E. Belfort Bax

The Modern Revolution II


(October 1883)

E. Belfort Bax, The Modern Revolution II, Progress, October 1883, pp.193-201.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

We come, finally, to the intellectual or religious contradiction of our epoch. The system of Catholic dogma, the religious system of the Middle Ages, formed a coherent whole in itself, and with its industrial and political systems. Furthermore, it was consistent with the entire mental attitude of those ages. But, with the new learning, all this began to change. Authority in matters of belief became generally shaken. A climax was reached in the Lutheran Reformation when the standard of authority was definitively shifted from church to dogma, from pope to bible. This change undermined the Christian theology. The infallibility of the canonical scriptures rested, as did every other dogma, on the authority of councils and church tradition, regarded as traceable in a direct line to the apostles, and through them to the titular founder of the Christian religion. Once the doctrine of apostolical succession and the supreme authority of the Church repudiated, the principle of private judgment in matters doctrinal admitted, and the pillar supporting the entire dogmatic edifice was broken, leaving it only as matter of time for the whole super-structure to fall in. Even the granting of the cardinal dogma of dogmatic Protestantism could not much mend matters, since this leaves it open to any person to dispute every other dogma on biblical authority; seeing that each. individual with sufficient ingenuity could devise a system out of that heterogeneous body of literature called the Bible, differing essentially not only from the orthodox one, but from that of his equally original neighbor. Aus der Bibel lässt sich alles beweisen, as the Germans have it. Truly might an eminent Catholic prelate claim for his creed “a complete consistency from its first principle to its last consequence, and to its least institution”; and well might he accuse the Protestant variations of preserving “forms and doctrines, which must have sprung from a principle by them rejected, but which are useless and mistaken the moment they are disjoined from it.” Such is, nevertheless, the doctrine of the modern bourgeois. He is Christian. Oh yes! He must be Christian to the backbone; but in the logicality of the Catholic system the bourgeois discovers its error. And doubtless he is right from his own point of view. He is himself the outgrowth of a logical contradiction, and hence his whole polity and converse are illogical. The landed aristocrat still adheres to at least some semblance of the old Catholic hierarchy and tradition, such as high Anglicanism offers; but the capitalist, large and small, the middle-class man, is the bulwark of Protestantism proper – to wit, that illogical non-sequitur, dogma minus sacerdotalism. The manufacturer or merchant has his evangelical church, the retail linen-draper or grocer his chapel, the butcher or greengrocer his mission-hall, the converted costermonger his open-air service.

