E. Belfort Bax & Charles Bradlaugh

Will Socialism Benefit the English People?

Mr. Bradlaugh’s Reply to First Paper by Mr. E. Belfort Bax

The question which ought to have been discussed between Mr. Bax and myself is, Will Socialism benefit the English People? Having carefully read the opening paper by Mr. Bax, on whom is now the duty of affirming the proposition that Socialism will benefit the English people, I am afraid that such a discussion is unlikely to be effectual if conducted on the lines of that opening paper.

The first step should, I submit, have been to make clear precisely what it is that Mr. Bax means when he uses the word “Socialism”; and then there should have been some attempt to show how such Socialism could be put in practice in this country; what were the beneficial results to the English people to be expected as the consequence of such Socialism in practice; and why any such benefits, if secured by the English people, were to be regarded as solely or mainly attributable to Socialism. In the first step Mr. Bax has, I think, failed; the other points he has not even touched, unless the very vague generalities I shall notice presently are considered by him sufficient.

Mr. Bax says that he defines “Modern Socialism” “as a new view of life (i.e. of human relations) having an economic basis”, and he adds that “the economic goal of modern or scientific Socialism” “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”; and he afterwards affirms that Socialism is to be realised “in the assumption by the people themselves, organised to this end, of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and in the working of them in the interest of the whole community”.

But it is no definition to say that Socialism is a new view of human relations upon an economic basis unless the “view” and the “basis” are both clearly explained, and this explanation has certainly not been given by Mr. Bax in the paper to which I am now replying. He does speak of the “economic goal”, but can scarcely mean that the “goal” to be arrived at is with him the equivalent for the economic basis from which the Socialistic system starts.

5. Then Mr. Bax says that the economic goal of the Socialism which he ought to affirm, “no less than the Utopian Socialism of Owen, Fourier, St. Simon, etc.”, is – I will omit the “etc.”, as much too vague for serious discussion, and will ask Mr. Bax, does the “no less” mean that the Socialism he affirms is at least that of, or at least the equivalent of, those of Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Claude Henri St. Simon? That is, does he mean that the Socialism which he maintains includes and accepts the whole of what he calls the Utopian Socialism of these eminent persons, and in addition affirms something else (and if yes, what?) which makes it “modern or scientific” in lieu of being “Utopian”? I must not be understood as admitting that the theories of Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and St. Simon are identical or even workable together.

6. Mr. Bax objects that Utopian Socialists, such as Owen, Fourier, and St. Simon, believed equal participation by all “to be attainable by mere individual initiative”. This seems to me inaccurate, but as it is scarcely relevant to the issue I only note the point as perhaps enabling me to distinguish the Socialism Mr. Bax now affirms. I understand Mr. Bax, in this, to maintain that Robert Owen and his friends were Utopian because they tried to reduce Socialism to actual practice in groups, and that Modern Socialism is practical in entirely avoiding any such experiments. If I am wrong in this interpretation perhaps Mr. Bax will state precisely what it is that he means, as I fear I do not quite know what he intends by the concluding sentence of his first paragraph.

7. If Mr. Bax attaches any importance to the words, “special reference to the condition of the world as a whole”, with regard to any attempt now or in future to establish Socialism in England, I shall be glad to have this explained, the more so as I see that he declares that Socialism “is nothing if not international”. Does this last phrase mean that no plan of Socialism could succeed in England unless that plan were also adopted by other European countries, or does the condition of the world, as a whole, involve that Socialism must be accepted in Africa before it can succeed here?

8. As I see that Mr. Bax is of opinion that “the break up of the present State nationalities of Europe would be one of the first results of Socialism”, I would ask him to state distinctly what other results, if any, of Socialism he anticipates in England as occurring prior to the expected break up of European State nationalities? I would further press him as to what he means by the break up, say, of the Swiss, Italian, French, and German nationalities? and what kind of governments, if any, he looks for as likely to be existing, or which he may desire to exist, in each or any of these countries respectively after such break up? and whether he anticipates that such break up of State nationalities would be a slow and peaceful process? and if yes, why? or whether he regards such break up as in any case likely or desirable to be rapidly effected? and if yes, how? and whether if State nationality is to cease in England, as one of the earliest results of Socialism, he will briefly state the form of government, if any, which he hopes for in this country, and how he thinks it can exist without representing State nationality, or at least some federation of State nationalities.

