Bourgeois Idols, Commonweal, April 1886, pp.25 & 26.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, pp.106-110.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
There are certain catchwords which have a marvellous charm to calm the breast political, a magic power to levitate the mind captivated by them, out of the regions of mere argument and recognition of facts. Such a hold do these words and the deified abstractions they cover have on the average man of the nineteenth century, that they and they alone are worshipped as the ultimate manifestation of goodness, beauty, and truth. To be opposed to these abstractions is to be condemned as blasphemous against the first principles of rectitude, moral and political.
Let us take Liberty. What a charming phrase that is, what a word to conjure with! What a thrill can be evoked from an average audience by the tub-thumper who waves his hand and pronounces the magic formula “liberty of conscience” or “liberty of contract.” Little recks the applauding bourgeois whether he has the living reality itself, or merely the empty hull from which the soul has long since fled. Little recks he whether the thing he clasps be human or not. Liberty as expressed in Liberty of contract, of conscience, etc., as understood by the bourgeois of to-day, has been dead well-nigh this three centuries and buried since the French Revolution; the shibboleth that now stalks in its semblance is its vampire, and, like other vampires, if has but one function, to suck the life-blood from its living kin – real liberty.
Time was when our modern “liberty of contract.” was the expression of a living reality. Feudal oppression said in effect to the labourer, “You shall only work for one master, for him who is your lord, under whom you were born: you shall work for him for ever, even though he be unjust, harsh, or cruel, and you shall render him his accustomed dues whatever they may be.” As against this principle of traditional status the rising bourgeois world invoked “liberty of contract.” “Liberty of contract” was then a reality as against its negation, the tyranny of status. The victory of contract over status having been once definitively assured, one might have imagined that liberty was thereby assured also. And this is what the bourgeois, thought and thinks still. He will not recognise the subtle change that has come over “liberty of contract” in the moment of its supremacy – that the tyranny to which it opposed itself is now absorbed into itself. So long as the barren form is there, it matters not to him that by means of the modern revolution in the conditions of production and distribution, its content, its living principle is no longer what it was, but the opposite of what it was – that the body of liberty is animated by the soul of slavery. If once the horror of the ordinary Radical at the sacrilegious hand that would boldly transfix the vampire-body, notwithstanding the honoured shape it bears. He feels the blow struck at liberty of contract is a blow struck at himself, at the core of his being. And in this he is surely not unreasonable. For is he not himself the embodiment of a contract-system? What bourgeois sentiment really cares for and has cared for, in its revolt against status, is not liberty, but the development of the bourgeois world. “Liberty of contract” was essential to this development in its war with status and therefore received honour at its hands, not because of liberty, but because of contract – the power of contract being its only means of realisation. Liberty is the bait held out to the proletarian fish covering the hook of contract. Unless labour can be contracted for, i.e., caught by the capitalist, it is of no more use to them than the fish that remain in the sea are to the fisherman. “Liberty” in the sense of the orthodox economist, is, then, in brief, an empty abstraction which stands in flagrant antagonism to the real, the concrete liberty of the Socialist. The abstract liberty of the economist is the liberty to die quickly of starvation or slowly of the same. The Socialist knows no such liberty as this. He cares not for the liberty to change masters with identical conditions in either case; he cares not for the liberty to refuse work and starve quickly or accept it and starve slowly. He would be glad to see such liberty for ever abolished. The liberty he values is the concrete liberty for individuality to assert itself, the leisure or freedom from work and care which is essential thereto, and which, with comfortable circumstances and good surroundings, make up the sine qua non of all real liberty. Thus the “liberty” which to the mind of the latter Middle Ages was an ideal, and which became a real in the earlier phases of the modern world, has evaporated to a sham in the world of to-day.
