E. Belfort Bax

Limits to Majority Rule

(14 June 1923)

E. Belfort Bax, Limits to Majority Rule, Justice, 14 June 1923, p.1.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

Every reasonable and consistent Socialist believes in democracy. That is why he calls himself a Social-Democrat. The Bolshevik who questionably dubs himself a “Communist” apparently does not believe in democracy, but in a junta of self-appointed superior persons, one of whose chief occupations is to thrash the democracy – that is, the population as a whole – into obedience to its mandates. Democracy, as such, has nothing to say for its own part on the things which most nearly concern its interests. It is this theory which excites the abhorrence and indignation of every true Socialist.

Now the functioning of democracy involves decision by the majority vote, that is, it means that the minority have to accept and obey the decision of the majority. The current assumption on the part of many persons is that the right of the majority over the minority, or the individual are absolute. This is clearly a fallacy. Surely the most thorough-going democrat would admit that the minority in any community have rights against the majority, of which the maintenance of life and integrity of limb on the part of the individual are fundamental.

The right to freedom, up to a certain point at least, is the necessary corollary from the right to life. There is no logical halting place here. Where, then, is the logical halting place to be found? I answer in the principle Mill formulated in his essay on “Liberty,” namely, in the inalienable right of each individual to freedom in all purely self-regarding actions, that is in actions concerning his private life.

Now here, I contend, the will of the majority has no locus standi whatever. The majority may think it very bad for a man to drink alcoholic liquors, to smoke, to back horses, to play games of chance. Yet so long as his actions remain private and personal – that is, so long as he does not get drunk in a manner to inconvenience his neighbour; so long as he does not smoke in bed to the danger of the inmates of his dwelling; so long as he does not gamble to ruin those legitimately dependent upon him – in short, so long as his acts do not directly and necessarily affect others than himself, the majority have no business to interfere with these acts. The list of these acts can be extended at the reader’s will. In the matter of sex, for instance, the sole justification for the interference of the law with individual liberty is where the question of the offspring comes in; otherwise such questions are purely personal. It should be recognised as an axiom that any law overstepping these limits should be regarded as null and void, and its evasion or disregard as in every way compatible with good-citizenship.

This point of view as to the just limits of democracy and rule of the majority is very apt to be disregarded by sections of all political parties, including the Labour Party. We must meet never forget, as is too often done, that there is nothing inherently sacrosanct in the judgment of majorities any more than of minorities. As a matter of fact, throughout history we find majorities have taken views which have been afterwards recognised as wrong. Even when majorities have adopted the true view, we may notice a tendency for this view to degenerate into a mechanical or “wooden” acceptation of it rather than a live realisation of the truth in question. We have only to look around us to see, for instance, how religions and ideals generally, once instinct with life when held by small minorities, become ossified and hence ineffective after they have been accepted by the majority.

It is quite obvious, moreover, to any rational man that there cannot be any special sanctity in the judgment of 901 persons as against that of 900. The principle of majority rule originated in the fact that the greater force, other things being equal, lies with the majority, so that, if things had come to a fight, the minority would have succumbed. Thus mankind gradually arrived at the conviction that it was well to accept the decision of the majority without on every occasion putting the matter beforehand to the test of battle. Now, needless to say, in all matters of general concern, no progressive thinkers would go back upon the general principle of the validity of majority-decision.

E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 28.5.2007