E. Belfort Bax

Socialism and the Sunday Question

(August 1884)

From Justice, 16th August 1884, p.2.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, 1886, pp.54-59.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The question of a “free” Sunday is to no one more immediately important than to Socialists. For a proletariat strong in mind and in body is the first essential to the advent and the success of the revolution in this country as in every other. And no proletariat can be strong in mind or in body which is debarred from the opportunities of the full culture of either. The middle-class employer knows this right well when he protests against any infringement of the “day of rest.” It was M. Guizot, so far as we remember, who in conversation with an English statesman sometime during the year 1848, remarked that the safety of England lay in its Sunday. Allowing for exaggeration, there is much truth in this assertion of the typical middle-class statesman of France. The “safety” of England, from the point of view of its privileged classes, has undoubtedly been conducted to by the British “Beer and Bible” Sunday. A well-conducted English workman, “thrifty and industrious,” is no doubt, kept in a state of dogged contentment by never knowing what leisure intelligently occupied means, by his tastes being carefully kept under, and by his weekly holiday being “empty, swept, and garnished,” of all relaxation. A man who knows nothing to interest him when he is free from work, naturally cares less about reduction of labour. It is culture in its widest sense which makes the revolutionist. By culture we do not mean the mere tools of education furnished by the School Board, but the habit of mind which forces a man beyond the here and the now of his own particular interests or even of the events uppermost in the newspapers at the moment and makes him feel a living interest and part, in the past, the future, the distant. Now it is the absence of culture in this sense which makes the English working classes safe and politically stable. While the French or German workman is occupied with “theories of the reorganisation of society,” the English workman is content to keep his nose to the grindstone, heaping up, may be, a little competence for his old age, and, when political, to concern himself with “practical measures for the improvement of his class.”

That the English Sunday is largely responsible for this state of affairs, we repeat, there is little doubt. But how came the Anglo-Saxon Sunday to be what it is? In mediaeval times, the Sunday was a day of recreation, of fairs, morris-dances, mystery plays, &c., and not of enforced idleness and gloom. The Puritan movement which originated at the end of the sixteenth century in the reign of Elizabeth, gathering force and numbers till the rebellion which cost Charles I his head, embodied in its programme a strong antagonism to the old English Sunday, an antagonism which was accentuated, by the action of the opposite party who took an equally emphatic stand upon the Sunday of tradition. There was nothing merely arbitrary in the position adopted on either side. It was the extreme carrying out of what was involved in the respective attitudes of both parties. The Puritan movement was essentially a movement of the English middle-class, the yeomanry of the country, and the guildsmen of the town as against the remains of the mediaeval aristocratic and church system. The attempt of Charles I to strengthen his prerogative – the shipmoney, the five members – only brought the crisis to an issue; its causes lay far deeper. Protestantism, the new middle-class version of Christianity, and Puritanism, the insular commentary on this version, abolished the festivals of Catholicism which had given the people well-nigh as many additional holidays in the year as there were Sundays. These old festival days here now dedicated to work, and although all work was vigorously interdicted on the Sabbath, so also was all pleasure. This beautiful conception of a “day of rest” was ratified by a Puritan Parliament in the well-known Act of Charles II. Thenceforward the English Sunday became the dreary day it is now. [1]

That it originated in the religious side of the English middle-class revolution of the 17th century does not mean that it has interfered with the material interests of the middle-class. Their zeal for the maintenance of the day as a “day of rest” does not imply the disinterestedness which at first sight might, be supposed. More than a certain amount of work in a year cannot be got out of the “human machine.” Thus, where, as on the continent, there is no religious or legal hindrance to Sunday labour the weekly holiday is obtained in the great industries just the same nevertheless, either on Sundays as in France, or where as in Austria, labour is the rule on that day, on Monday – blue Monday as it is called. Now whether the leisure (which, the employer is forced to concede) be sacrificed on the altar of middle-class creed, or be employed for purposes of recreation or of instruction does not directly affect the pocket of the capitalist. But though it does not directly affect him, it does so very much indirectly, as the English middle-classes have found out. The man who through lack of something else to do is induced to interest himself in the administration of a Baptist chapel, is not so likely to be guilty of the middle-class sin of discontent as the man who uses his leisure otherwise. And such a man is the ideal workman of the British manufacturer.

To sum up the historical and actual aspects of the question. In the Middle Ages and indeed until production for profit became the motive power of the world’s life, religion secured at least a fourth of the year in real holidays for the people; while for the rest, the Catholic Church, which was the conservator of the amusements as it was of the learning of the time, often interposed with effect to protect the serf from overwork. This was the case in England, as elsewhere, before the middle-class rising of 1649, subsequent to which, the religious aspect of the middle-class struggle in its crudest form, viz., Puritanism, the cardinal doctrine of which is the sinfulness of pleasure, suppressed the catholic fête-days of the old “merry England” as well as the traditional an amusements of Sunday. This arrangement has proved so conducive to order and good government that the institution of the British “Sabbath” has rightly come to be regarded as one of the bulwarks of capitalistic “order” in these islands. The twaddle talked abort the “Sabbath” protecting the workman from exaction is seen in its true light when we find that capitalism, in the long run, Sabbath or no Sabbath, is compelled to concede one day’s holiday in the week; and that the only difference is as to what day it shall be and how that day shall be spent: points which the dominant classes in this county arrogate to themselves the right of deciding.

In conclusion we would wish to point out what in our view is the true solution of the Sunday – or rather rest-day – question. And in this we claim to be speaking strictly within the range of “practical politics,” and not from a more advanced standpoint; for in a perfectly organised socialist state where men never worked more than two or three hours a day, the whole question would lose much of its interest and would practically solve itself. Now the fallacy which underlies the whole rationalistic defence for the English Sunday is the assumption that the whole world must rest on the same day if the whole world is to rest at all. This absurd notion of one universal holiday as the only alternative to none, is visible in the modern English equivalent for the mediaeval festivals of St. Peter and St. Paul, to wit, that dedicated to the supreme deity or patron saint of exchange, the Bank. Even here, the tendency is for the whole machinery of labour to cease at once, while on Sunday this actually takes place as far as possible. Now, I ask, could anything well be more irrational or more senseless than such a proceeding? It is obvious, if leisure is to be enjoyed usefully as regards mind or body some portion of the community must labour to enable the rest to profit by their holiday. Horrible injustice! shriek the quondam humanitarian defenders of the British Sunday in chorus, you would make others work on the “day of rest” for your pleasure! I answer we would give every single worker at least one day of rest a week a blessing which a good many do not enjoy now (for all your English “Sabbath”) and cannot in the nature of things enjoy, do what you may, while all are supposed to rest on the same day. But we would surrender once and for all this chimerical notion of one day of universal rest, and institute three days a week, or if necessary more, as; days of partial rest; i.e., on which the different sections of he community would be freed from labour in turn. In this way each section would be able rely to profit, physically and mentally, by their leisure, inasmuch as they would have the advantage of the labour of the rest of the world just as another day the rest of the world would have the advantage of their labour. Thus the “Sabbath” with its gloom would be for ever abolished and the weekly, or if you will, bi-weekly, holiday could be made a day of real enjoyment for all.




1. Puritanism the insular guise of the larger movement of Protestantism which was the religious aspect of middle-class domination, formally abolished the outward relation of religion to daily-life. Under Catholicism, the old pagan feeling of the unity of human interests still survived, neither work nor amusement were altogether dissociated from religion. Puritanism finally separated them, and the Puritan Sunday in which all work and amusement are alike impious as an expression of this separation.


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