E. Belfort Bax

Barbarism, Civilisation and Socialism

(30 January 1919)

E. Belfort Bax, Barbarism, Civilisation and Socialism, Justice, 30th January 1919, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We commonly hear acts characterised by ferocity and cruelty stigmatised as barbaric or barbarous. These words have in fact become synonymous with cruel, ferocious or blood-thirsty. Usage has so stereotyped the identity of the terms bloodthirstiness, cruelty and barbarity, with their derivatives, that it is no longer possible to alter their meaning nowadays. But all the same we ought not to ignore the fact that the attribution of inhuman conduct as a special characteristic of an exceedingly important stage of the general evolution of human society does that stage an injustice. Moreover, Barbarism itself may be divided into various stages, as shown by Morgan and others. The lowest phases of Barbarism, when it is just emerging from primitive savagery, undoubtedly shows plenty of the ruthlessness akin to the ruthlessness we often see in children, which seems more or less inseparable from immaturity and from crude and primitive conditions of life. But this is a very different thing from purposeful and excogitated inhumanity. On the other hand, in the more developed phases of Barbarism we often find a high sense of honour and humane feeling.

Kinship Community

It must not be forgotten, however, that the barbaric stage of human society is throughout based upon the kinship community, the clan or the tribe, and that its feeling towards humanity outside the narrower social organisation is entirely subordinated to the interests of the latter. Hence the importance of formal adoption into this narrower social organisation in order to come completely within the pale of the morality of Barbarism. But in the later or higher Barbarism this was supplemented, owing to increased inter-tribal intercourse, by a strong code of duty as regards hospitality to the stranger. To regard brutality or inhumanity as necessarily associated with Barbarism in the true historical anthropological sense of the word is, I repeat, quite unjustified.

Barbaric and Civilised Atrocities

Civilisation is generally spoken of in the sense of the antithesis of the brutalism and crudeness of Barbarism. Its glories are continually being sung, and it is assumed as a matter of course that it is an asset of social development, a stage of human evolution beyond which there can be nothing further. In the recent war much was said about the Allies having fought to rescue Civilisation from the Barbarism of the Central Powers, but as a matter of fact the atrocities well thought-out by the General Staffs of the Central Powers had nothing, au fond, barbaric about them. Their conduct of the war was in accordance with an elaborately conceived plan, and they were executed with the aid of the latest resources of Civilisation. The brutalities of barbaric warfare are quite different; they are not excogitated beforehand, but perpetrated from hand-to-mouth, so to say. We have no reason to suppose that Attila and his Huns pursued a methodical plan of campaign. They were in a very low stage of Barbarism, and they forged forward in an instinctive manner, as it were, in pursuance of their animal wants, which were presumably food and fresh pasture grounds. The ferocity and roughness of their onslaught was the ferocity and ruthlessness of primitive man or of the thoughtless child. The conduct of the Central Powers, on the other hand is traceable to a perverted ultra-civilisation. Speaking generally, the wanton inhumanity that we call barbarous, the inhumanity done with malice prepense, flourished more particularly in the earlier and cruder phases of Civilisation than under purely barbaric conditions.

Civilisation Not All Gain

Civilised society is, of course, a progress as regards barbaric society, just as in economics the great industry is a progress as against the guild industry of the middle ages and of pre-machine conditions generally. But the progress as represented by Civilisation over Barbarism, just as the progress of modern Civilisation over the social forms of the earlier civilisations that have preceded it, is not, taken by itself, all gain as regards human well-being and happiness. Civilisation essentially means the era of inter-social antagonisms of ruler and subject, master and servant, rich and poor, noble and base-born, and, in the modern world, of capitalist and proletarian.

The Antagonism which Socialism Would Abolish

It is these antagonisms of Civilisation which Socialism would abolish. Socialism in its fully-realised form means the transformation of the class-state (civitas) into a commonwealth in the true sense of the word (societas). The modern and for us practically-interesting antithesis is not between the evil and inhumane past and the good and humane present – between cruel Barbarism and beneficent Civilisation – but between existing and indeed all stages of Civilisation (no less than of Barbarism) and the Socialism which is destined to supersede them both. Barbarism through all its stages and Civilisation through all its stages in no way represent, either of them, the to-day most perfect conceivable form of human social well-being. Each has its own relative advantages and its own evils. Each can be and has been at times cruel, remorseless and inhuman in its own way. But for the “kettle” Civilisation to be perpetually crying “smut” to the “pot” Barbarism, as though the latter were the incarnation of brutal ruthlessness and cruelty as against the shining brightness of its own perfection, outside rare exceptions (Prussian methods of warfare, etc.) is, I contend, an arrogant assumption on the part of Civilisation unwarranted by the facts of human evolution.


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