Ernest Belfort Bax

Problems of Mind
and Morals

Chapter VI
The Problem of Socialist Fundamentals

THE common theory that Socialism means no more than a proposition in economics has been already criticised in the two preceding chapters of the present volume. I would not merely deny that its definition is exhausted in the well-known economic formula concerning the possession and exploitation of the means of production, redistribution, and exchange by and for the whole community, but I would go further and affirm that this very principle itself, constituting the central demand of Socialism, is based on certain ethical postulates, from which it derives its only possible ultimate sanction. These ethical postulates are no other than the Revolutionary Trinity – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The aim and sanction of the economic formula is, I contend, the effective realisation of these principles as essential to the purposes of human life, individual and social. If this be so, it follows that they, together with the principle of justice which is involved in them, constitute the pillars alike of Socialist theory and polity, without which Socialism ceases to be Socialism.

It behoves us to examine more closely the consequences that ensue from a recognition of the aforesaid ethical postulates as essential to Socialism, devoting special attention to the first of them – to wit, Liberty. Now, Liberty may be socio-economic, or it may be political, or it may be personal.

(1) Socio-economic Liberty may be defined as the right of Society in its corporate capacity to freely regulate all matters directly concerning the commonweal without obstruction from other interests, vested or otherwise. It involves the right of a democratic state to organise production, redistribution, and exchange, to regulate the right of property-holding in the best interests of the community, etc. But it does not include the right of acting oppressively to individuals as such; for example, to single out individuals of a class for the operation of measures which do not apply to the class as a whole, for this would involve the violation of another ethical postulate, that of Equality. The individualism of the Manchester school refuses to recognise this form of Liberty at all, on the ground that it conflicts with our third form of Liberty, namely, personal Liberty. But of this more directly.

(2) Political Liberty may be defined as the right of every individual to have a voice in the management and criticism of the affairs of the community directly or indirectly, either by voting, or by speaking and writing, or by both. Freedom of discussion and of demonstration at suitable times and places is one of the first conditions of political Liberty, which is, in the last resort, the main safe-guard of the other forms of Liberty.

(3) Personal Liberty may be defined as the right to freedom of thought and action on the part of the individual, without let or hindrance, moral or material, on the part of Society, in all “self-regarding matters,” to use Mill’s expression, i.e. in all matters that only directly affect himself and do not directly touch the community as a whole, or other individuals, save, of course, by their own personal free will and consent. It is necessary to emphasise that, in order to take a matter outside the sphere of self-regarding action, it must be shown that the matter in question must directly affect the community. It is not enough to show that the act in question would affect the community indirectly, still less that it only conceivably might affect it. This is essential, since otherwise it is not difficult, with the aid of a little sophistry, to show that every course of thought, expression, or action may possibly affect the community, at least indirectly, and thus a door will be left open for the unlimited oppression of the individual in his private life and the total destruction of personal freedom of conduct and opinion.

Having thus defined the three chief forms of Liberty, which means, after all, the primary condition of self-development alike for Society and the Individual, and hence is the condition of evolutionary process, let us see how these three forms work out in their practical application. Socio-economic Liberty, the right of the community to freedom of action as to its economic conditions, is obstructed at every turn in our existing social organisation by the property interests of individuals and classes. This is abundantly clear whenever any attempt at Socialistic legislation, however mild in character, is made within the framework of the existing State. It is then seen that every proposal through which the bulk of the community should be enabled to come by its own, in however slight a measure, encounters an impregnable stone wall of class interests. Hence the economic subjection of the proletariat and hence the impossibility of socio-economic Liberty so long as the capitalistic State exists, which means, so long as the land and the means of production remain private property.

Turning to the question of political Liberty, this implies the greatest possible influence of all the members of a given society in the regulation and management of that society. This is what is known as Democracy. But, as Friedrich Engels has pointed out, even Democracy, like every other form of government, represents the possible or actual coercion of human beings within its pale. Socialism, on the contrary, has for its end the substitution of the administration of things for the government of persons. Such being the case, Democracy itself can only be regarded as a transitional phase tending to the true liberty of the ultimate and ideal society of Socialism. From this it follows that the weapons of Democracy are not ends in themselves, but merely means to an ulterior end. There is nothing intrinsically sacrosanct in these means. For example, take the palladium of Democracy, the determination of all questions by a count of heads majority of the population! Now, as I have elsewhere pointed out, this method, whether it take the form of direct decision (initiative and referendum), or of the election of representatives, is simply the one that experience has discovered to be the least objectionable and the most effective on the whole in the interests of the Commonweal. This does not say that it is perfect or that under given conditions other means intrinsically more objectionable might not be more effective.

