Ernest Belfort Bax, Thinker and Pioneer

Source: Robert Arch, EB Bax, Thinker and Pioneer, (1927)) Hyndman Literary Committee, Hyndman Club and Institute, 54 Colebroke Row, N1, [24 p.]

Robert Arch was the pseudonym of Archibald Harold Mann Robertson. Archibald Robertson (1886-1961) the free thinker and historian. He was a prolific author and academic associated with the South Place Ethical Society. He was close to the CP and towards the end of his life defended Russia actions in Hungary in 1956. He was a close associate of Hyndman and wrote an enormous amount in Justice as a member of the National Socialist Party after the 1916 split.

Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

IF any reader of this pamphlet should happen never to have heard of Ernest Belfort Bax (a perfectly possible contingency, for his name was singularly little before the public), I will begin by reminding them that in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Major Barbara written in 1906, that author declares that he is indebted for his characteristic ideas to certain British authors, and asks why, if his critics must give the credit of his plays to a philosopher, they do not give it to an English philosopher, whom he names. That philosopher was Bax.


Ernest Belfort Bax was born on July 23rd, 1854, in Leamington, of old-fashioned Nonconformist parents. In his Reminiscences and Reflexions of a Mid and Late Victorian, he describes the narrow Evangelicanism and Sabbatarianism in which he was brought up, and which, he says, “left an enduringly unpleasant reminiscence behind it,” though he also says that theology never affected him very deeply. “I believed in it, of course, in a way, knowing nothing else, and hence it being the only theory of the universe available for my young intelligence. What interested me more than any maunderings anent the individual soul, being ‘born again’ and the like, was when my old governess, who took a truly maternal interest in me, used to talk to me about Daniel’s image and its four monarchies. This gave me, in its way and within the limits of the current orthodox creed, a theory of history, such as it was, and I have always felt the need of an intelligible doctrine of history.” Bax adds that, though little affected by Christian dogma, he believed thoroughly as a child in the supernatural, and was dissatisfied with the assurances of his elders that assurances of his elders that miracles, though they had happened at the beginning of the Christian era, did not happen now.

Bax was privately educated, and come early under the influence of such writers as Lewes, Lecky, Bain, Spencer and Mill, which doubtless had the effect of reducing his supernaturalist leanings to a minimum. Certainly he was for the remainder of his life a robust and aggressive Rationalist. If his early bias in the other direction can be said to have left any trace, it is, in a curious belief, which he retained to the end of his days, in the workings in human affairs of an unaccountable and malicious element of luck or chance. Watertight against God, angel or devil, his Rationalism was never quite proof against a “Poltergeist.”

Bax’s interest in public affairs was awakened at the age of sixteen by the Franco-German War, and more particularly by its sequel, the Commune. His political ideas at this time amounted only to a commonplace Radicalism combined with vague aspirations to economic equality; but he became fired with sympathy for the working-class rising in Paris, and wept bitter tears over its suppression by the troops of Thiers and MacMahon. “Henceforward I became convinced that the highest and indeed only true religion for human beings was that which had for its object the devotion to the future social life of Humanity. The martyrs of the Commune who died, as one of them expressed it, pour la solidarité humaine, appealed to me as far nobler than any martyrs the Christian creed has had to show. The Communist believed that his end at the hands of the Versaillais soldiery meant the extinction of his personality, but perhaps a step towards the realisation of his ideal, and in this belief he faced death. The Christian martyr, on the other hand, we may presume, was sincerely convinced according to the tenets of his creed that his death at the hands of the executioner opened for his personality the gates of a paradise of never-ending bliss.”

Bax later frequented the meetings of the Positivist Society, but never actually joined it. In 1875 he went to Germany to study music; and visited that country again in 1880 as Berlin correspondent of the Standard. This brought him into contact with Eduard von Hartmann, and with German philosophy in general. Henceforward Mill, Spencer and Bain yielded place to Kant and Hegel. After his return to England, Bax became associated from 1882 onwards with Hyndman and William Morris in the Socialist Movement; at first as a member of the Democratic (soon to become the Social-Democratic) Federation. After the breach between Morris and Hyndman in 1884 on a question of tactics, Bax worked for a period with Morris in the Socialist League, but returned to the Social-Democratic Federation in 1888, and never left it again. From this period to his death the history of Bax’s life is mainly the history of his work as a philosopher, historian and publicist.


