E. Belfort Bax 1900

‘A Common Misconception’
(or, ‘A Widespread Erroneous Conclusion’)

First published: 21st November 1900 in German in Die Neue Zeit, XIX, 1;
Translated: by Peter Enis.

One of the most common mistakes, which can be found in the debate about the questions of imperialism and the new colonial politics, has apparently found its way into even some socialists minds. It is claimed, the expansion of today’s civilisation, and hence the capitalist economy, among all continents has had the necessity of an unchangeable natural law.

For those who see the present-day civilisation as the answer to everything and the capitalist economy as the final result of human development, this view is understandable, if not inevitable from their standpoint. But finding even Social-Democrats being able to fall for this fallacy proves that carelessness in the way of thinking is not an trait exclusive for bourgeois economists. The socialist proponents from this theory of historical necessity of colonial expansion their viewpoint argue like the following: The capitalist type of economy necessarily has to run through all phases of its development before a socialist society, which will be born out of it, can develop its maturity.

Now, the capitalist economy strives today first of all for room and spread, and likely will expand until it reaches across the whole globe. As long as this process is not finished, the cycle of capitalism is not finished thus socialism cannot replace it earlier. So, the better this process can be accelerated, the better the prospects are for socialism.

Just like I recently argued in the English party-papers, this line of argument is based on a confusion. Namely because there is no differentiation between 1. the completion of the inevitable development-sequences of its stages, before capitalism reaches full maturity (this means the necessary phases of development), and 2. the bare prolonging of its life or existence, even after its organic development-cycle is completed. The notion that the capitalist system has to have gone through all of its essential development phases before it can be replaced by socialism might be true, but this does not prove the necessity for capitalism to prolong its existence beyond the date where it exceeded its organic development through political power-plays. This can happen, or not, as the case may be. The self-preservation instinct of capitalism drives itself to such measures, to save it from its upcoming decay (or conversion).

The capitalistic-national imperialism is the answer of capitalism to international Social-Democracy. Today every major state strives to develop itself to a self-sustaining economic entity through the incorporation of those leftover countries or parts of the world, which either have not or have incompletely become part of the capitalist civilisation.

Social-Democracy, in contrast to that, wants the whole civilized world to become an economic entity on a socialist basis. World-history today stands at this very turning-point – either national-capitalist imperialism or international-socialist democracy!

Capitalism knows intuitively that it is coming with rapid strides towards the end of its natural life-cycle within the frame of its previous development-sphere. That is why it mobilizes all its powers to give itself and its exhausted economic existence, through political instruments of power, a longer deadline. If it is successful to win over enough underdeveloped lands – meaning open up these territories as means for the sale of commodities and the exploitation of its population as proletarians who are getting strapped in front of the luxury-wagon of big industry – then its purpose is reached, then the triumph of Social-Democracy is delayed, at least for generations. And why? Namely because nowadays the economic system, which should collapse in its natural development soon, in clearing up space for the new social order, gets a new artificially prolonged life, by gaining new nutrition and new economic spheres, like already mentioned. Instinctively the conscious proletariat, meaning Social-Democracy, feels that this is the case. That is why – despite here and there occurring cheeky party-leaders and party-writers – all the socialist parties in all countries are ruffling up against all expansion-politics (whichever form it might be) and are also against every enhancement of military or marine expenses which could serve such politics.

I say, instinctively this deep truth is felt, because rarely one can find it being laid out on the line without any circuits. But still it is one easy and quite obvious conclusion from Marxist science.

Either the capitalist order wins with an imminent conquering of fresh territories, room and vitality, overcoming socialism economically and politically, or it will go down within the foreseeable future, respectively crumble away in the socialist world-order. An important requirement, if capitalism is to save itself from its upcoming downfall, is the one that the new territories have to get tapped by one or several powers within a short time frame. Just like I recently argued, e.g. in the Paris “Revue Socialiste” (Sept 1900), the specific power, which is most capable to substantiate the life-demands of present capitalism, is Great Britain.

That is why, in my view, the drama that is presented to us now, that, while the working classes all along with petty and middle-bourgeois elements of the continent are being extremely irritated against English politics, and anti-English politics would probably be quite popular among them[1] – the statesmen, the leading governing-class, supported by power-holding financial world, would be very unpleased if it comes to a split with England. The fate of the capitalist system in general is woven way too tight with the continuation of the capitalist-English power. Those in the ruling class, who are farsighted enough to acknowledge that despite the competition-question, do not want to see England falling from an empire.

