E. Belfort Bax

Men versus Classes

(29 January 1887)

Men versus Classes, Commonweal, 29th January 1887, pp.33-34.
Later republished in the The Ethics of Socialism (1893), pp.99-105.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the character of every human being, man or woman, in the present day, we shall be able to detect without much difficulty two sides, more or less distinct, more or less blended. On the one hand, you have the side of friendship, of devotion, of good-nature, of refinement, of the social qualities generally; on the other, that of acquisitiveness (greed), meanness, hypocrisy, coarseness, brutality – in fact, the anti-social qualities. Now, we maintain that in every civilised human being these two elements are present to a greater or less extent it is only a question of degree. The anti-social qualities belong, at bottom, to the anti-human or pre-human nature, which human nature has inherited, and which were superseded by the specifically human nature or qualities which presided over the institution of tribal Society. But, in their present form, we contend they have taken on the forms and become crystallised into expressions of class-opposition. Some of them, indeed (e.g. vulgarity in its various forms, and hypocrisy), are entirely the offspring of the class-society of modern times. The social qualities, on the other hand, are inherited from the human nature which, as we have just said, superseded men’s brute nature in the earliest forms of society. But these, again, have maintained themselves only in spite of the class-system, and have disputed the ground with it inch by inch. It is evident, then, that every man in the present day, inasmuch as he belongs to one or other of the two great modern classes, the fleecers or the fleeced, the oppressors or the oppressed, the middle-class or the working-class, possesses, in addition to his manhood, classhood. The classhood necessarily interpenetrates his whole system, although it may not be always obvious. His social qualities may gain the upper hand, and permanently repress the anti-social qualities and prejudices which he inherits from his class. Again, his class-character may completely eat away his human character. Like the cells and fibres of cancer in the human body, his class-character may be latent, and only become active from some external cause. It may then break out in the most unexpected ways. In any case, the human or social character varies in an inverse proportion to the class or anti-social character of the man. This is an important fact. A mathematician might make a reputation by wrapping it up in curves and equations.

And it will be observed that I make no distinction here in favour of the working class as such. Many people are apt to think of the new society as essentially the same as the present, only with the relative positions of classes changed. They have a confused notion of the gentle stockbroker being bullied by the coarse and brutal factory hand. They cannot realise that under a developed Socialistic system, the workman type of to-day and the middle-class type of to-day will be alike as extinct as the dodo. Out of the changed conditions a new type must necessarily arise differing from any of those at present existing, for these all presuppose class-conditions. All class-character qua class-character is bad. Were the working man any more than the middle-class man an angel, Socialism would be unnecessary. Socialists who recognise individual character to be the child of social condition, could not expect a class degraded materially to the condition of Proletarianism not to bear the mark of this degradation on the character of its members. We may observe, however, in passing, though it is immaterial to the point, that while the class-element alike in the character of Proletaire as of Bourgeois is bad in itself, yet it has probably in the former case been less generally successful in corrupting the human nature into which it has entered than in the latter. The particular class-qualities in the character of the modern capitalist may be roughly indicated by the definition, vulgarity in a solution of hypocrisy; the particular class-qualities in the character of the modern proletarian as brutality in a solution of servility.

How plainly both are the outcome of economic condition will be evident at a glance. Open your morning paper, and you will see both illustrated in its columns. They are the obverse and the reverse of the same medal – modern civilisation. But, we repeat, these class-qualities may be reduced to the minimum in favour of the essentially human or social qualities in individual instances in either case or they may on the other hand be so highly developed as to exclude the latter altogether. The last case may be best illustrated by types drawn from those concerned in class-politics. Almost any statesman – let us take as types a Harcourt or a Goschen – exhibits the class-element in its purest embodied form. Such men are lumps of class-feeling. A hypocritical vulgarity has in them absorbed humanity. The corresponding illustration of the mere proletarian class-element may be looked for in that section of the Anarchist party which pursues the tactics technically known as diebspolitik, and of which a Stellmacher or a Duval is a type. Here also the class-element, a servile brutality, the mere bloodthirstiness and lust of gain of the slave, has eaten out humanity. Of course, these are extreme instances on both sides. Human life would be manifestly impossible were the whole middle class transformed into Harcourts or Goschens, no less than if the whole proletariat were transformed into Stellmachers or Duvals. Between them lie the great mass of both classes, where human feeling struggles with class-feeling with varying success. In the centre a nucleus is beginning to form. It is the International Socialist Party. And just here the chief superiority of the working class as a class over the middle class comes into view. Among the working classes there is a large section, especially on the Continent of Europe, among whom the mere class-qualities have to a large extent succumbed to human qualities, although they necessarily and properly (as we shall show directly) take a class form. Such, in the nature of things, is not the case with the middle class. They, as a class, have material power and wealth bound up with their class-being so that while with the working-man culture in the natural course of things is a direct avenue to the elevation of the class-feeling within him to a human feeling, with the middle-class man it too often only cements it with a thicker varnish of hypocrisy. The educated workman knows that human progress is bound up with the ascendency of his class. The educated bourgeois knows that human progress is bound up with the decay and overthrow of his class; so that where we have among the working classes whole sections that are Socialistic, we have among the middle classes only isolated individuals.

