E.Belfort Bax

The Religion of Socialism


A FEW introductory words may seem necessary in presenting the following pieces to the public in book-form. They have most of them already appeared in various periodicals (Time, To-day, Commonweal, Justice, etc.), and this fact will explain any repetition of idea or mode of statement which may here and there be discoverable, also their, to some extent, heterogeneous character.

The first article contains a condensed presentation of the cardinal points in the evolution of history. Such a statement must necessarily pass over many important details, and leave little room for illustration. The chief aim here has been to enforce the truth that the evolution of human society is a progress from Socialism to Socialism – from the simple, limited, tribal Socialism of early man to the complex universal Socialism already prepared in the womb of time. The treatment of this vast theme at a length which will admit of its approximately adequate discussion in all its bearings, is a task the author hopes to accomplish in the future; but at present the following brief instalment was all that could be given.

Other essays in the present volume touch upon the same subject directly or indirectly. It cannot be too strongly insisted upon that either the theory of modern Socialism rests on a solid historical basis, or it is nothing. The truth discovered by Marx, that the basal factor determining the constitution of society is its material and economic condition, must be for the Socialist the key to the reconstruction of history. Socialism, we contend, is not a theory “won from the void and formless infinite” of Utopian sentiment and good intentions, very beautiful, but impracticable, as some think; or from that of an aimless discontent acted on by wicked and designing agitators, as others think; but it is a plain deduction from the facts of history. The living form of Socialism has been long perfecting itself within the chrysalis of Civilisation. The process completed, nothing will prevent the dried hull from bursting asunder and the new being from issuing forth in its fairness and freedom. The more repulsive, the more dead and withered, the harder in outline the forms of Civilisation appear, the sooner may we look for their final destruction. We often hear of the taunt from middle-class thinkers and writers, “I am no Revolutionist, I am an Evolutionist.” This abstract way of looking at things is characteristic of current bourgeois habits of thought. To be an Evolutionist in the view of these gentlemen is tantamount to being an anti-Revolutionist. The notion of Evolution is erected into an absolute category, which is supposed to embrace the sum total of all sweet reasonableness in social matters. Over against this is another opposing category, – that of Revolution. Just as Evolution is the sum total in bourgeois eyes of all possible rationality, so Revolution is the sum total from the same point of view of all possible irrationality, – Ormuszd and Arhiman, the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. But the scientific Socialist who takes a concrete view of things, unhampered by the abstractions in which the current thinker is immersed, fails to discover in the real world any revolution that is not part of evolution, or any evolution that excludes the possibility of revolution as one of its moments.

The inability of the middle-class intellect to view things otherwise than abstractly is not surprising seeing that our whole bourgeois civilisation is a system of abstractions erected into independent existences. In evidence of this we have only to look at the existence of classes itself; each class being simply in the last resort an embodied abstraction. Thus, out, of the distinction between the social functions of direction and immediate production have arisen the embodied abstractions of an upper, possessing, and ruling class, and a lower, non-possessing, and ruled class, within which moulds the conflict between individual interests as such, over social interests has worked itself out, to the temporary victory of the former. So with the subordinate classes within these classes, each one is the embodiment of some phase of human life, torn or abstracted from the rest, that is, from the whole to which it belongs. The same with our culture. In the specialisation which characterises the learning of the nineteenth century, the basal unity of knowledge is lost sight of, and each little grovelling specialist thinks that in his own science and its methods the fulness of knowledge is manifested. He despises philosophy, one function of which is to reduce his speciality to a mere aspect of a larger whole. His science is his philosophy, much in the same way as the “public” of the ordinary man is his class.

The progress of the capitalistic system has tended to render the economic bedrock of all things social, increasingly evident, by reducing the super-incumbent strata to a more and more rudimentary condition. Hence the anachronistic absurdity of Conservatism. We are not here referring merely to current politics, the rival parties of which are only too obviously of the nature of business firms who trade in the emoluments of office; but to the underlying principle which Conservatism may be supposed to have originally embodied. On the face of it Conservatism meant the desire of the decaying feudal or landed class to maintain itself against the rising middle or capitalist class. But in addition to this primary question of class interest, it is certain there was in many minds a genuine horror at the vulgarisation of life and the destruction of old-world sentiment and institutions which they instinctively felt the ascendency of the capitalist class to involve. Some had also, doubtless, a glimmering of the truth that “progress” in the middle-class sense did not mean a material betterment for the mass of the people, but rather the reverse. Such we may suppose to have been the sentiment which underlay (in some cases at least) the Conservatism of the Royalist side during the English parliamentary struggle of the seventeenth century.

