E. Belfort Bax

A Socialist’s Notes on Practical Ethics

(February 1891)

E. Belfort Bax, A Socialist’s Notes on Practical Ethics, Time, February 1891, pp.107-119.
Republished in E. Belfort Bax, Outlooks from a New Standpoint, 1891, pp.109-124.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In a transitional period like the present, when the society of status has been superseded by the society of contract, the society of groups by the society of individuals in a commercial State, and when this society is itself becoming fast superannuated, when, like the mast of a ship on the horizon, the ideal of a new society based neither on status nor on contract, neither on the exclusiveness of the old Communism nor on the isolation of the new Individualism, is absorbing men’s attention, an ideal which is as certain to be followed by realisation as the ship’s mast on the horizon is to be followed by the ship’s hull, it is but natural that our moral conceptions should be in a chaotic condition. We are between two moral systems, the Christian and bourgeois system of personal holiness and commercial morality, and the communist system of social morality. Hence, notions belonging to either of them are found intermingled in men’s minds, and each man has to disentangle as best he can the principles which shall guide his daily life. Many of the canons of the current or bourgeois morality are justly felt to be no longer binding on those who reject the dominant system of society and its ideal. But with these maxims, which have significance solely in relation to the differentiae of an individualist-commercial or a introspective Christian society, are often confounded principles which underlie all moral relations whatever. Many persons who have given up the conventional bourgeois morality have not assimilated a socialist morality, and hence, have no morality at all. Their case is analogous to that of the savage who, under the instruction of the missionary, has learnt to despise the traditional and customary ethics of his tribe as “heathen,” and having imperfectly understood the Christo-bourgeois mixture dealt out to him by the broad-cloth man of God, has developed into as ill-conditioned a scoundrel as it is easy to meet.

Now, for those who reject the moral standards of current society as such, it is of the utmost importance that they should come to an understanding; with themselves as to their true relation to this morality. The utter confusion of ideas on this point of many persons has been illustrated in the case of certain Anarchists who have not scrupled to commit and to defend any act of meanness or villainy on the ground of their emancipation from bourgeois morality. Now there are three elements in the current as in every concrete ethical system, in so far as it is ethical. There is the element which underlies all morality – the insufficiency and the abstractness of the individual per se, or as an end to himself, and the expression of this in the ought, of conscience, the impulse toward the realisation of self outside of self. But this element, although fundamental, is vague and abstract considered alone – having no definite purpose. It receives a determinate direction first in the definite categories of human relationship. Here we find certain general formula of conduct implicit, and more or less limited in their application in primitive society, and becoming more and more explicit and universalised in their application as civilisation advances. These general categories are the conceptions of Justice and Injustice, Meanness and Generosity, Fidelity and Treachery, etc. The mere indeterminate tendency is here negated, inasmuch as it acquires a definite direction, the concepts embodying it presenting them-elves, not as the realisation of self, but as something imposed upon self – upon the individual – from outside. The categories named are the basal ground of all real or concrete morality. They resolve themselves, in fact, broadly speaking, into the propositions:

  1. Every act necessarily involving cruelty is per se immoral.
  2. No act not necessarily involving cruelty is per se immoral.

But the categories above mentioned, each and severally fall asunder into inner pairs of concepts which differ in different epochs within the historical period, and which are determined by the particular economic and other conditions of the epoch in question. Thus one age conceives justice and injustice in very different ways from another. The modern tradesmen would feel the regulations of the mediaeval guild an injustice. The medieval craftsmen feel it no injustice. Robin Hood, and those who sung of him, saw no injustice in plundering the wealthy merchant or ecclesiastic on the king’s highway; nor, at a later date, did Sir John Fortescue, when he praised the English for being greater robbers than the French. Highway robbery was an act of war, and though illegal, was not immoral. [1] The appropriation of the wealth of another was to the average medieval mind only wrong under special conditions – i.e., when it involved meanness, such as the spoliation of the poor and the pilgrim. In the middle ages, indeed, the categories of justice and injustice always tended in the moral consciousness of the people to pass over into those of meanness and generosity, or treachery and fidelity. The notion of justice and injustice is more abstract and later in appealing to the mind. Then, again, in the case of meanness, barbaric notions of the sacredness of hospitality, the breach of which in all early societies is felt to be the most heinous of moral offences, as all early literatures show, and as may be seen to-day among many barbarous tribes, has disappeared totally from the ethical consciousness proper in most civilised societies. The categories of meanness and magnanimity in their primary sense have, in fact, lost much of their ethical force in a society of commercial individualism, though in their secondary sense even to-day they still form a not inconsiderable element in the ethics of modern life. Except in “business,” which is an extra moral relation, being based on the autonomy of the individual, the taking of an unfair advantage – in other words, meanness – is still counted as a moral obliquity.

