Feb 1, 1978
Liberty’s Heritage: Spencer on Patriotism
“When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.”
Were anyone to call me dishonest or untruthful he would touch me to the quick. Were he to say that I am unpatriotic, he would leave me unmoved. ‘What, then, have you no love of country?’ That is a question not to be answered in a breath.
The early abolition of serfdom in England, the early growth of relatively free institutions, and the greater recognition of popular claims after the decay of feudalism had divorced the masses from the soil, were traits of English life which may be looked back upon with pride. When it was decided that any slave who set foot in England became free; when the importation of slaves into the Colonies was stopped; when twenty millions were paid for the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies; and when, however unadvisedly, a fleet was maintained to stop the slave trade, our countrymen did things worthy to be admired. And when England gave a home to political refugees and took up the causes of small states struggling for freedom, it again exhibited noble traits which excite affection. But there are traits, unhappily of late more frequently displayed, which do the reverse. Contemplation of the acts by which England has acquired over eighty possessions—settlements, colonies, protectorates, etc.—does not arouse feelings of satisfaction. The transitions from missionaries to resident agents, then to officials having armed forces, then to punishments of those who resist their rule, ending in so-called ‘pacification’—these processes of annexation, now gradual and now sudden, as that of the new Indian province and that of Barotziland, which was declared a British colony with no more regard for the wills of the inhabiting people than for those of the inhabiting beasts—do not excite sympathy with their perpetrators. Love of country is not fostered in me on remembering that when, after our Prime Minister had declared that we were bound in honour to the Khedive to reconquer the Sudan, we, after the re-conquest, forthwith began to administer it in the name of the Queen and the Khedive—practically annexing it; nor when, after promising through the mouths of two colonial ministers not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Transvaal, we proceeded to insist on certain electoral arrangements, and made resistance the excuse for a desolating war.1 Nor does the national character shown 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 undergraduates greeted one who sneered at the ‘unctuous rectitute’ of those who opposed his plans of aggression, appear to me lovable. If because my love of country does not survive these and many other adverse experiences I am called unpatriotic—well, I am content to be so called.
To me the cry—‘Our country, right or wrong!’ seems detestable. By association with love of country the sentiment it expresses gains a certain justification. Do but pull off the cloak, however, and the contained sentiment is seen to be of the lowest. Let us observe the alternative cases.
Suppose our country is in the right—suppose it is resisting invasion. Then the idea and feeling embodied in the cry are righteous. It may be effectively contended that self-defence is not only justified but is a duty. Now suppose, contrariwise, that our country is the aggressor—has taken possession of others’ territory, or is forcing by arms certain commodities on a nation which does not want them, or is backing up some of its agents in ‘punishing’ those who have 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 wrong is on our side. How in that case is to be expressed the so-called patriotic wish? Evidently the words must stand—‘Down with the right, up with the wrong!’ Now in other relations this combination of aims implies the acme of wickedness. In the minds of past men there existed, and there still exists in many minds, a belief in a personalized principle of evil—a Being going up and down in the world everywhere fighting against the good and helping the bad to triumph. Can there be more briefly expressed the aim of that Being than in the words—‘Up with the wrong and down with the right?’ Do the so-called patriots like the endorsement?
Some years ago I gave expression to my own feeling—anti-patriotic feeling, it will doubtless be called—in a somewhat startling way. It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be ‘our interests’, we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenaeum Club a well-known military man—then a captain but now a general—drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying: ‘When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.’
I foresee the exclamation which will be called forth. Such a principle, it will be said, if accepted, would make an army impossible and a government powerless. It would never do to have each soldier use his judgment about the purpose for which a battle is waged. Military organization would be paralysed and our country would be a prey to the first invader.
Not so fast, is the reply. For one war an army would remain just as available as now—a war of national defence. In such a war every soldier would be conscious of the justice of his cause. He would not be engaged in dealing death among men about whose doings, good or ill, he knew nothing, but among men who were manifest transgressors against himself and his compatriots. Only aggressive war would be negatived, not defensive war.
Of course it may be said, and said truly, that if there is no aggressive war there can be no defensive war. It is clear, however, that one nation may limit itself to defensive war when other nations do not. So that the principle remains operative.
But those whose cry is—‘Our country, right or wrong!’ and who would add to our eighty-odd possessions others to be similarly obtained, will contemplate with disgust such a restriction upon military action. To them no folly seems greater than that of practising on Monday the principles they profess on Sunday.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a leading advocate of classical liberalism during the nineteenth century, who upheld the ideals of individual liberty in both foreign and domestic spheres. His essay “Patriotism,” is reprinted from Facts and Comments (1902), and will illustrate Spencer’s radicalism. It is re-published in Libertarian Review as part of a new feature which will appear from time to time—Liberty’s Heritage.
1We continue to hear repeated the transparent excuse that the Boers commenced the war. In the far west of the U.S., where every man carries his life in his hand and the usages of fighting are well understood, it is held that he is the aggressor who first moves his hand towards his weapon. The application is obvious.