E. Belfort Bax

Concerning “Justice”

(23 April 1887)

Concerning “Justice”, Commonweal, 23rd April 1887, pp.132-133.
Republished in The Ethics of Socialism, pp.75-83.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

PLATO and the ancients generally deemed the whole of morality to be summed up in the idea of Justice. And indeed, when looked at closely it will be seen that the notion of justice at least supplies the key-note of every ethical system. It is therefore on this notion of justice that the crucial question turns in debates between the advocates of modern Socialism and of modern Individualism respectively. The bourgeois idea of justice is crystallised in the notion of the absolute right of the individual to the possession and full control of such property as he has acquired without overt breach of the bourgeois law. To interfere with this right of his, to abolish his possession, is in bourgeois eyes the quintessence of injustice. The Socialist idea of justice is crystallised in the notion of the absolute right of the community to the possession or control (at least) of all wealth not intended for direct individual use. Hence the abolition of the individual possession and control of such property, or in other words, its confiscation, is the first expression of Socialist justice. Between possession and confiscation is a great gulf fixed, the gulf between the Bourgeois and the Socialist worlds. Well-meaning men seek to throw bridges over this gulf by schemes of compensation, abolition of inheritance, and the like. But the attempts, as we believe, even should they ever be carried out practically, must fall disastrously short of their mark, and be speedily engulphed between the two positions they are intended to unite. Nowhere can the phrase, “ He that is not for us is against us,” be more aptly applied than to the moral standpoint of modern Individualism and of modern Socialism. To the one, individual possession is right and justice, and social confiscation is wrong and injustice; to the other, individual possession is wrong and injustice, and confiscation is right and justice. This is the real issue. Unless a man accept the last-named standpoint unreservedly, he has no right to call himself a Socialist. If he does accept it, he will seek the shortest and most direct road to the attainment of justice rather than any longer and more indirect ones, of which it is at best doubtful whether they will attain the end at all. For be it remembered the moment you tamper with the sacredness of private property, no matter how mildly, you surrender the conventional bourgeois principle of justice, while the moment you talk of compensation you surrender the Socialist principle of justice; for compensation can only be real if it is adequate, and can only be adequate if it counterbalances and thereby annuls the confiscation.

It is just, says the Individualist, for a man to be able to do what he likes with his own. Good; but what is his own? The “own “ of the Roman citizen of the republic included his slaves. These he could cut up to feed his lampreys if he liked, and he doubtless felt it “unjust” when the emperors limited his right to the control of his own property, in this and similar ways, by sundry enactments which (to employ a modern phrase) “savoured of State Socialism.” Again, the donkey is the costermonger’s “own”. But if the costermonger stimulates that donkey’s flagging energies with a two-pronged fork, the modern Mate interferes and limits the control of the costermonger over his properly. The costermonger perhaps thinks it unjust – “State Socialistic,” and the like; the humanitarian thinks it just, and is so far untrue to bourgeois principles. But, says the bourgeois advocate, this does not touch us; we only refer to the things which are products of industry and which can be, and have been, lawfully acquired. Now the right to property in human flesh is not admitted in the present day in any sense, and therefore it cannot be lawfully acquired. The property in asinine or other flesh is admitted, only with certain restrictions. Have a care, O bourgeois! You concede, then, that the concepts of “right” and “justice” as regards property have changed, for it was not always so. But no matter. It is just, you say, for a man to possess the product of his industry, or what he has acquired in a lawful manner, and to have the entire control of it. Good. But the feudal baron would not have thought it just to have been deprived of his “dues” taken from the industry of his villeins, whom he had acquired with his lands, lands obtained not by industry but by violence. At the sack of a town the mediaeval knight would have thought it unjust had his lord, in accordance with nineteenth century notions of equity, magnanimously compelled him to surrender his booty to its original lawful owner. And the rest of the world would have agreed with him, owner included. The Frank who broke the vase at Soissons would not have appreciated the justice of Chlodwig any better had he sought to make him surrender it to the Romano-Gaul who had previously possessed it, and had presumably acquired it in a lawful manner, than he did when he wished to appropriate it himself. But these were bad men, you will say. And it is true that the principle of your middle-class conception of justice” is opposed to the “justice” of these men, therefore to you they are bad.

