E. Belfort Bax

The “Herd Instinct”

(31 January 1918)

E. Belfort Bax, The Herd Instinct, Justice, 31st January 1918.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

That distinguished anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan regarded the horde or herd as the earliest form of human association. The association – or rather, togetherness – of the herd was, of course, of the crudest and most elementary kind. It was maintained by what we may term the “herd instinct.” We find essentially the same phenomena in the higher mammalia, e.g., herds of buffaloes or packs of wolves. The instinct animating the gregariousness of earliest man evolved in the latter case into the social consciousness of humanity on the one side, and on the other into the separatism and narrow exclusiveness of the clan, tribe and people.

Patriotism a “Herd Instinct”

With the loosening of the bonds of the group formations of early society in the progress of civilisation and the rise of individual personality, this “herd instinct” became modified and weakened, but it never died out. It has survived in a latent fashion through all the forms of civilisation in the course of its development, and we see it in modern times exhibited under changed conditions in a recrudescent form as modern patriotism. The idea of “my country, right or wrong” is but a crude survival of the “herd instinct”. The notion that there is something wrong or disgraceful in going against “one’s country” – bien entendu by “one’s country” being understood the modern class state no matter how unjust, ethically wrong, or even criminal the action of “one’s country” may be, is the form which the “herd instinct” assumes to-day.

Herd Instinct may be Stronger than Patriotism

The general principle of this “herd instinct” is even strong enough, it would seem, to overpower the natural predilections of special herd instincts or patriotisms. For instance, a German journalist, Dr. Sturmer, who went over to Constantinople as correspondent of a prominent German newspaper at the beginning of the war a strong patriot, after a sojourn there of nearly two years became convinced from what he saw and heard that, with the German and Turkish Governments, it was a case of arcades ambo. He accordingly wrote articles, and recently a book, in this sense. Now a recent writer in the “Times” Literary Supplement in reviewing his book stated that this good man had actually been treated with a certain amount of obloquy by some English (!) critics because, forsooth, he had spoken the truth as he knew it, that truth being hostile to the Government of his precious “country” and that “country” any enemy power! The reviewer justly stigmatised this development of the “herd instinct”. It is a striking illustration indeed of the ethically poisonous effects of the worship of the mere “herd instinct,” as such, as a part of human morality.

The Society of Nations and the Herd Instinct

While fully admitting the impossibility at the present stage of human progress of ignoring or attempting to obliterate racial distinctions and demarcations, it cannot be too strongly emphasised that the effective inauguration of the “United States of Europe” or the “Society of Nations,” of which we hear so much nowadays, must mean the quelling of the “herd instinct” on the part of the separate races or nations involved. We have, perhaps, experienced a little too much since this war began in the way of the laudation of patriotism, of nationality as a principle, even on the part of certain Socialists. While entirely recognising the right of every national group to its own free development within the “Society of Nations” analogously to the right of the individual to personal freedom of development within the existing State – yet, as an internationalist, for me the freedom or relative autonomy of racial and national groups is only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The end is the progress and development of the “Society of Nations,” and not of any special nation – our own or any other. In the same way the freedom of self-development of the individual personality is not an ultimate end in itself, but the end is the attainment through this freedom of the welfare of the social whole to which the individual man belongs. In the latter case, however, it might be plausibly urged that the individual personality, as such, has a greater claim to be considered an end to itself than has any given nation or ethnic group. The nation or ethnic group is at best fluctuating, and not a self contained organic existence, physically and psychically, like the individual personality. The final end of all is, of course, humanity.

A Patriot for Mankind

I agree with the sentiment once expressed to me by our old friend, the late Felix Moscheles: “I am a patriot, or a jingo if you will, for mankind as a whole, but not for any particular section of mankind.” My sympathy with the cause of the allies is based on the fact that for me that cause represents the cause of humanity and the cause on international morality which has been violated by the Central Powers. It is not based an motives of patriotism for the British Empire, or for that of any other of the States involved in the alliance. And this, I venture to think, ought to be the case with every other Socialist whose internationalism means more than a mere flourish of rhetoric.


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