There is certainly no magic in the verdict of a majority, and public opinion, as it is called, is often a manufactured product of class interests, and, at the best, only too frequently of a prejudice, traditional or acquired, or of a one-sided sentimentalism. We may often be inclined to think that an honest, far-seeing, and disinterested “master of thirty legions” might with advantage at times put his heel on the neck of public opinion. But the intrinsic improbability of the occurrence, and still more of the recurrence of a combination of wisdom and honesty in your “master of thirty legions,” is quite enough to give pause to anyone who is inclined to take this view, and to convince him that Democracy, with all its drawbacks, represents the least of evils in this connection. As such every Socialist must accept in general the conditions of Democracy, including universal manhood suffrage and the decision of the majority. [1]

As regards the third form of Liberty, personal Liberty, there is much confusion of thought, even among persons calling themselves Socialists, as to the attitude of Socialism concerning it. Because the organ of a Socialist community – whether we call it State or not – would in the real interests of liberty be compelled to organise the process of production, etc., and in doing so to regulate the conditions of labour for the individual, there is an idea in some people’s minds that the great characteristic would be the coercion of the individual all round. Nothing could be more absurd. The whole Socialist movement, either explicitly or implicitly, points the contrary way, points, that is, to a minimum coercion of the individual in all relations of life, while in all purely personal actions, that is, actions not directly concerning the corporate life of the community or the corresponding liberty of other individuals, the liberty it accords him is complete. It is only necessary to glance at the writings of the recognised representatives of Socialist thought or to the resolutions of Socialist congresses to be assured that personal freedom in the most complete sense compatible with social existence at all belongs to the essence of Socialism.

Let us take the well-known pronouncement that “religion is a private matter.” This pronouncement, though often abused by being strained out of its real meaning, is in itself simply the affirmation of the most complete toleration of the individual in matters of opinion. It bars the way to the imposition, by the moral or material pressure of Society, of any form of dogma or article of speculative belief on the individual conscience. Socialism proclaims absolute freedom in matters of opinion. Now, opinions on speculative matters vary from the agnosticism of scientific thought to the theosophy of mystical imagination. But this individual freedom of opinion has of course its obverse side. The Socialist Commonwealth would have to guard the principle of personal freedom of opinion, and hence would have to be severely intolerant of any particular religious sect whose dogmas involved the attempt to impose its creed by any form of coercion, direct or indirect, on Society at large or on unwilling individuals. Socialist Society, in its collective capacity, can only recognise ascertained scientific fact together with the inferences necessarily ensuing from such fact. This is the meaning of the uniform demand for secular education by all Socialists as a first condition of educational progress.

A logical consequence of this principle of absolute toleration in matters of personal opinion follows on the much discussed question of sexual relations. Here again views as to the best form of sexual and family relations vary. In a word, they are, like religion in the present day, largely a matter of opinion, and as such ought to rank equally with religion as “a private matter” alike in theory and practice. I am not forgetful that there is a point where the question of marriage or cohabitation ceases to be a matter of the carrying out of mere individual opinion or taste, and that is in so far as the question of children enters into it. Here, of course, we strike a very important social relation, and here undoubtedly the corporate power of Society has a direct right of intervention. But let us not mix up two things – the right and duty of the corporate power of Society to see to the proper maintenance, regulation, and upbringing of children, and its right to coerce individuals either by moral or material pressure in their private relationships. The law and morality alike of our present Society confounds the two things in an illogical and well-nigh inextricable tangle – it ties them up in a truly irrational knot. The practical problem of Social Democracy in this regard is to effectively disentangle this knot in carefully distinguishing between the legal and moral question – the duty towards offspring and that of the sexual relation per se, which in its changes and permanencies is purely a matter of individual taste and preference. It can never be too much insisted upon that the question of personal liberty in matters not directly affecting Society in its corporate capacity, matters of individual opinion and taste, needs strictly maintaining as an integral principle of Socialism. It must be recognised beyond gain-saying that Society in its corporate capacity as regards coercion, moral or material, has, in such matters, no locus standi.

