Zeev Sternhell, the well-known Israeli historian who is widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on fascism, published a new essay in the December 2010 number of Le Monde Diplomatique, translated below.  --   In it, Sternhell, who long taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and who has been targeted as an important enemy by ultra-orthodox Israeli settlers, emphasizes the great importance of the war being "waged against the values of the Enlightenment."  --  The anti-Enlightenment campaign "is being pursued with just as much determination as during the preceding two centuries," he wrote, "for the great questions confronted by the philosophers of the 18th century remain central: is a society a body, a living organism, or merely a collection of citizens?  Where does national identity lie?  Does a national community define itself in political and juridical terms, or as a function of history and culture?  And what, then, is the weight of religion in culture?  What is of more importance in human lives:  that which is common to all or that which separates them?  Moreover, is the world as it exists the only one we can envisage?  Is changing the social order a legitimate objective or does it guarantee disaster?" ...


[Translated from *Le Monde Diplomatique* (Paris)]

From a nation of citizens to a cultural nation


By Zeev Sternhell

** Respect for identities and cultures, mistrust of ideologies of progress, criticism of rationalism and its pretention to be universal: these are all characteristics of a contemporary political sensibility that is sometimes hard to situate on the political chessboard.  This current was born in the 18th century in order to oppose the notion of autonomous individuals who enact their own choices -- which is the fundamental principle of democracy. **

Le Monde Diplomatique (Paris)
December 2010
Page 3


The war waged against the values of the Enlightenment is being pursued with just as much determination as during the preceding two centuries, for the great questions confronted by the philosophers of the 18th century remain central: is a society a body, a living organism, or merely a collection of citizens?  Where does national identity lie?  Does a national community define itself in political and juridical terms, or as a function of history and culture?  And what is, then, the weight of religion in culture?  What is of more importance in human lives:  that which is common to all or that which separates them?  Moreover, is the world as it exists the only one we can envisage?  Is changing the social order a legitimate objective or does it guarantee disaster?

A conception of the human being obviously plays a role in answers to these key questions.  For the political thought of the powerful and tenacious anti-Enlightenment tradition, the individual only has meaning in and by virtue of the community, exists only in the concrete particular and not in the universal abstract.  We must, then, privilege what distinguishes, divides, separate human beings, for this is what fashions their identity:  this cannot be reduced to reason alone and is much more vigorous than reason.

This "identitarian" question, which is once again on the agenda in France and elsewhere, has never disappeared since Diderot and d'Alembert's *Encyclopédie* first formulated the Enlightenment definition of the nation:  "a considerable number of people inhabiting a country of a certain extent enclosed within certain limits, and who obey the same government."[Note 1: Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Lausanne: Société typographique, 1781), vol. 44, p. 221.  Original text:  "une quantité considérable de peuple, qui habite une certaine étendue du pays, renfermée dans de certaines limites, et qui obéit au même gouvernement."]  Not a word on history, culture, language, or religion: it is thus that the citizens entered the world, freed from their particularities.  It was on this basis that Jews and black slaves were liberated by the Revolution: for the first time in modern history, all the inhabitants of the same country obeying the same government became free citizens with equal rights, all subject to the same laws.  It is worth pointing out that this conception of the nation did not express a sociological or cultural reality, but was the heroic effort of Enlightenment thinkers to surmount the resistances of history, to liberate individuals from the determinisms of their time, notably of religion, affirming their autonomy.

This political and juridical vision of the nation would not survive the first years of the French Revolution.  It would be swept away by the conception of Johann Gottfried von Herder, enemy of Rousseau and Voltaire, critic of Kant, and founder of ideological nationalism: according to this great German thinker, the nation is a natural phenomenon, a living organism endowed with a soul and a genius of its own, which express themselves in language.  Just as leaves and branches only exist by virtue of the tree, human beings only exist by virtue of the nation.  This homogeneous, quasi-tribal unity possesses a personality and a character, and represents the noblest creation of which history is capable.

Nationalism, which swept through the 19th and 20th centuries like a whirlwind, is still very much alive.  It is often claimed that it was born of the French Revolution.  Exactly the opposite is the case:  the revolution was only possible because the nation was already a reality, and the transfer of sovereignty could take place naturally.  But Diderot and d'Alembert wanted to give this reality a political and juridical meaning by inflecting it in the direction of a collective of individuals: history and culture could not be allowed to make human beings prisoners of some determinism.  For them as for Kant, the Enlightenment was a process whereby individuals reached maturity, and their liberation from the shackles of history constituted the essence of the Enlightenment and the birth of modernity.

Since then and right up to the present day, the good of the individual has constituted in Enlightenment thought the final objective of all political and social action.  On the other hand, for anti-Enlightenment thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries the community comes before the individual, defined above all as an heir of the past: our ancestors speak in us, we are what they made of us.  If Nicolas Sarkozy, the political figure, Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher, the nationalist religious Jews of Israel, and the neoconservatives and their evangelical allies in the United States are all waging, in spite of appearances, the same fight, it's because they all assert, with Herder, that every person, every historical community has its own specific and inimitable "culture," and that this is what must come first.


