E. Belfort Bax

Labour Party and Puritanism

(3 July 1924)

E. Belfort Bax, Labour Party and Puritanism, Justice, 3 July 1924, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

We have more than once in the columns of Justice referred to the fascination which views, usually associated with small middle-class outlook, seem to possess for many of the Labour Party, including some of its members who claim to be Socialists: We are accustomed to see the Labour members voting for savage penalties against yielding to impulses in the form of any natural appetite which, by a question-begging epithet, they will term a vice. They do so as much as a matter of course as the Non-conformist Liberal. This has lately been illustrated by the present Prime Minister who described as “this blot” the action of a particular gentleman who ventured, like other capitalists, to sell liquor to American citizens, thereby encouraging them in the wicked vice of securing alcohol, and at the same time to break the law alleged to have been sanctioned by the majority of the population of the United States.

Liberty in Self-Regarding Actions

To those teetotal fanatics who consider any divergence from the line of strict teetotalism to be not merely a small obliquity, but a criminal fence, we have nothing to say. The argument which seems to have weight with others who are not fanatics is respect for law as law, especially when it is the expression of the will of the majority of the people of the country. The assumption of course here tacitly made is that the count-of-heads majority of any given area of population has the indefensible right to coerce minorities and individuals whose opinions and tastes differ from it at their own sweet will. Now, this is a doctrine which to many people is utterly untenable, as it was to the late John Stuart Mill, whose essay on Liberty is an eloquent plea for the maintenance of the rights of the individual in what he termed self-regarding actions. The book is little read now, and, in fact, may be regarded in form and expression as a little belated. Many earnest men of that time, in their keen desire to uphold the liberty of the individual, defended the institutions of capitalism, because they did not see as Marx saw clearly, that the competition of capitalist interests was bound to engender monopoly sooner or later. Had they imagined for a moment that the system he defended, out of regard for individual rights against those of the State, would develop into the worst forms of monopoly, they would have combated the capitalist system as vigorously as we Socialists.

Now the assumption of the absolute tyrannical rights of the majority, we contend, should have no basis in the ethics or politics of modern Socialism. Friederich Engels was careful to point out that democracy was, after all, in itself only a transitional stage, the last and relatively least objectionable form of systematic coercion of man by man which it was the ultimate aim of Socialism to abolish altogether. We cannot doubt, though, that there are members of the Labour Party, in spite of the tendency to puritanical tyranny with which it at times seems to be infected, who have felt rather sick on reading the effusiveness of Ramsay MacDonald in his indignation at what he termed “this blot.”

Socialists Against Puritanism

Now, what did “this blot” consist of? Simply in the exercise by a certain man of business of the rights universally recognised under our present commercial society to furnish American citizens who are not teetotalers with the means of satisfying their desire for alcoholic beverages. For our own part we say “more power to that gentleman’s elbow” in over-riding a law which is nothing better than a wholly unjustifiable piece of tyranny. Again, the present Government is bestirring itself, we are told to crush out by prosecution what we suppose the puritanical members of the Labour Party, like their small middle-class exemplars of the Non-conformist ilk; presumably consider another “blot,” namely the freedom of the individual to indulge in a little “flutter” in the form a “sweepstake.” Some of our Labour friends seem more interested in this game of harassing their neighbour in his self-regarding actions than they are in searching out effective means for alleviating the unemployment inherent in the capitalist system or for solving the great question of housing. Even in their attempts to form Labour Clubs for social intercourse the same puritanical intolerance of alcoholic liquors is observable. Verily we need, not a Labour, but a Socialist Conference to decide on what is consistent with the Socialist outlook on life and what is not, and in so doing to sift the pure grain of socialism from the surviving chaff of bourgeois puritanism which entered into its life when the conditions of the Middle Ages were giving place to those of the modern world.


Last updated on 28.5.2007