E. Belfort Bax

The Modern State, Internationalism, and War

(August 1918)

E. Belfort Bax, The Modern State, Internationalism and War, English Review, August 1918, pp.120-128.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are all acquainted with certain well-worn saws embodying what counts for popular wisdom on the subject of “human nature.” Who does not know the wiseacre who will confidently dispense his cheap and serviceable wisdom to you to the effect that dogmatic religion is, and always will be, necessary to keep the mass of men in order? The implication is, of course, that he, and possibly you, might do without it, but that “human nature” in the lump (which is bad) requires it. Then, again, there is our old acquaintance in discussions on Socialism, who is never tired of repeating that the stimulus of want, hunger, and necessity is imperative to make the bulk of men do any work at all, “human nature being always essentially lazy. Yet, again, we have the sapient man of shrewd common sense, as he fancies himself, who lays down the law to the effect that, as war always has been, so it always will be, since war belongs to “human nature,” and disputes between States will be always liable to reach a point at which a recourse to arms is inevitable.

Now, it is this last oracle with whom we propose to deal, on the present occasion. In investigating the truth or falsehood of his pretensions it is necessary to cast a glance at the origin and development of the structural forms of human society, social and political, for when our popular philosopher of “human nature” talks about war as being inevitable in the future as in the past, he means war as between Nation-States in the modern sense. Now he, like his colleagues in the purveying of their cheap and serviceable popular wisdom, is, as a rule, indifferently grounded in anthropology and the early history of institutions. For the worthy person in question, like his colleagues above-mentioned, the “human nature” and institutions he has in mind are those he is familiar with in the present day, or in the more or less recent history with which he is superficially acquainted. So this our friend, who is so confident in maintaining the thesis that a state of perpetual peace among mankind is a chimera, does not refer for the most part to civil war or commotions on questions of principle, irrespective of racial or national boundaries (which come under a different category), but to armed conflict between Nation-States in their capacity as such.

Now in discussing the question of the possibility of war between Nation-States, as happens to-day, becoming obsolete, it is necessary to go over what may be to many readers familiar ground, and briefly re-consider the forms out of which such war has evolved, and the general direction of social and political evolution, in so far as it concerns the question of war and peace.

The earliest form of organised human society, we need scarcely remind the reader, is what is known as “tribal” society, a society based, that is, directly or indirectly on kinship groups, on groups whose membership usually claim descent from some common ancestor. The chief and most constant divisions in tribal society (although not the only ones) are those of the clan and the tribe. Now war as it obtained in early society meant a conflict between rival clans, but as the power of the larger unit of organisation, the tribe, grew at the expense of the clans of which it consisted, war between the clans as such gradually died out, and the tribe itself became the war-waging unit as against other tribes. At a later stage two or more tribes coalesced, always under the notion of kinship, which might be real or fictitious, to form what was known as a “people.” Armed conflicts as between the affiliated tribes of this people very soon ceased, and henceforth the war-waging unit became par excellence no longer the tribe, but the union or confederacy of tribes (i.e., the people) in its corporate capacity. (As the most familiar historical illustration of a confederacy such as that spoken of, under an assumed kinship bond, take the trite case of the “people” or “children” of Israel.)

As civilisation advanced and gained the upper hand over primitive barbaric society and settled conditions of agricultural and of town life supervened, the city which grew up round some natural stronghold became the localised centre of the united tribes and henceforth the typical emblem of these tribes, alike in peace and in war. With the rise of settled communities and cities we enter the period of history properly so called. It is the period par excellence of individualisation, first of all of peoples themselves, and very much later of the individual men composing these peoples. Primitive barbaric society was and is very much alike in essentials all over the world. The main differentiation of the characteristics of one race from another begins with civilisation and history. This, however, by the way. Now history proper takes its rise with the civilisations of Egypt and of Western Asia. In dealing with this ancient history we often speak of Empires. Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, Egypt, are referred to as Empires. But it would be a mistake to regard these so-called Empires as bearing any close analogy to the Nation-State of modern times. They were essentially more or less loose confederacies of cities under an over-lordship, whose powers were mainly exercised in the direction of military service and of fiscal subsidies usually for war purposes. The civil and domestic life of each city and district was largely autonomous, the central over-lordship making its power little, if at all, felt in local affairs. Hence there was no feeling of national unity and national patriotism as we know it to-day and in recent times. Even in war it was for the most part mere force exercised by the over-lordship of the dominant city or district which held together as soldier-slaves the greater part of the people of Babylonia, Assyria, or Persia. These Empires consisted at best of loose and unstable component elements, and at worst of conquered or half-conquered cities and districts with their populations. There was nowhere any feeling of national unity in the modern sense.

