We all know what patriotism means nowadays. A gang of thieves by fraud or otherwise lay hold of the power of the State, and with that power in their hands proceed to start a quarrel with another people, barbaric or civilised; black of white, whom they consider sufficiently weak and defenceless to be a safe quarry, in order to enrich themselves and the class they represent by the plunder and enslavement of the people. But the commonplace citizen who has to pay the piper for the tune the governing ring have set, he must on no account condemn their actions or he shows himself lacking in “patriotism.” On the contrary, like a true “patriot,” he must cheer them on with “Old England for Ever,” or with “Deutschland über alles” or “Vive la France et la Gloire;” as the case maybe. He must further rejoice in the successes of “his” country’s arms and be duly desolated over their reverses, even though those “arms” are being used to perpetrate a crime against which his conscience revolts, and by which he not only derives no personal benefit, but stands positively to lose. He should, if possible, accept loyally the assurance of the venal apologists for the governmental brigands that their policy is “necessary” to “his” country’s interests, or if he be very wayward the utmost latitude that is allowed him is a formal protest, after having delivered which he must regard himself as identified with the said policy, once his beloved country has entered upon it, and rejoice and weep accordingly. This is patriotism as expounded in music-halls, churches and places where they sing, no less than in Fleet Street and the haunts where they print largest circulations. To the reasonable, unprejudiccd man it is, therefore, not difficult to see that calling a man a patriot nowadays is a polite way of saying that he is either a knave or a fool. And, since the word has now definitely acquired this meaning, we cordially hand it over to the knaves and fools who gull and are gulled by it.
But it should also be pointed out that, like other words, the term patriot did not always mean what it does now. Up till quite recently to be a patriot meant to be opposed to the monarch and governing classes of your country in the interests of the people of your country. The nearest approach to its current meaning was that of` being zealous in defending the soil of your country against a foreign invader, just as the Boers are doing now. But the idea of its being the duty of the patriot to back the governing classes in squandering the blood and money of the country in foreign raids for their own purposes under cover of the public weal is enough to make the “patriot” of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century turn in his grave. The patriot of that time would have been on the side of the weak people defending, themselves against the arms of what the modern “patriot” would call “his country” – i.e., the hired or conscripted hordes of the governing classes of the State to which he belongs. The Patriot (old style) was not the man to be humbugged by his governing classes into identifying patriotism with their self-interested crimes just because they happened to be using his country’s blood and treasure to effect them.
To show the complete change that has come over the conception of “patriotism” we have only to refer to English writers of the eighteenth century. For example, Gibbon in writing to his friend Holroyd, afterward; Lord Sheffield, under date February 21, 1772, says, “Charles Fox is commenced patriot, and is already attempting to pronounce the words country, liberty, corruption, etc., with what of success time still discover.” It is a far cry from this patriotism at its mildest, so jealously critical or the governing classes, to the patriotism of the modern jingo. Then, again, when the old Tory anti-democratic Dr. Samuel Johnson described patriotism” as “the last resource of scoundrels” he most assuredly did not allude to “patriotism” in its present-day sense, the patriotism which consists in shouting for one’s government, good or bad, right or wrong. This sort of patriotism would have rejoiced his anti-democratic soul and made him think the good times had come when the “lower orders” had really begun to know their proper place its the bootblacks of their “betters.” Yet again, the “patriot of the French Revolution would have certainly viewed with anything but enthusiasm the extension of the French territorial dominion under Louis XIV. For him “patriotism” consisted in opposing the powers that were in the interests of the French people, and in so far as it took a military form at all, in the safeguarding of the republic, the bulwark of the democracy against the Royalist invader seeking to re-establish the national dynasty of France. If he looked with pride on his foreign conquests it was only the pride of being the means of freeing other peoples from their despots, as he had freed himself from his. The mere success or failure of “his country’s arms,” no matter in what cause, even in the cause of despots or of “accapareurs” would certainly not have engaged his patriotic emotions. In a word, his conception of patriotism was democratic and not chauvinistic.
The new “patriotism,” otherwise called “jingoism” the patriotism that sees its “country’s enemies” in any unfortunate people whom its governing and parasitic classes wish to plunder, dates in its full fruition from the period of the struggle of the capitalist classes of the different European states over the division of the world market. It had begun, of course, before, but this struggle of which modern Imperialism is the political expression marks it zenith. “Patriotism,” is the catch word by which imperialist brigandage seeks to bulldoze the empty-headed and unthinking among the classes which have no personal or material interest in the cowardly infamies perpetrated by it.
And now, in conclusion a word of protest against any attempt to revive the word “patriotism, or to refurbish for democratic purposes. Let us, as before said, leave it to designing rogues and beguiled fools now in possession of it. In its old sense the word has had its day. It is a bad word, at best, of necessity carrying with it the suggestion of race exclusiveness, even though this may be kept in the background, while at its worst it implies a glorification of national infamy. Social-Democrats want no “true patriotism,” whatever that may mean. They want to do away with Patriotism altogether and substitute in its place the “ Internationalism” of the class-conscious proletariat.
Ernest Belfort Bax (July 23, 1854 – November 26, 1926) was a British socialist journalist and philosopher, associated with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF).