E. Belfort Bax & Charles Bradlaugh

Will Socialism Benefit the English People?

Mr Bax’s Last Paper

I regret that Mr. Bradlaugh’s second paper should not have contained a more distinct criticism of the modern Socialism set forth in my opening article than it does. Mr. Bradlaugh in his last complained that I had not made myself clear to him on certain points. These I endeavored to explain in a few sentences. He now again says he does not understand what I mean. Briefly, then, once more, the “economic basis” of modern society is production for profit, through the monopoly of the means of production by the named and unnamed individuals constituting the capitalist class, in its various sections. The “economic basis” of Socialism is the collective ownership of these means of production by society as a whole, and their working not for the profit of individuals or classes, but for the use of society as it whole, both collectively and individually. I believe, as I before said, that the tendency under Socialism would be increasingly towards a collectivisation of the product, but when, how, and the precise proportions in which this would take place I do not pretend to prophesy. In fact, when Mr. Bradlaugh pursues me with four-wheeled cabs, wooden clogs, and his long and supple leather fishing-boots, and says, what of these? who shall ride in this cab? who shall wear these boots? how do you know that he who wears the boots will like the boots he wears? there is only one truthful answer I can make him, and that is, “I don’t know, and I don’t care”; and in saying this I am sure I express the sentiments of the immense, majority of modern Socialists. Such conundrums have not the slightest interest at the present time; and if Socialism pretended to answer them it would thereby proclaim its own absurdity and worthlessness. If Mr. Bradlaugh was to discuss such interesting details as these, I commend him to the Positivists, who will further inform him how many times a man is to tap his forehead or scratch his left ear (I forget which) before going to bed in the society of the future.

And this brings me to the point where, with due respect to Mr. Bradlaugh, I should like to signalise what I this is the cause of Mr. Bradlaugh’s failure as I cannot but deem it) even so much as to touch the question at the root of the issue between us. Mr. Bradlaugh seems to be looking out in my exposition for something he doesn’t find, and he is disconcerted because he doesn’t find it. Hence his unwillingness to deal with the historical and other points put forward by me, and his anxiety to wave aside so many things as “irrelevant to the issue between us”. This latter practice or proceeding reaches its acme of eccentricity, if I may so call it, when Mr. Bradlaugh intimates his opinion that the question of the unemployed has nothing to do with Socialism, and challenges me to prove that Socialism would benefit the unemployed! Now I submit that though human nature can stand a great deal in controversy, yet there is a limit to all things under the sun. And I do think that Mr. Bradlaugh might have borne mind the elementary fact that Socialism by its very definition excludes the possibility of there being any “unemployed” to benefit. The “unemployed” belong to present society and it clearly devolves upon Mr. Bradlaugh as the champion of present society as against Socialism to deal with this great problem of modern times. He may say, course, that Socialism is wrong and impracticable; but granted Socialism, and ex hypothesi there is no such thing an “unemployed” class. However, I will not press the point.

The question then arises, what is this “something” Bradlaugh is trying to find in modern Socialism, and can’t? I think I am not far wrong in saying that what Mr. Bradlaugh is looking for is (1) a handy and portable conspectus of future society, which, when found, he might proceed pull to pieces at his leisure; and (2) an attempted application of such a scheme to the English people as English i.e., considered as an isolated whole and without reference to the rest of civilisation. Unfortunately, in neither of these respects can modern Socialism oblige Mr. Bradlaugh. The Socialist of to-day does not profess to carry in his pocket any ready-made detailed scheme for the future of human society. Such schemes ho regards as mere quackery nowadays. All he professes to do is to proclaim a law, or a system of laws, if you like, of social evolution. He shows the development of society in the past, exhibits the logical tendency immanent in that development, and deduces therefrom the main principle of the next stage of social progress. For this reason an international Socialism, with the means of production and distribution concentrated in the hands of society, as advocated by modern Socialists, could not have taken place in ally previous period of the world’s history. As to the details of the arrangement, whether immediate or ultimate, these no human being can see. All we say is, let the working classes, organised to this end, take over the means of production, distribution, and exchange; first the land, railways, mines, factories, credit establishments, and the larger warehouses and retail stores, which stand ready organised to their hand; at the same time let the executive proceed to establish new workshops, warehouses, and stores on a large scale in those trades where they do not already exist, and so undermine the smaller establishments possessed and worked by individuals, and which might for that matter remain unmolested until this happy consummation. Beyond this we do not profess to make any definite proposal as to production or distribution. The rest must be left to time and circumstances to work itself out. (Time above is, I think, in itself, a sufficient answer to Mr. Bradlaugh’s paragraph 7. It will be seen from this why I regard Mr. Bradlaugh’s first definition, as inadmissable on all the three sub-heads he mentions.) Before leaving this question of “detail”, I should like to illustrate the common absurdity of requiring a detailed plan of the new society in its complete form, of its pioneers to-day, by asking Mr. Bradlaugh if it would have been very reasonable to have expected a member of the long Parliament (let ussay) to give a detailed exposition of the political and social relations of the modern commercial world? The Puritan townsman of the seventeenth century undeniably represented the principle of the supremacy of the middle classes as against feudalism, and yet we know how little he could have pictured to himself the ultimate issue of this principle as presented in nineteenth-century England. Yet the parallel is feeble, seeing that his principle had already made some practical headway, and the change from the social life of the seventeenth to that of the nineteenth century is immeasurably less in scope than that from a fully-developed capitalistic civilisation to a fully-developed Socialism.

To come to the other point. Modern Socialism is unable to deduce the social change it deems imminent, from the idiosyncracies of a particular people, or to conceive Socialism as applied exclusively to any one people. The modern European States (with the various colonies which are their offshoots) had their origin in loose feudal confederacies with little or no national cohesion. (I should not have insulted Mr. Bradlaugh with references for this elementary historical fact but for certain remarks in his last paper; as it is, I refer him, as regards England, to almost any page of Green, Freeman, or Stubbs.) We regard the modern national stage as merely transitional; Mr. Bradlaugh, on the contrary, seems to regard it as a sort of thing that was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Already we see the nationality idea becoming a mere cover for financing operations, market-hunting, and capita-list competition generally. The “differences” of type, temperament, etc., are but surface-differences compared with the fundamental laws governing the development of all human society. The most diverse nationalities were once united under the very inelastic civilisation of Roman antiquity. Western Europe, irrespective of race, was, again, dominated by the feudal system; the whole civilised world is now alike under the iron heel of modern capitalism – i.e., profit-mongering and wage-slavery. Mere racial differences may be quite well left out of account in dealing with the deeper problems of social development. If Mr. Bradlaugh would deign to notice my brief historical sketch, he would find the essential identity, irrespective of nationality, of Western development from Feudalism to capitalism there indicated. Nay, even the Socialist movement has already taken hold in greater or less degree of the workers of the whole of modern civilisation from the Pacific to the Volga. A few years ago there was no Socialist movement either in England or America; it is now daily advancing by giant’s strides. Mr. Bradlaugh makes a difficulty as to what I mean by the well-known phrase modern or western civilisation. I mean of course the economic, political, social, and intellectual life of Europe and its colonies, including the greater part of America. In economics this means modern capitalism, with its railways and great machine-industry; in politics, middle-class “constitutional” government (monarchical or republican); in social relations, the particular compound of vulgarity veneered with culture sometimes termed Philistinism; in religion, the organised hypocrisy which assents to, or does not reject, a body of dogmas, rites, and ceremonies the plain meaning of which is obsolete or no longer believed in by the educated classes. But, says Mr. Bradlaugh, how about Russia, there is no constitutional government there? No, and everyone recognises the Russian despotism as an anachronism – that is, as something out of place in nineteenth-century Europe. There are, of course, “backward” countries in Europe that fail as yet to reach the standard of completed bourgeois perfection, as realised in England and in other important Western nations. The attainment of this, however, as we have often seen, is only a matter of a few years. But modern capitalistic civilisation, I may observe, [re para.10], is not the only form of civilisation. There have been other and more immature forms as of civilisation, the “economic basis” of which has been serfdom or chattel-slavery. Some of these survive still in a stationary or decaying state – notably in Asia, and here and there in Africa. These (with the barbaric and savage populations of the globe) may be left temporarily out of account. They are outside the main stream of modern social development. [5]

As regards Mr. Bradlaugh’s paragraph 3 I would like to ask him in what purely barbaric or savage community he finds a dominant class of exploiters and a dominated class of exploited within the community, it being understood that we are not talking of cases here and there of rapacity on the part of individual chieftains; or what is more to the point, I would ask him to explain how my definition of civilisation can be made to apply to the internal economy of those primitive tribal communities, by the gradual consolidation of which all centralised nations were formed, and the last remaining survivals of which may be seen in the Russian Mir, the Swiss Allemen, the Hindoo “village”, etc., etc. [6] (cf. Maine’s Village Communities and other works, Laveloye’s La Propriété Primitive, Maurrer’s Deutsche Markverfassung, also Mommsen’s Römische Studien, and first volume of Roman History, etc., etc.) Apropos of this I might quote Emerson’s words with one alteration: “Society is civilised (Emerson said barbarous) until every industrious man can get his living without dishonest customs”. When this latter is the case we shall have Socialism.

