Ernest Belfort Bax

Our German Fabian Convert;
or, Socialism According to Bernstein

(November 1896)

Justice, 7 November 1896.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Our friend Edward Bernstein occupies a peculiar position in this country, both as regards our own and the German movement. As the principal coadjutor in the leading party-review and the London correspondent of various Socialist papers, he has a quasi-official character as representing the views of German Social-Democracy. I very much doubt, however, whether the sentiments expressed in certain recent numbers of the Neue Zeit (and, I believe, elsewhere), can be accepted as expressing the view of the majority even of the leaders of the German party, let alone the rank and file. In no. 4 of the new volume of the Neue Zeit, Bernstein favours us with some eight pages of the purest extract of Philistinism we have yet read from his pen anent the situation in Turkey, and the attitude of Socialists towards national risings. The statements contained in the aforesaid article resolve themselves into an allegation that only those risings deserve the sympathy of the Socialists which are likely to result in the expansion of capitalist civilisation! On the other hand, such peoples as show no disposition to be drawn within the vortex of the modern world-market, who resist being smothered with duck-trousers, Lancashire “shoddy,” adulterated spirits, and other exhilarating products of the höhere kultur with the aid of the maxim gun – we are given to understand – are kulturfeindlich, oder kulturunfähig and as such have no claim whatever to our sympathies. Against such, modern capitalistic civilisation, the höhere kultur which finds such a zealous votary nowadays in the ex-editor of the Sozial-Demokrat, has the right to make its power felt with effect.

Bernstein must know quite well that the above is the only practical meaning that his words can have (p.109, last para.). He goes on to say that these astounding propositions will hardly meet with serious Opposition!!

Referring apparently to a proposal made by myself as to supporting barbaric and savage communities against the inroads of aggressive capitalism, Bernstein is content to brush this aside as an “outcome of Romanticism.” He thereby forgets the obvious retort that his own position is the “outcome of Philistinism.” Why should the champion of the shunting-yard, the factory chimney, and the höhere kultur which the off-scouring of the British populations are now introducing into Matabeleland, arrogate to himself the exclusive possession of common sense?” Granted that I have a too foolishly fond sympathy for outworn forms of social life, Bernstein’s affection for modern civilisation and its Errungenschaften is also not established beyond the possibility of dispute as the correct Socialist emotion.

It may be true that the future does not belong to the past, but neither does it belong to the present. Bernstein prefers the squalor of modern civilisation to the rudeness of primitive barbarism. I prefer the rudeness of primitive barbarism to the squalor of modern civilisation. This is, of course, a matter of taste. But why the “outcome of Philistinism” should be so unquestionably assumed to be superior to the outcome of the other thing I really can’t quite see. Besides I deny altogether that my view of the undesirability of the forcing of capitalism on barbaric and savage peoples is especially the product of Romanticism. At all events, that extremely romantic, unmodern and unpractical person the late Friedrich Engels held substantially the same view.

The reasons for myself and other Socialists who agree with the in wishing to limit, as far as possible, the area of capitalistic exploitation, in other words, of modern civilisation (the höhere kultur of Bernstein’s admiration) are the following: – 1. Unlike Bernstein we regard modern civilisation as, per se, a curse and an evil. (This, I suppose, is what Bernstein calls Romanticism.) 2. To the obvious retort that modern capitalism is, at all events, a necessary stage to Socialism, that without present civilisation future Socialism would be impossible, we reply (while, of course, granting the main proposition) that to the revolution or evolution from Capitalism to Socialism it is not by any means essential that all barbarian and savage peoples and out-of-the-way corners of the earth should come under the dominion of capitalism, with the human misery involved in it. The existing European races and their offshoots without spreading themselves beyond their present seats, are quite adequate to effect the Social Revolution, meanwhile leaving savage and barbaric communities to work out their own social salvation in their own way. The absorption of such communities into the Socialistic world-order would then only be a question of time. 3. But more than this, we see that the present system of production and distribution is breaking down throughout the civilised world by its own weight, and that its only chance lies in annexing industrially and commercially, and wherever possible, politically, the outlying territories of the earth’s surface.

