E. Belfort Bax

In Defence Of Socialism

(December 1898)

E. Belfort Bax, In Defence of Socialism, Social Democrat, December 1898, pp.360-3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Mr. McDougall, thinks that the maintenance of capitalism “can be shown to be consistent with continuous moral, material, and social development.” The evils which exist under the present capitalistic social régime are accidental, not essential, to its constitution. Capitalism is “progressive.” The application of discovery and invention to the arts of life has been due entirely “to men actuated by the impulse of private gain.” In proof of these assertions Mr. McDougall starts with an ignorantio elenchi. After saying that the allegation as against capitalism of the polarisation of wealth and poverty at the present time, of its having created millionaires on the one side and paupers on the other, overlooks the increase of population, he trots out the truism that medieval modes of production could not support a nineteenth-century population. The corollary is, of course, that the methods of production and distribution which capitalism presupposes are a necessary stage in the progress of human society. But whoever denied this? The further, in itself by no means so self-evident and indisputable, proposition, that the private ownership of those means of production and distribution is an equally necessary step in economic evolution, is undoubtedly justified by history, and hence may be equally conceded. But what argument is this in defence of capitalism as opposed to Socialism in the modern souse of the word? “Our little systems have their day – they have their day and cease to be,” applies as much to economics as to speculative thought. Of course, capitalism has been, or is, up to a certain point, a progressive force, but this does not say that beyond this point it is not a reactionary force. As against slavery and feudalism, with their undeveloped methods of production and exchange, obviously capitalism, with its great industry, is an advance. But does it in itself make for human happiness? Has it the elements of permanence, even relative permanence, within itself? These are the questions which the apologist of capitalism has to answer. Is the system he defends in reality a help or a hindrance to future progress? Would further improvements in the methods of production, &c., be impossible without that stimulus of material, personal interest, which in the past may have been one of the elements which has contributed to their creation? In conceding the latter point for the sake of argument, we are by no means to be understood as accepting the statement’ that motives of personal gain have been such a powerful factor even in the past as Individualists allege. On the contrary, we believe that their importance is enormously exaggerated. Now, the above is a question to which Mr. McDougall by no means applies himself. And this is precisely the point disputed by Socialists. The argument from population surely not only cuts both ways, but is actually against Mr. McDougall’s contention, for the huge populations of to-day are themselves a product of capitalism, as Mr. McDougall will see if he compares the relative increase of population even before and after the rise of the modern great industry, let alone the period of inchoate capitalism, the période manufacturier, which preceded it. And yet our champion of capitalism has to admit that this population furnishes “actually more destitute, people” than in previous epochs. But the allegation that “the mediaeval standard of comfort ‘comprised’ but a small, proportion of the population” is in defiance of historical truth, and it is on this allegation that Mr. McDougall bases his statement that there are relatively to the whole population fewer destitute people to-day than ever before. Now, I distinctly challenge Mr. McDougall to prove, or at least to give some reason for his assertion, that in the average mediaeval manor, or in the average mediaeval city or town, there was, “relatively to the whole population,” one tithe of the destitution there is in any average modern industrial city. So far as my own studies have extended, they distinctly traverse such a supposition. I am perfectly aware of the fact that in a special locality at a given moment, when suddenly smitten by war or famine, you might point to terrible and widespread suffering. But in the normal condition of the mediaeval community I contend destitution at all was exceptional and sporadic. Under capitalism, with its world-market, it is true, we have got rid of famines in the old sense, and greatly reduced the chances of war; but in the places of these evils we have the chronic mass-misery and squalor of the modern town, with the depopulation and impoverishment of the rural districts. For general facts illustrative of the above Mr. McDougall may consult any social history. He will then see that chronic destitution on any considerable scale began precisely with the break-up of mediaeval conditions at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, and that every stage in capitalistic progress has been marked by a fresh accession of destitution, and a stereotyping and intensifying of that already existing, till the advent of the great industry at the end of the last century ushered in the present state of things.

That the poor are not poorer through capitalism only applies to the so-called higher grades of the wage-earning classes. These, it may be true, are better off to-day than they were a hundred years ago. But even here there is a very strong caveat to be entered, for, though the actual rate of wages may be higher in many trades, yet the security of tenure is infinitely less. Before the days of the great industry, even if wages were lower, a man was reasonably secure of retaining his job for life. To-day no man is sure of his job from week to week. That very progress in invention, which Mr. McDougall hails as such a triumph of modern capitalism and free competition, is itself, under the capitalistic system, one fruitful source of destitution. For every new machine invented, thousands, and, in some cases, tens of thousands, of workers are thrown upon the pavement. This is the obvious answer to Mr. McDougall’s contention that the “poor are not poorer than they were before the rise of the millionaires.” But it is only in an absolute sense that this can be admitted, even of that aristocracy of labour above spoken of. For, relatively, the difference in standard of life between the best-paid modern workman in a factory and the owner of the factory is very much greater, as a rule, than that between the medieval soccage tenant and his feudal lord, or even, not to go so far back, than that probably between the country squire of last century and the villager of the “contentment-spinning-at-the-cottage-door” period. These money rates of wages, as Mr. McDougall will hardly deny, are, taken by themselves, purely deceptive. The standard of life in pre-capitalistic periods was simpler than it is now; but, such as they were, the essential needs of life were certainly more equally shared between noble and “common man.” Where the difference came in was in superfluities, i.e., in ermine, cloth of gold, rare spices, and lavish excess of food, rather than in the ordinary necessaries of life.