Mr. Bradlaugh’s paragraph evidently implies more than it says. I am sure Mr. Bradlaugh would not feel inclined to be rude without thinking he had some very good cause. Notwithstanding, as I really cannot see the terrible lapsus I am supposed to have made, I must still adhere to both my statements as to Owen, Fourier, and Co., to wit, that though the end of modern Socialism is, broadly speaking, similar to that of Utopian Socialism, as I understand it, yet that as a science or theory of Society it stands in much the same relation to the latter as modern chemistry does to alchemy, or astronomy to astrology.

In paragraph 9, Mr. Bradlaugh again discredits the historical side of my opening paper without discussing it. He says I ought to bring forward some evidence in support of the statements challenged. This I should have been most happy to do, if I had known what were the statements challenged. But seeing that Mr. Bradlaugh admits my account to be “sometimes consonant with fact”, I had surely a right to expect that he would name the points where, in this opinion, it was “utterly conflicting” therewith, and briefly state his reasons for so thinking. It seems to me this would have been more germane to the issue (seeing the importance modern Socialism attaches to its “historical basis”) than propounding impossible riddles as to the precise point where communisation of the product will begin and end in future Society, problems which obviously can only be solved by experience, and upon which modern Socialism does not profess to dogmatise.

One last word on the point about Christianity incidentally raised in my first article. What I meant was that the essential principle of Christianity, that upon which its whole theory of life and conduct is based, is an assumed relation between the individual soul and the divinity directly revealed in it and to it. The end of the individual’s being and conduct is his union with this divinity; all moral action is in the last resort subservient to this as its supreme source and object. My aim was to place this morality in contrast at once with the old tribal morality of the early world and with that of modern Socialism, the object of which was and is, not the perfection and apotheosis of the individual soul, but the welfare of the social body. I still contend that isolated passages in the Acts (which, bien entendu, may or may not represent historical facts) do not “in the least affect” my position. A policy pursued under special circumstances as a matter of convenience cannot be taken as affirming a principle. I may say, however, before leaving the subject, that I can find not the slightest justification in the text for the gloss Mr. Bradlaugh has put upon the Ananias incident in his last paper.

And now, then, for the promised facts and figures relative to Mr. Bradlaugh’s paragraph 13 in first paper, and the progressive concentration of capital in fewer hands. Does Mr. Bradlaugh know that (1) in the bakery trade a complete transformation has taken place within the last few years; that whereas every baker used to bake his own bread, now there are hundreds of bakers in London who sell but do not bake bread? (The reason of this is that large firms like Neville are able to bake bread and deliver it cheaper than retailers can bake it.) (2) In the fancy bakery trade I am told the same fact is still more noticeable, where firms like “Huntley and Palmer” and the “National Bakery Company” are ousting the small capitalist completely out of the field. Moreover in this, as in other departments, it is becoming general for large grocers to supply cakes and biscuits made by the firms in question, thereby completely crushing the small specialist retailers. (3) Take, again, the refreshment trade, and the same process will be found to hold good, as evidenced by the success of the “Aerated Bread Company”, “Lockhart”, etc. (4) I am informed by a correspondent of large experience in the glass-bottle trade that he is convinced that the whole of the smaller makers must before long “go to the wall”. One of the largest glass-bottle makers in England has absorbed, to his personal knowledge, eight small factories within a few years, and no new ones have sprung up to take their places, or are likely to do so. (5) Again, Joseph Chamberlain’s (or rather Nettlefold’s) screw-making business has, it is well known, very nearly crushed all other screw-makers out of existence. Lipton’s is also a case in point. (6) The business of transportation shows precisely the same phenomenon, large men crushing small men, and large companies crushing small companies. An immeasurably larger amount of the carrying trade, as everyone knows, passes into the hands of the few large shipping companies than into that of all the small firms combined. The instances pointed out, I think, fully bear out my friend, Alexander Donald (who has for two or three years past been specially investigating this matter at first hand and in detail) in writing: “The facts (relative to this subject), which have not been reduced to tabular form by anyone, simply because the bourgeoisie don’t want information on the subject, leave no doubt as to the truth of your statement”.