The connexion between the trading classes and dogmatic Protestantism holds historically. The Reformation was coincident with the first great expansion of the town population, both politically and industrially. It was the industrial classes that the revocation of the Edict of Nantes drove from France, to found colonies in England and Germany. The pre-eminently industrial nations – the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Swiss, etc. – adopted Protestantism as their State creed; and even in non-Protestant countries the main strength of the Protestant minority lay in the trading classes. It would not be uninstructive, did space allow, to trace in detail the connexion between Protestant cults and dogmas and the aims and aspirations of the middle classes; and this would not be difficult. But we must pass on to a more important aspect of the intellectual contradiction of our civilisation. Every religion presents two sides, an intellectual and a moral. It involves a theory of the how, the whence, and the whither of existence, and an ideal based upon that theory. The theory dominating the mediaeval civilisation was, as we have said, Christian theology in its only consistent forma. But the Christian theology is merely the development of a fundamental idea common to the other ethical religions (so-called) of the world, which in other shapes is traceable to paganism, and thence to still more primitive stages of human culture – I mean the hypothesis of the existence of an intelligent being or beings outside the natural order, by whom that order is regulated. This conception is the groundwork of every religion, properly speaking, that has hitherto existed. The conception of law, of an essentially unchangeable order has, however, from the first rise of physical science at the close of the Middle Ages, been steadily growing, and as steadily supplanting the old notion of volition as a causal agent in the several departments of science, till now no region is left other than completely occupied by it. The intellectual attitude of all educated men in the present day, among all peoples, kindreds, and tongues, is hence separated by a yawning chasm from the intellectual attitude of those of all previous ages by this fact alone, just as the material conditions of life in the nineteenth century throughout the civilised world are separated by a similar abyss from those of all previous ages by the invention of machinery as applied to industry, of the railway, the telegraph, etc. The significance of this change of mental attitude can hardly be exaggerated. All previous changes have left the cardinal principle of supernaturalism practically untouched. It is now, for the first time, that the principle of the invariability of law is universally established. Yet strange to say – and here lies the main intellectual contradiction of our age – while all our science, all our commerce and industry, all the actions of our daily life, are based on this great truth, it still remains, so to speak, officially unrecognised by mankind. Old creeds based upon an entirely alien conception of the universe still remain, outwardly at least, intact. Men are categorised as Christians, Mussulmans, or as Catholics and Protestants, irrespective of their real beliefs – churches and religious movements abound, and priesthoods exist. Now and again simple-minded persons try to carry out the principles of supernaturalism to their natural conclusion: they trust in the providence of god, and dispense with medical attendance for their dying children, and, mirabile dictu! a Christian country arraigns them for manslaughter, and then, perhaps, this latent contradiction involved in our civilisation comes to light for the nonce. The logical terminus ad quem of the situation, it is obvious, is the definitive abandonment and abolition by society in its collective capacity of supernaturalism, and the definitive recognition of human reason as expressed in the methods of science, as the sole means of arriving at truth. If on their intellectual side, as theories of the universe, the older religions are a non possumus for us, they are this none the less on their moral side. The one fact most prominent in the evolution of religion is that every step in advance has consisted in an eclipse of the theological by the moral. The local and tribal religions of ancient times were encountered by the newly awakened ethical conscience of humanity; the opposition being finally resolved in the ethical or universal religions, as they are termed, of which Christianity is the most important historically. But Christianity itself contains the same opposition in a more developed form. It is useless blinking the fact that the Christian doctrine is more revolting to the higher moral sense of to-day than the Saturnalia or the cult of Proserpine could have been to the conscience of the early Christian. And more than this, the social and humanistic tendencies of the age, the consciousness of human welfare and human development as “our being’s end and aim,” as the sole object worthy of human devotion, must instinctively shrink from its antithesis, the theological spirit – and this despite the emasculated free Christian and theistic guise in which the latter may appear at the present time. “Ye cannot serve god and humanity,” is the harden of the nobler instincts of our epoch. But here, again, we see the intrinsic unity of the several aspects of human life. What is it which prevents the realisation – ay, and even in most cases the conception – of nobler aims, of a higher intellectual, artistic, and moral existence for men? It is a true saying that though false ideas may be refuted by argument, yet only by true ideas can they be expelled. The true ideal which alone can effectually exorcise the spectre of the Christian theology from our midst is unfortunately confined to a few. And why is it so, but because modern civilisation is composed of two classes, the worshippers of capital and the victims of capital? When “success in life is the highest ideal of which the majority of men are capable, when the condition of a higher culture is the freedom which the possession of capital alone can afford, we need indeed scarcely be surprised that it is so. The higher human ideal stands in opposition at once to capitalism, the gospel of success, with its refined art of cheating through the process of exchange, or, in short, to worldliness; and to Christianism, the gospel of success in a hypothetical other life, or, in short, to other-worldliness. But glance around at our various bodies and organisations, charitable or otherwise, of a Christian character will show that at least two-thirds of modern Christianity is simply “capitalism” masquerading in a religious guise. Even where this is not the case, Christianity is none the less an integral part of the status quo. The privileged classes instinctively feel this. So long as human aspiration can be kept along the old lines, so long as the further gaze of men can be kept directed heavenward to the cloud-shapes of god, Christ, and immortality, and averted from the earthly horizon of social regeneration, all will go well. John Bull’s auxiliary, the minister of the gospel, or possibly the wife or daughter of John Bull, must be able to say to him or her who is not blessed with J.B.’s share of the good things of this life, “What does it matter, dear brother or sister? Why repine? ’Tis but for a season god has placed us in different stations in this life in the life to come, where we shall hope to meet by-and-bye, all will be well.” The idea of the dear brother or sister meeting this consolation in affliction with the rebuff of Faust:

“Das Drüben mag mich wenig kümmern
Schlägst du erst diese Welt zu Trümmern
Die andre mag darnach entstehen”

or something to the same effect, is naturally repugnant to the bourgeois mind. No, verily, this bringing down of religion from heaven to earth belongs not to the present civilisation of expropriation and privilege!

