E. Belfort Bax

Morals, Economics And Politics

(30 January 1897)

Morals, Economics and Politics, Justice, 30th January 1897, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is important for the Socialist movement that the question of the rights and duties of Socialist industrial and commercial undertakings should be once for all clearly discussed and understood. As a matter of course the “enemy” is continually crying out that Socialist co-operative schemes are carried out on capitalist principles. The same “enemy” is also very industrious in pointing out any semblance of an abuse in such undertakings. We say “semblance of an abuse” as the point for which Anseele was fined in the Ghent case was obviously a purely technical breach of the Belgian factory law: All this is natural and what one might expect.

But there are, unfortunately, some members of the party, as well as many sympathetic outsiders, who seem to think that a capitalist undertaking carried on with Socialist money and worked by Socialist for the purpose of making profits for the movement, ought to be a kind of foretaste of Heaven for the workers in it, a miniature model of what Socialism will be. Now this notion only requires to be stated to be seen to be preposterous. A factory financed with Socialist money is not a place designed for carrying out Utopian experiments under impossible conditions. Neither is it a benevolent institution for benefiting individual workers. It is not even established in order to serve as a model to the capitalist that he may learn by force of example to mend his ways. The Social-Democrat does not believe in the moralisation of the capitalist, or in spending his energies in setting up an example for the capitalist to follow, like a good boy. For none of these objects have Social-Democrat hitherto professed to run industrial or commercial enterprises. If they did they would be woefully deceived, as the enterprises must necessarily end in financial ruin and moral failure. The object of a Socialist store, workshop or factory worked for party ends, is simply and solely to provide funds for party objects. And to do this it must compete with capitalist enterprises on their own ground. The reason for the dismal collapse of so many of such undertakings in the past, is that this has not been fully recognised. There have been always a certain number of silly persons, encouraged, of course, in their at attitude by middle-class public opinion and its press, who have more or less got the idea that a business run by Socialists must for that reason not show the vices of other businesses conducted by the common domestic capitalist. They forget that there is no magic in capital provided by Socialists for party purposes as against capital provided by bourgeois investors for their own profit. Non olet. It does not smell the sweeter for being used in the interests Socialism: Competition shows no consideration for party enterprises. They have to fight for their existence like any others. All are alike subject to the conditions of the capitalist system, and if they are to maintain themselves they must fulfil the requirements of that system.

It is high time, if trade is to be carried on by the party at all, it should be made clear to all, both within and without the movement, that party business undertakings lay no clam to be conducted on essentially more moral principles than similar undertakings of private capitalists. The workman entering such an establishment must not imagine that he is not going to tie exploited. He will and must be exploited just the same. The only difference is that he will, in the one case, be exploited for the benefit of the cause which is his cause, and in the other in the interest of private greed. And in the fact of his exploitation by the party there is no necessary inconsistency. The evils attendant on industry under the capitalist system are pointed out and condemned by Socialists, but not necessarily the individual capitalist whose position forces him to do as he does.

If you are going to start a benevolent institution, start one – only do not waste money by starting it in the form of a workshop or factory with the professed object of keeping the party in funds out of its profits. If, on the other hand, you propose seriously starting a factory, be prepared to maintain it on the only conditions possible to success, viz., on ordinary business principles. Let a committee be appointed, if you will, to weigh any real grievances on the part of the employees, and to guard against “sweating” or any other genuine abuse, but outside this let it be a matter of honour within the party at least, to pay no heed to grumblers. I have heard of a case of a co-operative bakery which ruined itself by the short hours it enacted, and the high wages it paid in comparison with other bakeries, yet the workmen in which, during the whole time it existed, were unceasingly abusing the treatment they received because it did not reach their high philanthropic ideal. The idea that a Socialist concern can afford to treat its employs any better than an average decently-conducted, middle-class workshop or factory is economically preposterous on the face of it, and if these sort of enterprises are to be continued will have to be categorically disavowed. It is even possible that a new and struggling Socialist business may not be able to treat its men as well as some long-established, wealthy business run for private gain.

This is a question, then, which will have to be faced at once by the Social-Democratic workman. Cooperative party projects are being started at several places on the Continent. In this country one or two have been tried and doubtless others will be tried again. It is therefore no use mincing matters, if money and energy which might be useful otherwise shall not be worse than thrown away. The laws of political economy will not permit of philanthropy being combined with business. The workman who enters the service of a Socialist business must know beforehand I say, that he individually will be just as much exploited as in an ordinary averagely-conducted capitalist establishment. It is for him to decide whether he would prefer being exploited for the sake of the cause, for his cause – seeing that he cannot help being exploited anyway so long as capitalism lasts – or whether he prefers the moral (or immoral) satisfaction of knowing he is being exploited by the capitalist for his private ends rather than by Socialism for party purposes. If the party generally has moral scruples as to the consistency of a Socialist enterprise treating its workers according to the rules of workshop and factory-discipline which obtain outside, if it feels itself bound to work shorter hours than obtain elsewhere, if it fancies it incumbent upon it to make its workmen a present in the shape of paying them a specially high and non-economic rate of wages, then in the name of common reason, let this be made clear and let us once for all definitively abandon all such enterprises utilising the funds and energies that would otherwise have been sunk in them for the propaganda or in some other sphere of direct party advantage.


E. Belfort Bax


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