Ernest Belfort Bax

Our Fabian Philosopher

(28 November 1896)

Our Fabian Philosopher, Justice, 28th November 1896, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In two recent numbers of the Vienna social and literary review the Zeit G.B. Shaw has a continued article on what he is pleased to call the Illusions of Socialism. He here rediscovers the astonishing fact which we thought was not quite unknown to the humble philosophic student, to whit, that the ideal factor in human society, as in other departments of existence, never translates itself in its purity into concrete reality, i.e., without suffering some modification from the material into which it enters. This highly original truth which the Greeks threshed out so thoroughly considerably more than two thousand years ago, is elaborately set forth in the pages of the Zeit by George Bernard with the view of applying it to the confusion of revolutionary Socialists. For, says the eminent Fabian (in effect) admitting that a perfect Socialism is as impossible a social phenomenon as a perfect circle is a physical one, then is your hope vain and your preaching is also vain. An ideal from the very fact of its ideality is an illusion. It must always come out in the washing different from what you picture it. The latter statement may be conceded. The point wherein we differ from our friend G.B.S. is that although we do not lay any claim to prophetic gifts neither have we such complete confidence in his prophetic soul as he himself appears to have. In other words, we regard the modifications and imperfections undergone by principle as translated into fact as a completely unknown quantity, until they are actually before us. The principle which will represent the main trend of the whole, we can foresee, and this we proclaim (to employ the Shawesque phraseology), alike in the form of drama, of religion, and – of science. No man knows exactly what the future society will be like at any given stage. But we do claim to know the direction in which it will tend, and this knowledge we preach. We know the form of future society, the matter we know not, and hence the full reality which is the fusion of the two elements we cannot foresee nor Shaw either. Again, the revolution, it is true, will certainly not change civilisation into Socialism between Saturday night and Monday morning. But what it will do, we believe, will be to give a definite direction to, and thereby infinitely accelerate progress by installing an administration in power, whose conscious aim will, be Socialism, not in the Fabian sense but in our sense. At first, doubtless, the heavy material of men, things, and institutions belonging to the old regime, will preponderate over the actual Socialistic changes introduced, but these will spread and multiply till sooner or later the new Social Democratic forms will conquer the stubborn material, and this, by its own development in accordance with the laws of which these forms are the expression, will issue in a complete communist society. To call the pure principles of Social-Democracy an illusion because they cannot be embodied in an Act of Parliament next Session is like calling the map of England an illusion because there is no immediately available altitude from which one can obtain a view of the real England corresponding to its aspect as presented on the map. Yet the map is often more to be trusted than the practical countryman’s piloting. This is at bottom the kind of fallacy that leads honest Fabians and their kind to sneer at revolutionary Social Democracy as unpractical and visionary.

Shaw says again, following Sir William Harcourt and his “We are all Socialists nowadays,” that we should not ask a man whether he is a Socialist, but how much he is a Socialist, implying, of course, that a man may reasonably call himself a Socialist, in a sense, who approves of the institution of the General Post Office. Now, words may be counters, a kind of currency of ideas, and hence capable of altering their denomination and their value, according to circumstances; but there are some philological “sound money” men who, as I think, legitimately, object to such a complete debasement of the word-currency as Shaw proposes. Socialism, sans phrase, means, and always has meant, Communism; the old utopian Socialism meant the immediate communisation, according to a definite predetermined plan, of the means of consumption with or without that of the means of production. Modern Socialism means primarily the communisation of the means of production, &c., on the lines of certain well-defined economic laws, and not according to any cut-and-dried scheme, in the conviction that communisation of the product – of the means of consumption – will sooner or later follow. But the revolutionary Socialist absolutely denies the right of a man to call himself a Socialist, in any sense whatever, merely on the strength of his advocating (say) the municipalisation of gas and water, or the acquisition of the railways, by the State, as isolated measures, or even as a policy, if he has not before him the conscious ideal of Communism as the goal of all-such palliatives, and who is not prepared to subordinate all temporary measures to this great end.

Reverting for a moment to the drama simile of Shaw; of course it is natural that to the popular mind the class antagonisms leading up to Socialism should assume the dramatic, as also (in the best sense of the word) the religious form. But these forms are not merely natural, and as Shaw condescendingly admits, perhaps, even useful at certain stages and under very strict limitations; but they are also true in the same sense as any ideal or typical translation of the real world can be true. To deny this is to deny that truth can be pourtrayed in any work of art. The ideal capitalist of the Socialist platform and press, it is agreed, may no more exist off the Socialist platform or outside the Socialist press than the ideal villain (the Iagos, for instance) exists off the stage or outside the plot-novel. But in both cases, if well done, a certain type is pourtrayed to which individuals approach in varying degrees, although this type may never be quite realised in any one individual. And in so far as the types adequately do this they are true. The capitalist villain of the Socialist platform as a rule, I contend, roughly does this, the perfect working man in whom is no guile less so, but he also, in his way expresses the truth of things, if perhaps more by antithesis than per se. So with the fall of Capitalism, and the triumph of Social-Democracy as depicted by the platform orator. This is not a dogmatic statement of how the change will come about, but a popular dramatic formula of the general meaning and ultimate significance of the change, and as such, if well done, is true.

I do not wish to enunciate philosophical platitudes, but I must really remind Shaw of the elementary proposition that no accessible truth is more than relative and partial. From one standpoint the well-known phrases of the Socialist orator, provided he sticks to them and does not try to be too original, are every whit as true as the most unimpeachable dictum of Sidney Webb anent the relative cost and advantage of a municipal over a privately-owned gas and water supply is from another. The fact is Shaw has started on the task of teaching his grandmother to suck eggs. The philosophical position from which George Bernard thinks to reduce revolutionary Socialism to a heap of ruins bas already been allowed for by all thinking Social-Democrats. We knew it all before, and needed no Shaw to come from the green-room to tell us that. However, Shaw is delighted with his discovery, and finds there is no class struggle, no surplus-value, no anything, in short, that Social-Democrats thought there was. But Shaw’s assertion “there is no class struggle” is not so original as it might be after all. It was too evidently suggested by Gambetta’s “il n’y a pas de question sociale.”

In conclusion, I regret to have to signalise one gigantic -what shall. I say? – prevarication in the paper under discussion. Shaw had the audacity to say that he was the only Socialist who ventured to attempt the refutation of the Jevonian theory of value, Now either this is a joke or it is worse: Does Shaw really refer to the smart squib he wrote for To-Day some years ago in reply, if I remember rightly, to an article of Mr. Philip Wicksteed’s, as a serious attempt at refuting anything? Is he not aware that our comrade Hyndman has written a pulvcrising refutation of Jevons? Is he also not aware that Hyndman has challenged the Fabian world repeatedly to debate the question without response from their side? Is he, further, not aware that when Hyndman read his paper demolishing Jevons at the National Liberal Club the Fabian and Jevonian contingent took particular care to keep away – owing, it is said, to the fact that the paper, as is customary, having been printed and distributed among the members of the National Liberal Club Economic Circle beforehand, they had had the opportunity of seeing the futility of attempting to answer it. I can hardly assume that Shaw is as ignorant of all these things as one would like to think him out of respect for his reputation for veracity. If he is not, he is guilty of a disingenuous attempt to hoodwink our Austrian friends as to the facts about the Jevonian controversy in this country.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 26.5.2004