E. Belfort Bax

Liberalism versus Socialism

A Lecture Delivered in the Conference-Room of the National Liberal Club

(November 1890)

E. Belfort Bax, Liberalism versus Socialism, Time, November 1890, pp.1184-1202.
Republished in E. Belfort Bax, Outlooks from a New Standpoint, 1891, pp.67-90.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What is the crucial distinction between Liberalism or Radicalism and Socialism? This is a question very often asked. That they are actually often opposed is not to be denied. But the general opinion seems to be that Liberalism, if its principles are thoroughly carried out, is not in any necessary conflict with Socialism. We propose to examine this position with special reference to the economic basis respectively of Liberalism and Socialism. The Liberal party has always claimed to be the party of progress, to be the exponent of the progressive lines of social and political development at a given epoch, and, as such, to be opposed to the party of reaction. This may be termed the negative side, of Liberal theory, and so long as it maintains this attitude as the party in the vanguard of progress, it must necessarily become identical with Socialism – i.e., from the standpoint of Socialists. But here comes the crux. If Liberalism becomes identified with Socialism, it surrenders bodily all that has hitherto formed the positive side of its theory, and, indeed, what has hitherto given it the reason of its being. It has up till now placed the freedom of the individual as the professed aim of all its measures, and as its basal principle. But does not Socialism also aim at the freedom of the individual? we shall be asked – assuredly. What, then, did and do Liberals (for the most part) understand by this freedom of the individual, or individual liberty, and why have they always made it such a strong point in their political faith? The answer is, they meant by individual liberty, first and foremost, the liberty of private property as such, to be uncontrolled in its operations by aught else than the will of the individual possessing it. What was cared for was not so much the liberty of the individual as the liberty of private property. The liberty of the individual as such was secondary. It was as the possessor and controller of property that it was specially desired to assure his liberty. Indeed, in the extreme form of “Liberal” theory and practice, as embodied in modern legislation, the individual appears merely as the adjunct of property. Property is the substance the personality of its owner is the accident. And why was and is this? Because, we answer, the Liberal party represented the struggle of the middle-classes with expiring feudalism and absolute monarchy. It had to fight against the privileges of nobles and corporations, against institutions which hampered or prevented the free acquisition of wealth by individual effort, and the free application of that wealth when acquired. Its watchword was, therefore, individual liberty. The middle ages contained in its polity ideas of privilege and of corporate ownership which, after that polity had become effete, only hindered progress. Liberalism combated these effete mediaeval institutions on the line in which progress was moving – that of the freedom of the individual and his property. Thus far Liberalism was a progressive force.

Let us for a few moments trace the history of Liberalism, understanding the word in a wider sense than that of mere current party politics. Under the word Liberalism I include, for present purposes, the Protestant movement of the 16th century for freeing the individual from the control, spiritual and temporal, of the Catholic hierarchy; its descendant, the Puritan and parliamentarian movement of the 17th century, which culminated, after various vicissitudes, in the Whig party of the 18th century, which again subsequently became merged in the Liberal party of our own day. This great historical movement, extending over three centuries of the history of this country, from the middle ages downwards, must be viewed in its inter-connexion to be properly understood. In the course of the necessarily brief view we shall take of it, I shall endeavour to show that, while Liberalism (in the broader sense of the word here referred to) was at first true to its principle, and that it was really the champion of the rights and liberties of the individual, that in assuming that the chief of those rights consisted in the right to acquire and control property, it was really fighting the battle of the individual. For it was necessary that the trammels which bound the middle or capitalist classes to the feudal or landed classes should be destroyed, that the middle-classes should be emancipated, as the condition of all farther progress in the direction of individual liberty of any kind. But I shall hope to show, further, that, progress has now turned a corner, so to speak: that the removal of all hindrances to the acquirement of wealth other than what is based upon conscious fraud or open force: that the absolute right of the individual over the property he has acquittal or inherited – in short, that security and freedom in the tenure of private property is no longer synonymous with individual liberty, but often with its opposite; that individual liberty now demands the curtailment and the eventual extinction of the liberty of private property, and that Liberalism, in so far as if aims at maintaining the liberty of private property, is reactionary and false to the principle which it has always implicitly or explicitly maintained, of the right of each and every individual to a full and free development. In so far as Liberalism does this, in so far as it assumes as axiomatic a state of society based on unrestricted freedom of private property as far as possible under all circumstances, and proceeds to adjust social arrangements solely or primarily in the interests of the owners of private property – in so far, Liberalism and Socialism are death enemies. Liberalism has been negatively described by Sir Henry James as being alike opposed to Toryism and democracy, and this is, I think, no unfair description of Liberalism during this century. Liberalism has historically opposed itself alike to Toryism, landed interest, and democracy, working-class interest, whenever that interest appeared as a distinct political party. It has been the political creed of the middle-classes, which has used the war-shout of individual liberty as a means for the acquirement of individual property. The individual liberty now desired by the Socialist is the liberty of the individual as man, and no longer his liberty as mere property-holder.

