Ernest Belfort Bax

The Ethics of Socialism

“That Blessed Word”

From The Ethics of Socialism, pp.129-137.

Talking with a friend some time ago, the observation was made to me, how easy it was to evoke emotion by using traditional channels. My friend went on to relate that he was addressing a public meeting a few days previously, and was trying to show that the Liberal Party did not always express sentiments favourable to the cause of labour. In the course of his remarks he quoted some observations from a speech of a well-known Radical leader, which were not of a nature to stimulate the enthusiasm of a working-class audience. The views enunciated were, as might have been expected, being vigorously hissed, when some one rose and challenged him to give the name of their author. No sooner had he done so, than the hissing changed to equally vigorous cheering. The familiar sound which had been cheered so many times before was quite irresistible. The emotion responded to it by a sort of “reflex action.” The same phenomenon may be traced through everything. “Mesopotamia,” is by no means the only “blessed word” in the economy of human emotion.

Take the case of jokes (as my friend further remarked). Look through the comic papers, go to any circus or music-hall, and you will find the old story perennially evoking the old merriment; the time-honoured dramatis personae, the mother-in-law, the drunken man trying to open the street-door with his watch-key, the husband who kisses the housemaid on the sly – things that have been laughed at ever since man first began to make jokes.

Again, in literature and in art how many people persuade themselves they admire what they think they ought to admire, with the most lamb-like, simplicity? Quote the merest fustian, and cap it with the “blessed word” Shakespeare, and see if he won’t “tumble” to it! Or quote Shakespeare and tell him it is an inferior modern versifier, and see if he will not display emotion accordingly!

But it is in the realm of moral and religious sentiment that “blessed words” most of all assert their efficacy. Hence the success of “revival” and similar movements. Hence also the popularity with lecturers or popular orators of phrases about “him who had not where to lay his head,” invocations of “our common Christianity,” and the like. (An amusing illustration of the possible dangers in the use of the “blessed word” under new conditions was afforded by Mr. Burt at the Trades-Union Congress at Paris in 1883. The English “labour representative” wound up his speech on the claims of labour with an eloquent peroration in which “our common Christianity” played an important rôle. Poor Mr. Burt doubtless thought this touching allusion would “melt” the French proletarian conference as though it had been a “Liberal” meeting of English philanthropic shopkeepers. His interpreter, however, knew better, and to save Mr. Burt the humiliation of having his oration greeted with a storm of hisses, omitted the Exeter-Hall stirring climax.)

There is a tendency in all successful movements to form deposits of “blessed words,” which stir up a kind of bastard enthusiasm or tender emotion by their mere sound, and apart from any intellectual meaning being attached to them. As already hinted, modern Christianity is a mere coagulation of “blessed words”, as any one may convince himself by listening to a sermon any Sunday morning. [1] In France the Great Revolution has left behind it a plentiful crop of such words. How many journalists and platform orators attach any particular meaning to the words “La Republique” or “La Revolution”? The proof of their fatuous nature in the mouths of many persons is shown by the fact that they are employed, where an effect has to be produced, indifferently by Conservative and Radical Republicans and Socialists, and sometimes even by Imperialists. They all know the magic in the words, the ringing applause which greets them, their potency in filling up a vacuum in a discourse or newspaper article!

Now all this explains the “pull” which the conservative forces of society have over the revolutionary. The former possess an enormous reserve force of these blessed words, the emotion connected with which is inherited, which the latter do not, possess. The fact is, most men resent being made to evolve their emotion out of their own thought. It gives them trouble, which they are saved when they can have the emotional tap instinctively turned on by a phrase. Every Socialist agitator knows the extreme difficulty of divorcing the working-man from the “Liberal party” – how after apparently enthusiastic insight into the fact that the welfare of his class must be sought outside the ranks of current political parties, he will yet at every election return (like the dog of holy writ) to his Liberal vomit. He cannot bring himself to separate from what its adherents are pleased to term the “party of progress,” or to risk the horrible danger of letting in a “reactionary,” a “Tory,” who in the general way would be found, in reality, neither more nor less reactionary than his opponent, if the principles of both were compared. But for the revolutionist there is also another side to the matter. Although the average man doesn’t want the trouble of thinking, although, unlike the Athenians of old, he doesn’t want to hear some new thing, but at most only the old things or phrases put in a slightly new setting, yet none of the “blessed words” in which he delights can in the end resist the solvent influence of the genuine thought which is the expression of new conditions. Disheartening as it may be to the propagandist of a new truth to find the apparently overwhelming influence of the emotional prepossessions attaching to old jingles and catchwords, yet every time the new truth is proclaimed by tongue or pen something crumbles off the surface of the time-worn phrase. Our propagandist may therefore safely adopt the attitude of the villain of transpontine melodrama, and shaking his fist at the crowds applauding the opposition leader, the popular preacher, etc., which he sadly compares with his own “good meetings” of a few people, may enunciate in the deep and measured tones of real conviction, “Never mind – a time will come!” for assuredly it will – when the tables will be turned.