I will deal first with his work as a philosopher. Bax’s Handbook to the History of Philosophy, published in 1885 for Bohn’s Philosophical Library, is, in my opinion, his best work in this field. Not only is his account of earlier philosophers readable and concise, affording to the beginner an admirable introduction to the subject, but the last part of the work contains the clearest statement of Bax’s own position which he ever penned. His later philosophical writings, such as The Real, the Rational and the Alogical, do little more than develop that position. When Bax began to write, the English Hegelian movement, represented lay T.H. Green, Caird, Bradley and their company, was in its first vigour. That movement afforded to Bax a point of departure and an object of attack. But there was this difference between Bax and most other British philosophers. He had never studied or taught at a British University; and he had learnt German philosophy, not from English lecturers and tutors, but from the Germans at first hand. With the single exception of his friend Lord Haldane, no British thinker of his generation was so soaked in the wisdom of Kant, Fichte and Hegel as Bax was. This had its advantages, but also its drawbacks. Firstly, through having his “spiritual home” in Germany, and through his manifold personal and cultural connections with that country, Bax never wholly acquired the art of expressing his philosophy in lucid English. His Handbook to the History of Philosophy is thus open to this criticism; his later philosophical works can be read, but they demand patience and application. Secondly, partly from this cause, and partly from the fact of not being a university man, he never won the recognition he deserved among English-speaking philosophers. Search the works of Bradley, Bosanquet, Schiller, James, Russell and the rest of the leading lights of modem British and American philosophy, and I doubt if a single reference will be found to the work of Bax, who was a thinker in no way inferior to any in the list. This had the effect of isolating and embittering him, and led him in later life to devote insufficient study to developments of thought which, on their merits, deserved his attention.


The leading theme of debate in modem philosophy may be described, as follows. In ordinary life we assume that we have to do with things outside ourselves, which exist independently of us, and will continue existing without us. But to all appearance, our only source of knowledge concerning things is the impressions they make on us through our senses. Whatever, then, may be the case practically, can we be certain theoretically that we know anything except our impressions at this moment? Yet common sense and science, which is extended common sense, assure us, that we do: that, for example, there is an order of nature, that by appropriate action we can produce desired effects, and that seven and five always must and will make twelve. This ability of the human organism to attain knowledge far transcending itself constitutes the central puzzle of philosophy. Kant and his successors claimed to solve it by declaring that the power in us which knows things is, in some sense, one and the same in all individuals, past, present and to come, and that what we can know consists of nothing else but its manifestation in innumerable individual lives. Hegel, whose metaphysics were much to the fore in the nineteenth century, identified this power with thought, and named it God.

Now Bax’s philosophical writings are, from beginning to end, a protest against the Hegelian conception of the power behind the world as just thought. Bax adheres to the doctrine that the world consists of nothing else but manifestations of the same power which, in ourselves, is conscious. But he asks: “Does not consciousness presuppose that which becomes conscious?” In old-fashioned parlance, consciousness, or knowledge, or thought, is an attribute, not a substance. There can be no attribute without substance, no form without matter, no thought without something for thought to arise in. Bax credits Schopenhauer with having insisted, in opposition to Hegel, on the necessity of an “alogical,” rather than a logical basis for the real world. The view which reduces reality to thought, or the Pallogist view as Bax calls it, “fails to render an, adequate account of .... the material element in experience. It has no satisfactory explanation to offer of sense and its conditions; it knows nothing, or it says nothing, of the dynamis of the world, of the trieb, the impulse, the will, the force, of empirical reality.” Not the act of awareness itself, but the “ground” and “content” of awareness, is the subject-matter of philosophy. The act of knowing is, by the very nature of an act, finite; the ground or basis of all reality, therefore, cannot be the act of knowing. “This is traceable in ordinary empirical perception and thought. When we speak of the ‘being’ of an object, it is its alogical side, i.e., that side or aspect of its reality which is not in consciousness, which we primarily have in mind. The aspect that appears, that is actual or present in consciousness, is its phenomenon merely .... Given two sets of appearances (phenomena), the doctor at the foot of the bed, and the skeleton looking over his shoulder. The one is a reality, the other is an illusion. What is the ground of distinction between them except that the one has an unknown, unpresented, albeit knowable, presentable content, while the content of the other is exhausted in the immediate act of perception? .... The fact that twenty patients in the same ward were simultaneously seized with the same illusion would not make that illusion any more of a reality than in the case of its only being perceived by one.”


Bax therefore rejects the philosophical Theism of Berkeley, Green and other Idealists, according to which the external universe has its being solely as an object in the mind of God. “Mere actuality for, or presence in, another consciousness can never give the independence we predicate of external things or enter into any explanation of their meaning for our consciousness. An object does not exist more for me because I know that someone else perceives it; its perception and its being are always separate, alike in common sense and in scientific thought.” But Bax’s objections to Theism go deeper than this. “The real, the vital difference between the point of view of the Theist and that of the Atheist lies not in any theoretical equivoque, but in the practical sphere of ethics .... Granting – [the Atheist says] the existence of your Supreme Being, the mere fact of the presence of evil, misery and pain in the world is incompatible with the moral attributes, if we use the word ‘moral’ in any intelligible sense, of the Creator and Orderer of such a world .... No amount of specious confidence-trick assurances of mysterious ‘divine purposes’ behind it will divest it of its character as evil .... Necessary thought it may be in human affairs not altogether to exclude the admission of the end justifying the means .... how inconceivably less is the excuse for a Divine Being whose powers, if not amounting to actual omnipotence, must nevertheless, as compared with human powers, be hardly distinguishable therefrom, and who works not in a limited tithe, but has eternity to play with! .... The true Atheist, the ethical Atheist, who insists that the Theist’s, assumption of a personal Deity, even if granted as regards the question of bare existence, is worthless for religious purposes, owing to its incompatibility with ethical principle, might also he described with equal accuracy as an anti-Theist.” Once, however, we drop the ascription of personality to the Absolute, and postulate only a “Life Force,” persistently tending to self-realisation infinite personalities, the existence of evil ceases to be a metaphysical problem at all.


