E. Belfort Bax

Reason v. Rhetoric

(January 1887)

E. Belfort Bax, Reason v. Rhetoric, To-day, January 1887, pp.14-18.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Max O’Rell, in a recent publication, describing his experiences at St. Paul’s School, relates how the phrase calmez-vous being on one occasion translated literally by a pupil, he requested him to give a freer rendering, whereupon the young gentleman substituted for “ calm yourself,” the more, idiomatic “ keep your hair on, old man.” Now, I must confess that on the first perusal of Mr. Marson’s “wild and whirling” words the above freer rendering of calmez-vous seemed to answer all the demands of criticism in the case. However, one would not willingly touch a Christian minister with what might seem to some persons like unbecoming levity, so as the Editor of To-day has kindly placed a page or two of this number at my disposal, I propose to make briefly a few remarks on the subject of Mr. Marson’s effusion.

I will do Mr. Marson the justice to state at once that I refuse to believe him to be the black scoundrel he paints himself, thirsting to revenge himself on his personal enemies with ragged sticks, explosive bullets and Battle’s Vermin Killer; on the contrary, I regard him as withal a most amiable gentleman. Not that I would justify the “lath-like youth,” in stepping in between Mr. Marson and the “wife of his bosom.” To do so, would, I admit, under ordinary circumstances be a wrong to Mr. Manson, and an immoral act, just as though the said youth had poisoned the mind of Mr. Marson’s friend against him. But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Marson had been deceived in this hypothetical Mrs. Marson. He married her as a person of good taste. She proves to have a strain of bad taste or even vulgarity in her. She prefers the “lath-like youth” to Mr. Marson, encourages this youth’s advances, and finally elopes with him. Then I should say that, if Mr. Marson proposed to pursue the fugitive pair with ragged sticks, explosive bullets and Battle’s Vermin Killer, he was a person to be placed under restraint. However I don’t want to be hard on Mr. Marson’s ferocity, because I know that from transpontine melodrama upwards, “public opinion” considers it fine and manly to talk “brutal” in matters of this kind. The impartial reader hardly needs to be reminded that grotesque misrepresentation, such as those Mr. Marson’s article bristles with, of the views with which he disagrees are about as fair as though a member of the “Liberty and Property Defence League” should accuse Mr. Marson (who I suppose professes not to believe in the absolute inviolability of private property) of advocating pocket-picking, or that the same individual should declare Christian Socialism to involve snatching the food from another man’s hand or wrenching the bed from under him.

Mr. Marson pronounces the ex-cathedra dictum that there is only one ideal possible in sexual relations, and that that of course is his ideal, a style of argument which may suit Mr. Marson but to which other people may take exception. Those whom the rev. gentleman anathematises (the language bien entendu of this irascible parson, for choiceness of epithet leaving the “irascible cab-driver” far behind) think they find a good many other ideals not merely possible but actualised in other conditions of society; and they may be not quite so dogmatic on the subject of present or future ideals as our friend; nay, they may even believe in the possibility of some form of the family quite different from the monogamic one obtaining in the future. But no matter. Let us accept Mr. Marson’s doctrine for the nonce. The state, we are told, is to assume “that the bride and bridegroom are inspired by this ideal love” ( i.e., “love undivided and everlasting”) whether they are or not. In other words, the state is to be founded partly, at least, on a hypocritical lie. I confess that, possibly owing to my lack of the true Christian spirit, this prospect does not inspire me. Who wants to prevent any men and women uniting in “love undivided and everlasting?” Who objects to aught but the canting Shibboleth? Stripped of verbiage Mr. Marson’s ideal, I repeat, is to force men and women to live a lie. Deck your lie in “the white robes” and other stage-production of the “purity”-monger, and like a sheeted ghost it will gibber at you, notwithstanding.

If it mean anything else, then it can only mean the happily impossible attempt to force abstinence on the majority of persons. Now Mr. Marson may call this the “wholesome discipline of chastity.” But if his chastity means abstinence, then it is Mr. Marson and not the Socialist League who advocate “filthiness” and “uncleanness of mind and life”; for of all the really unwholesome states, of all soils most productive of filthiness, lewdness, and beastliness of mind and body, it is the soil of abstinence – that is of course among those with whom the sexual instinct is normally developed. Had the sexual act been painful instead of pleasant, it is quite certain that “religion and morality” would have placed “abstinence” among the deadly sins. In the opinion of Mr. Marson’s opponents, abstinence and concupiscence are precisely on a level, inasmuch as they are both detrimental to the highest interests of humanity. St. Anthony and even St. Augustine no less than Tiberius and Elagabalus were men of “unclean mind and life.” The fact is, all these worthies thought a great deal too much about their nether selves; the first-named in one way, the last-named in another. In the society of the future we trust people will not be perpetually maundering either on the beauties of chastity or the delights of concupiscence. We believe that men will neither suppress nor unduly exalt their animal instincts; but will allow them all a healthy exercise. If this is “degrading men to satyrs,” then in my humblest judgment (as an eminent Socialist is fond of saying) Socialist satyrs are preferable to Christian men. In this connection, I would suggest to Mr. Marson some titles for future articles. The Socialist League has not as yet taken to advocating Dr. Succi’s extract as a substitute for food, although this also might be a “wholesome discipline.” On the contrary, I have seen some of its members eating solid meals. Here then is an opportunity for Mr. Marson to let us know something in the same strain, about Christian Socialism v. Glutton Socialists. Again, the League does not profess Teetotalism; why not favour us with a disquisition on Christian Socialism v. Drunkard Socialists? Mr. Marson will pardon my making these suggestions which I thought might have escaped him in spite of his exuberant imagination.

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is cant; and the last intrenchment of cant is the sexual relation – the cant of purity (miscalled), and I trust the Socialist League, with every other branch of the Socialist party, will never tire of assaulting it till they have destroyed it. Rhetorical “fustian” belauding the conventional view of the relations of the sexes and scurrilously vituperating those who presume to doubt its perfection is very cheap. Any supernumerary of the D.T. on the look out for an odd job in the neighbourhood of Fleet Street, will doubtless supply Mr. Marson with a column or two of it for a bottle of whiskey. It is really a pity that a man of culture, like Mr. Marson, should waste his time on such stuff. That there is a vested interest in this so-called “chastity” business I am well aware, and therefore Mr. Marson will not fail of supporters. There is a certain proportion of persons of both sexes – a minority of course – with whom the sexual instinct is undeveloped, and for whom “abstinence” is no special hardship. Now here is an obvious monopoly which under current notions of ethics can be exploited to any extent. “We compound sins that we’re inclined to, by damning those we have no mind to.” These individuals form rings and bluster about “purity,” found societies with high-sounding names, and make any amount of moral and oftentimes material capital out of their self-puffery. They are backed, of course, by the majority of the middle-classes, who “carry on” their sexual peccadilloes sub rosa, and who, while laughing in their sleeves, profess to respect these people as “honest fanatics.” There are sometimes, moreover, estimable spinsters who, though perhaps not originally of that way of thinking, yet being devoid of personal charms and hence as things go under present conditions, condemned to a life of abstinence, find their indemnification in joining the “white-robed” band. These people attack prostitution merely because it is an outlet for the sexual instincts; we attack the hideous economical necessity, and the rotten social conditions which pervert the sexual instincts from their natural course into such a channel. It is the aforesaid gang who alone profit by the current ethical notions.

We really would seriously commend to Mr. Marson as a “wholesome discipline” a little study of what Modern Socialism really means. Talk about “famished herds” of children, “bumbledom and pauper schools,” about “saddling the maintenance of children upon the wretched mother,” about “police and government clerks;” reproaches that we ignore “state craft” (sic)., &c., &c., betokens such a complete ignorance of the elementary aims of Socialists, that it is hopeless to attempt to argue the present subject with him on a Socialist basis. Mr. Marson catches up Socialist denunciations of free contract so-called, quite oblivious of the fact that this “free-contract” is denounced because it professes to be what it is not, in other words, because it is not free. The very naive “humble consistency” of the “Christian Socialist,” who evidently thinks it is “freedom” which is attacked, and that ergo any limitation of freedom must be Socialistic, is extremely funny. Poor “ Christian Socialist,” when you know a little more of Socialism, you may see reason to revise your “humble consistency!”

In brief, Socialists will always protest against any insensate crusade against the animal instincts, as such. A fundamental of healthy social existence, they believe to be their free and natural activity as opposed on the one hand to repression, on the other to over-stimulation. Socialists do not pretend to prescribe for every man and woman the precise form the emotion accompanying the sexual instinct shall take. “Love undivided and everlasting” for some, “love divided and more transient,” for others, say they, until we are all cast in one mould; anything, only not hypocrisy. And the conventional view of the sexual relations advocated by Mr. Marson, no matter in what fine and high-falutin phraseology it may be wrapped up, can serve only one purpose – to offer a premium to hypocrisy.

I now take leave of Mr. Marson. I can only say in conclusion that I am aware of the conditions of a controversy like the present, and of the readiness of many to accept cant in the place of reason, in defence of a superstition patronised by “respectability.” I willingly concede him this advantage. Having no case, he is naturally driven to abuse the plaintiff’s attorney; and as there is never so much fun got out of the abuse of what is in one sense an abstract entity like the Socialist League, as of a concrete individual, however humble, I magnanimously give him carte blanche to devote his next seven pages of vituperation, if he pleases, to myself. “It amuses she, and it don’t hurt I,” as the countryman said when pummelled by his wife. Mr. Marson has a fortnight to think of all the rude things he is going to say.

E. Belfort Bax

P.S. – I am asked by Mr. William Morris, since his name has been mentioned, to say that he agrees with Mr. Marson’s statement, that “every bodily function is a necessary condition of the highest life,” but fails to see that Mr. Marson’s theories on sexual ethics are in any way in harmony with this sentiment, since they would truncate, if not suppress, one bodily function for the majority of persons.


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