E. Belfort Bax

The Socialistic Situation

(May 1891)

Belfort Bax, The Socialistic Situation, Justice, 30th May 1891.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Modern Socialism is at the present time passing through its third period. Before the Commune of 1871 it was in its incubatory stage. Its characteristics during this period were limitation of numbers, indefiniteness of purpose, uncertainty in tactics. In the Commune itself there was theoretical confusion, and there was no fixed economical principle, no definite notion of the goal of working-class action and still less of the means to be adopted as the foundation of action. In the first period of all, before 1848, the old Utopian systems absorbed the intellectual side of Socialism, while the practical working-class movement went along side by side and independently of them. The popular agitator had little or no idea of the real change which the growth of the proletariat imported, while the utopian theorist had as little idea of the import of labour movements. Chartism was, on its theoretical side, with the enormous majority of its adherents, a vague aspiration for betterment of condition, when its only conscious object was not mere politics. The Utopian socialists were sterile because they sought and believed they had got to a definiteness which no social theory as theory can ever attain. The followers of Fourier, St. Simon, and Robert Owen alike, thought they could map out the life of the future and revolutionise society by the mere magic of words; that the mere statement of how a community might be formed would be adequate to the production of a fundamental change in the ordering of human affairs; or that a few enthusiasts starting an enlarged monastery in the desert would cause the capitalist to abandon his profits and the landlord his rents.

The working-class movement as such went on without any obvious connection with the contemporary theoretical calculations and utopian experiments. But yet without knowing it the two were destined to meet in modern Socialism. The Communist Manifesto of 1847 was the formulation of the new departure, and the modern Socialist movement throughout the world is its realised expression. The ideal of a communist society in which each is for all and all is for each – the vision of a new heaven and a new earth on an economical basis the antithesis of the present one, in which modern individual property-holding, modern middle-class religion, and the morale bourgeoisie, shall have passed away and given place to something not themselves, “which makes for” another “righteousness” than theirs – this has become now the common aspiration of the working classes who have attained to a consciousness of the historical significance of their class, through dim and vague that consciousness may be.

In some cases, even the most ignorant and the least intellectually capable of those who have enrolled themselves under the red flag, have nowadays a presentiment that better wages and an extension of the suffrage are not the end-goal of the public activity of the proletariat. But still the working classes, who are thus conscious of their true historical mission, who have some notion, be it never so dim and distant, of what Socialism really means, are at present a minority in all countries, albeit a yearly growing minority. Around this nucleus we have the old working-class movement aiming at immediate ends, and not yet conscious of any purpose outside the framework of the existing social end political organisation. This is the element as yet unabsorbed by Socialism – the unsocial-democracy – into which the Socialist idea in its fulness has not entered. It is the Socialist party in the becoming, the element which is being absorbed by Socialism, but which is not yet absorbed. This is the party of the new trade unionism, and as I believe is likely to furnish by its lessons in organisation a useful and it may be a necessary stepping-stone to Social Democracy.

On the theoretical side we have the remains of utopism springing up ever and anon into luxuriant life, coloured by the theory of modern Socialism, it is true – just as the new trade unionism is coloured by some of the practical methods of Social Democracy – but none the less retaining the distinctive character of the utopian movement – the endeavour to map out the life of the future in detail. The most successful of these attempts, from a commercial point of view, Looking Backward, is nothing but an ingenious clothing of modern bourgeois life in the outer garb of socialistic organisation at a particular phase. The most successful, from a literary point of view, the News from Nowhere of our comrade William Morris (the counterblast to the former), is a transference of mediaeval society purified of its coarsenesses and cruelties into the conditions of a socialistic society at another phase. This filling in of the picture from the present or past is obviously all that the nature of human faculty can accomplish. Such attempts must necessarily remain unproductive of any practical result.

Anarchism still flourishes in some quarters as the necessary counterpart of Social Democracy when new and improperly organised. A species of utopian Anarchists there are who have one infallible and non-economic panacea for all social ills. Foremost among these is Hendrik Ibsen, with his gospel of the redemption of the human race through the selfishness of woman. This middle class Anarchism or Individualism, as we choose to call it, wears many garbs, but it always presupposes a all middle class in a more or less economically safe condition, and hence ignores economic difficulties or waltzes over them in its own light fantastic way. Supposing all women in the community came up to the Ibsenian ideal of sublime, self-centred egoism, desirable as this might be in itself, one can hardly understand any human being finding in this, as some enthusiasts do, the last word of wisdom on the social problem. Yet such are our conditions to-day: – Socialism in this its third period awaits its consolidation and completion as a party with a coherent doctrine and a united front. When this is achieved throughout the world a new cycle in the history of Socialism will be entered upon, the end of which will be the rise of a Social-Democratic Commonwealth out of the wreck of modern civilisation.



Last updated on 29.2.2004