9. If I rightly apprehend the note by Mr. Bax, he denies the possibility of any social change being effected by isolated individuals or groups. It is true he limits its denial by the words “abstractly, and of their own initiative, irrespective of the general current of human progress”; but the first word, “abstractly”, is here meaningless, and on the last eight words it is only necessary say that the general current of human progress has been made up of innumerable instances of isolated and individual effort ultimately co-operating and coalescing for the desired end, and thus ensuring the progress. To be told that the modern Socialist builds his faith on a “rock of ages” with “many-hued strata of economic formation” marvellously pretty, but it has the disadvantage of not being necessarily clear in its meaning to the hearer or reader.

10. Not finding a definition of Socialism in these words of Mr. Bax, I will state my own view. I define Socialism either as affirming (1) that organised society should own all wealth, direct all labor, and compel the equal distribution of all produce, or as affirming (2) that organised society take possession of land, capital, all means of production, distribution and exchange should control all labor, regulate all distribution and conduct all exchange. That is, I understand a Socialistic State to be one in which everything would be in common as to its user, and in which all labor would be State-controlled. I therefore identify Socialism with Communism. Does Mr. Bax accept either of these definitions?

11. Mr. Bax says that there is to be “the assumption” (does this mean the taking away from the present owners? and if yes, by what means and on what conditions as regards the present owners?) of the “means of production, distribution, and exchange”; and that there is then to be “equal participation by all in the necessaries, comforts, and enjoyments of life” (this, I suppose, means that under scientific Socialism everyone is to have an equal share of everything); and that the people are to be “organised to this end”. I would ask Mr. Bax to tell me whether in so using those words he means that the organised people should take into their possession as a common stock and then own all wealth, and equally participate in all produce, and if not, what distinction he draws? I would also ask him whether he includes all conceivable wealth under the words “means of production, distribution, and exchange, necessaries, comforts, and enjoyments of life”, or whether he means to except any of the results of production? and if he makes any such exception, why?

12. In his third paragraph Mr. Bax promises to state “the nature of the process” by which the transformation of what he describes as capitalism into “a real social order” will be effected, and further promises then to give “the reasons why such social order must benefit the English people”. I hope that he will not think me rude in saying that I find no trace in his paper of any attempt to fulfil either promise.

13. There is one statement of Mr. Bax, i.e., that “civilisation can be only definitely overthrown by Socialism”, which if Socialism could widely prevail would very possibly be accurate. I am unable, however, to see that the definite overthrow of civilisation either in England or everywhere is shown by Mr. Bax to be probably, or even possibly, beneficial to the English people. Mr. Bax adds that the “State world” is to become a “social world” “by a revolution generated in the fulness of its own development”. I would respectfully ask Mr. Bax to explain to me how and when he thinks this English State is to become some kind of English society other than a State? and in what way this is to be effected “by a revolution generated in the fulness of its own development”?

14. Mr. Bax affirms that Socialism “would of course soon result in the extinction of that private enterprise” – that is, in the extinction of some private enterprise he objects to. I venture to ask him whether Socialism, if realisable, would not certainly result in the complete extinction of all private enterprise, or what kinds of private enterprise he thinks would resist and survive? and why?

15. If I pass almost without examination, and with but very slight contradiction, Mr. Bax’s inexact presentment of history, it is because I believe it absolutely irrelevant to the question, Will Socialism benefit the English people? and this is the only question I intend at present to discuss.

16. When Mr. Bax says that “Christianity is through and through Individualistic”, I would ask him – if it be in any degree material to the issue between us – to explain how such a proposition is reconcilable with Acts ii., 44; iv., 32.

17. I see in Mr. Bax’s paper occasional, but not precise, references to other works from his own pen and to the writings of others. I would respectfully ask him to requote here any words or statistics which he may think necessary to his argument. I have hardly the time for research outside my own bookshelves, and without exact reference might not light upon the intended passage; and our readers might some of them be in similar difficulty.

18. Mr. Bax makes the following statement with great confidence, and as if one of indisputable fact:

“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.”