The high-and-dry Hegelianism which was enthroned in 1885, and against which Bax directed his polemic, fell to pieces in the ensuing twenty years. Of this movement Bax was the unacknowledged forerunner. His theory was given to the public in 1885 – before Bergson’s “élan vital” and before Mr. Shaw’s Life Force appeared on the scene. But I have never yet seen a history of modem philosophy in which honour is given where honour is due.


His metaphysic has important practical consequences. The abandonment of Christian theology inevitably involves the supersession of Christian morality. The latter, like the former, is based on a fundamental opposition between God and the world, spirit and matter, the Supernatural and the natural, soul and body, duty and happiness. Its watchword, first and last, is “mortify your members which are upon the earth.” But whereas Christian philosophy is Dualistic, Bax’s philosophy is Monistic. It is for those who no longer recognise the distinction between God and the world, or between man and nature, to seek, by means of a “categorical imperative” or otherwise, to preserve the shadow of a moral code whose sole raison d’être resided in those distinctions. The essence of morality as social, says Bax, is the realisation of the needs of the social whole of which the individual is part. The code, therefore, to which the individual is required to conform depends on the social environment at the time in which he lives. Our only criterion of the intrinsic worth of an action is its compatibility with the free development of ourselves or others. “The highest end of action consists in the removal of the impediments in the way of that free development – in other words, in that which tends to the greatest possible satisfaction of the immediate wants and aspirations of all men.” This agrees, it will be noted, with Mr. Bertrand Russell’s definition of the good life as that in which the greatest number of desires are satisfied. “Freedom,” continues Bax, “which implies the satisfaction of existent want for each and for all – first and foremost the animal wants the introspectivist disdains – is the first condition of that higher social life which is the furthest visible summit of progress .... This point of view in its own way demands in a sense the sacrifice, the negation, of the individual, but it is not as with the introspective religions, the first step in a circular process which begins with the natural individual, and ends with the apotheosised individual, and hence which, its primary negation of the individual notwithstanding, remains individualistic; but a negation of the individual only in so far as this is essential to the realisation of that higher social whole into which he enters. In short, the abnegation of self becomes, on this view a mere accident of morality, and not, as before, a part of its substance.” In “A Socialist’s Notes on Practical Ethics,” an essay included in the collection entitled Outlooks from the New Standpoint, Bax resolves the whole of morality, broadly into two propositions: “(1) Every act necessarily involving cruelty is per se immoral. (2) No act not necessarily involving cruelty is per se immoral.” This is illustrated later by a crucial example. For Christian morality “the sexual relation is per se immoral, and only becomes moral per accidens, i.e., under a special condition imposed from without.” For Bax, sex is “per se morally indifferent (neither moral nor immoral) like any other bodily function, but it may easily become immoral per accidens, i.e., from the special circumstances under which it takes place, and whereby it acquires the character of an act of injustice or treachery.” Elsewhere Bax points out that man’s good qualities, “sympathy, love, friendship, generosity, good-heartedness, all have their root in the animal life.” Although there are circumstances in which we may be called upon to face pain or death for our fellows, such self-sacrifice is never an end, but at most a means. The “destruction of the old kinship of tribe and clan,” and the rise of individualism, caused the social bearing of all ethics to be lost sight of, and led people to regard pain, want and “holiness” as good in themselves. But with the decay of supernaturalism, and the growth of a concrete social morality whose full fruition is yet to come, we gradually awake to new kinship, not of tribe or clan but of humanity. “The fallacy of the Christian apotheosis of pain becomes apparent. The only meaning the word Evil has is that of pain, want and suffering .... The most important ideal with which the modem man can concern himself is connected with the social life round him .... Good material conditions are the basis of all that is, truly speaking, higher life.”


Bax’s philosophy is rounded off by a speculation in which I believe he can claim complete originality. Life has evolved continuously from the protozoic cell to the human form with its centralised brain and nervous system. Parallel with life, consciousness has evolved from the mere sentiency we may suppose to accompany cell-life to the self-conscious human being. Now Bax, following Herbert Spencer, regards human society, with its economic and political interdependence, as a form of organism to which individual human beings stand in the same relation as the cells composing the body stand to the body. But Bax goes further than Spencer. As consciousness is correlated with physical life from the cell to the human being, he asks whether the emergence of the social organism as a higher evolutionary type does not involve, as a corollary, the emergence of a corporate consciousness in human society. True, we cannot imagine to ourselves such a corporate social mind. But neither could a particular cell in any organism represent to itself the centralised individual consciousness that develops with the brain. “Should the foregoing be true,” says Bax, “it may be that we shall have to seek our ‘God,’ if he is to be a practical ideal, not so much in the realm of metaphysical analysis as in that of speculative sociological research, or, as we may term it, in transcendental sociology.” He finds in the moral consciousness, in religious aspiration, in crowd psychology, and in the phenomena of telepathy, so far as they may be genuine, indications of the ultimate emergence of a consciousness transcending the individual, as the individual transcends the cell. Parallel speculations to this will be found in Mr. Edward Carpenter’s “Art of Creation,” in Mr. Wells’s “God, the Invisible King,” and in Professor Alexander’s “Space, Time and Deity.” But here, as elsewhere, Bax can claim to have been first in the field.


