E. Belfort Bax

An Industrial Magnate’s Ideal

(22 September 1921)

E.B.B., An Industrial Magnate’s Ideal, Justice, 22nd September 1921, p.7. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

In Days to Come, by Dr. Walther Rathenau, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul (Allen and Unwin, 40, Museum Street, W.C.1) 12s. 6d. net.

It is difficult within the space which Justice can afford to characterise adequately the thesis put forward in this book. Herr Rathenau undoubtedly says a good many things that are true; his criticism of modern capitalist society, which he terms “mechanisation” is in many respects effective and hardly distinguishable from that of a Socialist. The individual and his happiness, it seems however, is to be entirely subordinated to the assumed welfare and progress of the community. A thread of mysticism runs through Herr Rathenau’s exposition of his views. Our old friend God crops up at intervals, though it is difficult to say precisely what role he plays in the author’s thought. “We wish,” he says, “to discover the apt form of life, the one that will best open the way of the spirit of humanity.” “Slavery in all its forms,” says Herr Rathenau, “is the antipodes of spiritual progress”, wage slavery as it is under “mechanised” capitalism included.

But Socialism, according to our author, itself arises out of a negation. It has no constructive force. “Out of negation,” be says, “there can arise a party, but no world movement.” There is much talk of the reduction of the problem of popular enfranchisement to a question of “money and material things.” This it is which has given Socialism its hold on the masses, but has at the same time helped reaction by scaring the bourgeoisie. “Our ideal is,” according to Herr Rathenau, “the replacement of the plan of an inexorable system of institutions by self determination and self responsibility.” A decent life for all is to be ensured but happiness it would seem is rather a secondary consideration. “The goal towards which we strive”, we are told, “is the goal of human freedom.”

The third part of the book, entitled The Way, consists of three sections. The first is The Way of Economics, the second The Way of Morals, and the third The Way of the Will, by which Herr Rathenau understands the direction of practical effort towards the attainment of the end somewhat vaguely sketched out in the previous portion of the book. The immediate practical goal at which Herr Rathenau aims is, it would seem, the retention of the means of production, distribution and exchange in the hands of their present owners, but under the controlling power of the State, a power which, we gather, is to be practically unlimited. This section recalls to our mind the doctrine of the Single Tax. The landowner, under the Single Tax regime of Henry George, was to retain to the full his nominal ownership of the land, but was to submit to all rent and profits therefrom being absorbed by the State. So here the capitalist generally, while retaining his nominal proprietary rights as well as his direction of industry, is to allow the State to use the product over and above what is necessary for a “reasonable” scale of living for himself for public purposes. This capitalist (new style) is to be imbued with a “moral sense” which is to be above the sordid aims and greed of the capitalists of today, a suggestion recalling Auguste Comte and the “Politique Positive.” Herr Rathenau, it should be stated, attaches great importance to sumptuary laws regulating all production and expenditure on articles of excess or of luxury. In fact, in places our author speaks as though he would ban luxury altogether in his coming community. Here, of course, the perennial difficulty would arise as to the dividing line between articles needed for a decent human life or for art and those contributing to the “culpable luxury” Herr Rathenau denounces. It is all very well to talk against and condemn luxury, but it is often forgotten that the definition of luxury is a very unstable one – unstable as between one historical period and another; unstable as between one people and another; unstable a between one individual and another. Surely it is much more reasonable to leave this point, which is one of practice rather than of principle, open, and let it be solved ambulando. And the latter is the attitude we take it, of all sane Social Democrats towards the question.

There is plenty over and above what has been stated alike to commend and to criticise in Herr Rathenau’s book. It would certainly not be difficult to collect passages to which we can all wholeheartedly adhere. On the other hand, it would be equally possible to quote certain other extracts which would only be palatable to German reactionary patriotism. The praise of the German Army, for instance (p.143), will probably be repellent to all outside the German National Party, while the eulogy of Junkerdom on pp.272-273 is almost grotesque in its extravagance. We imagine, however, that these and one two other similar utterances throughout the book are not to be taken too seriously, but rather as sops thrown to Cerberus than as Herr Rathenau’s real opinions. Their effect outside Germany, however, will not, we imagine, be calculated to inspire confidence in Herr Rathenau’s judgment or his views. In any case, however, it is only fair to say that they form mere occasional excresences in a book which is certainly otherwise worth reading, more especially as coming from an undeniably able and, it would seem, well meaning man, who is a prominent member of a Government undoubtedly backed by the support, at the present time, of all that is best in the German people.

It must not be forgotten, moreover, that the book was written during the war when the conspiracy of the Imperialist and military authorities to hoodwink the German people was at its height. Every form of firing was resorted to, and Herr Rathenau was probably as much deceived as many others.

The translation does not seem so successful as some other renderings of German works into English from the pens of Eden and Cedar Paul. It is true we have not had an opportunity of comparing it with the original, but it has the defect of reading generally too much like a translation, while there are passages of which the sense is undeniably obscure.




Last updated on 27.5.2007