Furthest Right

Remembering Johann Herder (M. Raphael Johnson)

Remembering Johann Herder

M. Raphael Johnson


Surprisingly, very few of those who call themselves ethnic-nationalist know anything of its history and development. Johann Herder, writing in the early 19th century, is largely considered the major founder of nationalist theory in western Europe. A pro-Slavic German, Herder laid out a vision of the cultural order where the globe was made of innumerable ethnic groups, united by culture and language, each with its own purpose and “genius.” These were all to be self-governing, as the state was to have a minimal role, leaving actual governance to local institutions and tradition. Of all the nationalist theorists of history, Herder is likely the most widely read today, and is even given a modicum of respect within academic intellectual history and political science. 

Ethno-nationalism, in spite of the myths pouring out of the academic presses, is a rejection of the gnostic-Enlightenment view of man, morality and epistemology. Unless one understands this negative connection, one cannot understand the moral and historical and moral basis of nationalism and the ethno-community. Therefore, it is absolutely central that the work of Johann Herder be dealt with, for, in many respects, the revolt against Enlightenment “liberalism” and “practical” conservatism comes from him rather than from Burke, whose theoretical prowess has been overestimated in many respects.

Herder’s critique of the Enlightenment rests on one major proposition: that the study of man is radically different from the study of nature. In other words, the object with which any specific community or civilization provides the “social scientist” with does not bear the same marks as an object as in the natural sciences. The sciences themselves impose an ideological and a priori grid upon nature, the quantitative measures to which science reduces all visible phenomena. To treat man as an object of science is to standardize him, to standardize him is to reject all that is human about him, to reduce him to a mechanical being, a being easily manipulated from outside; the esoteria of the social sciences. In other words, this sort of standardization is to reduce civilization — for Herder the ethno-nation — to a set of material causes and effects which ensures that only the most formal and formalizable aspects of the people under study will be understood. Even here, though, precisely because that which is formal (or formalizable) is removed from the rest, that then is misunderstood. Peoples are distorted if they are a priori standardized in a quantitative formula. This is the central proposition of Herder’s social theory, and, importantly, the starting point for the countercritique of Enlightenment mythology.

Herder, as nearly all anti-Enlightenment thinkers, rejected the intellectually vapid notion of a “social contract.” If such contracting individuals were to exist to enter into some contractual obligations, then the contract would have already been settled. In other words, the civilizational apparatus that would allow a scholar to even conceive of a “contract” is already in existence as the contracting parties are coming together. “Social contract” theory is an intellectually dishonest slight of hand: its primary purpose is to reject all aspects of history, civilization and nationhood in order to rebuild the society on the demands of the contracting parties. These, as always, mean the wealthy and powerful who demand the institutionalization of their own interests and call them “universal human rights.”

Communities derive primarily from the fact that men are born radically helpless and dependent, not free and equal. Only the existence of the community ensures that human beings exist at all. Therefore, all arts and sciences derive from this natural, communal union, and exist as a product of the communal mind, rather than specifically the minds of great men. In other words, that the man of genius, undoubtedly a reality in human history, should be demystified in that his genius has been nurtured by the community around him. The books he has read, lectures attended, apprenticeships, language, education, in short, everything necessary to develop the talents of genius are communally created, not individually created. Therefore, the proper study of human society is not the “great man” but rather the community, the nation, the ethnos. This is the proper unit of history, and it is it that works through the great men, economic institutions, armies and books that a historian might study. Genius exists, as do classes or great ideas, but they do not come into existence in isolation.

What Herder and his followers revolted against is the mechanization of nature and human societies, the dominance of methodology over mankind and the idea that various nations and cultures are commensurate with the newest conceptual apparatus of modern science. On the contrary, Herder believed that nations and cultures were basically incommensurable, and that, in order to understand any one, they needed to be understood from the point of view of how they understood themselves. Modern historical theorizing generally judges historical societies to the extent they have manifested the much more contemporary ideas of liberalism and secularism. Of course, such a method is not history, but a crude ideological polemic that passes for erudition in American universities. A nation is not “successful” if it is wealthy, if indeed, wealth is not a mark of success. American historians will prattle on about the wealth, freedom or repression in a certain historical culture, without bothering to inquire whether or not such things were considered important, or if the average person considered liberal ideas of jurisprudence to be wise or not. Herder fought this trend in his own day, and the battle seems still to be lost.

