E. Belfort Bax

Unscientific Socialism

(January 1884)

E. Belfort Bax, Unscientific Socialism, To-day, January-June 1884, pp.192-204.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, pp.92-105. The footnote comes from this edition.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

In the exposition of a subject such as Socialism, as in the rebuilding of an edifice, there is a preliminary stage of destructive activity. Old material, in the one case, has to be carted away, and the ground to be generally dug up and cleared. In the other, we have similarly to clear out intellectual ground of theories likely to interfere with our contemplated structure. Now, no material is so much in danger of cumbering us as that which superficially resembles our own, but is in reality old and rotten. In the following remarks I propose to examine briefly four codes of ideas (for theories or systems they cannot all of them be called) which are nominally socialistic, and profess certain principles in. common with socialism proper, but are, nevertheless, essentially distinct from it. These four codes of ideas are: I. Christian Socialism, so called; II. An indefinite kind of awakening to social imperfections among the youth of the middle classes to which I give the name Sentimental Socialism; III. The various social schemes propounded, and in part sought to be carried out in various parts of North America, dating from the earlier half of the nineteenth century, to which the general name of Utopian Socialism is commonly applied; and IV. Anarchism.

The Christian Socialism with which we are here concerned is not the imperial-Bismarckic device known by that name in Germany which to English readers, at least, is too transparent to need criticism, but a more insidious, because more honest, attempt to pour new wine into old bottles. A body of High churchmen, calling themselves the Guild of St. Matthew, held a series of meetings towards the close of last year, for the discussion of this Christian Socialism. It was difficult to obtain any very clear notion of what Christian Socialism meant from the ideas set forth by its professed exponents, even apart from the want of unanimity displayed.. But to judge from most of the opening addresses, as well as from an explanatory letter published subsequently by the. Rev. Canon Shuttleworth, what was understood as the practical basis of Christian Socialism, is trade co-operation or industrial partnership, such as has from time to time been carried out, and of which the Decorators’ Co-operative Association is an example. This is significantly confirmed by the fact that the worthy canon, when asked at the close of his address in proof of an assertion he had made to furnish the names of any Socialistic leaders who could, in any sense, be described as Christian, against the long array of anti-Christian names, from Marat and Baboeuf to Lassalle and Marx, which were cited against him, could only bring forward those of the astute capitalist-co-operators Leclaire and Godin, as historical evidence of the independent existence of the Christian Socialist. It was undoubtedly some scheme of co-operation, we may observe, that the “old”, “original” Christian Socialists in this country, Kingsley and Maurice, had in view.

Now, a very little reflection suffices to show us that all such schemes are not only within the lines of the current bourgeois system of ideas, habits, and aspirations, but that they reflect that system in some of its worst aspects. As to the shrewd philanthropist Leclaire, the co-operator’s “great man,” verily he was not without his capitalistic reward, leaving, as he did, a fortune of £48,000 behind him. But personal questions apart, on entering one of these co-operative establishments what is the first thing that greets the eye? A list of “regulations,” if anything more stringent than those of an ordinary workshop, indicating longer hours and harder work. The principle underlying these institutions would seem to be that the supreme end of life is the maximisation of labour, and the minimisation of the enjoyment of its product. “Labour,” or “industry,” (as it might probably be termed) seems to be regarded by co-operators as one of those good things of which it is impossible to have too much. As a consequence they are jealous of all time spent otherwise than in labour, i.e. manufacture of commodities, and are averse to the consumption or enjoyment of the product of such labour as at once a loss of time and a waste of material which would otherwise be saved. Now all this may be very nice, but so far from being Socialism, it is the very antithesis of Socialism. Trade co-operation is simply a form of industrial partnership, in which the society of co-operators is in the relation of capitalist to the outer world. The units of the society may be equal amongst themselves (always excepting the broken-down capitalist who is the presiding genius, the Leclaire or Godin), but their very existence in this form pre-supposes exploitation going on above, below and around them, in other words the prevailing industrial anarchy.

