The modern age is clogged with—or more descriptively, cursed by—political causes. Every such cause trumpets peaceful and progressive virtues but, in practice, each is a turbulence of violence. The worst of them—Communism, Nazism, Islamism—provide the ideological framework for mass murder. With whatever messianic fervor a political cause is promoted, at its core is the defense of some partisan interest, usually religious or national. Purportedly universal causes—pacifism, human rights, ecological issues—have a similar tendency to define themselves as moral absolutes that legitimize aggression. And as that old rake Norman Douglas was the first to point out, somebody will be found to defend even the vilest cause. An English poet, for instance, judged the Khmer Rouge to be merciful because in spite of their poverty they shot their victims rather than clubbing them to death.
A cause offers purpose where previously there might have been none. The divide between Us and Them, between believer and unbeliever, between this nation and that, follows from the overriding psychological motives that great novelists explore, such as ambition and hunger for power, utopianism, vanity, adventure, a sense of superiority—all the various paths to self-righteousness, that most satisfying and all-encompassing of human illusions.
It was not always so. True, for centuries people had fought and died in wars of religion. In the Age of Enlightenment, however, England and France each developed the doctrine of nationalism, whereby subjects of a king were to see themselves instead as citizens of a nation-state. To the rest of the world, nationalism accounted for the supremacy of England and France and their empires, and they duly set about imitating and adopting it—and still do so to this day, as peoples everywhere without a state succeed or fail in the struggle for national self-expression.
Gifted men at the time—a Voltaire, a Thomas Paine—attacked the power accruing to their respective nation-states and empires. They decried various policies for the simple reason that those responsible for them were monarchs and nobleman— men, it went almost without saying, much stupider than their critics. Inexpensive newspapers and broadsheets offered those with access to them opportunities to reach a wider social circle. Public opinion was a novel force, and with it came the public intellectual who could influence rulers.
Ideas arise in opposition to rather than in support of whatever is established. Ideas need champions, and they have consequences that may well make those champions household names, providing the thrill of fame or the equal drama of infamy. For reasons to do with personality, then, the battle of ideas has been waged principally by the contrarian, by exhibitionists and misfits, anarchists and dreamers, poets, all the assorted master-craftsmen of fanaticism. The phenomenon is now as persistent as it is general. “Treason of the clerks” is not an empty phrase.
Nothing quite like the cause of the American colonies had previously been seen, and it attracted prominent Dissenters such as the preacher and philosopher Richard Price and the scientist Joseph Priestley. A government minister, Lord Lansdowne, so admired the colonists that he commissioned a portrait of Washington; another well-connected radical, Catherine Macaulay, wrote that British policy was a design “to enslave the whole empire.” The members of the Society for Constitutional Information drank a toast to “America in our arms and Despotism at our feet.”
Moving to Philadelphia, Thomas Paine first threw himself into incendiary publicity for the colonists, and then took up arms for them. His writings alone, as one biographer, David A. Wilson, put it, “branded him as a traitor.” In 1777, he was appointed Secretary of the Committee for Foreign Affairs for the Congress. His motives, and the object of all his political works, Paine wrote, had been “to rescue man from tyranny and false systems and false principle of government, and enable him to be free.” He could go further: “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
High-flown love of liberty, however, inspired him a good deal less than hatred of England. He supported American independence, and then the French revolution, because both movements satisfied that inner rage against his own country. One Tory critic who knew him observed that Common Sense, Paine’s bestselling broadsheet on behalf of the colonists, gave vent to “private resentment and ambition,” while exhibiting him as “utterly averse and unfriendly to the English constitution.” To Paine, the mediocre Hanoverian ruler George III was “the royal brute of Britain,” “the sceptered savage,” and “Mr. Guelph”; monarchy was “a silly, contemptible thing”; he deconstructed the word nobility into no-ability. He hoped that sending troops to America would expose England’s home front to French conquest.
To radicals who anticipated that the American revolution would be the prelude to an English republic, the French revolution was even more exhilarating. Hearing of the fall of the Bastille, Charles James Fox declaimed, “How much the greatest event is it that ever appeared in the world! and how much the best!”—a failure of judgment destined to be quoted ever afterwards. A year later, with persecution of the clergy looming in France, an enthusiastic deacon in Norwich planted a commemorative Tree of Liberty. Joseph Priestley welcomed “a totally new era in the history of mankind.” No less destined to be quoted ever afterwards, Wordsworth gushed, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven.” Months spent in France in 1792 left him oblivious to reality, and years were to pass before he could ask in penitence: “Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” Blake’s poem to the revolution is in his style of oblique rapture. Samuel Rogers explained that he went to France “to taste the pleasure of a revolutionary way of life, and to dance the Ça ira with peasant girls.” In one of his poems, Robert Burns exulted that “Man to Man the world o’er,/ Shall brothers be.” A close friend of his, Dr. William Maxwell, had been among the guards at the execution of Louis XVI, a moment Burns dismissed as the delivering over to the hangman of “a perjured blockhead.” The feminist Mary Wollstonecraft had watched from her window the King on his way to the scaffold, and she wrote to a friend, “I bowed to the majesty of the people.”
