Ernest Belfort Bax

Problems of Mind
and Morals

Chapter XII
The Problem of Britain and the Human Race [1*]

The Democrat and Socialist of the Continent has got so much into the habit of regarding Great Britain as the home of freedom, that nothing, it seems, will induce him to recognise that the England of to-day and the England of even fifty years ago are two utterly different countries. The Fabian, Sidney Webb, has truly said (Nineteenth Century, September 1901) that in that space “the English have become a new nation.” He further observes that “centuries separate us from the first period of the reign of Victoria.” Allowing for hyperbolic exaggeration, there is a considerable element of truth even in this last assertion. The first period of the reign of Victoria was the period when the proletariat of England was stirred to its depths by the Chartist agitation, when it was more self-conscious, notwithstanding its necessarily strong infiltration with ideas essentially belonging to the small middle class, then the leading class of democracy, than it has ever been since. The middle class itself, at that time, did not lack ideals. Beyond a certain anti-French feeling, surviving from the Napoleonic era, and the dread of imminent invasion by the Grande armée, there was no special Chauvinism noticeable. Popular statesmen like Molesworth and Roebuck could even wish success to the French Canadian rebels. An unjust war in Burmah was extremely unpopular. The monarchy itself was by no means in especial favour, still less regarded as above criticism. Colonial expansion as a policy was as yet not dreamt of. The glory of the Englishman was then not his “empire,” but his alleged free institutions.

To-day it is far otherwise. Every month that passes shows us clearly that the modern Briton is a moral and political degenerate. The one ideal of the modern Englishman and Scotchman (the Welshman, maybe, is somewhat better in this respect) is the autocracy of Britain over other peoples, and the cheap glory accompanying it. For this he is willing, if necessary, to barter his free institutions, invite conscription, and sacrifice the whole national tradition or legend. Unhappily, one cannot say that the above applies exclusively or even mainly to the well-to-do classes, the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. The bulk of the unorganised working classes, at least, are in the same galley.

Britain is to-day in the grip of international “high finance.” Therein lies its safety. No continental nation fears the British army, while the manning of the navy is said by experts to leave much to be desired. The real reason of England’s comparative security is its being the head-centre of the world’s finance. The financial interest in every country is always pro-British. The money-lords (alias gold-bags) hold the key of the capitalist fortress, and modern capitalism tends to become, with the new era of trusts and big combines, of Rockefellers and Pierpoint-Morgans and Carnegies, more and more dominated by its financial side. Now Great Britain has been the centre of the world of finance from the very beginning. Hence it is that she has become the great bulwark in Europe of modern capitalism. The financier knows what the overthrow of the British power would mean to him and to the order he represents. The British power, in fact, represents capitalism pure and simple, and in its most dangerous form, namely, capitalism with a power of expansion, capitalism in a position to prolong its own life.

But the British nation, including the bulk of its working classes, stands in another and a special sense for the capitalist system in that, of all civilised nations, it is the one possessing the weakest class-conscious proletariat. The English proletariat still remains, in the great mass, slow to assimilate revolutionary Socialism, and therefore there is no effective check upon the worst excesses of market-hunting and colonial labour exploitation. That this has its origin in racial characteristics I have always maintained; but there is the third sense above hinted at, in which Great Britain may be described as the great bulwark of modern capitalism, namely, in the remarkable capacity possessed by the “Anglo-Saxon” (or Anglo-Celtic) races for colonial expansion, in the ability which they, and especially the British themselves, both south and north, possess for effectively occupying and settling new countries. Now, modern Capitalism must either expand or evolve rapidly into Socialism. If it can succeed in conquering new markets and fresh fields for industrial exploitation quickly enough, it may sustain itself under the regime of trusts and combines for some time yet. If not, the final phase of its evolution being accomplished, it must make way for the new world-order destined to succeed it. Now the Anglo-Saxon, judging by experience, as already said, is the only race capable of per-forming the feat of opening up and settling the as yet non-capitalistic portions of the earth’s surface within the period necessary. This, I repeat, is his admitted forte. The Latin nations that have tried their hand at it (not even excepting France) have failed, and in most cases signally failed. Russia has expanded enough in all conscience, but has hardly got beyond the phase of penal settlements and military posts. Even Germany, with all her Cameroons and Hereros, has no success in colonisation to signalise. For this reason Britain is that power which presents the greatest obstacle to Socialism.