Let us always remember that most of these “blessed words” have had a meaning once. Although the men who use them now don’t think, yet their fathers who invented them have thought. They did not content themselves with hereditary notions. That much abused word Liberty, as implying “freedom of contract,” had, as I have before pointed out, a very real meaning when the claims of a superannuated Feudalism were felt to be “the enemy.” Even the “blood of Jesus,” sin, holiness, etc., were not as now mere jingle – evocative, if of anything at all, of nothing but a mawkish sentiment, empty of all intelligible meaning – to the subject of imperial Rome in the first century, who first used it, with the notion of bloody sacrifice confronting him at every step, and with the disgust at time decaying forms of ancient city-life driving every serious-minded man to seek satisfaction in self-brooding. As before said, there is a tendency in all great popular movements to form these crystals of “blessed words” which produce emotion by reflex action. The modern Socialist movement is no exception. How often are not the phrases “emancipation of labour,” “social revolution,” “revolutionary crisis,” “Socialism and Individualism,” “Communist-Anarchism” (!) in the mouths of those for whom they are no better than “blessed words”? This is inevitable to some extent, I know, but for a young movement it is eminently desirable to prevent this process of crystallisation as much as possible, by continually driving into its phrases the fresh air of intelligence. After all, it were perhaps not an altogether unreasonable hope that Socialism might form an exception to the general rule of popular movements in the matter of “blessed words,” and rely for its strength rather on the realities implied in its conceptions than on the words connoting them. The extinction of class-society with all that this society involves, and the rise of a new social order; the equalisation of the material conditions of human happiness; the abolition of “shams,” speculative as well as practical; the installation of realities in their place, – this may be difficult for all to fully grasp, but I think we have a right to expect that everyone who calls himself a Socialist, and still more who professes to preach Socialism, should form for himself some conception of what all this means.

While we are on the subject of “blessed words,” it may not be out of place to make a few suggestions on the question of sincerity and insincerity or humbug on the part of those who are or profess to be influenced by them. It is a common thing for Socialists and Freethinkers to hurl the accusation of hypocrisy at Individualists, Malthusians, Liberals, etc., and at Christians. This accusation is of course indignantly repudiated, and plausible cases are adduced in plenty, of persons alleged to be undoubtedly sincere who hold Liberalism or Conservatism (as the case may be), Malthusianism, Prolit-sharing, or what-not, to be really conducive to the welfare of the people, and Socialism as “impracticable” and “pernicious”; or, who believe the Christian theology to enshrine “eternal verities.”

Now it may be said are these people all humbugs? Their arguments are for the most part little else than “blessed words” spread out thin. But, then, may not they really find satisfaction in them? The question, in spite of its plain appearance, is a complex one, and not susceptible of a simple Yes or No answer. I offer the following as a tentative solution; Insincerity, Humbug, Hypocrisy, may be divided into four kinds or classes – (1 ) There is the conscious, deliberate, intentional pretence to opinions known or believed to be false for direct personal ends -the humbug or hypocrite of this class is, or course, never anything more nor less than a rogue or scoundrel; (2) There is the adoption of views, or sentiments, which the adopter or holder would like to believe were true or correct, because the holding of them redounds to his interest, and which by a process of self-deception be often does really come to think he believes. This is the unconscious humbug of a very large class, the great historical type of which may probably be found in a popular living statesman. Each of these types, the conscious and the unconscious humbug, has its pendant. In their simple and primary form it is individual interest which is the object sought after; in their secondary and derivative form it is not necessarily individual interest directly, but class-interest. No man to-day dare openly confess that he cares only for his own class. No man dare say with Foulon “let the people cat grass.” As a consequence, the man who is only capable of that extension of self-interest of which class-interest consists, must hide the latter like the former under the mask of interest in truth, or in the commonwealth, as the case may be. It is to the conscious humbug of this kind that the philanthropic moderate Liberal politician usually belongs. He knows that his nostrums are simply so much dust thrown in the eyes of the working classes, with a view of allaying discontent and bolstering up class-society, just as in his heart he despises the dogmas promulgated by the missionary society at whose meeting he presides, but which he thinks a desirable adjunct to the bayonet in procuring fresh commercial outlets. The first concern in such a man as this is very often not personal interest per se, but personal interest as identified with class-interest. As to those whose humbug is based on unconscious class-interest their name is legion, embracing as they do the bulk of the middle-classes. Very good people they are too, some of them, in themselves, but so blinded by class-prejudice, inherited or acquired, or both, that they instinctively wince at truths which tell against the interests of the dominant classes, and instinctively accept fallacies which tell in favour of those classes. They cannot see straight. Arguments which on an indifferent matter would at once carry conviction to them, in this case appear inadequate; on the other hand, arguments on the other side, which on an indifferent matter would appear grossly inadequate, now carry conviction. Most of the “undoubtedly sincere” belief in the religious world may be reduced to unconscious humbug, having its root in class-interest. The feeling that religion is “respectable,” i.e., proper for the dominant classes to profess, and that it is desirable that the poor should be taught to look to heavenly rather than earthly joys for compensation, is what lies in the background of conscience of many a “gentleman” or “lady” who tries more or less successfully to persuade himself or herself that it is true, or at least that there is “a sort of something” in it.

These, then, as it seems to the present writer, are the four forms of humbug, insincerity, or hypocrisy, and for one and all of them “blessed words” are godsends. To one or other of them may be reduced well-nigh all the fallacies and superstitions influential in the modern world: The first kind is brutally apparent, and easily recognisable; the third, which corresponds to it, is also easily detected. In both of them the insincerity is intentional. In the second and fourth, on the other hand, when it is more or less unconscious and unintentional in the subject of it, there is much greater difficulty in deciding in any individual case. But here also, it must be remembered, that the humbug although unconscious is none the less there. The thought, or action, is not straight, direct and clear – is not what it professes to be – but directed by a definite pervading tendency, to wit, the inordinate love of self or class as such.



1. For instance, the darker sides of savage ritual surviving in the Christian dogma of the Atonement – the efficacy of blood, washing with blood, etc. – would strike the wives and daughters of the suburban villa as very nasty if they fully realised what it meant – as they assuredly would, but for the conventional associations connected with it and the stereotyped phraseology in which it is couched.


Last updated on 14.1.2006