E. Belfort Bax

A Socialist Administration

(13 February 1909)

A Socialist Administration, Justice, 13th February 1909, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There seems a great difficulty with many persons, calling themselves Socialists nowadays – but who “fancy themselves” before all things as sensible, level-headed politicians – in understanding the distinction drawn by us Social-Democrats between a modern Bourgeois Government and a revolutionary Socialist Administration. The general notion among such seems to be that there is no inherent distinction at all, but that the one thing may and will melt quite imperceptibly into the other, This view is aided, of course, by the spurious distinction so beloved of this sort between evolution and revolution. You have to permeate, they say, the existing State with Socialistic legislation, and thus leaven it little by little with Socialist principle until the whole is leavened, and when this is the case you wake up one fine morning, I suppose, and find your Socialist society has emerged. Now, Social-Democrats maintain that this beautiful idyll of the practical politician is a dream, in its very nature never destined to realise itself. Under existing political conditions, you may quite well, it is true, have a certain amount of Socialistic legislation, that is, legislation in the direction of softening down certain crying evils of the present system. But even such legislation, which, as we have often said, is not even the beginning of Socialism, has very narrow limits. Will not the recent old age pension measure be written in history in illustration of this last fact? All legislation of this kind has, as its condition, in short, that it shall not cut into the deeper tissues of the capitalist system. Every serious politician knows that no measure that does this, be it never so slightly, has a chance of being officially drafted. The principle of all existing Governments is Continuity. In this there is absolutely no difference between the parties. No Government, whether one formed by Mr. Balfour, Mr. Asquith, or Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, dare trifle with Continuity. In a word, it dare not abjure its character of being the political expression of modern capitalist society and the official organ of the dominant classes of that society. Its “Continuity” hence means the continuance of Capitalism and of the traditional policy of Capitalism in its essential features, notwithstanding modifications of detail. Its face must be turned toward the dominant classes of present society as toward its master – or as it is termed, it must be possible, sensible, practical.

Now, Social-Democrats are no Utopians. They know perfectly well that Rome was not built in a day, neither was capitalist civilisation evolved in a week, nor will the complete machinery of a Socialist Commonwealth be a “going concern” in a month, for that matter. But true as all this may be, there is a distinction between the Labour-Party Socialist, who is proud in what he is pleased to term the “evolutionary” character of his Socialism, and the revolutionary Social-Democrat. It does not consist in the fact that while the one is a moral, Licence-Billing, peaceful politician, the other is a bloodthirsty bounder of the barricade. The question of peaceful or violent methods is not essential to the issue. It means that for the Social-Democrat all Governments, however well-intentioned their members may be, are bourgeois, in the sense of anti-Socialist, that make “Continuity” their basis. It matters not whether they be Tory, Liberal or Labour. The test of a Socialist Administration will be not that it at once begins to run amok all round in approved Anarchist fashion, but that its basis will be discontinuity. Its face will be turned away from present society to the society of the future. Hence its efforts will be directed to breaking Continuity wherever possible. An Administration such as that supposed would be a protest against that very system of society, the maintenance intact of which expresses itself politically as Continuity. The methods by which a Socialist Administration will break Continuity may be gentle or may be violent, may be gradual or may be abrupt. This would depend upon the nature of each case and the circumstances in which the action was taken. But that which radically must distinguish a Socialist from a bourgeois Administration is its spirit, and this spirit must be a revolutionary spirit, as opposed to a reforming spirit. The revolutionary spirit seeks to make changes as great as can effectively be made, the reforming spirit seeks to make changes as little as can effectively be made. That is what distinguishes Social-Democracy from Liberalism, Radicalism and Labourism. There are elements in all these political creeds which Social-Democrats can accept, but Continuity is the badge of all their tribe, which means that even what is acceptable in their principles trickles into practice on such a scale as to render it totally inoperative for serious good. You cannot empty the Atlantic with a tea-cup, or even with a soup-tureen.

It remains to ask what constitutes the practical embodiment of Continuity and the agent by which it is carried out in modern States? The general answer is – Bureaucracy. The special answer as regards British bureaucracy is – the permanent heads of departments and their secretaries. It is well-known that even a Minister is practically helpless against the pressure of the permanent head of his department. Even were he willing to strike out a decided line he could not do so, with his machinery recalcitrant to his will. As a general rule, of course, the Minister and his department work only too willingly hand in hand to maintain the status quo. But should there be any sign of an effective vigour in the Minister above the usual, the permanent official knows how effectually to render it nugatory. As is often said, this country is “run” by some dozen permanent officials, whose one and only object in life is the maintenance of continuity of policy in the departments under their control. Now if, as Social-Democrats, we are sincere in our avowed desire to create, as speedily as possible, a revolutionary change of a fundamental character in the present system of society, it is clear the most prominent plank in our political programme ought to be the abolition of our present bureaucratic, system and the extinction of the permanent head of the department and his staff. For our object must be to strike a blow at Continuity, which is only a way of saying at the stability of the present social system. In so doing we render possible the advent of an Administration which shall have Socialism for its end and aim, . Such an Administration it is which is alone worthy of being manned by Socialists. It is for such, we say, that Socialist politicians should reserve themselves and not fritter away their energies, I assuming responsibility, direct or indirect, for policies they cannot as Socialists consistently sanction, and thus become demoralised and for ever after useless for the real movement of “integral” Socialism.


E. Belfort Bax


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