Burnette G. Haskell, “Why I Am a Nationalist” (1890)

WHY I AM A NATIONALIST.

BY BURNETTE G. HASKELL.

Five hundred thousand years ago the man-monkey skulked through the primeval forests, hungry and cold, starting at every breaking twig, chattering with fear when he heard in the thickets the crash of the mammoth and the cave-bear, surrounded by pit-falls, swamps, noxious vapors, dangerous reptiles. The sex instinct made him take a wife. He was just beginning to walk on his hind legs, having got up from all fours under the goad of necessity. Offspring came. They were weak and unfitted to cope well with their continually changing environment. They required extra care. So the parents continued together a little longer than usual with beasts; and before the young ape-man was quite fit to run alone and hunt his own living, a brother was born, and the family relation was established. Nature gave birth then to the germ of the State.

The young acquired the habit of lingering near the paternal nest in the giant tree, and helped to find the food the family required.

The swarming of malignant enemies made it necessary to group closely together, and, as they grew up, to marry among themselves. They learned to be gregarious under the sharp spur of mortal danger. The sacrifice of selfish instinct to secure common safety gave birth to the first feeling of fraternity. The tribe was established, and the old ape-man became its chief. Nature was developing the State.

The father was the despot, but even then one iron rule held him in check. Even then he dared not be an anarchist; his power was limited by the welfare of the tribe; he could do naught that would mean death to all the rest else rebellion would ensue. With each succeeding growth of the State this limitation to imperialism widened in power and contracted the limits of the selfishness of others. Slight as was the original barrier, it yet was the embryo of an ultimate radical and free democracy, not an independent one, but one of inter-dependence and harmonious co-operation for chief and soldier alike.

Through war and famine, cannibalism, misery, pestilence, slavery, flood, fire, and rapine, extending over half a million years, the monkey-man has reached the nineteenth century.

And now one of them is asked by Mr. Pentecost to tell “why he is a Nationalist,” and in 1,600 words. I can only deal with one of the “whys” in this space, but that, I think, will be all sufficient.

I could tell you philosophically why I am one as a follower of Hegel, or morally why as a believer in the Golden Rule, or patriotically so as an American and a Red Republican; but this is the dawning of the age of science, and I prefer to tell you why I am a “Nationalist” in the light of science. Being a believer in evolution, I affirm that I must also be a believer in “Nationalism.”

As an evolutionist I must hold that the millions of complex causes surrounding and operating upon our social organism will produce certain results; that it becomes my duty to so shape my individual life that I shall fit in as one piece of the future social mechanism if I would survive. The only question is, then, what is this future form to be? I believe it will be the perfected State.

How can “Nationalism,” or indeed any “ism,” be discussed by anybody unless we are agreed upon some starting point? We must assume such agreement. If one looked at the moral side, this universal concordance might be put in these words: “We all want to know what must be done in order that happiness may result.” But if I eliminate the questions of morals and philosophy, and ask an axiom of science for a foundation stone, I must assume acceptance of this: “We want to know the truth; we want to know what will happen next.”

Now right here the issue presents itself plainly. It is not a belief in God nor a belief in the State that causes the present misery. That misery is far less than it was a hundred, a thousand, or ten-thousand years ago. What exists now exists solely because it is a survival from barbaric conditions.

The State is developing out of these conditions into perfection. Four hundred years ago it dared not interfere to punish murder, if done by a man who could read and write; presumably a man who could do this was a “clerk” and had the benefit of “clergy.” One hundred years ago peasant girls in France had no protection from the State against the criminal assaults of whatever noble was disposed to crime. Today, it is true, a British noble may escape the law, but he must fly to do it; he dare not stay and face the State. Today, it is true, bribery sits in the halls of legislation, but not with the brazen face of other days. When corruption becomes as bold as it was a century since, the State now finds for it a prison in which it may hide its shame. It is true we cannot yet catch all the Tweeds and the Jaehnes, but on the shoulders of some of them the State lays her iron finger. We shall live, I believe, to see Jay Gould set to honest labor, making shoes, and reactionaries Most and Tucker to studying evolution in the schools. The State now is in process of change and adjustment to democratic ideals. It must, in my judgment, pass through “Nationalism” to reach the goal.

I believe the State is an organism; that it has all of the characteristics of such; that it is being developed just as our physical bodies are.

Half of the prevalent diseases of that body come because our physical structure has not yet thoroughly adapted itself to the upright position. But because of this pain and disease, are we anarchistically to affirm that the body ought to be destroyed?

Why, science was born only when we learned to generalize and beheld uniformity in nature, from jelly-dot to man, from the fungus to the gigantic sequoia in the primeval forest of Kaweah; simplicity of function in the single cell developing after ages into harmonious complexity of groups and connected agglomerations of diversified and different but related activities, the individual becoming at last the specialized portion of a greater societary organism and dependent for its very life and being upon every other atom of its collective personality.

