E. Belfort Bax

Patriotism: its growth and outcome [1]

(July 1904)

From Social Democrat, Vol.8 no.7, July 1904, pp.395-405.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.75-78.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The word patriotism, or its equivalents and derivations, is upon everyone’s lips at the present time. It is a magic word which is thought by most people to cover any multitude of sins. To be patriotic in what ever cause is tantamount to being virtuous, while no worse charge can be brought against a man in popular estimation, than to say he is unpatriotic. Now I propose to examine briefly the origin and development of this sentiment of patriotism up to its present-day manifestations.

The earliest known form of human society, as you may perhaps be aware, is that which is based on kinship or blood relationship, real or supposed.

Now the first form of the sentiment which we now call “patriotism,” first appears in connection with the notion of kinship or blood relationship. The tribe in its origin, and that important and often practically autonomous organ of the tribe the clan, were simply groups of kinsmen. I must here premise that modern anthropologists divide the history of human society into (1) Early or tribal or group society, which represents the first organised conditions under which men lived together at all, and (2) the later political society in which these early groups tended to become broken up and merged into centralised States. Now, the crucial distinction between these two systems of society is this: tribal society is based on the principle of association, the individual by himself being nothing, while the community to which he belongs is everything. The individual tribesman or clansman lives only as a part of the tribe or clan to which he belongs. All his morality consists in devotion to the tribal honour and glory; all his religion (this applies to tribes who have not been interfered with by missionaries) – all his religion, I say, consists in the worship of the tribal ancestors with the due ceremonies prescribed by tradition, or of certain idols or fetishes supposed to represent powers of nature capable of benefiting or injuring the tribe. Tribal society throughout all its phases is essentially communistic. The most important forms of property are held in common by the whole tribe or clan. Personal property is a casual and unimportant phenomenon applying only to objects of constant personal use. In tribal society, therefore, we have the first and most intensely real form of patriotism – a patriotism not based on territory, but on blood. To the primitive Arab tribesman that land is his country on which his tribe for the time being has hitched its tents.

2. Now, modern or political society is the precise reverse of all this. It is based essentially, not on the principle of association, but on that of individual autonomy. It is composed, not of groups of kinsmen, all supposed to be united by ties of blood-relationship to each other, but of huge agglomerations of isolated individuals living on a given area of territory. There is no essential bond of social union between these individuals which constitute the members of the modern State. Their religion is personal, their morality is personal, and their property is personal – in short, if ancient or group society may be described as communistic, modern or political society, with its vast centralised national systems, mast he described as individualistic.

The foregoing is intended to convey in a few words the crucial or salient points respectively of primitive or group society and of modern civilised or political society, considered in their most perfect and logical form. But in the real world of historic evolution these two forms overlap each other; there is a gradual transition, sometimes lasting for several centuries, from early communism to latter-day individualism, from the primitive tribe or clan to the modern State or nation. The period known as the Middle Ages represents, on certain of its sides, this transition, for universal history. The rise of the city-states of the ancient world would be the best type of the transition, were our information more complete concerning them.

Now, in considering the growth of patriotism, it is necessary to cast a brief glance at the conflict between the two principles – the two forms of human organisation, as exhibited on the arena of history.

Out of the mass of barbaric mankind organised in tribes and clans, in various stages, some tribes of nomadic herdsmen, others already settled in villages as agricultural communities, inhabiting Western Asia, Eastern Europe, and North-Eastern Africa, what we call civilisation arose in the form of the ancient city. The first beginnings of the city-state many historians would place in Egypt more than 3000 years B.C. But when and where the first beginnings of civilisation took place, remains at present a matter of speculation. Suffice it to say that the earlier forms of political society existed in Western Asia and in Northern Africa long before they did in Europe, but that before 2000 B.C. We find the beginnings of political or civilised society already established in the peninsulas of Greece and Italy. And if we examine these beginnings as represented by Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Rome, &c. (by those civic communities, i.e., of which we have the most information), we find the political, the individualistic form of society as embodied in the State – as yet confined to the precincts of the city- only very slowly making headway against the old life of the tribal societies which it contained. To give illustrations of this would take us too far. But we may quote what a great scholar has said of the Greek and Roman gens or clan: “Nothing is more closely united than the members of a gens (clan) – united in the celebration of the same sacred ceremonies, they mutually aid each other in all the needs of life. The entire gens (clan) is responsible for the debt of one of its members; it redeems the prisoner and pays the fine of one condemned. Thus the ancient city-state, the first form of civilisation which was originally nothing but the coalescence of some three or four tribes with their clans and their settlement within a walled area with a fortification in their midst – continued for long to retain the group organisations within it, with their independence largely intact. But little by little the city-state became consolidated, and in proportion as this happened, the powers and independence of the tribes and clans passed over to the central power of the city, as embodied in the united council or senate composed of the heads of the clans, who usually elected the chief magistrate or king from out of their number. Now, as the rights and powers of the smaller communities within the city became restricted and those of the city increased, the old religious patriotism – the zeal or love for tribe and clan – also gradually transferred itself to the city as such. The great temple or temples of the city-gods became the centre of city life and worship and glory, and devotion to the city, and even the ground where it stood was regarded as sacred, became the highest ideal of the citizen.”