We have now touched upon the two aspects – the intellectual and moral – of our last main contradiction, the religious contradiction. We have pointed to the universal prevalence of a scientific conception of the universe, with the universal recognition of a theological one. We have further pointed to a humanist ideal of life, growing up cheek by jowl with the commercial ideal of worldly success, varied occasionally by the Christian ideal of other-worldly success, the whole cemented by the feeling that it is necessary for the “lower orders” to believe “in a sort of a something” which will afford them consolation, and at the same time tend to the stability of society by preventing discontent. As a matter of course, from the three main contradictions – the industrial, the political, and the religious – flows a stream of discord through every sphere of life. A volume might easily be written on the artistic contradiction of the present age, but this is a direct result of the economic and the religious contradictions. Art is degraded to furniture, quantity takes the place of quality in artistic production, comic operas of classical music, simply because art is dominated by capital, and artists impregnated with the gospel of commerce. The true artist is oppressed with the lack of the ideal he sees around him, with the contradiction between theory and practice, between what is recognised and what is really believed.

It has been our object throughout the present articles to show the mutual implication of the different aspects of the Modern Revolution. Our moral is the futility of attempts to fundamentally change one aspect of the current order of things while conserving another. In vain does one party (of generous and well-meaning men, no doubt) think to batter down current theology, while ignoring, or even justifying, the great social contradiction of the age. In vain do they hurl their thunder-bolts at the gaunt spectre of Christian dogma, which only stands “as the air invulnerable,” confronting them with its soulless eyes. What, for instance, though they may show the doctrine of vicarious atonement to have its root in a bestial superstition pertaining to the worst side of paganism, a superstition which has borne cruelties innumerable in the world’s history as its fruit, a superstition as senseless as it is wicked – the foul doctrine, with the rest of the system of which it forms a typical part, will continue to be fulminated every week from a thousand pulpits while these pulpits are subsidised by capital, and they will continue to be subsidised so long as the status quo, of which capitalism and Christianity are two of the chief elements, subsists. We commend to the attention of secularists the assertion of Mr. Justice North in his summing-up to the jury in the trial of Mr. Foote, to the effect that in the attacking of Christianity the law itself is attacked. Of course! For the law is simply the exponent of the status quo, the nature of which we have been examining, and of which Christianity is the coping-stone.

The futility of attempts to change religion on the lines of the current social and political order, is seen in the fact that, despite the prevalent disbelief pervading the middle and upper classes, all attempts at instituting rationalist churches are conspicuous failures. To the one secularist hall, or even Unitarian chapel – to place strong meat and milk in juxtaposition – you have your thousand places of Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Wesleyan worship. The soil is productive of the one and barren of the other. To the thousands subscribed to a new chapel, you have your pence to a new hall of science. Whence the cause of this phenomenon? Has it never struck the ardent secularist that the old metaphor about pouring the new wine into old bottles has its application? The misfortune is that the conclusion fails. The new wine does not burst the bottle, which possesses the power of contracting its neck so that none goes in, and thus its outer surface only gets affected. Doubtless, could the wine of a humanistic ideal penetrate into the depths of the bourgeois mind, it would “burst” the status quo. But the capitalistic system itself, and the spirit it generates, effectually prevent this. Unconscious humbug is an important ingredient of the Zeit Geist. The bourgeois’ respectability and pietism alike, spring from roots hidden perhaps to himself, but none the less real, to wit, his own pocket, potential and actual, or the pocket of his class generally. He is acute enough to connect Atheism and Communism.

Again, how vain are the efforts of the international Peace Association at effecting the abolition of war in a political system based on the rivalry of nationalities, and consisting mainly of half a dozen powerful States, each with armaments outvying the other, which supply positions for the younger sons of the landed classes, and of which the trading classes are glad enough to avail themselves when they want new markets or fresh commercial channels opened up, little as they may like their cost at other times. The arbitrationists may succeed in getting up a brilliant meeting now and then, in which war is declared to be unchristian; and Lord Shaftesbury, Mr. Samuel Morley, and other worthies of the same ilk, will expatiate on the need of spreading the gospel in the form of the evangelical tract so dear to the British middle-class heart. But such attempts will continue to be regarded by society at large, and justly, as the visionary schemes of a few “philanthropic” talkers.