How, then, it may be said, if we admit class-feeling to be that element in the modern character in which its worst and anti-social features are embodied, can we make the accentuation and exacerbation of class-feeling the starting-point for a social reconstruction in which classes shall be abolished? Is not the attitude of the benevolent old gentleman who says, let us ignore classes, let us regard each other as human beings, more consonant with what we have been saying? We answer no, if we are to deal with facts and not with phrases. Classes exist; you may ignore them, but they will exist still with the respective characters they engender. Though you ignore them they will not ignore you. The difference between the Socialist and the benevolent bourgeois Radical in their respective crusades against classes is, that while the one would affirm the form of class-distinction, knowing that thereby the reality of class-distinction will be negated, the other, though ostentatiously denying the form of class-distinction, would affirm the content or reality of class-distinction, inasmuch as he would leave it untouched. He thinks to get rid of class-instincts while maintaining classes. To be rid of classes, the possessing and expropriating class must be itself expropriated – expropriated of its power of expropriating – in other words, of that control of the instruments of production by which its class-character is maintained, when it will disappear together with its correlate, the possessed and expropriated class.

It is not true, as might at first sight be supposed, that the political class-feeling of the Socialist workman is the mere anti-social class-feeling of the ordinary proletarian (lumpen proletarier), or of the mere blood-thirsty Anarchist. The class-feeling of the former is a class-feeling with a difference. It is a class-feeling that has already negated itself; otherwise expressed it is human feeling in a class guise. The Socialist workman’s conscious end and aspiration is the annihilation of classes, with the class-element in character. He knows well enough that his classhood places him at a disadvantage. He knows that the fact of his belonging to an oppressed class is an insuperable obstacle to the development of the best within him just as the middle class Socialist knows that the fact of his belonging to an oppressing class is equally an obstacle to the development of his nobler qualities. Mere class-instinct, which per se is necessarily anti-social, can never give us Socialism. That is why the most degraded section of the proletariat are, to a large extent, useless for the Cause of Socialism. Their lower class-instincts are incapable of being purified of their grosser elements, and transformed into that higher instinct which, though on its face it has the impress of a class, is in its essence above and beyond class which sees in the immediate triumph of class merely a means to the ultimate realisation of a purely human Society, in which class has disappeared. With those who have attained to this instinct, classhood or class-interest has become identical with humanity or human interest. In the Socialist workman the class-instinct has become transformed into the conviction that, in the words of Lassalle, “he is called to raise the principle of his class into the principle of the age.” He knows that in the moment of victory – of the realisation of the dominion of his class – the ugly head of class itself must fall, and Society emerge. Militant, his cause is identified with class triumphant, with Humanity. Meanwhile, we who live to-day, who are the offspring of a class-society, and who breathe the atmosphere of a class-society, bear ineradically the mark of the class-demon upon us. It is engrained in our characters. Even among Socialists, where its grosser features are toned down or obliterated, it shows itself ever and anon. It is only a question of more or less. In no human being born in a class Society can the class-element be altogether absent from his character. In the best working-class Socialist there is a strain of possible brutality. In the best middle-class Socialist there is a strain of possible snobbishness. Meanwhile, we know that these things endure but for a day. We may, therefore, take heart of grace. After one more decisive affirmation of class-interest, we may expect to see the end of Classes (with their hypocritical vulgarity on the one side and their servile brutality on the other) and the beginning of Men.


Last updated on 14.1.2006