E. Belfort Bax

On Some Forms of Modern Cant

A Contribution to the Phemonology of Cant

(7 May 1887)

On Some Forms of Modern Cant, Commonweal, 7th May 1887.
Later republished in in The Ethics of Socialism (1893), pp.90-98.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT may be not uninstructive to trace the various furors in which the essentially bourgeois vice of “cant” pervades the whole world of to-day, and even creeps in among the Socialist harbingers of a new society. These forms are legion, but there are a few cases that may serve as typical. (1) There is the obvious and in this country at least most important “cant,” the religious “cant.” (2) There is the ordinary political “cant” of moderation. (3) There is the philanthropic cant; (4) the “purity cant”; (5) the commercial cant; (6) the literary cant; (7) the aesthetic cant; and (8) the Socialist cant. We must premise that by “cant” we understand the ostentatious assumption of a quality (a virtue or vice) that one has not got, or the “puffing” of an indifferent quality one happens to have got by nature, as a virtue!

Of the general and most usual aspects of the religions cant it is unnecessary to say much, since it is unfortunately too widespread to escape the recognition of any moderately intelligent man. The form, however, which it takes in modern “cultured” circles and which unfortunately in this country is apt to spread outside them is very noteworthy. Repudiation of Atheism is a favourite form of speculative cant with us. No matter what a man’s belief or absence of belief may be, you may be quite sure in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he will profess to have conscientious scruples as to calling himself an Atheist. The reason of this is not far to seek. The question of God or no God has very little to do with it. When the popular theory of the mounted policeman up above is discarded, all that remains is a highly subtle philosophical problem which it would be the rankest humbug in any ordinary rum to pretend he felt the smallest interest in or even understood. The real point in the “not-an-atheist” cant lies in the fact that the word atheism is supposed in the popular mints to imply the rejection of the current bourgeois morality, the avowed sanctions of which rest on the abnormally-developed policeman theory. It is bourgeois sentiment which is the well-spring of objection to the word Atheism, and not suddenly evolved scruples on refined points of metaphysic. If we abstract from the latter and take words in their popular sense [1], we have a right to say that the man cannot be quite sincere who accepts the doctrine of development as opposed to supernatural interposition in human affairs, and who “kicks” at the word “atheism.”

The “cant” of the politician, like the cant of the “religious” man, is also protean in its guise, but its chief method is to explain away words. The politician can always show you that he didn’t mean what he says, but something rather different from what he says. Political cant consists in pretending to agreement with hearers, whoever they may be. This cant is part of the stock-in-trade of every politician, be he Tory, Whig, or Radical, and it is by its means that he tries to haul in stray votes.

The philanthropic cant is seen in its richest luxuriance when in combination with the religious cant, as for example at May meetings, when the one, so to speak, brings out the flavour of the other. The philanthropic cant has done yeoman’s service to modern industrial and commercial enterprise by smoothing the way to new markets for it abroad and by hocussing the workman with sham nostrums at home. Its “anti-slavery,” “missionary” (for there is a “philanthropic” side to “missions” to which all bourgeois, religious or not, do homage), “temperance” (teetotal), and “thrift campaigns, have been godsends to the capitalist. On the one side they have constituted him in the eyes of his own middle-class public opinion a saint, and on the other side they have drowned the aspirations of the working, classes in a sea of delusion. No wonder, therefore, that the capitalist pours out his thousands freely for religio-philanthropic objects.

Akin to this is the “purity” cant which animates “Leagues of the White Cross,” “Moral Reform Unions,”, et hoc genus omne. This form of humbug, which pretends to regard the fulfilling of a natural physiological function, except under one condition, as something like a crime, may either have at its root deliberate and conscious hypocrisy or else it may arise from the desire to make social capital out of a natural bodily defect or peculiarity – on the principle of the fox without a tail. It is a well-known fact that the instinct of sex varies in strength from 100, let us say, to 0. In those exceptional cases where it even approaches the zero it is obvious therefore that the social kudos, attainable by zeal for the conventional morality must outweigh the natural impulse for “gratification.” Here, then, we have the conditions of a highly successful prosecution of the cant of parity without any apparent insincerity that the most hostile eye could detect, – in short, we have the “honest fanatic” of “blameless life.” And he or she is doubtless the nucleus of the movements in question, which become the rallying-point for conscious hypocrisy and respectability in the male, and the “sour grapes” of despised love and hope deferred in the female.

