E. Belfort Bax

Modern Socialism

(August 1879)

Source: E. Belfort Bax, Modern Socialism, Modern Thought, August 1879, Vol.I, No.8, pp.150-153.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006), Andy Carloff 2010.

There is probably no word better abused at the present moment than the word Socialism. With those to whom it expresses anything beyond anarchy and a weekly distribution of property, it is generally deemed to cover certain cut-and-dried schemes, such as St. Simonism, Fourierism, or Owenism. This, though historically correct, is actually false, in so far as the Social democrats, Communalists, or Nihilists of the Continent are concerned. Such schemes as the above have little but an historical curiosity for the majority of modern Socialists. It is proposed to trace in a few words what modern Socialism, taken broadly, really means, as well as what it implies.

Let us first take the great problem with which Socialism expressly and immediately deals – the industrial problem – the question of the production and distribution of wealth. Socialism is often accused of being in irreconcilable opposition to all forms of private property. This is by no means the case. What it is really in opposition to is private capital, i.e., the conversion of private property into capital, and the exploitation of the proletariat by its means. It is that keystone of modern industrialism, profit or interest, that Karl Marx and others view as the poisonous Upas tree spreading its contagion far and wide. It is needless to say that by profit is meant the increment over and above the cost of production which accrues to the manufacturer or merchant. It is the artificial arrangement by which the normal formula – commodity–money–commodity (money being strictly the medium of exchange) – is distorted into money–commodity–money, which denotes (by money being placed first and last in the formula instead of occupying its true middle position) that a fictitious value is given to money as such – it is this arrangement that is protested against. While the normal function of money is simply to act as a convenient representative of the products of labour, viz., commodities, the modern industrial system supplies it with the power of reproducing itself, plus an additional value, or as it is termed, profit. This ingenious legerdemain of the Bourgeois is effected in this way. The workman gives an amount of labour and receives back less than its equivalent by precisely the amount that the manufacturer takes to himself in the form of profit. The great agent for effecting this is competition. Competition, as understood in modern industry, is a later development of the “struggle for existence” whose previous phase is militaryism. This struggle, essential to the earlier stages of human, no less than to lower orders of existence, it is the function of Humanity to close. It has no place in the human series proper, i.e. in Sociology and Morals. Those who deprecate the present “commercial” condition of society are frequently confronted by the Darwinians with the assertion that it is the normal carrying out of the principle of “natural selection” in the “struggle for existence.” But surely this attempt to carry Darwinism into the human sphere is no less unphilosophical than immoral. Its best reductio ad absurdum is the fact that its logical result would be to erect the destruction of the weak into a virtue. Darwinism is true in the natural, viz., pre-Human order of things, and so long as human progress is unsystematic, viz., unguided by reason, it obtains there also. But the true aim of human progress is to follow the human ideal, and not external nature. Nature is the lower, Humanity the higher. The need of a systematic progress is becoming more and more felt; the previous unsystematic or natural progress being seen no longer to answer human needs.

Socialism is an attempt to render progress systematic. [1] And in a systematic or rational progress the present “struggle” must give place to mutual co-operation. Socialism would inculcate as the goal of life something other than the Bourgeois gospel of success – acquisition for acquisition’s sake. The selfish individualist bourgeois doctrine of life is for every man to aim at becoming a capitalist, large or small; and when he has attained to this, to buy his labour in the cheapest market (exploit the proletariat), and sell the resulting commodity in the clearest (i.e., overcharge the consumer). Now, as a matter of fact, it is economically impossible for every man to become a capitalist, so that the attempt to carry out this doctrine, as in the present state of things, must invariably result in the separation of Society into two classes – victimisers (capitalists) and victims (workmen). It will be seen from what has been before said that the question of private property, pur et simple, is not, at least, directly, touched by Socialism. It is only its employment as a productive agency that is denounced.

