E. Belfort Bax

National “Ideals” and the Pest of “Patriotism”

(16 July 1904)

National “Ideals” and the Pest of “Patriotism”, Justice, 16th July 1904, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In a recent article criticising Tolstoy’s recent anti-war manifesto, that champion of Whiggery and all the cant wherewith the existing social order is varnished, called the Spectator, has attempted to whitewash the present system of international militarism in styling war “a national sacrament” which can only be banished from the world by debasing human nature” (!) declaring that “until nationality and national ideals are abolished, and all the races and States are fused into one, to make war impossible, you must destroy, not the baser desires of man, but his essential idealism.” The Spectator has evidently never properly digested the motto, “Corruptio optimi pessima.” Further talk about war as the consequence of the “honest ambition” of nations and similar twaddle is all in keeping with the above. The “honest ambition” of nations – i.e., at least of the larger State-systems – in the present day, is exhibited solely in the honest desire of the dominant classes that “run” them, to become possessed of territories to which they have no claim, for the purpose of impartially exploiting them industrially, commercially, and financially for the benefit of their own pockets.

Every man with the least grain of insight knows that these “desires,” whether they be “baser” or not in the judgment of journals like the Spectator (whose function would seem to be to act as intellectual pander to the governing classes), are at all events the “desires” which are at the bottom of all the modern wars waged by the great civilised state-systems. Pretexts are various and constitute the gilding of this, the real, the substantial, motive. But the gilding tends to become progressively thinner and thinner. The true substance underneath shows more and more plainly through with every war of modern times, so that we shall soon be able to say that who ever professes to mistake the gilt-lacquer of pretext for the solid substance of motive is wilfully and maliciously blind. Nothing is conceivably more contemptible or viler than the spurious “ideals” of modern patriotism with which the masses are even still hoodwinked. And these are, forsooth, according to the Spectator, “not the baser desires of man but his essential idealism.”

For us Socialists “idealism” of this sort is “the enemy” with which no truce or parley is to be held. The ethical task of Socialism is to rid mankind of these accursed ideals than which the lowest and most materialistic animalism (which may at least be merely natural) is infinitely preferable. For us Socialists no war is justifiable that is not a war against oppression from within or a war against actual invasion from without. To this principle we can admit no exception. The “class war” whether waged economically and politically or if the occasion arises by forcible means, we recognise. But we have no sort of sympathy with any racial warfare pursued outside the zone of the national territory for extraneous objects, under whatsoever specious pretext, be it opening up markets for the outlet of national produce; “pegging out claims for posterity;” taking up “the white man’s burden,” whereby with heroic self-sacrifice the white man relieves his black brother of his lands, his labour-produce, and his natural rights over his own person, all of which might do him harm; succouring missionaries sent to teach the benighted barbarian, and to prepare him to meet his God, the capitalist; “national expansion” necessitated by the threatened aggression of some other nation in the dim and distant future. All these ends and ideals are to us anathema. They are the “abomination of desolation” set up in the holy place, the forms assumed by the fiend capitalism in his attempts to violate the vestal of human emotion – in this case, of the emotional tendencies of classes and nations. It is the “essential idealism” (as the Spectator terms it) of these social forces that we would rescue from the claws of the rapacious monster that seeks to insinuate himself by masquerading in the aforesaid tawdry guises. We would tear to rags the foul and accursed “ideals” which capitalism, and the governing classes it represents, flaunt in the eyes of the classes who have no interest in the real thing they cloak. Otherwise let the “essential idealism” perish, say we! Better a dead Idealism than one turned whore!

But it may be asked, Do you not sympathise with the Japanese in the present conflict with Russia, and what else animates the Japanese than the ideal of national expansion pursued by the Japanese governing classes with a view to ulterior exploitation under the various forms of capitalism ? The answer is, we sympathise with the Japanese (apart from the natural admiration for courage and brilliancy) solely as the lesser of two evils. We sympathise with anything that is likely to lead to the destruction of Russian autocracy. For the rest, we fully recognise that Japan has no more essential right to Corea or Manchuria than Russia has. From this standpoint we may justly characterise the two combatants as arcades ambo. Our sympathies with Japan are only relative to her rival. Apart from this Japan is for us simply a commercial power seeking expansion. Our comrades, our Japanese fellow Socialists, justly repudiate the present war as one of capitalist aggression to impose a foreign yoke upon an unwilling people (for the Coreans hate the Japanese.) In judging of individual cases, however, we cannot afford to ignore the relative point of view according to which (pace the vulgar saw) two blacks often do make a white in the economy of human affairs.

But let us look for one moment at what for so many in the present day constitutes the summing up of all political and social virtue – to wit, patriotism. So long as national state-systems exist, we suppose a certain preference for the particular nationality into which they have been born will be felt by the majority of men. The bond of a common language (in most cases) and of a common national tradition, is strong in the average man, and hence as against the “foreigner” he regards his nationality as a kind of unwieldy second self. But granting the naturalness of this feeling under present circumstances, does it constitute a virtue to be so especially proud of, and are we to regard it as even justifying any and every action, however evil in itself, which can redound to the selfish advantage of one’s “ fellow-countrymen,” and the State-system embodying them? (I waive the point that it is commonly only a class-section of the “fellow-countrymen “ who benefit by accessions of strength to the aforesaid State-system.)

Now, let us take the parallel case, to help us to an answer. We all admit that every man has certain rights as an individual against other individuals; and most will concede that in a competitive state of society like the present he is justified in not only maintaining these rights intact, but even, up to a certain point, in preferring himself generally to his neighbour. But, however much we may regard a more or less enlightened selfishness as legitimate under existing conditions of our old friend “human nature,” no one thinks of exalting this natural, and, as things are, legitimate, selfishness, into a high and noble virtue, while any tendency to actions overstepping its recognised limits is severely condemned. Yet, strange to say, while men do not treat even legitimate self-love in the individual as something to be ethically proud of, they have no limits to their admiration of this self-love as applied to the nation, and, what is more, there is scarce an action in furtherance of it they will not applaud. These bathyethics, oh, Europe – of the twentieth century!


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.6.2004