“Liberty of conscience” is, again, another of the glib phrases so neatly rolled off the tongue, and which are supposed to crush an opponent against whom they are invoked by their mere intrinsic weight. This, too, as employed by the ordinary Freethinker and Radical, is often but a vampire, a semblance of a reality which has ceased to be. The typical British “Freethinker” would regard with horror as a violation of that sacred idol “liberty of conscience,” any attempt under any circumstances to prevent the infusion into mind, incapable of judgment of doctrines which he would admit to be injurious morally and perhaps even physically. His sheet-anchor is argument and reasonable persuasion. But let us take a case. A child or person intellectually incapable either naturally or through ignorance or both, comes under the influence of the Salvation Army or the worst kind of Catholic priest, it matters not which, is terrified by threats of the wrath of God into “conversion,” becomes the slave of General Booth or the “Church,” is warped morally and mentally for life, and in the worst case possibly driven to religious mania. There’s the result of liberty of conscience! The bourgeois Freethinker, hide-bound in this abstraction, is quite oblivious of the fact that, though the form of liberty is there, it does but enshrine the reality of slavery; that it is a liberty to deprive others of liberty. It would be intolerance, forsooth, to suppress the Salvation Army, he will tell you – liberty of conscience demands that the Salvation Army and every other body or individual shall have the privilege of enslaving the mind, of the young or the ignorant by threats or cajolery, of fooling them to the top of their bent. Against this the only weapon he permits himself is argument or persuasion. He forgets that argument is only a reliable weapon when employed against argument, i.e., against a doctrine avowedly based on reason, and that against one which makes its appeal, not to reason, but to faith, fear, and ignorance, argumentative persuasion must be a broken reed. The freedom to hold and propound any proposition, however absurd, as a theory to be judged of, and accepted or rejected at the bar of Reason, is quite another thing from the liberty of the “hot gospeller,” who claims to hold a speculative pistol to the ear of ignorant and weak-minded people by threatening them with damnation if they reject his teaching. The one is of the essence of real liberty, the other is the vampire of a dead liberty of conscience which was only living and real when it was opposed to the positive power of the representatives of dogma over men’s persons and lives. As Gabriel Deville well puts it, “The aim of collectivity is to assure liberty to each, understanding by this the means of self-development and action, since there can be no liberty where there is the material or moral incapacity of consciously exercising the faculty of will ... To permit by religious practices the cerebral deformation of children is in reality a monstrous violation of liberty of conscience, which can only become effective after the proscription of what at present passes muster for religious liberty, the odious licence in favour of some to the detriment of all.” The vampire, bourgeois liberty of conscience, must in short be impaled, before true liberty of conscience can become a healthy living reality.
Let us take another idol. This time we tread on sacred ground indeed – equality between the sexes. Well may the iconoclastic hand tremble before levelling a blow at this new Serapis. Nevertheless here also – as the phrase is understood by the ordinary modern woman’s right, advocate – we are bound to recognise a vampire. In earlier stages of social development, woman was placed in a condition of undoubted social inferiority to man. Into the grounds of this inferiority it is unnecessary here to enter. Suffice it to say it existed, and that against the state of things it implied the cry of “equality between the sexes” was raised, at first in a veiled, and afterwards in an open manner. For some time it represented a real tendency towards equality by the removal of certain undoubted grievances. But for some time past the tendency of the bourgeois world, as expressed in its legislation and sentiment, has been towards a factitious exaltation of the woman at the expense of the man – in other words, the cry for “equality between the sexes” has in the course of its realisation become a sham, masking a de facto inequality. The inequality in question presses as usual, heaviest on working-man, whose wife, to all intents and purposes has him completely in her power. If dissolute or drunken, she can sell up his goods or break up his home at pleasure, and still compel him to keep her and live with her to her life’s end. There is no law to protect him. On the other hand, let him but raise a finger in a moment of exasperation against this precious representative of the sacred principle of “womanhood,” and straightway he is consigned to the treadmill for his six months amid the jubilation of the D.T. and its kindred, who pronounce him a brute and sing paeans over the power of the “law” to protect the innocent and helpless female. Thus does bourgeois society offer sacrifice to the idol “equality between the sexes.” For the law jealously guards, the earnings or property of the wife from possible spoliation. She on any colourable pretext can obtain magisterial separation and “protection.”
Again, we have the same principle illustrated in the truly bestial outcry raised every now and again by certain persons for the infliction of the punishment of flogging on men, for particular offences, notably “assaults on women and children.” As a matter of fact, in the worst cases of cruelty to children, women are the criminals. Some few months back there was a horrible instance in which a little girl was done to death by a stepmother in circumstances of the most loathsome barbarity: yet these horror-stricken advocates of the lash never venture to support flogging as a wholesome corrective to viragos of this description. It would be opposed to middle-class sentiment, which would regard such a proposition as blasphemy against the sacred principle of “femality.” No other explanation is possible, since it can hardly be assumed that even the bourgeois mind is incapable of grasping the obvious fact that a man pinioned and in the hands of half a dozen prison-warders, is in precisely as helpless a condition as any woman in a like cage, and that, therefore, the brutality or cowardice of the proceeding is no greater in the one case than in the other. The bourgeois conception of “equality between the sexes” is aptly embodied in that infamous clause of the “Criminal Law Amendment Act,” which provides that in case of illicit intercourse, between a boy and girl under sixteen years of age, though the girl escapes scot free, the boy is liable, to five years imprisonment in a reformatory.
