E. Belfort Bax & Charles Bradlaugh

Will Socialism Benefit the English People?

First Paper by E. Belfort Bax.

Modern Socialism may be defined as a new view of life (i.e., of human relations) having an economic basis. Although its theory has been already many times expounded recent years by myself and others, it may be doomed necessary on the present occasion for me to go over the ground once more. The economic goal of modern or scientific Socialism, no less than that of the Utopian Socialism of Owen. Fourier, St. Simon, etc., which preceded it, is the equal participation by all in the necessaries, comforts, and enjoyments of life, and the equal duty of all to assist in the necessary work of the world. But while the Utopian Socialism believed this to be attainable by mere individual initiative and example without any special reference to the condition of the world as a whole, Modern Socialism finds the earnest of its ideal in the facts of social evolution [1] – and it is on this rock of the ages, with its many-hued strata economic-formation, that the modern Socialist builds his faith.

Society, it is generally admitted in the present day, began to expand under the aegis of crude tribal Socialism, in which property was in common, and morality and religion consisted in devotion to the social unit. This in the course of progress lapsed, owing to its credulity and limitation in scope, and was gradually supplanted by Civilisation with its basis of Individualism in economics, morals, religion, etc.; the latter in its turn is, as Socialists believe, now after many a century, in the moment of its completest realisation, destined to undergo a transformation in which its fundamental principle will be sacrificed and the old solidarity again assert itself, purged from its imperfections, and with the seal of completeness and universality upon it.

Such, in a few words, is the skeleton of the historical theory of Socialism. With what we may term the first transformation of society (from Tribal Communism to Civilisation) it would be beside the present question to deal further. I therefore, having stated the fact, pass on to consider in more detail the development of the completest form of Civilisation, viz., modern Capitalism, with the nature of the process by which Socialists believe its transformation into a real social order will be effected; and lastly the reasons why such social order must benefit the English people no less than every other people.

Modern Capitalism, and the civilisation which is its expression, is the most extreme antithesis in every respect of tribal society. All the ties which formerly bound the individual to his group are ruptured. Modern society is based on the nominal independence of the individual as unit. Let us briefly trace the development of this independence on its economic side from the Middle Ages downward. The earliest distinctive form of medieval society, that of the feudal estate, was for the most part an industrial whole, the links connecting it with the outer world being few, and seldom indispensable to its existence. Well-nigh everything produced on the estate came from its soil. The villein and his sons tilled the ground, reaped the harvest, and hunted the wild animals, raised domestic stock, felled the trees, built the dwelling, etc.; his wife and daughters spun the flax and carded the wool, which they worked up into articles of clothing; brewed the mead, gathered the grapes, made the wine, etc. Division of labor and a system of exchange in a society on this plan were obviously unessential. This system, as everyone knows, continued the dominant one throughout Europe for centuries. But in the course of time it gradually gave way before the growing town industrial organisation of the guilds. Each man here worked to maintain himself or his family at a particular handicraft, by exchanging or selling the product of his labor. In this way specialisation of labor and a more extended commerce arose. But the mediaeval burgher was neither free nor a capitalist in the modern sense. Though only indirectly, if at all, under the domination of a lord, he was under the very strict surveillance of his guild. The guild, by regulating the number of his apprentices and the quality of his material and work, took good care that he should not develop his individualistic instincts. The burgher class of the Middle Ages was nevertheless the forerunner of the modern middle class. As the mediaeval system broke up, the guilds gradually declined. A floating class of journeymen wage-laborers came into existence and flooded the towns, while the burgher class became restive at the restrictions of their own guilds, of which wealthy cliques soon obtained the entire control, while a new middle-class established itself outside the chartered cities. This development, essentially the same throughout the progressive races, is typically represented in England. The symptoms of the dissolution of the economical conditions of the Middle Ages were, the uprooting of the people from the soil, and the abolition of time old feudal and communal rights, the dissolution of the monasteries and the old feudal establishments, the opening up of a world-market, the new inventions, etc. Such was the soil out of which modern Capitalism grew, as expounded by Marx in the second volume of Das Kapital (English translation.) Modern Capitalism, and therewith the modern “middle-class”, its embodiment, dates from the sixteenth century. Its industrial course has been marked by three phases: (1) simple co-operation of a number of handicraftsmen under the lead of a wealthy burgher; (2) the manufacture or workshop system; and (3) the “great machine industry” which arose at the end of the last century and has been expanding itself in scope and intensity ever since. With this, its last phase, production for use has given way completely before that production for profit which breeds to-day the commercial rottenness we see around us. Wares of all kinds are now produced for a forced sale, by means of their cheapness – “gluts” succeed to “booms” – till trade depression becomes permanent. The small capitalist is continually being thrown upon the labor market by inability to hold his own in the competitive arena. Capital tends thus to become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, while the reserve army of labor tends steadily to augment. The result is increasing riches for the few and increasing poverty for the many. The “increase of national wealth” at the present day means increase of misery for the mass of the people.

