E. Belfort Bax

Puritanism and Labour

(24 May 1923)

E. Belfort Bax, Puritanism and Labour, Justice, 24 May 1923, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

The zeal of the Puritan spirit in curtailing individual liberty by legislating against what it is pleased to consider forms of enjoyment having a tendency to become vicious is much in evidence in the present day, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. The spirit which prompts this is from its historical prototype known as Puritanism. The old Calvinistic Puritans regarded all worldly pleasures, especially pleasures of sense, as sinful. With the class of mind in question the objection to the practices which fall under its ban lies without doubt mainly in the pleasure involved in them, although it may be “camouflaged” by alleged reasons otherwise. Macaulay said that the Puritans of the seventeenth century forbade the entertainment of bear baiting, not because it hurt the bears, but because it pleased the people. The old theological Puritanism of the seventeenth century, at least in its old form, is now dead, but its spirit survives amongst us. Its most striking and important field of operations to day is, of course, the drink question; but we meet with it in legislation on other matters. We find it in laws against gambling, in attempts to prevent the young person from enjoying his cigarette, in meddling and exaggerated legislation on sexual matters, etc. In all these things one may see the cloven hoof of Puritanism.

The Labour Party and Prohibition

Now it is not to be denied that the tendency of the Labour Party has been hitherto to back the pretensions of Puritanism. It was not from the ranks of the Labour Party we regret to say that the wise man came who said that if he had to choose between the two he “would rather see England free than sober.” The fact that a section of the Labour Party is actually prepared in the teeth of the experience of the United States to support a tyrannical measure like Prohibition is significant. But, as Polonius says, this defect “defective comes by cause.” The cause is that the working class is still infected by the traditions of the small middle class out of which it originally sprang, and with which it was so long and so closely associated, politically and socially.

Now the modern small middle class as a class originated on the break up of the mediaeval system and the rise of modern capitalism in the sixteenth century. Economically it meant individualism as against the corporate life of the guild system and in general a larger amount of time devoted to labour. On its religious side it tended to favour the notion of personal salvation by individual effort rather than by entering into the corporate life of a church or religious organisation. It was averse to the old Church holidays when labour was suspended in favour of popular amusement. The ascetic idea at the root of the Christian religion, the practical application of which was reserved under Catholicism for a distinct class of persons who specially devoted themselves to the “religious life,” was extended by the new a religious notions to everybody. The idea that all pleasure, certainly sensuous pleasure, bordered on sin, became prevalent. This coincided with and was strengthened by the feeling of class distinction. Economically the aristocratic and wealthy classes were in a position to spend their life in pleasures from which the new middle class, by its economic conditions, was debarred. Hence the conception of a society in which enjoyment should be within the reach of all alike not having arisen – class “jealousy” and the fox and grapes principle led to a stigma being placed on all pleasures as such.


The fact that excess in sensuous pleasure may lead to undesirable results became later on used as an argument to buttress up the original position. The governing classes have always encouraged this attitude amongst the working population for obvious reasons. But the well-to-do classes have by no means been equally zealous in applying it to themselves. We had an instance of this quite recently on the occasion of the “Performing Animals Bill” (based on the idea of repressing cruelty to animals), against which our friend Ben Tillett protested in stigmatising the zeal for protecting circus animals, which ministered to popular amusement, and which least of all need protection while no legislation was even proposed against fox hunting, the most cruel of all forms of modern sport.

Puritan Hostility to Pleasure

The tendency above spoken of on the part of many members of the Labour Party to favour Puritanical principles and their enforcement by legislation, I take to be, as already said, largely due to the survival in the modern proletariat of the ideals and traditions of the small middle class out of which the modern proletariat originally sprung. The contrast between the pleasures possible to the capitalist class, but debarred to the working class owing to the economic disparity between the two, continues, of course, to exercise its influence in determining the trend of working class sentiment in these matters. For in itself, and apart from excess, there is hardly one of the things which Puritanism condemns, or at which it looks askance, against which there is any solid objection. In spite of the tirades of teetotal fanatics there is no reason for supposing that there is any harm in moderate drinking or anything especially wicked in gambling when pursued as an amusement within reasonable bounds. (It is interesting, by the way, to notice that most of those who are strongest in denouncing gambling in the form of horse running or games of chance are quite content to tolerate the commerce and business speculation of modern capitalism of which gambling forms an essential element.

The objection to games on Sundays in the parks and other forms of Sunday amusement on the specious plea of its causing extra labour on that day is only another manifestation of the Puritan hostility to pleasure in general. The tender solicitude affected about Sunday amusement causing extra labour is simply the hypocritical “camouflage” of Puritanism, since it would be easy to ensure the same amount of rest for every member of the community in other ways than by the senseless attempt to enforce mechanically a complete cessation of all kind of labour on one and the same day of the week.

The Limits of Moderation

The rational Socialistic view of the “pleasure” side of the problem of life is, I take it, that all pleasure, whether of sense or otherwise, within the limits of reasonable moderation, is in itself good, that these limits of reasonable moderation are not fixed, but vary with the individual and with circumstances, and hence that all attempts to draw a hard and fast line by means of legislation or penal sanctions, whatever may be the specious excuse for them on grounds of expediency, imply as their aim essentially nothing better than an oppressive tyranny. For Socialists, therefore, who, whatever a certain old fashioned type of individualist may say, hold personal liberty as involved in their principles and programme, it is surely a duty to seek to free the less developed section of the Labour Party from the shackles, usually associated with an element of hypocrisy, conscious or unconscious, of an attitude of mind deriving from the irrational prejudices and the belated moral code of the bourgeoisie of an earlier period.


Last updated on 28.5.2007