The basic epistemological idea here is that, in order to understand anything, the conceptualization of the data (always incomplete) must come a posteriori. Objects can only be understood within and through the group mind of the ethno-community. Contemporary scientific methods take an a priori notion of conceptualization such as “rational choice” theory or a class- or “gender”-based analysis, for example, and impose it upon any society or group whatever. In political science, so it is regularly claimed, any data set whatsoever can easily be quantified and placed within a regression model. The connection between the real, concrete data and its quantification and analysis is rarely questioned. Everything is standardized and everything follows the same crass laws of cause and effect, even man.

For Herder and so many others, what must come first is first-hand, lived experience with the data, with a concrete sense of what an object is, as defined by the specific community under question. Rejecting qualities as “accidents” or “residuals” is an epistemological error, for it rejects what is a part of the object under study, part of what makes it unique and thus worth studying in the first place. In other words, for Herder, any object needs to be understood in the sense of its value or lack of it within the culture which it is found. Epistemology is intensely social, and to divorce it from social life and the development of national consciousness (and therefore language) is to divorce knowledge from reality. Reality, for the analytic philosopher, is a set of concepts expressed in words, not actual objects; and actual objects, to be thus, are always a product of culture, traditions or traditional norms. Objects only become so in the nexus of national and cultural tradition, or they are not objects at all.

For the Enlightenment, the notion of “progress” has been an allegedly continuous move from “myth” to “fact;” myth is the sensuous and concrete aestheticization of nature and mankind into something socially recognizable and intelligible. Progress has its esoteric side of being the “demystification” or “unmasking” of such concrete realities into the abstractions of modern scientific and moral ideology. For Herder, this is a regress. Modern scientific methodology has eliminated the concrete object in favor of a sterile concept. The older idea of myth was not falsehood in any sense, but is a key to the heart and mind of a specific people and civilization. To aestheticize nature is to imprint the “general will” upon it, to provide it with cultural reality by integrating it into the vortex of the nation. The nation, then, seeks to unify all things to itself: nature, technics and economics. These are provided with the imprint of the historical memory of a people. Nothing is strange, everything becomes recognizable.

While it might be true that technics derives from a certain conceptualization of matter, it does no follow that the mythos, or the aestheticization of matter is therefore “backward” or “false.” The notion of myth, however conceived, is a means whereby objects of nature and art are brought into the cultural gestalt of the community, the nation. To render objects as mere concepts is to destroy them; it is, in a magical and occult sense, to recreate them in the image of man. In turn, they are taken out of the realm of experience and exist solely in the realm of ideas to then be renamed and reconceptualized by those with the power to perform such magic community-wide. It is a dangerous form of alienation that removes the individual from the realm of the concrete, the realm of reality, or real consequences and the real personal identity, into the realm of ideas, of the realm of images that can easily be transformed by the wishes of those who control the vocabulary and projection of images in modern life. Myth therefore, is not falsity, but it is something integrative and gives nature the stamp of nationhood, or the identity of the collective self.

More importantly for mankind, what is important is a view towards what the various communities and nations deem important or worthy in life. The “idea of order” that animates the community carved out of what ordinarily would be chaos is what needs to be analyzed, not, on the other hand, that strictly modern sense of placing a stylized pattern of “rational choice,” “utility maximization,” structural-functionalism, psychoanalysis, or whatever and placing it over every and any people. Such modern methods are not based on “science,” but on a set of axiomatic assumptions that cannot be proven, namely, that stripping away the cultural “accretions” of a people leads to their “essence,” their “demystification.” The proposition: “all peoples function according to strict rational choice and utility maximization models,” is a completely nonscientific statement. It is an non-provable assumption, made more dangerous that it must be taken on faith, a priori, and merely applied. One then assumes that the product of such analysis actually reflects the “real world” of things.

The vapidity and coldness of analytic methods do, in fact, communicate true cultural life: they are not the universal truths of the faculty lounge dreamers, but rather that of the emptiness of modern western life, where “tradition” and “culture” are largely non-existent, completely administered by the handful of families that control the flow of images and the resultant stimulus. Analytic philosophy, indeed, far from being the search for the universal inherent in the text under study, is nothing more than a brutalization of the texts of western philosophy, the imposition of the mindlessness of Anglo-American liberalism and nihilism upon texts the authors of which could never understand.

