E. Belfort Bax

Baneful Fallacy

(16 April 1904)

Baneful Fallacy, Justice, 16th April 1904, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Some of our comrades seem to be infected at the present time with what we cannot but deem a most baneful fallacy. It is the apparent air of philosophic detachment that makes the view in question attractive to certain young minds. As an illustration of what we mean, we will take the questions asked of one of our speakers lately when dealing with the Russo-Japanese war. At a recent meeting, the lecturer was interpellated by some comrades as to whether he did not think it inevitable that Russia and Japan, like all backward countries, must pass through the capitalistic regime, and that, therefore, its development should be encouraged in those countries, on the principle of the sooner the better. The major premiss lurking behind this notion that every backward country, before it can attain to a Socialist state of society, is bound to “negotiate” the whole gamut of the various stages of capitalism, now being passed through by the nations in the van of progress, is the doctrine we are here concerned to criticise.

A very little more than the most superficial acquaintance with history, one would think, must make it evident to anyone that this view is contradicted by experience, apart from its being intrinsically absurd. It has its root in the confusion between the logical order of abstract economics, and the real order of human history in the concrete. It is forgotten that abstract principles regarded per se, and the same principles as entering into the experience of real life by no means necessarily wear precisely the same aspect. Our friends in question have studied their Marx, or portions thereof, and think that with the conclusions they have arrived at in their hands, they possess an infallible Open Sesame, to unlock the secrets of the future destinies of nations. Hence they proceed to apply the principles they have acquired in their praiseworthy studies as a rough and ready reckoner, in a perfectly arbitrary manner, to concrete cases as they arise, In this way they naturally overlook a variety of factors, the omission of which from their calculation entirely vitiates the result arrived at.

Now, it may be quite true that, viewing social evolution as a whole, economic and otherwise, it is correct to say that every stage in all its detail must necessarily passed through at some time, and in a place, but this by no means warrants us in assuming that this logically correct series of changes requires to be worked out more than once in the whole course of human development. As a matter of fact, we cannot recall any case in history in which the whole of a process of development has been gone through, even in its salient features, twice. In the evolution of human society, or in the evolution of animal species, are numerous missing links owing to this very fact. We can reconstruct from scientific data these missing stages, but we can find no existing illustrations of them. As Morgan, for example, pointed out with reference to the development of the family, the earlier phases are quite gone, and are not reproduced in any savage race existing at the present time, nor have they been in any race we know of since the beginning of historical records. In the real world of human affairs and history, where races in different stages of development are jostling one another, to expect that each, or indeed any single race as such, should pass through the typical phases of social evolution, shows an almost inconceivable want of grasp of the distinction between abstract and concrete. The real course of history presents us with a process of evolution as a whole. From this total development we can abstract the salient forms and present them in their economico-logical order, but in real history we find these salient forms embodied respectively not in the evolution of any one distinct race, but in successive races or groups of races, which for the time being are dominant. Of course there is any amount of ebb and flow, and eddies and side currents. Analogous conditions prevail at widely distinct periods. For example, the analogy between the state of society in Homeric Greece and in early feudal Europe has often been remarked upon. But in the long run, and broadly considered, there is one continuous development from prehistoric group-society through the ancient oriental civilisations of Egypt and Western Asia, the Graeco-Roman period, the Middle Ages and post-mediaeval times down to the present day. We see the so-called dialectical movement of various social forms struggling towards realisation with varying success at different times; but not in any one race. In each case different races have taken over the results of their predecessors’ evolution, without passing through the stages which originally led up to those results themselves.

The absurdity of the theory under discussion may be brought home by one consideration. Russia and Japan, let us say, in the opinion of our would-be philosophic comrades, must inevitably, in the transition from feudalism or more primitive social forms, work their way through the various phases of capitalism. But if such a view were true, they must begin at the beginning, i.e., start at the state of society from which modern capitalism took its origin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for this represents the conditions from which they have just emerged. But this, notoriously, neither Russia nor Japan has done. They have jumped from their quasi-feudal condition (notably in the case of Japan) straight into the latest forms of up-to-date industrial and political development.

All this may seem an abstruse discussion, altogether out of place in the columns of Justice. Clearness of insight, however, on this point is of the very first practical importance in our movement, since the view we take determines, for good or ill, our policy in well-nigh every international crisis of modern times. If it is scientifically inevitable that every backward race should go through the mill of capitalism before it can possibly be ripe for the society of the future, then is our preaching vain and your faith is also vain – at least till the Greek Kalends. For let us make no mistake about the question. Every conquest of capitalism in those parts of the world not already dominated by it, means a new lease of life to the present system; if capitalism cannot expand, it must finally give out at longest within a generation or two. The well-known truth at the root of this position is, by the way, as far as I am aware, nowhere more clearly and more popularly explained than in some of our comrade Wilshire’s articles and pamphlets on the Trust question in America. Hence the restless insatiability of modern capitalism in land-grabbing, the political side of which we see in modern Imperialism. And here, of course, comes in another point. Though there is undoubtedly no necessity for any backward people to enter the capitalistic stage, yet the question of the probability or not of their doing so may very well be raised. This must be answered in every instance according to the circumstances. Expansionism is undoubtedly capitalism’s struggle for life. If capitalism can only expand fast enough, it may indefinitely postpone the social revolution. If not, it cannot avert its own destiny in the approximately near future. Backward races may, as in the case of Japan, take over up-to-date capitalism, either by its being forced on them by conquest or being voluntarily adopted, or they may remain in their backward and barbaric condition until Social Democracy has been developed in Europe and the United States. And then they may adopt with conscious initiative the Socialist organisation of society then prevailing in the West with all that that involves, just as Japan has adopted the capitalism now prevailing in the West, with all that it involves. It is impossible, of course, for any existing barbaric race of itself to evolve Social Democracy before the nations in the van of progress, which have themselves been through the whole mill of capitalist evolution, have first shown the way; but given this condition, and it would perhaps be less difficult to graft a Socialist organisation on to a barbaric society than it has been for barbaric Japan to metamorphose itself into a modern capitalist State within two generations.

We can only hope that our comrades will reflect on these points, and not be caught by the specious plea, that the spread of capitalism is necessary before we hope to see Socialism. For this theory, as we have endeavoured to show in the necessarily short space at our disposal in the columns of Justice, is not merely untrue, but the precise reverse of the truth.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 16.6.2004