The condition of England at the end of the middle ages, i.e., at the middle of the 16th century, was a remarkable one. The old system of laud tenure was breaking up, the villages and smaller towns were becoming depopulated, the sheep-farming system had absorbed much of the old tillage land; the land of the monasteries and trade-guilds was confiscated and had passed into private hands; the old peasantry were therefore driven on the soil and had become vagabonds; the new world-market – the extension of commercial relations, especially the importation of corn and the exportation of wool – had changed the conditions of production and distribution; the old guild system was breaking down in the towns; the country artificer was now everywhere a tradesman working for profit, but hampered by feudal laws and customs. Individual capitalists were struggling with the old city-corporations for the mastery, or establishing themselves in unchartered towns. The yeomanry or smaller landholders which had become an important, perhaps the most important, factor in English political and social life since the Wars of the Roses, were now established more firmly than ever, and with a growing influence. The desire to amass wealth, in the form of personal property, in contradistinction to the desire to command land and the labour of those upon it, now dominated men on it scale unknown before. To put the matter briefly, in England, the old dominant classes of the middle ages – clerks, barons, guildsmen – were dissolving and disintegrating, and new classes were growing up: in the country a, non-feudal, non-military class of small land-owners and tenant-farmers, many of whom were also artisan capitalists, distinct from the mediaeval knights and their socage tenants; and in the towns a class of independent capitalists, large and small, for whom the trammels of the mediaeval guild-system had become a hindrance and a nuisance To take one illustration only of this The number of apprentices and journeymen a member of the guild might employ in his workshop, the quality of the material he might use in his manufactures, the mode of conducting his business generally, were all regulated down to the minutest detail by the ordinances of the guild, to which the guildsman had strictly to conform. Now, the conditions of production anti distribution were outgrowing the rules of the guild which were made for much simpler and less extended operations. It was now obviously the interest of every man to produce as much as the rapidly extending markets demanded, and to employ as many men as suited him. In the middle ages, when the burgher class was imperfectly emancipated from the thraldom of noble and ecclesiastic, and where markets were extremely limited and extremely difficult of access, the guild, with the strict discipline it involved, was a necessity for the existence of the urban industrial community. Now these conditions were fast disappearing, it was no longer so, but it became the interest of every manufacturer and merchant to have a free hand to outbid his neighbour. What is said of the towns applies also (mutatis mutandis) to the country; the small yeoman, who was also an artisan, and traded on a limited scale, wanted free scope for acquiring all the wealth he could by his exertions, unharassed by feudal tolls and restrictions.

