E. Belfort Bax

and Patriotism

(28 January 1915)

E. Belfort Bax, Internationalism and Patriotism, Justice, 28th January 1915, p.4
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

In the face of the alleged breakdown of the International principle in European Socialism, this is undeniably the question of the day for all Socialists: in how far can a Socialist consistently by word or deed proclaim himself a patriot? That all Socialists “are not in principle anti-nationalists” is undoubtedly true, but this does not alter the fact that it may be the duty of the Socialist on occasion in practice to assume an anti-patriotic, anti-nationalist, attitude.

Where a nation is actually resisting an invasion of its territory, then every sane Socialist admits the justification, and, ever more, of its action. Where it is waging an aggressive war in another people’s territory, no consistent Socialist subject or citizen of that nation can be other than anti-patriotic and anti-national in the sense of wishing to see his country meet with the defeat it deserves.

If the principle of Internationalism in Socialism has any meaning at all, it implies this. And yet how many Socialists squirm at the above very natural application of the principle.

I remember hearing a Socialist comrade reprove the late Mr. Stead (not a man, by the way, who otherwise has my strong sympathies) for exhibiting signs of rejoicing over the victory of the Boers at Magersfontein, while he himself, though acknowledging the justice of the Boers cause in defending their territory when invaded, maintained an attitude of decorous subdued grief at the failure of “his country’s” arms,

Now, do let us consider for the moment the logic of this position. My friend admitted his country was doing wrong, and yet he wept, or thought he ought to weep, because his country was unsuccessful in the wrongdoing. On like principles, if my friend had had, let us say, a relative embarked on the Bill Sykes professional career, who had found the inmates of a house where he was operating in a position to “frustrate his knavish tricks” by an ignominious expulsion at the point of the boot, I suppose respect for family sentiment would exact that – while duly regretting that his relation had chosen the particular avocation in question – he should nevertheless exhibit a seemly sorrow at the failure of his enterprise.

Happily there are Socialists, Democrats and even Radicals in sufficient number who have enough regard for international morality to scorn such doctrine as that expressed by my friend.

One of my proudest recollections is the keen sense of moral delight with which I, in conjunction with most of my pro-Boer comrades, greeted without concealment the news of Magersfontein, Colenso, and Spionkop. In this we were, I maintain, true to Socialist principle.

Now Germany (i.e., the Prusso-German governing class) to-day is undoubtedly as much in the wrong in waging the present infamous war of wanton aggression in Europe as was Great Britain in that of South Africa fifteen years ago. And again we see the poison of patriotism working, this time in the German Social-Democratic Party – let us hope mainly among the Parliamentary leaders. Again we see the patriotic venom of “my country right or wrong” destroying all moral sense, not to speak of Socialist principle. We all admit the right of self-defence to the modern nation-State, and we admit the heroism and self-sacrifice that this conventional patriotism has and is calling forth in the present war.

We so-called anti-patriots only regret that all this heroism and devotion at the service of the modern nation-State – even when that nation-State is fighting in a just cause, as we believe the Allies to be doing to-day – is not forthcoming when it is a question of fighting, not for the political independence of one nation, but for a new society for all nations – for the Socialist Commonwealth.

Would the time might come when an idea principle shall inspire men as much as nationality can do now! What we need is, indeed, what is sometimes termed “a transvaluation of values.” We need the conviction that a just social State is of more value even than an independent national State. Socialism, it is said, is international in principle, but not necessarily anti-national. This may be true enough. But do not let us forget that the Internationalism of Socialism must inevitably be in proportion as it is realised in the Socialist Commonwealth, tend to sap the importance of the nation-State, and thereby to atrophy the sentiment of patriotism.

There was a time when districts of England – Mercia, Wessex, Strathclyde, East Anglia – were as separate political entities as England, France and Germany to-day. Now the distinction between these districts as represented by the counties at present embodying them is at most kept in remembrance by annual dinners, or similar celebrations, in which, Yorkshiremen, Cornishmen, Northumbrians, etc., respectively toast their own county virtues.

We would fain hope, and we not merely hope, but confidently believe, that as with the distinctions within existing nation-States at present, so in the future it will be with these nation-States themselves – the dividing lines between them will cease to indicate antagonisms, and, at most, be represented by merely trivial and formal rivalries.

The cause of the working classes is lost if they allow themselves to be caught again permanently in the meshes of the net of patriotism, with all the vicious and false sentiment clinging to it, and liable to be evoked in a virulent form on the slightest occasion at the will of the dominant classes.

But what can we do to help matters? I answer, one way is to strive for “devolution,” to work always towards the transference of the legislative and executive functions of the existing nation-State to local areas within that State. You will thus peacefully sap the sentiment of national exclusiveness or, as it is termed, of “national unity.” Such sentiment will then, at most, only be evoked by an actual violation of the national territory by a hostile State. Other causes of quarrel will leave it cold. Distant enterprises on behalf of capitalistic exploiters will not easily find a “patriotic” echo when men are primarily concerned with the direction of the affairs of a limited home-area, independent for practical purposes.

But this is not enough. We need a popular education, not merely in Socialist economics, but in Socialist ethics, on which the doctrine of Internationalism is founded. We need a popular education in the placing of cause before country, of principle before patriotism. The sentiment of “My country right or wrong” which inspired my honest friend with a subdued tearfulness on the news or a defeat of British brigandage in the Transvaal, will, with a generation so educated, be seen for the abomination that it is. The moral conviction now confined to the logically-consistent Socialist, that it is immoral, that it is shameful, not to rejoice at the defeat of “one’s country” in wrong-doing, will then become general. Meanwhile, the barriers of the modern nation-State bar the way to true international morality.

The German Social-Democratic Reichstag leaders know well enough that “their country” is committing a wicked crime in this war, and yet, like my friend in the Boer War, they do not rejoice at the prospect of their country’s discomfiture. Once more, I repeat, the unity of the nation-State bars the way to Internationalism.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 28.5.2007