For Herder, and for ethno-nationalism in general, one approaches an artifact of a culture, of a nation, precisely as that. Something that reflects, not the specific idiosyncrasies of the artist, craftsman or writer, but of a whole people. Any artifact contains within itself the soul of an ethno-nation and a civilization, of the folk. it reflects years of development long before the object ever came into existence, and a set of influences so nuanced, and going back so far into history that it radically resists any form of quantification, or even of understanding except in the most pedestrian of senses.

In other words, objects of a culture are “organic.” That word is used over and over again, and only in the rarest of papers it it ever defined. The best and most meaningful use of the word is that the whole is manifest in the part. That is, each object manifests the whole in which it has been created. Because each man, no matter how much an “individualist” he might delude himself into thinking he is, is the product of time, culture (or lack of it), language and national and communal history that defines the fears and hopes of society at large. Because of the intrinsic connection between human development and one’s immersion into a national tradition and self-identification, it follows that the acts of such an individual are, in fact, acts of the nation, of the people.  

The notion of “organic,” (or, “integral,” for that matter) then, refers to the fact that it is not proper to split off the disciplines from one another: morality is dependent upon an understanding of history, philosophy on culture, culture on language, etc. Each is necessary to reinforce the other, and any specific text of a culture, therefore, contains all of them, to one extent or another, however ultimately distorted. To remove moral views from historical development or epistemology or language is to completely distort the actual historical process of these things coming into existence and taking hold over a people.  

Hence every nationality must be considered solely in its place with everything that it is and has; deliberate isolation, rejection of individual phases and customs will not result in history. To gather such collections one steps into a charnel-house, into a lumber room and wardrobe of the nationalities, but not into the living creature, into that great garden in which the nationalities grow like plants and of which they are a part; in which everything — air, earth, water, sun, light, even the caterpillar which crawls upon the plants an the worm which destroys them — belong to it. (xviii 248) 

For Herder, as for nationalism properly understood, nationalities are not states, nor do they need them. States are the creation of men, the ruling classes; nations, on the other hand, are creations of nature, creatures of the dependence and weakness of the individual alone against the elements. Herder writes in a celebrated passage: 

Millions of people on the globe live without states….Father and mother, man and wife, child and brother, friend and man — these are natural relationships through which we become happy; what the state can give us is an artificial contrivance; unfortunately it can also deprive us of something far more essential — rob us of ourselves. (xiii 341) 

One of the most significant difficulties in the American literature on nationalism is the extent to which the state is confused with the nation. However, it is understandable, for the dominance of analytic methods in the social sciences has extreme difficulty dealing with the unquantifiable and complex set of nuances and subtle folkways that are actually the stuff of nationality. The state, with its conveniently arranged bureaucratic offices, numbers of soldiers and massive budgets, is a far more amenable object of study. Unsurprisingly, the nation became synonymous with the development of the state administration. The development of nationalist thinking under Herder was completely lost as the social sciences found the state far more amendable to their careers and intellects.

One of the central aspects of Herder’s vision for the development of counterrevolutionary thinking is just this distinction between culture and law, between the ethnos and the state. If culture is strong and vibrant, passed down from the church and family unit, then the arm of the state is unnecessary. The Russian Old Believers, Serbia under Dushan or the feudal West are examples of “states” whose constitution consisted of autonomous communities where the state was very weak or non-existent except in the realm of foreign policy and general taxation. Under the medieval royal systems, each community was self-governing under only those laws necessary to the proper functioning of each autonomous institution. The culture, found in the Church and its myriad manifestations, maintained the identity and order of each community, each with its own specific mission and sense of self. As later as nineteenth century Russia, the rural commune was self governing, and the state’s presence in rural life was nearly non-existent. The liberalism of Alexander II and his serf emancipation served one purpose: to allow the state to enter into the formerly self-governing sphere of commune-landlord relations and impose a more centralized regime. In other words, either in the Germano-Latin, Polish, Serbian or Russian cultural milieu in the middle ages, the state’s power was not conceived of in a liberal and centralized fashion of an “administration,” but the nation — the ethno-cultural community — was given free reign to rule and maintain order.