During the Terror, another feminist writer, Helen Maria Williams, burnt manuscripts entrusted to her by Girondins before their execution, and it was said of her that she walked “unmoved” among the guillotined corpses. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is the great but lonely exception to the flood-tide of bloodthirsty emotion released in the intellectual class. Something in the order of two hundred English, Scottish, and Irish men and women remained in Paris during the revolution. Their headquarters was White’s Hotel, where they met regularly to dine and drink toasts to the Jacobins. Among their number was Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a duke’s son, who one night at White’s renounced his title amid general applause. Inciting revolution in Dublin, he was to die in a shoot-out with the police. Often in the chair at White’s dinners was Lord Stanhope, whose revolutionary gesture was to remove the armorial crest from the iron gates of Chevening, his stately home. Another White’s regular, John Oswald, formerly an army officer, held that fraternal alliance between revolutionary England and France was going to establish “the liberty and happiness of the human race.” At the height of the Terror, he was killed leading a volunteer battalion against the peasants of the Vendeé.
Thomas Paine reached France in September 1792, where he was accepted as a French citizen and elected to the National Convention. Although he spoke no French, he advised on the drafting of a new constitution. The Terror threatened all foreign-born people. At White’s on December 28, 1793, Paine was arrested and stayed in prison until the following November. Robespierre himself wrote out Paine’s order of execution. Paine later recalled how he had listened to the jailors’ footsteps in the corridor. “When persons by scores and by hundreds were to be taken out of the prison for the guillotine it was always done in the night, and those who performed that office had a private mark or signal, by which they knew what rooms to go to, and what number to take.” The Directory saved him. He then subscribed five hundred francs to Bonaparte’s intended invasion of England. Returning to America for the last years of his life, he boasted that he knew Bonaparte, who “allows as much freedom as I wish or anybody ought to have.” The dangerous illusions and rancor in his switches of allegiance are a foretaste of many a lost life in the twentieth century.
Bonaparte was generally venerated by intellectuals, even in countries he had overrun. Hegel thought him a “world-spirit,” and Heine, otherwise a reliable cynic, watched him enter Dusseldorf and imagined him Christ riding into Jerusalem. In spite of the war Bonaparte waged against England for fifteen long years, the fashionable Whigs around Lord and Lady Holland, including Charles James Fox, took his side. Hazlitt thought that Bonaparte had “conquered the grand conspiracy of kings,” though in reality he had created an empire for himself and kingdoms for his brothers and marshals. The painter Benjamin Haydon recorded how, at the news of Waterloo, Hazlitt was “like a man shot through the heart.” That same moment, in an extreme example of aristocratic treason, Lord Sefton said to Lady Jersey, “Horrible news! They have won a great victory.” Samuel Whitbread, an eminent Whig member of Parliament, was so distressed by the French defeat that he committed suicide.
Talent, title, fortune, and looks enabled Byron to leave an abiding mark. Goethe, however, one of his readers and admirers, saw him for what he was: “Lord Byron is only great as a poet; as soon as he reflects he is a child.” Byron’s searching for a cause was archetypal. He spoke of the “all-cloudless glory” of Washington; he wondered whether to fight for Holland; he admired the Turks who were not much different from ourselves except for “sodomy and smoking.” Oppressed nations for him were the very stuff of poetry. His Hebrew Melodies mourned for Israel. “Awake, ye sons of Spain, awake! advance!” he wrote. He dabbled in Italian conspiracies and wondered whether to join liberation movements in South America. To Lady Blessington he said that he hoped to die in battle.