All the capital, viz., productive wealth of the community, whether land, raw material, or instruments of production, Socialism would concentrate in the hands of the people themselves as represented by the executive of a democratic State. The whole industrial system would be centred in the State. No wealth could exist as capital apart from the State. The whole machinery of social existence – the material conditions of life – would have the State for a mainspring; or to change the metaphor, the State would be the central cerebral mass animating through its ramifications the whole social organism. The tendency of English Radicalism is to limit State jurisdiction to the minimum. And not without reason, when government is the apanage of a closed-circle or coterie, as it is practically under the makeshift constitutional régime of modern Europe. But in a State of which every citizen formed a real and not merely a nominal part, and where moral worthiness and intellectual fitness formed the sole conditions of eligibility to public posts, all objections to State interference must fall to the ground. It is because the words Government or State conjure up to most people visions of sinecures, vested interests, red tapeism, etc., that they regard it with aversion. The governing body might, and could, under certain conditions, be the essence of all that is great in a community, though certainly not under the nationalist and constitutional régime.

By the Socialist State in its administration of industry, having no profit to deduct, but having solely public benefit in view; on the one hand, adequate remuneration would be ensured to the artificer, and on the other hand, the consumer would receive the commodity at the precise cost of production and not plus two or three layers of profit as at present.

The probable result of a Socialist Revolution on the classification of social functions would be to reduce these to two main divisions, the working class proper – those engaged in the actual production of wealth – and a classe d’intelligence, embracing those engaged in intellectual occupations, not having the production of wealth (in an economic sense) for their end; any occupation, even though involving intellectual work, having an economic end, falling under the first of these divisions. The present transitional class-demarcation would necessarily disappear. It is to the working classes that the bulk of the material wealth of communities ought to belong inasmuch as (I.) they are the producers of wealth, and (II.) the occupation of the workman brings no reward in itself, as that of the philosopher, student, or artist does, or ought to do. The entire subservience of Literature and Art to the market is one of the most melancholy signs of the ascendancy of Commercialism. The liberation of the higher departments of human interests, from the degrading level of market competition, and from any inducement they may offer to be pursued for sordid motives, would be one of the most beneficial results of social reorganisation.

The question of the manner in which the re-organised State should obtain possession of the requisites for production naturally presents itself, and as naturally, in the absence of specific conditions, fails to admit of a decided answer – at least, in all its aspects. As regards the land, it is admitted even by political economists to exist as private property only by a so-called prescriptive right – a right which the modern Socialist school would consider more than questionable. The land being originally and in its essential nature common property – in so far as in its raw state it is not the result of labour – it indeed follows that Proudhon’s aphorism – “La propriété, c’est le vol,” is strictly true of landed property. The most that can be said for it is that it is held on the sufferance of the community; there can he no question of right. This being the case, so far from its reassumption by the people entitling private “owners” to any compensation, it is the latter who in strict justice ought to compensate the former for having been allowed to hold it as a source of profit for so long. With respect to the other sources of wealth (using the word in its widest sense), funds, instruments of production, material, &c., they stand of course on quite a different footing to the land. Although it may be alleged that as much of the private wealth of the community has been wrongly as rightly acquired under the present system, it would be obviously an absurdity to attempt to institute any general distinction; therefore, all property not landed or immediately derived from land must be considered as carrying with it a right of ownership, real or prescriptive. The conflicting claims of the private capitalist and the people as represented by the State, constitute of course a question of considerable difficulty and delicacy. The first action of the reorganised State in the matter might possibly be the passing of a law of maximum and minimum, on the one hand ensuring to the workman his adequate remuneration, and on the other, fixing the price, at least of all necessaries. Thus commercial competition would receive at one stroke a tremendous check – a check which, by abolishing remunerative profits in the largest branches of industry, would pave the way for the assumption of that industry by the State; it being considerably to the advantage of the capitalist to part for a merely nominal sum with implements and material no longer a source of revenue to him, or likely to become so. The remaining departments of industry would follow in due course. Another step that might be taken is the reduction of the existing system of rates and taxes to one progressive income-tax on an ascending scale, i.e., increasing in a definite proportion to the income. But these matters must of course depend very much on special conditions. [2] The aim of Socialism is to reconstitute government in the interests of the people. Whether this would be best served by the temporary concentration of power in the hands of a dictatorship of some kind is again another question which might be variously answered according to circumstances. The foregoing is a slight sketch of the leading industrial conception of Modern Socialism.