The interest of these new classes plainly lay in the direction of individualism, that is, of the severance of all the ties which bound a man to his village, to his lord, to his guild. All that stood in the way of the pursuit of wealth by the individual was obnoxious to the new classes. A new code of social ethics, as we may term them (as distinguished from theological ethics), grew up in accordance with these ideas. The shiftless class of proletarians which had formed alongside of the new middle-class or capitalists, on the suppression of the monasteries and the enclosure of the common lands, had necessarily turned to mendicancy. Now the new middle-classes found it to their interest to engage the free labour of those unfortunates at as little as possible, and not to let them subsist on the alms of the charitable. Accordingly the old mediaeval and Catholic idea that mendicancy was honourable yielded to the new middle-class and Protestant idea that mendicancy was disgraceful. This is interesting as the parent of the modern bourgeois notion of the stigma attaching to the receipt of poor-law relief. These new middle-classes were then the first individualists – the first Liberals opposed alike to the feudal noble and to the propertyless journeyman or vagabond. They ridiculed and affected to despise the propertied classes which were above them; they laughed at their literary embodiments – a Falstaff or a Don Quixote – but they and their henchmen were equally zealous in keeping down the propertyless classes that were below them – in suppressing a Kett’s rebellion in England and a peasant’s war in Germany. But nevertheless, as compared with to-day, the Liberal prototype of the 16th and 17th centuries was comparatively consistent. The propertyless class which has no control over land and the other means of production was, as yet, undeveloped and more or less transient. It was possible for the greater part of the population to earn a competency by their labour. The yeoman had his plot of land, the journeyman for the most part his tools and his skill as yet unsuperseded by the machine industry, so that the power lay with the vast majority of men of acquiring property by their own individual labour, over and above what was necessary for their immediate subsistence in tolerable comfort. Thus the individual citizen of this period might have been defined in the language of the logic-books as per se a wealth-producing animal. That wealth, produced in general, largely, if not entirely, by his own individual exertions, was not unnaturally held by him, the individualist, the Liberal, as of right belonging to him. He objected to being tied down by feudal exactions, he objected to the king having the right to levy contributions and taxes without his consent. In the ideal sphere the individualist principle was maintained. The new classes proclaimed the Protestant doctrine of individual salvation in theology as opposed to the old Catholic doctrine of salvation in virtue of belonging to a corporate body – the church.

These two sides of individualist faith have almost always gone hand in hand, and the salient point in the social ideal of the Liberal, whether in the shape of the Protestant yeoman, or burgher of the 16th century, the Puritan roundhead of the 17th, or the Whig, merchant, farmer, or squire of the 18th, or of the (in the narrow sense) liberal plutocrat and philanthropist of the 19th, has been, and is, implicitly or explicitly the freedom of the individual to acquire wealth in any manner he pleases – perhaps barring overt fraud or force – and to retain full possession and control of that wealth when acquired. Property held in severalty is and has been, in short, the groundwork of the Liberal creed in all its phases, inasmuch as the Liberal has always protested against the privileges of status and the institutions growing out of the mediaeval survivals of the early principle of property as held in common. The fact that Individual Liberty as thus formulated could ever be anything other than the only true individual liberty, never occurred to the Liberal individualist. Up till the end of last century, the economic conditions incident to the continued survival, to a very large extent, of handicraft-industries, and the fact that the population had not as yet begun to increase in any considerable degree, hid the real problem of the freedom of the individual. He still seemed the arbiter of his own fortune if only he were freed from oppressive laws. The only opponents of liberal individualism seemed privilege and rank and bad laws. What these were in the last century will be familiar to every reader of Adam Smith, Porter, or Thorold Rogiers. The law of parochial settlement which bound the labourer to his native village, the assessment of wages by the authorities, and other oppressive enactments and relics of old institutions served not only the upper, but the middle-classes with means for enriching themselves, the holders of property, at the expense of the working-classes of town and country alike. For it must not be supposed that having acquired his own individual liberty as a property-holder, the middle-class Whig was any more anxious than the landowning Tory to carry out his principles to the extent of emancipating the labourer from the oppressive customs and legislation against which he protested when it was his own interest to abolish it. For in the earlier phases of Liberalism there was no idea even of a logical and universal carrying out of its own doctrines of equality before the law and freedom of contract. Still it must be admitted that these principles lay in the conception of Liberalism, that the bourgeois having once invoked them for his own purposes against the aristocrat, could not go back upon them, that their realisation only awaited the economical development which would force him to concede and ultimately even to champion their universal application as the sheet-anchor of his system. The far-sighted Adam Smith saw this, and doubtless other Liberals of the last century saw it too. They saw it as the necessary deduction from their own principles, but they could not see beyond it. As I have before said, from their point of view it might have seemed the ultimate goal of reasonable progress. The handicraftsman could always earn a living, it appeared to them, if only he could have his freedom of locomotion and of making the best bargain he could for himself, to which was subsequently added freedom of combination, &c.

