E. Belfort Bax


(1 July 1915)

E. Belfort Bax, Compulsion, Justice, 1st July 1915, p.8. (letter)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

Dear Comrade, – It is with reluctance that I take up the pen in criticism of our excellent friend “Tattler,” whose notes one always reads with pleasure. I must protest, however, against his statement two weeks ago that “we Social-Democrats cannot consistently object to compulsion qua compulsion.” He apparently confuses under the word compulsion two radically distinct things: (1) There is direct compulsion of the individual as living personality to do something he is unwilling to do, such something directly affecting his bodily existence as individual. In the present day such “compulsion” may take the form of “conscription,” i.e., the forcing of a man by penal laws to undergo military training, and, still more, to risk his life in actual warfare; or, again, of his coercion to give his labour without his consent by threats of penal consequences should he refuse. Now this form of “compulsion,” I submit, however much disguised by democratic forms, is in essence indistinguishable from chattel-slavery, and is radically incompatible with the spirit and even the letter of Socialism. (2) But there is another form of “compulsion” which does not directly touch the freedom of the individual as person, but at most indirectly and incidentally affects such freedom. What this compulsion directly “compels” is not the person, though it may possibly “compel” his property. It does not “compel” him, as a rule, to do anything but to abstain either directly or indirectly from doing something deemed prejudicial to the interests of others or of the community in general. Such compulsion takes the form, it may be, of factory legislation, or it may be of the complete communisation of the means and instruments of production, distribution, and exchange.

It involves the distinction so often emphasised by Engels between “the coercion of men and the administration of things.” The direct compulsion of the individual as person by threats legal or otherwise of destruction, injury, or deprivation of liberty to his person (apart, of course, from the question of the punishment of ordinary crime) is the crudest form of human oppression precisely on the lines of chattel-slavery, and in principle utterly inconsistent with Socialism. This form of compulsion, I contend, we must oppose qua compulsion.

But, it may be said, would not the organisation of industry under Socialism necessitate compulsion of the individual? I answer by no means direct personal compulsion of this kind. With the entire means of production, etc., in possession of the whole people, and administered by its organs, it is obvious that the bulk of mankind would have to work under the necessities imposed by those conditions, just as they have now to work under the unspeakably more onerous necessities imposed by capitalist conditions. But in neither case is there any question of clapping the individual man in gaol or otherwise directly interfering with his personal liberty for refusing to do so. If he can sustain life by other means (barring crime, of course) than those necessitated by working within the industrial framework of the Socialistic Commonwealth, he would, I take it, be free to try his luck, even though the trial resulted in his partial or total starvation. That the number of persons who out of a spirit of “cussedness” might do this would without doubt be very small is certainly true. But this only means that the bulk of individuals constituting the community would willingly yield to the force of circumstances and the indirect compulsion which any organised social system implies (cf. the old 18th century revolutionary theories respecting the “state of Nature” and the “social contract.”)

That the position I am here maintaining conflicts to some extent with the usual statement of the pet “plank” of most Social-Democrats re the “Citizen Army” or the “armed nation” I will not deny. While I fully admit that the latter, by which I understand a militia system similar to that of Switzerland (only improved), is the least objectionable of any scheme of military service involving direct compulsion at all, I was never enamoured of it on the grounds above stated, and recent events and agitations have tended more and more to strengthen in me the conviction that all military service ought to be strictly voluntary. I cannot concede the right even of society as a whole to compel any individual vi et armis to sacrifice his liberty and his life against his will. The question of individual conscience, not merely the conscience of Tolstoyans and pacifists as we know them to-day – although however wrong they may be I cannot justify the tyrannical compulsion even of such to violate their conscience in their persons – but the question of the right to force any man to lay down his life for a cause he may detest strikes me if answered in the affirmative as involving the sanction of the most abominable infamy it is possible to conceive. Fancy some of us having been compelled to fight in the Boer War! Think of the thousands of poor wretches, Czechs, Roumanians, Italians, etc., at this moment being forced to allow themselves to be slaughtered for the detested Austrian rule! No, as all phases of social evolution have some permanent message for humanity, so surely has the individualistic phase left us, if nothing else, at least the ethical principle that direct compulsion of the individual human being is to be opposed in itself, i.e., qua compulsion. – Yours fraternally,


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 28.5.2007