E. Belfort Bax

Individual Rights Under Socialism

(21 March 1891)

From Justice, 21 March 1891, pp.2-3.
Republished in E. Belfort Bax, Outlooks from a New Standpoint, 1891, pp.143-150.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The opinion is commonly held by those whose views of things are determined by the sound of words, or who are given to swallowing ideas without sufficiently masticating them, that the chief aim of Socialism is the annihilation of the freedom of the individual, and that ergo anything that tends in this direction is pro tanto Socialistic, and anything that tends in the opposite direction pro tanto Individualistic, in the sense of anti-socialistic. Because Individualism is the name given to the existing system of unrestricted competition, i.e., to the unlimited control by the individual of the productive and distributive powers of the community, in short, to the attempt of the individual to make himself absolute, or asserting himself at the cost of other individuals and of society as a whole, therefore these sapient critics think the essence of Socialism to consist in the limitation of individual freedom: We need scarcely say that the notion that the maximum of Socialism corresponds to the minimum of individual liberty is as preposterous a travesty of any great principle as ever entered the perversest head of man. Socialism demands the greatest possible liberty (or licence if you will) of the individual, limited only by the condition of its not infringing on the principle of equality of liberty. When the exercise of individual liberty is at the cost of equality of liberty; when it is a liberty of some at the expense of all, then necessarily Socialism steps in and proclaims the curtailment of such liberty. But in this case and only in this case, is Socialism not identical with the greatest possible extension of individual liberty. For example the liberty of the individual to waste the resources of society by producing wealth in the most costly rather than the least costly manner, such as occupying land as flower gardens which ought to be used as cornfields, thereby entailing unnecessary labour on the rest, is not a liberty which would commend itself to a Social-Democratic community. But on the other hand, in all really “self-regarding actions,” that is, actions which directly affect the individual performing them alone, complete freedom is of the very essence of Socialism. And yet one hears sometimes when a protest is made by a Socialist against some absurd and tyrannical infringement of individual liberty on the part of the existing law, some callow idiot tender the observation, “But surely that’s Anarchism not Socialism”. The reply is simple. Unless Anarchism had contained some element of truth in common with Socialism it would never have deceived so many good-hearted but weak-headed Socialists as it has done.

As a matter of fact, it contains two such elements, each of which it exaggerates and divorces from its connection, erecting it into a sacred principle independent of all else, thereby falsifying what would be true if viewed in subordination to other aspects of the Socialist problem. The first element of truth in Anarchism is that force is as justifiable in the hands of revolution as of reaction, and that there is no inherent reason why it should not be successfully resorted to. This Anarchism travesties in its cultus of violence as the sole justifiable method of working for revolutionary ends.

The Second element of truth is that above stated, to wit, the freedom of the individual, the non-coercion of the individual by the society, as an end to be striven for. This it certainly is, since the play of individual initiative is an essential of the development of society considered as an organic whole. But the Anarchist travestie this truth by converting it into the holy dogma of the abstract freedom of the individual at all times and in all cases. I say the abstract freedom, for rather than coerce the individual for what was obviously the collective good, his own included, by limiting him in the commission of the most preposterous acts of folly and destruction of both, the consistent Anarchist says: Perish society, perish individual.

In the desperate attempt to preserve the abstract and formal appearance of freedom the aforesaid Anarchist is willing to fling its reality to the winds. For the reality of human freedom, if not of human existence, implies organisation based on social evolution, which is incompatible with the idea of absolute formal autonomy of the individual. The only sphere in which the individual can claim absolute right to autonomy is in that of those self-regarding actions which do not in any direct manner touch his relation to social life and in these Socialism demands it as completely as any Individualist can desire. But in things as constituting the fibre of social existence, as such, such as economics, that is, the production, distribution and regulation of the necessaries of life, such autonomy must inevitably mean the re-enslavement of man under the forces of nature.

Yet, though the only place in which Socialism demands the absolute freedom of the individual is in “self-regarding” actions, the tendency of Socialism is toward the minimisation of coercion in every department, especially of direct coercion. For example, take the foolish talk often heard about the difficulty in a non-competitive society of dealing with the idle, dissolute, &c. The problem correctly stated is, what not to do with them. i.e. how best to cut them off pro hac vice from the advantages and even necessities of the social life against which they are sinning while leaving their formal freedom as individuals unimpaired. An organised system akin to boycotting might possibly serve the purpose. The aforesaid persons, assuming them to be physically and mentally capable, deliberately refuse to contribute their share to maintain the organised freedom which the commonwealth of the Social Democracy has developed. That commonwealth, while refusing them the benefits of that freedom, magnanimously allows them to retain their individual autonomy and see what they can make of it. Thus, the bestowal of the individual autonomy so much desiderated by a certain school of Anarchists might come to be the punishment allotted to that class of persons who bulk so large in the estimation of certain objectors to Socialism.