But the work of destruction has now been done. There is no longer anything to conserve in the old sense. The aristocratic or landed classes of to-day are simply a wing of the “great middle class” in every sense of the word. Land itself is, in the present day, simply one of the forms of fined capital. The landlord’s sole aim is to obtain the greatest amount of surplus value in the form of rent from his land. The reciprocal duties of the medieval lord and tenant, their religious sanctions, and the sentiment they involved, have passed away absolutely and completely. The lord himself is more often than not a trader; he invests the unconsumed portion of his revenue in some business enterprise, and is invariably a shareholder in joint-stock companies, even when he is not a promoter or director of the same. As such his sympathies are as much with “improvements” in machinery, with the extension of railways, the opening-up of the world-market, and the spread of bourgeois civilisation generally, as the middle-class parvenu himself. It becomes more and more evident that we have to-day but two classes in society, – the capitalist class and the working class. The House of Lords is simply a legislative body of capitalists possessed of a special monopoly. The plea which the Conservative of old had is, therefore, no longer valid. All that is now to be conserved are the very things which to the Conservatism of the past were the abomination of desolation. The past, that might have been conceived, in a sense, as worth preserving, has already disappeared, save for some tattered rags, befouled with the filth of a world in which they are an anachronism and an absurdity, and about the continuance of which no one really cares. The true Conservative is, therefore, of necessity as extinct as the dodo; and the modern political Conservative is simply a “Liberal,” or, in other words, an upholder of the modern capitalistic order, trading under another name. It is necessary to point out these things, as there are occasionally to be found Rip van Winkles, who, while bitterly hostile to middle-class Philistinism in all its aspects, yet persist in calling themselves Conservative. The Rip-van-Winkleism in question is, however, it is to be feared, too often no more than a piece of silly affectation and bizarrerie.

Socialism is the great, modern protest against unreality, against the delusive shams which now masquerade as verities. It has this at least, if nothing else, in common with primitive Christianity. Early Christianity affirmed that principle of absolute morality, of individualism, of the mystical relation of the soul to the supernatural, as the basis of religion, which represented the real intellectual tendencies and aspirations of the period, in opposition to the established but unreal state-religion of the Roman Empire, representing, as it did, the forms of things which had ceased to be, viz., the old race-solidarity in communal and city life, and the naive conception of nature as directly personified. Similarly, Socialists to-day affirm the principle of human solidarity through the triumph of the cause of labour, i.e., the real interest of the modern world against the bourgeois civilisation that professes to represent an economic individualism which has ceased to be; and against its ethical and speculative counterpart, the introspection and supernaturalism, which have also ceased be as living realities. The great industry has destroyed the last vestige of the one; science (using the word in its widest sense) has destroyed the last vestige of the other. But in both cases the dead forms remain. The bourgeois moralist is never tired of preaching the reform of the individual character as the first condition of human happiness, ignoring the fact, that science knows of no such thing as an individual character, apart from social surroundings. He holds fast the old fallacious standpoint, according to which individual good men make healthy social conditions, rather than acknowledge the truth that it is healthy social conditions which make good men; in the same way that it is not great men which make history, but (as is recognised by every critical student of history in the present clay) that it is history which makes great men. The old supernaturalist creeds drag on their meaningless existence. Men are classed as Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Moslems, quite irrespective of their real beliefs. By the conditions of their livelihood they are bound to let it be supposed that they give their adhesion to doctrines respecting which they have not given an hour’s thought in their lives, or which they may actually despise in their hearts.

Socialism breaks through these shams, in protesting that no amount of determination on the part of the individual to regenerate himself, however successful he may be in cultivating the correct ethical trim, will of itself affect in aught the welfare of society; that concern for the social whole is the one object of religion; and that the placing above this of any abstract theological ideal, be it Christian, Mussulman, or Buddhist is (to employ the old phraseology) an act of apostacy. On this view the old theological questions, such as that of the continuance of the individual consciousness after death, may be interesting, but have no more ethical or religious importance than other interesting questions, such as that of the origin of the irregular Greek verbs, or of the personal or impersonal authorship of the Homeric poems.

In concluding (with apologies to the reader for having been seduced into extending what should have been an orthodox preface into something like an independent disquisition on Socialism), I will venture to express the hope that the present little volume may, notwithstanding the somewhat promiscuous nature of its contents, be not entirely without suggestiveness to those for whom Modern Socialism has an interest.


Last updated on 14.1.2006