With the rise and rapid development of Greece and its colonies we have the pure type of the ancient city at its best, and in Greece and its colonies war, when it took place, was a war between cities, mostly between Greek cities. The Greek world, although it had a sentiment of community as against the barbarian, never had it in the sense of political cohesion. We see this utter want of politico-national sentiment in a modern sense in the greatest enterprise in which the Greek-speaking world was ever engaged in common, to wit, the Persian wars.

Rome itself, like all the other cities of the ancient world, originated in a small tribal confederacy. Through conquest and the formation of a city confederacy throughout Italy, of which Rome was the head, the foundation of the future world-Empire was laid. But this Empire, which assumed more and more the character of a bureaucratic organisation, and which was compounded of all tribes, kindreds, and peoples, had, if possible, less real unity of national sentiment than even those that had preceded it. The much-boasted Roman citizenship, at first the sign of a dominant caste, then a mere commercial value, was finally levelled, under Caracalla, to include all the subjects of the Empire, and soon ceased to have any significance whatever.

With the break-up of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions, the world as known to history again resolved itself into a congeries, or, at best, a very loosely connected system, of rural manors, with the surviving cities of the Empire now become autonomous centres. Afterwards, in the later Middle Ages, when the new mediaeval townships arose, they likewise assumed the form of partially or wholly independent civic communities. In any case their allegiance was, as a rule, owed to an immediate overlord and not to any national government. Their connection with a larger governmental system, whether that of the king, as in France or England, or of the Empire, as in Central Europe, was in the former case, according to modern ideas, comparatively slight, and in the latter almost purely nominal.

But with the close of the Middle Ages, with the periods known as the Renaissance and the Reformation, the modern nation began to consolidate itself. The manorial and feudal system broke down, and power became centralised in the hands of the king and his council. Local freedoms and independence weakened, and in many cases lapsed, before the power of the new Nation-State with its national patriotic sentiment. From this time forward baronial wars, wars between local communities and their heads, or between one township and another, gave place, in some countries gradually and in others more suddenly, to wars between the recently centralised national States. The Nation-State of modern times, with its racial basis, real or assumed, now became the war-waging unit. This is the stage which still continues. Modern patriotism represents its ideological expression. The appeal is now made not to a man’s enthusiasm for his feudal lord, or his native borough, or his county, or any other local division, but to his country, to his enthusiasm for the Nation-State into which he happens to have been born.

Yet, in spite of the apparent strength of the Nation-State, it is not difficult to see, and the present war has emphasised the point in many directions, that we are on the eve of another great change in the unit of political power, a corresponding change to those which gave rise to the domination of the tribe over its component clans, of the “people” over the “tribe,” of the city over the rural communities, whether in ancient or mediaeval times, of the feudal prince over the barons and knights who owed him allegiance, and, lastly, of the king and his council as representing the earlier form of the modern Nation-State we see in its fully-developed form to-day; in short, of the larger and more comprehensive unit over the lesser ones embraced by it. Now similar corresponding causes are operating under our very eyes, which point to the supersession of the Nation by the International or perhaps better, the Supernation, of the Nation-State by the International Commonwealth, as the ultimate arbiter and the final basis of power. Everywhere we hear the talk of a Commonwealth at least of the Allied Entente Nations. The causes of this are complex in their nature. Economical, social, political, intellectual conditions of civilised mankind are rapidly tending to become incompatible with the absoluteness of the Nation-State as the unit of power. But once the unit of power, to which is the supreme appeal, becomes International, and it is clear that the day of internecine warfare between the nations constituting the International Commonwealth must come to an end, just as inter-tribal warfare came to an end with the power of the tribal confederacy or “people,” over the tribes constituting it, or the internecine warfare of feudal manors or mediaeval townships came to an end with the rise and development of the modern Nation-State.

