Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Decline of Patriotism (1911)

From the January 1911 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our capitalist masters are apparently anxious about a matter of first importance to their country. For ages they have been able to rely upon the working class to take up arms in defence of their exploiters’ property; now, however, according to Lord Esher, an eminent authority, things are changing. “Under our present system,” he says in a recent article in the National Review, “we purchase annually for the Regular Army, in peace, the bones and muscles and youth of about 30,000 of our countrymen. We keep them a few years, then we throw them away and take in a fresh supply.”

“ We,” of course, means the capitalist class. The working class is represented by the bone and muscle which is purchased. It is evidently as bad a case for the workers on the military field as on the industrial. When they are no longer of any value they are cast aside like a sucked orange.

The writer complains with regard to the Regular Army, that it has been difficult of late years to obtain the necessary number of recruits. If with our ever-increasing army of unemployed, from the ranks of which 95% of the recruits are drawn, they cannot obtain a sufficient number, there must indeed be a serious lack of "patriotism." Our masters have blasted in the past that every true Englishman was prepared to die for his country. Evidently the number of Englishmen with any country to defend is rapidly diminishing. Little as there is in life for the average worker, rather than lay it down for his country he would hand the flower-pot over.

Esher’s chief grievance, however, is against the “ Territorial force.” He says that it cannot be denied that the numerical test is the only real test. So no longer is an Englishman accounted the equal of any dozen foreigners. That, at all events, marks no less a breakdown of our insular ignorance than of our insular pride and arrogance. In addition, the perfection of weapons is much the same the world over, and it is more than ever a question of weapons, while on the physical side, the advance of capitalism in this country is accompanied by such bodily deterioration as leaves us precious little “bone and muscle” worth the capitalists’ money on the battle-held.

Our ruling class can see that their Continental rivals are determined to obtain as large a share of the markets of the world as possible, and that sooner or later this must culminate in worldwide disruption. Hence their anxiety on the score of "patriotism.” Lord Esher gives expression to his anxious thought in the suggestion that "patriotism” is an attribute of the empty-headed. “ How can you expect,” he writes "recruits for your Territorial force, when you dress them unbecomingly?” One paper, commenting upon his noble lordship’s article, suggests “a scarlet coat and a towering headdress” as the most effective appeal to the " patriotism ” of the working class, though whether on the old, tried and trusty ground that those who have least in their heads must make the greatest show on them, or on the later calculation that now the workers are discovering how little country they have to fight for they may be induced to fight for their togs if only they are sufficiently removed from the hum-drum drab of the corduroy to enable them to forget that they are countryless workers, does not transpire.

But signs are not wanting that the master class are misjudging the workers there. What the army and navy stand for is being too clearly demonstrated by such events as Featherstone, Hull and Grimsby, Belfast and Tonypandy at home, and the French postal and railway strikes abroad. However empty-pated the ingrained cynicism of our exploiters may deem us, such lessons could not be lost upon us. Even the head of an ostrich, hidden in a gorgeous and “towering headdress,” would begin to experience some mental quickening upon finding itself rudely unbonneted by a policeman’s baton, and invited to take a glimpse at the armed and serried ranks of Patriotism in the adjacent vicinity. Nor is it altogether wisdom to flaunt "the famous deeds done by His Majesty’s regiments” (to use Lord Esher’s words) when the last reeking inscriptions on the tyrants’ banners were writ in the blood of unarmed British workers on British soil.

Lord Esher does well indeed to suspect that "there may be deeper causes at work” than he speaks of. There may be deeper causes even than he knows of—which is not the same thing by any means. To the “sirocco of democracy withering in our people the spirit of public sacrifice” which he darkly hints at he might add that the development of capitalism is showing "our people” who is really meant by the "public" which demands such continual and considerable sacrifice.

Lord Esher sees "conscription” looming in the background. Of course it is not hailed with delight, for it seems to be recognised that if anything is necessary to complete the workers' education on the matter of “patriotism” it is conscription. The compulsory bearing of arms to defend that which they themselves (as at Tonypandy) are batoned and murdered for looking darkly at would be too incongruous, too significant, for even the most gullible of our class. Once the blinkers are stripped from the workers eyes, the issue is one of sheer undisguised force—hence the capitalist class lament and tremble at the decay of “patriotism” among the workers, for they read doom in the force of a class-conscious proletariat.
J. R. R.

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