As I have said, co-operative experiments reflect what are, from a Socialistic point of view, the worst aspects of the current order. The trade co-operator canonises the bourgeois virtues, but Socialist vices, “over-work,” and “thrift.” To the Socialist, labour is an evil to be minimised to the utmost. The man who works at his trade or avocation more than necessity compels him, or who accumulates more than he can enjoy, is not a hero but a fool from the Socialist’s standpoint. It is this necessary work which it is the aim of Socialism to reduce to the minimum. Again, “thrift,” the hoarding up of the products of labour, it is obvious must be without rhyme or reason, except on a capitalist basis. For the only two purposes which commodities serve are consumption and exchange. Now except under peculiar circumstances (arctic expeditions and the like), it is certain they would not be “saved” to any considerable extent merely for the sake of future consumption. Hence the object of “thrift,” or hoarding, must lie in exchange. And, in short, it is the increment obtainable by commodities or realised labour-power when represented by exchange-value or money, that furnishes the only raison d’etre of “thrift.” The aim of the Socialist, therefore, which is the enjoyment of the products of labour as opposed to that of the bourgeois which is their mere accumulation with a view to “surplus-value” is radically at variance with “thrift.”

Having shown that in so far as it has any defined economic basis at all, “Christian Socialism” is anti-socialistic, it might seem hardly necessary to criticise it further, but as a matter of fact the whole scheme is so vague and intangible, that it is quite possible some persons may really believe in the accomplishment of vast changes (whether the modus operandi be the expropriation of competition rents, or what not) of a really socialistic nature through the instrumentality of a clarified Christianity, a Christianity which shall consist apparently of the skins of dead dogmas stuffed with an adulterated Socialist ethics, and of formulas which though to the simple mind they seem plain enough, the brotherhood of the Guild of St. Matthew will show us mean something quite different from what they seem.

In justice it must be said, that the Ritualistic priests we are here criticising, exhibit a generosity and a charity which they may call Christian, but which seem to us very much better than anything in the way of those commodities we have seen produced by Christianity outside the Guild of St. Matthew. There is, however, one thing that appears to ruffle the usually equable temper even of these gentlemen, and that is, to be confronted with any definite dogma, text, or formula. Not that we have ever found them at a loss to explain away the irrational and immoral in such into something perfectly harmless, rational, moral, and worthy of all acceptation, when called upon to do so, but they, nevertheless, appear to think such things as recognised Christian doctrines quite irrelevant even when the possibility of such a combination as Christian Socialism is in question. Our Neo-Christian friends may, without any special inconsistency, refuse to be saddled with “Semitic myths,” or may even contend, as did Canon Shuttleworth, that the Christianity they profess is independent of the Canonical Hebrew Scriptures considered as a whole. But surely they at least must be prepared to stand by the accepted character and teaching of their titular founder. It is surely fair to confront them with this. Now it is upon the ground of the traditional character and teaching that we are prepared to join issue with them when they assert its Socialistic nature. We can readily understand the charm it exercises on certain minds. We know that inherited tendencies, upbringing, and the like, all conduce in sensitive natures to clothe with the rich and glowing hues of their own beauty and emotion, a shadowy figure, in which those who have divested themselves of those tendencies, and view things with the colder eye of impartiality, see at best a weak but impulsive personality. But it is only natural that these latter should resent with some indignation the continual reference of ideal perfection to a semi-mythical Syrian of the first century, when they see higher types even in some now walking this upper earth, but in vulgar flesh and blood, and without the atmosphere of nineteen centuries to lend enchantment to them. How many such are there not and have there not been in the modern Socialist movement who do their work, give up their all, without posing as Messiahs, but choosing rather the nobler part of sinking their individuality in their cause?

