E. Belfort Bax September 1912
Source: New Age, 19 September 1912, p. 487-488;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Internationalists and anti-militarists are constantly being challenged to define their position and explain exactly what it is they propose. First of all there is the question of National Defence. What is your view as to the resistance of the inhabitants of an invaded country towards its invaders? Do you deny to your own, any more than to any other country, the right of self-defence? These are the questions asked. Now, whatever may be the attitude of mere radical anti-militarists and pacifists in this matter, my own position, speaking as an upholder of Socialist Internationalism, is perfectly plain.
The modern Nation-State, which, in its centralised form, has grown up since the close of the Middle Ages is largely a geographical expression. The Empire-State of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is wholly a geographical expression. Now, it is for these geographical expressions that we are asked by modern Capitalist society to devote ourselves with religious ardour. If the integrity of the one to which we chance to belong is threatened we are expected to immolate ourselves in its defence. The Great Power in the domains of which we happen to have been born is supposed by modern patriotism to be the highest object of our emotions. Now the Socialist, for whom, not race but principle, not the State run by capitalist possessors, but justice to proletarian non-possessors, is the highest aim of political conduct, is naturally not enthusiastic to defend the capitalist State even against foreign aggression. While conceding the abstract right of every established community, from the Republic of San Marino to the British Empire, to defend itself against attack from without, it is manifest that in the latter case the Socialist cannot be expected to regard its defence as his affair. Even in the case of the invasion of the country itself, where, conceding to the full the right of the inhabitants to do their best to repel the invaders, Socialists cannot forget that we have to do with that pillar of the modern capitalist class state, a Great Power. Hence the issue of the conflict necessarily leaves him cold.
Such is the state of the case. For the ordinary bourgeois the defence of the country against invasion is the ultima ratio of all things. For the International Socialist it is a matter of, at least, subordinate importance. By all means defend the country by a national Landwehr, voluntarily recruited, as in the now defunct Volunteer force. But the Socialist anti-militarist protests against coercion to serve even in an army of defence, and might even go the length of holding himself free to avenge himself upon any constituted authority compelling him unwillingly to throw his life into the scale on behalf of such national defence. The danger to military success of unwilling recruits, under certain circumstances, in modern warfare is not to be gainsaid.
But the chances of war ever occurring again between first-class Powers becomes less every year. The partition of savage and barbaric territories between these Powers there is not much doubt will take place on the principle of “pooling the swag” in the future. Everyone seems now convinced that military conflicts on a big scale don’t pay and that all that is wanted can be got by diplomatic arrangement. The nineteenth century, after the Napoleonic wars, saw less of armed struggles between European Powers than any previous century, while the number of “crises” that have been smoothed over already during the twentieth century, where the rival interests of Great Powers have been concerned – crises which in former days would had led inevitably to war without further ado – only serve to point the moral of the above statement, so that he who runs may read. A general understanding among the foremost capitalist Powers of the world would seem the inevitable outcome of the modern exhausting race for armaments, and the situation generally. Such an international understanding between the capitalist World-Powers would, needless to say, have nothing to do with the Internationalism for which the consistent Socialist stands. The nations represented by the Powers would remain isolated, the capitalist rings dominating, each having, in spite of their cohesion against the common enemy, the proletariat and revolutionary Socialism, more or less antagonistic interests as before. The only change would be that the distribution of the plunder obtained from the conquest of backward races would be effected by mutual agreement rather than by recourse to arms. This world-peace of capitalist civilisation is not without its sinister side for Socialism and Democracy in general. It may easily mean development into the horror sometimes known today under the name of the “servile state,” in which the armed force at the disposal of the authorities might be used as part of an inter-State compact to crush popular revolt of any kind, wherever it showed itself, in the interests of the respective bureaucratic governing classes of the Great Powers concerned. Hence the integrity of the modern Nation-State may well become the nidus, the political mould, of the most dangerous form of super-capitalism. Those familiar with the notions entertained by Wagner and other writers of the German school of Kathedersozialisten will understand what I mean.
Patriotism, in its original inception, referred to small communities. With the cohesion of such a community one may feel some sympathy. There is usually an appreciable kinship of blood between members of such small nationalities, and it is impossible not to wish them well in the attempt to hold their own against the invader, especially when that invader is a big capitalist Power whose success would mean the crushing out of their whole independent life and character. The case is far otherwise with such Powers themselves. The huge Nation-States and Empires constituting these Powers are each nothing more than sections of the great capitalist world of modern times. The patriotic sentiment supposed to attach to them on the analogy of smaller communities or peoples which, even if civilised, are economically backward from a capitalist point of view (e.g., the Boers of South Africa), is a bogus sentiment fostered by the bureaucratic and capitalist interests that run these State-systems. Hence Nationalism – Nationalism of the modern big Nation-State order, with its accompanying bogus sentiment of patriotism – is the enemy.
The question next arises as to the best means and the most favourable conditions for supplanting, this nationalist feeling, this sham patriotism, by the international sentiment of Social Democratic solidarity – the solidarity based on principle and not on race or territory. It is not to be denied that the influx to the towns from the country side is on the whole a condition favouring indifference to patriotism. This is one effect of the great industry and the creation of the modern proletariat, which has very markedly helped to root out from the masses any vital interest in the soil. Now we find the patriotic sentiment in its older and more genuine form strongest in peasant communities whose associations and material interests centre in small independent holdings. Where a more or less extensive peasantry attached to the land exists in a country, older and more genuine attachment of the latter to the ancestral soil coalesces with the purely bogus patriotic sentiment of the dominant capitalist classes, and serves as a powerful support to it. This is the case in Germany and also, until quite recently, in France. In the latter country, especially near the larger towns, usury has recently weakened the hold of the peasantry on the land. Those, therefore, who see in the modern system of centralised capitalist States a stumbling block in the realisation of the ideals of Social Democracy, it is plain, ought to oppose from this point of view alone all forms of peasant proprietorship, or even such conditions of long tenure as, in their moral effect, coincides with those of peasant proprietorship. All that tends to weaken the sentiment of nationality morally, and to decentralise existing States materially, to break them up into manageable fragments, is for us, as International Socialists; all that tends to the affirmation, the strengthening, of the modern, centralised state of capitalism, is against us.