Bax records in his Reminiscences that he always felt, from childhood on, the need of an intelligible doctrine of history. The view of history which he eventually adopted bears, as we might expect, a strong impress of Hegelian philosophy. He was also influenced by his Socialist masters, Marx and Engels (who also, it will be recalled, took Hegel as their point of departure), though he never accepted the “Materialist Conception of History” as a sufficient explanation of the whole course of events. In the essay on “Universal History from a Socialist Standpoint,” which stands first in the volume entitled The Religion of Socialism, published in 1886, we have a resumé of his general theory. Human society starts with primitive Communism, in which the individual is completely identified with his group, his attitude to the world about him is naively animistic, and the opposition, between man and the State, and between nature and mind, which characterise civilised life and thought, have not emerged. Civilisation begins with the introduction of agriculture, and is marked as the centuries proceed by the growth of inventions, the improvement of lethal weapons, and the aggregation of tribes for defensive purposes into city-States, and of cities into kingdoms. In the course of this process, primitive Communism has given way to a class society, with slavery at its base and a hierarchy of castes above it, as in Egypt and the Asiatic Empires of antiquity. With the disappearance of the old solidarity of the tribe, and the growth of opposition between individuals and between classes, religion also becomes less social and more personal, as in the Greek mystery-cults and the later philosophers. The process culminated in the Roman Empire, which brought with it the final submersion of group solidarities in one gigantic system of exploitation based on slavery, the complete divorce of the individual from the life of the State, the ever-increasing vogue of other-worldly religions, and eventually the establishment of Christianity. So “the twilight of ancient civilisation gradually deepened into darkness.”

Bax regards the Middle Ages as the product of interaction between the Roman world, with its servile basis and its other-worldly religion, on the one hand, and the German tribes with their relatively primitive culture on the other. Consequently we have on the one side feudalism, chivalry, and the semi-pagan outlook of popular Catholicism, and on the other the asceticism and self-mortification of the religious enthusiasts. From the thirteenth century on, industry and commerce began to revive and we have the germ of modem capitalism in the opposition between the close guild-corporations and the labourers outside them. The Reformation represents the revolt of the rising middle classes against a Church tradition and organisation which hampered their interests. In Protestantism, with its doctrine of salvation by faith alone, its sharp separation of sacred and secular, and its tacit relegation of religion, for practical purposes, to one day in seven, the bourgeois on the make found a creed after its own heart. All political developments since the Reformation – the growth of the modern State, the struggle for world-empire, the freeing of commerce from feudal restrictions – are simply so many phases of capitalist evolution, culminating in the age in which Bax writes. “Here the antitheses, latent in primitive human society, for the first time reach their fullest development.” The oppositions between individual and social interest, between material and spiritual, between politics and ethics, attain their apogee. And “now that the fruit of individualism is plucked, by the virtual admission of every thinking person, whether Socialist or not, it is but Dead Sea fruit after all .... Individualism has no sooner shaken itself free from the supports which, though they may have cumbered it in its advance, yet did at last keep it from falling; it has no sooner realised itself, than its death-knell is rung, and it finds itself strangled by the very economical revolution which had rendered its existence possible .... The majority are the slaves of modem Industrialism. Individualism, therefore, for the majority has become a meaningless phrase.” The history of civilisation, in a word, is the history of the struggles of class, creed and nationality. These, antagonisms must, in the next stage, find their solution in Hegelian fashion in a new synthesis, in which the characteristics of primitive society, Communism and solidarity, are reaffirmed on a higher plane – on an international, instead of a tribal basis.

Holding such a view as this, Bax was naturally interested in every period of history, ancient and modem, in which the drama could be discerned unfolding. His main work, however, was concerned with two special periods, the German Reformation and the French Revolution. He devotes to antiquity only an occasional brief essay – a curious and regrettable fact, especially is he was wont to say that, had he been able to choose (from the standpoint of personal enjoyment) a period of history in which to be born, he would have chosen the life of a cultured Greek or Roman of the age of the Antonines.


Bax’s work on “The Social Side of the Reformation in Germany” is extremely readable; for Bax, when writing history, is as lucid as, when writing philosophy, he is the reverse. The work is in three Volumes: German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, The Peasants’ War in Germany, and The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists. There is a certain irony in the fact that Bax chose for sympathetic historical treatment the sixteenth century sect who were the lineal ancestors, with all their obvious differences, of the Baptists in whose narrow ness, as we have seen, so embittered his own early youth. Anabaptism, however, was the same sort of bugbear to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Jacobinism was to the early nineteenth, and as Bolshevism is to-day. Bax writes accordingly with real gusto the epic of this sect who, originating merely as the “left wing” of the Zwinglian Reformation in Switzerland, at first preached and practised absolute non-resistance, but who, driven to fury by the savage cruelty with which they were persecuted, resorted to secular weapons, became masters for over a year of the Westphalian city of Munster, and, after a desperate siege by the Bishop of that place, were put down with the ferocity common in sixteenth-century religious warfare. The movement, Bax points out, was essentially the effect of the uncritical reading of Luther’s translation of the Bible on a class full of resentment at economic injustice. “Those who look forward,” he concludes, “to a higher and better organisation of society in our time no longer have visions of a ‘New Jerusalem,’ of a divine ‘Millennial Kingdom’ brought about by the dispensation of a supernatural Providence .... Thomas Münzer, Jan of Leyden, Jan Matthys; and the rest of those who sought the revindication of social justice in the early sixteenth century, have, together with their aspirations, passed away for ever. But foolish as their ideas seem to us to-day, who regard the problem from so totally different a standpoint, let us not forget that with all their follies and shortcomings, they were, in a sense, the forerunners of Modem Socialism, and, as such, let us spare them a passing tribute of recognition!”