I have a right to generalize here, and to apply the lessons learned from physiology to sociology. As Leverrier applied the law and pointed to the exact spot in the heavens where unseen Neptune should be visible, if laws were true, so I, as a “Nationalist,” affirm that the type of the societary organism that is fast oncoming, can be as definitely predicted.

Either the generalization is correct or all of our modern science is quackery and there is no uniformity in nature, as it claims. Reductio ad absurdam, for the existence of law is the fundamental postulate of any knowledge that we have of any kind.

It has taken ages piled upon ages to develop the marvelous functions of the physical body; its bones, cartilage, ligaments, ganglia, organs, blood, lymph, nerves, and brain. Its central seat of government, the brain, is connected with every atom of the organism by two lines of government telegraph, one the sensory nerves that bring the news of disaster, and the other the motor nerves that carry the orders for relief. Two government railroad lines, the blood and lymph, do the work of transportation and reach to every point. A great central food-producing machine manufactures the means of life, of repair, of health or succor that even the humblest cell may need. The ptyalin of the saliva, the pepsin of the gastric juice, by division of labor, do what no living chemist has yet accomplished, transforming raw material into manufactured goods, make up the chlorophyll and protoplasm of the foods into chyme. Then other chemists take hold; the bile and the pancreatic juice make the product into chyle — box it up in separate packages, as it were. The blood, an endless lightning train, moved by a mighty stationary engine; the heart, the most powerful of all machines ever conceived, seizes this freight, and, with a superhuman intelligence, instantly answers the telegram of the motor nerves and delivers to the cell who has appealed for help just what he wants and nothing else. Bone goes where bone is needed; muscle, skin, all just where the call came for them; bone does not go where the call was for flesh, nor hair where the telegram was for skin. If there is a pain (an injustice) the atom-cell does not have to turn Anarchist and travel around himself with a shot-gun, nor, “ competitively,” hire a lawyer to obtain relief; he has only to call out and the whole force of the entire organism responds if necessary.

Now, nature thus developed these functions and this marvelous simplicity of complexity, through natural selection and heredity, because the atoms set up a cry for life, and kept crying until their call was heard. The human atoms who starve and suffer and die, have now set up a similar cry, and they also will be heard. Nature will perfect the State so it shall heed and reach the needs of every unit of its whole. And this is the most inevitable of inevitable things. It is coming. It will come.

Oh, yes, but then “good-bye to the individuality of the units.” Alas, and is it so? All the original units were alike; each had in itself the potentialities of all succeeding forms. All were Anarchists. But now, since one is specialized particularly in the stomach, another in the skin, another in the brain — now, since labor is divided, and through its division becomes expert and useful, each to its brother — now, originality is lost, forsooth! Yea, give us back the brains we had as jelly-dots that we may comprehend this subtle truth. Imagine an individual atom of the pancreas saying, “Why must I work in order to pay for the education of the children-cells of Mr. Ptyalin Atom, so that by reflex-action they may learn to work (making chyme for me to box up) without the supervision of Mr. Will Atom? You have no right to tax me to teach his frothy progeny their duty.”

Let us not tie selfish strings of “individual right” around our fingers to impede the collective circulation; let us reverently study nature and seek to help and not to hinder her beneficent work. Let us sink self in the State; let us toil that our children may be free from pain; let us do as the red disks of the blood do when duty calls, for we ought to be here in America the reddest of the reds. These disks are independent cells, instinct with life, and so small that a million of them lie upon a needle’s point. They dance with helpful joy through every artery of the body. But let their State be threatened; let the skin be broken and the body cut, and they crystallize into army line; they hasten to the point of danger; they throw themselves in uncounted millions into the breach. The clot of blood that forms and bars death out from your bleeding body is made up of literal dead, who have immolated themselves to save their fellows and the State.

Were you not proud of the cheers that rose above the Samoan hurricane from the shattered and doomed deck of the “Trenton” when the “Calliope” swept past her, bound for the open sea and safety? Did that not stir your pulses and flush your brow with a noble pride, not of yourself, but of man as a part of mankind?

The silver voices of heroic bugles, the sweep of collective armies, with “broadening front clearing to the outer file,” the million gleaming bayonet points of the marching hosts of heaven above, the orderly pulse of the unseen atom, the absolute harmony of universal law; all these teach me that I am myself too little to be an “Anarchist” and boss the world; and so, perforce — or no! by choice — I whisper: “Not rights but duties” and behold, I am a “Nationalist.”

San Francisco.


Burnette G. Haskell, “Why I Am a Nationalist,” Twentieth Century 4 no. 20 (May 15, 1890): 5–7.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2010 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.