How Barzun Predicted Brexit

Any time something huge happens in the world such as the recent Brexit referendum, with all the happy and unhappy voters, and the shocked onlookers from within and without Britain, it is good practice to turn to the old sage of San Antonio to see what he had to say about the issue, and where such astounding events stand in the course of history. If we refer to Barzun’s magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, we find that he not only predicted the separation of the UK from the EU, but much more besides.

Nigel Farage (front), the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) reacts with supporters, following the result of the EU referendum, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Nigel Farage (front), the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) reacts with supporters, following the result of the EU referendum, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Such separation is the sign of the times, and most likely a sign of much more to come. We can let the master explain (From Dawn to Decadence, p. 774-776):


That moment you realized that decades of headlines were predicted in a 900-page masterpiece by Jacques Barzun.

The strongest tendency of the later 20C was Separatism. It affected all earlier forms of unity. The fact was noticed early in this book apropos of culture. The ideal of Pluralism had disintegrated and Separatism took its place; as one partisan of the new goal put it: “Salad bowl is better than melting pot.” The melting pot had not eliminated all diversities; it created a common core.

At the outset, separatism might have seemed a mood that would pass. But if one surveyed the Occident and the world as well, one could see that the greatest political creation of the West, the nation-state, was stricken. In Great Britain the former kingdoms of Scotland and Wales won autonomous parliaments; in France the Bretons, Basques, and Alsacians cried out for regional power; Corsica wanted independence and a language of its own. Italy harbored a League that would cut off the North from the South, and Venice produced a small party wanting their city a separate state. Northern Ireland, Algeria, and Lebanon carried on unstoppable civil wars.

The Spanish Basques fought for years to break away from Spain, and Catalonia kept on showing disaffection as in the past. Belgium was rent by a language difference that is also geographical and that pitted the two halves against each other on most issues. Germany, recently reunited, was not rewelded. The former Soviet Union lay helpless in many parts, and in the one still called Russia, insurrection led to war in Chechnya and Dargestan. Turkey and Iraq had to fight the Kurd separatists. The Afghans were up in arms. Mexico faces the rebellious Zapatistas, while Quebec periodically demanded freedom from Canada. The Balkan would-be nations continued their ethnic and religious massacres for the sake of separateness.

In the United States there were mostly tokens of the malaise. A small group that wanted Texas to regain its status of independent republic had to be quelled by force; and there were armed parties and religious bodies that spoke and behaved as if entirely independent of the existing order. There were also threats within smaller units: Martha’s Vineyard talked of secession from Massachusetts and Staten Island from New York. It is symptomatic that a group calling itself the Nation of Islam used the word ‘nation’ without protest from other groups or from the authorities. Would the denomination have passed without comment at any earlier time in American history? Puerto Rico, a territory, was of two minds: some of the people wanted statehood, others nationhood. Several Amerind peoples also called themselves nations and were at last recovering their just due under old treaties, but their demands were for sharing rights, not succession. Efforts to make English the official language of the United States regularly failed.


Other forces worked to denationalize. Immigrants from far off emancipated colonies brought into Europe alien languages and customs. They allied separately in slum enclaves—a Turkish settlement here, an Algerian suburb there. France had an African village, complete with medicine men and ritual chants and dances. This 20C “colonizing” of the West could muster only the power of the weak. Unemployed or in menial jobs, these foreigners were victims, and being united mainly by religion appealed to sentiment for help from the welfare state. When molested by their equally poor white neighbors or expected to conform to Western habits, these clans were defended by their host government, from compassion and fear that a demand for conformity would be “racist”. And in some of these districts the national police would not venture. The same motive of respect led to the official encouragement of plans to revive local dialects. Europe was experiencing again the ground confusion of peoples that had occurred in the Late Roman Empire and tapered off in the Middle Ages.

Separatism was rampant all over the globe. No sooner was India free of British rule than Pakistan broke away, and no sooner was the new nation separate than Bangladesh freed itself from it. The old Ceylon, a huge Island renamed Sri Lanka, carried on a civil war for more than 20 years, and in the Himalayas, India again fought Pakistan over Kashmir. The East Timorese nearly destroyed Indonesia. Where everyone looked—at Ireland, the Middle East, South America, Southeast Asia, all of Africa, the Caribbean, and the whole ocean speckled with islands, one would find a nation or would-be nation at war to win or prevent independence. In the Indian Ocean, 300 miles east of the tip of Madagascar are the Comoros—four islands whose total area is 830 square miles and his population was then 493,000. Released from French ownership they became the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. It could not last: the people of the smallest island, the Anjouans, wrangled for a dozen years with the central government and finally declared their separateness. Delegates from neighboring countries joined in celebrating EMANCIPATION triumphant. That the nation-state was ceasing to be desirable form of political society was clear in spite of the growing number of fragments that assumed the name—close to 200 by the end of the 20C.


Disuniting in another way was the European Union, made up of 15 of the most productive countries. It has gradually won the power to intervene in national affairs. The ruling body in Brussels could regulate important economic transactions, nullify judicial decisions, and force the acceptance of immigrants, and set the central bank interest rate for 11 of its members. Scholars wrote monographs on sovereignty, asking themselves and the public “What Makes a Nation?” A large part of the answer to that question is: common historical memories. When the nation’s history is poorly taught in schools, ignored by the young, and proudly rejected by qualified elders, awareness of tradition consists only of wanting to destroy it. True, the word ‘history’ continues to be freely used, but in ways and places where it does not belong. Garbled and functionalized versions in films and “docudramas” disgrace the word, while the fancy for objects dug up or dredged from the sea, which the press hails as “a piece of history”, complete the quietus of the historical sense.

In the light of the facts, it was absurd for contemporaries to say that the ubiquitous armed conflicts were expressions of nationalism. They were the diametrical opposite; like the artists’ anti-art, the time was creating the anti-nation. To become a separate state, not really independent, but on the contrary dependent on money and protection from one of the big powers, was a step backward. The end of the half millennium destroyed what the beginning had to painfully accomplished: put an end to futile wars by welding together neighboring regions, assimilated foreign enclaves, set up strong kings over large territories, and done everything to foster loyalty to something larger than the eye could see. A common language, a core of historical memories with heroes and villains, compulsory public schooling and military service finally made the 19C nation-state the carrier of civilization.

Now all these elements were decaying and could not be restored. It must have struck keen observers as a pathetic move when the French government in 1996 organized a celebration to mark the anniversary of “the Baptism of Clovis,” The 5C Frankish chieftain who turned Christian and ordered his tribe to do the same. The celebration was to remind the modern nation of its ancient unity, as if Clovis made France. No such thing existed in the 5C. And in the 20th, disunity was marked by the immediate protest against the celebration by all the parties of the Left, more than half the nation.

It remains to be seen what Dr. Barzun’s grandson, UK Ambassador Matthew Barzun has to say about the outcome.