Hence the feverish rush for the opening up of fresh markets and the colonisation of new lands. If this can he effected on a large scale within the next few years capitalism is probably saved for the moment. It may even secure itself a new lease of life of some decades’ duration. Now this being so, apart from all other considerations, we can have no hesitation in deciding that our duty as Socialists is to fight tooth and nail against all advances of civilisation in barbarous and savage countries. We may be unsuccessful, but our policy is clear. Hence the hypocritical indignation of the capitalist at slavery and slave-raiding in Africa leaves us cold. “Better Turk than Pope” was the device of the Flemish insurgents of the sixteenth century. “Better slavery than capitalism; better the Arab raider than the Chartered Company,” must be our device in these questions. For this reason also, while naturally desirous of removing any abuses incident to Turkish rule, we heartily support the maintenance of the Turkish Empire, as preserving, partially at least, a considerable chunk of humanity tram the blessings of the world-market, the factory, Christianity, and the höhere kultur generally. The same applies to the barbaric and savage communities of Africa upon whom the curse of civilisation has not yet fallen. Their fight against the white man, against missions, traders, and settlers is our fight. We recognise no rights, under any circumstances whatever, for a civilised power to subjugate races living in a lower stage of social development and to force civilisation upon them. The specious humanitarian twaddle talked in press and upon platform to throw dust in our eyes and cover wanton aggression does not impose upon us.

Now, what are the national risings which a Socialist ought to favour, according to Bernstein? Those European national movements which make for the capitalistic development of a nation – in short, the bourgeois aspirations of the ‘48 movement and its belated survivals. In consonance with his general attitude, Bernstein finds occasion to sneer at any reference to “the final triumph of Socialism.” The recent London Congress passed a resolution embodying such a reference anent divergence between the national and international Polish sections. The belated absurdity of the patriotic Polish balderdash was sufficiently exposed in an excellent article in the Neue Zeit last summer by Fraulein Luxembourg. Bernstein goes on to say that without Socialism the Italians (!) and other peoples have achieved their national deliverance (!). A nice national deliverance, truly, Italy has achieved on the lines of höhere kultur and of Bernstein! Similarly, Germany, through her precious unity, has acquired the inestimable blessings of the military code and of Majestätsbeleidigung prosecutions. Armenia, being a nation of usurers, and therefore kulturfähig, must, of course, be backed in its national agitation. No, no, friend Bernstein, it is a little too late in the day to serve up the ’48 swindles of national “freedom,” “independence,” and “unity” as an acceptable cold collation to the proletariat of modern Europe. Try something else! Happily, the feeling is growing among the working classes that all national aspirations are a fraud and a red herring designed to trick them out of following the true goal of international Socialism. But to pass on.

Capitalism, or modern civilisation, and Socialism are absolutely antithetic. There can be no doubt whatever about that. Bernstein doubtless felt this when he started on his Fabianesque descent. He had the consciousness that the passage from one horn of an absolute antithesis to the other cannot be effected straight off, but presupposes a mediating principle, a Vermittlung. This is all well and good in itself. But, unfortunately, the great aim became with him henceforth the search for the Vermittlung, in the course of which he, like a good many others in like case, lost sight of the ultimate object of the movement.

This is the real explanation of Bernstein’s attitude. He has unconsciously ceased to be a Social Democrat. The form, the empty party-hull, remains on him, but filled out with a reactionary content. The process has been helped by his sojourn in this country.

He has got British “practicality” and “common-sense” on the brain. It is strange that a foreigner is as infallibly lost when he once contracts English “common-sense” as a South Sea islander when he catches European measles. Just as the negro who takes to British whiskey is ruined, so is your Continental Socialist who takes to English ways of looking at things. Both are alike unaccustomed to their new stimulant, and furthermore don’t know the good from the bad brands, and so swallow it all “promiscuous.” Thus Bernstein laps up with gusto any stuff offered him bearing the label “practical English politics” and commends it forthwith as gospel to his German readers.

For example, some months ago he translated verbatim for the Neue Zeit, as the last word of wisdom, a long lecture by Mr J.R. Macdonald (who opposed our candidate Gibson at Southampton), consisting of a strictly commonplace criticism of English Parliamentary institutions, only distinguished for its severe “moderation”. Mr Macdonald among other evidences of his practical intelligence as a democrat (?), defends the bureaucracy (permanent officials) in the public services on the ground that the placing of these services directly under popular control would be undesirable as causing them too faithfully to reflect the fluctuations of public opinion! Out of dread of allowing the democracy to fulfil a political function Mr Macdonald would perpetuate an official body whose sole purpose is to serve as a bulwark of hide-bound red-tape reaction, and who have already emasculated, and in some cases rendered completely inoperative, every legislative and administrative reform which has passed through their hands. A nice democrat, truly! Yet this political old-womanism delights Bernstein’s heart; it savours of the true blend of moderation and practicality. For our own part, under such circumstances, we would prefer, without more ado, to join one of the true-blue Conservative parties (Whig or Tory), believing, as we do, in the political application of Valentine’s advice –

Du bist doch nun einmal eine Hur,
So sei’s auch eben recht.


Last updated on 29.2.2004