E. Belfort Bax

The Bourgeois Radical Movement and Socialism

(May 1897)

From Social Democrat, May 1897, pp.131-135.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.131-135.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We often hear the observation made by Socialists in a deprecating manner respecting some theory or agitation forming part of the party programme, “Oh, that as been taken over from the old middle-class Radicalism.” The implication is, of course, that the position in questions is a superstition which ought to be got rid of by Socialists, or which at best has no particular connection with Socialism. The persons who use this argument, ignore the fact that there are many points in the programme of the old Radicalism which Socialism presupposes, but which have as yet never been realised. We too often forget that the middle classes have only very imperfectly fulfilled the task assigned to them by their historical function, and that reforms unfulfilled, or at least only half-fulfilled by the middle-class naturally fall to the lot of social-democracy to carry through. These are the points of contact between Radicalism and Socialism. The only difference is that Socialism consistently regards them merely parts of a whole, whereas radicalism commonly conceives them as independent ends in themselves. But this is no reason why Socialists should not treat such aims as an essential part of their programme and why they should not energetically work for them.

The relation of the ideas of the old middle-class revolutionary movement with regard to the modern revolutionary movement of Socialism is really threefold – (1) There are the ideas and objects which especially concern the former, and which have been long since generally adopted or realised; (2) there are the ideas and objects which in themselves more intimately concern both movements, but which, owing to their civilly been in the main adopted or realised, have lost the practical importance they once had; (3) theme are the ideas and objects which concern both movements, but which have not as yet won a complete victory even in essentials, and hence which still retain their practical importance. We will consider these three categories for a moment. To the first class belong all suffrage movements based on property – i.e. short of the universal suffrage movement – freedom of domicile, abolition of restrictions on combination, together with Malthusianism, the attack on luxury as such, stale gibes on aristocratic vices and bad habits, the view that a Republican is necessarily a democrat, and generally the revolt against the old-fashioned and direct forms of political tyranny whose poetical expression is to be best found in Shelley; and last, but not least, nationalist movements. The second comprises most fiscal and currency reforms, also the universal suffrage movement, payment of members, Republicanism, viewed as a burning question, Disestablishment, and the attack on the classes privileged by status, such as noblemen, apart from the general capitalistic class), the Prince of Wales, and so on. Finally, the third category is represented by the movement for secular education, for freeing the individual from oppressive laws relating to marriage, for the assertion of the principle of sexual freedom before the law and public opinion, for the repeal of other laws wantonly hindering the individual from living his own life, which are based, not on economic or political necessity but on old conventions that have lost all their meaning, if they ever had any, or on bald moral prepossessions or theological superstitions, and this despite the attempt which will probably he made to justify them on grounds of social expediency as a last resort.

If we once distinguish between these various classes of questions we shall see that the vague allegation one hears sometimes from Socialists to the effect that so-and-so “belongs to the old bourgeois Radicalism,” with the derogatory implication that the theory or agitation in question is a superstition no longer worthy of the attention of Socialists, is utterly empty and stupid. That there is some such superstitions one would not deny. But an agitation may have been taken over from the old political Radicalism, and yet may be a most important ingredient in the modern Social-Democratic movement. Modern Socialism, as already said, presupposes all or most of the reforms championed by the middle-class movement of the last century, and the earlier decades of this. And in so far as this movement has not fulfilled its function, in so far as it has not carried these reforms through, the said function necessarily passes on to the movement which succeeds it in the scale of historical progress. As already said, there are some points striven for by the earlier Radicalism which, although they have not been completely realised, have nevertheless made such headway that their importance effectively gives place to that of other more urgent points of agitation. But there are none the less, on the other hand, objects equally common to the modern and the older movement, which it is just as necessary to urge forward parallel with the directly economical objects immediately concerning the working-class struggle of to day.

For example, anti-militarism in Germany is a “plank” common alike to Herr Richter and to the Social Democrats. Similarly the onslaught on police-bureaucracy. Yet again, the attack on a monarchical veto. All those things are essential to Social-Democracy, and, being as yet unrealised by the old Radicalism whence they sprung, must necessarily loom big in the Social-Democratic agitation. Before deciding whether a doctrine or aim of the old Radicalism should constitute a living part of our programme, or not, we must judge the particular point in question on its merits, The fact of its belonging to the old Radicalism is not in itself against it. Let us take two instances of ideas for which the old middle-class Radicalism strove. The first is the idea of “nationality.” This implies that the political “unity” and “independence” of a certain territorial aggregate (by no means always conterminous with race or language, but which in a more or less vague way aims at being so) should be a primary aim of the party of progress. Now this was certainly very essential to the development of modern capitalism in more ways than one. Small states with a diversity of laws affecting industry and commerce, with no uniformity of coinage, with different customs arrangements, and with Governments none of them stable, as centralised Governments are, but of various degrees of instability, were obviously awkward factors in an expansive capitalism which required a free world-market for its continued existence, not to say development. Hence small independent feudal states had to go, the process being gilded over by the sentimental humbug of “patriotism.”

