E. Belfort Bax

The Ethics of Socialism

(November 1889)

Bax, The Ethics of Socialism, Justice, 14th November 1889, p.1.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Superstitions die hard. The absoluteness of the individual ethically, apparently still finds supporters is quarters where the absoluteness of the individual economically has been given up. Socialism proclaims the regeneration of the individual in and through a regenerate society. For Socialism there is no effective moralising or raising of the individual that is not the result of changed economic and social conditions.

The individual as the expression of the social life into which he enters cannot be separated from it morally or intellectually. He is one with it. Individual and mass are the inseparable elements of the one whole. Where a particular man is said to be “in advance of his time,” all that with any propriety, can be meant by the expression is that he concentrates and brings to a focus, in his own person, ideas which are latent in the mind of the mass but have not received articulate expression. He thinks with more or less precision what they merely feel vaguely. The capacity for this is just as much a product of the society. It is begotten, not made. Similarly, the possession by a man, of strong moral backbone, either presupposes that he, as an individualist, has grown up under exceptionally favourable conditions. Where this has not been the case he is the result of an atavism, that is, of a reversion to some ancestral type, the product of other surroundings than the present.

Morality in practice means at basis the habit of identifying personal interest with social interest; the satisfaction of self outside of, or even in antagonism to, the immediate interests of self. This type of character cannot obtain except sporadically in a society where the immediate animal interests acquire, by the inability to satisfy them, an undue importance, and where the only possibility of satisfying these immediate self-interests lies in the successful violation of social interests, where, in short, you have a necessary and perennial antagonism between the two. History shows the ever renewed attempt and the ever-renewed failure of humanity to reach a higher level by the endeavour of the individual to become regenerate from within, to work out his own salvation irrespective of social conditions.

How very narrow are the limit; within which it lies, in a man’s own power to do or to forbear, and a fortiori how very narrow are the limits within which the individual can modify his own character by any effort of will on his part must, we should think be apparent to any moderately intelligent observer of men; but to the student of history the fact is clear as the noonday the changes of moral tone follow changes in social conditions and are not affected by resolutions of individuals to purify their characters.

Introspection, with its ascetic taint and its morbid craving after self-mortification, has produced plenty of interesting pathological types, but no true society. In saying this I shall probably be confronted with the usual arguments anent the early Christians, among whom it will be said we have a communistic society, combined with an individualistic and introspective morality. To this I reply, as I have often pointed out before, that the communism of the early Christians was a means to an end, the surrender of worldly goods being a voluntary act on the part of individuals, and not a matter of principle, The true historical significance of a movement or new departure first becomes apparent after it has passed through its initial stages. At first it appears still trammelled with the forms of the principle out of which it has developed, and against which it is a protest. Christianity, the emphatic assertion. of the individual per se, as against the decaying remains of the spirit of the old tribal and city communism, itself entered the historical arena as a communistic religious guild. But the development of Christianity soon showed that this belonged merely to its immature phenomenal form, and not to its essence. At no time did it constitute a part of its principle, and it soon outgrew it even as form.

I know that to many persons the considerations here insisted on have only a speculative value, but in reality they are of extreme practical importance. So long and so much as men believe that the first concern of each is with his own character as an individual rather than with the conditions of society as a whole, so long and so much will they be lukewarm in their interest in the cause of social change. No one wishes to underrate the value of personal character, but what we do contend is that men can only change their characters fundamentally for the better indirectly and not directly. Seek ye first a true society and its righteousness and all other things shall be added unto you.



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