state in which they now live.

Significantly, the word “law” does not play any role in Renan’s essay (other than as a synonym for “principle,” i.e. in the sense of nomos or order). Arendt makes this absence of importance of law for the nation principle explicit in “Imperialism,” where she associates the nation-state with “the transformation of the state from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation.” Implicit in the Denktagebuch entry but explicit in “Imperialism” is an opposition between “the idea of empire carried by the nation” and the conquests of the Roman Republic, which was “based primarily on law,” not on consent. Whereas the Roman Empire could conquer and “integrate” “the most heterogeneous peoples by imposing upon them a common law,” Arendt argues, the nation-state would have to “assimilate” conquered peoples to the homogeneity of the nation, which would require enforced consent. What happens instead is that the idea of empire carried by the nation awakens the national consciousness of the people it “conquers.”

Arendt puts “conquest” in quotation marks because she argues that the aim of the imperialism of the nation-state is not conquest but expansion, which is “not really political at all.” Instead, she writes, “Imperialism was born when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against national limitations to its economic expansion.” However, nation-states do not have the potential for world politics because they are the states of national communities living on national territories, and “the body politics of the nation is not capable of empire building.”


A parade of Nazis (Source: The Mendenhall)

The “nationalism” (in quotation marks) that gets exported in addition to the national idea that awakens national consciousness marks a decline of the nation-state: the nation separates itself first from the state and finally also from the territory. In the course of this decline, which Arendt traces in detail in “Imperialism,” the principle of the nation (Renan’s artifice) ultimately degenerates into a naturalistic ideology of race, and the national community degenerates into a destructive “horde” that lays waste to the “world” and leaves it exposed to the violence of whatever sand storms are unleashed on it, such as that of the Third Reich. (The penultimate page of Origins also contains the image of a sand storm in the desert.)

It seems, then, that for Arendt, the principle of the nation or the “national idea” is itself one of the origins of totalitarianism insofar as it hinges on the mistaken idea that the “holy national trinity of people-state-territory” can be realized everywhere on earth without any remainder of people who do not belong to the national community that constitutes the majority on the territory where they live, and also insofar as this principle lends itself to a separation of the nation both from the state and from the territory. But what exactly “origins” means here is of course a very complex question. Thus, questions that emerge from re-reading Arendt’s genealogy include: To what extent does the nation-state system still provide a barrier, perhaps even the primary barrier, against the sand storms of arbitrary forces such as the ever-“expanding” forces of “trans-national” capital? How might the nation-state’s subordination of the law to the nation be challenged, and what alternative configurations of law and nation might be imagined, given that the nation principle cannot simply be wished away? Since the decline from the Renanian, “republicanist” and “culturalist” nation, via the tribal nation, to the race, is of course not a straight historical line, is it possible to reclaim the “republicanist” nation against the “race” nation, or is the nation principle irredeemable and must the focus be on detecting other origins for political equality? And, finally, can the relation between nations and their others be thought differently, so that those who do not belong to one’s own nation do not have to fall into the dichotomy of either belonging to another nation or being seen as nothing but “barbarians” or “savages” (Origins)?

— Michiel Bot

Featuerd Image: Destruction, by Thomas Cole (1836); Source: Wikipedia)

Posted on 24 November 2014 | 9:00 am

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