E. Belfort Bax, The Consistency Tag, Justice, 28 June 1923, p.1.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).
There are two remarks not infrequently heard which rarely fail to give me a measure of the mental calibre of those who make them. The first is the well-known pronouncement that “religion,” while not necessary for the speaker and his class, must nevertheless be maintained to keep the “lower classes” in order. The second is the proposition, also not infrequently heard, that it is “inconsistent” of a Socialist to live above anything better than a style approaching penury and squalor. It is the latter tag with which I propose to deal now.
A member of the SDF related to me recently that a person, highly cultured and who ought to have known better, at whose house he was visiting, on the conversation turning upon Anatole France, remarked upon the inconsistency of that eminent French novelist calling himself a Socialist and living in the style in which he did. Now I don’t know the circumstances, or the style of life, or the expenditure, of Anatole France, but my friend very properly endeavoured to bring home to his host the obvious truth that Anatole France’s way of life and personal expenditure had nothing whatever to do with Socialism, and that he was most flagrantly confounding a matter of ethics and manners with one of economics and politics. It was easy, of course, to point out that the Socialist who has the means of living otherwise, and who chooses a life of squalor or ostentatious asceticism is no better than a poseur and a “comedian.”
It would be interesting I think to devote a moment’s attention to the consideration of how this piece of silliness obtained the currency of plausibility. This is the more extraordinary, seeing that the aim of Socialism has always been proclaimed to be the abolition of squalid conditions of life, and their replacement by “sufficiency,” and if you will, so far as economic conditions permit, even of “luxury” for all alike. Was it not Ferdinand Lassalle who was wont, with the touch of a certain type of Jew, to appear before his working class audiences displaying somewhat heavy jewellery on the forepart of his person, and in the course of his remarks to point out to his audience that they could have all this as well as he if they would only follow out his instructions? Socialism has never proclaimed itself, like Christianity and other religions, as regarding asceticism as an ideal of life, [but] on the contrary, as demanding good living for all, a good living which is based on social justice and not on individual charity. It should be quite obvious that for a particular individual who is not obliged to do so to live in penury, squalor, or even substantially to alter the mode of life to which he is accustomed, because, forsooth, under present conditions of society large sections of human beings are compelled to do so, would certainly not mend matters.
Now I think it is not difficult to find one reason at least why the upholders of the capitalist system pretend to be impressed by this silly piece of obvious sophistry. They want to hinder the spread of Socialism among those who, by their means, education, and other advantages, conferred upon them by the present state of society, might have a special value for the Socialist movement. By promulgating the theory that the first duty of the man who has become converted to the Socialist ideal is – not to work for the cause – but to divest himself of all his belongings after the manner of the anchorite of old, they hope to discourage him from pursuing the course on which he has entered. For, if he is a man of sense, he will see at a glance that such a proceeding on his part would achieve nothing for the realisation of any worthy purpose whatsoever, and would be barren of all but his own discomfiture.
The foregoing, I take it, is at the root of the capitalist advocate’s zeal for the “consistency” of the well-to-do Socialist. The bourgeois is not always quite such a fool as he pretends himself to be, and as he certainly would be if he believed the twaddle he talks in this connection.
Last updated on 27.5.2007