E. Belfort Bax

Beyond Selfish and Unselfish

(31 December 1904)

Beyond Selfish and Unselfish, Justice, 31st December 1904, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The controversy anent the class war which has been raging ever since the Amsterdam Congress between the leading lights of the ILP and our humble selves of the SDF, has brought once more into clear prominence an ethical issue which personally I have always insisted on being recognised as fundamental to a true understanding of the Socialist position. “Tattler” emphasised one point in connection with this issue most admirably in some recent notes of his in Justice, but the whole position cannot be too strongly insisted upon.

Keir Hardie and his colleagues in the leadership of the ILP, as I understand, refuse to believe in a Socialism that comes into being mainly as the result of a conflict of interest between the possessing and the non-possessing classes, as classes, but look, like Robert Owen and the utopian Socialists of the early nineteenth century, to the mutual good understanding and good intentions of the real good boys of all classes to bring shout the cc-operative commonwealth, after they have once been persuaded of the wickedness of the capitalist system. Taking up the parable of the ordinary bourgeois opponent of Socialism, our ILP friends tell us that what we want is for men to be less selfish, more public-spirited, not to make personal gain so much their object in life, in short that they should attain a higher all-round standard of moral excellence. Not until this is the case, say they, will Socialism be realised. Asked how men in general are to attain to this state of superior moral excellence they will reply that each individual must start on cultivating his own ethical “trim,” his own spiritual inner man, must become the very best of good boys in short. We have heard all this, of course, often before, especially in sermons and clerical allocutions designed to lead men from the perverse paths of Social-Democracy to the moral truths of Christianity, which they assure you contains all that is good in Socialism.

Among bodies professing to belong to the Socialist Party, the English ILP has the honour of occupying an absolutely unique position in this respect. For there is no other Socialist body in the whole international movement that would subscribe to this theory. We, for our part, contend that it is not merely unsocialistic, but the very antithesis of Socialism. The question is a vital one for Socialist propaganda.

We most emphatically deny that Socialism presupposes any radical change in individual character at all, or that it has anything necessarily to do with what is known as selfishness or unselfishness in the present condition of society. The human material with which Socialism will be brought about, and upon which it will have to operate, we are convinced, is no more represented by the unselfish saint than it is by the ultra-selfish “cad.” The type required for the transformation of Capitalist Civilisation into the Social-Democratic Commonwealth will be neither the one nor the other, but the good old average, genial, selfish sinner. The “man in the street,” just as he is, “without one plea” – he’s the raw material for Socialism.

We see no reason to anticipate any extraordinary numerical increase of the unselfish saint type under any circumstances, and we find the opponent of Socialism is therefore wise in his generation when he endeavours to persuade the proletarian that Socialism is impossible until the world becomes peopled with unselfish saints – well knowing that nobody has any strong belief in such a consummation happening this side of the Greek Kalends. What we contend is that Socialism, as primarily an economic transformation, brought about by the class struggle between the proletariat and the capitalist class, will change the character of all who come under the influence of the new conditions, just as the establishment of the State, as an institution based, on individual property-holding, changed the character of the early man of tribal society, or, to take a more recent instance, just as the advent of modern capitalism has transformed the man developed under feudal conditions, guild-handicraftship, local independence, with all his virtues and his vices, into the modern man of the world-market, of the factory, the office and of great centralised States – with quite different virtues and vices.

The transformation of modern civilisation into the co-operative commonwealth, involving the greatest change known at least to history, must necessarily result in a corresponding change in the content of man’s moral nature. That the ultra-selfish cad engendered by competitive conditions will speedily disappear under Socialism we may fairly take for granted. But I see no reason to believe that the unselfish saint will become more numerous even under Socialism than he is at present. With our existing conditions, he justly inspires our admiration and our love as a protest against an anti-ethical individualism. But do not let us delude ourselves into supposing that the world, as a whole, would be intrinsically better were the number of those unselfish people doubled or even tripled. The point of leverage for us as Socialists is not the hearts of men, but the conditions of society. For the transformation of society we want rather enlightened selfishness than unselfishness. The transformation will certainly not be effected by any number of unselfish saints. The fact is the special moral antithesis of selfishness and unselfishness will tend to lose its importance, at least as regards common life, in a Socialist world. Acts that are in the interest of the community as much as of the individual, and of the individual as much as of the community, cannot be described either as selfish or as unselfish. They are both and neither. In proportion as the organisation of society of itself abolishes the antagonism of interest between the individual man and his fellows, by so much will the opposition between selfishness and unselfishness dwindle into insignificance. Socialist society will certainly not be beyond the fundamental ethical categories of good and evil; but I think we have reason to believe it will have largely superseded that opposition in daily life between selfishness and unselfishness which plays such a prominent part in our present moral consciousness. The instinct which leads men to rise up against injustice, to devote themselves to social and political causes, is a feeling of solidarity of interest which is above or at least outside the current distinction of selfish and unselfish. The class-conscious workman full of the class war spirit, that terrible bogey of our friends, Keir Hardie and his colleagues, could hardly be described as an unselfish saint since he sees himself reflected in his class, but neither is be selfish in the ordinary sense, since he sees his class reflected in himself. In a word, he identifies his own interest with that of his class. As above said, the ordinary unselfish man, worthy of all commendation though he be, has nothing to do with Socialism. He may be rich, or he may be poor, but though we may esteem him and expect from him good and noble deeds to those with whom he comes in contact, yet we know that he alone will never get us any forwarder on the road to fundamental social change. In fact, he might, as likely as not, be rather in the way than otherwise when the time came for the revolutionary transformation of society.

It is necessary to be very emphatic on the point insisted upon in this article, if the ILP is going to make itself sponsor for a fallacy which simply hands over the whole case for Socialism to the enemy. The reorganisation of society in a Socialist sense; we must lose no opportunity of proclaiming, does not require for its vindication men of sublimely unselfish virtue. It presupposes simply – the ordinary man. If, as the ILP leaders maintain, it involved for its realisation an army of unselfish paragons, then indeed would our propaganda, our aims, and our expectations, be alike emptiness and vanity.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.6.2004