The French Revolution is a period on which it is even less possible to write impartially than on the Reformation. The Revolution cut in every Western country deep and lasting fissures, which constitute the dividing lines between political parties to this day. The Tory historian of the present day, who feels himself the apostolic successor of Pitt, Canning and Castlereagh, blackens to the best of his ability the men of the Revolution whom they fought. On the other hand Radicals like Morley, and still more Socialists like Bax, are bound by political affiliation to take a sympathetic view. Nothing is more deceitful, nothing more dangerous than the pretence of impartiality in modem history, for the pretence can never become a reality. Let us respect and welcome, therefore, the historian who announces his bias in advance, and, without suppressing or falsifying, writes firmly from a “point of view.” He, at least, is honest.

Bax’s works on the Revolution are able, painstaking and, in essentials, trustworthy. The short “Story of the French Revolution” appeared in 1889 as a series of centenary articles in Justice, the organ of the Social-Democratic Federation, and was published in book form the following year. It is avowedly a “description of the main events .... from the point of view of Modern Socialism.” The view taken is summed up on the opening page. “The cardinal idea of the French Revolution was the political emancipation of the middle-class.” Yet, although this was the central idea, “there were issues raised – and not merely raised, but carried for the time being – which went far beyond this. But the flood-tide of the Revolution did not represent the permanent gain of progress. The waters receded from the ground touched at the height of the crisis, leaving the enfranchisement of the bourgeoisie as the one achievement permanently effected.” The permanent work of the revolution, Bax points out, was done in its first three years. France became “for good or evil, a united nationality. The power of the clergy, and noblesse was completely broken. Judicial torture and breaking on the wheel were absolutely done away with .... In addition, the ‘goods’ of the clergy and of the ‘emigrant’ nobility, were declared confiscated. The interesting point, as yet unsolved was, who should get this precious heritage, the ‘nationalised’ lands, houses and movable possessions of the recalcitrant first and second estates?” Under the Convention an attempt was made to legislate in the interests of the working-class, e.g., by the law of “maximum” and the progressive income-tax, with the result that, as Carlyle puts it in a sentence quoted with approval by Bax, “there is no period to be met with in which the general 25,000,000 of France suffered less than in this period, which they name reign of terror.” “For the first time in history,” says Bax, “the cry for material and social equality as opposed to mere political and legal equality became definitely articulate. That cry has often enough since been smothered, but has always made itself heard again at short intervals. The party of the Mountain and the Jacobins, the Baboeuf conspiracy, the Chartist movement, the days of June, 1848, the Commune of 1871, are all so many stages in the awakening of the Proletariat to the full consciousness of itself which it attains in modem Socialism.” But the ebb-tide set in. The lands of the Church and the emigrés were sold to speculators and army, contractors instead of to the poorer peasants; the “new class of thieves” thus enriched became the lords of France, and proceeded to re-establish “the hearth, the throne, and the altar .... on a new basis” – that of the military dictatorship of Napoleon.


Certain subsidiary features of Bax’s revolutionary, history remain to be noticed. One is his emphatic repudiation of the attempts sometimes made by advanced writers to whitewash the character of Robespierre. Bax will have none of him. Robespierre is “a prig, and a repulsive prig at that,” whose “murder of friends like Danton and Desmoulins, with whom he had lived and worked on terms of close intimacy since the beginning of the Revolution, yields to nothing in history, for its treachery and infamy.” Bax’s closing character sketch of Robespierre is striking. His inordinate ambition, says Bax, “was partly owing to the fact that he was undeniably a man without a vice (in the ordinary sense of the word). Now, only, very exceptional men can afford to be without the ordinary vices of mankind, and Robespierre was certainly not one of these men. With his ascetic Rousseauite notions of Republican austerity, he had suppressed his natural appetites, the consequence being that all the morbid elements in his character, having no other outlet, ran into the channel of self-idolatry and morbid ambition. The first condition of a well-regulated man is to know how to properly distribute the quantum of vice with which a bountiful nature has endowed him. A false morality teaches him to suppress it. But this he can seldom do, and if he succeeds, it is at the expense of all or much that is distinctive in his character. In tearing off the coating of vice, he tears of his skin with it. The usual case, however, is that the vice is not got rid of at all, but only forced into some out-of-the-way channel. And wherever vice is concentrated, it is bad. When all the vice of a character is focussed on any single one of the natural appetites a man becomes a sot, a satyr, a glutton, a confirmed gambler, etc. Now Robespierre sat upon all the usual valves. He and his ascetic hand poured scorn on the Hébertists and the Dantonists alike for their ‘looseness’ of their lives. But having closed up all the ordinary exits, his vice came out none the less, but concentrated in the form of a truculent, remorseless ambition, unparalleled in history.” Bax, so often an unaccredited pioneer, and writing in 1889, anticipates here the doctrine of psycho-analysis.


