The Clare Spark Blog

December 15, 2011

Gingrich and the socially-constructed “nation state”

Ferdinand Toennies, German sociologist

A discussion has opened up on a Humanities-Net discussion group, “ The History of Antisemitism, “ regarding Newt Gingrich’s remark on a cable channel (“the Jewish Channel”) that “the Palestinians are an invented people.”  Liberals and leftists in the group associate such a remark with the far right. This blog seeks to historicize the notion of the nation state, arguing that each has a distinct history and that nation-states cannot be lumped together as all being “socially constructed”  as one list member has argued.

“The nation-state” has long been a target of both revolutionary socialists and social democrats, who both prefer some form of internationalism (either proletarian or Wilsonian); think of Marxist Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” or, in the liberal camp, the advocates for the League of Nations, then the United Nations. But the British Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote famously about the distinction between conservative nationalism and liberal nationalism. The latter, he wrote, allowed for the progressive ascension of movements against arbitrary privilege, while conservative nationalism was solely about the control of territory and resources. Ferdinand Toennies, writing in the late 19th century, made a similar distinction when he contrasted Gemeinschaft with Gesellschaft.*

Sadly, it has been the fashion of the post-1960s academy to support Gemeinschaft (an irrationalist racialist discourse denying individuality) against the more rational Gesellschaft (a rational state based upon equality before the law, and susceptible to adjustment and revision; viewing societies as collections of individuals, not races). Hence, the reign of identity politics since the New Left takeover of the humanities, with its “multicultural” emphasis on the constructed category of “race” as against objective class and gender interests. (See my blog

As for Israel, its origin is grounded in a mixture of factors that is very confusing to the uninformed. To say that it was simply like other recent nation-states, i.e., socially constructed, is inaccurate and reductive. Many persons on both Left and Right would argue for historicizing each nation state, without subsuming them under one overarching epistemology. Gingrich was accurate about the invention of the Palestinians as a distinct people, but it was tactless of him to make that claim, as most Palestinians are likely, in this time, to be convinced of their peoplehood, and that is the diplomatic situation facing us.  Other conservatives, Charles Krauthammer for one, have made this precise point and are distressed that Gingrich said what he did; but recall that Gingrich was speaking on the Jewish cable channel, and obviously hoping to get “Jewish” votes (, positioning himself against the current administration that has been openly hostile to Israel’s current government, and apparently ignorant of the history of the region.

* See Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Civil Society, ed. Jose Harris, transl. Jose Harris and Margaret Hollis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001. Originally published in 1887, Tönnies’s book is considered to be a classic work of sociology, but not until after the first world war (xxviii-xxviii) was it canonized. At first seen as a “communist tract,” it was taken up by German “ultra-nationalists,” and in America during the 1930s was read as “an essay in consensual structural functionalism.” The editor of this edition seems favorably disposed to this elusive and mysterious work. Tönnies was the son of a merchant banker, and given his hostility to modernity, one wonders how much of his disgust with the modern world was intertwined with his feelings about his father. In 1892 he “helped found Society for Ethical Culture, the vehicle for his life-long involvement in various co-operative, social reform, and self-improvement movements.” (xxxi-xxxii)


  1. […] It is difficult to navigate oneself politically through all these intertwined conflicts. But it would be true progress to admit that they exist. On Toennies see […]

    Pingback by The Illusion of National Unity | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 17, 2013 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  2. Claire, while I’ve almost always agreed with your well written posts on Pajamas Media, and while I practically “worship” Charles Krauthammer, even he can sometimes be … well if not wrong, then over sensitive shall we say. Neither Ben Gurion nor Begin got *anywhere* in this unforgiving and antisemitic tough world of war and politics by catering to the onion-deep-skin of (so-called) “Palestinians” and their European lovers (as truly, that’s what they are). Sometimes it IS more sensible and certainly more direct to *not* take a “tactful” approach, especially when it comes to a continent (Europe) which is slowly dying out on its own accord, and at the same time, allowing Islam to slowly overrun the continent in every conceivable way in which one might define a conquering without violence.

    Read Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post and the City Journal I believe it is.

    Finally, accusing Gingrich of merely catering to the Jewish vote — and making apologies for him in that vein — I think is doing him a disservice. Allow the mans’ words to stand or fall on their own accord. He’s hardly the first person to call the Palestinians a “people” wholly formed by political convenience in the early 1960s! My G-d, there are untold documents attesting to this — Arafat HIMSELF said as much!

    Let’s allow the Palestinians, or again, their European lovers to defend this charge instead of “pre-apologizing for it.”

    Without a continuous influx of Turks, Algerians, and other North Africans into Europe as “voting labor.” Europe will fail economically as a simple matter of mathematics. Thus they MUST allow the “immigration of these people. And now, having made a devils’ deal for this, they will cease to exist as we know them today, in 50 year. I bet any amount of money that Israel will still be standing WELL after 50 years. Thus let’s save our apologies.

    And BTW, I’m *hardly* a “fanatical right wing Jew” — I was a Democratic liberal all my life and only began changing after 9/11 and the modern rebirth of OPEN antisemitism which can be traced to a now-famous dinner party in London where the wife of the French Ambassador — I believe — called Israel a “shitty little country” with no expectation of any disapproval — and she was absolutely correct as there was not a murmur of dissent among a single member of the guest list — this woke me, and many others up out of our long standing love affair with the Left.

    In short: sometimes “the Truth WILL WIN OUT”

    Comment by Frumious Falafel — December 19, 2011 @ 2:44 am | Reply

    • I quoted Gingrich for his emphasis on social constructivism. I actually agree with him and you.

      Comment by clarelspark — May 2, 2017 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  3. While Sykes and Picot were desperately trying to draw lines that would satisfy all three members of the entente, Faisal was having Hashemite “wet dreams” of ruling over syria which in his mind, included Southern lebanon and the sanjak of Jerusalem. No mention of Palestine. If Hussein’s sons had all stayed in the Hijaz, where they belonged and if they hadn’t duped the english into believing that they would be partners in progress, Gingrich would not need to state the obvious. Arab states may have had a shot if it wasn’t for arab Gemeinschaft. I agree that Newt was tactless in the face of a volatile situation which requires diplomacy towards a viable agreement. I propose that we add ON to his first name and make him the father of the law of grave-attention (which he is drawing).

    Comment by Maimon Chocron — December 15, 2011 @ 9:04 am | Reply

  4. I’ll defer to the Arab commentary: ‘Palestinianism’ was invented solely to destroy Israel. The one and only characteristic of this ‘national’ identity is the aim of destroying another — authentic — national identity.

    The Arabs have themselves repeatedly admitted this over the years. Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, the Syrian Arab leader told the British Peel Commission in 1937:
    “There is no such country as Palestine. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented. There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria. ‘Palestine’ is alien to us. It is the Zionists who introduced it.”

    At the United Nations in 1956, the Saudi representative stated:
    “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria.”

    And after the 1967 war Zuheir Muhsin, then military commander of the PLO and member of the PLO Executive Council, said helpfully:
    “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity… yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”

    Comment by gk68 — December 15, 2011 @ 1:34 am | Reply

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