E Belfort Bax 1896

The Late Friedrich Engels and
the Woman Question.

Source: Justice, 28 November 1896, letter p.2 & 3;
CopyLeft: this text is free of copyright restrictions;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Eleanor Marx’s article , 21 November 1896
The Proletarian in the Home.

DEAR COMRADE, – The atrabilious vituperations of Mrs. Aveling do not in themselves require any answer. As the question of the late Friedrich Engels, however, has more than once been brought up in this connection, I wish to say a few words on that point. I admit that on a hasty reading I did not notice that the words referred to were a quotation from Engels and did not directly emanate from Clara Zetkin. But as she appears to have fully accepted them I do not see that any very material difference was made, or any injustice done, by the mistake.

While regarding Engels as an authority in matters of pure economics and in some departments of historical research, and while always glad to find myself in independent agreement with so able a thinker on any point, I have never pretended to erect Engels anymore than anyone else into an infallible authority – to quote whom is to settle a point for all good Socialists just as to quote a text out of the New Testament is to settle a point for all good Christians. It is no true regard for the memory of either him or Marx to make such ridiculous and exaggerated claims for either of them.

Engels had certainly not given the close study and thought to the woman question which he had to other sides of Sociologie research, consequently, as is usual in such cases, he accepted without criticism the conventional view, and tried to work that into harmony with the general Socialist theory of human evolution. The false (if specious) analogy I here often animadverted upon between sexes and classes once started, of course, formed the lever for all sorts of absurdities. The value of Engels’ judgment on this particular question may be gauged from the fact that I had to tell him the elementary common-place that the English law regarded the desertion of a wife by a husband, so that she became chargeable to the parish, as a criminal offence (a misdemeanor), and that the authorities invariably proceeded by warrant. He had thought that the parish authorities could only sue the husband for the amount expended by way of civil action as a debt. Discussion on this subject was indeed very difficult with Engels, owing to his complete ignorance of the modern English law of husband and wife, or other legislation affecting sex relations, or of the uniform bias of the courts in the present day in cases between men and women. He viewed everything in the light of the fixed idea he had imbibed at a time when it had never been called in serious question – that women are the oppressed of men. His zeal is this direction, it seems, sometimes outran his consistency with his own theory, otherwise. For example, it is well known Engels accepted the doctrine largely held by modern anthropologists (though perhaps not quite indisputable) that the gynecocracy was universal in primitive society. Now if this view be adopted it is evident that the economic or other subordination of the woman in the family could not have been the first and oldest form of human exploitation, since ex hypothesi the exploitation of the man by the woman in the household had preceded it. For my part, as I have often said, I altogether deny the parallel between sexes and classes to obtain (at least save as the most superficial of analogies). But if it is to be pressed at all it is absurd to play fast and loose with it, accepting it when at suits your fancy and ignoring it when it does not.

Whether Engels thought my views “morbid” or not I do not know, but in any case I must remind Mrs. Aveling that that healthy and robust disregard of facts which so eminently characterises herself and her feminist allies when discussing this question is not vouchsafed to all of us. I have good reason to believe that my “morbid” symptoms in this respect are shared by all unbiassed persons who have the facts before them.

Talking of “middle-class molasses,” it seems they are a very delectable compound when they enclose the powder of feminine prerogative. Did not Clara Zetkin herself beslaver the middle-class women in conclave assembled to denounce the vile ways of man? This “wheeze” of Mrs. A.’s anent middle class and working-class in the sex question is getting just a little bit played out. The working man suffers, for instance, infinitely more from the unjust English matrimonial laws than the middle-class man.- yours,

E. Belfort Bax.

Eleanor Marx’s rejoinder, 28 November 1896
The Proletarian in the Home.