A handful of Greeks had formed an Association with the aim of freeing their country from Ottoman rule. An equally tiny number of men in London responded. One of them, Edward Blaquiere, was instrumental in persuading Byron that at last this was the cause he was seeking. Visiting Marathon in 1810, Byron had already won a huge and sentimental audience with the lines, “I dream’d that Greece might still be free;/ For standing on the Persians’ grave,/ I could not deem myself a slave.” With the realism that often had penetrated his romancing, Byron described the Greeks as “plausible rascals,” but he nevertheless listened to his petitioners. Once in Greece, he was dismayed at the extent to which he had to fund the freedom fighters from his own fortune, but consoled himself with his would-be heroic role, dressing the part in exotic Albanian and other costumes. His example made Philhellenism a cause with even greater international appeal than the French Revolution. Only one of hundreds, William Humphreys, a volunteer and a Sandhurst graduate, came to fight, as the historian William St. Clair put it, “believing himself about to taste the reality of the fantasies he had acquired from reading Byron.” Between 1821 and 1833, according to the bibliographical research of Loukia Droulia, over 2,000 Philhellene books were published, in all the main European languages, and between seventy and eighty of them directly concern Byron. His death at Missolonghi glamorized in perpetuity the glory of fighting and dying for a foreign cause. In sober fact, the European Philhellenes died or defected almost to a man, and the British navy alone defeated the Ottomans.
As the nineteenth century unfolded, virtually every nation and every minority copied the Greek example, founded an association, or fostered a conspiracy. Young Italy, Young Bulgaria, the United Friends of Armenia, the Albania Committee, the Persian Committee, the Fenians, Young Algerians, and Young Turks were among the many causes upon whom their selective friends were to fasten. Already in 1827, George Canning, prime minister and foreign secretary, was mocking the type as “A steady patriot of the world alone,/ The friend of every country but his own.” In Bleak House, Dickens lampooned Mrs. Jellyby as too devoted to her chosen Africans to pay attention to her own children.
These movements were by definition against the status quo, and this meant that in Europe they were directed against the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, and against British and French governments whenever these showed alarm at the consequences of revolution—or more provokingly still, extended their own empires in Africa or Asia. When the Russians conquered and partitioned Poland, the poet Thomas Campbell lamented, “Hope, for a season, bade the world farewell,/ and Freedom shrieked as Kosciusko fell!” Equally outraged by events in Poland, the French historian Jules Michelet expressed the popular view, “From the highest to the lowest Russia cheats and lies.” He also said, “Russian life is communism,” a far-sighted observation in 1853. Defeated by the Austrians and Russians in the uprising of 1848, the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth visited England, where cheering crowds pulled his carriage, and the press spoke of his “love of country and of liberty,” and of his “sublimity” and “wonderful eloquence.”
Garibaldi similarly swept England. At the defense of Rome in 1849, Hugh Forbes joined the Garibaldi revolutionaries on the barricades—a Coldstream Guards colonel, he fought in a white linen suit and a top hat. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a poem in which she hears a passing child singing, “O bella libertà, o bella.” A London firm presented Garibaldi with his red shirts. Jessie White became the Florence Nightingale of the movement, and hardly left Garibaldi’s side. English volunteers turned up for the 1860 Sicilian campaign in enough strength to form a British Legion. Among them was John Peard, the son of an admiral, a huge man and a crack shot. He took the surrender of Neapolitan troops at Soveria, and commanded the British Legion at the battle of Milazzo, for which Garibaldi promoted him to colonel. “Is Garibaldi the greatest man since Adam, or is he not?” raved Swinburne. A Yorkshire parson praised him as “the liberator of everything from trees and birds to lonely nuns in their convent.” Writing the Italian history that made his reputation half a century later, G. M. Trevelyan thought that Garibaldi had raised “the story of Italian freedom to a pinnacle of history far above common nationalist struggles.” His was “the most romantic life that history records.”
Social privileges and private incomes alone enabled such people to put into practice the self-flattering view that they were advancing freedom and liberating humanity, and in the way they set about fulfilling their self-appointed mission, they were colorful. But the British empire in all its might was then changing the world, and these eccentrics and idealists were quintessentially imperialist as well, expressing the assumption natural to every Briton of the day, that he knew best—and certainly better than his government—how foreigners were to order their affairs. In any emergency, the British consul and the British navy were at hand for purposes of rescue.
