E. Belfort Bax, International Socialism, Progress, July 1884, pp.17-21.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
That modern Socialism is essentially international is known to everyone who is acquainted with the first rudiments of the subject. Our title refers rather to the present aspect of the Socialist movement, than to its doctrine and aspirations. At the present time, in spite of the end being cosmopolitan, the Socialist organisations are severally confined within national limits. But in proportion as these gain strength and numbers, as they have (to an unparalleled extent) during the past twelve months, the necessity of international co-operation, with a view to concerted action in case of eventualities, becomes more and more apparent.
Though the leaders of the Socialist movement throughout Europe and America know each other personally, the organisation of the old International is dead. Hence the determination of the French National Socialist Congress, recently held at Roubaix, to take the initiative in calling together an international conference. The real nature of this conference will not be covered by its ostensible object, which is the very modest one of discussing the basis of a project of international labor legislation. Its real aim is by bringing together the labor representatives of all nations on a practical question immediately affecting the interests of the workers all the world over, to force the ignorant and waverers to a recognition of the fact, that in the reconstruction of society on a Socialist basis alone can real emancipation be effected. An international law, could such be obtained, fixing a maximum of hours and a minimum of wages, would offer, as I pointed out at Roubaix, endless facilities for evasion. If international legislation could prevent Mr. Mundella, for example, from evading the English Factory Acts by shifting the scene of his exploitation from Staffordshire to Germany, it could hardly hinder his constructing factories, or interfere with his “freedom of contract” in Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, China, or other countries, outside the pale of Western civilisation. There would be plenty of spots on the surface of the earth which a bourgeois providence would reveal to those that serve him as a suitable field for spreading the gospel and introducing the blessings of modern industry. The mind can hardly realise the terrible abuses crying for redress which would crop up in uncivilised lands, but it may picture something as follows: Exeter Hall denunciations of the hideous curse of slavery in Timbuctoo; necessities of British intervention; dispatch of British troops; glorious victory; protection; Syndicate of English manufacturers, presided over by Mr. Samuel Morley; opening up of Timbuctoo to commercial enterprise; erection of factories a steady, industrious population working eighteen hours a day tableau – Sabbath morning, mission house, service time, rows of emaciated niggers singing of the realms of the blest, hearing tell of the kingdom of God.
But while we have little hope of any real gain to the working classes from international legislation even if carried, we have still less hope, if anything, of its ever being carried. The middle classes are strong enough in most European legislatures to enable them to keep plenty of preserves where they may exploit at their own sweet will, playing out the “free” laborer within them, against the protected laborer without, nearer home than Timbuctoo. That competition in the labor market, that “freedom of contract” which is the very breath of his life, the capitalist, we are convinced, will not give up in favor even of such mild social reforms as are proposed; for mild as they are, they would unpleasantly hamper the freedom of his capitalistic individuality for a time, in Europe at least.
Yet, notwithstanding our conviction that the reforms, even if they become law, would, in the end, prove a delusion and a snare to the workers, owing to the employers of labor seeking fresh fields and pastures new in countries not amenable even to the most widely extended international laws; and, notwithstanding our scepticism as to their ever becoming law at all, under present conditions, we none the less heartily rejoice at the prospect of an international conference of the kind proposed. For, as we have already intimated, in addition to bringing many who have no idea of fundamental social change into contact with some of the leading Socialists of Europe, it will lead such persons, who undoubtedly represent a large, though a decreasing number of the working-classes of to-day, by the very abortiveness of its efforts to reform on current lines, to reflect on the inability of parliamentary methods, pacific agitation, etc., to secure for them the mere trifling increase of wages or curtailment of hours beyond which the aspirations of the average trades-unionist does not at present extend. It is of the first importance to awaken interest in the broadest aspect of social questions to familiarise the masses with the conception of social reorganisation, to dis-establish in their minds the doctrine which forms the unconscious basis of so much of their thought at present, that “as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be,” so far at leas as essentials are concerned.
Once this notion is shaken, once the idea gains ground among the masses that present. conditions are not eternal, either a parte ante or a parte post; that another system of society is possible in which the wealth of the community shall belong to those who produce the wealth; that labor is an evil to be minimised, and which may be minimised to a degree at present inconceivable, by the concentration of the instruments and raw material of production in the hands of the people themselves – conjoined with an organised system of labor in which each has to perform his share – and the Revolution will be indeed within measurable distance.
In placing the economic side of the revolution in the forefront, we are often fallen foul of, from various sides. Moralise the individual, all progress must come from within, says the Sentimentalist. Regenerate international relations, an act such as the surrender of Gibraltar would do more to advance mankind than all the Socialist agitation in the world, says the Positivist. Sweep away the old rotten speculative beliefs, nothing can be accomplished till rational views of man and nature have become universally established, says the Secularist. Work at drastic political reform before you do anything else; the first thing is to abolish perpetual pensions, the House of Lords, the monarchy and political privilege generally, says the Radical. Now I need scarcely say that with the intentions of all these worthy people we heartily sympathise. We believe them to be for the most part perfectly honest (the sentimentalist who talks of reforming the individual probably has au fond, a dash of humbug in him but even he not necessarily very much); our quarrel with them is for not seeing that all these things are, in our modern society, determined by the economical conditions of that society.
