E. Belfort Bax

– Et Impera

(June 1888)

E. Belfort Bax, – Et Impera, To-day, June 1888, pp.159-162.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I have always regarded Mrs. Besant as one of the few surviving legatees of the metaphysicophobia which has characterised English thought until recently, and which reached its zenith in the last generation in the Bentham-Mill-Lewis school. Personally, I am not afflicted with that complaint, believing as I do that metaphysics, i.e., the analysis of consciousness, experience, or reality itself, whether in general or on any special plane, in contradistinction to the generalisation of its particular phenomena, is the highest of all sciences. But in the May number of To-day, I find Mrs. Besant perpetrating a piece of antiquated metaphysics that makes a benighted metaphysician like myself stand aghast. We have a concrete whole to deal with, to wit, Human Nature or Society. Mrs. Besant very properly distinguishes certain attributes or aspects of this whole, presumably in their order of importance. She further finds that the economical side of Human Affairs is the most fundamental. So far so good. But now Mrs. Besant wants to isolate this economic aspect of human affairs, this not merely for theoretical purposes, but for practical as well, in other words to treat the economic basis of society as something really existing independently of the other relations of social life, just as sweetness might be imagined to exist independently of the other qualities of sugar, or “force” apart from matter energising, etc. I can hardly believe that Mrs. Besant really thinks “the communalising of rent and interest” (as she terms it) by which I assume she intends what other people mean by the “communisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” could take place while leaving untouched the existing basis of religion, morality and the family. One of the great discoveries of Marx was the interdependence of human affairs on an economic basis. To Mrs. Besant, apparently, Socialism does not either directly or indirectly affect the whole of human interests, but is exclusively concerned with the economical change. Mrs. Besant will understand, therefore, that for me and those who hold the same views it is impossible to regard such questions as the family, morality and religion (understanding thereby the socially-recognised ideal of life) as outside the “universe of discourse” when the discourse is of Socialism.

To turn to Mrs. Besant’s utterances on the marriage question. Mrs. Besant is right in assuming that the phrase “hostile to the present forms, etc.” with me at least means something more than “opposition to the inequalities of the present marriage laws,” as for example, that the husband should be compelled to maintain a lazy and worthless wife, while the wife is under no such obligation as regards the husband. Mrs. Besant asks “why should agreement on the communalising of rent and interest necessarily connote agreement on the best form of the sexual relation?” Again, waiving Mrs. Besant’s statement of the “economics” of Socialism, I reply that those economical arrangements are indissolubly bound up with the ethical notions of equality and liberty, (real as opposed to nominal) which are incompatible with the compulsory enforcement of the dogma that “marriage ought to be indissoluble save by death,” the only raison d’être of this dogma being the individualistic basis of property-holding. When I speak of “hostility to the present form” of marriage I mean, of course, hostility to the compulsory enforcement of that form by law or custom. It would be sheer midsummer madness to assert that under a Socialist régime people would be prevented from uniting in a lifelong relation if they wished to do so, would be forcibly severed in fact. “Agreement on the best form of sexual relation” is not demanded. What is demanded is simply and solely the recognition that Socialism implies perfect freedom in the sexual relation so far as the law and public opinion are concerned. (I purposely eliminate the question of children as that is not necessarily involved, and introduces a problem which ought to be dealt with on its own merits, and apart from that of the mere union of the sexes). As stated in the Communist Manifesto, the freedom of sex-relations contemplated by Socialism is little more than the abolition of a sham and the recognition of a fact. To those who approve the present abominable and infamous theory of enforced lifelong monogamy, the rank soil in which flourishes lying, maiming, and murder, I contend, in spite of Mrs. Besant, we have a right to refuse the name Socialist. Historically, as Mrs. Besant must know, sex-relations, like other relations, have changed with the principle on which wealth is produced and distributed. Hence anyone who, like the Socialist (?) referred to by Mrs. Besant, supposes the same sex-relationship will prevail under a Socialist as under an individualist system of economics, must be a very “half-baked” person indeed.

