E. Belfort Bax

The Will of the Majority

(13 October 1888)

From Commonweal, 13 October 1888, pp. 322-3.
Transcription and markup by Graham Seaman for the Marxists Internet Archive

We are often admonished by the professional politician and by the man of "common sense" of the sacredness of the will of the majority, or as it is sometimes called, the popular will. The expression of this so-called will of the majority in legislation and social and political institutions, is conceived as authoritatively representing the wishes and convictions of the greater number of persons inhabiting the country or the given area ; and it is assumed as an axiom by the persons in question that the will of a majority has an inviolable claim to respect. The latter proposition, I submit, can only have a measure of truth in any case ; but what I am here concerned to show is that it is not true at all as applied to modern society, and can in fact only be true in the case of a society of equals; further, that even in this case it has one distinct principle of limitation.

What has been hitherto called the will of the people, or the will of the majority as manifested in the modern constitutional state, does not express any act of will at all, but the absence of will. It is not the will but the apathy of the majority that is represented. How many of the — not majority, but minority — of persons that vote, consciously will a particular line of policy? To show the utter absurdity of the whole thing we have only to remember that in theory the whole common and statute law of England is supposed to be the expression of the public opinion of the people of England. Yet if, as in the case of the Swiss referendum, the people of England were formally polled (even those possessing votes) and the whole issue respecting every law placed before each, how many laws, now undisputed, would not be swept away? It cannot be too emphatically impressed upon the ordinary law-abiding citizen that the greater part of law, as it at present exists, does so by the ignorance of the majority, not by its consent. It is the expression, not of the suffrage but of the sufferance of the people.

But this is not all. Supposing there were a referendum or poll of all the people of England to-morrow, it would be of little avail on any but the very simplest issue. For so long as there is inequality of education and of natural conditions and the majority are at a disadvantage in respect of these things, they are necessarily incapable of weighing the issue before them. Their very wants are but vaguely present to their minds, and in their judgment as to the means of satisfying them they are at the mercy of every passing wind. But given an equality of education and economic circumstances, there is yet another condition requisite before the opinion of the majority can be accepted as anything like the last resort of wisdom, and therefore as worthy of all acceptation. It is this. Public opinion, the verdict of the majority, even in a society of equals, if it is to have any value, presupposes a high sense of public duty — a standard of morality which exacts that everyone shall take the requisite interest in public questions for an independent judgment on them. The man who has not taken the trouble to train himself to think out these things cannot help to form an effective public opinion on any question presenting itself. Given the conditions mentioned, on the other hand, and the judgment of the majority would unquestionably represent the highest collection of wisdom up to date. But until these conditions are fulfilled, the opinion of the majority as such can have no moral claim on the allegiance of minorities or of individuals, although it may be convenient in many or in most cases to recognise it.

The only public opinion, the only will of the majority, which has any sort of claim on the recognition of the Socialist in the present day, is that of those who have like aspirations with him, who have a definite consciousness of certain aims — in other words, the will of the majority of the European Socialist party. Even the Socialist party, owing to the economic conditions under which its members, with the rest of society, labour, does not fulfil the conditions above stated as necessary for the formation of a public opinion which should command respect. But such as it is, there can be no doubt that it represents the nearest approach to an authoritative tribunal which we can find to-day.

As to those persons who prostrate themselves before this idol, the will of the majority (of present society) — of the mere mechanical majority, or count of heads – and swear they would yield anything to the authoritative utterance of "the people" (in this sense), it would be interesting to know how far in the direction of its logical conclusion they would be prepared to go. There are some among them, we believe, who, while avowedly holding the current theology to be pernicious, yet would nevertheless not oppose its being taught in public schools if the "majority of the nation" were in favour of it. Now it must be admitted that it is exceedingly probable that if the majority of the nation were actively in favour of "religious education" they would get their way. But it is also conceivable that were the majority not very energetic, an energetic minority might carry the day. Yet according to the "majority" cultus, it would be wrong to assist in opposing the "will" of the majority. Again, we would like to ask the pious majoritist whether he would complacently see the Holy Inquisition, gladiatorial combats, or bull-fighting established; or on the other hand, witness the abolition of all means of travelling on Sunday, the total prohibition of alcohol and tobacco, the closing of all theatres, and all because an ignorant majority decreed these things? Yet unless a man is prepared to follow a majority (so to say) through a quick-set hedge, the principle of bare majority-worship falls to the ground. Majorities are then tacitly admitted to be nothing per se, but only to be respected in so far as their judgments are themselves reasonable, or at least in so far as it is convenient to respect them.

The only conditions which can ensure a judgment on the part of the majority representing the highest practical reason of which human nature is capable up to date, as we have already indicated, are — (1) perfect economic and educational equality; (2) healthy interest in all questions affecting the commonwealth. In a society wherein these conditions were realised, all persons would be competent — some more, some less, of course, but all more or less — and the verdict of the majority ought clearly to be binding on all, so far as active resistance is concerned (and allowance always being made for the right of verbal protest on the part of the minority). There is one exception to this, however — an exception not very likely to occur, I admit, but nevertheless conceivable. It is the principle referred to as limiting the right of all majorities — even though the dissentient minority be only one. I refer to actions which Mill calls self-regarding, or those which in no way directly concern the society or corporate body. Were any majority to enforce a particular line of conduct in such actions, and to forbid another, it is the right and duty of every individual to resist actively such interference. For just as the free motion and development and disintegration of the cellular tissue is essential to the life of the animal body, the cause of death in cases of mineral poisoning being the stoppage of this process, so the healthy freedom of the individual within its own sphere is essential to the true life of the social body — as much so as the subordination of the individual in matters directly affecting society.

