E. Belfort Bax

Factitious Unity

(February 1902)

Factitious Unity, Social Democrat, Vol.6, No.2, Feb. 1902.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.102-104.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is an unmistakeable tendency in the present, day among political parties claiming to represent advanced principles to erect party unity into a fetish before which everything else must bow. The integrity of principles is quite a secondary consideration provided that the unity of the party be maintained. Anything to avoid a split – that is the motto of the practical politician of the dawning twentieth century. Now, it would surely be well for some of the enthusiastic advocates of unity at any price to ask themselves occasionally for what their party exists, about the integrity of whose unity they are so zealous? Is unity, then, for the sake of the party, or the party for the sake of unity? Wherein lies the raison d’etre of the party? Is the object of the part y the realisation of certain principles, or do the principles exist for the sake of the party in such wise as the, green dragon, the name, and the painted signboard exists for the sake of the publican or the wholesale brewer behind him? The green dragon plainly has no reason for its existence apart from beer and profits, and since a patch of red or a patch of yellow on the dragon’s tail, nay the metamorphosis of the dragon itself into a sea-serpent, is unlikely to seriously affect either beer or profits, such changes as above may well be regarded with comparative indifference by the eye of the publican, provided the licence remains intact. In the same way, if the principles of a party are like the signboard depicting the green dragon, the unity of the party, like the integrity of the publican’s licence, is obviously the one thing needful. . If the end and object is money, office, or power for its own sake, then clearly the solicitude of the practical politician, as he is called, to avoid a split in the party, is justified in its day and generation. If, on the contrary, party organisation itself is subservient to certain definite ideals, and has no abject or significance apart from such, then equally clearly, whenever those ideals are threatened by the unity of the party, that unity must go by the board.

But, it will be said, a split in a party can hardly fail to impair its efficiency as an instrument for the realisation of its ideals. Moreover, a party cannot afford to lose, maybe, able and energetic men. Hence it is surely much better to patch up differences of opinion that may exist, and unite on the basis of same vague and general formula on which all can agree. To this it may be replied, as concerns the first point, that the realisation of the ideals of a party is less likely to be effectuated by the attenuation of those ideals for the sake of mere numerical strength than by the surrender of certain amount of such strength on behalf of the vigorous maintenance intact of the principles for the sake of which the party avowedly exists. What may be gained by the sacrifice of the integrity of principle is at most the gain or partial gain of some temporary success. For example, by throwing everything else overboard, the S.D.F. might possibly succeed by a coalition with other bodies in realising, say, payment of members or such an undoubted social reform as the eight hours day in all Government departments. But the S.D.F. would see greater things than these. It is not for these things, or such as these, desirable as they undoubtedly are in themselves, that twenty years of unceasing work and sacrifice have been offered up. It is for something else that well-nigh a whole generation of Socialists in Great Britain has learned to labour and to wait.

Then as to the second point. It is alleged, by practical politicians, so called, as a reason for toleration or compromise, that a party cannot afford to lose an able man or men, merely because they happen to be shaky on some vital point of principle. To this it may be replied that the ability of doubtful members cuts both ways. It may be of more danger to party principles when inside the party organisation than it is of advantage to the enemy when working against it outside. A party having any regard for its principles should, surely look to it that its able men – those, therefore, most powerful for leading – should be straight even more than the ordinary rank and file – and, hence, if they go wrong, should be the more inexorably expelled. A party that is worth its salt can always afford to lose a man or two without collapsing, but it cannot always afford to have a powerful leader inside incessantly pulling the wrong way. Here, again, we ask, is the object of the party to hold together solely for the sake of office, emoluments, or party tranquillity, or for the sake of its avowed aims.

One illustration of the tendency of the practical politician to sacrifice all to avoid “splitting the party” is afforded by the British Radicals of the present time, and another by the German Social Democrats. Whatever we may think of English radicalism as a political creed, it has certainly in the past represented some definite principles. Those principles were those of the rising middle classes while they were still revolutionary. They involved the negation of nearly everything that modern Imperialism champions. The Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform doctrine meant attention to home affairs, hence anti-expansion, anti-militarism, enthusiasm for the rights of small and weaker nations, and all-round general political rectitude. Now, modern Imperialism, as just said, whether it call itself Liberal or other, means ruthless disregard of all other nations and races where their rights conflict with your own, reckless expenditure or military and naval matters, and a postponement of the domestic reforms, so, dear to the heart of the old Liberal, to the Greek Kalends. All this is admitted in so many words in platform speeches by the leaders of the Liberal Party. And yet we find these very same leaders, from Campbell-Bannerman to Lloyd George, literally grovelling on their bellies before a man like Lord Rosebery, the very incarnation of the Imperialism they otherwise denounce, eagerly catching at every insidious phrase let fall by their oracle for the purpose of twisting it into the semblance of a modification of the view the speaker is otherwise known to hold. And all for what? That the Liberal party organisation may reap the temporal advantages believed to ensue from a man of Lord Rosebery’s position and influence deigning to reenter its ranks. The Liberal leaders know well enough that Lord Rosebery at heart has no sympathy with the views hitherto connoted by the term Liberalism, views which they themselves, in general, profess to still hold. But what of that? If Liberal principles lose the Liberal organisation gains, as they think.

We Socialists of the S.D.F. justly pour contempt on the English Liberal Party for its inconsistency and time-serving. We must not, however, permit ourselves to be too self-righteous. The glorification of mere unity as such, however false and factitious it, may be, is unfortunately not confined to Liberalism. It seems, unhappily, a pestilence which dogs the steps of every party that has grown to any considerable proportions in wealth and influence. We see much the same thing at the present time among our comrades of the German Social Democratic Party. It has been of late crucially manifested in the, Bernstein controversy. Mr. Bernstein repudiates almost every principle hitherto regarded as of “faith” in Social Democracy. He champions every form and well-nigh every abuse of capitalism. The politico financial schemes, of Messrs. Rhodes, Beit, and the cosmopolitan financiers of the Rand generally have found in him their warmest advocate. English misrule in India he also takes under his aegis. He has systematically attacked every Social Democratic doctrine in turn, to the delight of reactionary readers and hearers. In a, word, Mr. Bernstein is incomparably less friendly. to Socialism, if any meaning is to be attached to the word at all, than the mildest English Radical. To judge from his expressed opinions, in fact, Mr. Bernstein has no more sympathy with the recognised principles of Social Democracy, and perhaps rather less than Count von Bulow himself. And yet, wonderful to relate, for fear of causing a split in the party, for fear of jeopardising party unity, the German Socia1 Democrats could not muster up sufficient courage to exclude Mr Bernstein from their ranks. In this case the mere desire of preserving a formal unity must be alone in question, since it can hardly be alleged that there is any extraordinary ability at stake.

One must admit, of course, the difficulties a large party has to contend with. Differences of opinion on matters of tactics, on minor and outlying points of theory, or even, it may be, in one or two items of the immediate progamme – that such must be we fully recognise. But whatever may be said, it is not difficult to distinguish between this and unsoundness of fundamental principle. Social Democrats, at least, of all lands, need to pull themselves together, and wage a war to the knife, against the modern accursed tendency to the glorification of Factitious Unity.



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