E. Belfort Bax

The Ethics of Socialism

(24 September 1904)

The Ethics of Socialism, Justice, 24th September 1904, p.4 & 5.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Old habits of thought die hard. This somewhat trite observation is painfully borne in upon one, not merely on hearing the commonplace jibes of the enemy anent the inconsistency of Socialists in not sitting in the gutter clothed in soiled rags – jibes which are, in most cases, not seriously meant – but on reading the undoubtedly sincere homilies of professing Socialists themselves as to the true ethical inwardness of Socialism. What causes some of our friends, for example, to jib so stubbornly at the doctrine of the class war, is undoubtedly a repulsion based on ethical sentiment – an ethical sentiment drawn from the ethics of bourgeois society. In thinking of the society of the future, they unconsciously read into it the conditions of the society of to-day, just as in thinking of themselves as dead, men think of themselves as knowing and feeling that they are dead. The notion of the supreme peace, the requies aeterna of Socialism, springing out of a bitter class conflict – a conflict suggestive of envy, hatred and malice – appals them. They have a feeling that the class war must leave its mark somehow or other on the Socialism that is its outcome. It is true, they see the class war going on before their eyes, but they cannot look the notion in the face that out of this class war itself Socialism will be evolved. It seems so much more moral, nobler, and unselfish to deprecate this class war and to try and persuade oneself that the task of Socialists is to make the capitalist see the error of his ways and recognise that he himself will be happier under a Socialist regime, That he would be may be perfectly true, as man, but not as capitalist. And in a class society the man is absolutely encased in his economical position in that society, that he necessarily views all things through the lens of class. The few isolated exceptions due to special individual idiosyncracies do not affect the rule.

Wriggle as they may, our dissident friends cannot get out of admitting the existence of the class war save by verbal subterfuges, They may quibble over the use of the word class as applied to the disinherited section of society regardless of the usage of generations. What does it matter? it may be said. The rose by any other name will smell as sweet or as bitter. They may refuse to recognise that in a society based upon classes, men may have a double class character; that while in their ordinary character as individuals they may be proletarians, in their special character as members of a syndicate – a co-operative society for example, they are, in their own way, capitalists and representatives of the principle of capitalism; that further, the question under which class a particular man, as such, should be ranged, depends on the proportion in which his income is derived from profit or interest on capital and from the wages of his labour; finally, they may seek to blur over the patent truism that the typical capitalist does not labour at all, while the typical proletarian does not capitalise at all, Again, what does it matter? one may ask. To this complexion they must all come at last, to wit, to admitting that something is going on which the blunt and brutal SDF member calls the “class war,” but to which the “liberal” ILPer gives a softer name, whatever it may be, say, “regrettable divergence of selfish interest “ between men who ought to be brothers but just “ain’t.” I may hit a man over the head with spade quâ spade, or I may hit him over the head with the same quâ implement of agriculture, but the hard, practical fact – viz., his head – is affected similarly is either case. Yet, though no amount of denial can alter self-evident facts, yet in the entanglement of phenomena, social no less than physical, the clear formulation of an issue in its salient bearings is not to be despised, alike as a key to the understanding of problems as they arise, and as a practical guide to conduct. And in so far it does matter very much when attempt is made by men of credit and renown to confuse the issue by a ringing at the changes on the formula which most sharply and concisely expresses the facts. Words and names, fortunately or unfortunately, do count for something in this vale of tears.

We were just now saying that there is a tendency among certain persons to read present conditions into future society. We see this crucially illustrated ie the talk about the evils of the present-day system being due to “selfishness,” and similar phrases. To concede this is, I submit, to play directly into the hands of the enemies of Socialism, who are fond of talking about the necessity of changing the hearts of men before thinking about a change of society, with sarcastic allusions to the millenium. The special antithesis in existing society between selfishness and unselfishness, in which the one is bad and the other good, is itself mainly a product of existing conditions, and will disappear with them. There is no necessary opposition between the sentiments at the root of selfishness and unselfishness. The result of Socialism will be, not to abolish selfishness as such, but to abolish the importance of the antithesis between selfishness and unselfishness which obtains to-day. If we had to wait for a change of society until men’s hearts were changed, and all men, or even the vast majority of men, had been transformed into unselfish Tolstoyan enthusiasts, then, indeed, should we have to wait for Doomsday or the Greek Kalends. But it is not so. And this is one of the salient differences between Socialism and Christianity. The one proclaims the renovation of the individual through the renovation of society, the other the renovation of society through the renovation of the individual. With the one, social economic change is, if not the one thing, at all events, the first thing, needful; with the other, individual ethical change. The Christian man of means is told to “sell all that he hath and give to the poor,” and this being so he may be fairly taunted with inconsistency if he does not act up to his professions. The Socialist knows that nothing the individual does with any wealth he may possess, can, under present conditions, make any material impression on the society he seeks to alter.

It is strange how some of our esteemed brethren always will confound the economic and political standpoint of Social-Democracy with the personal and introspective standpoint of the Christian ethics Socialism says you cannot run a society on pure unselfishness; Christianity says you ought to! And has said so in vain for 1900 years. We, of the SDF maintain, in conformity with the entire international movement, that Socialism will be brought about by the assertion of class-selfishness.

In and through its class-selfishness, the organised proletariat has to overcome and annihilate the class-selfishness of the capitalist class. It can only do so effectively by the entire transformation of the system of modern production, distribution and exchange, i.e., to this issue it must of necessity be driven in its life and death struggle with its rival. But though the transformation can only come about, as we are convinced, through the class struggle of a class-conscious proletariat, yet class selfishness and class-struggle disappear with classes themselves so soon as the end is attained.

Once over the harbour-bar and the erstwhile breakers change to the calm waters of the haven of peace. This final assertion of class-selfishness has no connection with individual selfishness. The individual workman has no necessary quarrel with the individual capitalist as man against man. Whether he has or not depends entirely on circumstances. But he, as a member, of the working class, has a necessary quarrel with all capitalists considered as members of the capitalist class. To assume that this quarrel can be ignored so long as its causes remain, is to assume that Socialism may he dispensed with. Social progress is concrete and cut out of one block. We cannot practise the ethics belonging to one economical system while we are living in another. We only deceive ourselves if we think to do so. The ways of the men of the co-operative commonwealth of the future will not be our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.6.2004