Fidelity and treachery, which embrace the categories honesty and dishonesty, truthfulness and lying – have also, undergone an immense change. In earlier ages the force of these lay in the breach of a personal or rather a social relation, now in the mere abstract act itself. To tell a lie to an enemy, or even merely to one outside the social group was not necessarily disgraceful any more than it was to rob the wealthy stranger on the king’s highway. On the other hand, the betraying of hospitality, which is usually regarded as the most despicable of crimes in all early societies, would now be looked upon as legitimate under many circumstances. For example, some years ago the Italian Government sent some private detectives into Sicily with the view of capturing a band of peasants who had turned brigands, and were located in some mountain fastness in that island. The plan was for the detectives to personate peasant brigands and then to lead the real brigand band into a trap and hand them over to the authorities. The police-agents duly discovered their prey, who received them warmly, and with open arms, supposing them to be brother bandits, as they represented themselves. The best quarters in the ruined castle were allotted the guests, the best viands and wines, and a portion of the booty placed at their disposal. After a few days spent in a friendly and confidential intercourse, the detectives broached the object of their mission. They succeeded in luring the wretched brigands clown to the coast and on to a Government ship, under the pretence they were about to transport them to a hidden store of wealth on a neighbouring island. Once on board, the hospitable entertainers were of course immediately made prisoners, the chief pouring forth his contempt for the treacherous villains whom they had harboured. Yet, to the police-agents, this was all business. The brigands, who took the primitive view of the duties of hospitality, had offended against the law. It was the police-agents’ business to entrap them. But who shall say that these police-agents were on a higher moral level than the brigands?

What I may term the concrete and special (as opposed to general) moral principles of modern civilisation are based entirely on the private ownership of property. What divides the Socialist from the Radical is always and essentially this distinction of economic standpoint. I heard a prominent member of the Radical party, some months ago, say, he believed that in the future the man who had great wealth would regard it as a duty to devote that wealth to public purposes. This exactly hits off average radical ideals: improvement of the lot of the working-classes, accompanied by indefinite increase in the charity and public-spiritedness of the middle-classes – no conception of there being no man of wealth, of the extinction of the institution of private property, in other words, no notion of a classless society. So deeply engrained in us is this idea of class and of the holding of property in severalty, that we with very great difficulty conceive of any state substantially otherwise.

For this reason so few persons appear to realise how much of our ethics grow merely on the soil of severalty-property – that, for example, the whole of our sexual morality (as such), in so far as it has a rational, as opposed to a mystical, basis, is nothing but a “plant” to save the ratepayer’s pockets by fixing the responsibility for the maintenance of children on the individuals responsible for the procreation of them, and that all “talk” of respectability, purity, and the like, is but the pale reflection of this central economic fact. But still it must not be forgotten that, as we are living under these economic conditions and not under socialistic conditions, any current standard of conduct must take them into account. It may deviate from the traditional and orthodox standard as much as one likes, provided that in doing so it does not ignore the facts which have given birth to that standard. It must make up its account with them in its own way, if it is not to come into conflict with those deeper moral categories which all morality at present conceivable involves. It must take them into account also in another, and to some extent an opposite, sense, if it is not to degenerate into the merely fatuous attempt to carry out Socialism in individual conduct in a society based on the opposite principle. Bearing these facts in mind, let us see how they work out in present-day social life. Now, a man may justly reject the dominant sexual morality; he may condemn the monogamic marriage-system which obtains to-day; he may claim the right of free union between men and women; he may contend he is perfectly at liberty to join himself, either temporarily or permanently, with one or more women; and that the mere legal form of marriage has no binding force. But this does not justify him in incurring responsibilities which he does not intend to fulfil. It does not justify him in seducing his friends’ wives, or committing any other act of treachery. For the marriage relation, whether with or without the sanction of law, rests upon a reciprocal pledge of fidelity, which, although not absolutely binding, is certainly relatively so; that is, until full notice of the intention of withdrawal from it has been given by one or other of the parties to it. Similarly, under present social and economic conditions he is morally unjustified in taking advantage of friendship with a man for having, without his consent, a fleeting and secret liaison with a daughter or any other female relation who may be supposed to be under his protection, and whom he may have met in the course of social intercourse with him. Again, it is quite correctly regarded as a point of honour with a medical man or a teacher that the female patients or pupils with whom he conies in contact in a professional capacity, should be treated on the maxima reverentia principle. The same applies more or less to immaturity at all times and places. In short, the distinction of standpoint as to sexual morality may be briefly summed up thus: – For the Christo-bourgeois of the present clay, the sexual relation is per se immoral, and only becomes moral per accidens, i.e., under a special condition imposed from without. To the consistent Socialist, the sexual relation is, on the contrary, per se morally indifferent (neither moral nor immoral) like any other bodily function, but it may easily become immoral per accidens, i.e., from the special circumstances under which it takes place, and whereby it acquires the character of an act of injustice or treachery, etc.

