E. Belfort Bax

Preaching and Practice

(7 November 1903)

Preaching and Practice, Justice, 7th November 1903, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is no gibe more common in the mouth of the callow critic of Socialism, who thinks that he is saying something very killing, than the ad hominem: “Why don’t you practise what you preach?” It will possibly occur to some readers that even if the remark were pertinent at all it could at most affect the moral character of the person addressed, but in no way the doctrine of Socialism. But still, it is disagreeable to most people to have nasty insinuations thrown at them about their moral character, and – since, as men are made, the, to itself, illogical attempt to damage Socialism through the Socialist, often does not fail of its effect – it perhaps worth while devoting some space to an examination of the idea underlying the suggestion that Socialists do not practise what they preach.

“Why don’t you practise what you preach?” asks an open-minded enquirer. “Because,” pertinently answers a comrade, “ I cannot; if I could practise what I preached I should not require to preach any longer, so that the fact of my preaching is a sign that the time of my practising is not yet!” For the gibe under consideration assumes that Socialism is an individualist-ethical theory, primarily designed for the direct reform of the private character of individuals. This, of course, it is not, but, primarily at least, an economic theory of the evolution and transformation of society – society being an organism, and by no means a mere aggregate of individuals. Christianity does profess to be a doctrine of the former sort, and does contain the precept, “Sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor!” Yet, strange to say, no Christian is required to adopt this maxim on pain of being accused of not practising what he preaches.

Heedless of all this, the open-minded enquirer, who is so sympathetic with Socialism, and would be a Socialist to-morrow were it not for the serious doubts that weigh upon him as to the character of certain individual Socialists, proceeds: “There is A, now, who is a stockbroker, there is B who owns houses and joint-stock shares, there is C who has a factory where he does not pay his workmen so high as the Tory or Liberal M.P. for this district. Now all these men call themselves Socialists. My friend X only professes to call himself a Liberal, and see what a lot he does for his workmen! He pays them double the union rate of wages, besides giving them soup and blankets at Christmas.”

Precisely! The Liberal or Tory candidate, landlord or wealthy capitalist as he is, can afford more charitable donations than the Socialist, and Socialism being in the sapient opinion of this open-minded critic a doctrine of eleemosynary relief, it follows as the night the day that the Liberal manufacturer or the Tory landlord, who eleemosynises to a greater extent, is more truly Socialistic than the Socialist himself, who only pays the union rate and perhaps does not give soup and blankets at Christmas. Now, the open-minded person who argues thus, it is, perhaps, from certain points of view, best to let stew him his own juice. His animadversions and scruples are usually nothing more than a trick of demagogy – a claptrap device to catch the ignorant. He is commonly quite well able to grasp the fact that Socialism aims at the reconstitution of economic conditions, and has nothing to do with private charity. Yet there are one or two points in his tirade which have sometimes a specious look at first sight to the uninitiated The paying of higher wages than the current rate, for example, seems to argue a nobility of soul which is of the very essence of Socialism. Here, many persons think, is no I mere charity but an attempt to approach at least to an adequate remuneration of labour. They quite forget, however, that every shilling paid in wages above the current market or trade union rate, is economically precisely equivalent to charity. The principle is exactly the same as that of charity; the individual by an act of his own free will – an act which in no way enters into, or has any bearing upon, the general economic structure of society – parts with a certain portion of his legally-acquired and possessed wealth to another person. It may be very kind of him to do this, and it may benefit or otherwise the other person, but it does not make him (the giver) any more of a Socialist than the man who keeps his pockets more tightly buttoned up. On the contrary, it often happens that those who go in for this form of charity are bitter reactionaries, or Manchester school men, who thoroughly approve of the smashing of trade unions, and coercion laws, when it subserves their class advantage. This even in the most favourable case, and quite apart from the fact that such gifts in the form of wages are often dictated by purely selfish motives when not the cover of a palpable trick on the workers similar to the so-called “profit-sharing”.

One Socialist is sneered at for being (or being supposed to be) a stockbroker, another for drinking champagne, a third for having otherwise amused himself, middle-class Socialists generally, in short, for not having been born or drifted into becoming proletarians, the implication being that in common decency they should imitate in their lives the economic condition of the proletarian as closely as possible. The critic forgets here that the Socialist is always preaching that the present condition of the proletariat is undesirable and unworthy of a human being, so that the logic of the aforesaid candid friend in his views as to practising what you preach would seem here, even on his own theory, to be a little “rocky.” In this connection we may recall the story of Lassalle who, addressing a working class audience, and got up in the latest fashion with heavy jewellery to match, used to tell his hearers that if they had a fancy for such things they should not envy him but combine and work steadily at the overthrow of capitalistic society, when smart clothes and jewellery would be within the reach of all who (with good or bad taste) might desire them.

If the suggestion be that the middle-class Socialist in turning proletarian would in some mysterious way benefit the exploited classes, let the critic perform the miracle of showing how this could be done. If he thinks that on grounds of Socialist sentiment an ascetic life ought to be practised, let him not forget that all persons in our existing society (even the better paid workmen), whose scale of life is above that of the worst paid class of laborers, are undoubtedly living pro tanto on the sweat of others, in other words exploiting the labour of their fellow men, so what he advocates is apparently a regime of voluntary squalor. To get out of the vicious circle effectively is impossible, so long as society remains what it is, so says the doctrine of Socialism, and hence, whenever the Socialist hears of a man professing or striving to practise Socialism in his life he knows he has to deal with either a fool or a humbug. I have said that Socialists, if they are honest, don’t profess to practise what they preach, because what they preach is social revolution, i.e., the entire transformation of society, and it is perfectly obvious that no individual can practise the transformation of society, except by working for the said transformation to the best of his ability. This is the only sort of “practising” (if one likes to call it such) “what he preaches,” that a Socialist can do nowadays.

But this is not what the opponent or candid friend means. If he be sincere, the latter means that the Socialist should practise, not what he really preaches, but what he, the candid friend, in his own addled head, thinks that he, the Socialist, ought to preach – which is a very different story. Our critic has in his mind that it is possible to begin realising the millenium by individual acts of charity – a theory which is the very antithesis of Socialism. I am by no means one of those who would in any way throw cold water an acts of charity in society as constituted at present, though I know some Socialists go even as far as this. (And I am bound to say that in strict logic they may be in the right.) But I do say that the profession of Socialism, at the very most, does not lay a man under any special obligation to perform acts of charity over and above that of the ordinary man of average humane feeling. Yet this is what the hostile “candid” critic implies. I have recently heard the “Twentieth Century Press” criticised for adhering to union rates of wages, and not giving extravagant and impossible bonuses over and above these rates, such as the critic in question – a manufacturer in the north of England – alleged that he himself gave. Now, we contend that this sort of talk is either the result of inability to grasp the elementary principles of modern scientific Socialism, or it is simply a trick of those interested in the maintenance of the existing order of society, to throw dust in the eyes of the working-classes and keep them in their position of wage-slaves. Only when we have changed the existing conditions and secured for all the reward of their work, then and not till then shall me be able to “practise what we preach.”


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 11.6.2004