The economical change toward complete Individualism, the issue of which is the modern capitalistic system, has been accompanied by political, moral, and religious changes intimately connected with it, but which, important as they are, I can only notice very briefly here. (1) The break-up of the feudal states helped to consolidate the power of the Crown. This it was which completed that economical revolution in breaking down the local centres or feudal groups with their common lands, traditions, customs, and jurisdictions, isolated the individual, and laid the foundation of the modern centralised national systems of Europe. (2) The economical backbone of the landed class as a class being broken, the political power passed both by gradual process and revolutionary crisis into the hands of the new capitalist or monied classes. This was partially effected in England by the “glorious Revolution” of 1689; in France more completely by the Great Revolution of 1789. From the sixteenth century downwards political history is the history of the middle or trading classes in their efforts to free the individual from the fetters of feudalism and monarchy, to the end that on the one side there might be a body of free and landless laborers, and on the other a body of moneybags free to exploit them. To effect the end in view political power was necessary, and though obtained in this country, in principle, in 1689, or even at the Commonwealth, was not finally and fully realised till the Reform Act of 1832.

(3) Then again, the individualistic tendencies of bourgeois economics are reflected in its religion and ethics. As I have elsewhere shown, Christianity is through and through individualistic. But during the Middle Ages its individualism was subordinated to the current communal and pagan tendencies it took on from the barbarians, and the form it assumed was largely colored by these tendencies. Hence Catholicism has been in many respects the least objectionable form of Christianity, precisely because its spirit is the least Christian. Just as every member of the local community of peasants had a right as such to the common land, etc., so every member of the universal church or community of saints had a right as such to the heavenly pastures. The Reformation, the religious side of the rise of capitalistic individualism, affirmed salvation to be a matter solely of personal concern. It tore the individual away from his spiritual moorings, just as it had torn him away from his temporal moorings, and left him to shift for himself. It pretended to be a restoration of primitive Christianity, and this was true as regards spirit if not as regards doctrine. For primitive Christianity was also the ideal expression of the dissolution of communal life – in this case the civic life of the classical world. Protestantism has always accentuated the doctrine of individual responsibility to the deity; religion under Protestantism became) personal and matter-of-fact, i.e. eminently bourgeois.

(4) With ethics proper it has been just the same. The highest Protestant conception of goodness is, not zeal for social ends but a maundering self-introspection, having personal holiness for its end.

The results of commercial individualism we see at the present day on all hands, and nowhere in richer luxuriance than among the “English people”, unless it be in the United States, where the economic development has gone further even than in this country. Let us only look around at the material aspect of things – the universal empire of shoddy goods, jerry buildings, foulness and squalor. As one enters London or any other large city, what is it that greets the eye? A vast agglomeration of filth in every conceivable variety of form – railway works, factories, slums – indicative of human misery that no tongue or pen could adequately describe. Had Dante lived now and wanted material for his vision of hell, he would only have needed to take the South-Eastern train on landing at Dover, and depict the place he saw as he entered the English metropolis. And for what ostensibly is human nature, and for what are the vast majority of human lives ground down to being thus the slave of the mere process of production and distribution? Forsooth, in order that a relatively small class may live either without labor at all or with the labor of the gambler [2] – which latter the literary flâneur glorifies under the name of the aleatory.

In my own eyes, statistics have no great value, experience showing that they can be made to prove any proposition in the hands of a clever manipulator. To my thinking, a day’s journey through the slums of a great city proves more than tons of statistics. One fact outweighs a thousand figures. But since I am not writing altogether on my own account, but also on behalf of the Socialist League, and many persons like to see figures in an article of this kind, here are some. First you have H.M. Hyndman’s figures: £1,300,000,000 annual revenue of the country, of which £300,000,000 only accrue to the working classes who produce it, the remaining £1,000,000,000 going in various proportions to the non-producing classes. I am not aware how Hyndman arrives at these figures, but I have never seen them seriously controverted, and they seem to me to express admirably the ratio one would expect to obtain, on a rough estimate, judging from the facts of modern social life. Then you have the statistics carefully compiled by G. B. Shaw in Fabian Tract No.5. [3] These give a similar total, but the proportions as £800,000,000 to the non-producers and £500,000,000 to the producers. In a footnote, however, to page 9 of the document in question, the amiable and witty author significantly remarks that these statistics assume regularity of employment and take no account of deductions for ground-rent, which being interpreted must mean that a sum not very much less than £200,000,000 has to be taken off the lesser and added to the greater amount, so that after all we are brought back approximately to the Hyndman figures quoted above. But, as I before said, such figures as these have no value to me except as a “cut-and-dried” statement of the fact obvious in itself without the aid of any figures at all – to wit, that society is composed of two fundamental classes, a relatively small class of monopolists that possesses the bulk of the wealth produced, and a very large class of producers that consumes only a fraction of that wealth. Those classes, of course, shade off into one another, but the fact of their existence and of the antagonism of their interests still remains an indubitable truth.

