E. Belfort Bax

Nationalities And Individuals

(November 1912)

Bax, Nationalities and Individuals, British Socialist, Vol.I., No.11, 15 November 1912, pp.481-485. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In an article ostensibly on the Ulster question Quelch discusses, in the September number of the British Socialist, once more the well-worn question of whether Internationalism involves an attitude of anti-nationalism or anti-patriotism. In the course of this discussion he draws a parallel between national autonomy and individual liberty, but this parallel is rather invalidated by the writer’s own admission that whereas “there is no difficulty in determining what is individual, and little in deciding what rights and liberties pertain to the individual human being in society, it is by no means so easy to determine what does, or should, constitute the national unit, or what are the limits of its autonomy.” Here, indeed, is precisely the “rub” in this matter of nationalism or patriotism. Am I, as an Englishman, while feeling patriotically as regards England and her forty counties, to be allowed to regard Ireland or Scotland or Wales as outside “the sphere of influence” of my patriotic sentiments? If not, if the whole of Great Britain is to be regarded as my patriotic unit, how about the colonies, the bulk of whose inhabitants are Englishmen, or at least Britons? Once we include the colonies it is scarcely possible to stop before the whole British Empire in its entirety logically clamours for the support of our patriotism. But in this case our patriotism would necessarily take on an imperialistic hue which, as Quelch is careful to inform us, indicates the spurious article. On the other hand, if patriotism, as such, is to be limited to England, excluding Wales and Scotland, surely the Northumbrian, the Yorkshireman, or the man of the Midlands, might make out a case based on racial, traditional and other differences, for claiming, if not each of them a local and separate patriotism of its own, at least a patriotism collectively as against the southern portion of the island.

It is a sectional patriotism of this sort which so vehemently animates the manly breasts of the Ulster folk at the present time. It is with them a case of Ulster right or wrong, just as with the conventional British patriot it is Britain right or wrong. The rights of the rest of Ireland no more concern the Ulster patriot (or, rather, the man of the four Protestant counties of Ulster), than the rights of the rest of Europe, of “the bloody foreigner,” concern the British patriot when on the rampage. It would seem, then, that on analysis the conception of patriotism becomes rather elusive as regards its definition, and from this point of views it must be admitted that the anti-patriots are justified of their contempt for a sentiment (only too apt to take on a bloodthirsty character) which is based on such an amorphous concept as that referred to.

Nevertheless, it is not to be denied that Socialists and Democrats generally are often moved with sympathy and admiration for a people struggling to maintain their national integrity against an invader or oppressor. But let us look a little more closely at the actual cases which excite this admiration and sympathy amongst Socialists and Democrats. If we do so we shall mostly find that the national defence in question involves an economic side, that there is an economic motive behind it, or else that the individual nation has been in the past, or is in danger of being, oppressed by the attacking Power. For example, in the case of the Irish patriotic movement it was the land question, the struggle of the peasant to secure his plot against the rapacious ground landlord who was backed by the British power as represented by Dublin Castle, which formed the backbone of the Irish movement for Home Rule or for Irish independence. Then, again, take the case of the Boers; the substance behind their heroic resistance to Britain in the South African war was the fact that the Boer nation of peasant farmers were fighting against the domination of themselves and their territory by the advanced forms of modern capitalism. They felt that the conquest by Britain meant the beginning of the end of the life of rough plenty and independence they had hitherto been leading on their native veldt.

And so it is with all wars waged by the modern capitalistic States against weak and capitalistically backward peoples – be they civilised, barbaric, or savage. In all these cases the sting of the conflict lies in the economic change incorporated in, and typified by, the forces of the invader. Hence the sympathy of all just men for these victims of capitalist aggression. The Socialist knows that though the shibboleth of the resisters may be the old catchwords of patriotism, yet they do but cover this other content. On the other hand, the present struggle in the Balkans will leave many of us cold as regards taking sides. While we should all gladly see an end of the Turkish oppression in Macedonia, such as at is and what there is of it, yet we cannot be unmindful of the fact that the complete destruction o£ the Turkish power in the Balkan peninsular means the opening up of the whole country, and its peoples, sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later, to the exploitation by the great industry, commerce, and finance of Western capitalism. It is impossible, therefore, for the consistent and far-seeing Socialist to be very enthusiastic for the success of the Balkan arms against the Ottoman forces, and this notwithstanding that he may willingly recognise that intrinsically the rule of the Turk in Europe has no ethico-political justification. What the incursion of modern capitalism into old agricultural societies means we can everywhere see where such societies come under the sway of one of the great Powers. In Egypt, for example, the factory system, with all its horrors, is rapidly making headway on the banks of the Nile. Such would inevitably be the case in the Balkan peninsula once it is finally and inevitably quit of Turkish rule and has become under the sphere of influence, if not into the actual possession of, one or more of the great Western Powers. Against this contingency the Ottoman domination, retrograde though it may be, is some sort of bulwark.

Hence, it is plain that Socialist sympathies in the matter of national struggles are mainly aroused by the efforts of a small and generally backward people economically to resist the oppression or invasion of a big capitalistic Power – the aim of such Power; being to enable the weaker people and their count to be exploited by the, industrial, commercial, and financial individuals and syndicates in whose interests it is itself run!

A struggle between two big Powers themselves, say France and Germany, or England and Germany would, from the standpoint of intrinsic Socialist sympathies, probably be, in itself, a matter of indifference seeing that all three Powers alike are capitalistic, such sympathy as would be evoked by Socialists and Democrats being determined by the question of expediency, the democratic and progressive Power being; of course, preferred to the more reactionary. In a word, the element of vicarious patriotism, or, race preference, as, such does not enter into the attitude of Socialists in their sympathies and antipathies as regards international struggles, but rather the relative economic position of the parties and the social and economic issues involved. It is, therefore, obvious, I think, that on analysis, the unit of patriotism discloses itself as a purely artificial product. There is no intrinsic reason which determines this unit constituting the object of patriotic sentiment; but the sentiment itself, once attached to a certain unit, comes at once a ready instrument for hocussing the people on behalf of the governing classes of all countries, since the average man who lives on traditional catchwords is always ready to respond to the call of “patriotism.”



1. The article arose from a discussion on the Balkan War and Ulster, specifically two articles by Harry Quelch: Would Ulster Be Right To Fight, The British Socialist, Vol.1., No.8, 15 September 1912; and The War in the Balkans, The British Socialist, Vol.1., No.10. October 15, 1912.


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