But a change now supervened on industry which put an entirely new face on things. In the last decades of the 18th and first decades of the 19th century, the machine industry began that great revolution in the production and distribution of wealth which is not even yet consummated. This revolution meant the destruction of the system of handicraft industry, i.e., of production by the personal skill of the workman and its replacement by mechanical processes. The handicraft system which had been modified in the workshop system, where a number of workmen were in dependent association, a system which obtained in many industries during the 17th and 18th centuries, had, of course, already considerably weakened the independence of the individual workman. But so much still depended on skill even in combined labour, and such a large field still remained for handicraft labour outside the workshops and in country districts, that the gradual transformation went on without causing any violent disruption of the previous conditions of labour. It was the introduction of machinery and the increased facilities of locomotion which revolutionised them, and, with them, the whole of modern life. In consequence of this there arose, as soon as the new factors had begun to operate to any considerable extent – a double politico-social movement that of the working-class dispossessed and disturbed as to their old means of livelihood, and that of the younger and (even from a middle-class point of view) more enlightened generation of bourgeois and Liberal politicians. Some of these doubtless still thought, in spite of the revolution going on before their eyes in industrial affairs, that all reasonable demands of the working-classes would be met by the abrogation of bad laws and a more extended suffrage. Others, more acute, saw that things were tending in a direction in which it would be the material interest of the middle-classes to take steps towards a more logical carrying-out of their own principles as implied in the word Liberalism. The first of these movements – the working-class movement – began with the Luddites and passed over into the Chartist movement. The middle-class Liberal, on the collapse of the Chartist movement, succeeded in hoodwinking the working-classes with the nostrums of free trade, extension of the suffrage, and the like, i.e., with movements mainly connected with the development of his doctrine of the liberty of the individual as the possessor and controller of property. But the two movements proceeded for a long while side by side. At the same time that that first blind outburst of the modern Proletariat against the modern Capitalist class, the so-called Luddite movement, and its successor the well-conceived and organised Chartist movement were going on, the middle-class Liberal was agitating for the Reform Bill which was to give him the franchise on the strength of his property-qualification, and he was also beginning his agitation in favour of free-trade, and the removal of various other hindrances to the propertied individual increasing that property by commerce, or other recognised means. Liberalism was therefore now entering upon a new phase. The middle-class was beginning to see that its interest lay in the full carrying-out of its ground-principles, rather than as heretofore in their merely tentative and limited application. The working-man, like everyone else, must be freed from artificial restraints in the acquirement of wealth, must be allowed free liberty to make what contract he pleased; this was the claim, at least, of the more advanced section of the party. He must be made equal before the law. Now the working-man for a long time heeded the music of the Liberal syren. Chartism went to pieces. The new Liberalism carried all before it. Trades-unions even at length became respectable, patronised by members of parliament and lord mayors.

We come now to our own day; we see now what was at one time an advanced wing of the Liberal party become the main strength of that party. Every representative Liberal is now prepared to go the whole length in the direction of individual liberty as founded upon a property basis. He is prepared to grant the full liberty of every individual to acquire property and to control property. But he is seldom prepared to go beyond this. The primary fact with him is still not the liberty of the individual man, but his liberty as property-holder. Now as we have said, before the rise of the great machine industry, even as late as the last century, when work depended on skill and the individual workman still possessed his own tools, when in short a man could reckon upon making a tolerable livelihood at most times and in most places, the contradiction between individual liberty simpliciter and individual liberty secundam quid – that is, on the condition of possessing and controlling property – was not developed as it is to-day. The two things seemed more or less coincident. Keeping up this tradition, middle-class Liberals, in carrying out the principles of their individualism, have studiously blinked the fact that the changed conditions of production and distribution which have enabled them, without danger to their own class-interests, to concede in form the benefit of those principles to the working-classes, have at the same time deprived those classes of any material advantage from them. Production and distribution now being an affair of plant machinery and organisation on a great scale, the workman is hopelessly at its mercy. The labourer may be as free as the air, so far as legal coercion is concerned, but the economical coercion of the private possession of the instruments of production and distribution presses upon him with an ever increasing force. It even affects the possessor of this property in many cases; he, too, although in a less onerous way, is often coerced by the economical conditions under which he holds his property.

