Leo Tolstoy was a critic of many things; one of them was patriotism. I largely agree with that critique. This will, undoubtedly, make me seem an America-hating liberal by the not-so-progressives that currently brand themselves as conservative. Indeed, it seems a cardinal sin for which only 20 years plus in the military or as a police office could ever grant you absolution. Yet, to those who have read Tolstoy’s critique of patriotism, know that this is part of his point. Patriotism divides people who should otherwise be unified to satisfy governmental ends.
We should examine the context of Tolstoy’s critique. His essay “On Patriotism” was written in 1894. In his life, he has seen Russia lose the Crimean War and his family was intimately connected to the efforts in the War of 1812 or the Napoleonic Invasion of Russia. His assessment of those conflicts and the conflicts all about Europe and the respective colonies–the First Bohr War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Japanese War, the formation of the Triple Entente, ethnic struggles in Austro-Hungary and Serbia, etc–was that patriotism was the driving force to garner support among the populace.
For a long while there has not been and cannot be any reason for dissension between Christian nations. It is even impossible to imagine, how and for what, Russian and German workmen, peacefully and conjointly working on the frontiers or in the capitals, should quarrel. And much less easily can one imagine animosity between some Kazan peasant who supplies Germans with wheat, and a German who supplies him with scythes and machines.
It is the same between French, German, and Italian workmen. And it would be even ridiculous to speak of the possibility of a quarrel between men of science, art, and letters of different nationalities, who have the same objects of common interest independent of nationalities or of governments.
Tolstoy relates the relative peace of Europe. It is a peace that Voltaire, himself writing in the aftermath of several wars, attributed to commerce. Tolstoy attributes it to commerce, humanity, and Christianity. Essentially, the average life of a German or Frenchman does not lead them to commit acts of violence against one another. Left to their own devices, these supposed rivals are perfectly willing to trade and converse with one another.
Stories from World War I, for example, about impromptu cease fires between Central and Allied forces on Christmas and Christmas Eve would be wholly unremarkable to Tolstoy and should seem wholly unremarkable to us. Both sides are united by an overarching commonality: Christianity. Indeed, a Christian in his natural state in the company of other Christians is relax if not genuinely festive. Tolstoy could only account for such movements of Christians–as he says in War and Peace–from west to east and then east to west by showing some outside actor stirring them to some other sentiment besides Christianity.
But the various governments cannot leave the nations in peace, because the chief, if not the sole, justification for the existence of governments is the pacification of nations, and the settlement of their hostile relationships. Hence governments evoke such hostile relationships under the aspect of patriotism, in order to exhibit their powers of pacification. Somewhat like a gipsy who, having put some pepper under a horse’s tail, and beaten it in its stall, brings it out, and hanging on to the reins, pretends that he can hardly control the excited animal.
I am not so jaded to agree with Tolstoy on all points here; government has more justification than to pacify other nations. But if we consider the rhetoric used to justify modern conflicts from World War I onward, I can think of only one exception where American involvement was not mostly motivated out of patriotic zeal: World War II i.e. fixing the mess we created with the Treaty of Versailles.
Patriotism played an essential part in American involvement in World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War for starters all relied on exciting public sentiment with patriotic rhetoric to garner national support for their endeavors. It is much easier to say, “Those people over there are a threat to our way of life and our nation; we must drive them out or be destroyed,” rather than try to explain the complex and intricate rationales for invading another country. Patriotism is not even honest with itself, let alone the people it inspires. We were told that we were bringing democracy to Iraq; what was not said was that Western democracy and indeed American democracy relies on acceptance of certain common notions that were just not in the Iraqi experience. The war then became a war between the patriotism and not combatants.
We are told that governments are very careful to maintain peace between nations. But how do they maintain it? People live on the Rhine in peaceful communication with one another. Suddenly, owing to certain quarrels and intrigues between kings and emperors, a war commences; and we learn that the French government has considered it necessary to regard this peaceful people as Frenchmen. Centuries pass, the population has become accustomed to their position, when animosity again begins amongst the governments of the great nations, and a war is started upon the most empty pretext, because the German government considers it necessary to regard this population as Germans: and between all Frenchmen and Germans is kindled a mutual feeling of ill-will.
Here Tolstoy is referencing the Franco-Prussian War which, in all honesty, was started because the Confederation of the Rhine and the Kingdom of Prussia thought Lorraine and Alsace belonged to them for the stated reason that Germans lived there. Stirring up the patriotic sentiment that they must immediately invade another country to save their kith and kin from a nation, by all reasonable measures, did no harm to them was exactly what the Germans did to justify to their people their desire for Lorraine and Alsace.
Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable signification is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience, and a slavish enthralment to those in power. And as such it is recommended wherever it is preached.