With the morality and non-morality of the relations of modern business-life I have dealt elsewhere. I have shown that the business relation per se is extra-moral and can only enter into the sphere of morality under certain special conditions. My relations with a man who is my friend, though they may be of a business character, are brought within the moral categories by virtue of that fact. I am not to him, nor he to me, any longer merely the X or the abstract buyer or seller of commodities, but this relation is inseparable from the other, and concrete one, that of friendship and social intercourse. Again, if a buyer or seller of wares befriends another, even without previous knowledge of him, that is, renounces for the nonce the law of the market, throws aside the weapon which, as a commercial man, he is entitled to use, the relation between them at once becomes moral. He, on whose behoof he has thrown aside the law of the market – business is business – is placed under the moral law as regards him who does so. His obligation is no longer merely an abstract, a legal, a commercial one, but a concrete, a personal, a human one. If any one alleges that on a consistent carrying out of this principle commercial transactions would become impossible, my only reply as a Socialist is – that is no concern of mine.

There is a good deal of confusion on the part of many persons respecting the true moral attitude of the middle-class Socialist, as to what is commonly known as “charity,” also as regards the payment of wages, etc. One need scarcely at this time refute the commonplace bourgeois gibe that the capitalist, as soon as he professes Socialism, ought to strip himself of all his belongings merely for the sake of doing so. But it may, perhaps, be said he ought to spend all his wealth on the party as such. Now, there might be something in this, if it could be proved that it was advisable for the “party” to be taught to rely on windfalls from individual members. It is not to be denied that there are circumstances under which it may be the duty of an individual, or, at least, extremely commendable in him, to sacrifice his wealth for the cause. Such cases have occurred over and over again in Russia, and might easily occur elsewhere. But the fact remains that, in the ordinary way, nothing tends so to demoralise a sect, party, or organisation, as the acquirement by it of wealth without exertion, or the accustoming of it to expect supplies from more or less accidental sources. When a party once gets wealthy in this way, it becomes a centre of attraction for every worthless person and hypocrite; even men who at starting were genuine get corrupted, and quarrels arise among them over the emoluments to be obtained. When a cause has to rely upon resources of this kind it has little or no real vitality. Either it is dead in itself, or the time is not ripe for it. And though in the latter case a little factitious booming of the kind referred to may be good, yet this can very easily be overdone. Socialism, like every other great movement, has made headway, not through the lavishness of individual benefactors, but through the energy of the masses themselves, through their conviction of its necessity for themselves, and through the enthusiasm which has led each to contribute his quota to the cause of party-organisation and propaganda. Wherever there has been a systematically subsidised Socialist party it has been pro tanto a failure. Where it succeeds it is by the mites of the masses and not by the cheques of the classes. Certainly, a middle-class man may be legitimately expected to contribute a substantial sum, according to his means, on a special emergency, but in systematically subsidising the movement, experience has proved he is injuring rather than benefiting the cause he has at heart.

In matters of private “charity,” as it is termed, there is no special principle to guide the Socialist, as such, any more than any other person. The desire to relieve the present suffering of individuals, when it comes under our notice, is natural and laudable, but the how, the when, the how-much, must be left to the feelings of every individual in his private capacity. This commendable sentiment does not, unfortunately, by any means invariably co-exist with a readiness to sacrifice class-advantages for the sake of a higher and a better social system. The charitable man in private life is often the most truculent reactionary in politics. There is, however, one aspect of the charity question which does sometimes nearly affect the middle-class man, who is also a Socialist. Such a one may possibly be an employer of labour in some shape or other. There is a certain market-rate of value of the labour he employs which may happen to be a low one. Now, there is no doubt that the giving of wages above the market-rate of labour, above what the labourer himself demands for his labour, is, in a competitive society whose basis is the market, exactly equivalent to charity. In saying this, I, of course, exclude the attempt actively to force down the rate of wages or to hold it down when it is rising, which entirely alters the case. But assuming, let us say, that in an unskilled, unorganised branch of labour, the labourer offers himself for a certain wage, is the employer, I ask, morally bound (I leave inclination on one side) to exercise charity in his particular instance by giving him more than such market-value of his labour? Let us hear both sides in the form of a dialogue!

