E. Belfort Bax

The Two Enthusiasms

An Answer to Mr. Karl Pearson

(February 1886)

Two Enthusiasms, Commonweal, Feb. 1886, pp.9, 10 & 11.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, pp.128-135.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IN a pamphlet recently issued [1], Mr. Karl Pearson has undertaken to assault the fortress of Revolutionary Socialism from the academic side. We are commonly enough bombarded by the professional economist, by the theologian, by the politician, by the “sentimentalist,” but the man of culture” has hitherto confined himself to the drizzling infantry fire of casual criticism. In Mr. Pearson, however, we are bound to recognise an opponent not to be despised, and in his pamphlet a well-planned attack. To drop metaphor, Mr. Pearson, whether he intended it or not, has stated a specious case for the nice young man fresh from the university, who shudders at the “coarseness” inseparable from a real working-class movement, and prefers the attitude of missionary of culture to the benighted proletarian heathen to that of his co-worker in the cause of social emancipation and in the hurrying on of that class-struggle which is its necessary condition. His argument may also to some extent be considered an elaborate justification of another individual, namely of him who really feels that he is essentially unfit for the work of agitation, and that his most useful sphere is in purely intellectual labour, which may quite possibly be Mr. Pearson’s own case. We may say at once that so far as we can see, the last-named individual requires no justification at all, since Socialists should be the first, to recognise diversity of capacity – diversity albeit largely intensified by current conditions – and that the “nice young man” deserves none, save that like the “coarse” proletarian to whom he condescends to direct his missionary efforts, he may plead that he is but the unfortunate result of a vicious system.

With the opening paragraphs of the pamphlet in question which deal with the distinction between natural and supernatural morality, I heartily agree. Strange to say, on page 3 Mr. Pearson argues for a kind of neo-Puritanism; he would apparently give an introspective turn to social ethics, whereby the attention would still be directed primarily to the formation of individual character, rather than to the clear and broad issues of social life and progress. We may have mistaken the author’s meaning, but we must confess the prospect strikes us as rather appalling if the “trivial doings” of each day (let us say, for instance, taking a walk round the room) are previously to performance, to pass the scrutiny of an internal examination as to whether they or the motives prompting them, are “dictated by those general laws, which have been deduced,” etc. Certain broad lines of conduct clearly hostile to ‘the existence of social life are to be shunned, other broad lines are to be followed – what more does an ethic founded on social necessity mean than this? Surely, the hair-splitting casuistry of a theological morality, based upon the notion that every action has an “absolute value,” and is certain to be rigidly assayed by a heavenly pawnbroker, is out of place here. The resuscitation, too, of that ancient fallacy, that the test of the value or the truth of a doctrine is to be found, not in itself, but in its advocate, I must confess surprises me in a man of Mr. Pearson’s ability. His remarks on this head recall to my mind the would-be crushing argument of the Christian advocate of a generation ago, that Voltaire was a “bad man,” and that hence his attack on Christianity is discredited at the outset. Also, that the authors of the Gospels were good men, and, therefore, they were to be believed. Hegel, we are quite aware, was by no means a man of heroic moral calibre, but this does not prevent his reading of the riddle of Life and Knowledge being, not even excepting Spinoza’s, take it all in all, the least unsatisfactory up to date. As a matter of fact, as history proves over and over again, there is seldom an equal balance between the intellectual and moral sides of a gifted man’s character, so that in general we should naturally expect a man of exceptional power in the one direction to be deficient in the other.

Turning to the main theme of the pamphlet under consideration, we find the baneful influence of the individualistic and absolute ethics which the outset of the paper led us to hope Mr. Pearson had outgrown again at work. To the Revolutionary Socialist Mr. Pearson says, “Abandon agitation, go and create a new morality.” Now, from the point of view of a Scientific Socialism, he might as well tell the engineer, “Abandon your borings and your blastings, say to yonder mountain, depart thou hence and be thou cast into the sea, for until the ground is level you will never make your highway.” Mr. Pearson is evidently still more than half a Christian, leastways in his ethics. He thinks that all social change must proceed from the individual; that all reform must come from within, in accordance with Christian doctrine, but in striking defiance of the teaching of history and what I may term a concrete view of the nature of things. Morality is with Mr. Pearson an abstract entity, to be brought to perfection by a culture of the individual breathed out in some mysterious manner from the study, and operating by a magic charm of its own on squalid masses huddled in reeking courts, on the outcast in the recesses of London Bridge, on the factory slave or the shop-assistant without leisure and resources, on the out-of-work labourer with starvation at his door, no less than on the struggling shopkeeper whose being’s end and aim is to hold out against the big capitalist competitor, and last of all on the giant capitalist himself – on the Vanderbilt or the Jay Gould. It is to operate, in short, irrespective of such insignificant obstacles as economic conditions and social surroundings. The factory-slave and the Vanderbilt are alike to feel the renovating influence touch their hearts, to hear the voice of “Culture” and live – a pleasant dream forsooth. Unfortunately, according to Mr. Pearson’s own estimate it may take some hundreds of years, and “’while the grass grows –’. The proverb is something musty.” Mr. Pearson in his study may be content to wait, but will social evolution wait?

