E. Belfort Bax

Jews, Boers and Patriots – II

(4 November 1899)

Jews, Boers and Patriots 2, Justice, 4th November 1899, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

And what about the “patriots?” The psychology of the attempt to throw the blame of the war on the Jews, and to blacken the Boers’ character, may be sought for close at hand. It is obviously to be found in a patriotic zeal to shield the Englishman from some at least of the obloquy it is felt justly attaches to his misdeeds. I have endeavoured to show that this attempt breaks down. The Briton is left with all the shame and “glory,” all his bullyings, of his dastardly outrages on weak and defenceless peoples; also of his grovelling concessions whenever a big European power makes a move. But, first of all, what is this modern “patriotism” of which we hear so much ? It simply means a supposed duty of affection towards the particular capitalist State in which one happens to have been born.

In ancient times patriotism applied to a definite circumscribed area and population – the city; in mediaeval time similarly to the township. Outside this the only sentiment analogous to patriotism was loyalty to the territorial lord. All other sentiment of this nature was vague and uncrystallised. Patriotism proper; the devotion to the modern State, is a product of capitalism hardly traceable above the sixteenth century, and the latest form of the sentiment, Imperialism, is simply a product of the Great Industry in search of markets. Before that, in the earlier days of capitalism, it was at least circumscribed to each particular nation within its own territory. Now it simply means enthusiasm for the spread-eagleism of one’s own nationality over the surface of the globe.

Patriotism may have had some meaning in small communities where the principle of all for each and each for all had not entirely lost even its economic significance. In that amorphous modern conglomerate, the centralised individualist-capitalist national State, it is a foul imposture, a bloodstained filthy rag under which truculent and unscrupulous capitalism, attended by all the vilest and most sordid human passions, masquerades. This whole breed of patriots is equally loathsome, be they British, French, Germans, Italians, Hungarians or what not, and I contend that no Socialist can consistently base his attitude on the love of his own capitalist State to the detriment or disparagement of other peoples. If there is one doctrine fundamental to Socialism it is that of the class struggle as superseding the national struggle, or to put it from another point of view, the struggle of principle replacing the struggle of race. The class-conscious proletariat, in its fight against the employer class, still more the Socialist party as a whole, conscious of its end as social reconstruction, this is the only country for the Social-Democrat – this the only people.

There has been occasionally a suggestion, however, made by comrades who would in general terms heartily subscribe to the above, to the effect that I and those who are with me on questions of auto-imperialism and foreign policy are apt to assume not merely a non-British but even an anti-British attitude.

Now firstly, the appearance in question may perhaps be explained as follows: To me, the pretence of any sectional devotion to a more or less mongrel population of (say) forty millions, even if they all speak dialects of the same language, is pure and unadulterated cant and humbug. We all profess to understand, I suppose, the brotherhood of man as man, but the reduction of this sentiment from the human race in general to a population ranging from thirty to eighty millions, while it limits its scope, cannot possibly, I contend, cause it to gain appreciably in intensity. The bulk of the population of Britain is as unknown to me as the population of Central Asia. On the other hand, I can very well understand either a group of kindred or the groups of families residing for generations in local proximity, (say) in one city or village, as having quite a special kind of devotion which was both more intense and different from mere vague humanism. It is a feeling similar to this, and certainly not “patriotism,” that gives the dash and the esprit de corps to a regiment (c.f. that of the French Guard). This being so, national-patriotic sentiment, per se, I regard as wholly unreal, as no better than a fraud, ab initio, and abhor it as such. Now, to those who still have certain fragments of this spurious sentiment clinging to them it may well seem that one in whom it is totally wanting is actuated by antipathy to his so-called country. Be this as it may, speaking for myself, I know I hate the Deutschland über Alles German and the Patrie and la Gloire Frenchman quite as much as the Rule Britannia Englishman.

But, again, might not even an anti-British attitude be in some cases justified? Is the British capitalist, as is often alleged, no worse than any other capitalist? I am not quite so sure about this. In the first place, he stands nearer, and therefore looks worse, and at least concerns the English movement more intimately than his foreign colleague. Hence, there is a very good reason why the attack on him should be more persistent if not more uncompromising. Secondly, the Anglo-Saxon is the especial embodiment of buccaneering commercial capitalism, the capitalist market-hunters of other nations rightly taking him as their model in this respect. The Anglo-Saxon, British and American, is moreover the racial type for aggressive capitalism in all its forms, industrial as well as commercial. Thirdly, the Anglo-Saxon capitalist invariably cants (e.g., the “White Man’s Burden”) when he is about to do a steal, which the Continental capitalist does not. Hence, if not intrinsically worse, the Anglo-Saxon capitalist is at least a more rasping specimen than any other.