The special form of commercial “cant” here selected consists in the favorite pretence in the present day of “having a profession” or being in business. Money-making being the avowed end of life, a man of the middle-classes looses caste if he does not appear to be engaged in some occupation recognised as lucrative. He is like a knight without his spurs, a Roman senator without his toga. It is amusing to see the fortunes men will squander in keeping up bourgeois style by pretending to be following a profession or business. I have known a man who could ill afford it spend at the rate of £500 a-year in keeping a school. Another studies medicine, another law, another engineering. It is well-known, of course, that all these professions are over-stocked, and that the average young man is about as likely to receive a “next-of-kin” windfall as to cover his expenses with any of them. But the young man of “means” must “have a profession” or business even though he die in the work house in consequence. So he goes through the course, spinning it out as long as possible, and when done takes chambers or offices as a barrister or engineer. His expenses cost him two or three hundred per annum, and if his “profession” brings him in ten he is in most cases extremely lucky. When a young man with small means can’t afford to go in for a profession, he has to content himself with a small office, where he has his letters addressed. This is sufficient to show he is “doing something.” He goes up to town every day, lounge, about, reads the papers, and endeavours to obtain the credit of being “a man of business” by, among other things, pretending always to be in a great hurry. In this way he perhaps manages to come off with no more than a loss of £80 to £100 a year.

This cant of “business” is peculiarly significant as marking the fully developed bourgeois era. Time was when the middle-class man was proud of posing as the gentleman-at-large” (the remains of the feudal tradition). Now even when he has independent means, as in the cases supposed, he reckons it necessary to “good form” to pretend to be making money whether he is actually doing so or not, and is prepared to squander his substance in that pretence.

Then there is the literary or rather critical cant. One of its forms is affected hunting after blemishes in style and the pedantry allied thereto. The fact is, of course, that the modern reviewer’s taste is not really shocked by half the things he sics or otherwise castigates, but he must find something to say and above all make a slow of purism. A great deal of the pretended fuss made about confusion of metaphor, for example, is cant. All language is more or less metaphorical, and no one has shown the slightest rational ground why one should not pass from one metaphor to another even in the same sentence. That the sensibility of the ordinary “callow” critic on the subject is sham is proved by his admiration for Shakespeare’s confusions of metaphor. When a man can stand taking “arms against a sea of troubles,” he ought to be able to stand anything. [2]

The aesthetic cant is a noteworthy product of modern culture. It is a subject about which so much has been said already that I confine myself to noticing one feature of it. Every man aspiring to culture in the present day professes an appreciation of painting. He deems it de rigueur that he should be able to maunder “some” on the technicalities of picture-criticism. On the other hand the same type of cultured English Philistine, when the conversation turns on the subject of music, will, with an air of smug self-satisfaction (as if he had said a clever thing) tell you that he knows nothing of the subject. One wishes he would only say the same of the sister art, for it would be doubtless quite true. But, unfortunately, painting, or “art” as it is termed (as if there were no other art), is the fashion just now with the Podsnappian type of bourgeois, who must in consequence perforce assume an appreciation of it, while with music he is under no such obligation. Here, then, we have cant in a double form.

