E. Belfort Bax & Charles Bradlaugh

Will Socialism Benefit the English People?

Final Reply by Mr. Bradlaugh

Although I can hardly think that in these letters there has been any real debate of the question,Will Socialism benefit the English people?, yet, as my opponent has been throughout courteous and credits me with showing like courtesy, it is possible to hope that our good-tempered exchange of phrases may not have been as wholly useless to others as I am afraid it has been to myself. In this last reply it would, of course, be unfair for me to open out any other facts or to state any other issues than those already within the purview of this correspondence.

In his second paper Mr. Bax referred me to Karl Marx on capitalist production and the rate of surplus-value (Capital, Vol.I., chap.ix., p.201, et seq.), as if in some way showing error on my part. Having carefully re-read the words of Mr. Marx, I do not see that the contention as to surplus-value – a contention which I cannot accept as there stated – helps Mr. Bax at all. His assertion in his first letter, that in consequence of monopoly a surplus-value was unfairly extracted from the laborer, I answered in paragraph 20 of my first letter. Mr. Bax rejoined that he did not say “anything about monopoly of labor”; that his use of the word “monopoly “ was not intended to include monopoly of labor, and only referred to the monopoly of the means of production; but as he says that this monopoly gives the command, i.e., control, that is, the monopoly of the control of labor, I scarcely appreciate the correction. Mr. Bax writes as if, under community enterprise, no expenses would be incurred in production; but this is surely not arguable, and can hardly be seriously meant. He says the surplus-value may be 100 per cent and the profit nil. This is impossible unless you regard the labor as the only necessary element in realising value, and treat the other matters necessary to efficient production, and stated by me in paragraph 2.0 of my first letter, as being purely imaginary. “Surplus-value” is a mere phrase jingle; unless it means value added in the production over and above all the cost of production.

Mr. Bax says that

“the ‘economic basis’ of modern society is production for profit, though the monopoly of the means of production by the named and unnamed individuals constituting the capitalist class in its various sections “.

And that the

“‘Economic bases’ 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 a whole, both collectively and individually”.

It is worth noting on this (1) that while it is true that the artificially created land laws of this country have given in England a practical monopoly of metal and mineral raw material to the comparatively limited number who have the control of the bulk of the land, and while it is also true, that of wealth, other than landed, the distribution has in a few instances thrown enormous accumulations into individual hands, it is not true that there is otherwise any “monopoly by any distinct class of the means of production as against all workers”. And (2) that it is not quite easy to understand how the English people could work say cotton, wool, coal, and iron, and their results, for foreign consumption otherwise than by manufacturing for profit. The land monopoly created by law may be broken down by law. The unfair distribution may be gradually corrected without destroying present society as proposed by Mr. Bax.

Mr. Bax jests with the questions stated for his consideration in paragraph 6 of my last paper, and his serious answer to me is that having at the outset declared his Socialism to mean “the equal participation by all in the necessaries, comforts and enjoyments of life”, he neither knows nor cares what the expression means or how it would work itself out. This may be enough for Socialists, but it is hardly useful to an enquirer or satisfactory to a critic. Robert Owen – whom Mr. Bax names as agreeing with modern Socialists in teaching “equal participation”, but whom he has here never verbally quoted – held, as Mr. Bax holds, that in a Socialistic State all things should be in common; but Robert Owen held this in the ordinary meaning of words, and never pretended that such doctrine was not the absolute negation of private property.

