E. Belfort Bax

Nationalism and Patriotism

(6 January 1916)

E. Belfort Bax, Internationalism, Nationalism & Patriotism, Justice, 6th January 1916, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

We are constantly having impressed upon us in Socialist Party organs that Internationalism does not mean anti-nationalism. This statement, other things equal, is unquestionably true. Internationalism most undoubtedly does not necessarily mean anti-nationalism. For all this, however, it is quite within the bounds of possibility that the consistent Internationalist may be driven by circumstances, and even logically and justifiably driven, into an attitude of anti-nationalism. For him no given State, either that to which he belongs or any other, is a sacrosanct entity in itself, whose success and existence is to be regarded as absolutely and under all circumstances inviolable. This latter condition only applies to progressive humanity, considered as an evolutionary whole – Auguste Comte’s “Grand Etre Supreme.”

We only require to look back at the short span of time covering the continuous records of human history – some three thousand years or so – to discover that Human Evolution has used up and cast away any number of those sectional groups of humanity called States and nations. “She cries a thousand “States” are gone; I care for nothing, all shall go!” It is, therefore, difficult to regard an anti-national attitude as inadmissable for the Internationalist as concerns any particular State or States, given the requisite circumstances and situation. To the Socialist undoubtedly, his supreme object is the realisation of certain social ideals in a progressive Humanity. The preservation of any particular nation or State must surely always be subordinate to this supreme object. Yet how often do we find Socialists and others who profess to follow a Humanist Ideal going astray on this point, speaking and acting as though they regarded the preservation of the integrity of a particular nation or State as the highest ideal of their endeavours.


The Supremacy of the State

Socialists as just indicated are not the only offenders in this connection. Thus some time ago Mr. Swinny, the Positivist, writing in the Positivist Review, proclaimed the thesis that the preservation of its own existence was the supreme duty of every State, a doctrine which one would think would better fit in with the Chauvinism of a Bernhardi or a Von Treitschke than with what one might suppose would be the attitude of a follower of Auguste Comte and the “Religion of Humanity.” This notion of the supremacy of the State to the exclusion of everything beyond itself is precisely the gospel of the Prussian bureaucrat and militarist. No! undoubtedly the Socialist at least must be so far an anti-nationalist as to be prepared to see any national system, his own or any other, perish, if the interests of justice and Human Progress demand it. It is quite clear that some national States, as some individuals, may be assets to Human Progress, while others may be obstacles to such progress. We complain, and justly, of the “enemy” that he is German first and human afterwards. But are there not Socialists and democrats (even) of other nationalities, who “want to see their country great and strong,” to whom the same observation, mutatis mutandis, will apply?


The Relations of States

The question of the reciprocal relation towards each other of the diverse national States into which civilised mankind is divided up at the present time has an important bearing on the problem of the ethical advancement of the human race. It is essential to this ethical development that the lines of certain broad and fundamental ethical principles, centring in the conception of justice, as applied to contemporary social and political conditions should not be obliterated even for a moment. With this point, too, is connected the answer to a would-be critical observation I have sometimes heard as regards my own views on the present subject. “How can you,” I have heard it said, “who attach comparatively so little importance to the question of nationality, how can you consistently take strongly one side or another in national conflicts?”

How can you logically feel any violent indignation at the British invaders of the Boer Republics, or at the German invaders of France or Belgium, and how can you express enthusiastic admiration for the heroism of the invaded peoples in sacrificing their all to repel the invasion, actuated, as in the main they undoubtedly are, by a strong sentiment of patriotism? If patriotism is per se objectionable as being antagonistic to the spirit of Human Brotherhood, as is sometime affirmed by Socialists, how can you express strong approval of actions which are undoubtedly due to it?

Patriotism and – Patriotism

The answer is, from my point of view, perfectly simple. Patriotism, as generally understood, is an objectionable sentiment since it means the placing of one’s own country, its interests and well-being, above those of the rest of humanity. The man who “wants to see his country great and strong” invariably wants to see it so, if need be, at the expense of the welfare and interests of other countries. Every real patriot, au fond, says in his heart, “My country right or wrong.” Even if his country is committing a crime he wishes to see that crime succeed, or at least will not rejoice at the frustration of this crime by the defeat of “his country.” This patriotism, I contend, is fundamentally immoral, or anti-moral. And as it is with this implication that the term patriotism is generally used, we regard patriotism as the enemy of human justice and Socialism. But there is a different thing altogether, which, in view of the equivoque implied in the word one would like to call by another name, but which is also commonly called “Patriotism” – I refer to the purely defensive action against aggression from without of those living within a given area, and whose main inerests and relationships lie within that area.

This community of interests and, if you like, of relationship or neighbourly feeling, may not necessarily or exclusively apply to Nationality. As a matter of fact, in ancient times it was the City-State rather than the Nation-State which was its boundary. Even to-day this question of local proximity and neighbourship is at least conceivable in certain circumstances as coming into play. For instance, if the inhabitants of Newington were to make a raid on the inhabitants of Camberwell I should strongly champion the inhabitants of Camberwell in resisting the aggression of the Newingtonians, although I should by no means sympathise with any exalted feelings of Camberwell patriotism on the part of the Camberwellians.

Justice, the Root of Human Relations

Again, if I lived in a house or hotel in company with other people, and that house or hotel were attacked by armed burglars, I should heartily throw myself into the cause of the defence against the aggressors. Precisely similar is the case of the resistance of a country against the foreign invaders of a country – from my point of view. It is simply a particular application of the ethical principle, Justice, which is at the root of all forms of Human Society, and indeed of all Human Intercourse whatever.

Proximity of residence and a certain community of interests are quite sufficient reason for resisting aggression from without and this on simple grounds of justice; in other words, on the fundamental ethical principle of right, and not on those of patriotism, local or national. This it is which rouses my ethical sense in this matter of common defence against an invader. To my thinking the knowledge that in repelling an unprovoked act of aggression one is standing up for the fundamental principles of morality, which are the basis of all Human Society, inspires a nobler sentiment than that of devotion to a particular soil, or even to a particular section or group of the human race into which one happens to have been born. This is the adequate ground, speaking for myself for my enthusiastic espousal of the cause of the wantonly invaded against the wanton invader. The principle of nationality – of “fatherland” – as such is not dear to me, the principle of Justice is.


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