Lastly, we come to the Socialist cant. Here we touch on delicate ground. But we must, nevertheless, face the truth that with the sentimental or semi-sentimental Socialism of the middle-classes there is mingled a good deal of half-unconscious cant. There is a sort of feeling that poverty, squalor, and coarseness are in themselves sacred, and the “good young man” who, instead of joining the YMCA takes to studying “social questions,” seems to think it incumbent on him to develop a taste for sordid habits and surroundings. A worthy person, with aspect of spotless cleanliness and refinement, was heard to exclaim recently in a moment of wild enthusiasm that he had rather sleep in a bed infested by noisome insects than eat and drink the wedding-breakfast of a baronet. Now this sentiment, it seems to me, is more fitting in the mouth of a retired bacon-factor turned vestryman and presiding at a soup-kitchen, who wants to keep the poor contented with their lot, than in that of a Socialist. Beds, as above, are within the reach of all, even the poorest of our brethren, but baronets’ breakfasts are certainly not within the reach of all. Now if the beds in question are better than the baronets’ breakfast, wherefore do we seek economic reconstruction? The present system supplies even the “reserve army of industry” with beds of this description upon demand at the casual ward, and does not trouble them with Yorkshire hams, cold fowl, and champagne, but gives them rather meat and drink in keeping with the beds. So, on the whole, we live under the best possible of systems in the best possible of worlds. I always thought Socialists wanted to bring the baronet’s breakfast within the reach of all, and only leave enough “frowsy” beds to supply the wants of eccentric persons like our friend.

Again, I know of a young man who thinks it an act of Socialistic virtue (not an unfortunate necessity, mind!) to live on 15s. a-week with wife and children. He started with the view of proving that after all money is rather an encumbrance than otherwise to noble aspirations. Now, I really think this young man ought to be “decorated” by Baron Rothschild or the Liberty and Property Defence League. If he could prove his thesis, no more crushing argument could be brought against those who doubt the perfection of the present system to satisfy all human requirements. Others, again, pretend to like dropping h’s (a vile cockney corruption of language having only an incidental connection with distinctions between classes), dirty hands, and uncomfortable third-class carriages (such, presumably, as Sir Edward Watkin’s line affords), and many other nasty things – and all because of Socialism. This is very silly, perhaps, but more or less harmless. When, however, middle-class young men take to virtuously entering an already overstocked labour market, and thus “doing” the proletarian in more than one sense, the same cannot be said.

It is surprising that these essentially individualist and bourgeois notions of the superiority of poverty and squalor, and of the virtue of self-mortification for the mere sake of it, and without any ulterior social object (which are radically inconsistent with Socialism), could ever come to be regarded as having any part or lot with Socialism, the end and aim of which is to abolish all these things. It only shows the influence of old associations and habits of thought.

We have characterised “cant” as an eminently bourgeois vice, and it is certainly true that it is mainly confined to the middle-classes. The working-classes have many faults, as is only natural, but this is not characteristic of them as a class. No working-man, for example, world even profess to prefer sleeping in an insect-haunted bed than partaking of cold turkey and champagne – not even if he were a vegetarian and teetotaler combined. We have only touched upon a few of the forms of cant which have more particularly struck us, but our whole bourgeois civilisation is saturated with it. Other ages have been brutal, but with none but our own has hypocrisy become part of its very nature. The whole subject of “cant” is an interesting one, and well merits a scientific analysis. If these few remarks will induce some student to undertake this analysis they will not have been in vain.




1. Our “Agnostics” have, to suit their own convenience, chosen to give the word Atheism an altogether new and non-natural significance. Until recently it has simply meant, both in its etymology and usage, a non-believer in God. The highly respectable “agnostic” of to-day who accepts this latter position, in order to avoid calling himself an atheist, has ingeniously twisted the word Atheism into meaning exclusively the attempt to prove dogmatically the non-existence of a deity. Armed with this brand-new definition of Atheism he is able to pass in middle-class circles as a highly creditable person who is not an atheist” – oh dear me!

2. To take the stock instance of “nipping” a tempest “in the bud.” Something is likened to a tempest. The tempest is in its turn likened to a blossom. The metaphor of the tempest holds in one connection, of the original fact, the metaphor of the blossom holds in another of the tempest. The metaphor, although a little violent, is not illogical.


Last updated on 14.1.2006