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Herbert Spencer: No patriotism when it comes to wars of aggression


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war


Herbert Spencer
From Facts and Comments

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, &c. – 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 Soudan, 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.* 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 rectitude” 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 my 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 Athenæum 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, 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 paralyzed 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.

* We 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.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 7, 2018 at 3:16 am

    The first war casualty is the truth.
    Too few are reporting this imminent military invasion:

  2. Keith McLennan
    November 3, 2018 at 5:44 pm

    Venezuela should be so lucky. October 25, the date of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, is celebrated there as Thanksgiving Day. From the web portal of the Grenadan Government: “Thanksgiving in Grenada is a public holiday commemorating the anniversary of the 1983 Caribbean and American military intervention in Grenada. On October 25th, a joint military force landed in Grenada to restore order to the country following the deaths of then Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and a number of his colleagues.”

    • richardrozoff
      November 4, 2018 at 11:19 pm

      This is a truly cynical sentiment.
      Whatever the roles of Messrs Austin and Coard were in 1983, no one in Grenada called for the U.S. invasion. In fact even President Reagan’s closest political ally, Margaret Thatcher, criticized it.
      The invasion in fact occurred as a cheap political stunt to distract attention from the bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut.
      You’re entitled to your political opinions, but please try to get the facts straight.

      • Keith McLennan
        November 4, 2018 at 11:53 pm

        My facts are quite straight, thank you. The quotation comes directly from the Grenadan government website. As for Mrs Thatcher’s criticism of the invasion, it was one of the low points of her administration, worthy of an episode of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. It was premised, not on the merits of the case, but on the fact that Grenada was a member of the Commonwealth and therefore untouchable for America. Fortunately for Grenada, the Americans ignored this shibboleth.

      • richardrozoff
        November 5, 2018 at 1:21 am

        Your crib of the Grenadan report is amusing as it clearly contains glaring revisionism vis-a-vis Maurice Bishop – and the airport that now bears his name; the same then-air strip that was used as a pretext by Reagan to invade the island.
        The UN Security Council condemned the invasion by a vote of 11-1 and the General Assembly by 108-9.
        But your point is clear: you active promote illegal military invasions of any nation whose government you happen not to approve of.
        Such flagrantly illegal and misanthropic positions are not welcome here.

      • November 5, 2018 at 1:43 am

        Whatever your facts may be: The sovereignty of nations is a universal accepted principle.
        (Westphalian sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, and that each state is equal). This cornerstone of international law is violated by the USA all the time, because US leaders consider themselves above the law, impeccable, and exceptional (the shining city upon the hill).
        This despite the fact that US infrastructure is crumbling, between 14 and 16 percent of US-Americans live in poverty, 44 millions can only get by with food stamps (SNAP), 3.6 million children have no health insurance, medical bills bankrupt one million every year, and half a million are homeless.

  3. Keith McLennan
    November 6, 2018 at 4:08 am

    To return to the passage: I was struck by the fact that this argument should have been put by Herbert Spencer, who is better known as a prophet of Darwinism. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the term “the survival of fittest”, and indeed it was Spencer who invented the noxious philosophy of Social Darwinism. Yet here he is echoing the ‘progressive’ position on foreign policy. Kenneth Clark said in his Romantic vs Classic Art that in every Classic work there was somewhere an element of Romanticism, and vice versa. It appears we see the same phenomenon here, transposed to politics. Spencer, the apostle of a heartless ‘realism’ in questions of society and economy, nonetheless condemns British policy in South Africa as inhumane. Such were the contortions of nineteenth-century liberals.

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