E. Belfort Bax

“Voluntaryism” versus “Socialism”

(A Reply to the Hon. Auberon Herbert) [1]

(June 1895)

E. Belfort Bax, “Voluntaryism” versus “Socialism”, Humanitarian, June 1895, pp.416-424.[1*]
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.51-57.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

That we term human development or historic evolution, implies a progressive movement from the breaking-up of primitive tribal and communal society onwards. This progression – the advance of civilisation as we term it – manifests itself as a development of antitheses which tend to crystallize into pairs of opposites; each member of these claims independence of the other, and becomes embodied in a status or class having interests antagonistic to its opposing status or class. In early tribal society these antitheses did not exist, and even throughout antiquity most of them were more or less latent The one opposition known to the primitive world was that between the social group, whether gens, tribe or people, and the alien – that is to say, all humanity outside the particular group in question. It is needless to remind my readers, in a state of primitive communism in which individual or private property was unknown, save, of course, in articles of immediate personal consumption (if by a quibble this can be termed private property), when land and all that was on it belonged to the entire community, there was no question of master and servant, mine and thine. Just as little was there any question of government and governed, ruler and subject. The elders or most experienced members of the community had naturally the preponderating influence in the direction of affairs but there was no princeps. Even though he were for the time being chief adviser, no member of the society was more than Primus inter pares. Similarly, religion had no sphere of its own, outside and apart from the secular concerns of the society. There was no priesthood, any more than there was a lay power. For ages, even after the birth of civilisation, indeed, strictly speaking, down to the closing period of antiquity, the decadent Roman Empire of the fourth century, the king, princeps or imperator, was also the chief priest. There was not even any distinction at all for primitive man, or any sharp division for the ancient world generally between the spiritual and the material, between God and the world, between soul and body, between this life and one after death. In short, the period we call history or civilisation in its various stages, has meant the splitting up of the cohesive and uniform fabric of the first phase of human social and intellectual life, into a variety of dualisms, to enumerate all of which would take too long, and would, moreover, be unnecessary for our present purpose. Suffice it to say, all these antagonisms, with their conflicting interests, centre in the cardinal antagonism between Individual and Community.

Now, those persons who, like Mr. Auberon Herbert, view things generally, and especially human life, as made up of hard and fast abstractions, naturally regard the present separation and mutual antagonism between Individual and Community, as a somewhat inherent in the nature of things; unmindful of the teachings of anthropology and history, they regard it as something that “was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be” so long as human nature lasts. In fact, to read Mr. Herbert’s recent contribution to this magazine, would almost lead one to suppose that, like Rip Van Winkle, he had been asleep for a generation, and was, hence, excusably ignorant of what have become the common-places of the historical student. For myself, as for other socialist thinkers, these two terrible entities in mutual hostility, Individual and Community, are but transient phenomena of our passing civilisation. We do not regard “human nature” (that terrible bogey of certain critics of Socialism) as we see it to-day, no, nor even as we know it during the short span of time covered by the records of authentic history, as a thing absolute and unchangeable. We see the marvellous changes it has undergone, even within the period we call history, while modern research into the conditions of prehistoric life, whether it be based on the indications to be found in early literature or early law and custom, or on the analogy of barbaric societies of the present day, point to infinitely greater changes in the period before the dawn of written records; and we believe the “human nature” developed by modern civilisation, familiar though it be to us all, is no more destined to be permanent than that which has passed away.

The adherent of the Manchester school and Mr. Herbert Spencer” founding on the abstraction above-mentioned, cannot conceive of the State as anything else than as the “evil thing,” the enemy of the Individual. It may be a necessary evil and they think it is necessary as a matter of fact for certain purposes which we shall hereafter refer to, but it is an evil all the same as the Frankenstein of personal liberty. Now few advanced political thinkers will care to deny, and least of all Socialists, that the State as at present existing, which has for its primary function the government of persons rather than the administration of things, easily becomes a serious menace to liberty of every kind. In other words we are all prepared to admit that there does exist at the present time a natural hostility between the Individual and the State, in so far as the latter is a governing power; but this hostility, itself an inevitable stage in the development of society, the Socialist can explain. It is for him the necessary concomitant of the institution of private property, of the monopoly of the economic factors of social life, the means of production, distribution, etc., by a class or a certain limited number of persons. He is convinced that the hostility spoken of must cease so soon as the State, or to use a preferable phrase, the directing power of the community, ceases to be something over against the community itself, and becomes once again as it was in early society (though on an infinitely more comprehensive scale), a mere function of the community – exercised no longer by a class in the interests of a class, but by the temporary and revocable delegates of the whole social body.

