E. Belfort Bax & Charles Bradlaugh

Will Socialism Benefit the English People?

Mr. E. Belfort Bax’s Second Paper.

I am sorry that Mr. Bradlaugh is dissatisfied with my opening statement of the Socialist position, wherein I sought to show the historic evolution of the present system of society, more especially with reference to England, and thence to deduce the Socialistic as the only issue possible to benefit the English people. But Mr. Bradlaugh, I am sure, is aware of the disadvantage under which the opener of a debate on a subject like the present labors. As it is, I had to trespass on his courtesy by taking up more space than was originally agreed upon for my still necessarily incomplete survey. To judge from Mr. Bradlaugh’s remarks, he would have had me eliminate holus bolus the historical side of the question. This I could under no circumstances have done. The Socialism I am defending is indissolubly bound up with the past as well as the present of human society, and is incomprehensible except as the result of au historical development. I must therefore respectfully urge upon Mr. Bradlaugh to deal with the historical side of my article, as upon this the theory of modern Socialism largely hinges. I am quite willing for him to confine his attention to England, since this country may quite well be taken as typical; but I must protest against one of the most important parts of my argument being waved aside with the epithet “inexact”, or with mere bald denials of the facts contained in it.

I will now proceed to deal with Mr. Bradlaugh’s paragraphs seriatim. Nos.1 and 2 I have animadverted upon in opening these remarks. (3 and 4) I contend that my definition of Socialism is perfectly clear – i.e., as clear as any definition can be which does not assume the proportions of an exposition. I do not see that Mr. Bradlaugh’s definitions are as definitions any clearer than mine, but with them I will deal in the proper place.

No.1 consists of a play upon the words “goal” and “basis” – this at least is all that I can make out of it. The economic “basis”, I thought I made tolerably evident, was that historic development of industry up to modern capitalism, which Mr. Bradlaugh objects to discuss; the “goal” is of course the Socialism which we contend is its outcome. My whole article consisted in an endeavor to state the “basis” and the goal”. The statement of the “basis” Mr. Bradlaugh has ignored; the statement of the goal” he has understood variously, but never, I think, according to the ordinary sense of the words used by me.

(5, 6, 7) The relation between Utopian and Scientific Socialist theory is that they are both products of the same intellectual movement at different stages, just as astrology and astronomy, alchemy and chemistry, are alike products of the scientific spirit, the one of its infancy, the other of its maturity. The attempt to reform the world by founding model communities or otherwise by groups of individuals is analogous to the attempt of Goethe’s Wagner to “distil” a human being out of a retort. Mr. Bradlaugh is right in taking me to imply that this quasi-practicality is at least one distinctive feature of Utopianism.

(7, 8, 9) By Socialism being “nothing if not international”, I certainly meant that there is no possibility of the definite establishment of Socialism anywhere without a concurrent movement among the proletariat of the whole civilised world. I cannot regard England or any other western country as isolated from the general movement of civilisation. The condition of the civilised world as a whole is the immediate basis on which modern Socialism founds. This basis is the capitalistic system, the growth and nature of which I have already sketched. By the “break up of nationalities” I refer to the existing centralised State-systems of Europe. At present, although for obvious reasons each nationality has to work out its own Socialist movement more or less independently, yet this independence is recognised by all Socialists to be only provisional – that the centralised State of to-day will eventually be merged in a federation of all socialised communities. The centre of the larger (as opposed to the smaller or communal) social organisation will be shifted from the nation to the group of nations constituting the socialised world. But, says Mr. Bradlaugh, how long after the first establishment of Socialism will this political readjustment take place? Will a period of six weeks and three days elapse, or seven weeks, or how long? I am very sorry, but I really cannot inform him. The two events may be simultaneous or they may not, according to the circumstances under which the crisis of the social revolution accomplishes itself. I can only affirm the fact of the logical connexion of these events, and that the one must follow sooner or later upon the other. Would the “break up” be a slow and peaceful process? asks Mr. Bradlaugh. Possibly yes, but probably no.