His revolutionary hero is Marat, a forerunner of modem Socialism, whom four generations of capitalist historians have combined to vilify, and to whose biography he devotes a separate volume. This was first published in 1878, and was Bax’s first work; but it was reissued in an enlarged form in 1900. The book is well documented, and the most readable of all his historical works, written as it is throughout con amore. Bax contends in the preface that “the verdict of the ‘world’ on a public character, as well as on moral worth in general and its opposite, like the public opinion of the ‘world’ on other matters, represents, as a rule, simply and solely, the verdict of class-prejudice and ignorance. ... It is, in fact, a fairly safe plan to ascertain for oneself ‘what most people think’ on such questions, and then assume the opposite to be true. The result is a good working hypothesis, which remains, of course, to be possibly modified or even abandoned by subsequent investigations, but which is generally the nearest approach to truth we can make in the absence of the requisite knowledge for forming an unbiassed judgment. Acting on this principle, the very extravagance of abuse with which Marat had been assailed suggested to me the probability that an exceptionally noble and disinterested character lay behind it.” Those who read the book must, at least, agree that Bax puts up a spirited defence of “the best-abused man in modern history,” and convicts the orthodox, academic view of gross one-sidedness. Space forbids me to quote more than one passage from the body of the book, which illustrates Bax’s method of attack on the class-bias of the ordinary historian. He is dealing with the September massacres, which Marat, though he did not plan them, certainly justified after the event. “Who were these,” asks Bax, “at most a thousand odd, ‘victims’ of popular justice? .... They were almost entirely the noble and the wealthy, and the hangers-on of the noble and the wealthy; most if not all of them had been, directly or indirectly, conspiring to reinstate the deposed King with the aid of an invading army; prepared avowedly not merely to destroy the newly-won liberty, but to take the lives of all republicans, and, indeed, of all who deprecated a return to the old oppression and corruption. Such as these it was for whom it has been the endeavour of prejudiced historians to excite the sympathy of subsequent generations. From the Paris of 1792 to the Paris of 1871 is a far cry, but let us compare notes. In the Paris of 1871 there were also massacres, not of a thousand odd, but of a number variously estimated at from twenty to thirty thousand. Here in the enormous majority of cases there was not even the semblance of a trial. In the latter case there was no imminent danger, no army marching on Paris, no plotters inside the city in collusion with that army, but a movement that had been hopelessly crushed .... Who were the twenty or thirty thousand victims of 1871? Almost wholly workmen, partisans of a cause avowedly hostile to wealth and privilege, and therefore hated by wealth and privilege. Herein lies the ground of divergence in the world’s judgment of the two events. If ‘the world’ would only be candid in the matter, and avow openly that it likes well-to-do Royalist plotters and dislikes Proletarian insurgents, we should know where we were, and the issue would at least be clear. But he who with canting hypocrisy pretends on moral grounds to denounce Marat and his colleagues, without denouncing Thiers and the scoundrels who carried out his policy, in terms a hundredfold as severe, convicts himself of being a conscious humbug upon whom argument would be wasted.”


Socialists are often reproached with having “no historical sense” by sentimental reactionaries with a veneer of antiquarian learning. He who has fortified himself with a course of Bax’s historical works can afford to laugh that taunt to scorn. To one whose mind has been freed from the economic superstitions of capitalism, but who still distrusts Socialism as savouring too much of Utopia, Bax’s essay, for example, on “Universal History from a Socialist Standpoint” (in The Religion of Socialism) can be warmly recommended. The longer historical books are not only simply and, arrestingly written studies of their respective subjects, but serve to awaken the modern Socialist to a feeling of solidarity with the past of his own movement, and to create a revolutionary “historical sense” with which to confound the reactionary antiquarian.


Bax became in 1892 Editor of Justice, the organ of the Social-Democratic Federation, but resigned before long for private reasons. Partly in collaboration with William Morris or Hyndman, but more often independently, he published numerous books, essays and articles on current affairs from the Socialist standpoint as he conceived it.

Socialism, to Bax, was not a mere economic or political programme, but a comprehensive religion, intimately bound up with his whole philosophy and his reading of history, and absolutely incompatible with orthodox ethics, patriotism, or Christianity. His view of life was an undivided whole. Hence he knew not the meaning of compromise or diplomatic statement. It was as impossible for him to pay lip-service to the British Empire or the Christian religion for the sake of making a proselyte, or conciliating an opponent, as it would have been for an early Christian to throw incense on the altar of the Roman Emperor. Socialism – revolutionary, international and Atheistic – was his Gospel; patriotism, and established religion were part and parcel of bourgeois ideology. He is not, therefore, a good exponent of Socialism to recommend to the “man in the street,” though to one who has already, – on grounds of his own, rejected Christianity, and who wants a religion consonant with modern ideas, Bax may prove – as he did to me – an inspiring teacher.


