E. Belfort Bax 1903

“Liberalism & Labour”

Source: 1903 Liberalism & Labour, pamphlet with articles reprinted by Twentieth Century Press, 19pp. Copied from Bishopsgate Institute Library http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It has become the fashion lately among our Liberal friends – that is, the more advanced and Democratic sort among them – to draw a distinction between Liberal principles and the Liberal Party. While it is admitted with perfect candour that the latter is very fallible, and, in fact, is at the present time (not to speak it profanely) in a reasonably rotten condition, the former, it is said – the great principles of Liberalism – are eternal as the hills, or, better, as humanity itself. Now, it behoves us to consider this point for a moment, more especially as it is interesting to note that, when an election is on, the mountain of Liberal principle, as represented by our amiable friends aforesaid, has a remarkable habit of going over to Mahomet, in the shape of the hack party candidate of cash (or credit, as the case may be) who has been graciously supplied by the party machinery.

Liberal Principles.

What, then, are these principles of Liberalism which are so imperishable? Are they the Manchesterism of the fifties and sixties – that is, of the Liberal Party at its zenith? Or are they those of Little Englandism, at that time known as “Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform"? Do they involve complete religious toleration, before the law at least? Do they mean nothing more than Free Trade as opposed to Protection? As regards the first, our advanced Liberals themselves would repudiate it. They especially would leave a door open for “palliatives” of a Socialist character quite incompatible with the theories of the old Manchester school. Yet these were supposed at one time to be the characteristic bulwarks of Liberalism. As to the second, a considerable section of the Liberal Party in their character of good and staunch patriots would have none of them. What of the third? Do the passive-resistant Nonconformists seek to establish complete secular education as against the teaching of dogma at the public expense? By no means. All they seek is, in a word, to have their doxy taught at the expense of the Church doxy, and at that of the Atheist or Agnostic ratepayer. If it be the fourth point mentioned – namely, Free Trade as against Protection – though the Liberal Party may be fairly united at present in recognising Free Trade as a deeply-rooted principle of their creed; yet, if we mistake not, a considerable body of Tories are also zealous in nailing their colours to the Free Trade mast.

It would, therefore, seem that there is no touchstone by which one may try the spirits to see if they be of true Liberalism or not. Liberal principles, in a word, have been hitherto indissolubly associated with the Liberal party as such, and when you seek to separate them you are left drifting in arbitrariness. Of course, the Liberal party has, in the past, stood for principles which represented progress at that time. But progress changes. What yesterday stood for progress may to-day be a stationary obstacle, and to-morrow a reactionary force. If by Liberalism we are to understand those doctrines which, at any time, make for progress – as I have reason to believe some of those who call themselves Liberals and Radicals do mean – -then in a sense, of course, we are all of us Liberals. But is there any use or justification for depriving the term of all concrete and definite meaning in this way? The case is similar to those who, while rejecting and even strenuously repudiating the whole dogmatic content with which Christianity has been historically identified, yet, on the strength of a certain vague sentiment, persist in continuing to call themselves Christians.

The New Cleavage.

If as regards Liberalism we dismiss nebulous abstractions, and come down to the bed-rock of historical fact, we shall find that the great Liberal Party has always au fond meant the class-conscious interests of capital as opposed to land. That its battle with feudalism and post-feudal bureaucratic absolutism was in the interests of progress, and hence indirectly of the working classes themselves, there is no denying. But there came a time when capitalism in its three forms – commercial, financial, and industrial – triumphing over the old landed interest, a new condition of things arose. The cleavage between the capitalist and labouring class became greater and more obvious economically and socially, while politically, the old habit of the workman regarding his proper place as that of a tolerated adjunct of the Liberal Party, to be towed in its wake, continued in this country much as before. There is no doubt that the anomalous absurdity of this position plays a part, and a genuine part, with at least the rank and file of those who sympathise with the action of the Labour Representation Committee.

There is also a feeling growing among the unattached sections of the working classes, and penetrating deeply into the left wing of the Liberal Party itself, that the opposition between the two historic English political parties is no longer genuine; in fact, that it has become little better than a hollow sham. This applies, of course, especially to the official side of the Liberal Party, to the Front Bench and its immediate following. There is a growing feeling, I repeat, that the Front Bench politicians, on either side of the House, form together in private a mutual Freemasonic guild, or mutual admiration Society. Only too much evidence can be adduced to the fact that a man’s independent political character is gone from the time he takes office.

The Class War.

But with all that may be said we must undoubtedly admit Mr. Maddison’s general contention to the effect that the political policy of the L.R.C. and of the political bodies that run it is unintelligent. It is not clearly class-conscious, and it is not based on any definite principle. A Labour Party as such – that is, a party formed for the purpose of obtaining certain immediate measures supposed to be in the interests of Labour, and of removing others supposed to be hostile to those interests – has no logical locus standi in adopting an attitude of irreconcilable opposition to either of the dominant parties. If, for example, the Liberals at Barnard Castle had been prepared to accept Mr. Henderson’s programme and adopt him as their candidate, provided that he in his turn would sail in under their colours, what earthly objection could a mere Labour Party logically have to such a very practical arrangement? The opposition of Labour leaders to such a compact might well, under those circumstances, look like mere political dodgery. Mr. Maddison has undoubtedly hit the nail on the head when he says that the only logical ground for systematically repudiating all alliances with either of the dominant parties is the fact of repudiation of the capitalist system itself, of the social-political system that is which forms their common basis, and in the consequent recognition of the inevitability of the class war so long as that system lasts.

S.D.F. Policy.

We of the S.D.F. believe in the entire transformation of the social system itself, and this remains at once our primary and our final aim, willing as we are to work for all palliatives of the present system that tend in this direction, when occasion offers. We know that this transformation can only, in the last resort, be effected by the class-conscious proletariat as embodied in a political party distinct from either Tory or Liberal Party as they have existed historically and as they exist at present. It is not that there is any greater intrinsic virtue, within the boundaries of existing class Society, in a working-man than in a middle-class man. Both classes necessarily have the defects of their class character. There is only this difference: the working class is the class elect of history in the course of economic evolution to give birth to this great change. But for all this, though we know the change must be brought about by a working-class movement and a party composed primarily at least of working-class elements, our touchstone where individuals are concerned, is invariably that of principle rather than of class. A middle-class man, if he were sound in principle, would be for us preferable as a candidate to a working man who was shaky in principle. This is the difference between the Social Democratic Federation and all amorphous Labour Parties, “Independent” or otherwise. They seek they know not what. We know what we seek. Hence it is that we of the S.D.F. can alone give a clear account respecting our aims and our reasons for adopting the tactics we do toward the realisation of those aims.