But will the new International Commonwealth upon which devolves the sceptre of ultimate power formerly held by the Nation-State be a war-waging unit of power? This is impossible in proportion as it absorbs the whole of civilisation, since there would be no separate power that could compete with it, just as it would be impossible, say, for Liverpool or any other single town or conceivable combination of towns to wage war on the National Government of England. Hence it is clear that with the advent, even in a partial form, of the International Commonwealth spoken of, we shall see at the very least the waning possibility of international war, and with its complete development the final impossibility and ultimate extinction of international war as such. Just as administrative regulation in the Nation-State has superseded armed conflict between the communities comprised within that State, so it will be, mutatis mutandis, in the future with the International Commonwealth. In other words, in the necessary course of political development, war must end. Q.E.D.

Once more. It is clear that the causes of conflict within a world-commonwealth such as that spoken of in the first part of this article, in so far as it was established on a Socialist basis, could not arise out of economic rivalry, or, indeed, from any directly economic cause. Hence, not merely would the absorption of present existent Nation-States in a new universal over-Power, by the very constitution of such a Power, do away with the possibility of armed conflict, just as the modern Nation-State in a similar way abolished the possibility of armed conflict between the town and provinces contained within it; but the main causes of dispute would be altogether removed. The world-Power of the future, therefore, would necessarily differ in every important respect from the Nation-State of to-day. It behoves us, nevertheless, as practical persons living to-day to consider the question of the ethical claim of the modern Nation-State upon the communities and individual human beings constituting it.

There is no doubt a strong tendency at this moment, which the war has accentuated, to regard the State, the repository of the material power of the Nation, as the highest object of devotion to those coming under it. Even with the followers of Auguste Comte, who are supposed to claim in a special manner Humanity, the Grand Etre Suprême, as the supreme object of all worship and endeavour, are swept into the current of Nation-State worshippers with whom humanity as a whole tends to become a mere pious idea, an ornamental flourish, behind the object of their practical devotion, to wit, the modern Nation-State.

But the claim of the State, the actual governing power of the community, to any unconditional homage or loyalty, has been of late seriously impugned, and that by certain academic writers who would, so far as I am aware, hardly regard themselves as Socialists, and certainly who do not belong to any Socialist organisation. Socialists, of course, have always pointed out the distinction between the existing State, its power wielded by a governing class and in class interests, and the directive organ of a Socialist commonwealth. But, apart from this, and even with some Socialists, the claim of the Nation-State to supreme devotional sacrifice from its own section of mankind has passed unchallenged. It is too often forgotten, though lately pointed out by more than one writer, that even from the present bourgeois point of view, there are other competing social forms and groupings possibly claiming the allegiance of the individual which by no means coincide with the Nation-State. The filaments of Internationalism, conscious and unconscious, have become more and more numerous during the last two generations. These filaments are economical political, intellectual, and social. Those of an economic nature – postal systems, railway systems, etc., etc. – do not directly concern us here. Although not without their influence on the foundations of the Internationalism of the future, they do not immediately affect the question of the ethical bond between the individual and the Nation-State into which he has been born. There are, however, other forms of organisation which do most distinctly challenge the supremacy of the Nation-State as the object of individual allegiance, quite apart from the remoter ideal of humanity as the Grand Etre Suprême. There is, for instance, what we may term the socio-economic filaments which bind a man to his class, and through his class, and even through the economic section of the class to which he belongs, to his trade union as well as to the organisations embodying the principles of Trade Unionism throughout the world.. Then, again, there are other filaments based not on any formal organisation, but on sympathetic interests and community of ideas such as find their expression in ordinary times in international congresses of science, philosophy, or what not. All these things, interests, and objects of allegiance, overlapping the Nation-State with its ideal interest of national patriotism, may easily come into conflict with the latter. As has been recently insisted upon by the new school of academic writers above referred to, a man is a member not only of his Nation-State, but conceivably of other groupings of human society. Hence his Nation State can by no means claim his undivided allegiance.