If the nation is a cultural and historical community, the quality of "historical" French person then becomes an absolute value, whereas that of French citizen is only a relative value, since it designates a simple juridical category, artificially created.  We can therefore envisage, 65 years after Vichy's racial laws, taking away French nationality from naturalized "foreigners"...  As George Orwell would have said, thanks to this way of thinking, certain citizens can from one day to the next discover that they are less equal than others.  Alain Finkielkraut considers himself the repository of a cultural and historical heritage that goes back to the consecration of French kings in Rheims;[Note 2: See his exchange with Alain Badiou in Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris), December 17, 2009.] nevertheless, a good Maurrassian would still define him as a Polish Jew born by pure chance in France... Today he is safe from discrimination -- which is not the case for Arabs and other Muslims.

And yet, in a way that might seem unexpected, that very same right-wing movement and the Muslim militants of the banlieues have in common some important values.  They all privilege belonging to a culture, defend their historical "self," found their identity in a real or mythic past, think that their cultural community has something unique to say and that it ought to remain true to itself for all time.  They have more conceptual affinities with each other than with the encyclopedists... But the fundamentalist Islamists are way ahead of the right when it comes to the essential question of the impermeability of cultures.  Unlike the right, Islamism, like other fundamentalisms, whether Jewish or Christian, preaches the necessity of isolation.  We should, no doubt, briefly recall here the postmodernist passion for multiculturalism and the belief in cultural difference, which has played a leading role in the weakening of universal values.  Claude Lévi-Strauss, its great prophet, was conscious of the antihumanist and antiuniversalist vocation of the belief in cultural difference, which claims for each culture an incommunicable and inimitable originality.  In fact, he explained, despite "the elevated moral ends that it attributes to itself, the struggle against all forms of discrimination participates in the same movement that is dragging humanity toward a global civilization that is destructive of those old particularisms that have the honor of having created the esthetic and spiritual values that give life its value."  Lest it fall into cultural and spiritual decadence, humanity "will have to relearn that every true creation implies a certain deafness to the appeal of other values, which can go so far as to refuse or even to negate them. . . . When integral communication with the Other succeeds completely, it is incompatible in the short or long term with the uniqueness of what the Other has created and with what I myself have created."[Note 3: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Regard éloigné (Paris: Plon, 1971), p. 47.  See also "Race and History" in a collective volume published by UNESCO in 1956, The Race Question in Modern Science, pp. 125-32.] 

This is precisely what the thinkers of the anti-Enlightenment, from Herder to the postmodernists and fundamentalists of every stripe, have always said.  It is self-evident that this refusal of universalism and humanism is in agreement with every variety of communitarianism and neoconservatism, in particular with their American version.


For Daniel Bell, the most important contemporary neoconservative theoretician, to say that "'God is dead' amounts to saying that society is dead."  Now, "modernist" culture, that of the Enlightenment, which has the misfortune of "displacing the center of authority away from the sacred and toward the profane," is incapable of offering "a transcendental set of ultimate values, or even of satisfactions, in everyday life."  Nothing replaces religion as the conscience of society:  if the "new capitalism," without any moral or transcendental ethos, and the hedonistic counterculture, into which American values are disappearing, have been able to appear on the scene, it's because of the weakening of the Protestant ethic.[Note 4: Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), pp. xxvii, 155-58, xxiv, 85, 65-79).]

For his part, the political ideologue of this movement, Irving Kristol, who died in September 2009, adopted accents worthy of an Islamist or religious Israeli nationalist manifesto in order to remind his readers that without the religious dimension, conservatism has no consistency, and that secularity is the enemy:  for it is not enough to say that this world is the best possible, nor to say that the evils that remain are necessary, one must still specify what conduct it is proper to adopt in the face of these evils.  In Kristol's view, that is precisely the glory of neoconservatism:  to have succeeded in convincing the great majority of Americans that economic frustrations and other social questions are really moral questions, to which religion holds the key.

One can see why neoconservatives had no trouble associating with religious conservatives and how together they found a way to create populist conservativism...  The American right, the religious and annexationist nationalist right in Israel, and Islamists throughout the world thus all participate in a common current that postulates a different modernity:  one that considers the nation as the ideal type of closely-bound society, turned toward God, confident in its objective existence, and having resources that are independent of the will of the individual or of reason -- for human beings need the sacred, and need to obey.

This obviously presupposes a vision of the future that is in total opposition to that of the Enlightenment: any attempt to recast the foundations of society can only be a cardinal sin carrying within itself its own self-destruction.  The neoconservatives, including those of the French variety, thus always consider the French Revolution as a diabolical phenomenon, one they contrast to England's Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 and the birth of the United States.  Yet all three of these revolutions were foundational events that brought into being regimes without precedent, and indeed the American Declaration of Independence and the French declarations of the rights of man are grounded in the same principles.  But that's because it was rhetorically necessary to establish an unbridgeable gap between England and America, where in both countries simple changes of regime are supposed to have made possible the restoration of old English liberties, and France, where a revolution turned against God and civilization was supposed to have erased six centuries of history.  This interpretation, which attained its summit just after the Cold War, still feeds the idea of French exceptionalism:  only France is supposed to have engendered a revolution outside of the Anglo-American path, so as to lead not to liberal democracy and capitalism, but to democracy period, the one Renan was already calling "that low terrorist democracy."[Note 5: Ernest Renan, La Réforme intellectuelle et morale, in Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1929), p. 133.]

Despite the disastrous experience of the 20th century, the clash between the two political traditions continues.  Today the defense of universalism and rationalism remains an urgent, complex task, as considerable as what is at stake:  maintaining what a nation composed of autonomous citizens is based upon.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
Website: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.