When Mr. Bax affirms that

“Socialism by its very definition excludes the possibility of there being any ‘unemployed’ to benefit”,

it is not very easy to consider him serious. I at once concede that if writing in a decree, or formulating in a constitution, that no men, women, or children should ever be hungry would avoid the necessity for procuring by labor the means of subsistence, Mr. Bax would have a strong case, but even Mr. Bax cannot mean this. If Mr. .Bax merely means that as he proposes to abolish employers there would be no unemployed, this is more ingenious than ingenuous. In the programme of the Social Democratic Federation, formally accepted by Mr. Bax for the purposes of this debate, I find

“organisation of agricultural and industrial armies under State control on co-operative principles”,

as one of the proposals of that Socialist body, and I do not gather how or why the Socialistic State in England is to be presumed always to be able to employ in productive work the whole of the population; or how, without such productive work, it is to be always in position to provide the whole of the population with the necessaries of life. Mr. Bax says:

“The Socialist of to-day does not profess to carry in his pocket any ready-made detailed scheme for the future of human society”.

But as Mr. Bax advocates the destruction of the present state of society, even by force, in order that the Socialistic scheme may be worked out in practice, he ought to have been ready to at least outline some probable or possible working scheme, especially as he undertook to affirm that this scheme would in its actual working benefit the English people.

If the Socialist has no detailed scheme for the future, why did Mr. Bax, as one of the preliminaries of this debate, explicitly, and without reserve accept the following declarations of the Social Democratic Federation.

“The land, with all the mines, railways, and other means of transit, to be declared and treated as collective or common property.

“The production of wealth to be regulated by society in the common interest of all its members.

“The means of production, distribution, and exchange to he declared and treated as collective or common property.”

If there is no plan of treatment what becomes of clauses 1 and 3? If there is no plan of the regulation of the produce of labor, what is the meaning of clause 2? If Mr. Bax has no detailed Socialistic scheme for the future of the English people, how is it possible even to guess whether or not Socialism will in its attempted practice prove beneficial to the English people? His latest explanation of the assumption of wealth and the then conduct of enterprise, in reply to paragraphs 12, 13, and 14 of my second letter, deserves examination.

“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 definitive proposal as to production or distribution.”

Large properties and industrial enterprises are to be taken over, that is, are to be taken away from those who have them, and this whether the owners are single individuals or hundreds, or associated small owners or share-holders. Nothing is said of any compensation on this taking over. In the programme of the Social Democratic Federation, railways are proposed to be taken “with or without compensation”. The smaller manufacturers and tradesmen are to be “undermined”, that is, gradually ruined, and Mr. Bax gravely argues that this will – either in the process of ruining or as an ultimate result – benefit the English people. To do him justice, really Mr. Bax does nothing of the kind. Although in his debate he undertook to prove that Socialism would benefit the English people, he now says:

“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”.

But was it not a pity then to engage to debate the question, limited to the English people, as it expressly was by its wording? Mr. Bax now explicitly admits, that is, that Socialism must be world-wide or non-existent, and he has no suggestions as to how many centuries must elapse before world-wide Socialism may be feasible.

On statistics, Mr. Bax is simply marvellous; he introduced statistics in his first paper, he gives more statistics in his last; challenged upon the accuracy of his figures, and utterly unable to verify them he boldly and blandly writes:

“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 possess in a very few special cases. Hence the superstitions belief in figures on the part of the modern mind. For my own part, no member of statistics would have ever made me a Socialist, and no number of them would unmake me one.”

It of course, simplifies discussions on Socialism, when the Socialist states facts and figures, but refuses to verify them, and per contra denies the right of his antagonist to go into details in any of these matters.

In his first paper Mr. Bax said:

“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.”

In paragraph 18 of my first paper I challenged this, and at last Mr. Bax gives a statement which he considers proof: (1) There are fewer bakers who bake as well as sell; (2) that in glass-bottle manufacturing a few large manufacturers swallow up the small. ones; (3) that Nettlefold’s have nearly crushed out all other screw-makers; (4) that the carrying trade passes into the hands of large companies; (5 that a friend of Mr. Bax says that the facts (admittedly not reduced to tabular form by anyone) leave no doubt as to the truth of Mr. Bax’s assertion; (6) that limited companies are on the increase.

