E. Belfort Bax

The Pagan Socialist

(4 May 1912)

E. Belfort Bax, The Pagan Socialist, Justice, 4th May 1912, p.10.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is not an uncommon thing to hear on the part of persons who consider themselves Socialists, and hence ought to know better, deprecatory references to something or other as “pagan.” Not merely with those who call themselves Christian Socialists, but with many who repudiate this designation, there often seems to linger a feeling as though Socialist and even general humanitarian sentiment were something specially alien to Paganism. Why this is so it would be difficult to say. In a sense, of course, the modern spirit of which Socialism is the logical outcome stands apart from the world-outlook of older creeds outworn, as it does from the world-outlook of the traditional Christian theology. But there is, I contend, no reason to regard it as in any special manner opposed to the outlook of Paganism more than to that of Christianism. On the contrary, there is a sense, I maintain, in which the spirit animating modern Socialism represents a return, with a difference of course, but still a return, to the pagan view of the world and of life.

Let us analyse for a moment what the mental attitude of Paganism – of the ancient heathen world – connoted. Before everything else it supposed a corporate life, In Paganism the end of the individual life was always the family, the clan, the tribe, or the city. The sentiment and rites constituting the Pagan’s religion, which did not involve, be it remembered, any system of dogma, or theological tenets, maybe summed up in one word – absorption in, and devotion to, the life of the community in one or other of its forms. This, in contradistinction to the Christian idea, according to which the corporate life of man here below is a matter of small concern compared with the future life of the individual soul up above. What the Pagan, as such, cared for, was not so much the fate of the individual soul after death as the continuity and prosperity of the society to which he belonged on this earth. Of course, in the later ages of Paganism its whole vision became dimmed, and the potter with which for ages it had moulded the minds of men weakened. The new spirit, on the soil of which Christianity took root and grew up, asserted itself at the expense of the Pagan spirit. But the Pagan spirit finally disappeared only with the extinction of the life of the ancient world itself. Indeed, in the true sense of the word, it did not even then finally disappear, continuing as one of the deeper under-currents of life throughout the Middle Ages. Now, surely this Pagan outlook upon life is more akin to that of modern Social-Democracy than is Christianity with its spiritual-individualistic point of view.

Another aspect of Paganism in which it should have an affinity with the healthy spirit of modern Socialism is that of the “joie de vivre.” The increasing tendency of the modern man, atendency in which the great bulk of Socialists share, is towards what is sometimes called “the rehabilitation of the flesh” – that is, towards an antagonism to the sordidly ascetic outlook of the industrial and middle classes, especially the small middle class, to which the name of Puritanism is commonly given. The attitude of mind embodying the latter tendency has always been conspicuously that of the classes named. But the working classes, in their earlier stage of development, as an off-shoot it the small middle class, naturally shared its intellectual and moral outlook to a great extent. With the workmen of the modern great industry, from whom the main body of the modern Socialist Party is drawn, the hold upon them of middle-class ideals of life has progressively weakened, as a separate class-consciousness has sprung into life. It is the task of the Socialist thinker to press home the truth not only that Socialism has no part or lot with Puritanism, but that the latter is the enemy of rational living and personal liberty. One of the tasks of that spirit which finals its ultimate expression in the Socialistic view of life in the rehabilitation to a modern form of the joyous, nay, if you will, sensuous, ideal of the ancient world, which was but the reflection of its corporate life, before the individualistic spirit of self-introspection, of self-brooding, cast its baneful and morbid shadow over human society.

An economically free community cannot fail to be the foundation of a free social life, a life free from the shackles which Christian theology, in conjunction with the sordid struggle for gain; or for the bare means of subsistence, have between them contrived to impose on mankind. The Socialist who looks beyond the immediate present should lose no opportunity of combatting an ideal of life proper to a section of the exploiters of the modern proletariat and expressed in the word Puritanism. The Puritan, with his arrogant self-assertion, his tyrannical attempt to impose his theory of conduct upon the world at large. His sordid hypocrisy, must be hit as soon he appears upon the scene, He can never be sufficiently exposed. Where he is possessed of no strong influence, he may be safely left to be suppressed by the weapon of ridicule. If he becomes dangerous, where he imposes, as he sometimes does, on the very elect, he must be encountered with sterner argument if need be. Every new movement aiming at serious new changes in social life has to run the gauntlet of the Puritanical pest. The old Adam of asceticism in man is always there latent if not active. It is altogether a mistake to suppose that the tendency of human nature is exclusively towards self-indulgence, as is often assumed. The strain of asceticism, of useless self-mortification, which feeds on human vanity, love of domination, any stray particles of cruelty present in character, is also as constant, if somewhat less frequent, an ethical phenomenon than the self-indulgence we hear so much about

This strain of asceticism, this old Adam of Puritanism, is one of the enemies we have to combat. In the past men have spent quite enough of their best energies in attempts at repressing their nature, in striving to attain the false ideal of self-mortification. Upon this false ideal the man of the future will have to turn his back definitively if humanity is to be saved from being swamped once again in the back-wash of reaction – the more treacherous, since it occupies the ground of conscience, duty and noble endeavour. Puritanism is the cuckoo of ethics. It seeks to lay its eggs in every new movement. Let us, before all things, keep our ideal of social service based on economic reconstruction free from any admixture with the old individualist ideal of mere personal self-immolation. The man who is best fitted for social service will be assuredly he who has not wasted his energies on useless repression, but who fully recognises the reasonable right of the “appetites,” even the purely animal appetites. An open and frank recognition of this truth which, as above said, has sometimes been termed the “rehabilitation of the flesh.” is the central point in the new Paganism. The ancient world, before its decadence, recognised openly and without reserve the rights of man’s animal nature.

This healthy Pagan view of life became gradually superseded by the ascetic ideal of the early centuries of the Christian era. The new morality, if it is to correspond to the needs of modern man, must be, before all things, sympathetic, sympathetic towards all sides of human nature, certainly not excepting those sides whose claims have been unduly repressed, and which have hence had to seek their own satisfaction furtively as a thing forbidden. The new order, we would fain hope, will recognise in theory, no less than in practice, the full claims of human nature once for all, branding with its disapproval all attempts to crush man into Spanish boots. Socialism means the proclamation of the “joy of life” as the right of all. The sourness, the crabbedness, the hardness of the Puritanic spirit is the enemy for the annihilation of which the Pagan should hold all means justifiable.


E. Belfort Bax


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