If the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia had occurred in the eighteen-eighties, Bax would without doubt have warmly supported it. In 1886, in the volume entitled “The Religion of Socialism,” he pours scorn on majority rule. The majority, he says, are the thralls of capitalism; without leisure or education, they are necessarily the dupes of middle class economists and politicians, even where they are nominally “free.” Necessarily, therefore, under the capitalist system the majority will vote for the main tenance of that system, not because they love it, but because they are, in present parlance, “doped.” Only an active minority, therefore, will effect the revolution. The Socialist must ignore the opinion of the majority, which is the opinion of the capitalists and the masses they mislead, and must override it by any and every means open to him. As to patriotism, for the Socialist frontiers do not exist; love of country, as such, is not nobler than love of class. The policy of the international Socialist “must be to break up these hideous race monopolies called empires, beginning in each case at home”; to welcome everything which makes for the disruption of the empire to which he belongs; to urge on any movement tending to dislocate the commercial relations of the world; and to unite in a solid front the various national sections of the international Socialist party on the basis of firm and equal friendship.

This, be it noted, was written over thirty years before Lenin installed himself in the Kremlin. It sounds, except in the last particular, almost like a prophecy. The main weakness in the argument is the assumption that all existing States are a homogeneous mass of reaction, impermeable to Socialist “peaceful penetration,” and the neglect of the important gains which the Working class – in some countries more than others – have made under democratic forms.


Naturally Bax, in common with practically all Radicals and Socialists, was a pro-Boer in the war of 1899-1902, brought about, as he and they considered it to be, by the intrigues of a gang of financial capitalists, the mining magnates of Johannesburg and London. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 led him to a certain modification of his attitude, which only superficial minds will regard as a recantation. It amounted really to the rounding-off of a position which before had been logically incomplete. To appreciate better the significance of this reorientation of view, and the real mental grit involved in making it, let us remember that Bax’s “spiritual home” was in Germany; that Hegel was his master in philosophy, and Marx and Engels his masters in economics; that his visits to that country were frequent, and his friendships there many; that his second wife was a German; and that, when the Great War broke out, he was sixty years old. Anyone, in the circumstances, might have forgiven Bax for taking a Pacifist, if not a positively pro-German line. His actual attitude was quite the contrary, and yet not inconsistent with his fundamental principles. All his old revolutionary fury surged up, this time, against the military monarchies of Central Europe who had let loose Armageddon. As he had denounced the aggression of his own country against the Boer Republics, so now, with perfect consistency, he denounced the aggression of Germany and Austria, and would have no part or lot with those British Socialists who, from mere “anti-patriotic bias,” as he put it, were led to favour peace at any price with Prussian despotism. The change, however, was not due to any softening towards British Imperialism. In his view, the Entente Powers were acting simply in the capacity of an international police force to punish crime and aggression; and he urged “all friends of progress and peace” to see that European democracy was not cheated by any secret understanding among the governing classes into allowing the survival of Prussia as an independent military power.

This attitude, which Bax took up in common with Hyndman and other veterans of the Social-Democratic Federation, necessarily affected his view of the Bolshevist Revolution when it came. The Great War had taught Bax that a straight line is not always the shortest distance between two political points. The fact that the Bolsheviks, by drawing Russia out of the war, were in effect prolonging the life of the reactionary Central Empires against whom, in Bax’s view, the war was justly – waged, made it impossible for him to support Bolshevism. He was further alienated by the cruelties of the Soviet Government towards its political opponents, particularly its Socialist opponents, and by its wanton invasion and conquest of Georgia. Yet, in conversations with Bax towards the end of his life, one felt that he was never extreme in his condemnation, and that the Soviet war on Christianity, at any rate, had his whole-hearted sympathy. The logic of events alone prevented him, as it should have prevented others, from being a Bolshevik.


Bax was always hostile to the claims of women to equal rights with men in politics and in the professions. On this subject he was opposed to the overwhelming majority of Socialists both here and abroad, and his attitude, extraordinarily bitter as it was, alienated many, and maimed his otherwise magnificent work. His earliest published utterance on the subject (in “The Religion of Socialism,” 1886) is a comparatively temperate statement. At one time, says Bax, the claim to equality amounted to a legitimate movement for the removal of certain undoubted grievances. But for some time past the tendency of legislation and sentiment has been, under the pretext or equality, to confer privileges on women at the expense of men. Various instances are adduced in support of this contention, e.g., the Married Women’s Property Act protects the property of a wife from spoliation by her husband, while notwithstanding this, the husband is liable for his wife’s debts and torts, and is obliged, moreover, to maintain her however flagrant may be her unworthiness. Feminist sentiment, according to Bax, is responsible for the infliction of the punishment of flogging on men for certain forms of sexual misconduct, while at the same time exempting women in any circumstances from similar punishment. As long as women enjoy such privileges, he argues, their claim to political equality with men is nothing short of an addition of insult to injury. Nevertheless, in the early passage I am quoting, Bax looks forward to the realisation, under Socialism, of a “real equality between the sexes,” based on the economic, independence of women, as opposed to the “sham equality” of present-day society, which really amounts to the subjection of men.