(9) Mr. Bradlaugh rightly conceives that I deny the possibility of any social change being effected by isolated individuals or groups. The word “abstractly”, which he alleges, however, to be meaningless, contains the gist of the whole note, which affirms the impotence of individual effort abstracted from social condition. In answer to Mr. Bradlaugh’s strictures I may say that “isolated and individual effort” has never been (and never can be) effective save as the expression and outcome of an underlying social movement. It is the social circumstances and intellectual atmosphere of his age which make the individual what he is. The mere aggregate of individuals existing at a particular moment does not constitute society, any more than the mere aggregate of cell and tissue here and now constitutes the man – in both cases, it is the structural synthesis, the organic form, which determines the reality of the thing. I am sure if Mr. Bradlaugh considers the matter he will see that his “innumerable instances” of individual initiative, as contributing to progress, simply resolve themselves into cases of individuals having given voice and definiteness to tendencies already born of that social and more particularly economic development which maintains itself as one movement irrespective of the individuals, generations, and even races, through which it is manifested. My contention is that if people cut themselves off from the main stream of this development their action is futile.

(10, 11) I submit that Mr. Bradlaugh’s first definition of a “Socialistic State” (which he would substitute for my own; is much too vague to be of any use for purposes of discussion. As it stands certainly no modern Socialist would accept it. His second is open to less objection, and taking the words in their ordinary meaning, I should not be indisposed to adopt it [4], as it is little more than a blurred re-statement of my own definition. The explanatory rider is of course indefensible. “Everything common as to its user” forsooth! – that’s just what it wouldn’t be. Mr. Bradlaugh really seems to credit Socialists with the fatuous absurdity of advocating a general scramble for hats and coats. The use of a thing as to its being “individual” or “common” must be entirely determined by the nature of the thing itself – whether it is a palace or a pair of boots, for example. It is quite true that Socialism by implication affirms that personal possession shall be limited to objects of personal use, but certainly does not imply that every pocket-handkerchief, coat, hat, stocking, petticoat, chemise, “shall be common as to their user”. The remark, however, is obviously only one of those touches of playful humor which for those who can appreciate them lend a charm to so many of Mr. Bradlaugh’s speeches and articles; and I should not have essayed to refute it but for the fact that the British public is so dense at seeing a joke. Again, as to all labor being State-controlled, it is only necessary to say that after Mr. Bradlaugh lind performed his share of the work necessary to the maintenance of the community of which he was a member, he could labor as uncontrolledly as he pleased under a Socialistic regime. With regard to Socialism and Communism, I may say that the words Socialism, Communism. and Collectivism are with me interchangeable, and mean economically the communisation of the means necessary to production, distribution, and exchange – and nothing else. You may of course affirm if you like that this would eventuate in the communisation of the product to a very largo extent, but this would be an after and indirect, and not an immediate and direct result of Socialism.

(11) By the “assumption of, etc.” I mean the taking away from the present owners by any means, constitutional or otherwise, as circumstances may dictate, of the means of production, etc., now in the hands of private persons or syndicates. Socialism only proposes to confiscate wealth used for production on a large scale, i.e., as capital, in the fullest sense of the word.

(12) How the new social order is to be inaugurated, to wit, by the taking over of capital in the above sense, I certainly thought had been sufficiently indicated by me in more than one place. As to the benefits thence resulting to the English people, I also thought I made sufficiently clear that since the capitalist system, with its results as described, is so fully developed in England, that ergo the English people must especially benefit by its abolition.

(13) Civilization means primarily the domination of property as held privately, with the corresponding distinction of a propertied, dominating class, and a property-less, dominated class. It is seen fullest developed in the modern capitalist world – with its empire of profit-mongering. Hence the abolition of capitalism implies the abolition of the last phase of the civilised or State-world which is based on the above class-antagonism.

