One of the most familiar remarks of Samuel Johnson, as recorded by his biographer James Boswell, is that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Lest anyone think that his remarkable subject was impugning the virtue of patriotism, Boswell explained that it was false rather than true patriotism, of which Dr. Johnson was speaking. This clarification would have been unnecessary for anyone who had read “The Patriot”, a tract addressed to the electorate of Great Britain that had been written and published by the famous lexicographer and wit in 1774, an election year, and the year before he made his famous remark. In that pamphlet, Dr. Johnson explained what true patriotism was and how it could be distinguished from patriotism falsely professed to cover up baser qualities, motivations, and actions. He defined a patriot as “he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest” and declared that “no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot,“ for “no other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.” (1)
Dr. Johnson was a Tory – a classical conservative who supported traditional royal and ecclesiastical authority against radical, revolutionary, and modernizing forces – and two years after his pamphlet was published, thirteen of Britain’s colonies in North America declared their independence from the Crown and Parliament, launching the war in which the revolting colonists, fighting against the Tories who remained loyal to their king, would take upon themselves the name of patriots. This revolution grew and developed out of the kind of patriotism Dr. Johnson had dismissed as false and so “The Patriot” can be read as a judgement on the American Revolutionaries as well as the Parliamentary Whigs. It stands to this day as the best worded statement of the Tory view of patriotism in the English language.
Such a statement is more needed now than when it was first written. For while Dr. Johnson wrote against politicians who cloaked themselves in patriotism to hide their unworthy motives and goals, the two and a half centuries since have seen the rise of far greater threats that call for a strong dose of true patriotism as their antidote. Six years after the Treaty of Paris brought the American Revolutionary War to an end another revolution broke out in France, the first of the revolutionary movements that would target royalty, the nobility, and the established Church in the name of “the people” in nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe and which would ultimately produce the terror states of Nazism and Communism, foreshadowed in the Reign of Terror in the French Republic of the mid-1790s. These movements were inspired by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who in his call for a revolution that would establish a state in which the will of the people would be sovereign and all opposition to that will would be brutally supressed became at once the father of modern democracy and of totalitarianism. He also became the father of what in the nineteenth century would be dubbed nationalism.
Although many confuse the two, nationalism is not patriotism. Nor, for that matter, is it right-wing in the historic and traditional sense of this term although it is widely thought to be so today. The historic right is identical with Toryism and stood for royalty, nobility, the established church, organic community, tradition, and a concept of the common good that encompassed all of these things. Nationalism, from the French Revolution through to the Third Reich, was opposed to all of these things and allied with democracy, revolution, totalitarianism, and in the case of the Third Reich, socialism. It is the inevitable product of Rousseau’s doctrine of popular sovereignty when the idea of the people is equated with that of the volk, the nation, or the ethnic group, as it was almost universally so equated until 1945.
The difference between nationalism and patriotism was best explained by two Catholic, monarchists, from central Europe who taught in the United States, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and John Lukacs. (2) Just as the French Revolutionaries had joined mutually exclusive concepts when they included both liberty and equality in their motto, Kuehnelt-Leddihn explained, so have those who speak of “blood and soil”. Blood, nationalism, and equality, go together he argued, for “blood is an equalizing and generalizing factor”, as do soil, patriotism, and freedom because “the soil makes free men (the peasant and the landed nobleman are free)”, but the two sets do not mix well with each other. (3) Furthermore, nationalism is argumentative, he maintains, for the nationalist is always trying to prove his nation to be superior, whereas patriotism is not for:
Just as an intelligent man would never try to argue that his parents were the “best in the world,” so the patriot considers his attachment to his country a matter of loyalty. (4)
Lukacs put it this way:
Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a “people,” justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion. Patriotism is old-fashioned (and, at times and in some places, aristocratic); nationalism is modern and populist. (5)
Patriotism is the feeling of attachment and loyalty one has to one’s home as extended to his country. Edmund Burke, a friend of Dr. Johnson’s although, ironically, almost certainly one of those he had in mind when he spoke of the false patriotism that is the “last refuge of a scoundrel”, notably remarked that:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. (6)
This affection for home that, taken to a larger scale, becomes patriotism, is one that we naturally develop unless something happens to prevent its development and it is inseparably tied to another natural affection, our love for our family. It is the fact that our family, our loved ones, live there, that makes a place our home, for apart from this it would be merely a house, a building. Therefore, while Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Lukacs are right to say that the focus of patriotism is on soil rather than blood, the true love of country cannot exclude one’s countrymen any more than love of home can exclude one’s family.