Now the Socialist, in contradistinction to the Liberal, recognises to the full this contradiction between the two individualisms, the individualism which centres in personal property, and to which Socialism is opposed, and the individualism which presupposes the abolition of private property, at all events in the means of production, and which is identical with Socialism. He sees that the first is a purely abstract and formal individualism which sacrifices the real freedom of the individual to his merely nominal freedom. He finds that the workman is the slave of economic forces beyond his control, and that the way of real freedom for the individual, as for the society, lies in a revolution in economic condition which must involve the negation of the liberty of private property. When the essentially social functions of production and distribution cease to be regulated by the caprice and selfish interest of the propertied individual who holds the key to them, the time will then come, the Socialist sees, when individualism, in the sense of the possibility of the full and free development of the individual as such – of each and every individual, in contradistinction to that of the individual in so far as he belongs to a certain class or as he possesses property – will be realised for the first time in history. The word individualism has, however, almost invariably been used in the former sense, that, namely, of the freedom of private property, and has implied a condition of things in which every man has free hand to fight for himself without regard to his neighbour. This was the individualisms for which the so-called Manchester school, the backbone of English Liberalism, has fought. It could never, of course, be logically carried out without the dissolution of all social relations, but it has nevertheless been held up as an ideal to be striven after in so far as compatible with the exigencies of a social state and with the aspirations of the capitalistic classes. That production and distribution were social functions, and that to allow the individual to play fast and loose with them at his caprice was just as suicidal in the long run as allowing him to play fast and loose with human life on the highway, they could not and would not see. They restrained the individual liberty of the highwayman when, by means of his own property, to wit, his pistol, the latter fiercely offered the belated wanderer his money or his life, because they felt the conditions of the contract were unfair, and that the individualism was one-sided. They could not see that the manufacturer, in offering the propertyless labourer the free choice between his labour and his life, by virtue of his (the manufacturer’s) property, the factory or the mill with its appurtenances, was also unfair, and the individualism equally one-sided. In truth, there is a good deal to be said for retaining the special word Individualism for the sham, abstract, one-sided individualism usually connected by the word, for the word itself implies a conflict between Individual and Society, and therefore is no longer applicable to a state of things in which there is no longer any conflict between the Individual and Society; for such a state is the outcome of Socialism, that is (so far as economics are concerned) of the corporate ownership and working of the land and other means necessary to the production and distribution of wealth. This is not said in any utopian sense, but in a simple, matter-of-fact one. To take an obvious case: let us suppose an individual is co-operating in the making of the communal or social bread. Since he, as well as the rest of the community, will suffer if the bread is bad, he being one of the consumers of that bad bread, and seeing that he can gain nothing in any other direction by putting scamped work or bad materials into the bread, his purely selfish interest is identical with that of the rest of the community in making the bread as good as possible. The same all round. It is the interest of the individual capitalist to make things as cheaply as possible – cheap materials and cheap work meaning bad materials and bad work. But the stimulus of self-interest to bad and dishonest production once removed, and you cease to have bad and dishonest production. By sheer force of circumstances the interest of the individual becomes identified with that of the society.

There is a great deal of talk by individualists about a “man’s earnings,” “the right of property of each man in that which he produces,” etc. But what I ask, does each man produce of himself as an individual? Show me how much cotton any given factory operative has produced in the course of a year – I don’t mean the amount of wages the capitalist has given him for the exploitation of his labour-power during that period but the actual product of his labour in the manufactured article. You could not do so, because his, like all modern labour, is associated: and the work of the individual producer is completely and indissolubly merged in that of the group (factory, mill) to which he belongs, which is again inseparable from that of the machinery employed in the process and from that of other groups. It is sometimes said liberty is inseparable from property, and I agree. But the individualism of private property has to-day landed us in a state of things in which the majority have no certain property at all, and therefore on the individualist’s own showing the majority are deprived of liberty. Liberty, in any society, is inseparable from property. Good, but this does not say it is inseparable from private property. It does not say that it is not in antagonism to private property as we contend it is, in any case, where that private property is used for the social functions of production and distribution. No, liberty may be inseparable from property, but nowadays it is inseparable from the common holding of property by the community.

