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A Marxist in Ernest

Mark Neocleous reviews John Cowley’s book The Victorian Encounter with Marx: A Study of Ernest Belfort Bax.

One of my favourite titles for a book is Strange Communists I have Known by Betram Wolfe. What baffles me is why it is so short; the author clearly couldn’t have known many communists, since the communist movement has certainly thrown up more strange ones than the handful he discusses. Ernest Belfort Bax is undoubtedly a candidate for such a book, and the work under review suggests why. Bax cut a fine figure: a kind of English Rimbaud in his loosefitting, shaggy, flannel shirts with silk cravat, absent-minded, lost in idle speculation. Unfortunately this is reflected in many of his ideas.

The title of John Cowley’s book is misleading: rather than the Victorian encounter with Marx the book concentrates solely on the life and work of Bax. Born in 1854 Bax was to produce by the time of his death in 1926 a number of works, including the first English review of Marx’s Capital, books on philosophy, socialism and early modern Germany. Cowley is to be commended for tracking down the essays and reviews that Bax produced, as well as researching the relationships between Bax and those around him in the ‘movement’ at the time: Hyndman, Shaw, Bernstein and so on. In this the book is well researched and will provide a useful addition to the literature in this area. However, the book remains for too long on the level of personal history and development and because of this some interesting philosophical dimensions are left undiscussed.

For example, one of the distinguishing features of Bax’s work is that Bax was thoroughly learned in German philosophy, in particular the philosophy of Hegel. It is arguable that it is precisely this that allowed Bax to grasp some of the finer philosophical aspects of Marx’s work, especially the role of the dialectic. This could well explain why Marx was so taken by Bax’s review of Capital. Cowley states that Bax believed that Hegel and Marx between them established the fundamental starting point for enquiring into the nature of reality and social progress, and suggests that Bax criticised both – Hegel for ‘fixing’ on the state and Marx for his ‘preoccupation’ with the economic factor. He suggests that Bax “quite deliberately sought to absorb Marx’s materialist account of the historical development of human societies within the philosophical perspective of Hegel” (p.55), and continuously stresses Bax’s revolutionary politics, especially vis à vis the growing reformist movement.

However, Cowley also recognises that Bax was a philosophical Idealist, which for Kautsky was enough to place Bax in the revisionist camp despite Bax’s criticisms of Bernstein. The book cries out for a longer treatment of this issue, in particular of how, if at all, Bax managed to sustain a revolutionary materialist position whilst remaining a philosophical Idealist. The main concerns of Idealism are mind and its objects. In Hegel, this becomes a concern for the way in which Spirit, as the absolute subject underlying and manifesting itself in all reality, embodies itself in finite subjects, namely man. As such man becomes a vehicle for Spirit, and history changes as Spirit manifests itself in a more complete manner. For Marxists, however, Spirit can never be the subject of history, since this denies the role of human agency and the fundamental understanding that ‘man makes history’. Because of this, revolutionary Marxism and philosophical Idealism have traditionally been thought to be mutually exclusive, if not in downright opposition to each other. Bax’s arguments could therefore provide the basis for a useful philosophical debate about this. Occasionally Cowley allows himself to enter into such a debate, suggesting that ultimately the Idealist position precludes any adequate designation of the immediate concrete possibilities for political action and, more significantly, suggests that Bax’s Idealism is an essentially bourgeois position, which has a tendency to raise theory above the struggles of the working class (p.110,135). At these moments, the moments when Cowley distances himself from Bax and allows himself to engage more freely in political and philosophical discussion, the book is most interesting. Unfortunately there are far too few of them.

A similar problem arises in relation to a number of other themes. For example, one of the features of Bax’s work was his vehement antifeminism. (He wrote The Fraud of Feminism in 1913). This had a number of different elements. On the one hand there is one of the standard revolutionary positions that the focus on the situation of women is an essentially reformist movement that diverts attention away from the class struggle. But on the other hand, and more interestingly, Bax’s dislike of feminism was because he thought that feminists were wrong in believing that “woman is mentally the equal of man”. Bax “sought to demonstrate the mental and emotional differences between men and women which accounted for their contrasting capacities…Bax sifted through all the medical evidence of the time concerning women’s emotional states, prevalent illnesses and the comparable sizes of the male and female brains. It was clear to Bax that all the evidence pointed to clear differences in physical strength, length of life, stamina, emotional states and the amount of ‘grey matter’” (p.88/9). For Bax men and women inhabited two different worlds, physically, emotionally, and intellectually; he even had the medical evidence to prove it.

Likewise although Bax was fiercely critical of the German SPD in its support for the German war effort, perceiving this as the culmination of the growth of revisionism in the socialist movement, he also argued that this had another cause: Prussian militarism. Bax had written a number of books on early modern Germany, the reformation and the Anabaptists. “In the process of writing these studies [Bax] became concerned with what he saw as the growing problem of German chauvinism. It was not simply a problem of the German state but of German socialism too” (p.117). Thus the German SPD betrayed the working class and international socialism not simply because it had been taken over by reformists of various sorts, but because it was at the same time an exemplification of Prussian militarism. In this sense Bax’s argument relied heavily on the notion of a ‘national character’ of “mechanical hardness and brutality” (Bax’s words, p.120).

In relation to these notions, of the essence of both women and national character, a longer discussion is warranted. With regard to women, are Bax’s ideas compatible with his professed radicalism in related areas (he was highly critical of the bourgeois notion of the family, espoused sexual freedom, and argued that socialist society would be based on a “real equality between the sexes”)? With regard to his concept of national character, how did he reconcile this with his vehement internationalism? Most interesting of all would be a longer discussion of these issues in relation to Bax’s philosophical Idealism. Were his ideas about women and national character a product of his position as a ‘Victorian gentleman’, or were they rooted in his penchant for a particular type of philosophy? Cowley hedges his bets: he suggests that Bax’s ‘undoing’ was his philosophical Idealism, but he also points to Bax as a representative of the contradictions of English Victorian socialism.

As a result, a number of potentially interesting discussions do not occur. Had they been undertaken, then Cowley’s effort in uncovering the life of one of the major English socialists, which he has done well, would have also functioned to reveal Bax’s ideas in greater detail. The book could then have served two functions, acting as the basis for a theoretical discussion around some of these issues, as well as serving as a useful biography of a strange figure in the history of English socialism.

The Victorian Encounter with Marx : A Study of Ernest Belfort Bax, by John Cowley, British Academic Press (1993) £34.50 for the hardback (ISBN 1 85043 601 0)

© Mark Neocleous 1993

Mark Neocleous is a research student at Middlesex University and teaches philosophy and politics.

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