In his juggles with arithmetic I really am unable to follow Mr. Auberon Herbert. He talks a great deal about three men owning two men, and two men not owning themselves. This is beyond me. As Hamlet says, “I am ill at these numbers.” “Men either own themselves or they do not,” says Mr. Auberon Herbert. Here we have a beautiful exemplification of what I may term the abstract metaphysical style of argument. I deny both propositions, or rather I deny their mutual exclusiveness. I cannot accept as true unreservedly the thesis that a man owns himself, and just as little that he does not own himself. Every man is a product of the society into which he is born, and of an indefinite series of social formations which have preceded that society. Without society he would not be. Without society, being, he would not continue to be. Hence while admitting as a truism that a man owns himself as against any other man, or any other definite group of men, I can in no sense admit the absolute ownership of himself by a man as against society as a whole. The logical outcome of the attitude taken up by our Individualist champion is to be found in the clever paradox contained in Max Heinze’s Das Einzige und sein Eigenthum. Mr. Herbert probably does not go as far as this, but his not doing so, starting from the dogma, that men own themselves (absolutely and unconditionally), surely suggests the absence either of moral courage or logical faculty. I would merely point out that on this principle the assumption of any sort of moral obligation is purely arbitrary, since all moral obligation pre-supposes its contrary.

Our Voluntaryist like all his bourgeois congeners wants to maintain government for the purpose of guaranteeing the continuance of the institution of private property as at present existing. Hence the thoroughgoing logicality of the Anarchist is distasteful to him. The Anarchist with all his muddle-headedness at least sees the truth with which Socialism is concerned, to wit, that the modern conditions of production and distribution that is, the institution of private property in the means of production, is itself the root and source of the coercion of the individual. To this therefore no less than the Socialist he applies his destructive criticism. The Voluntaryist, the Spencerite, Herbertite, or by whatever other name he may call himself swallows all this in the lump. He begs the whole question as to the justification, historical, economical, or ethical, of the existence in the present day or in the future of the monopoly of productive wealth by a class. He coolly ignores the point urged by the Socialist that this wealth is kept in private hands, is kept from the labourer who produced it, by the monopolist, by dint of coercion, economical, political and other – with the corollary that its justification remains wanting save as a passing historical phase. No. Mr. Auberon Herbert’s Individualism is the advocacy of individual liberty for himself and his class. To this end the institution of private property with all its safeguards must be preserved intact, and the Anarchist whose individualism, such as it is, at least aims at being co-extensive with entire society, must be duly condemned.