It is exceedingly probable that, once Social Democracy has gained the upper hand over Civil Society, the punishment of crime (in so far, and so long as it exists) will be on similar lines. The increasing revulsion of the human conscience, as a rule, not only against brutal punishments but against any punishment at all which is of a positive nature – i.e., to the proceeding by which the modern State in cold blood, and as a purely mechanical act, seizes the criminal and torments him – has its significance. It is one of those symptoms -which denote the awakening consciousness of the better sort, even of middle-class persons, to the fact that modern civilisation is not the best possible thing in the best possible of worlds. The difference between the view taken of crime by the middle-class individualist and his State and by Socialism, is significant of the relative position of the two. To the individualist, naturally, the particular criminal as such, is solely and entirely responsible for the crime he commits. On him, therefore, he wreaks all his vengeance. To the Socialist, on the contrary, for every crime committed, the State, or the society in which it is committed, is as much or more responsible than the individual. When you have once ceased to regard the individual as an isolated and abstract moral entity your ferocity against the criminal is gone. As a mere matter of self-defence you may reserve to yourself the right to slay the ruffian if he attempts to practice upon you, or to assist any other victim to that end, if you are in the way. But the truly bestial ferocity with which the average bourgeois gloats over the cold-blooded torture or butchery of the garrotter or murderer by the law becomes merely repulsive. The humane and refined law of England in the platitude of its wisdom naturally takes the opposite view. It forbids a man under pain of penal servitude from preventing himself being garrotted or murdered, but zealously flogs or hangs the garrotter or murderer after the event.

Now, the idea of society being itself partly responsible – partly itself guilty in the matter of crime – naturally, on reflection, and after the heat of momentary indignation at a particular crime is over, engenders a consideration for the criminal which forbids us to regard him as the executive of the modern State does, as a being without rights and without human qualities. We feel that society deserves to pay the penalty if it produces criminals, and that, though the criminal may conceivably be utterly depraved, yet that he is not necessarily so, and in most cases is more sinned against than sinning. Hence the feeling of cowardice and injustice as attached to the calculated infliction of suffering upon the individual criminal by the collective forces of society. This feeling, as I said before, I take to be the foreshadowing of a treatment of crime by which the penalty will be deduced from the crime as a natural consequence of it, rather than assume the form of a deliberate act of vengeance. In short, the part played by society then will be negative rather than positive. Violence is always double-edged in its moral aspect. Granted the right of society to inflict suffering, in itself wanton and useless, upon the criminal and call. it punishment, one can hardly refuse to admit the right of the criminal to similarly revenge himself upon the society or, at least, the executors of its vengeance. By wanton and useless suffering I mean such as merely hurts the criminal without repairing the effects of the crime or otherwise benefiting the community. Thus to imprison a man with crank and plank-bed for a theft (we assume, of course, private property as surviving) is a wanton act of vengeance. But to compel him to labour till he has restored by his labour fourfold its value, only placing him under such restraint the while (if at all) as is absolutely necessary to prevent him shirking his task would be a punishment logically deducible from the crime itself. Given the right of society to torture the criminal uselessly and you at once get into a vicious circle of acts of vengeance and revengeance from which there is no logical escape. The mind naturally revolts against the infliction of wanton suffering.

The negative attitude of society referred to above, which was the principle on which crime was dealt with the early world, will probably be the form which, mutatis mutandis, its treatment will take in that later world on the threshold of which we are, but which we have not yet entered. The community in this case would withdraw its protection from the criminal citizen, and while leaving his formal liberty unimpaired, would deprive him by social ostracism, if not of his bread and salt as in ancient Rome, of all but the barest necessities of life, together possibly with the right of invoking its protection under certain circumstances – in fact, place him under a ban. There are cases in which the penalty might be very directly deduced from the crime. Thus, supposing the case of a man who whenever he got drunk was in the habit of committing acts of violence. Nothing further would be required than to notify to such a person that the fact of drunkenness placed him at once outside the protection of society, which would mean that in addition to the other dangers he incurred when in such a condition – falling down wells, area steps, steep places into the sea, etc – there would be yet another one in that any assault upon him under these circumstances would be regarded prima facie justified. This, I take it, would be quite as effectual a means of preventing him from getting drunk as the dread of a possible three month’s “hard.” The mechanical police-system of the modern civilised State and its penal codes must inevitably be superseded by a psychological method which refuses to ignore the special motives and characteristics of individuals.

Law, the positive coercion of the individual by the State, will become modified into the coercion of a public opinion which leaves the offender so severely alone that he dreads the alone-leaving even more than the actual violence of the jail. The development of penal methods along lines somewhat similar to the foregoing, viz., the reversion to the principle of a negative rather than a positive action on the part of the social body as against the individual offender – must, I think, without doubt be a sequel of the change from Civilised to Socialistic conditions.

I may conclude by repeating what was said at starting, that one of the aims of Socialism is the minimisation of the positive and mechanical coercion by society of the individual in all departments at human life. Although the individual in a Social-Democratic Commonwealth will in reality be knit together with that commonwealth inconceivably closer than he now is with the modern State, yet it will be the imperceptible union of one element in an organism with the whole, rather than the connexion of a cogwheel in a complex machine with its main apparatus. Direct, mechanical, coercion arose with Individualism, and will fall with it. Where society exists merely as an aggregate of self-centered units having, separate and opposed interests, there mechanical coercion is a necessity. As soon as you have a real as opposed to this pseudo-society, so soon mechanical coercion gives way before organic union – the antagonism between individual and social interests, from being an integral element in the constitution of things Human, is reduced to a mere sporadic accident, or altogether disappears.


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