The movement associated with the year 1848 which aimed at the establishment of centralised governments on a national basis was the high-water mark of the bourgeois ideal of nationality. In so far as nationalism, i.e. the independence and unification of nationalities was essential to progress, it was accomplished by the movement named, which reached its climax in the foundation of the German Empire. Socialism, as such, has, I contend, nothing to do with the aspirations of struggling nationalities towards independence and the attainment of “national consciousness,” and a national existence – with the endeavours of Greece to enlarge her boundaries for the purpose of floating a new loan with Armenian independence or with Polish patriotism. If a partial exception be made in the case of Ireland, it is only because English rule in Ireland is s intimately bound up with the question of absentee landlordism, and the whole Irish agrarian problem. Nationalism, with its corresponding ideological expressions covered by the word patriotism, may have had its historical justification, but with its further realisation Socialism has no interest or concern. However necessary it may have been, dynamically considered, as an element in the capitalist phase of social development, like every other essential element in that phase, it has per se been an unmitigated curse. The material fact of national unity and independence, whether in the case of Germany, Hungary, or Italy, has never brought any good to the working classes of the countries in question. The moral spirit engendered by it, the idiotic self-glorification of every nationality at the expense of every other, has been fruitful in nothing but obstruction to progress, delay in the Socialist movement, and a whole shoal of red-herrings of every description.

It is quite true that Socialism will have to take over the accursed legacy of existing national frontiers from the bourgeois world-order, but Socialism will take it over merely with the view of killing it off and burying it at the earliest possible moment. Here Socialism is at a disadvantage as compared with Christianity. The latter found the old local patriotisms sapped and undermined by the Roman imperial system. Unfortunately we have no international power, even though that power were despotic, to do us the service of treading under its iron heel the sham sentiment evoked by the amorphous aggregates of population embodied in the modern centralised nation or state. The ancient “city” was, at least, an organically rounded-off social entity of manageable size. The modern nation or centralised state is a hideous monstrosity, the offspring of capitalism in its various phases, in its present shape the outcome of the developed capitalism of the great industry. We quite admit that in form it may, and probably will, survive the earlier stages of Socialism, but its ultimate disappearance is none. the loss certain. The sentiment of national patriotism will then, let is hope, be reduced to its last expression the holding of annual dinners, or some harmless festivity of this sort, such as is affected by the natives of certain English counties resident in the metropolis. The Nationalist movement, therefore, is an old Radical “plank”, which clearly no longer belongs to us as Socialists.

We will now take an opposite example. We not unfrequently hear that the attack on the old theological systems, as enslaving the human mind to-day, is a matter with which we have no special concern. This is, however, on quite a different footing to the foregoing. Secular education, of course, forms part of the Social Democratic programme in all countries. But, weakened though it has been, it would be rash to say that clericalism, in the shape of theological dogma, has ceased to be a danger, and hence is no longer to be regarded as an active enemy. The weapons of the old Radical Free Thought movement in the popular attack on this evil may have been largely superseded by the weapons of modern science and criticism; and the direct onslaught may have become less necessary since the flank movement has, so to say, taken the enemy in the rear. This admission by no means says that a direct attack is even now never the right tactics to pursue. It does not exonerate us from the obligation of making such a direct attack whenever the occasion presents itself. (Religion may be a “private matter”, as the German programme has it, in many case, but it ceases to be a private matter when it stands in the way of popular intellectual progress and especially when it tends to interfere with a scientific insight into historical and social problems. The allegation that Socialism has no opinions on such questions must be taken in a somewhat Pickwickian sense. What is really meant thereby is that among persons whose theological belief is practically dead, but who may or may not have a certain sentimental affection for the old formulae embodying that belief it is not worth while stirring up dying dogs by unnecessarily gibbeting of these formulae. But, on the other hand, let any socialist agitator try and bring home the truths of Socialism to a body of persons possessed of any serious belief in theology, and he will soon have the necessity of taking up a determined attitude on these questions brought home to him. The practical good sense of Socialists in such cases generally gets the better of their rigid shibboleth, and their anti-theological (not merely non-theological) attitude becomes as robust and aggressive as that of an old Voltairean. In this case it, is clear, therefore, that talk about aggressive atheism or aggressive freethought as belonging exclusively to the old radicalism is nonsensical where it is not actually disingenuous. In fact, in face of the active campaign of the Roman Catholic Church among peasants and workmen in many parts of the continent of Europe, as well as in some of the States of North America, the notion of maintaining that religion is at purely private matter, and Socialism has no concern with ii, if it is a pretence is a dishonest farce, and if it were no pretence would mean treachery to the party.

It were surely a much better policy while always insisting on the avoidance of barren theological controversies or the unnecessary irritation of smouldering religious sentiment to candidly admit that Socialism, like every other system of society, has its own Weltanschaung, or conception of the universe, and that, rash as it would undoubtedly be at present to attempt to confine it within the four corners of any formula or set of formulae – that nevertheless, it is, if nothing else, incompatible with the supernaturalism and with much of the ethics of the old religious systems. It is, of course, perfectly true that a man may favour any particular “planks” of the immediate party programme and vote for them while remaining a strict Catholic or Calvinist or Jew or Moslem; the present writer would be the last in the world to choke off such extraneous aid – aid which is not merely desirable or advantageous, but, in the present position of affairs at least, is in most countries absolutely essential to the formation of a Parliamentary Socialist Party. All that is sought to be urged here merely points to a distinction between such “proselytes of the gate” and those who definitely recognised as members of the Socialist Party. The profession of dogmatic theological beliefs by the latter can but mean one of two things – either deliberate deception, or such a hopeless nebulosity of mind as to suggest that the personas in question are extremely undesirable members of an organisation where sincerity, outspokeness of conviction and clearness of intention are of the first importance.


Belfort Bax


Last updated on 14.1.2006