E. Belfort Bax

Shall There Be Two Socialist Parties?

(30 May 1903)

Shall There Be Two Socialist Parties?, Justice, 30th May 1903, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Revisionism” is the name given on the Continent to the doctrine that the principles hitherto counting as the bases of Socialism, stand in need of being modified or revised so as to square better with the views and aspirations of the classes which to-day, are economically and politically dominant. In this way it is hoped to make Social-Democracy a question of “practical politics” and the Socialist Party a wing of trade unionism or of the Liberal, Radical or it may be the amalgamated imperialist party.

The coryphae of this movement in Great Britain are the Independent Labour Party on the one hand and the Fabian Society on the other. Socialism in this country has started, we may say, with a split; Revisionism has been with us almost from the outset.

On the Continent, it is different. Revisionism is there a recent growth which has engrafted itself upon a hitherto united party. In France, whatever the differences between the old Broussists, the Guesdists, and the Blanquists, they were all class-conscious revolutionary Socialists. The issues dividing them were subsidiary, and, for the most part, purely tactical. It Is far otherwise with the section to-day supporting Millerand, and led by Jaurès, which expressly denies the class war, and the collectivism of which it would puzzle one of its members, not the least Millerand himself, to define. It is not too much to says that there is infinitely more difference between a Millerandist member of the Parti Socialiste Francais and a thorough-going French Social-Democrat, whether Guesdist, Allemanist, or Blanquist, than there is between a member of the SDF and an ordinary, Radical-Democrat in this country whom we should not for a moment think of classing as a Socialist at all. It is the same in Italy) where Enrico Ferri stands for the class-conscious revolutionary Socialist movement and Filippo Turati for the anti-revolutionary social-reform quasi-Ministerial movement, represented in France by the Millerand-Jaurès section. What these men are working for, apart from personal ambition in general and desire for office in particular, which may or may not play a part in any given case, is plainly enough political reform and certain minor changes in the relations between capital and labour. As to the substitution of a collectivist for a capitalist régime, they either disbelieve in it or they are indifferent to it.

Again, take the Revisionist movement in Germany. The revisionist section of the German Social-Democratic Party, as concerns most of its members, can only be termed Socialist in a strictly Pickwickian, or shall I say Parliamentarian sense. Has not Bernstein himself declared good factory legislation to be the goal of his “Socialism”? If one wants to see what are revisionist economics read David’s book on the agricultural problem, in which he maintains the superiority of the small peasant cultivation of the soil over scientific agriculture, and advocates a system of thinly-veiled peasant proprietorship. That widely-circulated Liberal organ, Munchener Neuesten Nachrichten, lately declared that, in view of recent developments In the Social-Democratic Party, there was no longer any reason for the attitude of aloofness hitherto maintained by the middle-class parties towards the former.

Revisionism absorbs the most opposite tendencies – Schippel is a German jingo, Bernstein an Anglo-maniac. The fact is, the revisionists of all lands constitute in assortment of the most fearful and wonderful wild-fowl – economical and political – that the world has ever seen. You never know where they are and it is doubtful if they know themselves. To take two opposite examples of our own “revisionist” or at least anti-Marxian Socialists. Who can fathom the sentimental economics of a Keir Hardie or compass the bureaucratic-jingoism of a Hubert Bland?

There is a section of the party in all countries favourable to Revisionism, not on the merits of the case, and not for any ulterior personal motives, but simply and solely because they regard it as a good vote-catching institution. The very nebulosity of Revisionism enables its supporters to be all things to all men. This tendency to place the mere carcass of party organisation above the soul animating it I referred to in an article last year in the Social-Democrat, as characteristic of the modern party-man. What is called “practical” politics nowadays means, to put it plainly, vote-catching. This view one finds cropping up everywhere. A prominent leader of the Austrian party, talking to me of the Woolwich election a few days after the event, asked me if I did not consider it a great triumph for the working-class interest. I explained to him that it meant in reality nothing more than a dodge of the Liberal Patty, to which the Independent Labour Party, wittingly or unwittingly, had lent itself. Pointing out further to him the reasons of the SDF withdrawing from the Labour Representation Committee on the ground that it was commited to no socialistic principle whatever, I was met with the reply, “Yes, but they manage to get their men in!” This struck me as very significant. The great end of a party – the Socialist Party no less than others – is, then, to get its man in!

Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that this class of “practical politics” is to-day in the ascendant everywhere. The object for which a party organisation exists, or is supposed to exist, matters not; the chief thing is to secure a success for the party organisation as such. At this rate political parties might as well be the blues and greens of the Roman circus, or, to speak in a modern analogy, Kent versus Surrey in a cricket or football match. Here, of course, the sole object is to get your men in who wear the faction or the county colour. Principles, not even principles of hitting or bowling, or “delivering,” have aught to say on the matter. The great point is to win, and to win at all costs. Success in the immediate game and the satisfaction of sportive personal ambition is the one thing sought for. Now, it behoves us to ask ourselves if we wish the International Socialist movement to be degraded to the level of a sporting club. That there is a danger of this I think none can deny who watch current tendencies. It has been the proud boast of the SDF hitherto to have set its face against this view of the object of Socialist party organisation wherever and in whatever insidious forth it has shown itself. The ultimate issue, however, at once practical and logical, of the position taken up by the SDF is, as I contend, a movement not, as some think, for amalgamation at all costs (which the SDF, in spite of its desire for a united Socialist party, has more than once repudiated) but for the severance of the existing Socialist parties throughout Europe into two -the party that knows what it wants to get, and how it means to get it, and the party of opportunism, social reform and general benevolence, which is prepared to sacrifice all things for party success or office. That the latter should call itself Socialist we cannot prevent. We have no monopoly of the word. But in the end the cause wilt know its own.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 11.6.2004