Faced by these nationalist causes, British governments were cautious, aware of the dangers inherent in destroying the status quo. This was easily presented as cowardice, obstructionism, ignorance, lack of humanity. To put across that point of view, those various associations and revolutionary groups needed the services of someone British; a bearer of the torch; someone in a position to influence public opinion, and so to shame the government and bring it round. The journalist and the professor came to succeed the swashbuckler, and by the end of the nineteenth century the media had largely replaced the barricades as the arena where issues of foreign policy were to be decided, in Europe at least. Sir Bernard Pares and Basil Sumner took up Russia. Wickham Steed and R. W. Seton-Watson lobbied for the Czechs and Yugoslavs. Aubrey Herbert and Edith Durham wanted an independent Albania. C. P. Scott and Sir Mark Sykes were Zionists. J. A. Hobson and W. T. Stead campaigned for a Boer victory in the South African war. Hardly anyone held that India should remain in the empire, except Winston Churchill and Kipling, who argued with painful foresight that Gandhi would not bring peace but extend conflict between Hindus and Muslims. In opinion-making circles, then, the assumption that the British knew best how to order affairs for others turned inside out to become its opposite: The British were always in the wrong.
The fate of Muslims particularly prompted anti-nationalism. The slow decline of the Ottoman empire brought into question what would eventually happen to its component territories and peoples. David Urquhart, unusually a former Philhellene, Adolphus Slade, once a British naval officer, and Sir Marmaduke Pickthall, a member of Parliament and a Muslim convert, were among those who feared the Ottoman empire’s break-up. The poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt had traveled extensively in the Middle East, and concocted fantasies about it—for instance, that there was a “liberal party” in Mecca of all places. “If I can help to see Arabia free of the Turks, I shall not have quite lived in vain,” he noted in his diary in 1880. When the British then occupied Egypt in 1882, in his eyes they were worse than the Turks. He identified himself as another Byron, who happened to be a relation of his wife’s. His adoption of the cause of Egyptian independence, a biographer judged, sprang from “disappointment with his own people.” At Crabbet, his stately home in Sussex, he went about in Arab dress. But then Professor E. G. Browne, whose cause was Persian independence, also went in for cultural cross-dressing, and so did Lawrence of Arabia, even while attending the Versailles peace conference.
Arnold Toynbee in his day was treated as a polymath who had discovered that history obeyed laws. Like David Urquhart, he had favored the Greeks only to perceive that this involved the British doing injustice to the Turks. Turkish atrocities, therefore, had to be passed over in silence, and the pro-Greek policy of the Lloyd George government condemned. Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary in January 1918 (of all dates) how she sat next to him, and “Arnold outdid me in anti-nationalism, anti-patriotism, and anti-militarism.” Such a stance was by now a cliché in these circles. Toynbee soon concluded that an essential part of his life’s work was to atone for wrongs done by Europeans to the Muslim world, and in due course this led him to campaign against Jews, whom he considered “fossilised” at the very moment when they were in the process of creating the state of Israel.
Already in World War I, Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor of Sudan and ostensibly a level-headed bureaucrat, was writing to George V’s private secretary that he now “espoused the Arab cause with still greater warmth.” The Arab Bureau had been set up in the war as a think-tank for post-war questions, of which the thorniest was the degree of independence that Arabs were to have. The Arab Bureau put so much of themselves into the fulfilment of Arab independence that this “veritably became their cause,” in the words of Elie Kedourie. This mutual admiration society—or what one of their number, Gertrude Bell, called “a brilliant constellation”—projected a wholly sentimental view of Arab realities. Among others subscribing to it was John Glubb, who as Glubb Pasha rose to command the Arab Legion in Jordan, and could write, “I decided to devote my life to the Arab. My decision was largely emotional. I loved them.” Captain Robert Gordon-Canning served on the staff of Abdel Krim, the leader of the Rif insurrection, and carried his anti-nationalism to the point of supporting Hitler. Harry St. John Philby became an agent of Ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia, converted to Wahhabi Islam, and also supported Hitler, but his enmity to all things British seems to have derived more from the fact that he had been detected stealing British government funds destined to pay the Saudis. “All that is best in the Arabs has come to them from the desert” was the sincere belief of the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, although it was self-evident that the tribal life of the Bedouin involved little but raiding, hardship, ill health, and early death.
Communism was the anti-nationalist cause par excellence. Marx himself had stated that Communism involved the “forcible overthrow of all existing order.” Lenin and Stalin, and their apparatchiks in Western countries, steadfastly promised to bury democracy, to hang capitalists with the rope the capitalists had sold, or, as Klement Gottwald expressed it in the Czech parliament in 1929, “We go to Moscow to learn from the Russian Bolsheviks how to wring your necks.” The more menacing Communism became, the greater the enthusiasm for it; the more aggressive the Red Army became, the louder the claim that Communism alone stood for peace.
