E. Belfort Bax

The Essential Socialism

(August 1911)

Bax, Essential Socialism, Social Democrat, Vol.15, No.8, August 1911, pp.346-50.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is with a certain reluctance that I enter the controversial lists against one who has done so much hard but unobtrusive work in the cause of Socialism and Freethought as comrade Gould. Only the strong conviction that the question, “What is Essential Socialism?” – as our friend Gould himself urges – ought to be discussed, and that the answer given by our comrade is a wrong one and likely- to lead to harmful consequences, induces the to offer the following words of criticism.

The position contended for by comrade Gould is the popular one – that Socialism is exhausted in the bare economic formula anent the communisation of the means of production, etc. This notion sounds so plausible that it counts with most persons for unassailable and “sound common-sense.” But I venture to suggest that, like many another fruit on the tree of “sound common-sense,” this favourite thesis also contains a maggot at its core. The fact alone might render it suspicious that, notwithstanding the perpetual reiteration of the dogma that. Socialism is exclusively an economic proposition, and in spite of the comparative rareness with which this dogma is seriously traversed in theory, yet in practice the great bulk of Socialists disregard it and are ready to insist on a distinct attitude for Socialism in all the broader issues of human life and conduct – be they political, religious, or ethical. Their nominal acceptance of Gould’s favourite thesis does not prevent them, when occasion arises, from keenly claiming the essentiality of some issue outside the strict economic formula, which, according to the theory, alone expresses the true inwardness of the Socialist movement. This tendency, I think, of itself should give pause to a too dogmatic attitude in the above sense.

The fact is – to most Socialists Socialism is of the nature of a political, religious and ethical ideal based upon, it is true, but not identical with nor exhausted in, the economic postulate. In an article published some two years ago in a magazine called the Open Review, I sought to show the absence of historical justification for the very exclusive limitation of the definition of Socialism which many persons seem anxious to erect into a canon in the present day. And the fact remains that the term Socialism, from the days of its first employment for the movement of St. Simon, Fourier and Owen onward till lately, has always stood for a concrete conception of human life, involving, without doubt, as the first condition of its fulfilment, an economic transformation, but which was never confined to the economic change itself abstracted from all else.

Yet, notwithstanding this, the advocates of the restricted definition invariably talk as though the inclusion of other than purely economic interests within the purview of Socialism were a species of unjustifiable – not to say illogical – innovation. So far from this being the case, the innovation is on the side of those who seek to limit the definition, and it is for them to show a justification for the change. This, as it seems to me, comrade Gould, no less than his predecessors, has failed to do. Throughout his article he dogmatically assumes the position that Socialism means simply and exclusively the assumption by the community of the possession and control of the land and capital of the country, and has no concern with, nor thought for, aught else. (His limitation to the “vital industries,” as he terms them, seems to me unjustified, since once the latter were effectively communised the whole industrial system would be bound to follow.) Now, as I contend (1) you cannot successfully carry through any attempt to separate the fundamental issues of life into watertight compartments – both in logic and in practice they inevitably overlap – and (2) in your zeal for watertighting the economical side of life you run the imminent danger of divesting your economical postulate itself of all real and living meaning.

Let us look at the logical consequences of this popular doctrine: of the exclusive essentiality of the economic formula. “Socialism,” says comrade Gould in defending this doctrine, “is merely the public ownership of the vital industries.” (Hence, Socialists, as such, must rigidly limit themselves in their public action to promoting and defending the above formula. Should, therefore, it be proposed to re-introduce domestic slavery – or, still worse, public slavery – Socialists, as Socialists, would not be entitled to express any opinion on the matter, seeing it is conceivable that the “vital industries” might be publicly owned and worked in a sense for the good of the whole people, including the maintenance of the slaves themselves. Again, it is proposed to re establish the “Holy Office” to enforce Catholic Christianity as a creed binding on all citizens. Here, again, is a question which, inasmuch as it does not directly concern “the public ownership of the vital industries,” must, on Gouldian principles, be an open one for Socialists – nay, there would be no inconsistency in a Socialist himself occupying the post of Grand Inquisitor. If there is one thing which Socialism has been supposed to involve it is Republicanism. But here, again, our friend Gould, in perfectly logical accord with his definition of Socialism, declares it to be unessential, since a good step in the direction of the “public ownership of the vital industries” could be conceivably attainable under a King and hereditary Chamber. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, arguing on the same lines, has declared it within the competence of a Socialist regime to abolish divorce, and condemn men and women to life-long slavery and misery – to offer them as whole burnt-offerings on the altar of monogamic dogma, varnished over, it may be to make it sound plausible, with phrases such as “social order,” “political stability,” and the like.

Now, I make bold to assert that most Socialists, however much they may offer lip-homage to the orthodox theory defended by comrade Gould – to wit, that Socialism means no more than a bald economic formula – if it came to the point, would fling this would-be cautious and prudent – and, may I add, pedantic – orthodoxy to the winds and affirm by word and deed that all or any of these things were radically incompatible with Socialism, alike in theory and in practice. For to them the functions of Socialism are ethical no less than economic. For them, whatever they may pretend, the economic transformation is no more than the essential means to an end which is not merely economic, but embraces the whole fabric of human life. It is a significant fact, moreover, that those who from motives of expediency think they are facilitating the advent of the economic side of Socialism by giving; it an exclusive prominence, either have no adequate conception of what is involved in the economic change itself; or, if they have – as doubtless in the case of comrade Gould – they usually find themselves hoodwinked, when it comes to practical politics, into accepting some plausible counterfeit of statification, some fraudulent, make-believe measure of sham socialisation – municipal or national – some Bismarckism or Seddonism, for the genuine thing. This is happening constantly in the present day. It is only in applying the touchstone of the spirit of Socialism to the various economic nostrums masquerading in the modern world under the name and guise of Socialism that you have any real and definite standard to go by as to what constitutes the effective (from a Socialist point of view) socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and as to its intrinsic value. Apart from this, we necessarily drift about among those who give ear to the cry, “Lo, here is Socialism, and, lo, there!”

The real strength of Socialism lies in the fearless consistency of Socialists in pointing out the concreteness of human society in each of its phases of development – in exhibiting Socialism, not, indeed, in its details, but none the less in its general tendencies, as a coherent doctrine of social life, to which nothing human is foreign. To this proclamation of Socialism as a religion and an ethic, and not merely as an economic scheme, belongs the pointing out of its inconsistency with current cherished bourgeois conceptions of religion and ethics – its presentiment as the modern attempt to realise the ideal of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in the recognition that the first and only means thereto is the economic reconstruction of society on the basis of communism in the means of production and distribution. It is because the aim of Socialism is the recognition of the economic change as being the basis upon which the other changes will he effected that the chief stress is laid upon the latter, and not because Socialism has no interest in aught but the technical economic transformation itself.

It may be convenient for electioneering purposes to represent Socialism as indifferent if not favourable to religious hypocrisy, to moral humbug, and to every conventional principle – however baneful, however destructive of liberty, however incompatible with equality, however deadly to fraternity – provided it does not directly traverse the letter of the economic formula ; but it is a falsification, and a falsification that will find you out in the long run. The man who wants to bully his fellow-men forcibly into accepting conventional theories on religion, on marriage, on royalty, on patriotism, etc., friend Gould, as I understand him, would have us greet as a Socialist “comrade” provided he can mouth his adhesion to the bare economic formula, no matter with what implications or reservations, and no matter how much his attitude on other issues contradicts the recognised spirit of Socialism. Against such a view as this I cannot sufficiently protest, popular and sound common-sensible though it may be.


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