E. Belfort Bax

Capitalism and the Class War

(16 May 1918)

E. Belfort Bax, Capitalism and the Class War, Justice, 16th May 1918, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

The recent article by Robert Arch on The Class War and its Implications dealt with a very common and at the same time a very insidious fallacy which I have elsewhere characterised by the phrase “the cult of abstractions.” In all great movements throughout history we find that at a certain stage of their development these movements seem inevitably to drift between a Scylla and Charybdis – the Scylla of Impossibilism, the attempt to judge and regulate all practical issues and concrete situations exclusively by the light of an abstract formula; and the Charybdis of Opportunism, the engulfing of all principles in “transactions” and compromise with the status quo. The persons who are desirous of steering the movement in one or other of these directions may be, and very often are, dishonest, but on the other hand they may be perfectly honest in intention. The one set wants to be “devilish” practical and the other set wants to be “devilish” pure. When either side triumphs the movement is wrecked pro tanto, and its principles are either lost altogether or become as a vain thing, and may be even as a byword to be scoffed at by the Philistine. In either case they fail at realisation. The pure matter of Practice and the pure form of Theory, divorced from one another, alike yield no result in the world of social and historical reality. In the union alone of Practicality and Principle can a world-historic movement be realised. Practical commonsense without logical theory is blind. Logical theory without practical experience and the driving power of the masses is impotent.

Formulas and Practice

These general proposition are illustrated by much of the passivist and sentimental Socialism we see going about now-a-days on the one side, and many of the Socialist proposals of would-be practical persons, Fabians or of Fabian type, on the other. For instance, the attitude of the former is, as Arch pointed out, often dictated by the formula, of an abstract Marxism. All existing governments are capitalist governments, and therefore they must all be equally wrong from a Socialist standpoint, and there cannot possibly be anything to choose between them under any circumstances whatever. This is supposed to be the full, true and only soul-saving Marxian doctrine. Now, as a matter of fact, apart from the question not inaptly raised by Arch as to whether there exists such a thing as a purely capitalist government in this vale of tears. It is quite obvious, that “there are degrees”, as the French judge told the elder Dumas when the latter hesitated to describe himself as a dramatist in the country of Corneille. It is surely equally clear that there are specific issues on which one government may be absolutely in the right as against another absolutely in the wrong.

Saving the Face of Formula

In such a case it is disingenuous to endeavour to manufacture faults against the side which is – as regards the issue in question – in the right for the purpose of saving the face of the formula. Yet it is only too evident that this is what many of our passivist Socialists are in the habit of doing as regards this war. There may be other reasons, of course, but the desire to save the formula is doubtless operative with many of them. To this no doubt is to be traced the assumption underlying all their peace proposals that the belligerents are to be considered as morally on equal terms, i.e., that the crime of having made the war and the nameless crimes committed in its canning out by the one side are to count for nothing. Pro-Ally Socialists refuse to regard the Prusso-German Government and its army leaders in the light of honourable belligerents, or otherwise than as criminals. The Entente governments may be bad, if you like, in other ways, but as regards the war and its bearings they are morally on quite a different footing from the enemy governments. They are fighting a definite criminal conspiracy. This, I take it, is the point of crucial distinction between the view of passivist Socialists and our own view, and it is difficult to see how the two sides can approach one other so long as this divergence of view is not recognised. Needless to say, the situation would be entirely altered in the face of a revolutionary change in a democratic sense erected by the German people themselves.

What is a Capitalist State?

Of course, to Arch’s contention as to the non-existence of a capitalist state pure and simple it might be replied that the preponderating character of the State as it is at present constituted, the fact that its main purpose is to maintain and defend the existing capitalist organisation of society, justifies the designation “capitalist State.” That it performs other functions beyond that of directly backing up the interests of capital, as such, may be perfectly true, but does not affect the question. As Arch very justly says, “The least democratic of States is obliged, by its very nature to fulfil functions, such as protection of the persons of its members, which every form of society most provide for in some way.” This is plainly the case, and its obvious truth in general is a sufficient answer to the abstract purists of Socialism against whom Arch’s polemic is directed.

Unfortunately Arch illustrates his point by a rather unhappy example – to wit, that of Crippen. Now it is just as regards these cases of domestic tragedies and of the crime passionel – isolated crimes often committed under strong provocation by persons not otherwise criminal, and not infrequently established upon mere circumstantial evidence – where the Anarchist can raise his most plausible criticism of the present-day state as the administrator of justice. Moreover, I know of many persons far from being Anarchists who were in no way keen to see Crippen handed over to the State to be hanged, and who at the very least would not have lifted a finger to secure that result. A more effective illustration would have been that of the Pollet gang who, a few years ago, systematically plundered isolated farmhouses, after murdering the inmates, in the Pas de Calais.

We Cannot “Rush” the Co-operative Commonwealth

In any case, the point is clear that there are certain functions which, as Arch says, under ordinary conditions, the worst existing State performs that are essential to any community whatever. Hence the absurdity of the purist and impossibilist talk which ignores this. Of course, we all hope and work for the Co-operative Commonwealth of Socialism, but of the attempt to “rush” this we have an illustrative warning in the proceedings of the Maximalists and their result in the state of Russia at the present time. If it is useless to attempt to make twelve o’clock at eleven, to employ Hyndman’s metaphor, still more useless is it to attempt to make it at seven. The issue of such ill-considered efforts to hurry up the historical process by a desperate plunge inevitably spells failure and reaction in a shorter rather than a longer “run.” Let us cut down the period of transition from the old to the new, by all means, in every really effective way, but let us not forget that such transitional period there must be, and that this fact has to be recognised if we are not to waste our energies in vain declamation or futile action.


Last updated on 28.5.2007