(14) The private enterprise I referred to is that which has material personal gain for its end. I see no reason why under Socialsim any other form of private enterprise should be extinguished.

(15) I must again ask Mr. Bradlaugh to deal with the historical side of my paper.

(16) That the early Christians as a matter of temporary convenience, believing the end of the world to be at hand, chose to forms a mutual benefit society, does not affect in the least the principles and ultimate tendencies of Christianity. That its principles were not Communistic would be, for that matter, sufficiently proved by Acts v., 4, if Mr. Bradlaugh regards the book of “Acts” as having any special historical value. As our friend William Morris remarked to me the other day, the vaunted Communism of the primitive Christians is essentially the same as the donation of a thousand pounds by a Birmingham manufacturer to a cause he takes an interest in. The self-sacrifice might have been greater in the former than in the latter case, but the transaction is identical in kind.

No.17 I will bear in mind, though as regards the statistical Fabian Tract, I have seen it in a place I should have thought not altogether inaccessible to Mr. Bradlaugh.

(18) I must confess I was somewhat staggered by Mr. Bradlaugh’s challenging my statement that the large capitalist swallows up the small one. This everyday occurrence seemed so incontrovertible, and has never to my knowledge been questioned by anyone. Probably Mr. Bradlaugh’s own constituents at Northampton could tell him something about this in connexion with the boot-making industry. I will, however, endeavor to satisfy his passion for figures by procuring some on the subject in my next article. Meanwhile, surely Mr. Bradlaugh will admit that goods can be thrown on to the competitive market cheaper and more rapidly when produced with large capital than with small, and if he admits this he admits that the result described must ensue. Is there not now less pauperism in proportion to population than forty years ago? Very possibly less pauperism, hat certainly more poverty. The middle classes have taken care to suppress pauperism and reduce the rates at the same time by well-nigh abolishing out-door relief and making the workhouses worse than prisons. What has Mr. Bradlaugh to say about the perennial unemployed question?

Space presses, but I shall revert to No.18 in my next, unless Mr. Bradlaugh should prefer to restate the points there raised by him in his reply to this.

(19) Mr. Bradlaugh “doubts” but does not criticise certain historical truisms put forward by me. He also alleges that I have failed to show their connexion with the subject in dispute. But surely before one can judge whether Socialism will benefit the English people it is desirable to show why its antithesis, capitalistic individualism, hasn’t and won’t benefit the English people.

(20) Mr. Bradlaugh further characterises a paragraph of mine as “an accumulation of inaccuracies”. I can only say I am prepared to stand by it to the very letter. I never said anything about “monopoly of labor”. The “unnamed individuals” constituting the capitalist class have a monopoly of the means by which alone labor can become economically productive, which of course gives them a command over those who possess nothing but their labor-power. The margin of the final profit may, as Mr. Bradlaugh says, be very small or nil, and yet the rate of exploitation or of the production of surplus-value may be a hundred per cent., as Marx has conclusively shown (Capital, vol.i., c.ix., p.201 et seq.). I am surprised to find this confusion between the concepts surplus-value and profit in a person of Mr. Bradlaugh’s acuteness. However, there it is. Then, again, the final sentence. On the hypothesis that the whole community owns and works the means of production, etc., for its own behoof, by whom. I would ask, are the “expenses” named to be incurred? Surely there is here also some confusion of ideas.

In conclusion, if I might do so without giving offence, I should like to ask Mr. Bradlaugh to formulate his objections in a more comprehensive and less detached fashion. It is easy to fire off thirty or forty questions in two columns, which it would take thirty or forty columns to answer properly. With fair play given me to reply to a series of such articles as Mr. Bradlaugh’s last, I have my misgivings lest the English people might have established Socialism before I had succeeded in convincing Mr. Bradlaugh that it would benefit them.



4. In saying this, I assume “all labor” means all social labor not labor an individual might perform for his own amusement.


Last updated on 14.3.2005