The above-indicated filaments tending to draw off the inclusive allegiance of the reflecting individual from the mere patriotic idea as such, do so in a partial and more or less unconscious manner. It is only in and through an ideal that is not merely political, and not merely special in other directions, but that embraces all human interests, of which ideal Internationalism is of the very essence, that the other ideal of national patriotism is really transcended. Now this ideal is undoubtedly present in the notion of an International Socialist Commonwealth. The conceptions, good in themselves, underlying working-class organisation as existing in our present bourgeois society, not less than those of the organisation of intellectual aims, are insufficient when not based upon the reorganisation of the economic structure of society by the communisation of the material conditions of life, and cemented by the recognition of an International Commonwealth as the supreme object of allegiance. In the latter alone can the old ideal of the Nation-State as supreme be transcended.

This ideal is obviously International in a different sense from that in which science, or art, or the “republic of letters” (to use the old expression), can be said to be international. These latter are only international in a special and negative sense. As before said, they are not international in principle – i.e., in a positive sense. Since the rise of national States, the modern Socialist Party for the first time in history has proclaimed Internationalism as a principle. The modern Nation-State, from its first appearance in human affairs, has tended to draw all things into its compass. Its political parties, Liberal or Conservative, have been national parties, its economic interests have been national interests, its religion, at least so far as it has been Protestant, and often apart from this, has been a national religion. The Socialist Party alone has proclaimed itself international as a party.

During the Middle Ages, when national States in the modern sense did not obtain, there also existed what, for want of a better word, we may term an international organisation and movement as such, to wit, the Catholic Church. But the rise of the modern Nation struck it its death-blow in its old form. In the form in which it recovered itself after what is known as the Counter-Reformation it was no longer the same. While nominally keeping up its old international tradition, its interests have led it more and more to pander to national prejudices on occasion. This has been noticeable during the present war. The wealth which the Papal Chair, and the Catholic Church organisation generally, derives from portions of Germany, and more especially from Austria, has caused the Roman Curia to side largely with the Central Powers in the present struggle. Modern Catholicism has, therefore, ceased to be a disinterested international factor in human affairs. Its attitude towards modern Nation-States is dictated by its own material interests.

Up to now, then, during a period of the supremacy of the Nation-State as the incarnation of power and the supreme object of devotion of all those born under it, the Human or International point of view was not represented till the rise of modern Socialism The practical breakdown, for the time being, of the international idea by the defection of a considerable section of the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party, though it cannot be regarded otherwise than as a serious check, by no means signifies the defeat of Internationalism, as some writers on the war would like to represent it. The events of the war, though on one side they may have helped to strengthen Nationalism, have on another side distinctly helped to lay the foundation of a new Internationalism as forming part of the Socialist ideal in a manner never known before. The Russian Revolution has distinctly brought this fact into prominence. With the advent of the first Russian Revolutionary Government and the forces behind it to power, we see for the first time in the world’s history the attempt officially made to subordinate national interests to international morality. This is of very great significance, however much we may, as I think legitimately, criticise the particular applications of these principles of international ethics made by certain leaders of the Russian Revolution to the existing situation. The general formulation of principles is excellent, but, like all abstract formulae, they are applicable to real conditions only, “other things equal.” They pre-suppose, that is, free, mutually respecting States; but where an aggressive Power is in question they cease to apply. Just as in civil life the liberty of the individual recognised as the basis of modern civil polity is recognised as only operative for the unaggressive individual. It does not apply to the aggressive individual – i.e., the criminal – the condition of civil polity having been broken by him.

So it is with States in international polity. The ethical conditions of international polity cease to exist for the State which by its own act has placed itself outside them. If coercion is right in the case of a criminal individual, it is right in the case of a criminal State. This is a point that many of our Russian friends, even of the first period of the. Revolution, seemed to forget. But making all allowance for errors due to the attempt to apply general ethical formulae in a hard-and-fast manner without regard to the logic of facts, it remains an epoch-making event in human history when a great modern nation like the Russian, dared, in the midst of a still bourgeois world, to proclaim the Socialist principle of international ethics, rather than national interest, as the basis of its foreign policy. So far as it goes, this is a significant symptom of the beginning of the change from the supremacy, material and ideal, of the Nation-State to that of the universal Commonwealth of Nations – from Nationalism to Internationalism or Supernationalism.


Last updated on 15.1.2005