E. Belfort Bax, Religion of the Possessing Classes, Justice, 9th April 1914, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
It has become almost a commonplace to point out the obvious fact that the old interest in, and importance attached to, “religion” – understanding by the term Christian dogma and cultus – on the part of the dominant classes, of this no less than other countries, has diminished well-nigh to the vanishing point. Quite apart from any intrinsic interest or belief even, it used to be pointed out as an incontrovertible axiom on the part of the aforesaid classes that “religion,” in the conventional sense, was necessary for the “lower orders,” and hence must be supported at all costs. Of late years, however, this whilom axiom of the dominant classes has fallen very much into the background. Whether it is that in face of the destructive inroads of modern thought and modern facilities of reading they have felt that it is useless attempting to keep up a pretence of belief for the benefit of the “lower orders” or not, the fact remains. The attempts made a few years ago to discredit Socialism by alleging its atheistic character fell distinctly flat, and have now largely been dropped.
But if religion in the old sense of Christian dogma is felt to be somewhat discredited as an instrument for keeping the proletariat in subjection, the necessity of some substitute is none the less felt by many of the classes concerned.
This substitute is gradually shaping in the form of modern “Patriotism,” otherwise called “Imperialism,” and by the profane “Jingoism.”
Of the truth of this statement anyone may assure himself by a perusal of recent fiction whenever questions of national interest are touched upon. This new-style patriotism of the “my-country-right-or-wrong” order has ceased to be a question of mere politics, and “England above all” is being paraded as a religious faith, a cultus. The reactionary Press, with its glorification of militarism, shows us the effort being now made to propagandise for the new faith. But the more subtle and specious form of the propaganda is to be found, as already said, in the pages of modern fiction. The play An Englishman’s Home brought out some years ago on the subject of a possible German invasion, was, of course, full of this sentiment. And significant that the Lord Chamberlain’s office refused to license a parody of the play in question, as though to parody such patriotic sentiments were blasphemy. Incidentally the propaganda for the new faith of the privileged classes is noticeable in a very wide circle of modern fiction. But the fact of the religious character it is sought to give to modern nationalist sentiment was strongly brought home to me by a book recently published that has just come under my notice, entitled When William Came.
The framework of the story is a successful German invasion of Great Britain, and within this framework the religion of nationalism has ample ground for its ingenious display by the author. The notion of national independence and national glory and expansion as being the only things worth living for and working for are strenuously inculcated with every device of novelistic ingenuity.
This erection of the principle of modern nationalism into a new religion we may regard as the answer of the dominant classes in the present social order to the new social ideals of the age, of human solidarity and of human interest versus class interest. The idea seems to be to play up – the old religious other-world ideals having paled their ineffectual fire – the sentiment attaching itself to Nationalism, Patriotism, Imperialism, or by whatever other name the idea of own-race exclusiveness and other-race hatred may be called, against the opposing ideal of modern Social-Democracy
The purpose sought to be subserved by the propaganda of Nationalist or Imperialist sentiment to the character of a religion is usually a double one. Its general effect, it is hoped, will be that it will act as a red-herring with the working classes in drawing them off the track of Socialism, but its more special and concrete effect will be to cause the working classes to give their lives and their influence towards backing any policy of foreign and colonial adventure which it may suit the policy of the great financial interests to initiate. We had a telling illustration of this in the Boer War, in which British blood and money, under the glamour of patriotic sentiment, was poured out to enable a group of financiers to extract gold from the Rand at a cheaper rate, while their exploited victims were dying off like flies of miner’s phthisis. We had another similar illustration of patriotic glory covering the sordid operations of commerce and finance in the Italian raid upon Tripoli, and again in the French and Spanish “military operations” in Morocco. Wherever there is robbery of native races and exploiting rascality to be done in any part of the world there is the new religion of Patriotism to give it its blessing and veneer it with the tinsel of patriotic glory.
But this is not all. The crucial point in the matter is that this new religion of modern capitalism fraudulently seeks to draw a red-herring across the track of the real emancipation of the working classes, and of progress towards Socialism, by parading the maintenance of the independence of existing national States as the highest ideal to which men can devote their lives. It is this false principle that we have to combat. Neither Socialists nor anyone else would pretend to deny the technical right of the national State of to-day to defend its independence against the aggression of other national States. But the point is as to the relative importance in the economy of human affairs of the maintenance of the integrity of any particular State or of the principle of the independence of States in general. The notion that even the most legitimate form of sentiment as expressed in resistance to eternal aggression has anything superlatively noble about it, or that national independence has any claim on any man’s devotion as an end in itself, is, to the consistent Socialist thinker, an absurdity. But absurdity as it may be, looked at in the light of reason, traditional sentiment lends nationalism a glamour which renders it a suitable instrument for the purposes of Modern capitalism, which may be summed up as follows:
It behoves those of the working classes who have any respect for themselves or their class to beware of this new religion of Patriotism that is so assiduously being preached for the benefit and to give it a wide berth.
Last updated on 4.10.2004