E. Belfort Bax

It Must Be – Must It Be?

(25 August 1900)

Must it be?, Justice, 25th August 1900, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

When urging the duty of Social-Democrats and the goal of a Social-Democratic foreign policy to be the prevention, or at least the hampering, of the expansion of capitalist civilisation at all costs one is constantly met by the reply, even from Socialists themselves: “But this expansion must take place, there is no help for it.” The only answer to those who talk this way is to point out that this sort of fatalism if logically carried out would lead us to the Kismet attitude of folding our hands. But whence this conviction of the impossibility of the expansive force of capitalism being arrested even for a time? No one underrates less than the present writes the intensity of the pressure of our economical system towards fresh outlets which mean its self-preservation. What is denied is the absolutely invincible nature of this tendency. The efforts of our economic system to extend itself have often. met with obstacles which have involved a check of longer or shorter duration. The last instance of this is the case of the Soudan. European civilisation in the immediate interests of commerce made an effort to “open up” the great watershed of the Nile in the early eighties. What happened? The Mahdi-movement supervened and the desert foemen held civilisation at bay for fifteen years. The idea that it is impossible by policy or otherwise to interpose a barrier of circumstances to the advancing flood is not in accordance with fact.

By a policy the aim of which is the throwing every stumbling-block in the way of expansion, there is undoubtedly a reasonable chance of holding it back. Directly, I admit, there may be not much to be achieved, but indirectly by supporting any policy involving complications or a general situation which will render an aggressive colonial policy impossible for the time being, much may be done as occasion offers. For the time is at hand. Capitalism, industrial, commercial, financial, must expand within the next very few years, or it must cease to exist. Upon its success or failure will the chances of Socialism depend. If it succeeds our hope is vain for possibly three generations. If it fail the Social Revolution may be upon us within the next few years.

I have already pointed out in the May Day number of Justice that the greatest danger of successful expansion lies with Great Britain, and do not propose to elaborate this point further here, but the general argument of the existing situation may be usefully re-stated in a few words, since one is every day reminded how ill it is understood. The very conviction that Imperialism must be, that nothing can stay the expansion of modern civilisation, often rests upon a confusion – the confusion, namely between organic development and mere continuance of existence. It is rightly seen that the revolution which is to inaugurate Socialism, presupposes the fullest possible development of that very antagonistic order of which it is, after all, the outcome – viz., the capitalistic system. Until the latter has reached its fullest bloom it were hopeless to look for that transformation for which our eyes their vigils keep – the transformation from present competitive anarchy to future co-operative order. Whether the United States presents us with the highest organic development of capitalism, whether Western Europe is destined to pass through a period of vast rings, trusts, and combines, with governments directly subservient to them, may be moot questions; but every “scientific” Socialist, whatever his opinion as to whether or not we have already reached the last of the essential or organic stages in capitalistic development, is agreed that such must be reached before the new era actually dawns.

Now, the necessity of the capitalist system passing through all the phases allotted it by nature is commonly confounded with something quite different – namely, with a supposed a priori necessity for its expansion. Here, as already said, development is confounded with mere prolongation of existence. To the completest development of the present industrial and commercial system no expansion whatever is necessary. It is immortal within its present limits till its work is done. Till then no amount of attacks will upset it – “for it is as the air invulnerable and our vain blows malicious mockery.” But if “expansion” is not necessary to the inherent development of capitalist civilisation, it is very necessary indeed to the prolongation of its life after it has completed that development. We pass here out of the region of science, of law, into that of everyday life, of chance. The representatives of the present system may or may not succeed in furnishing that system with the means of continuing to exist after it is intrinsically ripe to be succeeded by a higher organisation of society than itself. The latter feel instinctively that the system of capitalist production and distribution is fast approaching the final stage of its development, if it has not already reached it.

Hence the new Imperialism to which the close of the nineteenth century has given birth, with its feverish haste to appropriate the earth’s surface, each national group of capitalists striving to outstrip the others in their eagerness. They see that it is a race between the evolution of capitalism within its present limits and the securing for it of fresh breathing-ground which shall enable it to prolong its life and bid defiance to the social revolution, it may be, for generations to come. It cannot be too strongly insisted upon that the only hope of the early realisation of Socialism lies in some combination of events which shall postpone or abort the further spread of European civilisation on a large scale. The next five years will probably solve the problem of whether we are in for a new cycle of capitalism based on freshly “opened up” lands and populations, or whether we shall within the lifetime of the rising generation see the transformation of existing conditions which shall lay the foundation of the “world new budded.”


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 11.6.2004