The outcome of Socialism is, then, a real individual liberty as opposed to a sham – a liberty for all individuals as opposed to a liberty for certain individuals only – in short, a human individualism as opposed to a class individualism. As for the nonsense talked about coercion under Socialism, does anyone suppose for an instant that Socialism implies any more coercion than what is absolutely necessitated by circumstances? This coercion you have under any state of society, and never more than in the present day when the economical laws of our anarchical, competitive, social state leave scarcely a single human being free to do as he lists. How many persons are there who can live just as they like, or do what they like with their time? How many can eat and drink what they like? How many can sleep as long as they like? There is coercion of circumstances dogging our steps at every turn and every hour of the day. The difference between the coercion of natural forces and of the economic conditions of a free competitive society and that of Socialism is that the one is a blind, unregulated, so far as we are concerned, a capricious power left to assert itself to the full over the unlucky individual; while the other is a consciously exercised and regulated coercion whose aim is, by the light of economic science, to minimise the former to the uttermost. The one means coercion untamed, the other coercion tamed. All Socialists look forward to the day when even the minimum of rationally regulated coercion involved in a Socialist society shall be no longer necessary. But, meanwhile, our choice is only between coercion at its maximum, dominating everything and everybody, as what I have spoken of as the coercion of circumstances – the coercion of the capitalist world – does, and coercion at its minimum, clothed and in its right mind and dominating as few departments of life as possible, as the coercion of the Socialist world would do. Here, then, we have this difference: Liberal individualism wants to perpetuate the unrestricted liberty of private property with the despotism which circumstances, economic and otherwise, exercise blindly and relentlessly upon every individual not possessed of private property, and often indirectly even upon those who are possessed of it. This is the basal principle of the middle-class movement of to-day. On the other hand, you have Socialism, which aims at getting rid of the despotic coercion imposed by existing conditions upon men, and substituting in its place a rationally conceived order of things, in which coercion of all kinds shall have been reduced to the minimum, and a real freedom obtained for all alike. This is the basal principle of the working-class movement of the present day. For the working-classes, even of this country, after having for more than a generation past hearkened to the voice of Liberal politicians, show unmistakable signs of awakening to a consciousness of their true interests – to sum up the question as between Individualism and Socialism.

The conflict of interest between individual and society is, as a constant phenomenon of human existence, but a growth of yesterday, if we compare its duration with that of the life of man on this planet. In primitive society the individual has no interests separate from that of the group – clan, tribe, or village – to which he belongs. Land and other property is held in common. He has not, as yet, awakened to a definite consciousness of himself as a self-contained whole. He cannot or does not think of himself except as the element of a larger whole – to wit, the group. There is as yet, therefore, no distinction of interest, either in fact or in sentiment, between the individual and the community. The distinction first asserts itself with the rise of civilisation, developing more and more into a formal antagonism as time goes on. Property held in common gets displaced by property held in severalty. This is the basis of political society with its centralised state, as opposed to kinship society with its limited group. The individual holding property acquires leisure and becomes aware of himself as a personality; he yearns with an ever-increasing yearning for the, as yet, forbidden fruit of complete individual autonomy, i.e., his complete formal independence of all the ties which had previously bound him to the community. The economic condition of the autonomy of the individual is, it must be borne in mind, property as held in severalty, in opposition to the primitive system of property as held in commons. I may remark here, of the two systems – the primitive one of property held in common and the later one of property held in severalty – that we refer to the predominating mode of property-holding. Absolute Communism and absolute Individualism in this, as in other respects, have probably never been realised in any society. Certain appurtenances of the individual, such as clothing, weapons, &c., have been tacitly recognised as accruing by customary right to the individual, even under the most complete and perfect form of primitive Communism. Similarly with our modern capitalistic society, which we may regard as, in most respects, the perfect historical expression of Individualism, in the common acceptation of the word. Here also there are, and always have been, certain things, such as public parks, museums, &c., which are, or are supposed to be, held for the common benefit. This is where, in my opinion, Mr. Sidney. Webb fails when he seeks to draw conclusions from the fact of the sporadic existence of public property in the present day as to the Socialistic tendencies of the modern bourgeois world. The real point of the distinction between Primitive Barbaric Society and Modern Civilised Society is that the first was based essentially on the commnon holding of property – the individual holding of property, when it existed, being purely accidental – while the second is based essentially on the private or individual holding of property, the common holding of property, where it exists, being similarly accidental to its main structure.