Very much like the Russian Slavophiles of the 1840’s, Herder did reject the “consent” theory of government. Custom, tradition and nationality are not things that one consents to: they are the conditions for one to consent to anything. When one, in a purely theoretical way, “consents” to become a citizen of a certain polity, one already must have a rather well developed sense of moral life, culture and self in order to make such a decision. The idea of liberal “consent” is a fraud, for no one has ever consented to be ruled by a certain ruling class, but the idea of ‘consent” is intrinsically connected to the lie of “contract theory.”

If custom and national tradition has its place, providing the natural and organic sources of authority that one comes to understand from one’s birth, then the state or any external authority become unnecessary. The medieval state was a distant entity, an object of veneration because of its function as the protector of the real, that is, the protector of the church and tradition. A monarch or great general is an object of veneration, a bureaucrat is not. The extent to which the state becomes a set of neatly organized bureaucratic offices, distanced and often contemptuous of the communal locality, it ceases to be representative. The modern notion of “representation” is just another of the contemporary frauds that masquerade as “political theory” in the halls of academia. The extent to which the state is consolidated, centralized and self-interested (defined as the bureaucratic regime developing its own corporate interests), it automatically becomes non-representative. This has nothing to do with campaigns or elections, for the bureaucracy in every “advanced” western society, along with the courts, economic centers and mass media, hold real cultural and therefore social power. The destruction of communal cultural unity is always to the benefit of the bureaucratic regime and its demand for neat organization, conceptualization and standardization. Herder writes: 

The most natural state is one naturally with one national character. This it retains for ages and this is most naturally formed when it is the object of its native genius for a nationality is as much a plant with nature as a family, only with more branches. nothing appears so indirectly opposite to the end of government as the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of all kinds of people and nationalities under one scepter….Glued together indeed they may be into a fragile machine, termed a machine of state, but it will be destitute of inner life and mutual sympathy of the parts. (xiii 384) 

This may well be termed, as well as the political vision the work as attempted to put forth, a vision of ethno-national anarchism. That is, the lack of state power means the proportionate growth of a local patriotism, a local ethno-traditionalism and a local cultural nationalism that provides for the loyalty of healthy citizens far more than the recruiting sergeant or revenue director. Bureaucracy cannot be separated from a epistemological methodology that demands all data be standardized, conceptualized and subject to the same testing. An epistemology that refuses to see the uniqueness of objects, but rather, for the sake of communicability and neatness of presentation, reduces all objects of whatever kind to their definitional “essences,” becomes whatever the powerful in any society want them to be. Herder refused to make the common distinctions between reason and imagination, or sensate experience and culture, all were intimately bound together. One cannot remove the feeling of romance from reason, for it is precisely these feeling that provides for the continued interest in the world. The spirit of loyalty and ethnic tradition is what maintains loyalty, not mathematical equations. One has never done statistical analyses to figure out whether or not one loves his family or native village. These relations are immediate, and they are immediate because it is these that make conceptual mediation (i.e. reason) possible in the first place. Post-modernism is easily predicted when the cultural bases of reason (making reason contingent rather than culture) disappear. When this happens, reason takes a back seat to the “will to power.” Without ethno-nationalism, reason dies.

The nature of this tradition, if one is forced to”conceptualize” it, is language. For Herder, language was the primary ingredient in nationality. Words represent the “common symbolism” of memory, the basic structure of which is traditional praxis. It is not surprising that Herder believed words to be ideas, and ideas, words. There is no such thing as an abstract thought that then finds a linguistic outer coating, called a “word.” All thought is done through language and therefore, language precedes conceptualization. If language precedes conceptualization, and language is the “concretization” of historical memory or tradition, then reason, a certain structure of thought, is based ultimately on tradition. The basic philosophical distinction between self, idea, word and world is for Herder completely false. Each of these is to be found in the others and is intimated and suggested by the others. Tradition, self, ideas and language are basically one and the same concept; complex to be sure, but related in such a way as to make their arbitrary analytic separation impossible or unintelligible.

The self is not sui generis — to put this more simply — but rather the product of the cultural milieu in which it was created: the language, customs, hopes, memories and fears which nurture the self from infancy into adulthood. Only when the culture breaks down through alien peoples and ideas (including the state) does this connection become severed, and the most horrid of situations, alienation, becomes a social reality, leading to social pathology and ultimately, social death.

