E. Belfort Bax

Socialism and Asceticism

(28 August 1905)

Socialism and Asceticism, Justice, 28th August 1905, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One of the most extraordinary phenomena in history is the persistence with which the belief in the sovereign virtue and blessedness of Asceticism continues to pervade the mind of the average person even in the present day, when the acid of criticism has eaten away so many other superstitions. That Asceticism in some form or shape must necessarily form part of every ideal is a notion it would seem impossible to eradicate from among the multiform prejudices of the “man in the street.” Does a champion of the “cause of Labour,” does an advocate of Socialism, allow himself to be seen eating a dinner that exceeds in quality and quantity an inferior chop more or less badly cooked, with a brew of chicory to represent coffee by way of drink, and forthwith the hostile critic is “on his track.” The bare statement of this enormity is deemed more than sufficient to brand the champion of these ideal causes with infamy as an arch-hypocrite, fit only to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. As against such an one, the good, frugal capitalist, the abstemious, self-sacrificing employer of labour who luxuriates on a cut off the joint, and slakes his thirst on a “mineral,” he is held up as an exemplar. His other sins, if he has any, are as dust in the balance compared with the fact of the evidence he has afforded of self-denying virtue in thus bringing his stomach under subjection. If you ask our friend the hostile critic the reason why the consumption of “cagmag” should elevate a man morally to a higher plane than that attainable by the gustation of pheasant, say, he will not be able to give you any answer beyond a plaintive reference to the beauties of self-sacrifice, and the noble strength of character shown in preferring the former. But the lack of reasonable grounds does not matter. The hostile critic knows his audience. He knows that an appeal to the ascetic instinct will at once catch on. The “man in the street” asks not the reason why, but blindly follows the tradition he has partly inherited and partly acquired, that asceticism is part of the highest ideal to which human nature can attain.

The ascetic tradition (as we may term it) has its origin far back in history. It does not enter the field with Christianity, as some may imagine. It begins with the first streak of introspective individualism, with the first glimmerings of the personal (as opposed to the tribal or race) spirit, long before that spirit took definite shape in the great religions. It has, however, in history, mainly based itself on the theological auctions of these religions. But now that the theological side of religion is beginning to pale its ineffectual fire, there is a tendency for asceticism to accrete itself on to medical science. The old theological asceticism is being superseded by the new medical asceticism. Theological asceticism preached that it was good for a man’s soul to make himself as uncomfortable as possible; medical asceticism preaches that it is good for his body to do ditto. But, while the main argument in the present-day is a medico-scientific one, the old idea of the intrinsic goodness of asceticism and the duty of practising it for its own sake, inevitably peeps out in, say, the exhortations of anti-alcoholic fanatics and others. As already pointed out, the desirability of self-sacrifice as an end in itself, is assumed explicitly in well-nigh all exhortation bearing on the subject, and implicitly in all criticism of conduct. For this reason, the poor Labour leader, or Socialist agitator, must forsooth reject a decent dinner, and eat refuse And drink “swipes.” Self-sacrifice demands it! Now it may be interesting, and not wholly unprofitable, to consider critically for a moment this notion of the desirability of “self-sacrifice” per se – a notion which fanatics and charlatans so often use in playing to the uncritical “gallery.” Has “self-sacrifice” an independent value of its own; is it something intrinsically desirable in itself? I answer, unquestionably not. It has only value when it occurs as the necessary, or at least most speedy, means to a very definite end apart from itself. In itself it is always to be deplored. But it will be asked, Can anything be nobler than self-sacrifice? Is it not the highest of all virtues? To this I answer, No. It .is not a virtue at all per se, but it undoubtedly is the ultimate standard or test of all moral action.

Self-sacrifice in ethics is like the currency in political economy; it is a standard of value, but no more than this. The fallacy of regarding the material of the currency as though it were a use-value in itself, led to the long-ago buried “mercantile theory “ in economics The fallacy of treating self-sacrifice as a virtue in itself, leads to a recrudescence of the introspective spirit with its ideal of asceticism. Now, as we have always contended, the introspective morality not only belongs generally to the cult of abstractions, but more particularly to a side of that cult which is, at least indirectly, antagonistic to the spirit of Socialism. The emphasis of the moral tendency of Socialism is not on the individual as end, but on society as end. Socialism does not propose the training of “comrades” to perform feats of moral gymnastics, just to show what fine fellows they are, or that each may enjoy his own inward beauty, but to train them to act in concert for the attainment of definite and unmistakable social ends. In so far as these ends involve self-sacrificing acts, and in proportion to the amount of self-sacrifice involved is the individual to be praised for the performance of the acts in question. This, no one would wish to deny. But it by no means involves regarding self-sacrifice as a concrete good in itself. The absurdity of treating it as such is seen at once when we take the extreme manifestations of the ascetic spirit of which the case of Simon Stylites is the stock example. Simon stood on his pillar through all weathers eating what his admirers put into his mouth and allowed vermin to accumulate on his person, replacing them as they fell off him with the words, “Eat what God hath given thee.” Now here, surely, you have the very quintessence of self-sacrifice, yet, probably, none of our moralists who so zealously worship at the shrine of “self-sacrifice” in general, would confess to altogether appreciating its moral beauty in this particular case.

Moreover, self-sacrifice is mainly invoked against the indulgence of what are collectively termed the “appetites,” or those impulses more or less closely connected with them. But I never yet heard a moralist seriously shake his head at a respectable bourgeois for too close an addiction to business – i.e., to money-making – by the recognised means of capitalist exploitation. In general, quite the contrary. This seems to me rather significant of the tendencies of modern introspective ethics.

If we once, like sane men, recognise self-sacrifice as in itself an evil, though we may adapt maybe a habit savouring of asceticism for other reasons, we shall always see in the self-sacrifice involved, so far as it goes, a reason for not adopting it rather than as an additional inducement. Socialism certainly does not set up as its ideal the suppression of self any more than the exaltation of self over others. Socialism means ethically, if it means anything, not the perennial sacrifice of self, but its realisation in and through society – not repression of the individual, but his fulfilment.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 9.7.2004