E. Belfort Bax

Socialism and the Family

(17 November 1906)

Socialism and the Family, Justice, 17th November 1906, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Mr. H.G. Wells, after having entered the outer courts of Socialism in the shape of the Fabian Society about a year ago, seems to consider himself competent to pronounce as something like an authority on matters connected with human relations under Socialism. Accordingly he expands himself in the November numbers of the Fortnightly and the Independent Review. After a certain amount of prelude, including some desperate and somewhat superfluous efforts to clear himself with the bourgeoisie of all suggestion of his favouring the wicked heresy of “free love,” Mr. Wells arrives at the ex cathedra conclusion that the endowment of maternity is the most salient point in the Socialist view of the sexual relations. Of course he must throw a sop to Cerberus in the shape of possibly greater “self-restraint” under Socialism. The Christian ascetic ideal must of course have its incense. This, however, by the way.

Now it is quite certain that a large number of Socialists would place a large note of interrogation against Mr. Wells’s endowment of maternity scheme. In the first place they would fail to see how the “payment (sic) to the mother” would be necessary or indeed possible in a communistic society, where wealth was produced for social use and not for individual profit; and as regards the period of incomplete socialisation it is more than doubtful whether a scheme of payment such as Mr. Wells proposes, but which has been as yet not even discussed in Socialist circles, would meet with the approval of any considerable section of Socialists. Hence the implied claim of Mr. Wells to speak for Socialists generally may seem to many a trifle overshooting the mark.

For the rest Mr. Wells does not even seek to lay down any general principles governing the relations of the sexes as such. This part of the subject he shirks. And yet this is the point in which he has been specially attacked. Mr. Wells is a good young man, and hence naturally his indignation knows no bounds when he is charged with favouring “free love.” Only think of it! Besides, there are such things as lending libraries and circulation in families in this vale of tears.

But let us really look this sex-question boldly in the face and see what implications a Socialistic view of the subject involves. Now it seems to me that all the splutter aroused by the “sex question” is traceable to the confusion between two different sides of it – the personal and the social side. This is noticeable in every discussion of the subject, conversational and otherwise. These two sides are always assumed to be mutually inseparable and the first is always judged in the light of the second. Now the first side of the question is the direct personal relation of the man and woman, the second is the question of offspring. My contention is that these two sides should be kept rigidly separate. The first, I contend, is purely self-regarding, and society has no more locus standi in the matter than it has with the question whether a man spends his hours of relaxation in reading fiction, playing chess, or writing poetry. With the second, on the other hand, society has everything to do, the bringing into the world of new citizens being a social act of the highest importance.

The interference of society, whether juridically or morally, between what otherwise ought to be a purely private and personal arrangement between individuals should, in reason and justice, begin and end with the appearance of children. Society, in its corporate capacity, has an undoubted right to regulate, or at least to take strict cognisance of, the procreation of children. But the current theory, even among persons priding themselves upon being superior to prejudice, invariably assumes that cohabitation and the begetting of children are virtually one and the same thing. Hence the children – difficulty is continually being trotted out in all arguments where the modification of existing marriage institutions is in question. The real reason for this is that in foro conscientiae, the people who use this argument so glibly, are imbued with old prejudices which they are ashamed to acknowledge, and, therefore, grasp at the children “difficulty” as a sham argument to conveniently cover the nakedness of their reactionary position.

As a matter of logic, I repeat, the question of cohabitation per se, and of the raising of a family, can, and ought, to be kept severely apart. It is well-known that, at least, one-third of the existing marriages are childless, and with the advance of medical knowledge the begetting of children is likely to become more rather than less a voluntary matter. It is so in the Latin countries in the present day already to a great extent. If the above be true, it follows that even though society be justified in hedging round the family, where such exists, with every necessary legal safeguard, and even possibly in exacting certain public guarantees, though this is a difficult point, where the intention of raising a family is declared, yet any relation outside these conditions – i.e., where either no offspring exists or there is no intention expressed or implied of raising a family – is outside the purview of society either legally or morally, either as regards direct coercion, or the legitimate pressure of public opinion. In other words, the question of sexual asceticism, monogamy, or “free-love” is, like religion, according to the party programme, “a private matter.” It is purely self-regarding and has no direct connection with Socialism. Indeed, more so, for as regards religion it may be a moot point whether, under certain forms, it can be considered a purely private matter. But as regards the sex question the issue is, I think, perfectly plain.

Socialism is neither for “free-love” nor against “free love,” taken in the sense referred to, is not pro-monogamic nor anti-monogamic; if it is anti-ascetic it is only so on the grounds of health and fitness for useful social work, but not with the view to coercing any comrade with a taste for moral gymnastics, if such there be, who finds himself the better for an ascetic life. All that Socialism can legitimately require in the judgment of sexual practice (at least where the question of off-spring does not arise), as in the judgment of speculative belief, is mutual toleration. Socialism cannot for an instant brook intolerance of the conscientious expression of belief, nor of conscientious conduct, where such does not directly and unmistakably affect the welfare of society.

The breeding of unhealthy children, the neglect of children physically and mentally, does affect the welfare of society. Of this there can be no doubt. Whether a man (say, without having children) lives with one woman for the term of his natural life, or changes his companion every month, is, other things equal, his own affair and not that of society. I know that many will affirm that monogamy is a much higher form of sexual practice than any other. They may be right. Others again think the theory of the continuance of personal consciousness after bodily death a much more exalted belief than that of its extinction at death. They are welcome to their opinion. But in both cases we have to do with private speculative belief, and not with unmistakable objective facts. In this sense I say that the proper answer to those who allege that Socialism favours free love is to point out that Socialism is expressly neutral in the matter. Free love belongs to the domain of those concerns in which experiment will, as a matter of fact, decide for the majority of men and women what is the better way. Meanwhile, each, subject to the law of mutual toleration, should be free to hold his own opinion, and to follow his own way of life. The only question with which society is concerned is the direct welfare of offspring.


E. Belfort Bax


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