Even the great Radical nostrum which is supposed to involve the quintessence of political equality, is, when closely viewed, the hollowest of shams. The revolutionary socialist perhaps does not much concern himself about questions of the suffrage, esteeming but lightly the privilege of electing men to help to carry on the present system of society, which he believes destined to perish before long. But looked at from the ordinary point of view, it is quite clear that considering the fact that the female population of England is in excess of the male by about a million, female suffrage, in spite of its apparent embodiment of the principle of equality, really means, if it means anything at all (which may be doubtful) the handing over of the complete control of the state to one sex. These are only a few of the illustrations which might be multiplied almost indefinitely, of the truth that the tendency of the modern middle-class world, is, while proclaiming the principle of “equality between the sexes” in opposition to the feudal subjection of woman, to erect, the female sex into a quasi-privileged class. The real equality between the sexes aimed at by socialism is as, I take it, much opposed to this Brummagem sentiment and sham equality, as it is to the female slavery of ancient times of which, of course, we do not wish to deny that survivals remain even at the present day. With the economic emancipation of woman and the gradual transformation of the state-system of to-day into an international league free communes, the feudal subjection of women to man and the middle-class subjection of man to woman will be alike at an end.
Yet another bourgeois idol – the rights of majorities. The Radical mind, instead of placing before it the concrete ideal – Human Happiness, – erects an abstract idol in its room as the supreme end of all endeavour. The Radical’s first question is not, does such or such a course conflict with social well-being, but does it not violate one of our supreme dogmas? There is no more frequent charge brought against the revolutionary Socialist than that of despotic interference with the right of the majority. Socialism, it is indeed true, in pursuit of its central purpose, treats with scant reverence the household gods of the Radical. The abstract principle of the right of the majority is of as small concern to the Socialist as the equally abstract principle of “liberty of contract” or “ liberty of conscience.” And why? Because, like the rest, the bourgeois “right of the majority” is the vampire of a dead reality. Feudalism, and the centralising monarchical tendency which succeeded feudalism proper, opposed the will of the feudal few or of the monarchies) one to the will of the majority of propertied persons, – i.e., the ruling middle class. The ascendancy of this rising middle class then represented the extent of popular aspiration. The decaying principle was Feudalism and the monarchical Absolutism it left behind it. As against the privilege and traditional status upon which this based itself, Liberalism asserted as its ideal the right of the majority of the people as then understood – i.e., of the middle classes – to self-government. Hard upon the realisation of this ideal has followed its reduction to sham. Conditions are changed in the Western Europe of to-day. With the entrance upon the arena of the modern proletariat of capitalism and the differentiation of class interests therein involved, the old popular sovereignty has become a meaningless phrase. The old majority has ceased to be the majority, – has become a minority, and the new majority is in the thraldom of this minority (the franchise notwithstanding). Capitalist fraud has succeeded to feudal force: the castle has given place to the factory.