As to the ethical teaching of Christ with its one-sided, introspective and individualistic character, we venture to assert that no one acquainted with the theory of modern scientific Socialism can for one moment call it Socialistic. Socialism aims rather at a rehabilitation (in a higher form) of the classical utilitarian morality of public life. It has no sympathy with the hysterical eternally-revolving-in-upon-itself transcendent morality of the gospel discourses. This morality, like that of the whole Oriental movement of which it is a development, is essentially subjective, its criterion lying in the individual conscience, and its relation to a divinity supposed to reveal himself in it. It sets up a forced, to the vast majority, impossible standard of “personal holiness,” which, when realised, has seldom resulted in anything but (1) an apotheosised priggism (e.g. the puritan type), or (2) in an epileptic hysteria (e.g. the catholic saint type), and which at the best is a tour-de-force involving an amount of concentrated moral energy that may excite our wonder perhaps, just as may the concentrated physical energy of the tight-rope dancer, but which we feel to be just as useless. But if it is useless in those exceptional cases where attained, it is worse than useless, in its effects on the generality of men. With Christian asceticism as the ethical standard which all good men are supposed to attain, but which as a matter of fact no good man really thinks of attaining, men are driven to the compromise of pretending to attain it. It is thus that hypocrisy arises. In the classical world hypocrisy was all but unknown. Aristotle, in his elaborate analysis of virtues and vices in the Ethics, hardly alludes to it. It was born of the Oriental-introspective ethics of Christianism, and with their establishment in Europe it took its place as an integral factor of social life. This has been more than ever the case since the triumph of its most purely individualist form in Protestantism. The success of Christianity as a moral force has been solely upon isolated individuals. In its effect on societies at large, it has signally and necessarily failed. Though Socialism has no sympathy with anti-Semitism as generally understood, it certainly represents the assertion of the Aryan ethics (whether classical or Norse) of social utility as against the Semitic ethics of personal holiness – (I say the Semitic ethics since the so-called Christian ethic was no more the discovery of Jesus than of Hillel, of Philo, or of any other individual, but like all great movements and discoveries, was the result of the concentrated thought of generations).

The brotherhood of the Guild of St. Matthew merely represents a phase common to ages of transition in which the reactionary ideal and morality endeavours to steal a march on the progressive ideal and morality. The modern broad-High church, or eclectic movement in Christendom offers an exact analogy to the eclectic movement in Paganism of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. In either a modus vivendi is sought to be effected between the immorality and absurdity of the popular theology, Pagan or Christian, and the growing aspirations of the earnest and thoughtful. And the manner in which this is done is no less analogous. The whole external structure of dogma, legend, and ceremonial is retained, not a tittle of it is repudiated while it is carefully emptied of all its original and obvious meaning, and by a dexterous ingenuity forced to represent something which neither “Christian, Pagan, nor man” ever dreamt of its representing before.

Any attempt at mutilating or defacing the exterior of a creed or cultus is always unsuccessful. The purification of Paganism sought to be effected by the Epicureans and earlier Platonists through the rejection of the legends of the poets and popular traditions respecting the gods, and the shearing down of ceremonial, touched only a section of the cultured. The only even temporarily successful clarified Paganism was that represented by Plotinus, Porphyry, Julian, and Proclus, which held every legend and ceremonial sacred, while reading into them the Oriental ethics then becoming popular. Similarly, the barren ceremonial and unsymmetrical theology of Unitarianism has never had any success save among a limited section of the middle-classes. Taking these facts into consideration, to wit, that symmetry of creed and taste in ritual count for much in human nature and in the popularity of a cultus, the move made by the Guild of St. Matthew and similar associations is strategically not a bad one, from the standpoint of clericalism. But its achievement of even the temporary success of the Neo-Platonists (which was owing in great measure to causes not now in operation) is more than doubtful. The working-classes see plainly enough that Christianity in all its forms belongs to a civilisation of the past and of the present, but not that civilisation of the future which signifies their emancipation.

