E. Belfort Bax December 1911

Reaction v. Republicanism

Source: New Age, 28 December 1911, p. 198-199;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Pronouncements of your typical reactionary are cast in one mould, and hence it is easy to prognose with fair precision the attitude he will assume on any given occasion. Every progressive democratic revolutionary movement, however powerful or virile in itself, has to be waived aside as weak and of no account. Every reactionary movement, no matter whether it has any backing or not, must correspondingly be talked of as something serious and worthy of all attention. In the same way, every display of energy on the part of a progressive democratic or revolutionary organisation or administration has to be duly called ugly names, while every despotic act or outrage on popular liberty committed by powers that be is, as a matter of course, approved as a display of vigour. If the deed is too atrocious to be treated in this way, the correct reactionary tip is to belittle the importance of the matter, to declare the statements concerning it to be gross exaggerations, and for the rest, to excuse it on the ground of the difficulties of the situation. Thus Lord Roberts, recently asked his opinion of the atrocities of the Italian troops in Tripoli, talked of the necessity of giving the wicked Arabs in the oasis, who had the temerity to repel the invader, a lesson – adding the well-known military cant to the effect that truculent measures are often the most humane in the end. On the same principle Mr. William Sykes, speaking from the burglar’s standpoint, might argue that, say, hitting a worthy householder over the head with an iron bar on entering the premises selected for operations, cruel as it might seem, was really a most compassionate way of effecting the object of the expedition, since otherwise an alarm might be raised and other members of the household, as well as the police, might be involved, in which several persons might receive serious injuries. In a word, in the case of every energetic policy on the part of Democrats and Socialists it is the correct thing, according to the reactionary code of political judgment, to denounce as ruffianism. Every brutal repression by the constituted authorities of capitalist civilisation, as already said, on the other hand, is to be approved as a policy of virtuous vigour. This rule of reactionary judgment is stringently embodied in the oft-quoted admonition of Punch’s special constable to the Chartist – the “special” standing for the governing classes, and the Chartist for the modern democrat or revolutionary: “If I slog you over the head, mind, I'm only doing my duty; but if you hit me back, by God! it’s a dastardly outrage.”

The above principles of what we may term the reactionist’s hand-book, although they confront one in all the utterances of the tribe, received an interesting exemplification in the issue of THE NEW AGE for November 16 in an article headed “Triumphant Republicanism,” by Senhor da Braganša Cunha. In this article the above Royalist Portuguese gentleman literally foams at the mouth in the endeavour to find adequate abusive language for the Portuguese Republican Congress because, forsooth, it passed a resolution in honour of the slayer of King Carlos with the words: “The Congress sorrowfully salutes the memory of the great Portuguese Buica and Costa.” Now, whatever we may think of the desirability of tyrannicide as a general policy, there can be no doubt of the sincerity and unselfish devotion of the brave men in question, who undoubtedly laid the foundation of the Portuguese Republic in executing vengeance on one whom most democrats would regard as having richly deserved his fate. That the Republican Parliament in Portugal should honour their memories, that it should by a unanimous vote express its feelings in this matter, is, surely, a display of courage and honesty which should command our respect, whatever our opinions may be of the policy or act of the regicides. Now there is nothing your hard-shelled reactionary is more fond of expressing his aversion from than what he is pleased to call “sentimentalism.” But the edge of this severely non-sentimental attitude is invariably turned towards the working-classes and the masses of the population. When it is any question of the governing classes and their satellites being hard pressed, these same gentlemen can froth to overflowing with indignant sentiment. Now I am myself, I trust, a sincere and thorough-going Sentimentalist (N.B., in the sense of “S. Verdad” and gentlemen of his kidney), but I confess that I am unable myself to shed very many salt tears over the fate of the late lamented King Carlos. Not so Senhor da Braganša Cunha, for whom the lawless execution of the late King is a “ghastly crime,” also the realisation of a “long sanguinary dream,” etc. (How the shooting of one man can constitute “a long, sanguinary dream” the worthy Senhor does not tell us.) It would be interesting to know if Senhor da Braganša Cunha experienced the same lively sentiments of horror and viewed with the same high moral abhorrence the judicial murder of Senhor Francesco Ferrer at Barcelona in October, 1909. Yet one would think that even those who most strongly deprecate political assassination, if they have the least scintilla of fairness in their composition, must admit that a judicial murder, when those responsible for it run no risk of their own skins, is a far meaner action than the slaying of a tyrant when the slayers knowingly go to meet certain death for what they, rightly or wrongly, believe a social necessity or a just retribution. I can, of course, quite understand that, owing to family connections or otherwise, the worthy Senhor should feel keenly the death of the late King Carlos. But, I submit, his, private sentiments are hardly sufficient ground for his not “keeping his hair on” when professing to discuss the matter objectively.

For the rest, I hear from the best-informed sources not only that the elements of hostility to the Republic are a negligible quantity throughout the length and breadth of the land – a statement which is confirmed by the obvious course of events – but that the dissensions among the Republican leaders, inexcusable though they may be under the circumstances, do not connote any differences of principle whatever. As for the cowardly monarchical conspirators, whose chief political policy (beyond an occasional raid across the Spanish frontier, followed by a “scuttle” back again as soon as the Republican troops appear in sight) seems to consist in stirring up street rows and scattering broadcast lying reports concerning the State of Portugal. Sentimentalist though I am, my policy as to their treatment and that of their Catholic abettors would be summed up in one word – “thorough!”

The present Portuguese Republic does not profess to be a social democratic commonwealth, and hence it is no special concern of we Socialists to defend it; but in any case it represents such a great advance on the corrupt reaction it has superseded that no progressive man can fail to have a respect for it and its leaders, and to feel correspondingly indignant at the paltry attempts to besmirch it and them made in the Royalist interest.