What makes many cosmopolitanly-minded men especially loathe the average current type of patriotic Englishman is his vulgar, swaggering brag. This type – in fact, if it comes to that, the enormous bulk of the English race of to-day – exhibits a vast change as compared with their forbears, which can only be ascribed to three generations of the Great Industry. In the old days, even to go no further back than the early Chartist period, you had a very different kidney of Englishman to the modern “Rule Britannia” bawling cad. As to the courage of the fighting Briton, why talk so much about it? Does anyone doubt it? Is it not, like the joys of Heaven, “everlasting still increasing”? That invincible British pluck which has so often stood boldly up to the naked savage who cannot take aim – did we not see it last year from behind its latest quick-firing maxims daring to face the Arab tribesmen of the desert with their spears and obsolete muskets? Do we not read of it to-day, gathering together the whole strength of its mighty empire to crush a terrible militia of 30,000 farmers – in other words, standing up to men who have modern weapons and can actually shoot? Do we not hear of the “brilliant execution” of a certain regiment with the bayonet at close quarters with an enemy who can positively defend himself with the butt end of his rifle if he is lucky? Are these things not written in history, and how can they fail to make the true-born Englishman’s check to glow? After such deeds as these who can say there is any limit to the “indomitable bravery” of Britain’s sons ? But still, for all this, although he might not have been capable of performing those gallant exploits, still less of boasting of them I afterwards, the Englishman of even the beginning of the present century; and later, had certain qualities which his descendant lacks. And I confess that in spite of the above great deeds, I am myself not tempted to abjure my international principles and proclaim myself a British patriot.

But it may be said, sympathy with the Boers means sympathy with an “oppressed nationality” as such which is, after all, a patriotic issue from the oppressed nationality’s standpoint. Hence the corollary that the question fails to concern Socialists. To this I reply that although on the face of it a struggle of race, if we look deeper we shall find the true kernel of the matter to lie in the effort of a small people living in an earlier economic stage of society to resist the sudden and violent invasion of British and international capitalism in its latest forms. Similarly the Irish question, although at first sight mere patriotism, in reality concealed an important issue of economic justice.

As regards the present war, the issue is of vital importance for Social-Democrats. There is a common opinion among Socialists that the crushing out of earlier societies – savage, barbaric, or civilised – is a thing inevitable that need not trouble us Socialists, who are working for a state of society which, although in opposition thereto, is nevertheless, in a sense, the outcome of, capitalism. I have even heard it suggested that the sooner capitalism possesses itself of the whole globe the sooner the advent of Socialism. There is here a palpable confusion of thought between the intensive evolution of capitalism and the mere expansion of the system as regards area. It may be quite true that we can view with perfect equanimity the evolution of more developed capitalistic conditions of production, distribution and exchange, e.g., the growth of rings and trusts, etc., in the centres of capitalism; nay, in spite of the actual misery they cause we may feel a certain satisfaction at their “progress,” convinced as we are that the transformation of society we seek can only obtain permanently after capitalistic society has exhausted at least all the main forms under which it can function. Once it has reached the end of its tether, it will, as we believe, “break down by its own weight,” or become impossible. But what is so often forgotten by Socialists, though not by the classes interested in preserving the present system, is that the more elbow-room, or, if you will, the more breathing-space, it can make for itself, the longer its lease of life. The two things are in inverse proportion. The quicker capitalism develops itself intensively the sooner the end – the more rapid its expansion the farther off the end. The rapidity of the intensive development is rendered pro tanto nugatory by the expansion. Every new market, every fresh territory “opened up,” every colony annexed must, by the logic of the principles we accept in common, mean one more postponement more or less indefinite of that final aim for which we exist as a body. We commend these considerations to the deluded Socialist “patriot.”

For the rest, we would point out that we have little hope of the final eradication of “patriotism” before the time when the working population of a Social-Democratic England – then the whole population of the country – will have that increased facility of intercourse with the peoples of other countries which will cause patriotism to wither up by the roots. I had intended saying something about comrade Hyndman’s theory of democratic imperial federation, but the present article has I find, already reached more than its due length, so that the discussion of this important question I must reserve for a future occasion.


E. Belfort Bax


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