Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3


The Victorian Encounter with Marx

John Cowley
The Victorian Encounter with Marx: A Study of Ernest Belfort Bax
British Academic Press, London 1992, pp. 164, £34.50

WHEN Belfort Bax died in the year of the general strike, there was a striking contrast between his small obituary in the Communist Party’s newspaper, and the large one for Leonid Krasin, who had been a functionary in the Soviet embassy in London. His memory has continued to be neglected ever since, a classic example being EP Thompson, who even the author of this book admits ‘tends to push Bax to one side in his concern to round out the political life of Morris’ (p. 37). Radical Chains alone of all left-wing journals published in England in the last few years has seen fit to mention his name, and only one previous research dissertation, Keith Roker’s pioneering work written nearly 20 years ago, has attempted to deal with him. And as far as I am aware this is the first review of this book to have appeared in any British Marxist magazine. The animus against Bax is even reflected in this otherwise sympathetic treatment, which describes him as ‘most conventionally Victorian in his personal and family life’ (p. 1), and ‘very much a Victorian’ (p. 73), while providing a host of petty details about his private affairs in an attempt to account for his hostility towards upper-class feminism (pp. 68–74).

Yet the rest of the book provides information that is flatly contradictory. Bax’s constant war against ‘bourgeois Philistinism’ (p. 30), his disdain for the bourgeois family, and his close friendship with and support for Havelock Ellis are all carefully catalogued, apart from the fact that we have Engels’ word for it that he had ‘a largeness of view that is but too scarce here among the sectarians calling themselves Socialists’ (p. 39).

So what was his true stature? Whilst he never met Marx, Bax was a friend and constant companion of Engels (p. 29), who regarded him as being among the few in England who ever understood their ideas. He was ‘the only Socialist of his generation in England to have had direct contact with Hegelian philosophy’ (p. 21), and ‘was almost alone in taking seriously the question of the relationship of philosophy and Marxism’ (p. 49), an excellent discussion of which occupies pages 55–8 of this book. Bax was the only British Marxist for many a day to see the importance of spreading the understanding of philosophy outside the lecture room, and produced two textbooks for the Philosophical Library of Bohn’s, the equivalent at the time of the serious mass paperback publisher. He wrote four superb studies of German history, some of which have been republished recently (though not in England), and an equal number on the French Revolution. It was he who persuaded Morris to join the Democratic Federation (p. 27), and left along with him to found the Socialist League, which they tried to persuade to ‘adopt a policy which could be the basis for an independent working-class party’ (p. 28), in other words, pioneering the development of the British labour movement. And in spite of the mythology which tries to make Rosa Luxemburg the main opponent of the revisionism of Bernstein and Kautsky (cf. Workers Press, 4 December 1993), it was Bax who first showed that they shared so much common ground. He pointed out that whereas ‘Bernstein’s reformulation of Marxism would not only seriously weaken German Social Democracy but would at the same time create damaging divisions within the International as a whole’ (p. 106), Kautsky had a ‘linear view of human progress’ which owed more to Darwin than Marx (p. 108, cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 2, Summer 1989, p. 64). Bax hailed the heroism of the Spartacist revolt, and saw the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the first breakthrough for Socialism, ‘an epoch-making event in human history’ (p. 125), in which we see ‘for the first time in the world’s history the attempt officially made to subordinate national interests to international morality’ (p. 124).

‘More than anyone else’, John Cowley points out, Bax was ‘widely read in European Socialist literature’ (pp. 48–9), and ‘a staunch internationalist’ (p. 95), and some of his insights are quite extraordinary. Speaking in July 1888 of the opening up of Africa by imperialism, he remarked that ‘it is quite conceivable that the present stage should be prolonged in a slightly changed form even for another century’ (p. 45), as accurate a forecast of neo-colonialism as we are likely to get. Equally farsighted are his remarks on Russia published three years before the 1905 Revolution even broke out, which anticipate the theory of Permanent Revolution:

Where but yesterday medieval methods of industrial production prevailed, today we see the great industry in its rankest growth. The same with the intellectual side of things. The most advanced thought of Western Europe subsists there side by side with the most archaic superstition … These latter may then easily take the lead in progress (start a new development of their own) while their superiors of yesterday fall into the background. (p. 101)

Already in his own day Bax had experienced the fate of those who are too far ahead of their time. As Victor Adler pointed out, ‘his reputation was soon greater on the Continent than in Britain’ (p. 53). So why has Bax suffered such obvious neglect ever since? One reason is that although he opposed the First World War to begin with, by December 1914 he had come round to supporting it, not on the basis of the vulgar chauvinism of H.M. Hyndman, but as a result of his previous studies of German history, which had imbued him with a profound distaste for Prussian militarism. But the main reasons must surely be because he was anything but a little Englander, and because of his opposition to reformism and bourgeois feminism. At a time when a third of working-class men still did not have the vote, ‘extending the suffrage to women on the basis of a property qualification was seen as an anti-Socialist measure and one favouring the propertied classes’ (p. 82), and when we study the mainstream feminist propaganda of the time, with its images of voteless ladies with degrees and drunken or unemployed men with the vote, we see how easily it fits the Victorian image of the undeserving poor. The feminist movement was ‘middle-class both in composition and aims’ (p. 86), and ‘seems to entirely obliterate the usual class and party landmarks’, an ‘attempt to identify the object of the two movements by equating women with the proletariat, [which] simply overlooked the fact that there were “exploiting women and exploited women”’ (p. 85). And he saw it as ‘an integral part of the general reformist current’ (p. 83), even though Labour’s notorious yuppie lady front bench was still a century in the future. He also, incidentally, drew attention to the careerist undertones that were already present in it, but this is tastefully omitted from this account.

Bax was obviously wrong to oppose the extension of the franchise to anyone, since the working class cannot come to power unless it takes up the legitimate grievances of all other sections of society, thereby proving its fitness to wield power over society as a whole. But even his historic mistakes show a breadth of vision and a depth of insight. This is why this book’s attempt to regard Bax mainly as an insular phenomenon, a Victorian figure standing in the usual line of English left-wing saints such as Winstanley, the Diggers, Owen, Paine, etc. (p. 130), is well wide of the mark. Bax’s ideas were more Germanic than English, and he was more highly regarded at the conferences of the Second International than he was in Britain. But it is to the credit of the author that in spite of the blinkers through which New Left and Stalinist-inspired official Labour History looks at our Marxist past, his honesty and fidelity to his subject allow a very different picture to show through. I warmly recommend this well considered book.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011