Eduard Bernstein

Amongst the Philistines:
A Rejoinder to Belfort Bax

(November 1896)

Justice, 14 November 1896.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Bax has presented the article I wrote some weeks ago in the Neue Zeit on the Turkish question in a manner that compels me to reply.

The leading idea of my article is condensed in the following passage in it: –

Prima facie there is for Socialists inducement to sympathise with every struggle for emancipation, and generally it will be right to investigate the case at the outset from this point of view, so natural for a democratic party. Let us first satisfy sentiment, and then ask whether sense and just interest come to the same conclusion, or where they modify it.

Not every rising of conquered races against their conquerors is, however, in the same manner a struggle for emancipation. Africa harbours tribes who adjudge to themselves the right of trading in slaves, and who can only be prevented from this sort of thing by the civilised nations of Europe. Their risings against the latter do not interest us – nay, will have us, in given cases, as opponents. The same applies to those barbaric and semi-barbaric races who make it a regular profession to invade neighboring agricultural communities, to rob cattle, etc. Races who are hostile to, or incapable of, civilisation, cannot claim our sympathy when they stand against civilisation. We do not acknowledge any right of robbery, nor any right of hunters over or against cultivators. To put it briefly, strongly as we criticise present civilisation, we acknowledge its relative acquisitions, and make them a criterion of our sympathy. We will condemn and oppose certain methods of the subjugation of savage races, but not that savage races are at all subjugated and compelled to conform with the rules of higher civilisation.

A struggle for emancipation must contain in itself an element of civilisation if it shall have a claim can our deep sympathy, and eventually active support, be it that races or nationalities who have developed a civilisation of their own stand up against foreign domination that hinders their further development, or that an advancing class rebels against its suppression by retrograde classes. We acknowledge the right of nationality to every people that has shown itself capable of developing or maintaining such national civilisations.

This is my standpoint. It can be opposed from the point of view either of visionary enthusiasm for the state of nature, or from that of a very narrow and gross materialism. Now, it is undoubtedly very heroic to expatiate in an easy chair in the Temple or one of the West End clubs oar the “squalor of modern civilisation,” and the preferability of primitive barbarism, but it is not very convincing. On the other hand, it surprises me not a little to find the same Bax who, only a few weeks ago, in the Fabianese Vienna Zeit, inveighed so severely against what he describes as the too narrow application of historic materialism by some Marxists suddenly preach in Justice the narrowest and grossest materialistic conception of the struggle of Social-Democracy. To call modern civilisation “a curse and an evil per se” and “absolutely antithetic to Socialism,” to proclaim all and every national sentiment a “fraud,” to give cart mottoes like “slavery better than capitalism” is materialism with a vengeance. He implies the denial of all ideological acquisition of modern civilisation, of all evolution of ethics.

How little this is in the spirit of Frederick Engels whom Bax invokes against me, a letter which Engels wrote to me on February 22, 1882, on the Balkan Question, shows. Engels says of that romantic semi-barbaric people, the Herzogovinians: “Their autonomy consists in their stealing – in order to prove their hatred against oppressors – from their own ‘suppressed’ Servian countrymen, cattle and other movable things of any value. For they have done this since a thousand years, and he who interferes with their right of robbery interferes with their autonomy. I am enough of an authoritaire to call the existence of such primitive folk in the midst of Europe an anachronism. And if these good people stood as high as the Scotch Highlanders glorified by Walter Scott – who, too, were the most desperate cattle stealers – we can, at the utmost, condemn the methods present society employs against them. Were we in power, we too (underlined by Engels) would have to make an end of the inherited Rinaldo Rinaldinism and Schinderhannesdom of these fellows.”

Thus Engels – what a Philistine! As to Karl Marx I advise Bax to read in the Kapital the foot-note to paragraph 3, chapter viii., where Marx in the most severe way censures Carlyle for having, in the same fashion as Bax does today, taken sides “for slavery against capitalist civilisation.” Philistine Marx there calls the anti-slavery war “the only magnificent contemporary event.”