1. If Mr. Bax’s statement as to bakers were true, it would not show that there were not as many or more vending bakers with small capital, or that the sale of bread-foods by others than the actual bakers had on balance thrown small capitalists back on the labor-market. It might show that there had been economy in the manufacture of some bread-foods. Mr. Bax gives no figures, and perhaps limits his remarks to London. The Census for 1881 (General Report, p.42) alleges an increase in the purveyors of bread and vegetables of 12.5 per cent. since 1871. These include the fancy bakers and pastry-cooks.

2. Mr. Bax gives nothing beyond his mere statement, and therefore furnishes no means of testing it. The Census for 1881 (General Report, p.41) says that glass manufacture has increased 10 per cent. since 1871. It is, however, a small manufacture, only employing 19,338 men and 1,692 women.

“Of the 21,650 persons engaged in it, 5,981 were enumerated in Lancashire,:1,591 in the West Riding, 2,884 in Durham, 2,769 in London, 2,089 in Worcestershire, 1,752 in Warwickshire, 1,151 in Staffordshire, and only 1,110 in all the other counties.”

3. I am unable to test this statement, of which Mr. Bax offers no evidence, and which, if true as to one small industry, would have very little weight. The Census (General Report, p.49) says that in 1881:

“The makers of bolts, nuts, rivets, screws, and staples numbered 8,017, and had also increased very greatly, the uncorrected total in 1871 having been 5,726 “.

So far as it goes, this is directly the opposite of Mr. Bax’s assertion.

4. The Census 1881 shows an enormous increase of persons engaged in the carrying trade, and as a railway or steamship company is made up of very many shareholders of unequal holdings, Mr. Bax’s present statement in nowise helps as evidence of his original assertion that “small capitalists are being thrown on the labor market”.

5. I do not know anything of the investigations of Mr. Alexander Donald. I do know that a gentleman of that name did attend some lectures delivered by me, and advanced, as if facts, some most extraordinary statements, which clashed with all accessible statistics. Whether or not this is the same gentleman, his statement is vague, and his animus against the bourgeoisie (a class to which he and Mr. Bax both belong) weakens the value of his too general corroboration.

6. The increase of bona fide limited liability companies for manufacturing purposes is direct evidence against Mr. Bax. It proves the existence of a large number of persons with small capital clubbed together for enterprise too large to be usefully undertaken except by such association.

To roughly sum up the argument. The definition of a Socialistic State now advanced by Mr. Bax in his three letters, is that State in which “the working classes organised to that end [the manner and method of the organisation, and the character, duties, and responsibilities of the organisers being unstated] shall take over [that is seize and appropriate, and probably by force] the means of production, distribution, and exchange” [nothing being said as to what is to happen to the present possessors in case they should not agree to, or should resist, this transfer]. There is then to be “collective ownership of these means of production by society as a whole” [all details as to the manner of the exercise of this ownership being positively refused], and all working is to be “not for profit of individuals or classes, but for the use of society as it whole, both collectively and individually”; all the matters specified are to be common property, but there is still to be private property in some wealth, not specified. There is to be “the equal participation by all in the necessaries, comforts, and enjoyments of life”, the production of wealth is to be regulated, and industrial armies are to be controlled. But, according to Mr. Bax, the foregoing does not mean, and no modern Socialist would admit that it means, that organised society should own all wealth, direct all labor, and compel the equal distribution of all produce. Mr. Bax must pardon me if I can only construe words in their ordinary everyday meaning, and if I express my regret that he should have been party to signing Socialistic manifestoes, which, as read in their natural sense, mean one thing, without adding a caution that the Socialist declarations were intended in a non-natural sense.

Mr. Bax has no scheme either for the taking possession, or for the common owning, or for the controlling, or for the regulation, or for to equal participation, and he frankly says that he neither knows nor cares what will be the detailed results. Yet he contends that this Socialism will benefit the English people.

There are very many points of interrogation, and of traverse, in my first and second letters, which Mr. Bax has passed in silence. These are so numerous that I content myself with recalling the fact, which I leave to the judgment of the readers.


Last updated on 14.3.2005