X. How can you, who call yourself a Socialist, give the miserable wages you do?

Y. I give the wage which is admitted by the conditions of the market. I have never beaten down wages; but were I to give more my business would cease to be remunerative. Besides, in conducting business I decline to mix up charity with it. If I were to give more, that surplus would be a matter of charity, and as much a question for me as an individual to decide for myself as any other question of private charity, as, for instance, whether I give alms to a particular beggar at a particular street corner or not. Let the workmen in my branch of industry organise and demand a higher rate of wages, and it will, of course, be my duty to bow to the decisions of such a representative organisation.

X. Then you take advantage of the fact that these workmen happen to be unorganised in order to sweat them?

Y. That sounds plausibly ugly, certainly; but do not you, my friend, do not we all ‘take advantage,’ as you express it, of the system we have the misfortune to live under? Does not everyone who goes into business at all, or who invests money, be it only in a savings’ bank, ‘take advantage’ of the system – does not everyone who lives under the system and who is above the worst-paid class of workmen ‘take advantage,’ in a sense, of those below him? And would it benefit anybody or any cause that he should not do so? What you, like a good many other people, confound, is the ‘taking advantage’ of a system already existent by the individual who lives under it, and the exacerbation by him as an individual of the evils of that system for his own selfish benefit.

X. But tell me in what way are you better than Livesey, Norwood or any sweater?

Y. Precisely in that I recognise the sacredness of the demand by an organised body of workers for higher wages or shorter hours, as indicating the sign of a change (little though it may be), a change that I, as a Socialist, should hail with joy, even though it meant the destruction of my business. Not to do so, let alone to attempt actively to resist it, would be placing my own personal interests above the common cause of the workers.

X. But you ought not surely under any circumstances to pay less wages than what are requisite for a decent subsistence?

Y. Unfortunately, the standard of living, even among the working-classes, is very varied, and the normal standard is, therefore, difficult to fix; besides, the modern industrial mechanism is so complex that even if a really tolerable standard were fixed, the individual capitalist could not, as things go, maintain it and continue his business.

X. Then let him stop business.

Y. Well said; but this would only mean the throwing of a number of workmen upon the streets, and the possible reduction of the small capitalist himself to the position of a proletarian.

X. Be it so then. Better let the unemployed workman starve than encourage him to accept too low wages.

Y. But absolute starvation would surely be worse than even the low wages which competition compels me to pay. The workman would surely lose rather than gain by my throwing him on the street by closing my business. It is quite a different thing when, with a definite end in view, he chooses of his own accord and with an organisation backing him to come out on strike.

X. But you must accustom him to the idea of not working for too low wages.

Y. Does he require then to be taught this? Does he work for the low wages because he likes it, and not rather because he must? Will the effect of my refusing to employ him at the market rate, and since I cannot afford to pay him a higher one, refusing to employ him at all – will the effect of this, I ask, be any other than to drive him on to the next man in the trade to accept the same, or, if possible, a still lower wage? In giving him the wages at which he and his fellows are compelled to offer themselves, I am not exacerbating the system, I am not taking advantage of any special circumstances in which this particular workman is placed; I am not forcing down wages or preventing them from rising. My paying my workmen over and above the market rate, as an individual capitalist, will not raise the general rate nor prevent them having to accept that rate when they leave me.

X. I repeat, after all that you may say, you have no right, as a Socialist, to employ men at wages which are below the lowest possible rate at which they can obtain decent food, etc. You ought to draw the line, at the very least, at the minimum union wage, that is the lowest wage which is admitted by any union, and recognise this as the lowest you have a right to give in any industry at any time.

Y. Now you give me a definite proposition which is worth thinking about and to which I promise to give my best attention.

I leave these arguments to the consideration of the reader’s conscientious judgment.