What I wrote concerning the rights of nationality is in the main a repetition of what Ferdinand Lassalle in the pamphlet on the Italian war wrote on this subject. Another Philistine! And again I have to refer Bax to what Marx and Engels have written, prophetically written, in the seventieth about the great historical importance, for the advance of Social Democracy, of the unification of Germany, all its military codes notwithstanding.

But Bax will object today things have much changed, that bourgeois civilisation is visibly breaking down and has but one chance for prolonging its life, viz., “in annexing industrially and commercially the outlying territories of the earth’s surface.” Consequently, Social-Democrats must do all they can to prevent this process of expanding, and not as I, according to him, defend it.

To this I have to reply that in my article I had not to deal with this question. Only incidentally I referred to the struggle of the slave trading tribes against European interference. But I never shirk a discussion, and so I add that what Bax advocates is sheer waste of time and energy. To aid, as he proposes, the savages against advancing capitalist civilisation, if it were feasible, which it is not, would only prolong the struggle, not prevent it. Bax, some time ago, advocated furnishing fire-arms to the savages in order to stiffen their power of resistance. But he forgot that he who uses firearms wants now and then fresh powder or cartridges, and that these do not, as yet, grow wild.

To get them the savage must go to the – trader, and once in intercourse with him he is irresistibly drawn into the charm of the same commercial influence the fire-arms were to protect him against. Bax’s prescription, like his logic, turns round its own tail. The hypocritical and what else Nonconformist is at least more logical when he advocated the prohibition of the sale of fire-water to the savage.

And now to the question of the Armenians. Bax called then a “nation of usurers.” In reality they are a nation of peasants and artisans, surrounded by semi-barbaric pastoral tribes. These tribes, once only violent, are now extortionists of the worst type. They, too, have come under the spell of the money system, and, as Bax again can read in Marx, there are no worse atrocities than those practised there where semi-barbaric races are drawn inside the circle of the world-market. Besides the Turkish official – the tax farmers etc., the money-hungry Kurd, protected by Mahommedan law, presses shamefully on the poor Armenian. Shall the latter be sacrificed because he is more civilised than the Kurd, because he cultivates his field, or works at some trade, instead of hunting and stealing? If radical revolutionarism demands this I prefer being a philistine.

But Bax is sorely mistaken if he assumes that I stand alone with my view on the Turkish question in the Germany Party. Not that I mind standing alone where I believe to be right. What the rank and file of the party think neither he nor I can sound, but I can name him most influential leaders who arc quite at one with me. In fact, I have good reason to believe that the great majority of them share my view. Nor does Jaurès’s speech in the French Chamber on the subject breathe a different spirit. And if I turn to this side of the Channel I see the S.D.F. adopt a resolution where they, whilst rightly protesting against the exaggerated proposals of some Nonconformists, declare, as I did, against the continuation of Turkish misrule in Armenia. The same did the I.L.P. How came all these Sauls to join the Philistine?

To conclude, what Bax says about Fabian influence on me is partly untrue, partly of a nature not worth answering. It is not true that I have published Mr. Macdonald’s lecture as “the last word of wisdom” – In fact, I stated in the introduction to his paper that I differed from it in many points; and it is not true that Macdonald said those things about bureaucracy Bax makes him say. I have often criticised the Fabians in the Neue Zeit and elsewhere, but I have acknowledged and do acknowledge that I regard them as Socialists whom I believe to be in their way as honest and devoted as any in England.

Bax mildly suggests that I have “unconsciously ceased to be a Social-Democrat.” If to be a Social-Democrat requires to advocate the maintenance of the Turkish Empire, not although, but because, it is unreformed and a pandemonium of blood-sucking pashas; if it means cherishing the superstition that advanced industrialism is the only and worst form of exploitation and suppression, I prefer belonging to the Philistines.


Last updated on 29.2.2004