Lastly, one word on that singular hybrid, the “Christian Socialist.” Though the word Socialism has not been mentioned, it will have been sufficiently evident that the goal indicated in the present articles is none other than that known as Collectivist Socialism. But the association of Christianism with any form of Socialism is a mystery, rivalling the mysterious combination of ethical and other contradictions in the Christian divinity himself. Notwithstanding that the soi-disant Christian Socialist confessedly finds the natural enemies of his Socialism among Christians of all orthodox denominations, still he persists in. retaining the designation, while refusing to employ it in its ordinary signification.

It is difficult to divine the motive for thus preserving a name which, confessedly, in its ordinary meaning, is not only alien but hostile to the doctrine of Socialism. Those who have once emancipated themselves from supernaturalism can hardly in their hearts, one would think, believe in the moral and intellectual pre-eminence ascribed by traditional superstition to a Syrian of the first century, who though doubtless an excellent and well-meaning young man, was, after all, only one among many in an age of teachers, and whose martyrdom there is every reason to believe was solely due to the results of an excusable, it may be, but scarcely laudable, personal ambition. “Soit mon nom flétri, soit la France libre,” is surely a nobler sentiment than the self-satisfied comment on the cheering of street urchins implied in the “if these should hold their peace the stones would immediately cry out.” Does the “Free Christian” want a personal object of reverence? We can offer him many such, even now. Let him look eastward at those who have indeed places in which to lay their heads, ay, and in some cases mansions and estates, but who renounce them and court the slow death of imprisonment in fortresses and Siberian mines, who flinch not at the sword, and whose utmost good fortune is the liberty of preaching their gospel in the dark places of civilisation, and oftentimes amid a poverty unrelieved by even a Zaccheus. Let them call to mind the massacres of ’71, and the Paris workman who, on being asked for what he was lighting and dying, replied, “Pour la solidarité humaine.” Or again, let them think of the aged Delescluze closing a life of untiring devotion at the barricades, in harness to the last. Must we for ever insult the living and lately dead, by falling back for our ideal upon the first century? Do nobleness and devotion, indeed, require to be mellowed by the “dim religious light” of ages before we can recognise them as such? This, however, by the way. Our contention is the following. If by Christianity be meant the body of dogma usually connoted by the word, it will probably be conceded by those to whom we refer that it is in hostility to progress. If, on the other hand, this be not meant, but merely the ethical principles Christianity is supposed to embody, then those who adopt the cognomen may be challenged once more to show the exclusive right of the Christian religion to claim them as its own. If, again, they fail in this, as fail they must, the whole matter is resolved into one of sentiment. And for the sake of retaining a catchword, for such it is, and no more, under these circumstances, they would compromise principles, and throw a sop to respectability in its most hypocritical form. But, possibly, this is their intention; if so, they outvie, in their opportunism, him who cried “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee,” etc., for his was but a lapse on an occasion of imminent danger, and not an habitual practice. To say nothing of the thousands in Europe to whom the name Christian is positively abhorrent, how shall they face the Eastern world when the time comes for so doing? Only those who can tell the Moslem, the Buddhist, the Confucian, we care not for Jesus of Nazareth any more than for Mohammed, for Gautama, or for Kon-fu-tze; disputes as to the relative merits or demerits of those teachers are vain as they are endless; only those who can say we know of greater men than these – greater, inasmuch as humanity has reached a higher level; greater, inasmuch as they have not posed as great teachers, but have contented themselves with the rank of humble and equal workers – who come in the form of neither god nor prophet, but of the humanity whose religion is human welfare – not the welfare of a race or a class, but of the whole; whose doctrine is its attainment, through human solidarity, or, in other words – Socialism; only those, we repeat, will ever obtain the ear of the Orient, and never they who come in the hated and blood-stained name of Christianity – name indicative of racial and religious rivalry. What in earlier phases of human evolution has been accomplished as in pre-human evolution by the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence; in other words, what has been hitherto accomplished physically, or unconsciously, must, in the future, be done psychically, or consciously – the struggle for existence must give place to co-operation for existence. The ethical religions indicated the dawn of this new epoch in evolution – the establishment of a socialistic order will be its sunrise.

E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 4.7.2006