Ernest Belfort Bax

The Socialism of Bernstein

(November 1896)

Justice, 21 November 1896.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Dear Comrade,

I must confess to feeling some disappointment at the indefiniteness of Bernstein’s reply (not rejoinder) to my article in Justice. As to his translation of a portion of his Türkische Wirren it only confirms my paraphrase of it, and the justification of my criticism on it. The paragraph in depreciation of my materialism is rather nebulous, and I don’t see what the Temple or West End clubs either, have to do with the question. If it means anything it only makes my case stronger. For if the squalor of modern civilisation, viewed from the standpoint of, say, the Temple is so bad, what must it be viewed from that of the slum. (I call only say I, for one, should have preferred even the Middle Temple before the höhere Kultur had taken such complete possession of it as it has now, for sundry, and I fear grossly, materialistic reasons). For the rest I confess I don’t see why it should be regarded as specially materialistic to prefer primitive barbarism to capitalistic civilisation. The distinctive social ideal of the former, limited and crude though it be, seems to me not more, but less materialistic than the calculated individualist aims of the latter. However, perhaps I have missed Bernstein’s point. Moreover, I must protest against the allegation that I “inveighed” against the Neo-Marxists in the non-party literary review which Bernstein terms the “Fabianese” Zeit. My article was strictly academical in character, and merely pointed out what I regard (rightly or wrongly) as an untenable application of the materialist doctrine of history. Whether materialistic or not, I do most certainly call every purely national aspiration in the present day a fraud in every sense of the word. I can find nothing ideal, in the better sense of the word, about it.

The quotations from Marx and from Engels are beside the point. Engels referred to the Herzegovinians as, he says, “a primitive folk in the midst of Europe.” The phrase I have italicised makes the whole difference. His contention evidently was that the Herzegovinians rendered themselves impossible to their neighbours, who were, bien entendu, not colonists or “pioneers,” but, like themselves, a people living in the country, (for practical purposes) from time immemorial. As a matter of fact, I have repeatedly discussed this question with Engels, and I have no doubt as to his opinions on the subject. An article of mine, three or four years ago, on the Uganda question, presenting absolutely the same view, met with his complete approval.

Similarly, the reference to Marx leaves my withers unwrung. Marx had in view not the natural primitive slavery of Central Africa, but a slavery that had survived its function and obtained in the very heart of a capitalist state of society – a society which was ready for free labour, but, from short-sightedness or indolence, preferred slave-labour. All the same, I would not like to swear that the condition of the Southern State negro is better today than under the old slaveholding system.

As for Lassalle, we all know he was a strong nationalist, and even a bit of a Jingo, and in so far, he was a Philistine, indeed. But as his own followers have long since thrown overboard this side of his teaching, it matters little now.

Bernstein says that to furnish savages with the power of successfully resisting buccaneering capitalism is (1) impossible, and (2) would only prolong the struggle, not prevent the catastrophe, even if it were possible. As regards the first point, as a well-known member of the Aborigines Protection Society was saying to me the other day, the great difficulty is the furnishing of maxim guns. African warfare turns largely on the maxim gun. The Matabele had rifles and ammunition galore, but they had no maxims. If this difficulty could be got over, as well it might be, and if the natives could be taught the effective use of the maxims, which I am told is simple enough, there is no reason why a successful resistance should not be made in any given case. But, says Bernstein, it would only prolong the agony, not prevent the inevitable end. Good! If it but prolonged matters till capitalism, unable to expand itself had succumbed, that is all I want – the battle is won then. It is a simple misrepresentation to say that I advocate the continuance of Turkish mis-rule. My standpoint as regards this is exactly that of the S.D.F. resolution referred to by Bernstein. In fact, I expressly stated that all Socialists wish to see an end of any real grievances under which the Armenians or other subject races of the Turkish Empire suffered. But Socialists, I repeat, are by no means unanimous in wishing to see an Armenian nationality grow up in which the successful Armenian money-lender may disport himself as a ministerial big-wig for the honour and glory of his “country”. We have got quite enough of these “fatherlands” knocking about already, and it is not our business to increase them.

Whatever Bernstein may like to say about Macdonald, it is true (assuming, of course, that Bernstein translated him correctly) that he questioned the desirability of abolishing the most flagrant and infamous administrative abuse in this country – i.e., the institution of permanent heads of departments. For this reason alone I say that not only all Socialists, but all Democrats and even Radicals with any respect for consistency, must regard Mr. Macdonald as an enemy.

That Bernstein has unconsciously ceased to he a Social-Democrat I judged not only from the article criticised but from other utterances of his, notably his review of Hyndman’s book, some of the views expressed in which I shall take the opportunity of controverting on another occasion.


Yours, E. Belfort Bax

P.S. – By the way, I should really like to know what Bernstein thinks Italy (which he mentions) has gained by her precious National “freedom” and “unity.”


Last updated on 29.2.2004