The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

A Few Words on Socialism

Some days I feel like my shadow's casting me
Some days the sun don't shine
Sometimes I wonder why I'm still running free
All up and down the line

Warren Zevon, The Wind

Here's an unorthodox conception of Socialism, from one of the most orthodox Socialists, E. Belfort Bax:

I propose to devote a few words to defining my position as regards the contention of comrade Gould, for it seems to me the whole question is one of definition. Now, comrade Gould would define Socialism as the 'public ownership of the vital industries.' I should define it, in so far as it can be defined at all in a short formula, as the realisation of the old revolutionary trinity - liberty, equality, fraternity - involving transformation of our existing state-world into a social world, of our Civitas into a societas, the central, albeit not only, condition being the communisation of the means of production, &c. I say not only condition, inasmuch as there are forms which the infringement of liberty, equality and fraternity may take which are not directly or exclusively economic in their origin. Coercion in all matters of opinion or of taste constitutes such an infringement of liberty. Hence those who advocate coercion in these matters I decline to regard as Socialists. Freedom for all individuals in self-regarding matters I hold to be essential in Socialism. Again, what is known as patriotism (or jingoism) namely, the sentiment which seeks to place the particular nation-State into which one has been born above other nation-States, or which does not recognise the solidarity of interest of progressive mankind - especially of the disinherited classes of modern civilisation - I consider incompatible with Socialism, inasmuch as it implies a negation of equality.

Hence I cannot regard persons who in any positive manner hold such views as these as properly belonging to the Socialist Party. Comrade Gould, himself, presupposes toleration as a sine qua non in his characterisation of future society. And yet he would consent to regard persons whose principles otherwise involved the negation of toleration as having a place with him in the 'Socialist Circle'! Mind you, the 'Socialist Circle'! If our friend Gould had said he was prepared to confer with these persons for the attainment of an immediate political or economic object, I could understand his position. I would do so myself, just as I might enter into an alliance with a Liberal, a Conservative, or an Irish Nationalist for such an object. But I should certainly not regard them as belonging to the 'Socialist Circle.' And their professed adhesion to the economic formula of Socialism would not of itself be good enough to alter my attitude essentially towards them in this respect.

Comrade Gould would deny any ethical function of Socialism. 'Strictly speaking,' he says, 'the functions of Socialism are only industrial.' From this thesis, needless to say, I most emphatically dissent. Socialism is all ideal, the expression of which, economically, is the communistic organisation of industry, because this is the material foundation of its realisation. As I said before, the whole question turns upon definition, and I contend I am both historically and actually justified in my definition. Human life is concrete, and the attempt, as I have so often urged, to separate it up into water-tight compartments is, in the last resort, impracticable. No one objects to uniting with persons holding the most opposite political views for immediate purposes. But that is quite a different thing from regarding or treating persons whose whole outlook on life is out of harmony with the Socialist ideal as 'comrades' and members of the Socialist Party. Personal liberty in self-regarding matters, freedom of thought, the belief in international solidarity through the union of the working class of all countries for its emancipation, the supremacy in matters affecting the whole community of reason and demonstrable fact as opposed to private dogma and traditional belief - all these things belong for me to the 'essential Socialism.' I would, by no means, deny the name of Socialist to a man who differs from me, or, for that matter, from the general party, on matters of detail, questions of tactics, or special policy. But I once more insist that no mere adhesion to the economic formula will constitute a Socialist of the man who holds views on the above fundamental points (non-economic though they be) out of harmony with the spirit of Socialism as I have defined it.
It may be convenient for electioneering purposes to represent Socialism as indifferent if not favourable to religious hypocrisy, to moral humbug, and to every conventional principle - however baneful, however destructive of liberty, however incompatible with equality, however deadly to fraternity - provided it does not directly traverse the letter of the economic formula; but it is a falsification, and a falsification that will find you out in the long run. The man who wants to bully his fellow-men forcibly into accepting conventional theories on religion, on marriage, on royalty, on patriotism, etc., friend Gould, as I understand him, would have us greet as a Socialist 'comrade' provided he can mouth his adhesion to the bare economic formula, no matter with what implications or reservations, and no matter how much his attitude on other issues contradicts the recognised spirit of Socialism. Against such a view as this I cannot sufficiently protest,
popular and sound common-sensible though it may be.
The mere repetition of an abstract Socialist formula is not of itself sufficient to constitute a man a Socialist. He must be prepared to adopt and act upon the implications which the formula directly involves. Thus his adhesion to the doctrine of the class war involves his opposition to all measures subserving the interest of any section of capitalism. This, coupled with his Internationalism, leaves him no choice but to be the enemy of 'his country' and the friend of his country’s enemies whenever 'his country' (which means, of course, the dominant classes of his country, who always are, for that matter, his enemies) plays the game of the capitalist. Let us have no humbug. The man who cannot on occasion be (if need be) the declared and active enemy of that doubtful entity 'his country' is no Social-Democrat.


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