In the early 1930s, Reader Bullard was the clear-eyed consul in Leningrad, now once again St. Petersburg, and in his diary he recorded how, one day, a boat had docked with 107 mostly British Communists arriving as immigrants “with mountains of trunks, bicycles, gramophones” and no sense of the tragicomedy in which they had landed themselves. In a matter of days, they had been swindled out of their money and stripped of their possessions, and Bullard had to look after them. Christopher Mayhew, a future Socialist minister, spoke for the huge majority of these political pilgrims when he wrote in his memoirs, “Our British system of society seemed so detestable that I simply could not believe that its exact antithesis could be worse.” Malcolm Muggeridge, the Welsh journalist Owen Jones, and W. H. Chamberlin of the Daily Telegraph were among the few who reported Stalinist terror, gulag, and enforced famine, but they were ignored. Walter Duranty lied in the belief that the lie served some greater truth. E. H. Carr held that adverse comment on Communism was disinformation spread by White Russians in Riga.
Nothing quite like this massive failure of rationality had been experienced previously. Clergymen, trade unionists, scientists and artists, aristocrats, diplomats, poets, and journalists either joined the Party or became its fellow-travelers. On a visit to Cambridge, Alfred Kazin quite typically received a Communist pamphlet from the younger son of a duke. Kim Philby, son of St. John Philby and a traitor with blood on his hands, offered the straightforwardly imperialist explanation that he wanted to be on the winning side. John Peet, a Reuters journalist, defected to East Germany on the topsy-turvy grounds that he did not wish “to serve the warmongers any longer.” In Beijing, Rewi Alley and Isidore Epstein put themselves at the service of Maoism.
In a repeat of the earlier claim of the Philhellenes to be fighting for the liberty of the world, Party members and fellow-travelers flocked to the Republican side in the civil war in Spain, so many demotic Byrons, as befitted the modern age. They boasted that they were saving the world from totalitarianism, but their victory would have extended it greatly and dangerously. Out of a total of about 40,000 volunteers for the International Brigade, something like 2,000 were British. W. H. Auden supported the Republic, and wrote in favor of revolution and “poets exploding like bombs,” although, like Wordsworth, he later regretted it. John Cornford and Julian Bell, the nephew of Virginia Woolf, were two poets killed in Spain. In contrast, George Orwell survived a bullet in the throat and returned home to write Homage to Catalonia, an exposé of Communist terror that made him the Edmund Burke of the day.
Only a handful fought for Franco. Almost by definition, Fascism and Nazism could not develop the anti-nationalist appeal of Communism. No Englishman seems to have adopted any German principality or Grand Duchy as a cause, and Prince Bismarck had lacked the underdog appeal of Kossuth or Garibaldi. Houston Stewart Chamberlain appears to be a solitary English advocate of German unity, and his recompense was to be embraced on his death-bed by a grateful Hitler. Probably about 250,000 people were members of the British Union of Fascists in the entire course of its existence; the Communist Party had equivalent numbers. The Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, took large-scale secret subsidies from Hitler, and it is evident that he would have been willing to serve Nazism in any capacity in the event of a successful German invasion. His one-time director of propaganda, William Joyce, defected to Germany and, as Lord Haw-Haw, broadcast throughout the war. Peculiarly complex and embittered, he imagined his treason to be a form of ultra-patriotism, and went to the gallows for it. John Amery, son of a minister under Churchill, toured German prisoner of war camps in order to recruit volunteers for another British Legion, this time to be under the auspices of the S.S. For reasons that were mostly opportunist, about two dozen men joined but the Legion never saw action. At his trial in London Amery pleaded guilty, and he too was hanged.
Since then, it is no exaggeration to say that anti-nationalism in one variety or another has overtaken public debate. Vociferous activists demonstrated against Western self-defense throughout the Cold War. The likes of Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara and Yasser Arafat have been idolized, and little medallions of Lenin and Mao still adorn many a T-shirt. “My country is always wrong” has become the creed on which Third Worlders act, and with them Trotskyites and other neo-Marxists agitating against globalization and all the policies of the United States, no matter what they might be: Euro-fanatics who wish to consign the nation-state to oblivion; Red Brigaders and other anarchists, protestors against the liberation from tyranny of Iraq and Afghanistan and striving to impeach Bush and Blair for it; British Muslim suicide bombers and George Galloway, who so admires Saddam Hussein for “indefatigability,” down to those who kill to prevent abortion or to promote animal rights. Steadily gathering force and fashion since the days of Tom Paine, the anti-nationalist torrent is too deep, too conventional, to be easily dammed; it flows out into numerous shallow tributaries, and many confuse it with intellectual discourse.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 1, on page 27
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