E. Belfort Bax

Class-Consciousness and Class-War

(3 October 1903)

Class-Consciousness and Class-War, Justice, 3rd October 1903, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The terms at the head of this article are so often used in our propaganda and are so exceptionally misunderstood, willingly or otherwise, that it may be worth while to briefly consider what we mean by them.

To some persons the phrase class-consciousness means something very philosophic and mysterious, and the word class-war something very brutal and reprehensible. As a matter of fact, the two phrases are simply general expressions for every-day facts of civilisation. Take class-consciousness: every class in a class-society may be class-conscious, i.e., it may as a class, through an overwhelming majority of its members, possess a strong sense of its common class-interests down to their remoter ramifications. Even sections of a class (e.g., particular trades) may be class-conscious, though here the solidarity is not sufficiently far-reaching to stand alone and usually merges in its wider issues in the consciousness of the class itself. But if there may be a sectional consciousness within one class there may also be a sense of solidarity between allied classes,, in which case there is a common feeling of class interest engendered, or in other words a common class-consciousness between these two allied classes. Thus, to-day, we see the remains of the old feudal class, the landed aristocracy, on main issues completely at one with the middle classes, even the small middle class having capitulated without conditions to this combination. We have therefore, to-day a reactionary force of a power hitherto unparalleled in the history of class-society.

But it must be remembered that every class seeks to impose its own class point of view, when it can, upon the whole community. This it succeeds in doing in proportion to the want of class-consciousness in the classes below it. The average British workman swallows complacently the moral judgments of the capitalist press when it teaches him that the robbery of the Transvaal from the Boers and the murder of prisoners by the British forces are righteous acts, while the anarchistic slaying of a potentate or statesman is a blood-curdling-enormity, to adequately describe which words fail. It is possible to work this arrangement now, because the small middle-class has merged its class-consciousness in that of the possessing classes as a whole, while the bulk of the working classes (of this country at least) have not yet attained to a class consciousness at all. But it was not always so.

To keep to the particular line of illustration above given, in the forty-eight period, and even later, the Mazzinis and Orsinis, who preached and, in the latter case, practised, the doctrine of the righteousness of the assassination of rulers, were the idols of the small middle-class democrat. In Zürich there is a much-frequented Cafe Orsini, which was established at that time. Fancy today a Cafe Czolgoz or a Hotel Bresci! The same remark applies along the whole line of ethical judgement. The idea of crushing the independence of weaker nation would have revolted the whole of the lower middle class; to-day it cheerfully accepts the situation, and is even enthusiastic over the interests of the big capitalists. In short, the “reactionary mass” over against working-class interests – which Marx prophesied would come, and which has in these latter days been realised – has things, pretty much all its own way. Those who oppose it are mainly confined to the Socialist Party. And it is precisely the Socialist Party which represents the class-consciousness of the modern working-class. It is the centre whence this class-consciousness is destined to radiate till it has absorbed the whole class.

Now, speaking from an ethical point of view, class-consciousness may be either good or bad. And whether it be good or bad does not necessarily depend on the class. What, then, it may be asked, does it depend on? I answer, on the fact whether the class, rightly or wrongly, identifies its own interest in sincerity with that of the whole of society. Time was, at the end of the eighteenth and during the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, when the middle classes (certainly the lower middle classes) answered to this test. At that time economic development hid from their eyes the crucialness of the distinction between the middle and working classes. The men of the Mountain in the French Revolution, the early English Radicals, the bulk of the advanced party in all countries in 1848 (for the class-consciousness of the proletariat was then only just beginning) – nay, most even of the Chartist leaders themselves – in perfect sincerity conceived the working classes and the whole of humanity as embraced within the purview of the class-consciousness of at least, the poorer sections of the middle classes. Men like Mazzini, who in view of his scandalous action with regard to the Commune one is sometimes tempted to regard as a humbug, probably in all sincerity took this view.

The differentiation between the two classes was not at that time sufficiently obvious to force itself upon the notice of any observer who was not, like Marx and Engels, especially on the look-out for it. Now that it has become evident, the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie means nothing more practically than a sense of selfish class-advantage and the effort to obtain it. This is what we really mean when we say that the idealism has gone out of the middle classes, which is the same as saying that the aspirations of the middle class, as such, have ceased to be ethical. This does not exclude the existence of individual Liberals and Radicals who are blind and belated, and hence sincerely hold the old view still.

In the same way there was, doubtless, a time when the thinking men among the feudal aristocracy of the Middle Ages sincerely believed, in accordance with their theological outlook on the world generally, that the feudal hierarchy was a divinely-appointed order of things, the ideal perfection of which represented the highest conceivable good of the human race as a whole. St. Louis may have been of this type. By the 16th century, and earlier, however, the feudal classes had become conscious seekers after their own class-interests against the rest of the world.

Now, the class-consciousness of the proletarian of to-day in so far as he “raises the principle of his class to be the principle of his age” (to use the words of Lassalle) is an ethical class-consciousness. This is the case necessarily with Social-Democrats, who have no ill-will towards individuals of other classes – save perhaps where they are the avowed champions of or when they exacerbate the evils of the present system – but who aim at a revolution which means the abolition of class-society, a revolution which will do away with the condition of proletarianism altogether and inaugurate a truly human society.

On the other hand there is a form of proletarian class-consciousness which is undoubtedly unethical, and which expresses itself in throwing bombs in theatres, cafes, &c., merely because the bulk of their frequenters happen to be non-proletarians. This class-consciousness arises in mere class vindictiveness and nothing beyond. (We may here remark that the slaying of persons actively representing the existing order of society, however much we may disapprove it, comes under quite a different category to this.)

Class-consciousness, implicit or explicit, necessarily gives rise to one or another form of the class war. The class war as waged by the Social-Democrat, while it has as its immediate objective a class-purpose, viz., the advancement of the working class in its political and economic struggle with the privileged and possessing classes of to-day, has as its ultimate goal the realisation of the highest interests of mankind as a whole.


E. Belfort Bax


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