E. Belfort Bax, Justice June 1909

Socialism as the Palladium of Individual Liberty

Source: letter, Justice, 5 June 1909, p. 9;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A friend of mine, a prominent member of the Social-Democratic Party, in the course of a lecture he was delivering; happened to remark, as regards a certain proposal, that it implied a direct infringement of individual-liberty, and was therefore unsocialistic. After he had concluded, another well-known Socialist rose and objected to my friend’s remarks, urging that Socialism implied the coercion of the individual all round. It is indeed strange, but unfortunately true, that not merely enemies of Socialism, but even persons who consider themselves Socialists, should be found to hold, such a view as this as to the true bearing of Socialist principles.

The general aim of Socialism, in this connection can hardly be better expressed than by the formula of Marx and. Engels that the basis of the new society will be the administration of things, as opposed to the existing order which consists in the coercion of persons. It cannot be too often insisted, upon that Socialism means the freeing of the individual from the fetters which weigh upon him under the capitalistic system. And this is not to be understood as meaning that while the old fetters are removed new ones will be rivetted. The coercion, if it can be called such, which exists in a transformed society will be simply the coercion of nature herself, modified and reduced to a minimum. All direct coercion of the individual, as such, is contrary to the first principles of Socialism.

The obligation laid on the individual to perform his share in the necessary work of the world, and to fulfil certain duties towards the organisation of the society in and through which he exists, represents a “coercion” of the former kind. It is an obligation, or “coercion,” if you will, which is based upon the principle of equity between man and man, as well as duty towards society or humanity considered as a progressive whole. To refrain from doing a direct injury, either of a positive or a negative character, to one’s fellow-citizens or to the social organisation itself, is an indubitable obligation incumbent upon every member. But in cases of the breach of this obligation, the penalty, I take it, would be rather negative than positive. It would take the form less of retribution imposed from without upon the offender than of compensation or of some other definite consequence of the offence. The case not of positive injury but of obdurate refusal or negligence to perform an equitable share of the labour necessary to the maintenance of the social life might well be met by some form of exclusion, in whole or in part, from that life, the effect being in some sort analogous to the mediaeval excommunication. As regards positive offences or crimes the compensatory rather than the retributive principle would undoubtedly in another way, but no less, govern the penalty. For instance, take the crime of theft, so long and so far as the institution of private property continues to form an element of social life. Our Italian comrade, Enrico Ferri, has proposed, even now, as regards this crime, to substitute the old Roman four-fold restitution for the present method of tormenting the culprit in gaol. I instance this to show how the tendency of law under Socialism may reasonably be supposed to eliminate direct coercion, even in cases of positive crime, where to most persons born and bred under the present system no alternative to direct coercion is conceivable. Of course, it would be absurd to imagine that positive constraint, such, for instance, as imprisonment for certain crimes, could be done away with all at once. Coercion is only one of the evil legacies the present system will have left, which it will be the task of Socialism to get rid of, if not immediately, as effectively and speedily as possible.

It must not be forgotten, moreover, that it is a point of the first importance in this connection to determine the precise definition of what constitutes crime. The whole conception of crime is, with most persons, confused with archaic notions derived from the idea that it is the duty of the “secular power” to enforce theological or sentimental sanctions. The most modern, as it is the most indisputable, definition of crime, is that it consists in a direct injury intentionally inflicted upon another individual without his consent or on the community at large. It is of importance to emphasise the directness of the injury, since, otherwise, actions, the injurious character of which is a matter of opinion merely (e.g. as in the Middle Ages, heterodox doctrine), inevitably come to be converted into legal crimes. As is the matter of education, the Socialist Party takes its stand on the secular principle, refusing to admit the inculcation of dogma or speculative opinion into the educational curriculum of schools supported under public auspices, so it is here. It is no more the business of society in its corporate capacity to punish actions as crimes on the ground of any indirect, ulterior, evil alleged to result from them, the theory that such evil is a necessary consequence of them being a matter of individual opinion – it is no more, I insist, the province of society to do this than it is say its province to inculcate the dogma, say, of the “immaculate conception,” on the youthful mind in its elementary schools. Every sane man is agreed that all forms of violence, murder, theft, rape, also certain aggravated forms of fraud, are anti-social actions, properly coming under the head of crimes punishable by society, just as every reasonable man accepts the established truths of science as proper object-matter of public education. But whether, and if so in what degree, indulgence in alcohol, gambling, abnormal sexual practices, etc., constitute an injury to other individuals or to the community remains at best a matter of opinion, and not of criminological fact. It is hence outside the sphere of corporate regulation. The distinction is largely represented by that between vice and crime. Vice is the name given to a course of conduct which an influential section, perhaps the majority, of a society, regard, or profess to regard, as objectionable. Crime is conduct which all normal persons must at once recognise as anti-social, to the extent of rendering social organisation impossible, and hence not to be tolerated by the given society. Vice may be disputed about. True crime is at once recognised as such, without discussion, even by those guilty of it. The opinion is now gaining ground, even amongst the more enlightened bourgeois legists, that the tendency of legislation ought to be to diminish as much as possible the number of actions qualified by the law as crimes. Yet the tendency of much of our puritan legislation is to stamp as criminal, or as quasi-criminal, all conduct of which the puritan mind disapproves.

It is of the utmost importance for Socialists to think clearly and logically as to the consequences of the principles they are accustomed to profess in general terms. Foremost among the fallacies in which the superficial student of Socialist doctrines is apt to get involved is that Socialism, in some, special sense, implies coercion. On the contrary, one of the primary aims of the industrial and political organisation supposed by Socialism is the guaranteeing of the freedom of the individual for good or ill, throughout that whole class of conduct characterised by Mill as the sphere of “self-regarding actions.” Under present society, what with economic fetters on the one side, and survival of obsolete ways of judging conduct in law, and public opinion on the other, such, individual freedom as that referred to, does not, and cannot, really obtain. I come not to destroy individual freedom, but to fulfil it! Such must be the pronouncement of the true Socialist.