Having shown by these one or two examples that justice was conceived differently in the past, we will trace the logical working out of your own true bourgeois conception-that of the right of every man to the full possession and control of wealth acquired by the industry of himself, or of others who have voluntarily -given or bequeathed it to him. This conception of right or “justice” you have inscribed on your banner throughout your struggle with the ancient feudal hierarchy – those bold bad men who robbed the honest merchant, oppressed the tiller of the soil, despised the receiver of interest, laid onerous imposts on wares, etc. It was this that lay at the root of your struggle with the old territorial ecclesiasticism in the sixteenth century, with the king and noble in the seventeenth, with the anciennie noblesse of France in the eighteenth. Security of property to the personal possessor against the remains of the ancient tribal communism and against the exactions of the feudal head whose power directly or indirectly grew out of it, has ever been your watchword, and is so to-day, even when you demand compensation for improvements and denounce the “unearned increment,” just as if any portion of “rent” were earned. And at first you were perfectly sincere; your demand seemed the cry of an eternal “justice,” a justice that was absolute in its nature and unalterable in its manifestations. “Wealth” did to a large extent belong to its immediate producer or to those who had acquired it directly from him by gift or bequest. The means of production were within the reach of all. Most of those that were so minded could earn wealth by their labour. All that seriously hindered them seemed the fetters of feudalism and semi-feudalism. On the land the peasant cultivated his own plot with his own implements; in the town the handicraftsman laboured primarily at least on his own account. What the one craved was freedom from the unjust exactions of his lord, and from the tolls and local imposts which obstructed the exchange of his produce. What the other craved was freedom first from aristocratic custom, laws, and ordinances, and secondly, from the rules and regulations of the guilds – the umbilical cord which still united the new-born social organisation with the feudal order and privilege which was its parent. Even later and till some way into the manufacture period-the second stage of capitalism-in spite of the exploitation which went on, the possibility for the vast majority of earning a tolerable livelihood, masked the retreat of truth from within the bourgeois citadel of justice and its occupation by lies. Even the working-classes, for the most part, assumed the “enemy” still to be feudalism, and held that middle-class “justice” was their “justice,” that the complete possession and control of the product of industry was involved in the freedom of industry from local restrictions, and of trade from undue impositions, and nothing more.

We have referred to the evacuation by truth of the middle-class concept “justice.” This is the point the middle-class advocate invariably ignores. He assumes that his principle, the right of the individual possessor to the full control of his lawfully acquired property, means the same thing now, has the same application now, as when wealth meant the direct product of the labour of the individual possessor, or of those from whom he had received it by gift or bequest. It does not occur to him that wealth in the modern capitalist world means something very different from this, that neither leas this man sinned nor his father in its production, but that on the contrary the modern possessor and his father are alike innocent of having had any share in the process. If it be alleged that the modern capitalist’s ancestor in some golden age of the past created by his personal industry the wealth which was embodied in instruments of production, we may well call upon our bourgeois advocate to give us some chronological data on the subject, seeing that the most extended research has as yet failed to discover the primitive ancestral capitalist in question. Go back as we may, we discover nothing but essentially the self-same process as at present, though less in scope and intensity, the formation of capitals from unpaid labour. and their division by the scramble of competition, till we reach the feudal period, when status, serfdom, and forcible appropriation reign supreme. The old original capitalist who has rested from his labours, and whose works do follow him – creative, frugal, and laborious – he looms ever “at the back of beyond.” It is a beautiful conception this of the first capitalist, and only shows that poetry like hope springs eternal in the human breast even the economical breast. Like Prester John and the Wandering Jew, he has a weird charm about him that almost makes one love him. But our reverence for an old legend must not blind us to historical fact, to wit, that the real origin of modern capital is to be found in the forcible expropriation of the peasantry from the soil, in oppressive laws to keep down wages, in the plunder and enslavement of the inhabitants of the new world and of Africa, in the merciless overworking of children in factories, &c. &c.

The contradiction between the assumption contained in his formula and the facts of modern life which he stupidly or designedly ignores, is proclaimed by the Socialist, who shows that the maintenance of private property in the means of production is in flagrant opposition to the concept of “Justice” with which he set out, since the former necessarily involves the workman’s deprivation of the greater part of the product of his labour, as otherwise such property would be of no value. The concept “Justice,” therefore, as meaning the right to the possession and control by the individual of the product of his labour has lost all meaning in modern times. But in the maintenance of the sham, of the assumption, that is, that the meaning remains what it was, lies the whole theoretical strength of the bourgeois position. The means of production are no longer in the hands of the producers, but in those of men or of syndicates who are usually entirely divorced from the process of production. Now the only use of means or instruments of production is to produce wealth and commodities. So that to the non-producers who possess them they are of no use whatever, except, and a very important except it is, in so fur as they compel others to labour under conditions which allow them only a fractional part of the product of their labour. The only possible use of these means of production is, therefore, to violate the original bourgeois definition of “Justice.” This being so, that definition of “Justice” cannot be invoked as an excuse for gentle dealings with monopolists, whose retention of these instruments is a cause of injustice. For the removal of what is necessarily cause of injustice cannot itself be unjust. But if it is not unjust it must be just. It is just therefore, to confiscate all private property in the means of production, i.e., in land or capital. Q.E.D.

Now, Justice being henceforth identified with confiscation and injustice with the rights of property, there remains only the question of “ways and means.” Our bourgeois apologist admitting as he must that the present possessors of land and capital hold possession of them simply by right of superior force, can hardly refuse to admit the right of the proletariat organised to that end to take possession of them by right of superior force. The only question remaining is how? And the only answer is how you can. Get what you can that tends in the right direction, by parliamentary means or otherwise, bien entendu, the right direction meaning that which curtails the capitalist’s power of exploitation. If you choose to ask further how one would like it, the reply is so far as the present writer is concerned, one would like it to come as drastically as possible, as the moral effect of sudden expropriation would be much greater than that of any gradual process. But the sudden expropriation, in other words, the revolutionary crisis, will have to be led up to by a series of non-revolutionary political acts, if past experience has anything to say in the matter. When that crisis comes the great act of confiscation will be the seal of the new era; then and not till then will the knell of Civilisation, with its rights of property and its class-society, be sounded; then and not till then will Justice – the Justice not of Civilisation but of Socialism – become the corner-stone of the social arch.


Last updated on 14.1.2006