Again, I am not in total agreement here. Compare the sentiments during Euromaiden and the Crimean Secession. In the former, we have the patriotism of the Ukrainians welling up after years of frustration with their government selling out to a foreign government. The Ukrainian people themselves, unified by their ethnic, religious, and philosophical sentiments, marched on their government to demand changes. This patriotism did not stem from an outside voice causing emotion to well up in the Ukrainian people. Rather, it was a collective inward voice that spoke out against the wrongs they saw. I call this Solidarity. It was the same inward voice compelling the Polish workers to resist the Soviets in the 1980s and secured their own free and fair elections.
In Crimea, we see the invented patriotism previously discussed. The national sentiment concerning secession was mixed, muddled, and varied. The excuse from Russia was that ethnic Russians needed to be protected from Ukrainian aggressors who were not aggressive during a referendum that would decide whether Crimea would be part of Russia. The ambitious of ethnic Russians in both Crimea and Russia were obvious. The patriotism that they stirred up to have an entire nation annexed was also obvious. Yet who could, without bringing condemnation upon themselves, condemn it? Who can say that the Ukrainian patriotism and the Crimean patriotism were not both legitimate? What we can say is that patriotism has been damaging to Eastern European stability.
Consider the damage that American patriotism has caused in our own country. Differing views on what is patriotic or unpatriotic devolve into shouting matches for ideologues. Muslims in America went from a generally Republican base to a Democrat one in four short years as being Muslim became increasingly an unpatriotic thing to be. Patriotism has been instrumental in polarizing our country on issues that it doesn’t even make sense to be divided on. All this division can be traced back to invented patriotism of partisan politicians who need animosity to fuel their campaign. These marching orders from the powers that be on how to be patriotic and therefore a good American are then passed off as
It is sufficient that people should understand that what is enunciated to them as public opinion, and maintained by such complex, energetic, and artificial means, is not public opinion, but only the lifeless outcome of what was once public opinion; and, what is more important, it is sufficient that they should have faith in themselves, that they should believe that what they are conscious of in the depths of their souls, what in every one is pressing for expression, and is only not expressed because it contradicts the public opinion supposed to exist, is the power which transforms the world, and to express which is the mission of mankind: it is sufficient to believe that truth is not what men talk of, but what is told by his own conscience, that is, by God – and at once the whole artificially maintained public opinion will disappear, and a new and true one be established in its place.
If people would only speak what they think, and not what they do not think, all the superstitions emanating from patriotism would at once drop away with the cruel feelings and violence founded upon it. The hatred and animosity between nations and peoples, fanned by their governments, would cease; the extolling of military heroism, that is of murder, would be at an end; and, what is of most importance, respect for authorities, abandonment to them of the fruits of one’s labour, and subordination to them, would cease, since there is no other reason for them but patriotism. And if merely this were to take place, that vast mass of feeble people who are controlled by externals – would sway at once to the side of the new public opinion, which should reign henceforth in place of the old.
The Founders didn’t rebel from England because they had some sentiment, rather because they had authentic concern for the welfare of their neighbor.
The American Solidarity Party offers a different path: Solidarity. Yes, there will always be disagreements, but those disagreements should not be based in lies and misconceptions designed to fulfill ambitions for power and influence. National cooperation, harmony between the individual states depend on Solidarity. The old maxim, “United we stand; divided we fall” is a catchy reminder of this reality. American political life thrives when there is cooperation and conciliation between people.
We need to reject those “public opinions” that are not actually the public’s opinion. I find it hard to believe that at least 30% of the public actually support whatever the two major parties espouse. Instead, I believe that the two major parties have created brands of patriotism that one must ascribe to in order to be heard. It is a system that stamps out the true public opinion in exchange for their patriotism. And we do violence to our brothers and sisters in the name of this patriotism and we are justified by it.
Solidarity has no such aim. Solidarity actively seeks for the good of all, not the good of some ideology now deemed patriotic. The common good is not something you can make up on a Sunday afternoon; it is something that all men strive for because they are men. It is not some far-flung idealism but the the fundamental object of all human action. If we realized that and came together in Solidarity, then things like patriotism i.e. artificial and inauthentic sentiments that pit one group against another in bitter and violent animosity.
And this peace is indeed among us, and depends on us for its attainment. If only the hearts of individuals would not be troubled by the seductions with which they are hourly seduced, nor afraid of those imaginary terrors by which they are intimidated; if people only knew wherein their chiefest, all-conquering power consists – a peace which men have always desired, not the peace attainable by diplomatic negotiations, imperial or kingly progresses, dinners, speeches, fortresses, cannon, dynamite, and melinite, by the exhaustion of the people under taxes, and the abduction from labour of the flower of the population, but the peace attainable by a voluntary profession of the truth by every man, would long ago have been established in our midst.