We now have to notice a further development of political society. Owing to conquest, or sometimes policy, for purposes of offence and defence, arose the federation of cities under the domination of one city and its ruler, in other words, the empire of the ancient world, such as Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and Phoenicia. Here a similar process went on to that within the city itself. The empire absorbed some of the city patriotism, just as the city had absorbed the old patriotism of the several tribes and their clans of which it was composed. But it did not so do to anything like the same extent. The city remained the main essential political unity of the ancient world, and hence the patriotism of the ancient world remained almost wholly a city patriotism. What broke down the city patriotism, was that great political organisation founded on conquest (of a somewhat different character to the oriental empires just referred to), viz., the Roman Empire. Rome in many cases removed the gods of the conquered cities to the seat of empire, and the Roman Empire it was that killed off the patriotism of the ancient world. But the political society of the ancient world, including Roman civilisation, owing to its economic constitution, was impotent to advance to the stage of modern capitalistic society – discovery, invention and improvement having early dried up – in short, ancient civilisation founded as it was economically on slave labour, got into a blind lane, and further progress was barred. In these circumstances it fell a prey to the Northern Barbarians with their tribal organisation and tribal patriotism mainly intact. But at this time the old city-patriotism had long been dead, and superseded by the Christian cosmopolitanism – i.e., by the idea of membership, not of a city, but of a universal church or commonwealth of the faithful. The barbarian nations, however, still retaining their tribal organisation, were also still possessed by the early patriotism of the tribe and the clan. Weakened as this was in proportion as they came in contact with Christianity and Roman civilisation, it was never quite destroyed, but lingered on till it was absorbed by the feudal notion of personal allegiance to a lord, who was, however, originally doubtless regarded in the same light as the old patriarchal lead or representative of the tribe or clan. But as medieval civilisation progressed we see the counterpart of the ancient city – patriotism asserting itself. The mediaeval township also, like the city of the ancient world, had a patriotism of its own, and throughout the Middle Ages it waged war with the feudal principle which endeavoured to crush it. In the Middle Ages thus we have local and personal or feudal patriotisms (if we may call theirs so) and at the same time the international notion of the unity of Christendom or the patriotism of the Catholic Church, But as yet there is no national or State-patriotism such as we find to-day in Britain, France, or Germany. This latter first arose as modern capitalism arose, and as the old world societies of the manor or village and of the township became broken up. It is perhaps difficult for some of you to realise how great was the independence of the village and of the township in the Middle Ages, and how they resented interference from any centralised power. One of the most cherished privileges was the right of the higher jurisdiction, which many paraphrased as the right to have a gallows and hang anybody on it who displeased the burghers or their local authorities, the symbol of independence.

On the Continent, especially in Germany and Italy, the independence of the manors and townships was virtually complete. Even in England, where it was much less so, owing to circumstances we cannot now enter into, towns such as London, Norwich, Halifax, &c., had such large measures of autonomy as would stagger the modern municipal reformer. Medieval civilisation, although not communistic like tribal society, was very imperfectly individualistic. Considerable fragments of primitive institutions clung to it. It was, as already said, through and through local, and based on the group rather than the individual – on the manor, the guild and the township. But towards the close of the rnediæval period, with the new inventions that arose, the discovery of America and the Cape route, the old order began to change; capitalism and new commercial syndicates, production of wealth on a great scale, for profit, and not as before mainly for use, drove a wedge into the old society. At the same time that production began to centralise, government began to centralise – in short, the modern national State or political society based on individualism was born. As it progressed, absorbing and destroying the old institutions, or making them suborned to its own interests, the modern national patriotic sentiment developed also. At first, however, it was confined to the pride of national maintenance and defence against any form of aggression. Patriotism, in fact, to be a “patriot,” meant formerly, notably during the French Revolution, to be on the side of the people of the country, not so much against a foreign enemy as against the governing classes of the country itself who were oppressing the people – in other words to be, as we should say to-day, a good democrat. But the rise and progress of modern capitalism – the capitalism of the great machine in society, of chartered commercial companies, and of modern high financial potentates and syndicates, has changed all this. The need of fresh markets, of cheap labour, of new territories to exploit for mineral and agricultural products, has altered the conditions of modern external policy, just as capitalism itself had already altered the conditions of English economic social and domestic life. The term patriotism has hence to-day acquired a changed meaning; patriotic sentiment is now an asset of capitalism. This is aided by the patriotic symbol – the national flag. Now this emblem, the flag, has become the trade mark of a certain State system. But if we look back at its evolution, we find it has passed through stages precisely corresponding to those of the sentiment of patriotism itself. At first it was represented by the totem, as it was called – that is, a symbol representing an animal or plant from which, according to the ideas of patriotism then prevalent, the tribe or clan believed itself to he descended, or at least whose preternatural protection it claimed. In the city stage the standard under which the citizen fought bore emblazoned on it the patron god of the city. During the Middle Ages we find a corresponding symbol in the patron saint of the township, or some sign supposed to represent him also inscribed on the town flag. The lord of every manor – i.e., the head of every rural community of the Middle Ages-also had the emblem representing his house, under which he fought, and which constituted his coat of arms. Now the modern nation, so soon as it became welded together as a centralised State – i.e., as the organised political whole which had destroyed the autonomy of the smaller social groups, and absorbed them – the modern nation also assumed a banner with devices taken from the arms of its royal house, or emblematic of something connected with national myth or history. The “Union Jack” of Great Britain (the two crosses), as you may know, was adopted in the reign of James I., in 1606, and in its present form (the three crosses), in that of George III., in 1801. The flag, in short, in all ages and countries has been always, in its chief aspect, a symbol of a particular form of the patriotic sentiment.