To speak of the Socialist’s leap from nowhere is rather amusing, considering the Mahomet’s-coffin-like position of Voluntaryism. If there is a social theory which hangs in mid-air it is surely just this one, cut off on all sides from historic evolution resting on half a dozen neat little abstract saws about men owning themselves or not owning themselves, etc., which possibly have the appearance of the most irrefragable common sense, but which like most similar things that possess this specious quality evince themselves on closer investigation as something very different from what they seem. Socialism on the other hand takes its leap, if we may call it such, not from nowhere, but from that “rock of ages “ the sure ground of history. It is at once an induction and a deduction from the facts of human evolution. It sets up no hard and granite-like aphorisms as to what institutions are abstractly right and abstractly wrong; but all its assertions are framed with a view of expressing concrete relations. Hence the Socialist is not taken in as the bourgeois Individualist appears to be by mere external appearances. He does not believe for instance in the liberty of a man to deprive himself of liberty. The liberty he aspires to is not a formal liberty which exists in name merely, but a real liberty which exists in fact. To take a typical instance of this. Freedom of contract as it is called, appears to be the acme of individual liberty. On the other hand regulation of the conditions of the contract by the State appears contrary to liberty. This case is the one most commonly adduced of the tyrannical action of modern Socialist tendencies. Capitalist advocates can see nothing fairer than that the workman should be able to sell his labour without let or hindrance in the open market. The Socialist sees that the contract in this case, despite its specious form, gives no freedom at all to one of the contracting parties, but involves on the contrary the grossest kind of coercion. The Voluntaryist professes to take umbrage at the form of coercion involved in the regulation of this coercive contract because it is direct and exercised by the community. The Socialist objects to the real, though indirect, coercion exercised on the workman by the capitalist owing to his monopoly of the means of production. But, says the Voluntaryist, the workman is not obliged to enter on the contract without he desires it. He has the option of not doing so and – starvation or the workhouse!! But no! the Voluntaryist would abolish the poor law and hence the workhouse so that starvation remains as the only alternative. If the Voluntaryist were really consistent he would on the same grounds object to the forcible suppression of highway robbery as it was practised by the gentlemen of the road in the last century. For did not Dick Turpin and Jack Shepherd offer each of their victims the alternative of their money or their life? The Capitalist nowadays offers the workman the alternative of his labour or his life. There is freedom of contract in both cases in a sense; but Mr. Auberon Herbert probably does not appreciate it in the one, strongly as he champions it in the other.

The tangle of Mr. Auberon Herbert’s sophistry in his lame endeavours to justify on his own principles the existence of the State which he feels bound to defend, in so far as it is necessary to the coercive maintenance of the institution of private property, is amusing. The upshot of the whole is that the State, or as I should prefer to term it, the executive power of the community (which the present state is not, being virtually only that of a section of the community) is to be non-aggressive; i.e., is to defend the individual against aggression from other individuals; but is not to control him in his private and self-regarding actions. “In all matters of liberty,” says Mr. Herbert, “in all dealings with his body and mind the individual is supreme.” This is the sort of platitudinous mouse, which the mountain of Mr. Herbert’s dialetics brings forth as the issue of its labour. Now few Socialists would take exception to this – in a sense at least. Carlyle observes as regards a certain aphorism of physical science “Nothing can act but where it is. With all my heart, only where is it?” Similarly here I say, by all means let the coercive power of the community maintain a non-aggressive attitude as concerns the purely self-regarding action of the individuals. But here is precisely the rub. What actions are we to regard as keeping strictly within the individual sphere without intruding on other individuals? That there are such I do not deny – but I maintain that they are a small and relatively unimportant class. (I emphasize the word relatively as I do not wish to under-rate their significance as far as it goes.) But what I do most distinctly deny is that the emphatically social functions of production, distribution, and exchange, can in any way whatever be regarded as exclusively concerning the individual.

Whenever these functions are left nominally free, that is, are in the hands of individual caprice, it inevitably means the enslavement of the majority of men by a minority; in other words, the existence of an expropriating class and an expropriated class. The formal freedom of one set of individuals to expropriate and of another set to be expropriated, is a freedom the Socialists would utterly abolish, and would do so in the interest of real freedom. The Voluntaryist worships the formal, or abstract freedom of the individual; the Socialist would sacrifice this in the interests of his real, for concrete freedom. By trotting out this sounding brass and tinkling cymbal of abstract freedom, it is easy to win the applause of a certain number of thoughtless and feather-pated people, but that a thinker should be seriously deceived by it seems well-nigh incredible.

I have in the above taken Mr. Auberon Herbert mainly on his own lines, but to perhaps the most crucial fallacy of the whole I have not as yet referred. Emphatically society is not (pace Mr. Herbert) the sum of its individual units as is a heap of stones, potatoes, or cannon balls. Society is an organism and not an aggregate. Mr. Auberon Herbert might just as well talk about the human body as embodying merely the sum of the qualities of the cells of its component tissues as to talk of human society as merely the sum of its individual members. One would have thought that even a perusal of his friend Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Biology would have taught him better than this. Any organised group of persons even, much more society, as a whole, presents characteristics in its nature as such that are by no means reducible to a mere sum of the characteristics of its component units; just as a living animal body is possessed of a nature which although based upon, is by no means identical with the simpler characteristics of the organic substances composing it. For myself, as I have elsewhere pointed out, I believe this consideration is capable of leading us to speculations which throw a new light on the ultimate nature of man’s destiny. But with these I am not here concerned; it is sufficient for my present purpose to insist upon the bare fact and pass on.

