E. Belfort Bax

Organisation versus Principle I

(11 February 1915)

E. Belfort Bax, Organisation vs. Principle I, Justice, 11th February 1915, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

Time was when men united themselves in parties, societies, and brotherhoods for the purpose of furthering a cause or principle they had at heart. Formerly such an organisation was supposed to exist for the idea or cause it represented. Now, on the contrary, the tendency is to regard the cause as existing for the sake of organisation. “The end is nothing, the movement [i.e., the organisation] everything,” is the favourite rallying-cry of the practical party man of the present day. As a consequence, party discipline and party unity are coming to be the only things that count to-day in public movements. The principles, the ideas, for which these movements are supposed to stand are held by the thoroughgoing wire-puller as of quite subordinate importance to the party machine. Thus Christianity is supposed to stand for certain ethical tenets, but by the Church organisations their observance is only tolerated so long as they do not conflict with the interests of the Churches supposed to embody Christian principles.

Again, Liberalism is a creed nominally involving certain political and social doctrines, but the Liberal Party, with its caucuses and other party machinery, as we are constantly finding, is often quite prepared to let these tenets go by the board rather than to show disfavour to a wealthy or influential supporter, or to an otherwise eligible candidate.

Party Organisation at all Costs

We have lately had, for Socialists, a very painful exemplification of the above in the attitude adopted by the majority of the Reichstag representation of the German Social-Democracy. The members of the Reichstag calling themselves Socialists, and elected as such, have deliberately thrown overboard the principle of Internationalism and every one of its applications that have hitherto been recognised by Socialists, themselves included, the world over. The patriotic virus of “my country right or wrong” may, it is true, be in part the cause of this, although patriotism may also be put forward as a mere excuse to tickle the ears of the groundlings. In any case, the main cause, or at least one of the main causes, of our erstwhile comrades’ defalcation from the fundamental principles they have hitherto professed is undoubtedly party expediency, the feeling that the party organisation must be maintained at all costs, even al the cost of the sacrifice of every principle for which the party ostensibly exists.


The indications of this being so are numerous, and extend back to long before the present war. The whole movement of Revisionism was designed to extend and strengthen the party machine as a political organisation by roping in numbers of persons, including the smart men “on the make,” and, in short, all elements which might conduce to increase the standing of the Party with the political world in general. It is true few of us suspected that the poison had eaten so deeply into the vitals of the party as it appears to have done – i.e., if we are to take the Reichstag members as really representative of party sentiment as a whole (which we doubt). But we all knew that the tendency was there, and although we earnestly hope that the rank and file of the party in Germany will, as soon as their voice can be heard, repudiate their Parliamentary leaders, we fear we cannot assume that they have no backing at all in the ranks of the Party throughout the country.

Yet the present terrible disaster to international Socialism, the collapse of the first principles of the faith in the representatives of what is numerically the largest national section of the Party in the world, will have at least one good result if it brings home to the minds of all sincere Socialists the danger of setting too much store by the mere hard shell of party organisation, of party discipline and party unity.

Party above Principle

However wrong we may think them on the whole, the taunts of Syridicalists and anarchistically-disposed persons, anent the dangers of Parliamentarism and party organisation to principles, are not entirely devoid of significance. There is a constant peril of placing party above principle. The German party leaders have burnt their boats in this respect. They have frankly thrown principle overboard, as we believe, for the sake of temporary party interest. Had they flung the whole weight of their influence into opposition to the war and the whole policy of the Government, they knew that the Party would almost certainly have been suppressed by the brute force at the disposal of the Government. They preferred not to run the risk of destroying, even for the time being, a splendid party machine for the sake of maintaining an essential element of the cause for which the party machine was originally created.

Such is the position as I read it of our German Parliamentary party at the present time. There is no reason that I know of for assuming personal corruption, that individual members of the party had been bribed directly by the Prussia Government, though there is only too good reason to believe that the party machine as such has been cajoled by promises direct and indirect on the part of the authorities.

Party Organisation Would Have Suffered

Had the German Social-Democratic representatives in the Reichstag followed the straight course dictated by principle, and fought the Government in the matter of the war, it is almost inevitable that the party organisation as such would have suffered considerably. It might even have collapsed altogether for the time being, but the conscience of Socialist Germany would have been clear. All sincere men who are really and not merely nominally members of the Social-Democratic Party throughout the country would have remained and been strengthened in their determination. The honour of the International would have been saved. As it is, international Socialism has been made for the moment the laughing-stock of the outside world.

(To be concluded)


Last updated on 28.5.2007