The sentimental Socialist, though not necessarily Christian, retains essentially the introspective attitude of the Christian ethics. He forms societies, the members of which are supposed to pledge themselves to indefinitely high aims, aims that tower above the clouds from which it requires the practised eye to distinguish them. These aims “won from the void and formless infinite” seem to be only won for the sake of being handed over to the equally formless indefinite. The only shape approaching articulation into which they wreath themselves, is that of resolutions and letters. The young people of the well-to-do middle-class, for whom sentimental Socialism possesses attractions, think human nature susceptible of higher aims than the current ones, and meet in drawing rooms for the apparent purpose of passing resolutions to that effect. The sentimental Socialist desires above all things to be broad and comprehensive. Now any proposition conveying a distinct meaning is necessarily limited by that meaning, and must be taken to exclude its opposite, and a fortiori the society adopting it to exclude those who hold its opposite. But how can a society whose aims are so high, condescend to such small matters of detail as meaning? How can a man as catholic as the “Brother of the Higher Life,” or the member of the “Communion of Noble Aspirations,” or the New Atlantis Society be so narrow as to exclude any one. Hence in the resolutions adopted by such associations, the first requisite is the absence of meaning. All is possible in the man (or woman) who aims high enough., Danton’s motto “to dare, to dare, and again to dare,” becomes in the hands of the sentimental Socialist, “to aim, to aim, and again to aim” at an ineffable O – Voilà tout. All this “casting of empty buckets into empty wells and drawing nothing up” may be entertaining, beautiful, ennobling for a short spell, but palls after a time, which is probably the explanation of the fact that these societies that start so rosy bright invariably die of inanition within measurable distance of their inauguration, though only to make way for new ones. The young men and women of our blasé middle-class civilisation require a stimulus; this stimulus may be aesthetic, philanthropic, or social. It may consist in languishing vapouring on art, on improved dwellings, on social reconstruction. Just now it wears the latter aspect. The whole movement is born of the morbid self-consciousness of our Christian and Bourgeois civilisation run to seed.

The Utopian Socialist schemes of the first half of the present century, which are conveniently brought forward by the votaries of the current bourgeois economy as a dummy to be battered down, under the pretence of demolishing Socialism proper, stand condemned ab initio, owing to their lack of a scientific basis. These attempts bear the same relation to modern scientific Socialism that astrology or alchemy do to astronomy and chemistry. The attempt of Goethe’s Wagner to construct a homunculus artificially was scarcely more preposterous than those of Owen, Fourier, or St. Simon to construct a society artificially. It is as rational to introduce Owen, Fourier, &c., with their “New Harmonies” and phalansteries, into discussions on scientific Socialism as it would be to introduce Paracelsus or Van Helmont, with their lilies and roses, into discussions on chemistry. Utopian Socialism was only the pre-scientific and infantile stage of that matured Science of society which modern Socialism represents on its practical side. Yet there are people who still believe in (more or less) select little bands going into the backwoods and founding colonies, undeterred by the numberless wrecks of shattered hopes they see around them. No experiment of this kind, as might be expected, has had (even avowedly) any other than a Christian or sentimental basis. Most of the so-called communistic societies of the United States are really nothing more than religious sects, which have found it convenient to come out of the world. They have really no more right to the special appellation “Socialist” than a body of monks.

Of course, in a sense, any monastic society may be termed communistic, inasmuch as its members practise, like the early Christians, or the Essenes, a certain primitive communism or community of goods. And in this sense of course the erratic protestant sects of the United States – the Shakers, the Perfectionists, the Separatists, &c. – who have formed themselves into similar independent communities on a somewhat larger scale, may be termed communistic or socialistic. Otherwise the term Socialist has no meaning as applied to them, least of all in the modern scientific sense of the word in which Socialism is regarded as the result of a transformation of the existent conditions of society throughout the civilised world, and to which therefore any “coming out of the world,” in the sense of establishing an independent “community of saints” is an anachronism. Socialism proper, presupposes the developed industrial system, the machinery, the population &c., of the most advanced countries of modern times as its essential antecedent condition, and whether right or wrong, true or false, takes its stand on the continuity of historic evolution. It is no Utopian scheme or theory of what a model society might be, but claims to be a deduction of what the outcome of our present capitalistic civilisation itself must be sooner or later, unless social evolution is to be arrested by dissolution. (Political economists who interpolate chapters on “Communism” or “Socialism” into their treatises, please take note).

