E. Belfort Bax

Patriotism, Militarism and Ethics

(13 July 1907)

Patriotism, Militarism and Ethics, Justice, 13th July 1907, pp.4 & 5.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the Parliamentary debate on the Army Bill one speaker expressed himself as greatly shocked at the suggestion that a soldier, not in sympathy with the object of a war in which he is engaged, was not to be relied upon. This, of course, opens up the whole question of the ethics of patriotism and militarism. There is no doubt that the conventional ideas of “duty” were to teach following the flag, right or wrong, and to inculcate in the conscripted soldier the strenuous endeavour to fight well, and to win victory for the cause, it may be, his soul abhors. But here, I premise, is just where the ethics of Socialism should come to the rescue. Socialists cannot recognise any duty, of whatever nature, that is at variance with principle and with conscience. Judged by this standard, the highest duty for a man forced, under protest and against his will, to fight in a cause he disapproves of, is to do his level best to further the defeat of that cause. Even where he does not absolutely disapprove of the object for which his country is doing battle, the mere fact of being coerced absolves him from this point of view from all duty in connection with it. Undoubtedly, when a man of free will enters a campaign, whatever be its nature, he is morally bound to do his best to make it a success. But coercion entirely alters his ethical relation to it and to those conducting it. The conviction is more and more gaining ground that all coercion in the work of fighting, be the cause good or bad, is ethically indefensible. Is it possible that the corollary can fail ultimately to be drawn, to wit, that if society compels a man to fight (say) for his country, society and his country richly deserve to be betrayed by him? The obvious answer to conscription for the conscript would then be to make the conscripting power pay for having forced him against his will to take up arms to fight its battles for it. While not professing to be an expert in military matters there must surely, I imagine, be more ways than one by which an individual combatant or a few such combatants with a tacit understanding between one another could to-day paralyse the operations of the army of which they were members at a critical juncture. Who shall say that the next big war may not show evidence of a movement of this kind? It is plainly the only logical conclusion from the principles accepted by the majority of Socialists on the subject of militarism and war.

To the possible objection to be raised from certain quarters, “This is Anarchism!” the same answer might be given as in a good many other cases where a similar objection is sought to be applied. Though Socialism is not Anarchism there are many points in which Socialism or even mere Radicalism coincide with an Anarchistic attitude. Anarchism is always destructive, and every policy of destruction may be interpreted as Anarchistic. Yet every Radical not less than every Socialist aims at destroying something, It may be that the foundation of the existing social order Socialism would transform rather than destroy, but it will scarcely be denied that there are many abuses in our present social order that are doomed to destruction sans phrase. In so far then as his policy is destructive the Radical who is keen on abolishing the House of Lords, and the Socialist who would abolish other organs of class-domination as well, are, pro hâc vice, Anarchists if you will. The attempt to establish, not a difference of tactics or even a partial opposition of doctrine, but a thoroughgoing antithesis of principle between Socialism and Anarchism in its theoretical aspect, is absurd and will not hold water for a moment. So far as this is concerned, therefore, the policy hinted at, of rendering war impracticable by making it impossible to rely on the personnel of an army, in so far as this was coerced into serving would seem from the Socialist point of view a perfectly legitimate weapon.

As regards patriotism there is hardly a Socialist who aspires to catch votes who will declare his conviction in so many words that no man is bound to fight or sacrifice himself in defending from attack the particular racial and territorial agglomerate the world is pleased to call his country. Some time ago I was discussing this subject with a prominent Austrian Socialist of “revisionist” tendencies, who, of course, took the orthodox view of the matter. I put the case to him as to why the Social-Democrats of the Rhenish Provinces should feel it incumbent upon them to sacrifice their lives against a French aggression in order to continue subjects of the Prussian Military State rather than become Citizens of this French Republic. I am still waiting for the reply on Socialist principles. Of course them are cases where economic or other issues are involved, in which it undoubtedly would be worth while for the Socialist to defend his fatherland. This is especially so where a limited and perhaps economically backward, but politically independent, population, is threatened with absorption by some great capitalist power. But apart from such cases I submit it is difficult, on the basis of Socialist ethics, to establish any such responsibility.

It is a favourite maxim of some of our friends that though Socialism may be international it is not, therefore, anti-national. But I cannot help regarding this as a technical truism upon which it is sought to graft an untenable position. If we surrender the literal sense of the proposition it is hardly sustainable, for can anyone deny that for a consistent internationalist the sentiment of patriotism, as such, tends inevitably to lose its value? That patriotism, as applied in the present day, in the sense of imperialism, is anti-Socialistic is, I take it, undeniable. But surely from the standpoint of internationalism, even patriotism in what many would regard as its legitimate sense, as implying the impulse to defend a particular country from aggression, has not very great interest on the ground of principle to the consistent Socialist. To hold an exact equipoise between the two attitudes – internationalism and nationalism – is well-nigh impossible. As a matter of experience we see one or the other go under. The distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” nationalism is in practice impossible of definition. The man whose cosmopolitan tendencies are strong is not keen in the defence of his country. The man whose nationalist tendencies are strong in a crisis invariably drifts into the attitude “my country right or wrong.”

How strong this nationalist trend is, we see in Germany, where it hampers the action of the Social-Democratic Party in combating even the most flagrant abuses of militarism. Let us take alone the question of cruelties to recruits, Not one of the spokesmen of the party in the Reichstag has ventured seriously to deal with this question. They have deplored the facts, in which they have been seconded by the Minister of War. But no one has been found among the official representatives of the Social-Democratic Party to take the bull by the horns, and bring forward the only possible solution of the matter – a solution not even incompatible for that matter with the maintenance of an army, viz., the repeal of that military law enacting unconditional obedience to his immediate superior on the part of the soldier by which he is made the abject body-slave of the former. This obedience at present extends not merely to military matters but to every detail of life. The scandals that have arisen are the inevitable result of the law which deprives the soldier of the right to call his soul his own even in non-military matters. Yet no one has the courage to bring in a motion in the Reichstag for its repeal. Why? Because even the Social-Democratic members are afraid of seeming in any way to propose anything which might be construed into an attempt to weaken the national defence. The sane Socialist would say, one would imagine, the sooner a nation whose defence requires this atrocious system of slavery, ceases to exist as a nation, the better.

The political independence of a nation is not worth the degradation of the manhood of a nation. But this is not the view of the “patriots,” nor of some Social-Democrats apparently, who cower before the insinuation of not being up to the high water-mark of zeal for the defence of the Fatherland. In view of these things, can we wonder at the strength of Hervé’s movement among the working-classes in the Latin countries? For, whether practicable or not at the present time, it does, at least, not hesitate to carry Internationalism to its logical conclusion in recognising that Internationalism does in a sense involve, in the long run, the sentiment of anti-nationalism.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 16.7.2004