Patriotism and Class Interest

Whoever has more than a very slight acquain­tance with Socialist literature will be aware that on nearly every conceivable subject connected with the mental aud social aspects of man’s life, the Socialist has a view-point and opinion which is distinct from, and usually antagonistic to, that which is usually regarded as true. This is so because the Socialist holds as correct ideas which, carried to a practical conclusion, would overthrow and wipe out the present condition of society, whereas the ideas of the mass of the population to-day are essentially those which, are favourable to the continuation of the existing system. It is, therefore, only to be expected that the Socialist conception of patriotism, is one which is unacceptable to almost any other school of thought.

Patriotism is often taken to mean “love of one’s country,” but this is misleading, as what is really intended to be the object of this “tender affection” is not actually the country or territory itself, but the social group which occupies it. It is social solidarity which is the essential nature of patriotism. This is plainly to be seen when we consider the more primitive forms of society where, as is the case with cattle-rearing nomadic tribes, the territory occupied is only an incidental factor varying almost from day to day. Here it is actual kinship which is the social “bond of union.” But this is not the case in modern societies, the members of which may be, and usually are, different in point of language and race. But, providing that they are born within the territorial confines dominated by a particular social group, that group claims their allegiance. This is probably the cause of the existing confusion between the terms “country” and “nation.”

Thus far both bourgeois and Socialist theo­rists may agree ; but when we come to the conception of the modern function of patriotism we find an immediate divergence and antagonism of opinion. To the brain soaked with the orthodox ideas of capitalist society (and suck brains prevail to-day) the sentiment of patriotism appears as one of the very noblest that can animate the human mind. To work staunchly for the welfare of the “nation” is regarded as highly creditable, and as one of the greatest forces of human and social progress. No greater compliment exists than to be called “a patriot.” But we—the Socialists—repudiate this view of patriotism. We will have none of it. This sentiment of national solidarity is to us a snare and a delusion. It is in our view one of the most pernicious of the many superstitions which to­day benumb the minds of the workers—for it is the workers that we stand for : their interests are our interests.

An impulse of loyalty to the social whole is obviously only valid when there is unity of interest therein, and is incompatible with the existence of class antagonisms in the community, when these conflicting interests are well understood by the classes themselves.

The working class of to-day is, because it is property less, in a condition of economic subjection, and the idea that a subject class can look after its own interests and at the same time look after the interests of the society of which it forms a part is a delusion. The reason for this is clear. The existence of a subject class implies the existence of a dominant class. In its structure and its institutions the society is always such as to perpetuate the conditions of the respective classes—the ascendancy of the one and the sub­jection of the other. If, therefore, the servile class desires to be emancipated from thraldom (as it must do if and when it realises its condi­tion and therefore its interests), it must be antagonistic to the social structure and to the class who would maintain it. Consequently any allegiance to the social whole on its part would be suicidal folly.

For many thousands of years now, the division into conflicting classes has been an outstanding feature of all the most advanced societies. Under the system of chattel-slavery, upon which basis the earliest forms of civilisation were reared, patriotism took an openly class charac­ter. Although the slaves were an integral, and indeed, a basic, part of these societies, yet the conditions of their life were such as to prohibit almost entirely any sentiment of loyalty to the social group in which they worked. In the first place the manner of their exploitation and oppression was so clear and open as to admit of no misunderstanding. Secondly, they had usually no tie of blood or language with their oppressors which could serve as “blinkers” as they so often do to-day. The immense hordes of slaves in Babylon, Greece, and Rome, were gathered from all parts of the known world ; they would in many cases remember the land and society of their birth, where they were free men. All circumstances, therefore, conspired to to wipe out any trace of social solidarity among them and to keep alive a hatred of their oppressors.

Of “mighty Babylon” Romaine Paterson, in his valuable work, “The Nemesis of Nations,” says,

“The fact that every new conqueror was hailed with acclamation by her populace is a proof of their immense weariness. Both Cyrus and Alexander were received with shouts of joy by a vast multitude assembled on the walls. A great mass of human beings sunk in slavery, and living in slums where life must have been at least as degraded as it is in Shoreditch, Hoxton, and other parts of modern London, can have possessed no national interests. The peril of the State was not theirs.” (Page 127.)

These slaves of Babylon had not learnt the lesson which the modern proletariat must learn—they looked to the new conquerors for their salvation instead of to themselves, only to find a change of mas­ters and a slavery as intense as the old.

What patriotism existed in these antique societies was found solely among the freemen, who constituted what our “elite” bourgeoisie do—”society.” As the slaves vastly outnum­bered the free population, armed slaves were exceedingly dangerous, and consequently we rarely find the slaves taking part in, or being trained for, war. Not until that great class conflict of the ruling classes known as the Peloponnesian War, did the slaves of the Greeks become fighting men, and only then on condition that they were freed from bondage. The ruling classes in the several Greek States were often at war with each other, but when a slave rising broke out they were united in their efforts to crush what they feared as they feared nothing else. We read that Athens on one occasion des­patched to Sparta a large force of troops to aid in the suppression of a revolt of the helots.