The Sentimentalist with his moral reform of the individual, in so far as he is sincere, must admit that high ideals, noble aims and cultured sympathies are, to say the least, incompatible in the average man, with grinding toil and starvation wages, conjoined with squalid and filthy surroundings. The Positivist must see, one would think, if he reflects for an instant, that in a civilisation based on profit-mongering and competition the weaker must go to the wall, racially no less than individually. Does he seriously hope for international brotherhood and justice while gangs of privileged scoundrels called statesmen control international relations in the interests of stock-jobbers, loan-mongers and their numerous parasites Yet in a society based on production for profit, when the first essential is that profits shall be made, and markets found and “protected” in which to make them, how can it be otherwise?
The English Secularists, we hope, will soon, as a body, begin to see that the degrading supernaturalism they so justly detest, is the mere appanage of our modern State-system, that it draws the very breath of its life from the privileged classes, by whose money it is supported, and for whom (and especially for whose wives and daughters) its cult affords a mode of passing time; that so long as there are women compelled to “sweat” at cravat-making for eighteen-pence a week in good times, reverting to the streets in bad, so long will Mr. Samuel Morley have his “surplus” thousands derived from unpaid labour wherewith to found and endow chapels; and, finally, that so long as there are “lower” classes whose function it is to labor, that the “upper” classes may enter into the fruits of their labor, so long will “religion” be necessary to keep said “lower classes” in order, and hence so long will a hundred spacious and crowded “places of worship” continue to mock the one “hall of science.”
Christianity subsists to-day, not because it is believed, but because it is profitable. The sleek bourgeois simply laughs at the pains which the Secularist takes to show the absurdity of the Bible. It is doubtless to him suggestive of a man who should spend his life in an earnest endeavor to convince his fellow men that Queen Anne was dead. Such a man might advance a whole artillery of argument to no purpose if it were the interest of the privileged classes that the world should talk and act as though she were alive. Providence on the side of “big battalions” may be a superfluous luxury to the “big battalions,” but “big battalions,” black if not red-coated, are an indispensable necessity to Providence, and so is the bourgeois who hires them. The sword, the cash-box and the mitre have always been on the same side, and will be till the end of the chapter. Religion may laugh at all attacks of the infidel in a world based on rent, profit and interest, and the sooner the Secularist recognises this truth the better for his cause.
Lastly, we would ask the political Radical to cast his eyes for a moment on America or France, and tell us truthfully whether experience shows that political forms, by themselves do after all possess the importance he attaches to them. In the countries named he will find hereditary privilege abolished, universal suffrage, a Republican form of Government – in short, nearly all the reforms which he regards as panaceas for this country – cui bono? Are misery, disease, pauperism, crime any less than in England? Who shall dare to say they are? In the one country political and judicial corruption are acknowledged to have well-nigh reached the limits of endurance. In the other, men, women and children are even now lying in prison for daring to exercise their right of free-speech, and in one case not even for that, but simply at the arbitrary will of an alien despotic power. Would that the Radical could see that his political reforms are of those lying spirits “that keep the word of promise to the ear, but break it to the hope.” The Socialist, while he is necessarily at one with the Radical in the desire to abolish political privilege and all forms of State-organisation involving it, sees, nevertheless, that the nominal abolition of this is a mere farce, unless accompanied by the abolition of social privilege. He knows, moreover, that the latter includes the former, as the greater the less. Hence, gladly as he would see the last of monarchy, aristocracy, etc., he has no wish to substitute for them the nostrums of “Constitutional” Republicanism, which, under the mask of political equality, shelters privileged cliques of Stock Exchange gamblers, railway kings, public company swindles, ex-pig-sticking or soap-boiling quid nuncs, and the rest of the phosphorescent scum of our rotten civilisation.
We appeal to all true lovers of human progress to stand aloof no longer, but to come over and join the great forward movement of modern Socialism. They may rest assured it is only by this that they will really advance that aspect of progress which happens to touch them nearest, be it the abolition of war, of privilege, or of mental slavery. The time is fast becoming ripe. Soon the cry will be he who is not for us is against us. As Jules Guesde well said at the Roubaix Congress, since the first spread of Christianity there has never been a movement like the present. From among every nation and kindred and tongue and people there is a voice calling to awaken the sleepers. It calls from Paris, from Vienna, from Berlin, from the depths of Russian prisons, from the wastes of Siberia. It calls, in the name of human brotherhood, in the name of art, of culture, of all that is noblest in human nature, to aid in delivering humanity from the living death with which it is encompassed; to educate, to agitate, to organise, and, maybe, when the time comes to strike, to strike, and again to strike, till the vile huckster civilisation of this nineteenth century shall be no more.
Last updated on 19.7.2005