Now, individual autonomy (which must not be confounded necessarily with individual liberty, which is a much wider conception) is the expression of an opposition between individual and society, an opposition or contradiction which is very far-reaching, and which is the keystone to a whole hierarchy of similar though subordinate oppositions, whose development constitutes the subject-matter of the history of civilisation. To mention a few of these haphazard – in Economics, rich and poor, landed and landless, master and servant, noble and base-born, city and country; in Politics, governor and governed; in Metaphysics, soul and body, subject and object, thought and thing, God and World; in Ethics, sin and holiness, purity and impurity (as applied to the sexual relation); in Religion, sacred and profane, reverence and irreverence, world and Church, &c., &c. Now, in primitive tribal society, all these things were merely latent, implicitly and not explicitly present. What at first were undifferentiated and undeveloped functions of an organism in short, accidents of a substance – primitive society – on the dissolution of that society gradually acquired the character of independent, mutually opposing interests embodied in classes having severally these interests for their raison d’etre. Society (civilisation) meant henceforth no longer a coherent whole, but merely the aggregate of these interests as embodied in their respective classes. The simplicity and homogeneity of tribal society was such that it knew of only one opposition, that between the tribe or federation of tribes and the alien. The principle of contradiction in tribal society was external to that society itself. Under civilisation, while the old external contradiction tends to become abolished, contradiction has appeared in the very heart of the Social organism itself. Its salient expression is the contradiction of interest between individual and society, as expressed in the longing for individual autonomy; and its most salient embodiment is the modern Liberal individualist. Modern Liberal individualism is thus, in a sense, the highest formulation of the principle of civilisation. The Liberal individualist is an extremely high product of civilisation. He is “Der Weisheit letzten Schluss” of the civilised world. But if, as we have said, progress for well-nigh four centuries has been making directly for individualism in the sense of the middle-class Liberal, and thus far Liberal individualism has been the expression of the progressive force of historical development, inasmuch as it has meant the liberation of the individual from the effete forms of tribal society which largely obtained throughout the middle ages in a modified guise, and of which the very trading guilds themselves were an offshoot – if this be true, it is none the less true that this work is now accomplished in a11 countries in the van of civilisation. Mediaevalism is broken down all round; the surviving relics of the social and political organisation of the elder world are either gone or fast going; the individual is emerging free and equal before the law, or as much so as he is ever likely to be in a class-society. The great thing which now oppresses area is, not the privilege of status, but the privilege of wealth. It is not the legal position into which a man is born that weighs him down, it is the contract he is compelled to make of his own free choice if you will excuse the bull). Progress therefore on the old lines of individual freedom before the law has plainly reached, or is fast reaching, an impasse beyond which it is impossible, and would be useless if it were possible, to go any further. Liberal individualism is therefore played out. Progress towards freedom, in short, has, as I said at the beginning of this lecture, turned a corner. Its old position has landed it in a contradiction, inasmuch as the attainment of the maximum of formal liberty has produced a maximum of real slavery. Free contract under a system of unrestricted individual property-holding has strangled liberty. We are to-day struggling with this fell contradiction. To suppress one of its terms is impossible. The resolution of the contradiction involved in the present, social, and economic situation, is, as you doubtless all know, according to Socialism, the socialisation of all the means and instruments necessary for the production and distribution of wealth on a huge scale with the other changes in politics and ethics which must necessarily accompany or follow this economical change.

