Patriotism|Herbert Spencer

[Initially printed in Facts and Comments( 1902)]

Were anyone to call me dishonest or untruthful he would touch me to the fast. Were he to say that I am unpatriotic, he would leave me unmoved. “What, then, have you no love of nation?” That is a question not to be answered in a breath.

The early abolition of serfdom in England, the early development of relatively-free institutions, and the greater recognition of popular claims after the decay of feudalism had divorced the masses from the soil, were qualities of English life which may be recalled upon with pride. When it was chosen that any servant who entered England became totally free; when the importation of slaves into the Colonies was stopped; when twenty millions were spent for the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies; and when, nevertheless unadvisedly, a fleet was preserved to stop the slave trade; our fellow citizens did things deserving to be admired. And when England offered a home to political refugees and took up the reasons for small states having a hard time for liberty, it again showed honorable traits which delight love. However there are characteristics, unhappily of late more often displayed, which do the reverse. Contemplation of the acts by which England has actually obtained over eighty ownerships– settlements, colonies, protectorates, & c.– does not excite feelings of fulfillment. The shifts from missionaries to resident agents, then to officials having actually equipped forces, then to penalties of those who resist their guideline, ending in so-called “pacification”– these processes of annexation, now progressive and now unexpected, as that of the new Indian province which of Barotziland, which was stated a British colony with no more regard for the wills of the inhabiting individuals than for those of the populating monsters– do not excite compassion with their perpetrators. Love of nation is not promoted in me on keeping in mind that when, after our Prime Minister had declared that we were bound in honour to the Khedive to reconquer the Soudan, we, after the re-conquest, forthwith started to administer it in the name of the Queen and the Khedive– almost annexing it; nor when, after promising through the mouths of two Colonial Ministers not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Transvaal, we continued to insist on particular electoral arrangements, and made resistance the excuse for a desolating war.*Nor does the nationwide character revealed by a popular ovation to a leader of filibusters, or by the according of a University honour to an arch-conspirator, or by the uproarious applause with which undergrads greeted one who sneered at the “unctuous rectitude” of those who opposed his strategies of hostility, appear to me lovable. If due to the fact that my love of nation does not make it through these and many other adverse experiences I am called unpatriotic– well, I am material to be so called.

To me the cry–“Our country, right or wrong!” appears detestable. By association with love of country the belief it expresses gains a specific validation. Do however manage the cloak, however, and the contained belief is seen to be of the lowest. Let us observe the alternative cases.

Expect our country remains in the right– suppose it is withstanding invasion. Then the idea and feeling embodied in the cry are exemplary. It may be effectively contended that self-defence is not just justified but is a responsibility. Now expect, contrariwise, that our nation is the aggressor– has actually acquired others’ area, or is requiring by arms specific products on a country which does not desire them, or is backing up a few of its agents in “punishing” those who have actually retaliated. Suppose it is doing something which, by the hypothesis, is admitted to be wrong. What is then the implication of the cry? The right is on the side of those who oppose us; the incorrect is on our side. How because case is to be expressed the so-called patriotic desire? Obviously the words should stand–“Down with the right, up with the wrong!” Now in other relations this mix of goals indicates the acme of wickedness. In the minds of previous guys there existed, and there still exists in lots of minds, a belief in an individualized principle of evil– a Being going up and down on the planet everywhere battling against the great and helping the bad to accomplishment. Can there be more quickly revealed the goal of that Being than in the words “Up with the incorrect and down with the right”? Do the so-called patriots like the recommendation?

Some years ago I offered my expression to my own sensation– anti-patriotic sensation, it will doubtless be called– in a somewhat shocking method. It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be “our interests,” we were attacking Afghanistan. News had actually come that a few of our troops were in risk. At the Athenæum Club a popular military man– then a captain and now a basic– drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner indicating the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by responding–“When males hire themselves out to shoot other males to order, asking absolutely nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”

I visualize the exclamation which will be called forth. Such a concept, it will be stated, would make an army difficult and a government helpless. It would never do to have each soldier use his judgment about the function for which a fight is waged. Military organization would be paralyzed and our nation would be a prey to the first invader.

Not so fast, is the reply. For one war an army would remain just as offered as now– a war of nationwide defence. In such a war every soldier would understand the justice of his cause. He would not be taken part in dealing death amongst men about whose behaviors, great or ill, he knew absolutely nothing, however amongst men who appeared criminals versus himself and his compatriots. Just aggressive war would be negatived, not defensive war.

Naturally it may be stated, and stated really, that if there is no aggressive war there can be no defensive war. It is clear, nevertheless, that a person country might limit itself to protective war when other countries do not. So that the concept stays operative.

But those whose cry is–“Our country, right or incorrect!” and who would contribute to our eighty-odd possessions others to be likewise obtained, will ponder with disgust such a limitation upon military action. To them no folly appears greater than that of practising on Monday the principles they profess on Sunday.

About the author

Click here to add a comment

Leave a comment: