E. Belfort Bax

The Commercial Hearth

(May 1886)

The Commercial Hearth, Commonweal, 8th May & 15th May 1886, pp.42 & 50.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, pp.136-145, as The Capitalist Hearth.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE throne, the altar, and the hearth – the political emblem, the religious emblem, and the social emblem – have long constituted the mystic trinity to which appeal is made when popular class-sentiment is required to be invoked against influences, disintegrative of the status quo. In the bourgeois world of to-day the first two terms may be sometime modified. The middle-class man’s respect for the throne per se may, be more or less diluted; he may even prefer to substitute for it the presidential chair, but in either case it is the “law” – the legal system of a class-society – which is typified; to the altar he might possibly prefer the “Bible,” by which he would wish to be understood Protestant dogmas without the inconveniences of direct sacerdotal domination. Such slight modifications of the original formulae as these matter little, however, since in any case the old feudal sentiment for the liege temporal and spiritual has been long since dead. The old formula may, therefore, be conveniently adopted as an indication of the three aspects of the modern world, which its votaries are so jealous of preserving. Beneath throne, altar, and hearth, in their present form, all socialists know that there lies the market. They know that the market is the bed-rock on which the throne, the altar, and the hearth of the nineteenth century rest, and that this bed-rock shattered, the said throne, altar, and hearth will be doomed.

Respecting the throne and the altar we have not much to say in the present article. It is with the bulwark of social life, the hearth, otherwise expressed as modern family-life that we are here chiefly concerned. We refer more especially to the family life whose special architectural expression is the suburban villa. This is the ideal of the middle-class family of a “lower” i.e., poorer degree, while in those of a “higher,” i.e., richer degree, its characteristics are exaggerated into the rank luxuriance symbolised in the brand-new country mansion. Let us consider briefly the characteristics of the suburban villa in its daily life, and surroundings much as we would that of some ancient people, as thus:–

I. Household Ways; early morning (item 1) Prayers. (2) breakfast. (3) Departure of paterfamilias and sons to business, Journey beguiled by morning papers and conversation resembling for the most part undigested “leaders” from same. (N.B. The modern journalist is, as it were, the cook who boils down and seasons up into a presentable entree the “dead cats” of middle-class prejudice.) (4) At home the wife and daughters, after a possible feint at domestic duties, prepare for “shopping.” (5) “Shopping,” the main occupation in the day for the woman of the middle class being over, luncheon follows, then calls, then afternoon tea. (6) Return of paterfamilias, more or less worried with his daily round of laboriously endeavouring to shift money from his neighbour’s pocket into his own, wearied, i.e., and degraded, with doing no useful work whatever. (7) Evening taken up with sleep, or conversation on the affairs of the family; together with its relations and connections, varied with the indifferent performance of fashionable music and the perusal of “current” literature. The above, we contend, is a fair picture of the type toward which the daily life of the average English middle-class family gravitates. We have said English, inasmuch as the commercial system has been more potent in its effect on English domestic life than on that of any other European people; but the same tendency to vapidity, inanity, pseudo-culture, which is the worst form of lack of refinement, obtains to a greater or less extent wherever a commercial middle-class exists. A few words now on the art, the literature, the sentiment, moral and religious, of the class in question.

First, as to the house decoration. Not to speak of furniture proper, what do we see on the walls? Art embodied in “furniture” pictures, among them often times the terrible counterfeit presentment of connections of the family, which, were there a vestige of taste left in the household management, would never be exposed to the gaze even of the casual visitor. The superficiality of average middle-class culture is painfully illustrated in the complete ignorance displayed by the middle-class man or woman as to the ugliness or commonplaceness of his or her relations. We quite admit, that, the ancestors or “connections” of a family, may have a certain historical importance for those interested in its natural history, but, save in a very few cases, the interest attaching to them is limited to this. Now, we contend that this does not justify the obtrusion of what is intrinsically disagreeable. There is undoubtedly considerable historical interest in (say) a well-preserved human abortion, but inasmuch as there is that in it which is intrinsically unpleasant, the savant of sensibility keeps it reserved under lock and key for private contemplation. True culture gives a man the powers of rising above the standpoint of his immediate interests and of taking an objective view of things. It may be too much to expect of a man ever to see himself as others see him, but surely he might see his relations as others see them.

Apart from portraits what other art does our middle-class parlour present? “Reproductions” by processes varying in badness according to the length of the family purse. In some instances these mechanical reproductions may be of the old masters, in which case they are perhaps the best thing procurable in the way of art. But for the artist it is surely a melancholy best when art in the family is represented by such. Again, let us take furniture and household decorations. A visit to any large upholsterer’s shop will suffice to show the superficiality of the varnish of “taste” in matters decorative, even where absolute sordidness does not prevail. But the English lower middle-class family parlour, or the never-entered drawing-room of the next grade! Can the “family” which alas produced these things be in any way worth preserving?

If it be thought that its art and furniture are only superficial, local, and temporary accidents of the modern family, it is only necessary to turn to the rest of its products, to be convinced how very consistently everything connected with it hangs together. Its literature may be divided into two classes – the variable and the constant. The first consists in the circulating library three-volume novel, in which one section of middle-class womanhood delights; the second in “books” designed for “family reading.” mostly of a moral or religious tendency, got up in bright colours and gilt leaves, and available at every suburban or provincial bookseller’s or stationer’s shop, in which another section delights. This class of literature, by the production of which many clergymen of insufficient stipend, and spinsters with disordered organic functions, gain a livelihood; was until the last few years the sole kind certain to be available in the typical middle-class “home.” Its way of life, it must be admitted, has fallen some what into the sere and yellow leaf of late, but it flourishes more or less still, as the publishing firms of Griffith &- Farran, Nisbet & Co., the Religious Tract Society, and even Cassell, Petter & Galpin, will testify.

Closely connected with this subject is that of religious practices. Religion in one or other of its forms is a staple ingredient of bourgeois family life in this country. It constitutes the chief amusement of the women of the family, who find in Sunday school teaching, district visiting, bazaars, etc., a virtuous mode of relieving themselves of the ennui which otherwise could not fail to overtake their empty lives. The singular part of it is, that with all the attempts of these respectable unfortunates to enlighten and elevate the “poor,” there is an entire absence of all suspicion that they themselves need enlightening and elevating. Of late years we note, as a sign of the times, that there has been a tendency to modification of the teaching from theology to economy. Evangelicism with its “conversions,” its “changes of heart,” has fallen decidedly flat of late, even with that half-educated middle class, which some quarter of a century ago were its most prominent votaries. It is tacitly acknowledged to be out of date. Its catchwords, moreover, now that they have been dragged through the Salvation Army, and had to serve as convenient trade-marks for tea, sugar, and other groceries, and, in fact, make themselves generally useful to the enterprising firm of Booth & Sons, look decidedly the worse for wear. After the appearance in a provincial town (as reported in the newspapers some time ago) of the ingenious advertisement of a Salvation Army meeting, running, “Why give 10d. a pound for mutton when you can get the lamb of God for nothing?” the well-known phrase is perhaps deemed spoiled for the ministrations of the respectable wife or daughter. There is the possible danger of getting mixed-up with the “army” and its proceedings. Be this as it may, the fact remains that “thrift,” “teetotalism,” “industry,” and the rest, of the economic virtues, are superseding “immediate repentance,” “coming to the Saviour,” etc., as the subjects for exhortation in the visitation of the poor.

But, however unfashionable the old dogmatics may become, there is one institution which will certainly hold its own so long as the bourgeois family lasts, and that is the “place of worship.” In contemporary British social life the church or chapel is the rendezvous or general club for both sexes; it is the centre, in many places, round which the melancholy institution of the suburban or provincial evening party circulates. It is the bureau de marriage for the enterprising youth who goes to business to qualify for “success in life,” and the commercial virgin anxious to be settled, to meet and form connections. Besides all this, it serves the purpose of a fashionable lounge, where the well-dressed may disport themselves and make physiognomical observations if that way inclined. So, all things considered, the “place of worship” may watch unconcernedly the decay of dogma so long as the “great middle class” maintains its supremacy – in this country at least.

We defy any human being to point to a single reality, good or bad, in the composition of the bourgeois family. It has the merit of being the most perfect specimen of the complete sham that history has presented to the world. There are no holes in the texture through which reality might chance to peer. The bourgeois hearth dreads honesty as its cat dreads cold water. The literary classics that are reprinted for its behoof it demands shall be rigorously Bowdlerised, even though at the expense of their point. Topics of social importance are tabooed from rational discussion, with the inevitable result that erotic instances of middle-class womanhood are glad of the excuse afforded by “good intentions,” “honest fanaticism,” and the like things supposed to be associated with “Contagious Diseases Act” and “Criminal Law Amendment” agitations, to surfeit themselves on obscenity. And these are the people who cannot allow unexpurgated editions of Boccaccio or even of Sterne or Fielding to be seen on their drawing-room tables! Then again, the attitude of the “family” to the word “damn.” Now, if there is a honest straightforward word in the English language – a word which the Briton utters in the fulness of his heart – it is this word; and precisely, as it would seem, for this reason it is a word which is supposed never to enter the “family;” even newspapers, in order to maintain their right of entrance to the domestic sanctuary, having to print it with a “d” and a dash – the meaning of which euphemism, by a polite fiction the “wife” or “daughter” is supposed not to understand But the word is coarse and offensive in itself, the bourgeois may retort. You have tried to make it so, I reply, by classing it with the filthy and inane, phrases, bred of the squalor which modern capitalism creates, but in reality it is good, expressive English. Nay, more, it has “higher claims on your consideration” – to employ one of your own phrases, – it bears the impress of Christianity upon it; for is it not to Christianity that we are indebted for the “spiritual significance” of the word? It was always a puzzle to me why the bare allusion to a Christian institution should be so offensive to the ears of the Christian household. In fact, in common consistency you ought to reduce the “damns” of your New Testaments to “d—s,” to make the work suitable for family reading. You do not do this, and why? Because your real objection to the colloquial “damn” is, as already remarked, that it has a ring of honest sentiment in it; against which your sham family sentiment revolts.

Let us take another “fraud” of middle-class family life – the family party. That ever and anon a wide circle of friends should meet together in a spirit of good fellowship is clearly right and rational; but the principle of the family party is that a body of persons often having nothing whatever in common but ties of kinship extending in remoteness from the definiteness of blood relation to the indefiniteness of connection – that such a motley crew – should meet together in exclusive conclave, and spend several mortal hours in simulated interest in each other. Now a cousin, let us say, may be an interesting person ; but very often he is not. If he is not, why should one be expected every 25th of December or other occasion, to make a point of spending one’s leisure with a man who is a cousin but not interesting, rather than with another man who is interesting but not a cousin? The reason is, of course, that the tradition of the “family” has to be kept up. A “relation,” however remote, is, in the eyes of bourgeois society, more to a man than a friend, however near. So relations, male and female, congregate together on certain occasions to do dreary homage to this “family” sentiment.

On the same principle the symbolical black of mourning is graduated by the tailor and milliner in mathematically accurate ratio, according to the amount, not of affection, but of relationship. The utter and ghastly rottenness of Bourgeois family sentiment, is in nothing more clearly evinced than in the mockery of grief and empty ostentation of tailoring and millinery displayed on the death of a near relation. What is the first concern of the middle-class household the instant the life-breath has left one of its members but to “see after the mourning,” as the expression is? Surely, to a person of sensibility the notion that the moment he enters on his last sleep his or her relations will see about the mourning” may well impart to death a terror which it had not before, and this act as an incentive to carefully-concealed suicide. We believe indeed the frequency of “mysterious disappearances” in middle-class circles maybe largely explained by this, without resorting to far-fetched hypotheses of midnight murders on the Thames embankment, and the like? To signify a bereavement to the outer world (if so desired) by a band of crape on the sleeve or hat, or some such simple emblem, is one thing; to eagerly take advantage of the bereavement for the purpose of decking out the person in trousers designed in the newest cut adapted for the display of the male leg, or “bodies” in which the fulness of the female breast is manifested, is quite another, and nothing less than a ghastly travesty of the sentiment.

This, then, is the “hearth,” this the family life, the family sentiment, which certain writers are so jealous of preserving. In vain do enthusiastic young persons band themselves together, under the benediction of the “old man” of Coniston, into societies of St.. George, in the hope that the low level of modern social life, with its vulgarity, its inanity, and its ugliness, by some wondrous educational stimulus, emanating from their own enthusiastic and artistic souls, may undergo a process of upheaval. After some years of Ruskinian preaching, what is the net result? A sprinkling of households among specially literary and artistic circles where better things are attempted, and so far as the elements of furniture and decoration are concerned, perhaps with some measure of success. But even here you commonly find the counterbalancing evil inevitably attending a hothouse culture out of harmony with general social conditions – viz., affectation and self-consciousness. No healthy living art or culture has ever been the result of conscious effort. When it, comes to saving “go to, now, let us be wise,” or “let us be artistic,” it is quite certain that the wisdom or art resulting will not be worth very much. The distinction between an artificial culture of this sort, which is cut off from the life of the society as a whole, and the natural culture which grows out of such life, is as the difference between a flower plucked from its root arid withering in the hand, and the same flower growing in luxuriance on its native soil. For what, after all, has modern art to offer but at best the plucked flowers of the art of the past, which sprang out of the life of the past? Your societies of St. George, your esthetic movements, etc., only touch a fringe of the well-to-do classes: they have no root in the life of the present day; and because they have no root they wither away, and in a few years remain dried up between the pages of history to mark the place of mistaken enthusiasm and abortive energies. It. is surely tune that these excellent young people, together with their beloved prophet, descended for a while from their mount of Ruskinian transfiguration, with its rolling masses of vaporous sentiment, to the prosaic ground of economic science, and saw things as they are. [1] They would then recognise the vanity of their efforts, and the reason of this vanity to lie in their disregard of the economic foundation and substructure of all human affairs; they would see the radical impossibility of the growth of any real art, culture, or sentiment, in the slimy ooze of greed and profit-mongering – in other words, in a society resting on a capitalistic basis. They would see, further, that the end of the world of profit and privilege cannot be attained by enthusiasms, good intentions, or any available farm of class culture, but will have to be reached by a very different route – maybe through February rioting; and possibly still rougher things.

The transformation of the current family-form, founded as it is on the economic dependence of women, the maintenance of the young and the aged falling on individuals rather than on the community, etc., into a freer, more real and, therefore, a higher form, must, inevitably follow the economic revolution which will place the means of production and distribution under the control of all for the good of all. The bourgeois “hearth, with its jerry-built architecture, its cheap art, its shoddy furniture, its false sentiment, its pretentious pseudo-culture, will then be as dead as Roman Britain.



Note (by William Morris)

1. I think that whatever damage Ruskin may have done to his influence by his strange burst of fantastic perversity, he has shown much insight even into economical matters, and I am sure he has made many Socialists; his feeling against Commercialism is absolutely genuine, and his expression of it most valuable. - W.M.


Last updated on 14.1.2006