“Human society cannot, be changed in a year,” says our critic. True, answers the Socialist, but its economic conditions can be radically modified in a very few years through the concentration of the means of production and distribution in the hands of a Socialist administration. Thus although one generation may not indeed suffice to complete the transformation of Civilisation into socialism, yet even one generation may dig the foundation of the fabric, nay, the time being ripe, may even rough-hew its more prominent outlines. We readily admit that the old leaven of civilisation must require many a long decade before it is eliminated, but the generation which for the first time turned the helm of progress in the one direction by which its goal can be reached, would be worthy of none the less honour because it was not itself destined to see the promised land in its fulness. Thenceforward we shall be consciously steering for the goal towards which hitherto we have been at best only unconsciously and vaguely drifting; the whole political and administrative system, when once the great crisis of the revolution is passed, instead of, as now, having for its sole aim the perpetuation of itself and of the class antagonisms it represents, will have for its end the abolition of civilisation, that is, of a class-society, and therewith its own abolition, since with the transformation of Civilisation into socialism it will be a superfluous and meaningless survival.

In the pamphlet before us we have once more the hackneyed argument that the French Revolution left no enduring creation behind it, that it was abortive in short. Has Mr. Pearson ever read Arthur Young? Has be forgotten the state of France, before and after the Revolution? Nay, not of France only, but of entire western Europe? What was there of human creation in the French Revolution? asks Mr. Pearson. There was the creation, at all events, of the supremacy of the commercial middle class (though there is not much that is “human” in that, I admit). The French Revolution meant the final realisation of Bourgeoisdom, – this was its central idea and purpose, – notwithstanding that it contained episodes which pointed to something beyond this. Into Mr. Pearson’s special preserve of the Reformation I will not enter particularly, except to say that as I read history a similar observation holds good there also.

The “enthusiasm of the study” is by no means a new thing. It is as old at least as Periklean Greece. In the “garden,” the “grove,” and the “porch,” we have the enthusiasts of the study; and in the later grammarians enthusiasts who despised the “marketplace” possibly even more than Mr. Pearson himself. Yet, cannot we date the decline of ancient culture precisely from the moment when it became the exclusive appanage of the study? This high-toned ancient enthusiasm of the study, did it make a good end? Or did it not rather ignominiously “peter out” in the persons of the seven melancholy and neglected sages or pedants, who wandered in dry places seeking rest and finding none till the worthy Chosroes obtained them a respite for the term of their natural lives wherein to reflect, on the vanity of that empyrean “enthusiasm of the study” which had become so rarefied that no mortal besides themselves could breathe its atmosphere? Need I remind Mr. Pearson of other enthusiasms of the study? Setting aside the German humanists, whose work, Mr. Pearson would say, was rendered abortive by the wicked men of the market-place, let us turn to the Italian renaissance, the courts of the Medicis. Here the “enthusiasm of the sturdy” was disturbed by no red-herring of the market-place. Yet what did it effect for mankind at large? What of the French salon-culture of the eighteenth century? For even Mr. Pearson, we suppose, will hardly contend that had it not been for the market-place Revolution which ensued, the “philosophers” and Litterateurs of the study would have regenerated mankind by the influence of their conversation on the wits, bons vivants, and fascinating women of eighteenth century France. “Sweetness and light,” again – the refined, esthetic, middle-class culture of to-day – what has this gospel of “sweet reasonableness” done, what does it bid fair to do? Brought together interesting young men from the universities to study the habits of the East-end “poor,” perhaps; provided a temporary stimulus in the direction of soup-kitchens and “literary institutes.” Is Mr. Karl Pearson content with such a result?

But the root-fallacy of Mr. Pearson’s pamphlet lies, to our thinking, deeper than this. It lies, namely, in his attempt to accentuate the distinction which civilisation has in great part created between the “study” and “the market-place,” the man of learning and the man of labour, and to treat it as permanent. To the Socialist this is merely one of the abstractions produced by a society based on classes and, therefore, is essentially false and unreal, and as such destined to pass away with the other abstractions – e.g. ruler and ruled, master and servant, capital and labour, rich and poor, religious and secular, etc. – which find their expression in modern civilisation. The enthusiasm of the market-place and the enthusiasm of the study are not properly two things, but one. They form part of one whole. The enthusiasm of the market-place is the direct expression of the particular phase at which social evolution has arrived, the enthusiasm of the study is its indirect expression. The present, enthusiasm of the study with the large place modern science occupies in it, differs from the old humanist enthusiasm of the fifteenth century, as that differed from the enthusiasm of the medieval schoolmen, and so on; and we may add it differs from the enthusiasm of the future, when mathematics shall have been relegated to their due place in the economy of human culture. But the enthusiasm of the study per se is no substantial body; though fair in semblance, it is after all but a bloodless wraith. As little can you require the “enthusiasm of the study” to supplant the “enthusiasm of the market-place” in human society, as St. Denis could have expected his decapitated head to urge him on irrespective of the trunk to which it belonged. That the first condition of the healthy animal is a good digestion is a trite observation. The first condition of a healthy society, as certainly, is that it should have something to digest, something besides Pearsonic morality, wholesome as that may be in its proper place. In other words, the intellectual and moral revolution of society rests primarily upon the conditions in which its wealth is produced and distributed. When this is done in the interest of all, and when all take an equal share in it, then that embodied abstraction, the “man of the study,” will disappear along with that other embodied abstraction, “the man of the market-place.” In a society in which culture is for all, and work is for all, the antagonism of the workman and the scholar will be resolved in the concrete reality of the complete human being. Meanwhile, so long as the antagonism exists, it is plainly the market-place that must create the revolution, since it has the material power in its hands, and this it is which constitutes, the enthusiasm of the of the market-place, unreasoning and “emotional” though it be, the great moving force of society.




1. The Enthusiasm of the Study and of the Market Place, a lecture delivered at South Place Institute, Finsbury, by Karl Pearson.


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