It is cheap and convenient to pander to vulgar prejudice by offering up the principle of personal freedom as a whole burnt-offering to the bourgeois Philistine, as has been done on one occasion by Mr Ramsay Macdonald when he sought to soothe the feelings of the aforesaid Philistine with the reflection that the Socialist Society of the future might possibly institute a Draconian system of life-long monogamy for fear lest the “stability” of the social fabric should suffer from the admission of any measure of personal liberty in sexual matters, such being “too subversive.” Perhaps in Mr Macdonald’s view his future Society might regard other forms of human freedom as dangerous to its “stability,” or as “too subversive,” and reintroduce slavery, serfdom, etc., or, on the grounds that humane methods of criminal law and administration also threaten this precious “stability,” might proceed to re-establish the rack and other concomitants of the criminal court of a bygone era! We venture to assert that few Socialists outside Mr Ramsay Macdonald would admit the excuse of a practice being “too subversive” as an adequate ground for surrendering the basal Socialist principle of personal liberty. Those who have once grasped the true inwardness of Socialism would undoubtedly be of opinion that a Society that could not stand this strain was unworthy to exist at all, and that the sooner it perished the better. In fact, the future Society of Mr Ramsay Macdonald that would not scruple to dragoon its members in the way he suggests I am convinced, as I have before said, would be hardly less detestable to the majority of thinking Socialists than the Russian autocracy itself. However, we do not deny that Mr Macdonald’s suggestion might possibly serve the purpose of attracting a few non-Socialist votes from the amiable and self-righteous middle-class Philistine who enjoys seeing his fellow humans bullied.

We need not linger long over the two other ethical postulates included in the old Revolutionary Trinity, since they are largely involved in the first one we have just been considering, namely, “Liberty.” Equality, understanding by the term social and economic Equality, is a condition of the universality of real Liberty, and Equality in any other sense is a chimera. Differences of temperament, of ability, and of character generally, must exist, but these are not incompatible with the most complete political and economic Equality. This Equality, based as it is on equal economic advantage and equal economic opportunity, is the Equality demanded by Socialism. This Equality, it need scarcely be said, in no way implies any dead level of mediocrity, such as haunts the imaginations of so many critics of Socialism. On the contrary, as I have elsewhere shown, it is the system of Capitalism which produces, and must necessarily produce, the dead level spoken of, a state of things which would be completely changed by Socialism. If to real Equality, Liberty in the three forms we have above discussed is necessary, it is no less true that to the full fruition of all forms of Liberty, Equality in the sense we have just indicated is equally essential. You cannot fully realise the one without the other.

The same remark applies to our third Revolutionary postulate, namely, that of Fraternity. [2] Without Liberty and Equality in the senses given, real Fraternity is impossible. Social and Economic Equality is the groundwork and material basis of that social spirit of Fraternity which will knit together Socialist society in a manner inconceivable to us of the Individualist Bourgeois Society of to-day. We already see adumbrations of this spirit of Fraternity in the existing organised working class in the matter of strikes. It is indeed very strongly exemplified in what is known as the “sympathetic strike.” Beginning with the members of the International Social Democratic party, it will form the ethical milieu under which the final transition from the mere Political Society (civitas) of to-day to the true Social Society (societas), in which – once more to quote Friedrich Engels – the government of persons shall have finally given place to the administration of things, will be ultimately accomplished and Socialism completely and definitely realised.




1. I have elsewhere given my reasons for not regarding woman suffrage, whether it be right or wrong in itself, as many do, in the light of a necessary corollary to the principles of Democracy. The term Democracy, in accordance with sociological fact, has always meant the manhood of the community. Its extensions have always referred to the overthrow of class or of race barriers, never to the obliteration of organic biological distinctions. Now, in woman suffrage you have a new factor introduced not sociological in its nature, as with class or with race, but biological. This consideration, as I contend, quite apart from its desirability or the reverse, cuts away the logical ground for its being accepted merely as being the necessary logical consequence of an acceptance of the principle of Democracy as such. In other words, it is not necessarily implied in the definition of Democracy, notwithstanding that its advisability may be arguable on other grounds.

2. The notion that Fraternity necessarily means mutual embracing of everyone with everyone else is, of course, absurd. Even the Fraternity of an actual blood relationship does not necessarily imply this. Likes and dislikes between individuals must always exist even in the closest communities. What it does mean is “one for all and all for one,” the spirit of common interest, of mutual standing in with one another as a body, quite irrespective of individual likes or dislikes. A man may be prepared to sacrifice himself for a brother’s just claims as a member of the social whole, be it family or society, quite apart from his special regard for that particular brother.


Last updated on 15.10.2004