In reading Mr. Auberon Herbert’s confident appeals to reason, one can hardly refrain from exclaiming to oneself, “Oh! reason, reason, what things do they not talk in thy name?” There is a sad tendency in the present day to what I might term the degradation of certain words, to the employment of them as mere question-begging epithets to fling at an opponent’s head. Thus it is with the correlates selfish and unselfish, cowardly and courageous. For example, how many a worthy person who has refused to lend some incorrigible “bounder” or sponge an additional ten pound note after repeated experiences, becomes branded by the said “bounder” or sponge as a “selfish man.” How often is the man who urges measures of reasonable prudence for his own and the public welfare, branded as a “coward” by those whose interests lie in an opposite direction. Such, for example, has been the cheap weapon with which persons who, preferring their own convenience to public safety, object to dog-muzzling orders. Such a mode of controversy is, in the cases given, obviously contemptible enough, but Mr. Auberon Herbert, though doubtless without intending it, bandies about the words reason and nonsense in a similar manner. We all regard our own position as the one on which reason sheds its light, and our opponents as in the outer darkness of nonsense. Just as each man regards himself as unselfish, and his neighbour, especially if he has had a difference with him, as selfish; or himself as courageous, and the other man whose prudence annoys him, as cowardly. So I would suggest that it is best to avoid altogether the employment in controversy of question-begging epithets of this description, more especially as the persons who employ them so frequently do so in default of better weapons.

Sneers as to the “daily trough,” leave our withers utterly unwrung. Socialism is certainly materialistic, in so far as it recognises that the first condition of the higher life of humanity is the soundness of its material basis, that without a full and complete satisfaction of the material wants of life for one and all, in other words, without economic equality, the pretence to “higher life” is no better than an impudent hypocrisy. Herein, Socialism differs from all the great ethical religions which have arisen during the historical period – from Christianity as much as from any other. These have one and all attempted to solve the great problem of human life and destiny, with (“not to speak it profanely”), juggling performances on the part of the individual soul, despising the “daily trough” and such like things. As Mr. Auberon Herbert very well puts it for example with Christianity: “the soul of each individual was to be the true battlefield between right and wrong; and in the soul, not in the external ordering of circumstances, was the Kingdom of God to be established. Socialism is the very antichrist, in spirit, to the teachings of the gospels, and no superficial resemblance as regards arrangements affecting property which a part of the early church made, can alter the essential differences.” With the clap-trap which is sometimes talked in the supposed interest of Socialism, anent the Ananias and Sapphira incident, I have no sympathy whatever. The so-called communism of the earliest Christian church, if it ever existed, was obviously merely a voluntary arrangement to meet temporary needs.

Mr. Auberon Herbert’s constructive theory that he calls Voluntaryism and which he gives at the close of his second article, scarcely needs detailed criticism from the standpoint of the present writer, after taking under review his criticism of Socialism. One is struck however with the convenient way in which he glides over certain points. For example, we are told, that two individuals under Voluntaryist conditions, are to be allowed “to settle their disputes in their own fashion;” but it does not appear what is to happen if one of the parties wishes to invoke the arbitration of the State, and the other steadily refuses to submit himself to such a vile coercive power. Would the State in this case renounce its function of enforcing contract or not? Upon this – to the Voluntaryist very important point – Mr. Auberon Herbert fails to afford us any information. Under Socialism when the institution of private property lapsed the coercive power of the State in dispute between individuals would lapse also, at least in so far as these were of a civil nature; but under Voluntaryism, where the institution of private property is to be maintained intact, it is difficult to see how the State can solve the problem of acting and not acting at the same time. Mr. Auberon Herbert tell us that the State would protect the individual whether he were a tax-paying member or not. But what would it do with the aggressive individual who is not a member? The aforesaid aggressive person, who let us suppose has forcibly deprived another Voluntaryist of his watch, might easily assert that in doing so he was merely restoring to himself property which had originally belonged to him, and that hence his action was purely defensive. Where the State interferes, such an allegation can be tested, but does any Voluntaryist suppose that our aggressor knowing himself in the wrong, would allow himself to be voluntarily drawn into the meshes of the Central Criminal Court on the principle of “Come into my parlour said the spider to the fly?” Here again we have no enlightenment as to who is to be the final arbiter as to whether the State shall be allowed to arbitrate or not. No; Socialism we know, and Anarchism we know, but Voluntaryism what are you?

