Jingoism is, according to dictionaries, an “extreme belief that your own country is always best” (Cambridge), “a blind adherence to the rightness or virtue of one’s own nation, society, or group, simply because it is one’s own” (Britannica) or “extreme chauvinism or nationalism marked by a belligerent foreign policy” (Merriam).
What dictionaries tend not to tell you is that jingoism, whilst being a very unpleasant characteristic, is not just a trait that some non-thinking people have. It is a naked emotion encouraged by the elite to support wars which often have an economic purpose.
It was Mark Twain who once said “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. He might have added that jingoism is the last refuge of the patriot. Jingoism ensures that any rational debate is unnecessary and that war must be supported in the national interest. Those who oppose war are cowards and traitors.
Leon Trotsky, in a striking passage in his autobiography My Life, discusses the reaction of the masses in Austria-Hungary to the outbreak of war in 1914.
“The patriotic enthusiasm of the masses in Austria-Hungary seemed especially surprising. What was it that drew to the square in front of the War Ministry the Viennese boot-maker’s apprentice, Pospischil, half German, half Czech; or our green grocer, Frau Maresch; or the cabman Frankl? What sort of an idea? The national idea? But Austria-Hungary was the very negation of any national idea. No, the moving force was something different.
“The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many; they are the mainstay of modern society. The alarm of mobilisation breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course what can seem worse to Popischil than “normal” conditions?”
People are better informed about war now. We see on our TV screens the harsh reality of what war means. If not on our TV screens, where there is still some sense of morality, on social media where images of the aftermath of war are readily available. Yet, for all this, people enthusiastically embrace war, seeing it as inevitable or debating whether it is a just war.
Apart from a few people with a psychology that predisposes them toward danger, most people who have actually been in the frontline of war are not keen to return. Yet still we see war as a viable option for settling disputes, often imagined, at the international level.
Jingoism is the best explanation for this. We are encouraged to believe, by constant propaganda spun by politicians and the mass media, that our wars are just wars (theirs are not, so must be opposed), that our troops are the best in the world (theirs are monsters and thus able to be killed with impunity), and that to do anything but support the war is to be either a coward or to fail to love your country and all it stands for.
Max Hastings famously wrote that the job of newspapers in times of war was to support the government. In other words, in times of war the job of newspapers is to forget any semblance of objectivity (or even truth) and simply produce government propaganda. Hastings, like many self-professed liberal members of the establishment, is very happy to create the jingoism he purports to hate because it ensures that “our side” is free from criticism, at least in their own country. And, according to Hastings and his ilk, the other side is always lying. Especially when they are telling the truth!
These jingoistic impulses which produce a mob mentality are bad enough when your own country is at war. They become positively sinister when they are being deployed for the benefit of another government.
We have seen in recent times the support for Ukraine and Israel. There is a case to be made for both these countries, but once the jingoistic mob is enacted there is no need to justify your choices. Those who support Ukraine or Israel do so uncritically. Therefore anybody who suggests that the situation is more complex, or even that the chosen side is in the wrong, finds it very hard to be heard.
Cutting through jingoism is very difficult for those of us who aspire to be peacemongers. People tend to like simplistic choices where there is a good side and a bad side. Once those sides are chosen, then they fall back on even more simplistic arguments to support them. Much of this, and it is integral to the success of jingoism, is to attack (sometimes physically) those who take a contrary view.
Socialists must remain strong in the face of this. The warmongers have supported so many disastrous wars costing so many lives. Few, if any of them, were unavoidable. We were right to oppose the American war in Vietnam, we were right to oppose the white regime’s war against its black population in South Africa, we were right to support Irish independence, we were right to support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. We were right to oppose the war in the Falklands, the bombing of Iraq, the destruction of Afghanistan, the decimation of Libya. We remain right to oppose the war in Gaza, the war in Yemen, the war in Sudan and other wars that take place.
It is not cowardice to oppose jingoism. It is bravery. To stand against a mob will always be braver than pandering to it. Neither is it unpatriotic to oppose war. The worst kind of patriotism, which jingoism supports, is to send our young men and women into battle zones knowing that they could be killed, maimed or left with psychological scars from which they will never recover.
Jingoism is not a political movement as such. It is the last refuge of politicians who cannot otherwise justify their actions. That is why socialists remain aware of jingoism and we do what we can to undermine it.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.