Patriotism, or the sentiment corresponding to it, out of which it sprang, has, as we have seen, its source and origin in a sentiment of solidarity with an organised group of persons supposed to have been descended from common ancestors. It had its meaning in an intimate sense of blood-kinship and the duties and privileges flowing from it. It was therefore necessarily limited in scope. Subsequently, as the social body got enlarged so as to include three or four or more tribes with their clans (a small “people,” in fact), often a settled community residing within walled or enclosed area round some natural stronghold, the sentiment of patriotism got enlarged too to that extent, and also became associated with a definite locality. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages – i.e., throughout the imperfect period, as we may call it, of State centralisation on an individualistic basis – the further extensions of the sentiment to vast aggregations of population and great extents of territory, as in modern times, were alike weak and more or less transient. Only under the influence of modern capitalism and modern State-centralisation, by which all the old group societies of whatever nature, the tribe, the clan, the village community, the trade guild or the township (as an independent political entity) have been broken up and their functions taken over by the central official organisation of the national State – in short, only since the autonomous individual has replaced the group as the unit of society can patriotism, in the modern sense, be said to have established itself.

And now the question arises in its transference and metamorphosis from the more or less limited social group, based originally on the idea of kinship, real or supposed, and later depending on local proximity, and to some extent on the possibility of mutual acquaintance, Has the sentiment of patriotism, I say, not lost all real meaning in this transference, and become a bogus and a sham sentiment no longer of any service to mankind, but on the other hand capable of being exploited by interested persons in a manner which renders it one of the most dangerous frauds at present existing?

Now let us ask ourselves what is the object which inspires modern national patriotic sentiment? It is, in the most important cases, a vast bureaucratic State-system, a huge official organisation. But, no, it will be said there is the question of race and language. In the British Islands the population consists in England of an amalgamation of various Teutonic races, the predominant being the Anglo-Saxon speaking, various dialects of the English language; in Wales we find a pure Keltic race speaking a pure Keltic language. In parts of Ireland and the north of Scotland we have another branch of the Keltic family, speaking another Keltic language. And yet Wales and even Ireland are called upon to be loyal, i.e., patriotic in the interests of the British Empire, i.e., of the domination of the Anglo-Saxon race over alien races.

Again, Switzerland, a country in which you find the strongest patriotic feeling, is mainly composed of fragments of three distinct modern nationalities with their several languages, each of which possesses outside the Swiss Confederation its own state system on a large scale. I might point out the same as regards France, Austria or Russia. It is plain therefore that neither identity of race nor language, nor, witness Germany and Austria, even a common history constitutes the essential basis of the patriotic feeling. The patriotic French Canadians have neither a common race, nor language, nor history with the Englishman. No, the only thing left then is an identity of State system, i.e., a common subjection to the same governing classes and the same official organisation.

Now this fact, we Socialists claim, is not good enough for a bond of union. We find nothing calculated to inspire a reasonable working-class in the thought that they are slaves of one governmental system run by their masters rather than another and a rival one. Hence the motto of Social-Democracy, “Proletarians of all countries unite.” To-day we too often see the spectacle of the working classes uniting to applaud the crimes of their exploiters. And how is this? Because their exploiters are able to make use of the hereditary interest of slavish patriotism for their own purpose. It is related of John Huss, the reformer, that as he was being bound to the stake at Constance, he saw a feeble old woman bringing her bundle of fagots to feed the flames which were to consume him, but that the only words which escaped his lips were “Sancta Simplicitas” (Holy Innocence). I confess the same words have often come to my mind lately, as I have seen one slum vying with another more squalid than itself in the number of Union jacks and royal ensigns it could display. I have endeavoured in a few words to indicate to you how the patriotic sentiment to-day has lost its old meaning, and as I maintain has lost all meaning.

If I can only persuade one among you to see how the working classes are being hoodwinked and duped in this country and elsewhere by patriotic cries, and to hasten the day, be it never so little, when the working classes of the civilised world will, with one consent, finally abandon the national flags of their masters, and range themselves under the banner of international Socialism and human brotherhood, I shall not have spoken in vain.




1. This was from a symposium on Patriotism and War that the Social Democrat ran at this time partly provoked by discussions over attitudes to take to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05.


Last updated on 13.1.2006