Man is shaped by his association with others. This association is governed, indeed made possible at all, though similarity — language, concepts, morality and historical experience. When this memory become clouded — as in the present day — though outside intervention of self-interested self-deception then the basic nature of the association is destroyed. The abstractions of liberalism or neo-conservatism cannot rescue it, but are the very products of this decay.

For Herder, nations are formed by various variables, which are primarily climate, basic physical environment, relations with others (or lack of them) and heredity. They develop slowly, but have as their primary goal the binding of strangers into a unity. For Herder, nations in the modern sense are the most holistic form of community: small enough to maintain a basic linguistic and cultural commonality, but large enough to be self defending and economically secure. Obviously the Greek city state was extremely vulnerable, as the large empires were bereft of any ordering principle, as they were made of myriad religions, ethnic groups and languages. For Herder, the very subject of history is the development, thriving and demise of these various nations. Or, put differently, history is the story of how specific peoples controlled and directed the potentially infinite human impulses. Without harmonization, the human will will seek its own pleasure an domination. Culture and historical memory serve to direct the will into a unity of form and function, initiating the man into a world of order in a chaotic and fallen nature.

There can be no doubt that the notion of the cultural community, that is, nationality, for Herder was the primary method of actual and real representation. For him, the nation was the collective consciousness of the people who composed it. In a certain sense, the Rousseauian notion of a general will makes a bit of sense. Now, Rousseau cannot be the ground for nationalism of the Herderian stripe, but there is a sense in which that the idea of a selfless will, dedicated to the common good, can meet in time through historical memory and customary fears and hopes, all expressed a common language that embodies these. This idea of cultural unity is a manifestation of the general will, and is a far more interesting use of the phrase than that “insane Socrates.” Herder made a careful distinction between the people, that is, the true representatives of the nation, the folk, and the “rabble,” or the frenzied mobs of alienated and acultural “societies” (such as in the modern era) that have only their anger and bitterness to unite them. That there is an “idea” of order that the imagination can partly grasp for Herder is central to their being a nation or a national character at all.

“Progress,” one of the phony buzzwords of Enlightenment mythology, is also something that comes to make sense only in a national context. The idea of order that makes sense out of an association, and is developed by it, is what produces the various goals and strivings of a people. Therefore “progress” as an ethical notion can only begin there. The constant uses of the terms “backward” or “progressive” are non-universal, and can only be utilized in the context of the communal structures of a specific nation. What is valued and respected by the community is the extent to which something is progressive or not. To the extent that policy moves towards what is valued versus something else is the proper use of the terms “backward.” A “progressive” society, therefore, is one that continually improves its manifestation of its idea of order, or that “general will” that truly represents the historical memory of a people. A “regressive” society is one that moves away from it. “Injustice” comes to be the introduction of policy that rejects the communal consciousness of a people, and therefore, the people’s inherent sense of propriety.

Johann Herder is at present, a threat to the modern world and its academic establishment. He is a living refutation of their ideas of progress and conceptual uniformity. He is a danger for he has the potential to unite the anarchists of the “left” with the ethno-nationalist of the “right” against the demands of Enlightenment, empirico-capitalism, in both its vapid liberal and conservative forms. His battle was primarily against the notion of cosmopolitanism, or the idea that man’s faculties are sui generis, and therefore owing no loyalty to any specific community. Such a person is barely human, living accordingly only to his desires and impulses: he is inherently sociopathic. The proof of Herder’s ideas here is evident in the present day. Herder writes, mocking the pretensions of the modern cosmopolitan spirit: 

All national characters, thank God, have become extinct; we all love one another ,or, rather no one feels the need of loving anyone else. We all associate with one another, all are completely equal — cultured, polite, very happy; we have, it is true no fatherland, no one for whom we live; but we are philanthropists and citizens of the world. most of the rulers already speak French, and soon we all shall do so. And then — bliss! The golden era is dawning again when all the world has one tongue and one language; there shall be one flock and one shepherd! (v, 550) 

Therefore, Herder is forgotten, but is is equally clear that the building upon the ruins of the plastic liberal/conservative divide will need his services once more.

[The Idyllic, August 9, 2003]


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