In Bax’s later pronouncements on this question, all saving clauses and qualifications are thrown to the winds. In his later years he seems to have systematically searched the police-court and other news for instances of real or imaginary injustice to men in the interests of women. As a result, he produces a cumulative indictment of judges, juries, magistrates and legislators which, if taken at its face value, would force us to the conclusion that these makers and administrators of the law – most of whom, strange to say are themselves men – are in a nefarious conspiracy to grind the male sex under the tyrannical high heel of the feminine boot. Men are flogged; women are not. The seduction by a man of a girl under sixteen is a criminal offence; the seduction by a women of a boy under that age is not. A man convicted of murder is usually hanged, especially if the victim be a woman; a murderess is almost invariably reprieved. And this intellectually inferior sex, rolling in privilege, injustice and oppression, have the impudence to treat it as a grievance that they are unable to vote on the same terms as men


An adequate criticism of the foregoing argument would take too long. A just review of the case would, I think, take note of the following considerations. Firstly, the fact that nature lays upon women the whole burden of bearing and rearing the next generation makes it in no way anomalous, but merely just that the law, in so far as it affects sex as such, should take special account of women’s natural disabilities. The distinction between the case of the two sexes as regards, e.g., the age of consent should have been obvious to Bax. Quite apart from the objections to premature sexual experience which apply to both sexes alike, a young girl seduced by a man is exposed to the risk of bearing an illegitimate child, and consequently (under present conditions) to pains and penalties in the shape of social opprobrium which have no counterpart in the case of a boy. Differential legislation for the sexes in such matters as this does not justify the charge of sex-privilege. As regards the incidence of the criminal law on the two sexes, it is surprising that Bax should have failed to see that the exemption of women from flogging, for example, is due to the average male legislator’s aversion (rooted, of course, in the sexual instinct) to the idea of flogging the opposite sex, and not to any specific feminine demand for exemption. His polemic on the subject, however, has the merit of at least forcing one to think, and will have served a good purpose if it converts any men, who object on instinctive grounds to hanging and flogging women, into consistent opponents of the judicial murder and torture of any human being regardless of sex.

Secondly, while it is probable that the average woman is inferior in brain-power to the average man, it is not true that every woman is inferior to every man.. The abilities of each sex vary enormously. We might roughly state the fact by saying that the abilities of men range from 0 to 100, and the abilities of women from 0 to 80. To admit any and every man to the practice of the professions and the exercise of political functions, while excluding any and every woman, would therefore be not only an unjust, but a socially wasteful policy, amounting to a refusal to make the best use of the talents at the disposal of the community, which could not he justified by the mere fact of inequality between the average abilities of the two sexes.

Thirdly, Bax shows himself singularly unphilosophical in ignoring the economic roots of modern Feminism, and in treating it as an unaccountable perversity introduced among us, presumably, from the nether pit. He should have realised that industrialism, by breaking up the old system of domestic industry and forcing women, as well as men, into the labour market, is the real driving force of Feminism. For a Socialist, who believes in united working-class activity against capitalism, to attempt to deny woman their share in that activity is grotesque. Women are in the industrial and political movements by force of circumstances; and one may say to the anti-feminist in the words of Scripture: “Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.”


After the publication of his Reminiscences in 1918, Bax wrote little. The Real, the Rational and the Alogical, published in 1920, and the essay contributed by him to Professor J.H. Muirhead’s symposium of Contemporary British Philosophy in 1924, were recapitulations of his philosophical position, to which little was added. Occasional articles from his pen still appeared in Justice, the Literary Guide, and the Freethinker. But his work was past. His annual visits to England in the summer months were spent in rendezvous, chiefly at the National Liberal Club, with his circle of friends, conversation and discussion with whom delighted him to the end. Though he could be truculent with his pen, he was personally the most gentle and unassuming of men, and displayed an engaging interest in the ideas even of the youngest of us. In 1925 his services to philosophy were recognised by a public dinner at which Lord Haldane presided, and which was attended by a large company of Bax’s admirers. But the end was nearer than any of us suspected. The health of his wife caused him increasing anxiety; and in the autumn of 1926 it became necessary to move her to a nursing-home in South London. Deprived of the kindly care that had sustained his declining years, Bax was soon to join her in death. A chance misadventure on his part led to blood-poisoning; and on November 26th both husband and wife passed away.

So ended the life and work of Ernest Belfort Bax. Even more than when he began to write it is evident to-day that the world is in the midst of a social, political and. religious revolution equalled in importance only by that which culminated 1,600 years ago in the establishment of Christianity. From that epoch to the present, we have been taught that the whole function of the ordinary man or woman is to suffer evil and injustice patiently in this world with a view to compensation in a hypothetical future life. The religious synthesis of to-morrow, which Bax believed would supersede Christianity in name and fact, and which will assuredly supersede in fact what has passed in history under that name, will recognise human happiness, not in a hypothetical world to come, but in this world here and now, as the only worthy object of our common endeavour. This is the religion of Socialism, as Bax preached it; and, although the political and economic path to its fulfilment may be more devious than he sometimes supposed, he will be remembered hereafter as one who never lost the assurance, in the words of Thomas Hardy: –

“That the rages
Of the ages
Shall be cancelled, and deliverance offered from the darts that were,
Consciousness the Will informing, till It fashion all things fair!”