E. Belfort Bax

One Reactionary Mass

(4 September 1897)

One Reactionary Mass, Justice, 4th September 1897, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Certain persons, still calling themselves “Social-Democrats,” have seen fit lately to sneer at the well-known phrase, “ one reactionary mass,” applied to the middle-class parties. The family quarrels between them are represented as vital differences, of which the Social-Democratic Party may with profit take advantage. If, however, we want to assure ourselves of the truth of the old Lassallean doctrine, we have only to wait for some event by which the possessing classes imagine one of their class interests to be imperilled. The slaying of the infamous Canovas has afforded the most recent illustration of this. The moment a statesman – i.e., a representative of the existing social order – is struck down, all the bourgeois parties, from “advanced” Radical to hide-bound Tory, hug each other and vie with each other in shrieking vilification on the one side and slobbery adulation on the other. They do this now quite irrespective of the merits of the case. The illicit executioner of an atrocious monster is treated to the same class of invective as the thrower of a bomb in a theatre. Now this was not always so. Some now living can recollect the time when Mazzini, who was not unacquainted with the mysteries of tyrannicide, was regarded as the quintessence of patriotic heroism by the advanced Liberals of a bygone generation, Even the bomber Orsini had not a few admirers among otherwise respectable middle-class persons. We know of a highly respectable restaurant in a certain continental town called after him. Fancy, nowadays, a cafe Caserio or a café Angiolillo! But the sudden unanimity of bourgeois public opinion as to the criminality of taking human life is only confined to the life of “statesman,” i.e., the representatives of the bourgeois state. Their “thrills of horror,” their “indignation,” and other imprecatory phrases do not extend to the common man. Did not the same “public opinion” enthusiastically applaud the really atrocious murder of certain Italians some years ago by a New Orleans lynching mob? Is it not perfectly willing to make a heroine of Charlotte Corday? In other words, whenever it suits its purpose, or the purpose of class government, we all know it is perfectly ready to justify any amount of illegal violence, not. to speak of the cold-blooded brutality with which it gloats over the hanging of some wretched common law criminal.

No, the unanimity of middle-class public opinion, in its crocodile-blubbering over “defuncted” statesmen, has its very distinct economical ground. Why were the members of the Peace Society at Brussels suddenly struck with a sense of the “sanctity of human life” by the destruction of Canovas del Castillo the other day, as expressed in their telegram of condolence? The judicial murder of the eleven so-called Anarchists at Montjuich (not to speak of the torture of numbers of workmen arrested haphazard on suspicion of being Anarchists), which led up to the slaying of Canovas – this atrocity apparently in no wise occurred to them as inconsistent with their stated views as to “the sanctity of human life under all circumstances.” “Human life,” as interpreted by the lickspittling humbugs of the “Peace Society,” is apparently confined to the sacred carcasses of statesmen. The true reason of the difference between the “public opinion” relative to political “assassination” (so-called) of today and of a couple of generations back, or less, is by no means inexplicable. Then, the ground of opposition between all sections of the middle class and the working class, as economical and political social entities, was not so obvious as it is to-day. Then, the dread of the possessing classes against all violence directed against the “powers that be” was not enhanced by the clear consciousness that the modern bourgeois state is the bulwark, in the last resort, of all having an interest in the maintenance of private property, actual or potential, real or imaginary. The “people” then, composed of small middle-class and proletariat, was supposed to have common cause as against the aristocrat and the plutocrat. Now, all sections of the possessing classes are united in their devotion to “political stability,” even though embodied in an inhuman criminal. The dread of the Social Revolution outweighs all other feelings. The “one reactionary mass,” all opposed to social revolt, from ambassador to Cuban insurgent, cling together, and dissolve themselves in crocodile’s tears when a bulwark of the modern State fails.

Of the noble man who, with the thought of justice alone in his heart, extirpated a fiendish monster – of the man who, without posing and without bravado, deliberately sacrificed his life in a cause which “public opinion” glorifies when its own interests are not at stake in the person, say, of some Biblical hero or of a Tell – of Angiolillo it is unnecessary to speak. The contemptible press skunks who prostitute their venal pens in pandering to a “public opinion” of the baser sort, with all their foul-mouthed abuse, show themselves vile, not him. To every sincere lover of justice and hater of cruelty and crime, the name of Angiolillo will be sacred.

We are always ready to reprobate the acts of Anarchists by which innocent persons are sacrificed or endangered, quite as much as we justify an act which is nothing more than the execution of Justice on a criminal in high places.

As for those other acts of Anarchists which fall between these two categories we can only say we are indifferent to them. In pursuance of a foolish policy, by which they hope to realise what we regard as a mistaken theory, the Anarchists have declared a guerilla war on the modern State, one episode in which is the promiscuous “potting” of prominent representatives of the modern State who have done no particular harm, e.g., as in the case of the late Monsieur Carnot.

Now, although we in no sense approve of this policy or tactics, we say it is no affair of ours. We always condemn the Anarchist’s theory and often his action, but we also condemn the modern State. Therefore, we say, let the Anarchists and capitalist State authorities fight it out between them, provided something like the rules of fairplay are observed. The statesman will suppress the Anarchist if he can, the anarchist will destroy the statesman if be can. We do not ourselves believe in either policy of repression or destruction, but that is neither here nor there. Whether a moderate harmless statesman gets killed by an Anarchist, or a quite harmless swain is done to death by the German military system, as sometimes happens, it is a destruction of human life in either case, and, as such, deplorable. If our sympathies are greater for the poor young recruit, that has its very sufficient reasons. (1) The statesman pays with his life for the good things he has had – honour, power, riches ; the boorish recruit pays with his life for no value received. (2) The statesman, though perhaps harmless himself, represents a harmful system of society; the recruit represents nothing. (3) It is at least an open question, viewing the matter philosophically, whether the intensity of the pain the statesman feels in being assassinated is not outweighed by the sum of cumulative pleasure derived from the newspaper copy – which the incident directly and indirectly affords – by two classes, viz., the newspaper proprietor in the shape of increased sale, and the newspaper reader in the shape of increased excitement; the recruit’s death, on the other hand, brings a compensating pleasure to none.


E. Belfort Bax


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