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Times have changed. Of Babylon we have but a memory and a few crumbling remains dug from the desert sands. Greece and Rome have long fallen. But the slavery remains—changed in form, yes, but the same in essence, and even more effective as a means of exploitation. Under the modern system of wage-slavery the robbery of labour still persists, but hidden under the hypocritical sham of liberty of contract. The antagonism of interests within the nation is with us to-day, just as it has existed in all societies based upon classes. Only upon a recognition of this conflict of the classes can the workers organise effectively with the aim of emancipation.

As capitalism develops it ever widens the breech between the toilers on the one hand, and the parasites of capital on the other. Ever-increasing wealth and riotous luxury among the bourgeoisie presents to the worker’s eyes a more and more glaring contrast to the pitiful condition of poverty in which he exists. This being the case it becomes ever more urgent from the capitalist point of view to devise new, and to perfect old, methods of effecting that mental stupifying process which has always been one of the chief bulwarks of class rule.

Religion, which has served the master class throughout history so well, and which was the main “opium of the people” in the old days of chattel-slavery and of serfdom, through the development of science which the present era-must needs in its own interest encourage, is becoming less and less effective as an instru­ment of class subjection.

Patriotism, of all creeds, has appealed most to the master class in its efforts to lind a substitute for religion, and consequently it is being pushed with greater persistence year by year. It is easy to see why this has been so. A patri­otic working class kills several birds with a single stone. First, it offers to the capitalists the delightful prospect of a working class inno­cent of all “narrow,” “selfish,” class interests, ready to sacrifice all for the “national good,” and content to exude from every pore their wealth-creating energy, under this “harmoni­ous” system, based upon a “just” division into “fair” wages and “reasonable” profits.

Secondly, by fostering a belief in national superiority it creates a mutual distrust and even hatred between the workers of the different nations. Thirdly, it makes possible a ready and willing fighting force, to wage the wars of the various national sections of the capitalist class, which are an inevitable effect of the workings of the present system.

Is not this prospect to our masters’ eyes truly a glorious one ? No wonder they spare no pains to achieve and maintain it ! Through their con­trol of the channels of education, both in the schools and in the censorship, literary, and even (as they find it necessary) of the theatrical and the picture shows, even to the street-corner orator, they wield an enormous power of mental oppression. The perverted “histories,” nationalist “economics” and “sociology,” the glaring pomp and show of “our” national butchers the armed forces, the Empire Day pageants, boy scout and kindred movements, all bear witness to the truth of the above contention.

Those flunkeys of capital, commonly called labour leaders (because of their well-known social function of leading the lambs of labour to the clippers of capital to be shorn of their surplus wool [value] with as little display of irritation among the lambs as the circumstances will permit) are, as would be expected, useful helpers in this process of pumping patriotism into proletarians.

One of the leading lights of this fraternity of leaders, Mr. Arthur Henderson, M.P., President of the Board of Education, recently delivered himself thus :

“He was satisfied that the spirit which has prompted millions of men in all classes to volunteer (?) for ser­vice was in a large measure due to that love of country which our schools had fostered. He quoted passages from the publications of the Board to show that the Department was fully alive to the impor­tance of inculcating a sane and healthy patriotism in the minds of the young and promised that any practical proposals for furthering this object would receive his most careful consideration.”—”Manchester Evening News,” 28.3.16). (Query ours.)

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Against all this array of the mental and moral influences of capital the Socialist, brings the logic of his position by which he stands or falls. Against nationalism he preaches the class struggle and the solidarity of interest of the workers the world over. He points to the world­wide spread of capitalism, to the gradual equalising of the condition of the workers in every land, and the sameness of the problems which they have to face. To the jingo “history” which, places in the forefront the blast of the bugle and the roar of the cannon, and conceives history as the rise and fall, birth and death, conflict and alliances of nations, the Socialists confront the facts of sociology, which show that the foundations of society and the driving forces of social progress lie in its mode of acquiring its material subsistence ; that the basic factors in a society are not its politicians and its mili­tarists, but the producers of wealth, not the sword and the cannon, but the tools, the machinery, and the land.

Ours is a hard task, but it must be faced and accomplished. The education of the proletariat as to its interests and destiny is the great work which we Socialists have set ourselves. Once get the seeds of class-consciousness implanted, the favourable soil created by capitalist condi­tions will cause it to root, and to spread the mighty undergrowth of the international league of the working class. Then will the mental agents of class oppression, among them patriot­ism, wither and die like the weeds they are.

But that time is not yet. To-day more than ever in the past is the clarion call of ’48 a vital and a stirring necessity, to awaken the giant frame of labour to shake off the leeches which suck his blood and fetter his might :



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