Ernest Belfort Bax

Dead Sea Fruit

(20 April 1895)

Dead Sea Fruit, Justice, 20th April 1895, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Those of us who have attained, or who are attaining, towards, middle life will remember the echoes of the days and ideals of ’48. They were still alive in the sixties. The sterling Democrat still glowed at the mention of Kossuth, Deak, Crispi, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Ruge, Vogt, Ledru Rollin and their kindred. He still prostrated himself before the idol of national unity and independence – united Italy, united Germany, independent Hungary, and all the rest of the united and independent flummery by which fools of honest but narrow-minded political Democrats were capable of being roused to enthusiasm, and in some cases heroic self-sacrifice in the stormy days of ’48. This was what Democracy meant in the time before Social-Democracy was born, and while it was still in its infancy. With the exception of Mr. Joseph Cowen I suppose the last English representative of this school died in the person of the late Mr. Reynolds.

It would be interesting to know what these sturdy enthusiasts of half a century ago or less would say to the Europe of to-day in which all their hopes have been accomplished – if they could but visit it, not as decrepit and senile old men, but in the freshness of their youthful glow ! Their ideals which seemed so fair to look on, all realised, and how? United Germany, groaning under the vastest and most completely organised system of barrack-room despotism the world has ever seen – a law under discussion which shall not merely stifle all public discussion, but place the liberty of every person at the mercy of the police spy, and of private spite. The French national Republic, Victor Hugo’s “La Republique,” “ ma mere,” wallowing in Panamism alternating with attacks of grovelling funk over some dynamite cartridges, followed by maniacal outbursts of repressive legislation, which would out-Bonaparte either Napoleon. United Italy at the door of bankruptcy, groaning under a weight of taxation greater than any modern state has seen before, some of her noblest citizens rotting in dungeons, at the behest of one of the precious “patriots” of ’48; schoolboys locked up for chalking “Down with Crispi” on a wall, the Banca Romana casting its benign smile over all. “Independent Hungary,” face to face with a burning agrarian question, and likewise enjoying in full measure the blessings of the drill-sergeant and the tax-gatherer! Ye have it now all for which ye strove! Centralised modern police-states have everywhere taken the place of the quasi-independent and semi-feudal principalities which vegetated on into the period of awaiting “National aspiration,” patriotic fervour and constitutional government.

The poor fools who cheered the blatherskite of the “patriots,” the Kossuths, the Mazzinis, the Ledru Rollins, who could wax enthusiastic over struggling nationalities striving to attain their independence, unity, and a national existence,” all of which beautiful phraseology, translated into sober reality read the policeman, the drill-sergeant, and the taxing-officer – ought indeed to find modern Europe a paradise. We have the last echo of ’48-ism in the Irish Home Rule movement. It is a significant and a hopeful sign that the (abstractly speaking) undeniably just demand of Irish Home Rule can evoke not a note of enthusiasm among the working classes. It is not that any Democrat worth the name would wish to debar the Irish nation from such a “blessing,” it is not for want of sympathy with the Irish people. But we instinctively feel this political nostrum to be too worthless a thing to care one “tinker’s damn” about. Irish Home Rule is dead as an election cry because the democracy, or at least the politically-intelligent working-class section of it has got beyond the bourgeois ideals of ’48. The working man of today is now too old a bird to be caught with that chaff’. Even when he does not know exactly why, he instinctively feels that mere political forms in themselves mean very little, and that national conformations are less than nothing and vanity. In fact their only purpose is to subserve the silliest form of vanity that ever entered into the head of mortal man or woman – rational vanity.

No one could deny, of course, that the movement of ’48 effected some political reforms, but they were all limited by the interests of a class. It has even been urged that the very nationalist centralising mania, which issued in the perfecting of the modern bureaucratic police-state supplied a lever for the growth of Social-Democracy; and that except, for example, under a centralised, bureaucratic Germany, the organisation of the Socialist Party as at present would have been impossible. This is a point of view which might perhaps be disputed on the ground that the undeniable gains to agitation and organisation afforded by political centralism on the one side are more than compensated by disadvantages on others. Reformation-Germany was anything but an united, independent police-state, and yet the movements of the 16th century not merely spread from end to end of German-speaking Europe quite as rapidly as modern Social-Democracy has done, but bore effective fruit in a way they never could have done under modern centralist conditions. But whatever opinion we may have on this point does not materially affect the present question, since with the ’48-er and his school the mere centralism itself – the national “unity” the “independence” – was not incidental to other ends, but was the ultimate ideal of his political agitation.

It only illustrates the fatalism of historical progress that the working classes should have been got to wax enthusiastic over being made the goat by whose horns the bourgeoisie was to help itself on to terra firma. For the only serious result of the whole national-centralist movement has been to further the creation of a proletariat and the aggregation of capital. There is little doubt that “home rule” would have the effect of stimulating capitalist enterprise in Ireland (hitherto industrially backward), and turning a peasant population into a proletarian population, with a background of industrial capitalists in the towns, and middle-sized landowners in the country. Similarly, Poland, the only other European country still yearning for national “unit “ and “independence,” would doubtless, if it got it, also develop a great impulse in the direction of national industrial capitalism, and therefore of an increased proletariat. This, it is true, it might be said would serve as a seed ground for Socialism. But here again we must repeat that this dynamico-historical point of view was not the one taken up by the enthusiasts of national centralised states. On the principle of making things worse in order that they may in the end become better there may be something to be said for nationalist aspirations, as there may for a good many other things which, nevertheless, most of us do not advocate But apart from this way of looking at it, it is difficult to conceive how an otherwise sane man could ever have thought it worth sacrificing a single hair of his moustache in order to pluck that rottenest of dead sea fruit called, in the swelling periods of patriotic orators, “unity,” “independence,” a “sense of national existence,” but which translated into reality assumes the will known features of the drill-sergeant, the police agent, and the fiscal functionary.

Significant it is that the bitterest opponents of all proletarian and Socialist movements are, and have been, precisely the leading “patriots” of the ’48 period, your Mazzinis, your Kossuths, and your Crispis. Moral, beware of bogus ideals which do not touch the economic question!


E.B. Bax


Last updated on 26.5.2004