E. Belfort Bax

Present Day Enemy Principles

(10 April 1924)

Belfort Bax, Present Day Enemy Principles, Justice, 10 April 1924, p.1.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I. The Nation as Sovereign

It is seldom realised that the real obstacle to the internationalism, which is the professed aim of all Socialists and some others, is the established principle of external political conditions that the nation, or the State, or Government supposed to represent it, is autonomous or sovereign, and hence can claim to exercise unlimited freedom in its action. So long as this principle is recognised, it is quite clear that there can be no such thing as a comity, a league, or organised society of nations any more than there can be a civil society where every individual composing it claims autonomous sovereignty to himself, not alone in self-regarding actions, but in those directly affecting his fellow citizens as well.

One case is precisely parallel to the other, and internationalism, if it is to be anything more than a phrase, must once and for all have abolished the sovereignty of the nation in its present sense. The sovereignty of the nation must go in favour of the internation, just as the sovereignty of the province, of the district, of the township, e.g., the free city of the Middle Ages, has succumbed to the sovereignty of the modern nation. The right of the nation or the modern State to wage war on its own account just when it pleases must be abolished, just as the right of the individual man, the baron or land-owner of a district, large or small, to wage private war on his neighbours has been abolished in favour of his subordination to the national State system established by modern capitalist civilisation. This should be the chief goal of the foreign policy of modern Social-Democracy.

Disputes between the national units of the present day, and not actual disputes merely, but the whole department of international affairs generally, must be relegated entirely into the hands of an international governing body, with power to enforce its decisions in the same way that modern State Governments assume in the last resort in the interpersonal affairs of its citizens. This does not necessarily mean that there should be no national or local independence. There may and ought to be full freedom of local or national action in determining matters of a real internal nature, that is, such as do not directly touch international relations, the same as the freedom of the individual citizen in private concerns exists, or at least is supposed to exist, concurrently with the supreme jurisdiction of his national state.

II. The Infringment of Individual Liberty Within the Modern State

I have already said that individual freedom in private matters within the modern State is supposed to exist concurrently with State jurisdiction over the individual citizen in matters directly affecting society as a whole. The qualification I have made is necessary for the reason that in the present day there is an undeniable tendency for the public authority to invade the rights of the individual citizen in what Mill termed his self-regarding actions - that is, in conduct not direct; having a social bearing. (It is necessary to emphasise the word directly, as it is always possible "with ease or with a little shuffling" to make it appear that indirectly everything affects everything else.) Hence it is to be observed that while the individual nation within the comity of modern nations has much too much liberty, a liberty amounting to complete autonomy, the individual citizen within the national organisation, has, as such, often far too little liberty. This last point has lately been much commented on. It is largely the outgrowth of that essentially bourgeois moral sentiment of Puritanism. Yet strangely enough, it is often credited to modern Socialist tendencies and the polemic against it associated with attacks on Socialism, which are clearly absurd.

All intelligent Socialists must draw the sharpest possible distinction between those spheres of social life where organisation and regulation is demanded in the effective interest of all, i.e., the whole of Society, and that personal life of impulse and desire, autonomy as regards which should be the heritage of every free man. There is undoubtedly a tendency in modern legislation to invade this domain. It is noticeable from various sides. A most obvious instance of it and one most prominently before the public is, of course, the question of Prohibition, which means the claim to deprive the individual citizen of his freedom to drunk alcoholic beverages. This is a clear invasion of personal right. The excuse of socially evil consequences arising from the possible abuse of alcohol will not hold water, since here, as in other similar cases it is always possible to deal with instances of abuse having socially objectionable consequences in themselves, as they arise. In doing this, the law would be acting within its legitimate province, which it is not when it abolishes personal freedom in general in the consumption of or abstention from the use of alcohol.

When we come to consider the grounds of the Puritanical claim to destroy the autonomy of the individual citizen in self-regarding actions, we shall find that the last resort he will fall back on the doctrine of a supreme sacrosanctity of the will of the majority in all things.

III. The Sacredness of Majority Despotism

Few people realise that democratic principle of majority rule is liable to abuse, and that it is abused in the present day in more or less all politically democratic States. The abuse consists in the assumption that the legitimate right of the determination of a policy and ordering of the community by the count-of-heads majority of its members covers the despotic coercion of minorities and individuals in matters of a purely private nature, "Self-regarding actions," as Mill termed them - in other words, matters not directly concerning the community as such. It is necessary to emphasise the word directly, as by dint of a little sophistry, it is usually easy to make a semblance of showing that every action, however trivial and harmless in itself, may indirectly, under certain circumstances, affect the community.

There are many instances in modern legislation, especially in Anglo-Saxon communities, showing the influence of this perverted view that the right of the majority to enforce its will is absolute. The instance most prominently before the public at the present time is the question of what is known as Prohibition, already referred to, i.e., the right of the count-of-heads majority to deprive the individual of his liberty to consume alcoholic beverages. But this is only a rather flagrant example of what is to be found in the whole trend of modern Puritan legislation. The extreme Puritan section of the community, itself a small but compact minority, can often succeed by an energetic and well-organised propaganda, backed up by exaggeration and perversion of fact, in sweeping the majority off its feet on particular issues that arise. It is thus that individual liberty and the rights of minorities are gradually filched away.

The mistake is so often made of confounding this cult of the right of the majority to override the individual liberty at its own sweet will - which, as just remarked, when analysed in particular instances au fond often amounts to the despotism of a tyrannical minority - with the organisation and regulation of production, distribution, and exchange in the interest of all, which is the fundamental postulate of modern Socialism. Socialism stands for liberty. Its organisation is the interest of liberty, and its regulation and ordering of social and political life is only exercised on such matters as directly concern the whole community, as such. Socialism is radically opposed to all coercion of the individual or of minorities, which is not necessitated by a direct obvious interest of the whole. The Socialist therefore is as much opposed is the present tendency to coercion of the individual, under the false assumption of despotic rights of the majorities to wantonly interfere with individual liberty, as the most jealous so-called individualist of the present day can be.


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