I very much doubt whether any portion of the paragraph is true as to this country, except the one that the “army of labour tends steadily to augment”. This I have always maintained, and have no doubt that the evils of society resulting from the tendency of population to increase until positive checks operate are of a most serious nature. I would, as to the rest of the paragraph, ask Mr. Bax to refer me to the particular trades in which, during the last twenty years in England, the small capitalists have in any large numbers been so thrown upon the labor market. Also I would ask him whether the individual possessors of capital in England are not more numerous in proportion to population than they were forty years ago, and whether there is not now less pauperism in proportion to population in England, than there was forty years ago. Mr. John Morley, speaking at the Cobden Club dinner, said:

“In the years 1874-5 to 1881-5 the incomes between £200 and £1,000 per year have increased by 30 per cent, though the population has only increased by 10 per cent. Incomes over £5,000 a year have decreased by 10 per cent. You come to this as a general conclusion – that the lower the income the more rapid has been the rate of increase.”

Does Mr. Bax dispute these figures? I admit that with the increasing education of the past thirty years there is an increasing consciousness of suffering and augmented discontent with unfair life conditions. I have done my best to increase this consciousness and discontent in order to compel ameliorating changes. I admit that with the increase of population in great centres you have limited areas of exceedingly acute misery, disease, and crime, which are probably in excess of what was possible in small centres of population; but I deny that there is increase of misery for the mass of the people, and assert on the contrary that the condition of the masses in England has certainly improved during the past fifty years. As the burden of proof is on Mr. Bax, I invite him to give me the exact figures and references on which he relies to prove the allegations I traverse. I quite admit that it is true that there are unduly largo landed estates and unduly large fortunes in a few hands. The land evil may, I think, be dealt with by legislation under existing institutions. The undue accumulations of capital are a little more difficult to check, but even this may be only a question of limiting power of bequest, of imposing cumulative tax on inherited personalty beyond a certain figure, or of higher and graduated income tax in excess of a certain amount. I would also submit that the large accumulations of our richest capitalists form only a small portion of the gross national wealth. Mr. Bax quotes, on the authority of Mr. Hyndman, some figures as to which he admits that he does not know how they have been arrived at, but which he says he has never seen “seriously controverted”. I do not know whether Mr. Bax means that he does not regard objection from myself as serious, but he will see that in my debate with Mr. Hyndman, p.30, I specifically challenged these very figures, and Mr. Hyndman, though alluding to this, p.34, never disputed the returns I relied on. I have not seen the other statistics referred to by Mr. Bax. If they are material, I should be obliged by his giving them in detail in his next paper, as the lump totals given do not enable me – even if I understand them – to do more than challenge their accuracy. I say “even if I understand them”, because Mr. Bax writes that money not earned by producers – that is, the estimated increased value – should be added to the income of the non-producer – that is, that something not brought into existence should be reckoned as part of the income of someone who cannot be benefited by this non-existent quantity. Mr. Bax may mean something by this. Will he kindly explain?

19. I exceedingly doubt whether Mr. Bax is right in saying that in England “the break-up of the feudal states helped to consolidate the power of the Crown”. And if he did not mean this to apply to England, it is irrelevant to the issue we are discussing. Nor is it true that the history of this country from the sixteenth century to the present time “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.” In any case Mr. Bax omits to show any connexion between these alleged past sins of the English trading classes and the proposition he has undertaken to affirm.

20. Mr. Bax says:

“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 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 hint in bare subsistence. Remove the monopoly from the hands of individuals, and you do away with the possibility of surplus-value.”

This paragraph is an accumulation of inaccuracies. It assumes that at present some unnamed individuals have a monopoly either of all labor or of certain unspecified kinds of labor. Neither of these assumptions is true. It assumes that there is always or generally a surplus-value of considerable amount which the laborer has earned, to which he is morally entitled, but which he does not get. This is sometimes true, but seldom to the extent suggested by the form of the statement. The margin of profit over cost of production is usually very small. Then Mr. Bax says that by Socialism you “do away with surplus-value”, but he does not explain how manufacture will be possible if no part of the result of labor is to go for plant, the expenses of conduct of the works, outlay for raw material, cost of exchange and distribution, which must necessarily be incurred, whether any particular industrial enterprise is exploited by an individual, by a corporation, or by a community.


Last updated on 14.3.2005