I know this last statement always sounds like a paradox. It may be asked, where do you have such free institutions as in England? Where such fair play to all political views? Our continental brethren are much impressed, I am well aware, by this argument. But now let us for a moment consider the question of these free institutions. Firstly, what is the difference between the methods of governmental repression on the Continent and here? It is mainly this – on the Continent the forces of reaction, as represented by a class-government, use the police for the repression of adverse opinions; in England, with a much greater astuteness, they use the non-official mob. In using the police, they may be accused of tyrannical oppression, but when, by employing – or, at any rate, encouraging – a gang of venal roughs, they can allege that it is “the people” themselves who rise against their opponents, the base Radicals and Revolutionists, and that they are unable to stem the torrent of popular indignation at the doings of the aforesaid wicked and traitorous firebrands, what more can be said? The result is the same in either case. Freedom of speech is suppressed. [1]

But, even apart from this, we have in the present day in Britain an absolute indifference to the preservation of those liberties on which the Englishman has hitherto prided himself. For instance, one of his proudest boasts has always been his freedom from compulsory military service. And now what do we see? Societies established and a condition of public feeling fostered that would make that service inevitable! Does anyone believe that the average modern Briton, if he saw his way to enslaving other and weaker nationalities better by means of conscription, would not gladly submit to it? No, the privileged classes of Great Britain have succeeded in demoralising the lower middle and working classes of the country with the cry, or rather the cat-call, of “patriotism” to such an extent that they will sacrifice anything for the pleasure of seeing weaker peoples, barbaric and civilised, trampled under their feet. Hence I argue that the superstition that England is the land of liberty ought by this time to be fairly exploded.

But even if we grant the assumption that within the four seas comprising this island there is greater liberty than elsewhere, and that a similar liberty is enjoyed in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, this can by no possible warranty be affirmed of countries ruled over by Great Britain. Nobody could assert that there is greater freedom, greater absence of governmental and police coercion, in Ireland, at the Cape, in India, than in the dependencies of other States. On the contrary, when Britain has dominated over another race, the callous brutality of the methods employed are notorious. Again, another point is often forgotten in comparing the relative internal conditions of Britain and continental European countries. In Germany, France, Russia, governments may be bad, but the heart of the people – the working classes and even large sections of the middle classes – is politically sound. The action of the Government is abhorred by the people as a whole, or at least by large sections of them. In England, on the contrary, at the beginning of this twentieth century, the great mass of the people must needs applaud all that its Government does – for the new-style patriotic reason, if for no other, that it is “the Government of its country.”

We hear much of Majestätsbeleidigung in Germany, and indeed it is an atrocious law of which any nation ought to be ashamed. But does anyone suppose that, were such a law sought to be introduced into this country, the masses of the “loyal” British people would protest? Some would doubtless issue indignant remonstrances and hold meetings, but it would be the same small band of stalwarts who protested against the Transvaal war, and their protest would be about as effectual. As it happens, for the moment, the governing classes have sufficient sense remaining not to wish to imitate the German model. They would doubtless be very willing, however, on occasion, to patronise any band of hooligans who would make it their avocation to administer condign punishment to anyone speaking disrespectfully of royalty. And if the above be true, where is your security against the enactment of a law against Majestätsbeleidigung once you get a strong empire with a gilded plutocratic government which declares it necessary to the welfare of the said empire that captious criticism should be suppressed?

