Back to Bax - Radical Chains

Belfort Bax belonged to the first generation of British Marxists. He was the philosopher who introduced William Morris to dialectics. From Radical Chains no.1

Submitted by sgel on June 17, 2011

radical chains

As the twentieth century comes to a close welfare socialism appears to be running out along with the sands of time. The great reforming arch of Fabianism recedes into the past and the revolutionary oppositions to that entire project appear as no more than half buried sectarian remains. But it is precisely to this past that we will have to return, examining both the battles fought and the manner of the defeats, if we are to recover the threads of a genuinely revolutionary politics.

A hundred years ago Victorian England, at the very height of its powers, produced the first generation of marxists in this country Among this small circle Ernest Belfort Bax was by for the most original and gifted exponent of the new theory of social revolution. Yet today he lies in obscurity. William Morris and Henry Hyndman are known but the man they both recognised as the "philosopher of the movement" remains an enigma. He was the only one to have lived in Germany and explored first hand the great tradition of German philosophy. At the same time he was the one who most embodied the conventions of Victorian family life. Descended from the gentry he combines their traditions of independence with a loathing for the philistinism and anti- intellectualism of a triumphant bourgeoisie. Unravelling the contradictions of his life offers an insight into the specifically English beginnings of marxism while at the same time highlighting some of its unresolved problems.

Born in 1854, Bax was the youngest of four children, in a rising bourgeois family, that had its roots in the landed gentry of Surrey. His stubborn refusal as a child to take evangelicalism seriously led to his parents keeping him at home, privately tutored, lonely and terrified of the dark recesses of Victorian home life, yet learning in his struggle against parental authority to survive by the sharp use of his intellect. In the mid seventies his father willingly sent him to Germany to pursue his musical studies, casting him off with a yearly stipend. It was then that he absorbed German philosophy and encountered the subversive reasoning of Hegel. He returned to England determined to expose the secrets of Victorian society.

Bax threw himself into his work: articles and translations followed. In 1879 he attended the last annual dinner commemorating the Paris Commune. He met some of the old Communards and one of them, Hermann Jung, introduced him to the writings of Marx and the revolutionary traditions of the workers movement in Europe Later that year he read Das Kapital and henceforth was "practically in the movement". For Bax socialism was simply the logical outcome of his intellectuals labours. In the journal Modern Thought he wrote in quick succession articles on socialism and assessments of Hegel, Wagner and Marx. At last Marx felt that someone in England had really grasped his argument and had a "real enthusiasm for the new ideas themselves" and he wrote to the Russian revolutionary Pyotr Lavrov saying how struck he was by the "sincerely" and "ring of true conviction" in Bax's writing.

During the eighties and nineties Bax combined general publicist work in the pages of Justice, and for a time Commonweal, with a flow of articles on all aspects of socialism. He wrote books on Marat, the French Revolution and the Paris Commune and four volumes on German history all aimed at stimulating an historical imagination, which he felt was lacking within English Culture, and yet was absolutely vital to the revolutionary process. With William Morris, whom he painstakenly educated in Marxist theory, he wrote Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome. But above all it was the great achievements of German philosophy that he sought to publicise. He translated and published Kant's Prolegomena and Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science and a selection of essays by Schopenhauer, Four Fold Root and Will in Nature, but his most influential and successful work was his Handbook to the History of Philosophy. This was the book that so influenced Shaw's intellectual development and helped confirm for Hyndman that Bax was a truly "original thinker". At this time Bax's influence was deep and widespread. .

The individual he had the most decisive influence on was William Morris. The French Marxist Paul Meier in his massive two volume study, William Morris: the Marxist Dreamer (Harvester 1975), points to the decisive influence Bax had in introducing dialectics to Morris. Their close friendship in the eighties brought about a leap in Morris's thinking and was at the basis of the success of Commonweal in those years. Bax introduced his friend to the idea of history as a spiralling not linear process, the unity of opposites and the centrality of class war to contemporary politics. Having come to revolutionary socialism through a study of German philosophy and a reading of Hegel he was unwilling to accept the conclusion that accounts with philosophy had been settled once and for all. By maintaining that Hegel provided the philosophical foundations of scientific socialism he held to what was essentially an idealist position in politics at a time when the whole drift of the workers movement was towards a mechanistic and passive economism as expressed in the writings and leadership of Karl Kautsky. It is interesting that even from this essentially Hegelian position Bax was the first to expose Bernstein's disillusionment with revolutionary socialism and openly accused him of seeking "a mediating principle" between capitalism and socialism and of having thus "lost sight of the ultimate object of the movement." Bax's decisive role in initiating the great "Revisionist Debate" within German Social Democracy in 1896 has recently been acknowledged by the Tudors in their study Marxism and Social Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Internationally Bax was known both for his writings and his work in helping to establish the Second International. Some of his essays were translated into German, French and Russian. His books were widely distributed in America. It was Bax who chaired the meeting at Roubaix that initiated the process of establishing the Second International. He was on good terms with Engels, Plekhanov, Guesde and Lafargue and "the men of the German movement": Liebknecht, Bebel, Singer, Bernstein and Kautsky. He was an acknowledged and respected leader of English Social Democracy.

Some things were less hidden in Victorian England. Bax was a bundle of contradictions: intellectually brilliant but politically inept, gentle yet arrogant, caring yet intolerant man of independent mind and means, he enjoyed a class and sex priviledge long characteristic of a stratum of English intellectuals. All this was writ large in his own life in ways that today would be dealt with far more discretely. His own childhood had been nightmarish, and when in 1893 his wife died leaving him with seven young children he boarded them out and the experience convinced him that the division of labour between the sexes would never be changed short of the most developed of future socialist societies. Consequently when the suffragette movement came to the fore, Bax saw it as an assertion of female priviledge at the expense of men: a demand for equality in public life and the professions that left unquestioned the differing dispositions of male and female and the demands of intellectual as opposed to home life. His anti-feminism, although quietly shared by many of his fellow socialists, became for him a matter of principle. For him the job of socialists was to instil the idea of class war, all reforms were diversionary and none more so than that which sought the equality of the sexes in a capitalist society.

It was a position consistent with the Social Democratic Federation's rejection of compromises in the pursuit of the revolution The commitment to the revolutionary idea succeeded in bringing into the party many of the outstanding working class trade unionists and autodidacts of the period: Harry Quelch, John Burns, Ben Tillet, Will Thorne and Tom Mann. However, it resulted in a sectarianism that rendered the party ineffectual when War was declared in 1914.

Lenin's conclusion concerning the original pioneers of marxism is apt. They had, he said, "learned ...and taught others dialectics ... but in the application of these dialectics they ... proved be so undialectical ... ". They "were 'enchanted' by one definite form of growth of the working-class movement and socialism, forgot about the one-sidedness of this form, were afraid of seeing (its) sharp break-up ... and continued to repeat simple truths, learned by rote, and at first glance incontestable...". Their failure was not a purely intellectual one. Here Bax is exemplary. Few of his generation had a better grasp of dialectics. Yet it was an essentially formal understanding so that when it came to the practical application of dialectics he was as one-sided as any. He belonged to a generation that were never dislodged from the protection of their class and sex privileges and when the crisis of war and revolution finally engulfed Europe they were unable to respond as revolutionaries: whether it was Plekhanov in Russia, Kautsky in Germany or Bax in England. They were still too attached to bourgeois society.