We should always bear in mind that the bourgeois morality regards names more than things; the rose is not as sweet by any other name, in fact when it bears any other name than the one middle-class respectability has assigned to it, it is despised and rejected of respectable men. The stock exchange is a reputable institution. Staking money in stocks on the chance of a rise is business (“that blessed word”), and a perfectly legitimate occupation. Not so, staking money on the turf, at roulette, at baccarat, etc. This is gambling, the pursuit of frivolous, foolish and sinful young men. Then again, with marriage. Advertising is a disreputable form of obtaining a wife, at least in this country. But the London season, with its balls and garden-parties, in which the previously unknown young woman is introduced by her parent or guardian to the previously unknown young man, is a perfectly natural and praiseworthy institution. Why on earth a man with other things to do should have to put on a glazed white plaster over his chest, and wear a ridiculous black coat cut away behind in a positively indelicate manner, and talk platitudes for the sake of meeting a previously unknown member of the opposite sex with a view to matrimony, when, assuming he is as yet undetermined in his sexual inclinations, he might as commodiously compass his object by advertisement, seems at first sight beyond comprehension The real explanation is that the bourgeois, while wishing to maintain the present marriage-system, based on property-qualification, and on commercial considerations, wishes also to keep up the sham of its being based solely on idyllic emotion, and hence objects to its being carried on under the outward forms of commerce. The latter shocks his susceptibilities. Although the legally enforced marriage of modern society, is, in its nature, as much a commercial contract as any other, it seeks to hide this under certain conventional, social forms. Yet again, slavery is repugnant to the modern middle-class mind, or it is pretended that it is so (partly because it interferes with capitalistic enterprise in Africa and elsewhere), but in spite of the repugnance, real or feigned, of the modern man to slavery under that name, and when it takes the form of “status,” he finds nothing objectionable in it at all in the guise of a sham “free contract.” The compulsory subjection of the will of one man to that of another, which is the essence of slavery, acquires quite a different moral character when it is not called slavery, but wage-labour. So it is through all departments of life. Essentially, the same act which is condemned under one name is approved or tolerated under another, especially where the external conditions of it are slightly changed.

Let the Socialist lose no opportunity of exposing and showing his contempt for these frauds of the current morality!

The ethical issues opened up by an adoption of the Socialistic attitude in current society are various. We have indicated a few of them. But there are plenty of others which will occur to the reader. For example, there are law’s made expressly to obviate evils for which the constitution of present society is responsible – which laws in the clumsy attempt to suppress the manifestations of a system, while maintaining the system itself, often come into collision with our deepest feelings. A noteworthy instance of this is the law which makes the concealment of a felony penal. Our natural and unsophisticated moral sense proclaims that the duties of kinship, or friendship, require us to protect the relation or friend to the best of our power even from the consequences of a crime, so long as this social relation has not been definitely broken off. Now, the commission of a crime may be a valid reason for breaking a friendship, and thus relieving ourselves of all further obligation, but it can never justify the betrayal of a friend to the vengeance of the law in the first instance. The feeling which revolts against the surrender of a person with whom we have been on terms of friendship or intimacy to his destruction, which is a survival of the solidarity of the primitive social group (whence came in later times the practice of compurgation), is a much more sacred thing, and its preservation of vastly greater importance to humanity than aiding the police-mechanism of the modern state to punish crimes for the existence of which it is itself largely responsible. This is to me perfectly plain. But a more difficult case arises when the act of a person, hitherto a friend, is of more serious import than most mere common law offences – as, for instance, if he were to turn political police spy. Now, the interest of the Socialist party requires under certain circumstances that such should be killed. Here, of course, there can be no doubt as to the duty of repudiating all further connection with such a man, but the question arises, should we, in this instance, be justified in rescuing him from his admittedly deserved fate? Perhaps even here any possible future harm he might do to that party with whom we are working would be less than that arising from the shock to the moral consciousness which an act savouring of treachery would produce – even though the treachery were done to a traitor.

Then to take another point. Supposing that in Russia or elsewhere, a sudden and urgent demand for material resources for party purposes arose, and that much hung upon its being immediately satisfied. Supposing again, that, as a last resort, a female member of the party were without any hypocritical pretence to sell her body to raise the money. Would not this be a commendable act? Given the elimination of the mystical theory of the sexual relation, and I should say yes. Prostitution for private gain is morally repellent. But the same outward act done for a cause transcending individual interest loses its character of prostitution, and acquires a new content; the form of mercenary love would hide the reality of disinterested devotion to a cause and love of humanity.

I may conclude with an exhortation to search all things ethical as the indispensable condition of really and truly holding fast that which is good.

E. Belfort Bax



1. Within living memory the Italian brigand has prayed to the Virgin for success in his expeditions.


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