E. Belfort Bax

Continuity – Voila l’Ennemi!

(30 June 1906)

Continuity – Voila l’Ennemi, Justice, 30th June 1906, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is one characteristic, more or less common to all modern Governments, resting as they do economically on a class-basis, and that is “continuity.” One Government will reduce to the minimum its disavowal of the administration of its predecessor. Britain is the classical land of governmental “continuity.” It is, indeed, an integral part of the British administrative constitution, and is typified by the permanent officials of the Government departments. It might be supposed that a Government elected to reverse the policy of the one it has supplanted would proceed to do so. Not a bit. The permanent officials look after that. The Minister, even if he wanted to do so, could only reverse it with the utmost difficulty. He is dependent on his permanent officials for his information, and for carrying-out of his policy. But in general he does not want to reverse it. He himself believes in the principle of “continuity.” For this principle of governmental “continuity” has proved a very convenient one for the possessing classes generally, and more especially profitable to the governing ring of bureaucrats.

The question of “continuity” has been especially in evidence lately owing to the “masterly” (or “servile,” as you like) inactivity of the present Government as regards Chinese labour in South Africa. This, indeed, affords a very good test-case of what “continuity” implies. In addition, it throws a sidelight on the constitution of the present Liberal Cabinet, which is, as is well known, partly composed of members in touch with the Rand magnates and partly not. The late Government, at the behest of the aforesaid magnates, promulgated the Chinese ukase, and took the opportunity before abdicating, with the aid of its satraps on the spot, of getting a large batch of fresh licences issued. Now, “continuity” had to be observed and the rights of property maintained, So the fresh licences were held good. But not only so. The satraps in question – Lord Seaborne, the head of the bureaucracy, and his immediate subordinate – who reprehensibly (according to the present Colonial Minister) signed the licences in question, and their fellow-functionaries, all of whom are known to be thick-and-thin supporters of the Rand policy, still hold their positions, and are the administrators charged to carry out the would-be anti-Rand policy of the present Government.

This is “continuity,” which means that Tory and Liberal, having at basis one object, the carrying on of the existing order of society, it is found to work best to let minor points of difference, if need be, go by the board, and before all things address ones governmental self to the one main purpose. It also means that, bureaucrats being drawn from the same social stratum, and forming besides a special caste, have a fellow-feeling and mutual understanding with each other not to press advantages too hard. As is usually the case, the governing classes directly interested in the maintenance of the fraud, succeed in impressing upon the general public that “continuity” is a good thing, with deprecatory allusions to France and other places where it is less severely carried out than in this country. (Not but that administrative continuity exists also in France as in every State-system based on capitalism and worked by a bureaucracy. It is only a question of more or less). So successful are the governing classes of this country in persuading even the very elect, of, the desirability of “continuity” as a governmental principle, that, if I mistake not, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, then, as always, concerned to show himself what is known as a practical politician, in a lecture delivered some years ago before the Fabian Society, gave it the seal of his approval, treating it as indispensable to all good government whatever.

But if we consider the principle of “governmental continuity” a little closely, it very soon evinces itself as a reactionary principle pure and simple, subserving wholly and solely the interests of the status quo ante, and very much ante sometimes. “Continuity” is, indeed, by common consent, an anti-revolutionary principle. This is its special merit in the eyes of the statesman. It is a guarantee against revolutionary, i.e., fundamental changes, in the existing constitution of society. But the Socialist is a revolutionary party, aiming precisely at fundamental changes in the constitution of society. Hence it is clear that by so much as “continuity” is conducive to political stability in its present sense, by so much is it the enemy of the changes aimed at by Socialism.

It is enough to ask ourselves what a Socialist administration would mean, to show us that the principle of administrative continuity would be a fatal stumbling-block to any far-reaching measure. This should appeal especially to those of our friends who believe in the accomplishment of the Social Revolution by peaceful and constitutional methods. Supposing in any country a Socialist administration came into power, could it advance a step in the teeth of a bureaucracy consisting of the permanent heads of departments? And let it not be supposed that bureaucracy is essentially different in one country from what it is in another. Bureaucracy remains bureaucracy. Its one method is red tape. The bureaucrat is everywhere by nature a reactionary. Now I ask, is a body of men likely to carry out changes effectively to which they are constitutionally averse? We may not believe in the Social-Democratic commonwealth being established in a day, but a Socialist administration must at least distinguish itself from a capitalist Government by its every effort being consciously directed to the one end – the transformation of existing society of individual property-holding into one of collective property-holding by means of the communisation of the instruments of production, etc. But this object only requires to be stated for us to see the absurdity, with existing bureaucratic machinery – the embodiment of “continuity” in its worst form – of expecting administration to be carried on with the above aim in view.

Yet it is not only in the case of the access to power of a definite Socialist administration that “continuity” would bar the way; even the merest palliatives are nullified by it. As against “continuity,” Socialists should insist on the point that without as complete a breach of continuity as may be there can be no real progress. There is a continuity of administrative routine and policy, and a continuity of individual administrators. The latter is the most dangerous. It has been said of France (untruly, of course), with deprecation, that a change of Ministry means a change of the whole body of functionaries down to the village schoolmaster. The Englishman, puffed up with insular vanity, plumes himself on the chains of continuity which bear him down, and laughs at the Frenchman. But, quite apart from Socialism, is it not reasonable, is it not obvious sense, that a wide-reaching change of policy should imply a change of administrators?

Of course, we all know that nobody occupying an official position, or having a political standing, can possibly be anything but the soul of honourable intentions in the present day, whatever his acts may be. Men have lost the old honest habit of speaking the truth, and calling a spade a spade, Yet we also know that these souls of honour, heads of departments, under-secretaries, colonial governors, judges, etc., do have a way of turning the edge of laws and ordinances which are not quite to the liking of the privileged classes to which they belong, even descending to perform what, with mere common persons, would be termed hanky-panky tricks to render them nugatory. Surely, then, it is plain that before all else the principle wants establishing that the administrator must be in open and avowed sympathy with the policy he is called upon to administer, and that if there is any reasonable ground for suspecting that he is not in sympathy he should be cashiered promptly and without favour or affection! The evils engendered by the “continuity” of red-tape tradition usually redounding solely to the advantage of the bureaucracy itself, as a whole, would not long resist a rapid change of its personnel. We should thus pave the way for that final transition of public services, involving the abolition of bureaucracy itself as such, which Social-Democracy implies.


E. Belfort Bax


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