Were a majority, therefore, to seek to regulate the details of the private life of individuals in points where it does not directly come in contact with public life, any resistance on the part of individuals would be justified. Those entrusted with the carrying out of the mandates of the majority in such a case should be treated as common enemies, and if necessary destroyed. Even though the private conduct of individuals might have an indirect bearing on the commonweal, this would not justify direct interference; any temporary inconvenience would be better than the infraction of the principle of the inviolability of the individual from coercive restraint within his own sphere. Let us suppose a case. The habit becomes prevalent in a Socialist community of sitting up late at night. This habit renders some of those addicted to it not so capable as they would otherwise be of performing their share in the labour of the community. Now an otherwise sane majority might here easily lose its head and enact a curfew. In this it would be clearly going beyond its function, inasmuch as the habit in question is primarily a private and purely self-regarding matter. Let the majority if so minded exact more stringent standards of discipline and efficiency in work, and enforce obedience to them — such enactments should be binding on all good citizens. But an enact- ment compelling the citizen to go to bed at a particular time should clearly be resisted at all costs. Of course the probabilities are that a habit which really tended, although indirectly, to be detrimental to the community, would be voluntarily given up in a society where social morality prevailed.

Again, the fact of an action being distasteful to the majority may be a valid ground for its not being obtruded on public notice, but is no ground for its being forbidden in itself. For instance, a certain order of Parisian palate devours with great gusto a species of large garden snail called Escargot. To the present writer, the notion of eating these snails is extremely disgusting. Now supposing an intelligent but unprincipled majority took the same view, as very likely it might, there would likely enough be proposals carried for prohibiting the consumption of these articles of diet — on the ground that it was bestial and degrading. Here, again, would be a case for resistance to the knife. But take the other side to this escargot question. The aforesaid molluscs are in Paris hawked about in the early morning in barrows, around the sides of which they crawl, the sight of them tending to produce "nausea and loss of appetite" (to employ the phraseology of the quack medicine advertisement) in those about to take breakfast. Now it is obvious that if this result obtained with the majority, the majority would have a clear right to prohibit the public exposure of these commodities, even if the would-be consumer were thereby indirectly debarred from obtaining them.

The same reasoning applies to sexual matters. Society is directly concerned with the (1) production of offspring, (2) with the care that things sexually offensive to the majority shall not be obtruded on public notice, or any obscenity on "young persons." Beyond this all sexual actions (of course excluding criminal violence or fraud) are matters of purely individual concern. When a sexual act from whatever cause is not and cannot be productive of offspring, the feeling of the majority has no locus standi in the matter. Not only is it properly outside the sphere of coercion, but it does not concern morality at all. It is a question simply of individual taste. The latter may be good or bad, but this is an aesthetic and not directly a moral or social question.

Once more, the drink question, in so far as the consumer gets what he wants, namely, pure liquor and not adulterated stuff, in a great measure comes under the same category, although not so completely, since the directly injurious effects to society invariably resulting with certain temperaments (irresponsible violence, etc.), from the taking of alcohol, might justify prohibitive treatment as regards those cases. Even this, however, would not justify any general measure of prohibition.

The above, then, is what I have termed the principle of limitation of the coercive rights of all majorities, however enlightened. When they overstep these limits, whether at the bidding of whim or foolish panic or what-not, the minority or the individual has the right and the duty of resisting it, the efficacy of the means to this end being the only test of their justifiability. On the other side of this clear and distinct line, on the contrary, in a free society of equals, free that is, economically as well as politically, the will of the majority must be the ultimate court of appeal, not because it is a theoretically perfect one, but because it is for reasons before given the best available.

The practical question finally presents itself, What is the duty of the convinced Socialist towards the present mechanical majority — say ©f the English nation — a majority mainly composed of human cabbage stalks, the growth of the suburban villa and the slum respectively? The answer is, Make use of it wherever possible without loss of principle, but where this is not possible disregard it. The Socialist has a distinct aim in view. If he can carry the initial stages towards its realisation by means of the count-of-heads majority, by all means let him do so. If on the other hand he saw the possibility of carrying a salient portion of his programme by trampling on this majority, by all means let him do this also. Such a case, though extremely improbable is just barely possible, as for instance, supposing Social Democracy triumphant in Germany before other western countries were ripe for the change of their own initiative. It, might then be a matter of life and death for Socialist Germany to forestall a military and economic isolation in the face of a reactionary European coalition by immediate action, especially against the stronghold of modern commercialism. Should such an invasion of the country take place, it would be the duty of every Socialist to do all in his power to assist the invaders to crush the will of the count-of-heads majority of the people of England, knowing that the real welfare of the latter lay therein, little as they might suspect it. The motto of the Socialist should be the shortest way to the goal, be it through the votes or through the skulls of the majority. As has been often said before, and said with truth, every successful revolution in history has been at least initiated by an energetic minority acting in opposition to, or at least irrespective of, the inert mass constituting the numerical majority in the state. And it is most probable it will be so again. Be this as it may, the preaching of the cultus of the majority in the modern State, is an absurdity which can only for a moment go down with the Parliamentary Radical who is wallowing in the superstitions of exploded Whiggery.

E. Belfort Bax.

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