E. Belfort Bax

Bourgeois Economy and School Boards

(January 1884)

E. Belfort Bax, Bourgeois Economy and School Boards, Progress, January 1884, pp.60-62.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The London School Board evidently intends that, so far as in it lies, the rising generation shall be brought up, if not in the knowledge, at least in the fear of the lord under every guise in which he may present himself, whether it be as the heavenly monopolist of Freethought or as the earthly monopolist of free land and free labor. The votaries of our present social state appear to think that the “sound and unsectarian religious teaching” which they count among the glories of their educational system, needs the supplement of a little “sound and unsectarian economical teaching.” Hence, we suppose, the resolution passed at a meeting of the London School Board to introduce the little work before us as a text-book into the schools under its sway.

We are told in the preface to the present little volume that “an outline study of social science will preserve the mind from the credulous and mischievous belief that poverty has a single root which may be suddenly torn up as a violent cataclysmic change.” This doctrine it is apparently the mission of Mrs. Miller to combat by the endeavor to represent poverty as having no root at all. There is, however, some excellent advice given to young persons, and some sage remarks, occurring at p.23, on thrift, which we commend to the attention of certain large classes of the proletariat, e.g. the women who have to support themselves and family by the finishing of shirts at threepence a dozen.

The burden of Mrs. Miller’s book is the beauty of our social arrangements; her moral, the inculcation of the prudential maxim of saving wealth in order to spend it wisely (p.51); which being interpreted means, in such a manner as to bring forth more wealth from the labor of others than is actually paid for, or in other words, to capitalise it.

Of course, according to Mrs. Miller, as to the rest of her school, non-success, poverty, and misery are always the fault of the individual, never of the system into which he is born. Bat let us hear Mrs. Miller instructing youth how the economic “trick” is done (pp.46 et seq.), and showing the young mind the beautiful adaptation of means to ends in a regime of private capital and landlordism:

“Now, in what way will young persons entering on life be able to accomplish this object” [viz., produce wealth to supply their own wants]? “They will see at once that by themselves they can do nothing. If they would be content to live on the plainest food, such as bread and potatoes, they would be unable to obtain it themselves. They could not find land upon which to grow their food, for all the land is (for reasons which we shall see presently [1]) somebody’s property. Nor if they had the land,” our authoress continues, “could they get the wealth necessary for cultivating it, etc. etc.”

The result is that an employer of labor has to be found who, we are told, is willing to part with a portion of his wealth in return for services, because labor is necessary to enable him “both to enjoy and to increase the wealth” he possesses. Quite so. But the mainspring of the modern relations of employer and employed is not, it should have been added, the first object mentioned, namely the enjoyment, or the utility, of the produce of the purchased labor, but the second, namely its exchange for the purpose of increasing the original wealth, in other words, of obtaining further products of labor, or a further leverage for the command of labor power, through the labor of the young persons in question, or others (young and old) in their position. On p.54 we read:

“It is a fortunate thing that wise efforts to improve one’s condition and increase one’s own wealth do also benefit the community.”

We fancy the shade of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss must have been hovering over the learned authoress as she penned this deliciously naive passage. The statement on p.66 as to the effect of increased numbers combined with a non-machine production on the condition of the community, religiously slurs over the fact of the, so to speak, dynamic polarisation of wealth and poverty, which is the characteristic of the grande industrie. Since “all that is, is best in the best possible of worlds,” that world, to wit, which can give birth to the average member of the London School Board, we are not surprised to hear (p.72) “that it is good for society that wages should be distributed according to the producing power of the laborer, and not according to his wants.” The Mephistophelian cynicism of this remark, we suppose it is anticipated, will not strike the classes it is intended to reach.

Lesson V., which treats of communism, shows the usual incapacity for dealing with economic thought outside the current lines. What is worse, we notice here, as in the article Communism in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, by Mrs. Miller’s sister in the bourgeois economic faith, Mrs. Fawcett, what looks very much like a deliberate intention to ignore the scientific communism of the present day, of which the orthodox are really afraid – the communism of a Marx, an Engels, a Rodbertus, or a Rudolph Meyer, and to trail across the path distorted representations of the Utopian schemes of the earlier half of the century, which they rightly think do not specially threaten their position. It is the great German economists of the last thirty years, foremost among whom stands the giant thinker who passed away last March, to the irreparable loss of science, who have within them something dangerous to the current economy, and right well the current economists know it. To criticise a work like the present in further detail would be labor thrown away, since it is avowedly a mere rechauffé (couched in goody-goody language) of the time-honored fallacies which unhappily still pass under the style and title of science. Oh Science! Science! quelles chases ne sont pas écrites dans ton nom! Only grant the fundamental assumption of the economists, that those terms according to which wealth is found distributed in the existing society are essential factors in the production of wealth, that without their co-operation wealth could not be, and the rest follows with admirable lucidity, given a little care and knowledge of formal logic. With this petitio principii in his hand, the “emptiest talker may coolly confront the profoundest thinker,” to borrow an expression of Kant’s. Unfortunately, the German Collectivist has an awkward habit of insisting upon going into the genesis, both logical and historical, of the modern landlord and the modern capitalist as economic phenomena. His communism is no mere scheme of a possible reconstruction of society, but a demonstration of the lines along which economic evolution is actually travelling, as well as of the causes which have gone to form the present economised basis. Certainly the adoption by the London School Board of a manual such as this purports to be, should put the Democratic Federation and similar bodies on their mettle, so far as the dissemination of literature giving the true view of these all-important social problems is concerned.

E. Belfort Bax



1. We may here observe that we have looked in vain for the promised reasons, whatever they may be, for the existence of private property in land, though a similar promise is made on p.108.


Last updated on 19.7.2005