Carolyn Marvin’s Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999) is perhaps the most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). The central idea presented in this book, however, seems to be more disturbing than Darwin’s idea that human beings evolved from “lower” forms of animal life. The book was published nearly twenty years ago. It is one thing to “know” something; it's another thing to actually know this thing.
A great deal of my energy—and the work of the Library of Social Science—has been devoted to bringing Marvin’s theory into the world. Conveying this theory is much like making a psychoanalytic interpretation—that the patient does not wish to hear. It requires iteration—reiteration—until the idea is heard and experienced; integrated within consciousness. Society, Marvin says, “depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group.” This is Marvin’s revolution idea in a nutshell which, however, can be broken down as follows:
- Society requires that some members of the group die.
- Society depends on these deaths—in order to perpetuate itself.
- It is the national group that causes—brings about—these deaths.
Marvin states that it is at the “behest of the group” that the lifeblood of community members must be shed. The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically “requires the deaths of some of its members.” Group solidarity “flows from the value of this sacrifice.”
Throughout history a recurring phrase has appeared: “The individual must die so that the nation might live.” This statement usually is interpreted from a practical perspective: In the course of trying to win a war—fight a battle—it is necessary that individuals lose their lives. We may hypothesize, however, that this statement is actually a symbolic one, conveying Marvin’s theory: If a nation is to “live on” as a historical entity, individuals must sacrifice their lives. Sacrificial death brings the nation into being.
Marvin emphasizes that the value of sacrifice is measured in terms of actual bodies—the number of human beings that touch blood directly, and how many other bodies are linked to them by “personal ties of blood and affection.” Bodily sacrifice is the “totem core of American nationalism.” The irrefutable sign of national faith—“patriotism”—Marvin says, is “making one’s body an offering”—a sacrifice. To die for others—for one’s country—is the “ultimate expression of faith in social existence.” Sacrifice performs a validation or verification function. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be “compelled to sacrifice their lives for.” What is “sacred” in a society is easily recognized. It is that set of beliefs and persons for which “we ought to shed our own blood.” Rituals that celebrate this blood sacrifice “give expression and witness to faith.” That for which we die and kill—becomes real.