The flowery peroration into which Mr. Auberon Herbert launches out contains a great deal which I can recognise as an attempted picture of a Socialist society in certain of its aspects; but on one based like Voluntaryism, on the existence of classes of propertied and propertyless, on a State which with all its limitations still implies the coercion of men, and not like the organised power of a Socialistic community, the administration of things, I fail to see any possibility of its realization. The economic impossibilities – those involved in production and distribution – of the scheme under consideration I refrain from dealing with. They are too obvious, and to attempt to set forth their nature would lead us into a labyrinth far beyond the limits assigned to the present article. The interesting point is, that Mr. Auberon Herbert would appear to be oblivious even of their mere existence. Not only does he make no attempt to afford us any explanation of how the production and distribution of the world is to be carried on under his system; but we find no reference – not so much as a passing reference – to the great economic processes, the aggregation of capital, the growth of machinery, the subdivision of labour, etc., which have given birth to the modern industrial and commercial world, and the further developments of which are again transforming that world under our very eyes. With the utmost naiveté he quietly ignores the exigencies of this modern world even as they now are, not to speak of the developments which are immanent in them.

What then is the sum and substance of Mr. Auberon Herbert’s contention? On what is his whole argumentation based? As we said at first it is based on the antithesis Individual and Community, the two terms converted into hard and fast abstractions. Beyond the limits of this antithesis Mr. Herbert cannot see. It dominates the whole of his intellectual horizon. The entire attitude taken up with its cut-and-dried formula and its hard inflexible categories, irresistibly impresses us with the fact that Mr. Auberon Herbert is an intellectual survival from the thought of the earlier part of the century, when propositions were set up and their validity assumed without criticism, and when the historical method and the idea of evolution in all branches of investigation were yet in their infancy. In short, Mr. Auberon Herbert belongs to the school of the Utopists. He thinks that society can be reconstructed at will on a preconceived cut-and-dried pattern. Modern Socialism is of course the very antithesis of this. It is based upon the principle that Social Systems are not made but grow. It claims, nevertheless, that the collective ownership and regulation of the means and instruments of production, distribution and exchange in the interests of all, will inaugurate a new period in the world’s history in which the antagonism between Individual and Community, together with the other embodied antagonisms of civilisation shall have lost all meaning. For this reason, therefore, in Socialism alone is to be found the true Individualism – not indeed the sham, formal Individualism put forward by the theory of Voluntaryists, but a real freedom of individual development for each and all alike – as opposed to one designed merely for a propertied class. Under the Capitalist System where can we find Individuality? The character of the slave, of the economically unfree, is dwarfed and stunted where it is not destroyed. The character of those whose economic position enables them to defy circumstances is also warped. To-day we have classes but we have no true humanity. Where the liberty of becoming slave driver and becoming slave is abolished, true liberty and true individuality will emerge. True individual liberty, as Socialists maintain, is inseparable from true equality of opportunity, for all individuals. Only when men are freed from the pressure of economic necessity by Socialism – when some have ceased to possess but all are free to use – will individual liberty properly speaking begin. But so soon as this state of things is realised the, present antagonism between Individual and Community, with all the clashing interests it involves, will have disappeared for ever.

E. Belfort Bax



1. Wares for Sale in the Political Market, by the Hon. Auberon Herbert. – Humanitarian, March and April, 1895.


Transcriber’s note

1*. This journal, a liberal conservative one, had attacked Bax and gave him the right of reply.


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