Mr. McDougall denies that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, in the sense that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few, observing that income-tax and other returns show this to be a mistake. This argument has been so often disposed of that it hardly seems worth while dealing with it again. That more people pay income-tax than formerly may be true, but do more pay relatively to the increase of total population? Until this is proved, the reference to income-tax returns is worthless, and, to have any value, it must be proved as a progressive increase over a sufficiently long period. As for the “other returns,” if Mr. McDougall refers to savings banks and similar repositories of small investments, the answer to his contention is: – (1) That, as our comrade Saniel has recently shown as regards America, the vast majority of the depositors belong to the middle and not to the working class at all; (2) That the small savings deposits, if they are workmen’s savings, are almost invariably swept away by the first spell of unemployment – that special and peculiar product of modern capitalism, with its chronic instability of the social and mechanical conditions of production. As for the small investors in limited liability, industrial, or commercial concerns, these generally mean that the quondam small capitalist, who would formerly have been a master, but whose means do not permit him to be so under the changed conditions, has simply sunk what money he has at four per cent., and gone straight into the ranks of the wage-earning class, In any case, it is ten to one that the small shareholder is in receipt of wages in some form or shape.

Mr. McDougall fears a coming equality rather than an inequality of economic condition. He deplores that “the poor are taught by Socialist propagandists to envy and hate their benefactors.” And this, notwithstanding that workmen with associated capital have never “shown themselves competent to organise their labour on a non-profit working basis”! We presume, from the context, that this is intended as a clincher against Socialism. If the able writer before us really means that, we can only assure him he is giving himself away completely, and showing that he has not even a blushing acquaintance with what modern Socialism means. If anybody ever thought that any co-operation of workmen could possibly, inside a capitalistic society, under ordinary circumstances, expect to successfully carry on a business on a non-profit working basis, he must be a person who – well, who ought to be “taken charge of” for his own good. Every Socialist knows that, barring a purely chance combination of circumstances, a success of this kind is impossible. No, Mr. McDougall, Socialism does not mean co-operative syndicates of workmen competing against capitalists. It means the whole community, backed by the forces at the disposal of the community, organised for the work of production and distribution, and employing for this purpose the latest and most approved methods and the latest and most approved machinery. Co-operation by syndicates of workmen under competitive conditions is not and never will be Socialism. The bulk of Mr. McDougall’s paper is based upon the old, stale, oft-repeated fallacy of the incentive to invention supplied by self-interest. Now, as a matter of fact, everyone knows that the capitalist who a “runs” a new invention is hardly ever the inventor himself, but almost always the mere exploiter of the inventor, who, in most cases, dies poor. But we absolutely deny that the motive of gain produces any of the best work in the present day, even in the application of inventions to the needs of human life. Desire for fame or for honourable mention is, in all cases, the leading motive, and those things would be stronger in a socialistic than in a capitalistic society.

Mr. McDougall sings the praises of capitalism for what it has done. He omits to say anything of necrosis, of the numberless victims of defective machinery, of white lead poisoning, of the Cradley Heath chainmakers, of the overworking of the labourers, including children, of the squalor of the modern workman’s life – yet all those things are the products of capitalism “let alone.” Perhaps he will allege that these are only the accidents of the capitalist system. If so, we would ask him to show how a system of free competition, where cheapness is the aim, where goods are produced for sale and not for use, where every man’s aim is and must be on pain of capitalistic extinction, to get the better of his neighbour. How, I say, such a system can, under any possibility, exist without them?

As admitted at the outset of this article, no Socialist denies that capitalism, in the course of its career, has indirectly created permanent elements of progress, But it has done it, to use the metaphor of our friend the editor of Justice, in the same manner as Charles Lamb’s Tartars roasted their pigs – so long as the theory of roast pig was in an inchoate stage. They did roast their pigs, did these calmucks – oh, yes, there is no denying the pigs got roasted – but every pig so roasted cost the destruction of a house and its belongings. Thus it is with the capitalist system, with its ghastly waste of human life and labour, and its hideous accompaniments of destitution and squalor. Every invention, every improvement in production or distribution, costs its hecatombs of victims, and implies the maintenance of a system which permanently degrades the majority of mankind who live under it. Such is capitalism. Under Socialism we know we shall be in a position to gain ten times the result achieved by capitalism without the cost we pay now for the tenth part.


E. Belfort Bax


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