In summing up let us view human development as a synthesis – as an articulated whole – we shall then see better the drift of the position I have sought to place before you here. Humanity grows up under the reign of a system of corporate or social interest in which the individual has no significance, except as the element of a social organism. This social organism is limited by conditions of kinship, real or supposed. The individual gradually attains to a self-consciousness which chafes against his subordination to the kinship society out of which he has grown. He at the same time emancipates himself from the bonds of this society by means of the institution of’ private property and the centralised “state.”

This is at once the condition of his autonomy, and his autonomy is the condition of the further development of the institution of private property. The two things are reciprocally bound up together. Endless anomalies result from the conflict of the two principles. Thus the head of the community, from being its father and the steward of its interests a primus inter pares, degenerates into the king or feudal lord. The old idea of leadership of equals gets mixed up with the new idea of individual property-holding, and the king acquires a right as of possession over the lives and property of what are now his subjects.

History shows us the idea of the autonomy of the individual forcing itself through these anomalies ever more to the front – again and again defeated – again and again asserting itself, each time more logically than the last, until, finally, in this nineteenth century, the right of every individual to autonomy has been conceded. But now when the victory is won – a victory necessary in the interests of progress, and without which Socialism would have been impossible – it is seen that individual autonomy, that is, individual liberty as conditioned by private property, is a failure, inasmuch as the institution of private capital is inconsistent with liberty in any other than a formal sense. The middle-classes as the embodiment (against the corrupt survivals of the elder world, the landed aristocracy) of the principle of individual autonomy are now themselves confronted with the proletariat, as the embodiment of liberty, social and individual. The freedom of the individual in and through the solidarity of the community becomes now the watchword of progress. Individual autonomy, or the liberty of private property – once the only conceivable form of liberty at all – implied the negation of the bonds arising directly or indirectly out of the crude homogeneous solidarity of tribal society; the liberty of the future implies the negation of this negation. Liberal individualism has opposed itself to the crudities and anachronisms of the old order and its survivals. Socialism opposes itself to the anachronisms of Liberal individualism, and as such represents a return to the communistic principle on which primitive society was based. It does so inasmuch as under Socialism society ceases to be a mere aggregate of classes and class interests, and becomes once more a connected system or whole. The functions of social life lose their character of independent entities subsisting for their own sake and. become once more merely functions – accidents of a substance, and not self existing substances. But it is a likeness in difference. The essential truth at the basis of primitive Communism will be preserved. The essential truth at the basis of modern Individualism will be preserved also. The solidarity, the associative principle of the one reappears in Socialism, but fused with the definiteness and the solicitude for liberty of the other in its best aspects. Modern Socialism embodies the truth of both principles, but purified from the crudities and limitations of those principles in their original form. What in them both, which was false and fleeting, dissolves. The goal to which human society from its first appearance has been unconsciously struggling, the synthesis of human solidarity and human freedom, will have been reached in Socialism. The first cycle of human development will be complete. The problems which have oppressed humanity, problems which have centred in the antagonism between individual and society, will have been conquered and for ever settled. That further developments may arise, new problems demand solution, further contradictions show themselves on another plane of the nature of which we can at present have no possible conception, is no concern of ours. Those evils with which we are affected will be gone for ever. What Socialists claim is, that the co-operative community which they are fighting for is the telos of human development to which history points. Civilisation having accomplished its world-historic mission, passes away into Socialism. Just as the principle of Individualism, though often defeated by privilege and rank, the survivals of the older principle, again and again re-asserted itself, each time with more emphasis than before, so now Socialists confidently look forward to the ultimate victory, in spite of all temporary disappointments, of the great principle of human solidarity. On which side in the struggle is liberty, in its true, its real, its concrete sense, can no longer be doubtful to any student of economy or history. To destroy the specious counterfeit, and in its destruction to realise the true liberty – to abolish the property-holder and free the man, such is the aim and such must be the outcome of the modern Socialist movement.

E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 14.1.2006