However it is not my intention to elaborate further on this topic. My aim for these lines is just the one to describe the factual situation, from my standpoint, which, like already mentioned, is felt by the party at large, but is quite rarely finding a clear-cut and straight expression. The lack of a distinct verbalization is all too noticeable when meeting folks who are afflicted with the aforementioned delusion.

The article at hand was already set when the signee saw Bernstein’s article “Paris und Mainz” from “sozialistische Monatshefte,” in which he develops his take about colonial-politics. For obvious reasons I do not have the intention to go into polemics about this or any other of his points. But in this article a personal note can be found, which needs clarification.

Bernstein says:

The writer of this has developed said things more than four years ago. Back then the Englishman Bax lashed into him and declared:

‘It is our duty as socialists to fight tooth and nail against every progress of civilisation in barbaric and wild countries... The fights of the wild against the civilisation are our fights, our task is to counteract the expansion and development of the capitalist mode of production everywhere.’

This is, like one can see – I do not want to say the spirit, but still the vibe of the Paris Revolution.

At the time Bax got this following answer among others:

Just because Bernstein does not collaborate in this sentimental utopism, Bax does not even explain any more or less his claim that Bernstein unconsciously stopped being a Social-Democrat and now being – the worst Bax can say about a human – sunken to a Fabian Society member... If anyone, who shares Bernstein’s views, is not a Social-Democrat in the sense of the of the Social-Democratic federation, but a Fabian instead, then the weakness of Social-Democracy and relative strength Fabianism in England becomes explainable.

‘So’ – K. Kautsky in “Neue Zeit,” year 1896/97.

Tempora mutantur [times change].

Bernstein does not speak out against what changed as time passed, but according to the context, the assumption is most likely that he wants to claim that I had the same standpoint as him in 1896/97 in the question of colonial-politics and that I had changed my views since then. To prevent any creation of legends it is said that my fundamental stance in the question of colonial-politics did not change in the slightest.

Still I consider the standpoint Bax holds in aforementioned quote as indefensible, out of which quote, by the way, Bernstein is leaving out the most remarkable of all sentences which I opposed, the following sentence [from Bax’s Our German Fabian Convert]: “Better slavery than capitalism, better the Arabian slave-trader than the Chartered Company, this must be our slogan.”

This seems to me highly contestable and today I still do not hold the view that we have to fight against any progress of civilisation in barbaric and wild countries, that the fights of the wild against civilisation are our fights. But I also still fight the view that the conquest of colonial property is synonymous with the progress of civilisation; I uninterruptedly held the standpoint, which I already developed 1883 in a “Neue Zeit” article entitled “Emigration and colonisation,” “that all striving towards colonial acquisition by the German Reich is just aimed towards the enslavement of whole ethnic groups in favour of a few and mostly not the best elements of the nation, and that such colonial-politics without any material use for the people are to the highest degree demoralizing and unworthy” (a.a.D.S.404).

This was as distinct as possible under the Socialists-law back in the day. After I finished my polemic against Bax, from which Bernstein took the aforementioned words, I was compelled by the occupation of Kiautschou to publish the “Neue Zeit” shortly after a long article entitled “Older and newer colonial-politics” [in which Kautsky erroneously claimed that pre-capitalist elements pursued imperial “policies"], which induced in some party-circles a distinct staggering which even found its way into the “Vorwärts.” Also there I advocated the same stance about colonial-politics like today.

Since then nothing has changed other than my view, to which I held for the longest time “with tooth and nail” , that Bernstein would still stand on our old common stance. If this was the reason for him to now burst out the call: Tempora mutantur?

One is tempted, to hold up another Latin quote against this one: Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione querentes [who would bear to hear the Gracchi sedition]! But I am far from taking the offensive and placing myself onto the unfruitful and unpleasant field of personal recrimination.

Importantly, I repeat that: I always represented the same stance on colonial-politics for almost two decades; no one will ever be successful in getting a positive testimony about the current world-politics out of me.

1. It would be misplaced to use a footnote for a comment on the theoretical elaborations from comrade Bax. But his assumption, the working-class of the European continent wishes for anti-English politics, could lead towards inconvenient misconceptions if those remained unchallenged. That is why we allow ourselves the comment, that from our side any hostility of the socialist proletariat Europe’s against England is unknown. Especially German Social-Democracy has, as far as we can see, e.g. in our line on the Transvaal War, not in the very least regretted in its repercussions the war had for the English people. A disruption between Germany and England would be seen by the German Social-Democracy as a major disaster for both countries.