It is vital that we recognize this because a much greater threat than nationalism has developed in Western civilization. Since 1945, liberalism and the left have held up Adolf Hitler’s example as having permanently discredited the idea of volk or nation, i.e., a group connected by ties of blood, language, culture, and history, at least for Western countries. At the same time they continue to affirm the basic idea that was the foundation of both Hitler’s nationalism and his socialism – Rousseau’s concept of popular sovereignty, despite the fact that this concept is far more closely tied to the form of despotism Hitler practiced than the idea of nationality and that this concept, divorced from that of the volk or nation, produced despotism on an even larger scale in the Communist countries. (7) The result has been the permeation of Western civilization by a perverse ethnomasochism. If nationalists insist on the superiority of their own race, culture, and nation over all others, this ethnomasochism insists on the superiority of all other peoples and cultures to their own and expresses a death wish for its own people and culture. This is far more morally reprehensible than even the most jingoist of nationalisms, but, like the envy at the heart of socialism, it hides behind the mask of virtue - or at least what modern minds mistake for virtue in the empty concept of tolerance. Roger Scruton has described this ethnomasochism as oikophobia, giving this word the meaning of “the repudiation of inheritance and home”. (8)
From the Scylla of nationalism, which sacrificed millions in war to its idols of race and nation, we would appear to have escaped only to fall into the gaping maw of the Charybdis of ethnomasochistic oikophobia, (9) which would sacrifice all Western peoples and cultures to its own far deadlier Moloch.
Faced with these modern alternatives, the Tory looks to the ancient virtue of patriotism, the natural love for home extended to take in one's country, complete with people, customs, and institutions, as the antidote to both these poisons.
(1) It can be read online here: http://www.samueljohnson.com/thepatriot.html
(2) Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was Austrian, John Lukacs is Hungarian. In addition to being Roman Catholic monarchists, with a respect for bourgeois liberalism and a contempt for democratic populism who were refugees from totalitarian regimes in their home countries, both men were professors of history at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, Lukacs being picked by Kuehnelt-Leddihn as his successor, when he returned to Europe in 1947.
(3) Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, The Menace of the Herd: Or Procustes at Large, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1943) p. 196. Kuehnelt-Leddihn originally had this book published under the penname Francis Stuart Campbell. That liberty and equality are mutually exclusive is, of course, the theme of his Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of our Times (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers Ltd., 1952).
(4) Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism Revisited: From De Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot, (Washington D. C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990) p. 199.
(5) John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 36.
(6) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, Vol. 1, (Paternoster Row, London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1834), pp. 398-399. Reflections was originally published in 1790.
(7) Modern despots like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, practiced tyranny on a larger scale than history has ever known before. These dictators saw themselves as the embodiments of Rousseau’s “general will” and in Hitler’s case, his power was derived from his demagogic ability to mesmerize the masses and rally them behind him.
(8) Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006), p. 24.
(9) Several movements that call themselves "nationalisms" today are defensive responses to ethnomasochistic oikophobia. The negative portrayal of nationalism in this essay should not be taken as applying to these except in cases where they unmistakably join the concept of the nation with that of Rousseau's "sovereign people" as in nineteenth to early twentieth century nationalisms.
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