Ernest Belfort Bax

Political And Social Democracy

(29 October 1892)

Political and Social Democracy, Justice, 29th October, 1892, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One is frequently confronted among “advanced” politicians by two opposite views of the function of the modern State with regard to the social problem. On the one hand you have the political Radical view, “that the working classes themselves ought to accomplish these things by their own trade organisations, and not seek everything to be done for them by the ‘State’.” Now this theory, on which the State appears as the “bogey”, the evil thing, the “prince of the power of the air,” and so forth, obviously presupposes a permanent and fundamental distinction, not to say opposition, between the State and people. The organised power of society, which in the theory of the political Radical should be merely the organ of the people’s will, is assumed to be somehow or other necessarily opposed to the people. This confusion of thought is extremely funny. Why the executive of a trade union should be “the working classes themselves” while the executive of London, of Middlesex, of England, or of Europe, never can be so, even given the realisation of his own professed ideal of government by the people for the people, is one of those mysteries we might fairly have the political Radical to solve for himself. However, we have a fair right to call his attention to it whenever he sets “the working classes themselves,” as manifested in the executive power of a trade union, in opposition to what he evidently imagines never can represent the working classes themselves – viz., the executive power of the whole community.

At the opposite pole to the political Radical stands the democratic State Socialist (for with the Bismarckian type we are not concerned here). Thus usually well-intentioned person, who is to be found in the Fabian Society as well as in other places, is in the habit of assuming that the modern State is a truly democratic State. We do not mean to say that he would affirm this if closely pressed, but all his policy and converse suppose as much. His whole political aim is to reduce as many industrial undertakings as possible under the existing state machinery. Far be it from us to assert that he is wrong. On the contrary, such work may be very useful as far as it goes, though it is only too often that its utility is at present mostly exhibited in the reduction of taxation in the interest of the middle class, out of the profits of an undertaking carried out on the ordinary capitalistic principles (vide Post Office balance-sheet). But we submit that to imagine it possible to reconstruct society peaceably and piecemeally – very piecemeally as it necessarily must be – by the gradual absorption of production by the existing State is as preposterous an idea as ever entered the head of any practical Englishman (which is saying a good deal).

The political Radical holds fast by the antagonism of civilisation, or of the relatively short period embraced by history – the antagonism of state and community, of governor and governed. He professes a democratic ideal, so, as already hinted, we must perforce attribute to him the assumption in his ideal of two democracies, a ruling democracy and a ruled democracy. But in what is a ruling democracy which rules another democracy outside itself distinguishable from an oligarchy, or a bureaucracy, or a tyranny? The assumption involves, therefore, a self-contradiction. But if he purge himself of this self-contradictory notion, if he see that it is simply a reading into his ideal of the present abstract conditions of political life, then he has before him, not two opposing democracies, but one democracy. This democracy must be truly one and indivisible; there must be nothing outside itself over which it rules or by which it is ruled, otherwise it ceases to be a pure democracy on the one side or on the other. It will, it is true, have put all things under its feet, but in putting all things under it it is manifest that it is excepted which has put all things under it. The democracy, in other words no longer political merely but social democracy, will be one embodied interest and not two opposing interests. With the whole society producing and the whole society consuming, and not as now, one part producing and the other consuming, the whole society will be its own master and its own servant, its own ruler and its own subject; in other words, the old antagonism of the state-world of to-day will be conquered and abolished; the future “state” will be “the working classes” themselves more than any trade union its now.

Where the democratic state socialist goes wrong is in leaving out of sight, on the opposite side, the fact that, to-day there is an antagonism between state and people based on the economic antagonism of a monopolising and a monopolised class. It is of no use to pretend that this antagonism is already got rid of in the political sphere, because it is not. And for this reason the political Radical’s distrust of the “state” is not altogether unfounded. But, it will be said, should nothing then be wrung from the existing state? By no means. Wring from it as much as you can, for in its concessions it is playing pro tanto, and against its will, the part of the social democratic direction which will one day inevitably supersede it, and every such concession, in so far as it is a real concession (an important point), is preparing the way for that day.


E. Belfort Bax


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