The last point referred to, brings us to the question Anarchism. Now the Anarchist frankly accepts the alternation of dissolution. He desires no reorganisation. He is a logical, thorough-going individualist – none of your sham bourgeois individualists, whose conception of individual liberty is the liberty of themselves and their class to “exploit” those below them without restriction, under the guise of freedom of contract – but an individualist whose conceptions of individual liberty is absolute for each and all, and knows no distinction. The Anarchist would resolutely destroy all organisation whatever, however salutary. He would resolve society into its component units – in other words, as we said, his goal is social dissolution. Every bond of social union would be severed, each individual “free to make ‘little hell’ for himself,” as Mr. Hyndman has it. Our first criticism on this is that disintegration such as the Anarchist aims at, even if brought about, could hardly endure for a day. The social organism, in its present stage is analogous to those low biological organisms which, subdivided as you will, re-combine and reorganise by their very nature and that of the medium in which they exist. The result of any violent disintegration, if successful, that is, if the whole of the bourgeois civilisation of to-day were entirely destroyed – rather than transformed or changed into a new and higher civilisation, which is what the Collectivist aims at – would simply recombine on lines belonging to a lower stage of the old economic development, the old society would reform, but at the point arrived at fifty years ago or more, and the whole intervening period, or something similar would have to be gone over again. This is the utmost that would be achieved. The social organism is as yet in too low a stage to be more than temporarily deranged in its development by any violence that could be done it. A violent dissolution – were this possible, a point we do not argue – would be speedily followed by reintegration on the old lines.

We have, of course, merely referred to the possibility of the permanence of Anarchism, and have said nothing as to the desirability of the destruction of those elements of the current civilisation, bought by the bitter toil and experience of centuries of human effort, which, though under the present organisation of society, they merely serve for the enslavement of the greater portion of mankind, under a higher organisation might be the means of their emancipation from the bondage of toil, and of affording the possibility of comfort, art, and culture for each and all. The struggle between man and nature – including that which is natural, i.e., merely animal and brutal in man – can with certainty only be maintained to the advantage of the former by organisation, and we think that Anarchism stands self-condemned as to desirability when once these facts are clearly seen. [1] At the same time, it is only fair to remember that the Anarchist does not see this, to most thinkers, obvious truth. His goal and that of the collectivist is the same substantially. But the collectivist would take the sure historic highway of organisation to that Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity which the Anarchist would seek in vain to reach by the abrupt but suicidal plunge of dissolution. It must not be supposed from what is here said that we favour the bourgeois prejudice is to the ineffectiveness of violent revolutions as such. On the contrary, we recognise the teaching of history that no great change has ever taken place without a convulsion or series of convulsions, and we do not believe that the transformation of material conditions which lies before us will be accomplished without some such struggle. But while a collectivist revolution would be constructive at the same time that it would be de-structive, an anarchist revolution would be merely de-structive.

Of the unscientific Socialist standpoints we have passed in review, the most important, numerically and influentially, (more especially, it has the credit on the continent of being the most advanced revolutionary party), is the Anarchist. The least so, inasmuch as it is confined to this country, and to a small body of priests and a limited section of the English middle-class, is that of the Christian and sentimental Socialists respectively. Our reason for devoting so much space to these latter was the desirability in the only English Socialist Review of exposing any “red-herring “ which might retard, however slightly or temporarily, the genuine Socialist movement now beginning in England. Utopian Socialism used as a convenient “aunt-Sally” by Political Economists, who know all the time it is not genuine Socialism they are expounding or attacking, is certainly an irritating, but scarcely a dangerous phenomenon from a practical point of view; while Anarchism does not as yet at least count a “party,” however small, in this country. There is probably more danger in Great Britain in a Conservative “red-herring” than in a (so-called) “advanced” one such as Anarchism. With Mr. Henry George we have not dealt, inasmuch as land nationalisation is the child of true Socialism, though it has been by Mr. George “untimely ripped from its mother’s womb.” Land communisation can only come effectually as the natural issue of a general Socialist revolution. When torn from this connection it can but be abortive.

E. Belfort Bax



1. It should be stated that the above criticism applies only in a modified degree, to the (so-called) Communist-Anarchist section of the party.


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