E. Belfort Bax

Sentiment &
the National State

(2 October 1919)

E. Belfort Bax, Sentiment and the National State, Justice, 2nd October 1919, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

The question of nationalities and inclusions of populations within State boundaries has been much to the fore in the recent peace negotiations. Every democrat, and indeed every right-thinking man, must agree naturally with Wilson’s thesis anent the freedom of peoples to dispose of themselves as they wish. As a matter of fact, of course, they generally wish to dispose of themselves by attaching themselves to the dominant State of their own race and language. There is no doubt that the feeling of nationality or patriotic sentiment, in the modern sense of attachment embodying a particular race, is very strong today. And there are few signs of its weakening as things at present stand.

Two Cases

But it seems to me it is a fair subject of inquiry whether the question of the inclusion of a given population in one national State system rather than another is of the importance attributed to it – importance, that is, from a practical point of view. The question of political and personal freedom (even apart from the economic freedom, as yet unrealised in any State system, to which the Socialist aspires) is a matter of supreme practical importance. All democracies at least, naturally resent being annexed to a State system in which political and personal liberty is absent, as in the late Russian Empire, or imperfectly established, as in the late German Empire. But, as regards practical importance, it would seem that this were the one thing needful in any question regarding the devolution of populations to one State or another. Here there are obviously two cases possible, where the choice lies between absorption into one of two State systems. Either the constitution of the Government in both these States is equally good from the point of view of democracy and political and personal freedom, or one of them better than the other in this respect.

Nationalism and Racialism

Now, in the first case, it would seem to the man of practical commonsense that, there being no difference between them in this vital matter, it would be of no great importance to the populations concerned into which of those two State systems they were absorbed. In the second case mentioned, it would equally seem to our man of practical commonsense that the populations in question should choose to annex themselves to the freer and better-governed State than to the less free one. And this without regard to any other consideration whatever. But here comes the rub. It may so happen that the less free and worse governed State, may be a State appertaining to a race identical with the populations who have to decide into which of the two States referred to they shall allow themselves to be incorporated. And here, as things go at present, that practical good sense would, it is likely, lose its case in favour of patriotic racialism. In other words, the real practical and undoubted well-being of the populations in question would be sacrificed to mere race sentiment.

Freedom and Race Sentimentalism

Now it is surely a question whether it is ever worth sacrificing freedom and progress to mere race sentimentalism. I do not mean to say that this by any means need always be the case. On the contrary, racial affinity may in cases be on the side of free institutions; that is, since the war, but it was not always so Before the war German patriotic sentiment and Russian patriotic sentiment – Austrian also, for that matter – were allied to the worst forms of despotic authority and reactionary rule. The point I would emphasise here is that patriotism, that the holding together in one State system of all the groups of a single race or an historical combination of races, may well be of purely sentimental significance, without any practical value whatever for the freedom and self development of the peoples concerned, but the contrary.

Race Sentimentalism a Factor

I have myself always been an indifferent patriot, though without failing to recognise in the average man and woman the strength of the patriotic or race sentiment, or sentimentalism as I should term it. Yet, while fully recognising the intrinsic right of this sentiment to the fullest satisfaction, whether as applied to Germans, Slavs, Czechs, Italians, Irish, etc., at being prepared to advocate the justice of these racial claims, it is only where they involve the political liberty and general progress of the races concerned, that I can do so with any personal enthusiasm. Where this is not the case I advocate their claims is a matter of duty but my advocacy “lacks unction,” as my friend Robert Arch would put it. Personally I cannot be moved deeply by the mere sentimentalism of race feeling as such. To me empty and hollow, which so often animates the soul of the pure patriot who feels for in his race or nationality differently from what he does towards the rest of mankind. The love of individual men and women from any and every race I can understand, and the love of humanity as a whole I can understand, but I must confesses to feeling, in a weaker degree than most people I suppose, that race or nation love for which perhaps more than for any other ideal the average man is prepared to sacrifice his own life and that of those dear to him. Yet the fact of its potency is useless to deny, as I am well aware, or to minimise its importance in contemporary history.


Last updated on 28.5.2007