The new majority, consisting of the proletariat and all those who suffer from the present system, are in the thrall of Capitalism. With no leisure for thought or education, they are necessarily the victims of every sophism of middle-class economists and politicians, even where they are not directly coerced or cajoled by their masters. The majority know that they suffer, they know that they want not to suffer, but they know not why they suffer, and they know not how they may cease to suffer. The majority, therefore, under a capitalist system will necessarily for the most part vote for the maintenance of that system under one guise or another, not because they love it, but out of sheer ignorance and stupidity. It is by the active minority from out the stagnant inert mass that the revolution will be accomplished. It is to this Socialist minority that individuals, acting during the revolutionary period, are alone accountable. The Socialist, leader or delegate, as such, does not take account of the absolute majority of the population, which consists of two sections – i.e., of those who are interested in the maintenance of the present system and those who are blind or inert enough to be misled by them. To disregard the opinion (if such it, can be called) of these latter is no more tyranny than it is tyranny to hold a drunken man back by force when he seeks to get out of the door of a railway carriage with the train going at full speed. The man does not want to be maimed or killed: he is simply misled by his drunken fancy as to what is conducive to his welfare. In the same way the workman who sides with one or other of the various political parties against Socialism, does not want to be the slave of capital, never certain of his next week’s lodging and food. In coercing him, if necessary, that is, in negativing his apparent aims, you are affirming his real aims, which are, if nothing more, of least to live in comfort and sufficiency. Yet to grant him the semblance of right, the right to perpetuate his own misery through blindness and to deny him the reality of right by keeping him a slave – the slave of free contract – this is the object of the Liberal and Radical, – an object he hopes to accomplish by, among other things, flaunting in his face the nostrum of the inalienable “rights” of numerical majorities to control of the executive machinery of the state, at all times and in all circumstances. Of course, as soon as Socialism becomes an accomplished fact, the inert mass of indifferentism which now clings to the status quo, not from real class interest, but merely through ignorance and laziness, will be dissolved, and its elements pass over to the new status quo of Socialism. The Socialist party will then cease to exist as a party, and become transformed into the absolute majority of the population. Then, and then only, will the right of the majority and the sovereignty of the people be transformed from a sham into a reality – a fuller reality than it ever has been yet.
A few words on one more “idol,” to wit on “justice,” as embodied in the “rights of property.” It is unjust the Bourgeois will tell you, to nationalise or communise the property now in the hands of private persons, since they as individuals have received it in the natural course of things as guaranteed by social conditions present and past. This notion of the right of every man to the exclusive possession of wealth he has acquired without breach of the criminal law, and of the injustice of depriving him of it, is part and parcel of the system of vampire-dogmas and nostrums of which Liberalism and Radicalism are composed. It has been, like the rest, the ideal principle of the middle-class world in its conflict with Feudalism. In the days of the “ small industry,” the artificer and the merchant asserted this principle in opposition to the feudal lord. The middle-class world affirmed the absolute right of the individual over all his belongings as against the claims of the overlord and his prescriptive dues, as against tenure in fee generally, and above all as against the dearest right of the mediaeval baron, the right of plunder and dispossession by force of arms. Security of personal property has ever been the middle-class watchword. Hence this new notion of justice.
In the ancient world it would have been deemed “unjust” for the “tribe,” the “people,” or the “city” to suffer, so long as an individual citizen possessed ought that could relieve that suffering. In the medieval world it would have been “unjust” for the inferior to retain ought that his feudal superior required: while in same cases it would have been “unjust” for the rich man to refuse to give alms to the needy. It would have been “unjust” in the medieval guildsman to have used material of an inferior quality in his work or to have employed more apprentices and journeymen than the rules of his guild permitted. But as we have said, to the corruption and rapacity which characterised the decaying feudal classes at the break up of the mediaeval system, the bourgeois opposed his thesis of the inviolability of private property and of the ideal of justice consisting in the absolute control of his property by the individual. But, like the rest, this principle unimpeachable as it seemed, had no sooner realised itself, than its reality began to wane. Now, in this last quarter of the nineteenth century it is dead, and stalks the world as perhaps the ghastliest “vampire” of all. The immediate cause of its transition from the living to the lifeless is the change from small individual production to co-operative production, – a change which has reached its consummation in the “great industry.” Yet strange to say, the Liberal or Radical can still mouth about the injustice of expropriating the wealthy few for the good of the whole. To him there is no “injustice” in the chronic starvation of myriads of his fellow-men, in the robbery of their labour and health and lives by the rich man by means of his wealth: yet there is “injustice” in depriving the Vanderbilt of a single hundred or the Duke of Argyll of a single acre!
But it is time to drop the curtain on the grim procession. Veritably this last of the bloodless spectres – bourgeois “Justice” – will not bear looking on. It is death on the pale horse habited in nineteenth century humbug. The hope and aim of the Socialist must be to lay these troubled ghosts – to consign them to their lower resting-place. Then will “liberty,” “equality,” “right,” and “justice” once more flourish living and real, not in their old forms indeed, which are henceforth for ever dead and meaningless, but in higher and nobler ones. The evolution which we have: traced in them through their seeming negation to a higher reality is but one instance of the inherent dialectic of the world, in which death and destruction evince themselves the inseparable conditions of life and progress.
Last updated on 14.1.2006