I will not weary the reader by running through the gamut of the various trades and industries, which, so far as I am aware, all without exception tell the same tale; but here are a few official statistics: – From 1863 to 1869, there were 4,782 new limited companies started; from 1870 to 1876 there were 6,905; from 1877 to 1883 there were 8,643: and in 1883 alone there were 1,631, the largest number ever started in one year. Of course, a considerable portion of these fail; in the sharp competition there is among them it is the fittest to cope with existing conditions only, which survive. But here again the main element of success is practically unlimited capital, wherewith to “hold on” and to “push”. I would ask Mr. Bradlaugh to consider the amount of concentration of capital all this means, for statistics in this case, where every company is officially registered, must obviously be rigidly accurate. The same remark applies to the figures respecting bankruptcies and compositions with creditors, which form part of the obverse of the same medal. Here are a few taken haphazard: – The bankruptcies and “compositions”, which in 1870 were 3,002, in 1875 realised 7,899, and in 1879 attained the enormous total of 13,132.

Of course, I must accept Mr. Bradlaugh’s statement that the boot-making districts are better off to-day than forty years ago. I must only call Mr. Bradlaugh’s attention to the fact that forty years ago the industry of the country was only beginning to settle down from the acute crisis caused by the introduction of the great machine industry. Now no one denies that the sudden and severe misery caused by this subsided for a time, during the flourishing period of British manufactures and trade, otherwise the Cobden-Bright school of politicians could never have got the ear of the English working-classes as they did. It may well be that the after-glow of this period of “leaps and bounds” lingers still in some industries and in some districts. Our contention is that, taking things all round, and setting aside this as well as temporary trade “booms”, etc., the tendency toward a polarisation of wealth and poverty is making itself apparent in a yearly accelerating ratio. When Mr. Bradlaugh asks me to furnish statistics of every important town in Great Britain in 1817 and in 1887, he is, I respectfully submit, making a somewhat unreasonable and unnecessary demand upon me. My opinion of the value of such statistics considered per se is not such as would induce me to undertake elaborate researches on that head. On this point I am entirely of Carlyle’s way of thinking. Figures, which appear so orderly and beautiful and convincing, are but abstractions; they are only serviceable as a shorthand registration of a conclusion arrived at by other means. The, in most cases, insuperable difficulty of initial verification, the difficulty of finding out the precise data on which they are based, the facts they suppress and the facts they express, render them practically valueless. Statistics have a fraudulent appearance of an accuracy which they can only possibly possess in a very few special cases. Hence the superstitious belief in figures on the part of the modern mind. For my own part, no number of statistics would have ever made me a Socialist, and no number of them would unmake me one; so Mr.Bradlaugh must pardon my declining to treat the statistical side of this question as possessing any but a purely secondary and formal interest.

In concluding my share of this debate, I must again apologise for the length of this paper, only pleading the largeness and importance of the subject in excuse. At the same time, I should like to express my sense of the uniform courtesy of Mr. Bradlaugh in the conduct of his side. The subject Will Socialism Benefit the English People?, as I believe, is necessarily decided in the affirmative by an understanding of what Socialism (in its modern sense) means, and can only be profitably discussed on this issue. Hence the direction I have endeavored to give to the debate.




5. To mention one point only, as regards nationalism. Under nationalism the capitalist can play off the imported foreign workman against the native, or can transport his capital to other lands, where he will find a crowd of starvelings to do his bidding. This could not happen were the national barrier broken down. When Mr. Bradlaugh looks at the interconnection of modern industry and commerce throughout the modern world-market, he must surely see that the establishment of Socialism in England implies the immediate co-operation of at least the nations constituting the van of civilisation.

6. The not infrequent existence of slavery in its cruder form in barbaric societies, while apparently contradicting my contention, does not really do so. The captive taken in war is reckoned a chattel precisely because he is not in the tribal society, within the limit of which alone social life is as yet recognised. There is no exploitation of tribesman by tribesman.


Last updated on 14.3.2005