It remains to deal in a few words with its political and religious aspects. The political goal of Socialism is the destruction of the current national boundaries, the transitional growths, and in many cases purely diplomatic fabrications of post-medieval times, and the reconstitution of Europe as a Federal Republic, of which the larger cities would constitute the units, and which would unite the greatest possible local autonomy with solidarity as based on the authority of a central power, consisting of a bureau, or Federal Council, sitting probably at Paris. The authority of the Proletariat and of the general intelligence of the larger towns over the reactionary and clerical elements of the rural districts would thus be ensured. The Socialist workmen of the Continent have ever been foremost in opposing war, and the natural result of the political programme of Socialism would be the extinction of appeals to arms; all disputes among communities being settled by the authority of the central power. Just as disputes among individuals are now settled by legal methods instead of, as in earlier stages of society, in a “trial by combat,” so would disputes among communities be settled in the future. As for the frivolous objection sometimes raised respecting the irrestrainable nature of the combative instinct, a feudal baron might have urged the same objection to the possibility of individuals settling their disputes otherwise than by an appeal to the right of battle. As regards the religious question, Socialism is in irreconcilable opposition with all forms of theology. These dogmas, daily losing their hold on belief and conduct, are kept up at least officially to a great extent in the interests of the older political and social order from which they are truly seen to be logically inseparable. Socialists regard these beliefs in no other light than as at once a means of oppression, and a source of confusion. The God-idea they view with abhorrence as usurping the place of the Humanity which should alone form the focus of men’s duties. The doctrine which shall regulate men’s life in the future must rest on no indemonstrable basis, like the old religions. With the God-idea, therefore, Socialism would wage an unceasing war. Whatever prejudice may exist amongst many of the Socialist party against the word religion (owing to its lingering theological associations), Socialism is not opposed to religion, if the word be meant to cover a purely human ideal; it indeed essentially implies such an ideal as its foundation. This ideal, undeveloped though it is and must be for some time to come, animated to a remarkable extent the greatest practical Socialist movement the world has yet seen – the Paris Commune. Mr. Arthur Arnold narrates that, during the last days of the Commune, on asking one of the Parisian workmen what he was risking his life for, in defending a barricade, he received for answer the words – “Monsieur pour la solidarité humaine” – a truly grand response when we remember the circumstances under which it was uttered. Unquestionably the sentiment embodied in the above reply animated the bulk of those who so nobly fought on the side of Paris in that memorable conflict. All supernatural creeds have failed, and are crumbling away piece-meal! Pure humanism is then the only possible religion of the future. With the advent of a universal moral and scientific education the religious question would be definitely solved to all practical intents.

The three bases of modern Socialism may be said to be in Industry the direction of a democratic State to take the place of the direction of private capitalists; in Politics a universal Federal Republic to take the place of the present Nationalist system; in Religion a human ideal to take the place of theological cults. I should say that, in the political sphere, there is some difference of opinion among the Socialist leaders on the question of local autonomy and centralisation, both principles being admitted, but some laying greater stress on the former, and others on the latter.

Socialism, although widely spread on the Continent, has little hold in England either on the Proletariat or the intellectual classes. This is, as I conceive, partly owing to an inherent incapacity in the average Anglo-Saxon mind to grasp any synthetic idea, and partly to what is indeed probably a consequence of this, the prevalence of the individualist doctrines of the current Political Economy. The general tendency of economic matters in a Socialistic direction has been, however, ably pointed out by a recent writer in the Contemporary Review. And the fact that the late John Stuart Mill, a writer who has exercised an influence not easily to be exaggerated on English thought, in his last published writings, gave in his more than partial adhesion to Socialism, is a noteworthy fact. On the Continent and, especially in Germany, on the other hand, most philosophic writers of note are Socialistic. The names of Hartmann, Dühring, Lange, and others will occur to many readers as instances in point. The efforts of society to obtain a stable equilibrium as a whole and in its several aspects, are becoming more and more marked as the close of the present transitional anarchy slowly but surely approaches.

E. Belfort Bax



1. Positivism is another attempt of the same kind.

2. The idea of abolishing the right of bequest which, if realised, would, at least under present conditions, involve monstrous injustice to individuals – is sometimes falsely laid to the charge of Modern Socialism. I say falsely, as it is repudiated by the leading representatives of the movement.


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