E. Belfort Bax

Wanted, A New Morality?

(26 May 1900)

Wanted, A New Morality?, Justice, 26th May 1900, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The reader may, perhaps, remark that the new morality is already there, although under existing conditions it has not made much headway. This is true. The germs of it are there, but they are as yet weak, crude, and undeveloped. The “Socialist Conscience,” which by the way, is not always confined to avowed Socialists, already confronts the “Nonconformist Conscience.” But the root-distinction between the two is as yet clearly manifest to but few. The present war has, however, tended to bring the difference and even the antagonism between them into clearer light. The hopeless impotence of the old Christian ethics of personal character – the Introspective Ethics, as I have elsewhere termed them – to guide man’s political thoughts and actions, has been seldom before so plainly demonstrated. We still have the morality with us which proclaims internal self-regeneration by the individual will, operating usually by means of asceticism, as the one thing needful – which for most persons au fond exhausts all that they understand by the term morality.

This morality, while zealous in the cutting and carving of the personal character, i.e., in private life, in accordance with the regulation “trim,” leaves the individual without rudder or compass in his aspect as a member of the economical and political community, i.e., in his public life. This is a matter which to it is of quite subordinate importance if not altogether outside its pale. The Christian, the Nonconformist, whether sincerely or not, professes to exact from himself and others the utmost “sobriety” of personal conduct; he lays down inflexible rules in this respect, he visits with his severe censure all those who swerve from them, but towards a man’s acts in his business life he is ever lenient, provided the former does not bring himself within the pale of the criminal law, while as to his political life it has nothing to say whatever.

In this latter respect, a mere conventional sentiment, the moral shoddy which goes under the name of Patriotism is the substitute for the genuine moral sense which is lacking. The Nonconformist Conscience, as represented at Exeter Hall, vies with the drunken fervour of the music-hall in celebrating the cheap glory of a huge empire crushing a few thousand brave farmers fighting for their hearths and homes, and claims that all should wish success to this empire’s brute force no matter whether they regard the war to itself as just or unjust. This has repeatedly been said in so many words by Exeter Hall orators, and could we, I ask, find a more complete negation of all conscience? To wish an unjust cause, to wish a crime, to succeed merely because it is committed under the aegis of the particular State-system into which one has happened to be born! Think of it! But the only alternative is the toss of prestige of Great Britain and the possible collapse of the British Empire – the great, the beneficent British Empire, it may be said.

Let us put a parallel case which should especially appeal to Exeter Hall. Supposing a brother of one of these knights of the Nonconformist Conscience were caught in the act of ravishing and throttling a respectable young woman by the roadside, would the man of the Nonconformist Conscience wish his brother success on the ground that he could not go against his own family? or that, although he regretted that his brother had started the assault on the young woman, yet that, once having done so, he was bound “to see the thing through” – in fact, if his brother required assistance in the throttling process, to come to his aid? For he might argue, mutatis mutandis, “it is necessary to guard against future danger, and by murdering the victim guard against a prosecution which would affect the reputation of my whole family, besides cutting short my brother’s career of usefulness, for, however much we may disapprove of this particular act of his, we must not forget the services he renders to the cause of popular religion and morality by his assiduous labours on behalf of Sunday-schools and foreign missions.” That few luminaries of Exeter Hall would have the courage thus to carry their public morality into their private life proves the complete rottenness of their whole ethical basis.

The truth is that the morality which concentrates itself on the individual, on personal heart-searchings, whose chief concern is the reprobation of what are termed private vices or sins, is bankrupt. That this morality – the Ethics of inwardness – has nothing to say to guide men’s public conscience as concerns justice and righteousness toward whole communities; that it is compatible with the condonation and even the approval of every form of every political crime, is enough to condemn it. There is no use in saying that it is only the hypocrisy of its professors which discredits the old theological morality. It is the moral basis itself which is at fault. The Ethics which regards a conventionally virtuous private life as, if not exactly the one thing needful, yet as the central spring of morality, and all else as subsidiary thereto, naturally lands us in loose views of public duty. Certain leading lights of Nonconformity, through their approval of a national crime, accompanied as that approval is stated to be in one case at least, by circumstances suspiciously suggestive of materially-interested motives, meets with no disapprobation from their own or any other Christian body. But had they or anyone else in a similar position been suspected of being involved in any sexual scandal, or been seen carousing too freely one night, or been known to have put a sovereign on a horse, what would have been the outcry and the cold-shoulderings of their brother Christians? Yet it is possible that no one of these things had injured any human being.

And one cannot charge the Christian bodies with inconsistency in taking up this attitude. They are simply acting in accordance with their own recognised ethical principles. Now, the morality of the future, the ethics of Socialism, is destined without doubt to precisely reverse the position of the current Introspective Ethics. While regarding the conventional personal virtues or vices, sexual, Bacchic, aleatory or what-not, as matters mainly of private taste, and of no ethical importance, in so far, i.e., as their exercise does not directly trench on the rights of others, it will not merely exact fair dealing in social relations, but will regard a healthy public moral sense – a sense of right and wrong between communities and social groups – as the centre and basis of its whole moral system.


E. Belfort Bax


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