E. Belfort Bax

Socialist Ethics and Private Charity

(14 April 1906)

Socialist Ethics and Private Charity, Justice, 14th April 1906, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The perennial confusion between Socialist ethics and private charity, the assumption that almsgiving on the part of the individual is in some way or other specially connected with Socialist principles, is one which no amount of explanation would seem capable of eradicating from certain minds. In the case of many of those who put it forward as an ad hominem argument, their sincerity seems more than a doubtful quantity. It looks simply like the stick that is good enough to beat the dog with, the socialistic dog that they hate and fear. We may fairly credit many of such controversialists with brains enough to see the ineptitude of this line of attack But the fact of their constantly recurring to it shows that they think there are enough fools among the general public to be caught by it. It is therefore, perhaps, not altogether purposeless to return to it from time to time.

Some few weeks ago a correspondent, writing to the Daily Mail, sapiently enunciated this would-be telling argument anent a certain comrade of ours. The aforesaid comrade he assumed to possess £10,000 a year, and on the strength of this supposition went on to suggest that £9,000 of this income should be distributed amongst a certain number of poor families. This, he thought, would be a great and striking proof of consistency. Now, everybody who knows anything about the doctrines of Socialism will, of course, be aware that, so far as Socialist principles are concerned, it would not only be no proof of consistency, but, from a certain point of view at least, to act in this way would be positively inconsistent with those principles. The fact that Socialism aims at the establishment of a system of social justice, and holds no brief for individual almsgiving, even as a palliative for the present system of social injustice – in spite of its proclamation, in season and out of season, by Socialists – does not prevent the continuance of the absurd assumption that a man or woman who is a Socialist, and is at the same time possessed of means, lies under the peculiar obligation of promiscuous almsgiving more than any other man or woman who is not a Socialist, but who, notwithstanding, claims, we suppose, to be none the less of sympathetic character and humane disposition. It is no part of our present purpose engage in an attack on, or a defence of, private charity or almsgiving, assuming the existing constitution of society. Individual charity may be desirable, it may be even indispensable, in the world we live in to-day, notwithstanding the fact, so often insisted upon, of its dangers, disadvantages, and generally demoralising tendencies. The point we are here concerned with is that the Socialist qua Socialist, be he poor or rich, lies under no greater obligation to almsgiving even under present conditions, than any other person who claims to be humane and sympathetic. His consistency as a Socialist would “moult no feather” if he never gave away a half-penny in the form of private benevolence to individuals. The manner and the degree in which he practises private charity, if he does so at all, is a matter for his personal and private consideration, just as much and no more than in the case of any other man. For the rest, it may be pointed out that Socialists are quite as alive as other people, if not, more so, to the evils necessarily attending private charity as a means of alleviating distress. They may not condemn it altogether, but they at best regard it as a necessary evil, and certainly not as something to be championed as in some way specially appertaining to Socialism.

But if the principles of Socialism do not in any way involve the inculcation of alms-giving on the part of individuals, there is another body of principles, embracing its own code of ethics, which certainly does. The Christian religion under the name of “Christian charity”, does most emphatically insist on almsgiving on the part of its adherents – almsgiving even to the extent of the utter impoverishment of the almsgiver. Alms-giving on the part of individuals is in fact, for Christianity, the ultimate and indeed sole solution of the social problem. “Sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor” is the burden of the whole ethical teaching of Christianity in this connection. The attempt to carry it out practically in the primitive church of Jerusalem is reported as having led to the notorious Annanias and Saphira incident, which clearly indicates, not as is so often erroneously represented, any sort of communism in the true sense of the word, but merely an exaggerated form of alms-giving on the part of the individual members of the Christian body. If, therefore, we are to begin criticising the consistency of conduct with principles professed, in the matter under discussion, it is plainly the modern Christian, irrespective of denomination, who presents himself as the most vulnerable object of attack, in so far as he does not divest himself of the bulk of his property in the form of private charity. Christianity avowedly regards almsgiving, “Christian charity,” as the cure for all the economic evils of society, and accordingly places almsgiving in the forefront of the practical duties of the individual Christian. Hence, we are clearly justified in asserting that no Christian man or woman is acting with perfect consistency who retains for himself, or herself, more than is enough for the bare necessities of life, and who does not distribute the rest of his or her property or income to the form of private charity. Wealthy Churchmen and Nonconformists, please note Socialism, on the contrary, does not profess to believe in private charity or almsgiving as the solution of the social problem at all, or as the cure of any social ill whatever, and consequently does not reckon almsgiving as in any special sense a Socialist virtue


As was remarked at starting, the sincerity of those who profess to find inconsistency in the Socialist possessed of means, for not distributing his substance in the form of alms, is more than a doubtful quantity. Their real object in trotting out their silly and stale fallacy is only too obviously to injure the cause of Socialism, and nothing else. They evidently think, however, that there are many congenital idiots amongst the public capable of being fooled by them. This may be so or not, but in any case their refutation seems worth occasionally stating, obvious though it ought to be of itself.


E. Belfort Bax


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