To one statement of Mrs. Besant I must take particular exception. She says, speaking of “promiscuity” (that awful bogie) that “it does not appear likely, to say the least, that civilised man will revert to the sexual relation of his barbarous ancestors.” Now I should observe that we are here concerned, not with Civilised man, but with Socialised man, which makes all the difference, for collectivism is undeniably a reversion, if you like to call it so, to primitive conditions – with a difference, of course. Mrs. Besant is here arguing on the exploded linear theory of progress. Mr. Leroy Beaulieu, also arguing on this theory, finds Collectivism (i.e., the economical side of Socialism), to be itself untenable for the same reason. The fact that group-marriage obtained in early society should rather be (as far as it goes) a presumption in favour of something analogous to it obtaining in the future. Though I am not concerned to defend “promiscuity” as Socialistic, but only freedom of choice, which is quite a different thing, yet I may suggest, as a crumb of comfort to the timid, that if this shocking “promiscuity” should ever become a generally recognised form of the sex-relation a bountiful providence would probably find a new word which would soften its horror, just as when Atheism (another ugly word) became fashionable, the same beneficient influence (presumably) moved Professor Huxley to call it Agnosticism. Mrs. Besant makes one or two, what to me seem rather questionable assertions in her zeal to defend the modern family; as that “men and women now need more than difference of sex to stimulate the sex-attraction.” I should have said that as a rule, and always barring special deformity or idiosyncratic antipathies, difference of sex was quite sufficient with most persons to stimulate the sex-attraction. I fancy there is a good deal of humbug among people as to this. However, it is a matter for discussion independently of the present issue. In fine, what I maintain is, that while Socialism is by no means incompatible with the life-long union of one man with one woman from choice, yet it is incompatible with any compulsion, or pressure being exerted in favour of this, or any other particular “form” on the part of law, custom or public opinion. With perfect freedom and tolerance in this matter of sexual relations, I have sufficient faith in progress to feel assured that the “form” best adapted to the new needs of society will evolve itself, survive, and in the end be generally and spontaneously adopted.

As to religion I have often enough explained why I hold Christianity to be in spirit radically antagonistic to Socialism. Those who oppose me on this point content themselves with citing a few ebionistic texts and carefully evade my main argument. Mrs. Besant in her remarks altogether ignores the place of Christianity in universal history.

In concluding, I am pleased to be able to designate what in my humble opinion is the soul of truth in Mrs. Besant’s fallacies. It is this. Socialists have been hitherto too apt to abuse more or less sympathetic non-Socialists without reflecting how they could make use of them. To my thinking there is no reason why we should not unite with Christians, Radicals or what-not for the securing of immediate results – eight-hours bills, feeding of children in board schools, or any attack on the sacredness of private property in the means of production, no matter how slight or from what quarter it may come. Although any close contact with a man, for example, who advocated in the face of our police and criminal reports the perpetual enforcement of the existing system of monogamic marriage, would be extremely distasteful to me, yet I for one would be quite prepared to tolerate the atmosphere of such a person for a time, if I thought I could get an eight-hours bill out of him.

But while admitting all this I hold it none the less important that the words Socialism and Socialist should be understood to imply the clear consciousness of what is contained in the Proletarian movement of modern times, as well as what merely appears on the surface – what this economic change really means in its effects on the whole of Human life. A man who calls himself a Christian Socialist is for me by his own confession a “hybrid Socialist.” It is no use mincing matters. If a man is not prepared to accept the consequences of the social revolution “all round,” he cannot be anything else than a “hybrid Socialist.” It is ten to one that such a man does not even accept communisation of the means of production unreservedly. If you question him closely you will find that his aims on the subject are at best nebulous, and often that he only seeks some modifications in a more or less Socialist direction of the existing organisation of society. Socialists sans phrase must never forget that (to quote the Communist Manifesto of 1847) “in the movement of the present, they represent and take care of, the future of the movement.”

E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 19.5.2005