On the causes of this corruption of the British character much might be said. But for practical purposes it suffices that it is there, that it has taken its place as a factor in human development. And what does this factor, viewed in conjunction with the aforesaid capacity of the British race for colonial expansion, by which the ends of modern capitalism are best subserved, imply? I answer that human progress has here to face an enemy which is not merely one of class or of caste, but one of race. By mere good-natured optimists it is commonly said that England with all her faults is not so bad after all. Look at Russia, look at Germany, look at Italy, we are told! True, in Germany, in Russia, in Italy you may have a system of government which varies in its badness from being merely police-ridden to being inhumanly and atrociously tyrannical. But, after all, you have only a system of government, with its embodying caste, to deal with in these cases, even in the worst of them. And a system of government may change from one week to another. The evils it entails are generally more or less transitory and remediable. This is not true of our economic system. The ascendancy of other existing national states means at worst the ascendancy for a period, of a bad government, de-tested by large sections of the people of these countries. The ascendancy of Great Britain, on the other hand, means the heading back of that great economic revolution which shall transform modern Civilisation into Socialism, inasmuch as the history of the nineteenth century has shown that the Anglo-Saxon alone can effectively open up new countries in the time modern capitalism re-quires them to be opened up in order to save itself from imminent revolution.

I have spoken of the degeneracy of the modern Britisher. As an illustration of the physical and moral decline of the race, it is almost sufficient to point to such a mob as celebrated the relief of Mafeking, a spectacle which I venture to assert could be afforded by no capital in Europe other than London. In Paris, in Berlin, in Rome, in Venice, such a thing would be inconceivable. You might have violent mobs, you might have brutal mobs, you might have foolish fanatical mobs, but the squalid inanity of a Mafeking mob you would look for in vain. This unspeakable abomination is not, then, a product of Capitalism merely, but of Capitalism plus Race – it represents not merely man, but Anglo-Saxon man in process of decomposition. But lest it should be said that the Mafeking mob is an unfair test of the physical and moral depravity of the modern Briton, let us take certain other circumstances connected with the Boer war, things which were recited and defended in cold blood, without a blush, by English-speaking people, and which I maintain show a complete moral atrophy such as can be found in no other nation of European origin: – (1) The sending out of a quarter of a million men to crush a small nation with an army of 30,000, without the smallest sense of shame, a feat only paralleled by the glorious deeds of the British Army at Omdurman, which consisted in the slaughter of Arabs (who either had no rifles, or who couldn’t shoot straight) from behind machine guns; (2) the diabolical extermination of the Boer children in the concentration camps; (3) the sending of expansive bullets to South Africa against the decision of the Hague Congress, and then shrieking with indignation when the Boers, who had captured cases of these bullets, intended to be used against themselves, employed them against the British troops; (4) the systematic and brutal burning of homesteads out of sheer wanton spite; (5) the dastardly murder of prisoners of war, notably the massacre at Elandslaagte and the murder of Scheeping, who fell into British hands accidentally through sickness; (6) the excuse that “war is war,” used to whitewash every violation of the laws of civilised warfare, followed by a snivelling whine when the Boers mildly ventured to pay the British soldier back in his own coin; (7) the refusal of medicine, doctors and ambulances, to the Boer combatants – a piece of devilish and dastardly ferocity which has not been approached since the worst episodes of the Thirty Years’ war. [2]

Now I submit that a nation that approves or even tolerates these things is not fit at the present time to exist as a political entity wielding sway, directly or indirectly, over dependencies in any way alien in blood to itself. I contend, further, that a race that can at the beginning of the twentieth century condone such things must be so morally corrupt that the mere consolidation of its power among men of its own blood is a serious menace to humanity generally.