It is this great curse of civilisation which Socialists would fain see abolished. Many would doubtless gladly have a wave of barbarism sweep this rottenness away as it swept away the effete classical civilisation. But the Socialist knows that this would only mean the martyrdom of nineteenth century progress, or something like it, having to be gone over again. There is no effective putting back the clock of human evolution. No, Civilisation can be only definitively overthrown by Socialism. The state-world, the civitas, can only become a social world, a societas, by a revolution generated in the fulness of its own development. The means of the present exploitation of labor, the cause of the present horrible state of things is monopoly. Its modus operandi is the extraction of surplus value from the laborer by compelling him to work a whole day while receiving only so much of the results of his labor as is necessary to keep him in bare subsistence. Remove the monopoly from the hands of individuals, and you do away with the possibility of surplus value. The above revolution then consists in the assumption by the people themselves, organised to this end, of the means of production, distribution, and exchange (as explained in the Socialist manifestos), and in the working of them in their own interest, that is, in the interest of the whole community. This would, of course, soon result in the extinction of that “private enterprise”, whose exploits consist in destroying all the worth of life under pretence of enhancing it, but really in the interests of individual greed. That “stimulus of personal interest” which spreads like a cancer through artistic and literary productivity, flooding the world with cheap and nasty work, would be finally cut up by the roots. Industry would be regulated consciously with a view to the needs of Society so far as ascertainable. Wealth would be produced for use and not for profit.

With the abolition of classes, consequent on the abolition of monopoly, national rivalries, at present mainly reduced to questions of commerce, would come to an end. The break up of the present State-nationalities of Europe would be one of the first results of Socialism, which is nothing if not international. The sphere of politics would be gradually merged in that of industrial direction. With no independent nations there would be no national interests, as such; with no classes there would be no class-interests, as such. Bourgeois civilisation at an end, there would be no longer any object in maintaining the sham of a creed to which the modern proletariat as a class has never attached itself, and in which nine-tenths of the educated middle-class have not only ceased to believe by their own confession, but for which even the sentimental attachment they may have had some decade and a half back, is rapidly waning. Finally, with the consummation of individualism in Economics comes the destruction of individualism in Ethics, whether in its brutal form of (so-called) Utilitarianism or self-interest, or in its inverted and apotheosised form of introspective maunderings having “personal holiness” as an end. Both must give place to an Ethic in which social and individual interest have ceased to conflict, which has as its foundation the principle that the perfect individual is realised only in and through the perfect society, and which hence abandons the morbid striving after individual perfection for the healthy endeavor after social happiness. Politics will thus become ethical and ethics political. Personal will be no longer divorced from public character. Social order will supervene on anarchy.

Will Socialism benefit the English people? Will fresh air benefit the suffocating man? Will food benefit the starving man? Will rest benefit the weary man? If not, perhaps Socialism will not benefit the English people. Otherwise, the question “Would Socialism benefit the English people?” would seem to partake of the ironical.




1. We are so much accustomed to the idea of Evolution in the present day, that we can with difficulty understand its absence. Hence the fallacious antithesis made between Evolution and Revolution. The true antithesis to the notion of social Evolution is not that of idea of the possibility of isolated individuals or groups being able to change society, so to say, abstractly and of their own initiative irrespective of the general current of human progress.

2. It is amusing and instructive, as illustrative of bourgeois humbug, to listen to middle-class paterfamilias and his holy horror of Monte Carlo and similar establishments, where gambling is at least honestly and straightforwardly carried on, while this same worthy himself thieves and gambles every day in “business” or stock-exchange speculations.

3. Mr. Bax is in error in ascribing Tract No.5 to the pen of G. Bernard Shaw. – A.T.


Last updated on 14.3.2005