Ernest Belfort Bax

The Cult of Abstractions

(19 October 1895)

Cult of Abstractions, Justice, 19th October, 1895, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The fallacy of Anarchism may be signalised in a word as the idolisation of the abstract notion of Liberty. For the Anarchist it matters not how much real or concrete freedom and well-being may be sacrificed provided he has the mere absence of formal control. This abstraction, formal freedom, or the autonomy of the individual is his god, before whom he bows in slavish adulation.

But the Anarchist is by no means the only person who is guilty of the idolisation of the abstract formula as such, and who is prepared to sacrifice thereto concrete considerations of social welfare. The bourgeois Individualist, for example, as is well known, like the Anarchist, only less logically, makes a fetish of formal individual liberty. Again, most political democrats, and many Socialists do the same with the notion Equality, which they likewise convert into a fetish by considering only its formal aspect as an abstract notion rather than the whole reality of social life, as an element of which it has alone any true significance.

As an instance of the latter, from the political side, may be mentioned the attempt to carry out the democratic principle of political equality in a mixed population of negroes and whites, especially where the negroes preponderate. The whites resent being governed by an inferior race, or at least a race in an essentially lower stage of development. On their side they are undoubtedly justified in their resentment, and to meet it by a simple appeal to the abstract principle of equality is as absurd as it is ineffectual. In the Southern States of the American Union where this state of things prevails, the existence of a formal political equality as a matter of fact only covers the most bestial cruelty to the black race. (If anyone likes to say that the Southern States have themselves to thank for the situation, inasmuch as they forcibly upheld the importation of negro slaves, after the economic necessity for chattel slavery had passed away, none can deny, of course, that he will be perfectly justified). The real form of the right of the black races to equality with the white, is the right to follow out their own social development in their own way on those parts of the earth’s surface where they are indigenous, unmolested by the cheap cottons, maxim guns, and adulterated spirits of the European capitalist-marauder the annihilation of whom in Africa and elsewhere could but rejoice the heart of every Socialist. This, and not the futile attempt to combine in a single organised community on a basis of equal political rights, two entirely disparate and antagonistic racial elements is the form that true and real, as opposed to sham and abstract equality must obviously take in this question of higher and lower races.

The fetish-worship of the abstract notion, here referred to, is undoubtedly at the root of much sentiment on the Woman Question. It is thought to be “unfair” – i.e., contrary to the principle of equality – that women should, not have exactly the same rights as men, and occupy exactly the same social and political sphere as men. (It never, be it observed, strikes the tender heart of the equality-lover as “unfair” that women should enjoy privileges which are denied to men. This, however, by the way.) Now, in pursuance of his fetish, abstract-equality, the woman-sentimentalist is prepared to ignore all considerations of practical utility to the Commonweal. He would go neck or nothing for his imagined formal equality in every detail. Does the woman nurse a baby, equality demands that the man must do so also. Has it hitherto been the duty of the woman to wash clothes while the man superintended some industrial function – say a printing office – equality demands that the man should instantly replace the woman at the wash-tub and the woman the man at the typographic establishment. Have women carried on the duties of the kitchen and the house while men perform judicial or administrative functions, equality requires that the man should at once assume the care of the domestic hearth and the pantry while the woman delivers decisions on the bench. Do women bear children while men do not, equality claims something here, I don’t know exactly what; but I would suggest a revival of the couvrade as possibly in some sort meeting the exigencies of the case.

Such is the nature of the arguments of the devotee of abstract equality between the sexes. He who is not caught by the aforesaid superstition will refrain from dogmatically postulating the proper sphere of woman’s activity on the basis of a priori notions of equality. True equality involves that division of functions between the sexes best adapted for furthering the general well-being. This division must in the nature of things be subordinate to the physiological and the resultant psychological – i.e., to the natural or organic as distinguished from the economic or social – abilities or disabilities of the female sex. If it can be shown by science now, or if experience shows in the future, that women, owing to (dare I suggest the blasphemy?) inferior average mental capacity, liability to hysteria in the protean forms of that little-understood but widely-spread morbid condition, are in general not so well fitted as men are for political, administrative, or judicial functions, then to force women promiscuously into these functions, and thus sacrifice social welfare on the altar of the fetish formal Equality will be just as reasonable as the procedure of the Anarchist, who is prepared to immolate social progress and mankind in general on the altar of the fetish formal Liberty!


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 26.5.2004