Let us make no mistake, I repeat we have to do not with a bad government, as in Russia, but with a morally corrupt people – a people of which whole sections exhibit the character of the coward, the bully, and the braggart, for such it has shown itself repeatedly within the last few years. Let that heroic nation famous over all Europe for its unconquerable habit, during the Boer war, of surrendering before the slightest show of superior force try conclusions with a single continental army. No one fears England to-day. It is the cosmopolitan financiers at the back of England that are feared. The modern Briton is being discovered now not to be of the heroic mould, in spite of his bullying braggatorio on occasion.

And now, what of the other, the American section of the Anglo-Saxon race? Never having been in America, I am unable to speak from first hand; but, so far as I can judge, the American people, while possessing many of the aforesaid undesirable characteristics of the British (some of them, indeed, in an exaggerated form), have been saved from the complete moral degeneracy of the latter by a circumstance which I shall revert to again directly, viz., by the fact that the population is not, as in the other case, pure Anglo-Saxon (using the term Anglo-Saxon for the original blend of Kelt, Roman, Jute, Angle, Saxon, Dane, and Norman, constituting in different degrees the population of England and southern Scotland). This blend, which forms the basis, has been to some extent modified by a variety of supervening ethnical elements. As an instance of the difference in the two national “tones,” the Americans showed a decidedly more widespread and vigorous opposition to their own government’s infamous enterprise in the Philippines than can be said of the English opposition to the South African war.

This leads us to our concluding topic, viz., what combination of circumstances would avert the danger threatening human progress through the ascendancy of the Anglo-Saxon as he is at present? First of all, there is the possibility of his changing his Ethiopian skin and his leopard spots. As we all know, changed circumstances often do cause rapid changes in national character. As we have pointed out, the English nation of to-day is very different from the English nation of the forties and fifties of the last century. But does the England of 1912 show such a considerable advance politically and ethically on the England that made merry on Mafeking Day in May 1900? I fear we have no indications of such being the case. Barring, then, a speedy change in the nature of the human Anglo-Saxon as represented in this island, what external conditions would be likely to effect the result spoken of? These conditions must lie in the direction of the limitation of British power and the disintegration of the British Imperial system. In addition, they might well include the bringing of a new race-blend into those countries where, as in the British Colonies, this could effectively be done owing to the, at present, smallness of the population. The two sides of this question are dependent on one another, since a consolidated British power, with its tentacles stretched over all the world, would be in a position to counteract any such effective blending – promoting rather inter-Imperial migration. A consolidated British empire, as things go at present, would mean an impenetrable bulwark of capitalism in its most effective form, under Anglo-Saxon auspices, athwart progress. The only possibility of the new race-blend arising would seem at present to lie in foreign conquest. The conquest of Australasia by Germany or Japan, however repellent to British colonial feeling, would at least give a chance for the production of the new race-blend, and from this point of view could not be regarded as an unmitigated evil. For the reasons above given a strong rapprochement between this country and the United States is to be deprecated as tending to the increased power of the Anglo-Saxon element in America and indirectly to the consolidation of the British colonial power. Where the Anglo-Saxon rules, there you seem to have capitalism entrenched in its securest stronghold. Modern finance indispensably needs the Anglo – Saxon power for its international operation. International Socialism, as I contend, imperatively calls for the break-up of the British Imperial system, and hence it should be the policy of the British Socialist Party to favour all disruptive tendencies within the Empire. In furthering the aim of local or national independence unhampered by the suzerainty of a larger capitalist Power under their respective flags, the Socialist Party would be taking the first step towards realising the final ideal of the international union in a world federation under the Red Flag of Social Democracy. Meanwhile “he that letteth will let,” and the very strong letting power in this case is – British Imperialism!




1. Written during the Boer war.

2. Since the above was written events have shown that other nationalities, e.g. the Italians in Tripoli, can emulate the class of acts referred to in the text. [Clearly a note added when this was published in 1912. Note by transcriber – ERC]


Transcriber’s Comment

1*. The Problem of Britain and the Human Race was written in 1901 or 1902. The, to modern ears, odd unscientific view of race has here an unusual and progressive slant.


Last updated on 15.10.2004