Eleanor Marx Aveling

Review of Bebel’s ‘Woman in the Past, Present and Future’

Source: Supplement to The Commonweal, Vol 1 No. 6, July 1885, pages 63-4.
Transcribed: by Graham Seaman;
Note: MIA has a later translation of Bebel’s book.


Woman in the Past, Present, and Future. By August Bebel.
(From the German, by H. B. Adams-Walther).

“The question as to what position in our social organism will enable woman to become a useful member of the community, will put her in possession of the same rights as its other members enjoy, and ensure the full development of her powers and faculties in every direction, coincides with the question as to the form and organisation which the entire community must receive if oppression, exploitation, want and misery in a hundred shapes are to be replaced by a free humanity, by a society which is physically and organically sound. The so-called woman’s question is therefore only one side of the whole social question, which is at the present hour agitating all minds; only in connexion with each other can the two questions reach their final solution.” In these words, in the introduction to his book, Bebel has summed up his position with regard to the woman question. For him, as for all earnest Socialists, it is a part of the whole social question, and must therefore be discussed as fully, as freely, as frankly as any other.

That a work dealing so thoroughly and ably as Bebel’s with such immense questions as woman’s social position, the relations of the sexes, marriage, prostitution, population, must be of the greatest value to all Socialists and to all students of social science, is self-evident. But to English Socialists such a work is doubly valuable, for we have to fight, not only the usual prejudices and opposition of the governing classes, but also the hypocrisy of a Bible-reading nation still imbued with the early Christian fear and hatred of nature and of woman (as the embodiment of all evil and temptation) which would forbid every open reference to either subject. The ordinary English bourgeois will tolerate, indeed enjoy, an indecent inuendo or doubtful allusion; but he will turn away in virtuous horror from a frank and serious discussion of serious questions, and feel a thrill of moral indignation at an earnest and scientific examination of them. Hence in England the most determined champions of women’s rights rarely deal with the all-important marriage question, and when a woman is brave enough to do so she has to do it anonymously, besides assuring the world that she is "respectable." Socialists in England — especially we women Socialists — are, then, deeply indebted to our comrade, August Bebel, for his brave and noble work, and should be grateful to Dr. Adams-Walther for her careful and fairly accurate Englishing of it.

I have already pointed out that the position taken by Bebel, with regard to the woman question, is that this is part of the whole Social question, that with the abolition of class-rule must come also the abolition of sex-rule, that the emancipation of man and that of woman are equal necessities, that we cannot have the one without the other. Man and woman must both, in a word, become "human beings.”

The first part of Bebel’s book is devoted to an historical survey of woman in the past — and this, I say it with all respect, is of less value than other portions of his work. There are, as it seems to me, certain inaccuracies, and in the light thrown upon the position of woman in primitive conditions of society, by Engels, in his latest work on the "Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State," it is not possible to accept all Bebel’s statements on this head. But this does not affect the real value of his book, nor does it apply in any way to his masterly treatment of the position of woman in the present and in the future.

As a scientific Socialist, Bebel of course holds that we must seek for the real cause of woman’s enslaved position in her economic dependence upon man, and that her "emancipation" means nothing but economic freedom. In other words, man and woman become truly emancipated only with the overthrow of the whole modern system of capitalistic production.

Against the idea — not, I fear, uncommon even among Socialists — that woman is at best a very inferior sort of animal, never by any chance capable of such greatness as man, Bebel points out that if woman is an inferior creature to-day, she is only, like the proletarian, a victim of the circumstances in which she is placed, and is no more to be blamed for her ignorance than is the working man who believes that the present régime is the best, and must go on world without end. Against the postulate that a different physical constitution justifies in a man what is considered criminal in a woman, and that a very "venial slip" in the one is an unpardonable crime in the other; against the teaching that would impose one code of morals for man and one for woman, Bebel protests very earnestly — and he does more than protest. He proves that his demand for perfect equality of the sexes, that his assertion that the passions of men and women being the same, the moral rules applied to one should apply to the other, are founded on reason and true morality.

Bebel’s treatment of the marriage question is admirable. Of course the virtuous Philistine of all classes will be profoundly shocked. He thinks the "necessary evil" of prostitution not unpleasant, and above all, he likes to feel that the "family" as now constituted, is a small kingdom of which he is the despotic sovereign. To be told that under a rational system of society there could be no prostitution, and that our modern idea of marriage is absolutely immoral, is not pleasant, and it is no doubt hideously coarse to say that, while "marriage should only be entered upon by two persons inspired by mutual love, for the purpose of exercising their natural functions," the modern bourgeois property-marriage "is regarded by most women as a kind of almshouse ... and the man, for his part, generally counts up the advantages of marriage with the greatest exactitude ... Still worse is it to maintain that marriage represents one half of the sexual life of the bourgeois world, and prostitution represents the other. Marriage is the front, and prostitution the back of the medal. When a man finds no satisfaction in marriage he generally resorts to prostitution, and when a man for one reason or another remains unmarried, it is again prostitution to which he has recource. Provision is thus made for men who are celibates by choice or force, as well as for those whom marriage has disappointed, to gratify their sexual instincts in a manner forbidden to women. ... These men appear daily in society with the grave and dignified air of guardians of morality, order, marriage, and the family; they are at the head of Christian societies for the suppression of prostitution. Our social organisation resembles a great carnival festival, in which everyone wears his official disguise with decorum, and indulges his inclinations and passions all the more unreservedly in private." All which our Philistines "most powerfully and potently believes, yet holds it not honesty to have it thus set down.”

All the hideous evils of our modern society in which the small class of unproductive exploiter fattens upon the unpaid labour of the workers; in which men, women and children are driven to compete against each other for a starvation wage, and in which the women — the wives and daughters and sisters of the wage-slaves — have to sell themselves to the man of family and property, all these monstrous conditions render "Social Reforms," in Bebel’s opinion, an impossibility. They can only be cured by a Social revolution. How this is to come about, what are the immediate steps to be taken, Bebel does not pretend to prophecy, but he says: "I maintain that within a given time all the evils described will have reached a point at which their existence will not only be clearly recognised by the vast majority of the population, but will also have become unbearable; that a universal irresistible longing for radical reformation will then take possession of almost the whole community, and make the quickest remedy appear the most opportune, ... then ths whole of this private property (viz., land, machines, implements, means of traffic, as well as the private possession of the sources of food and the articles of food) must be converted into common property, by one great act of expropriation.”

Those persons who are so constantly asking us what we intend doing "the next day" would do well to read — but that is exactly what they are incapable of doing! — the chapter on the "Socialisation of Labour" in this volume. Bebel, naturally, does not pretend to lay down any hard and fast law as to what is to be done he only shows how we must work along certain lines.

“After society has entered into exclusive possession of all the means of production, the equal duty of all to labour, without distinction of sex, will become the first fundamental law of the Socialistic community, inasmuch as needs cannot be satisfied without a corresponding amount of labour, and no healthy person, capable of work, has a right to expect that others should work for him. The assertion of malicious opponents, that Socialists refuse to work, and, in fact, intend to abolish work altogether, is an absurdity on the face of it. Idlers can only exist as long as others work to support them. This admirable condition of things is the one in which we live, and those who profit by it most are the most declared enemies of Socialism. On the contrary, Socialists maintain that he who will not work has no right to eat. But by work they do not understand mere activity, but useful, i.e., productive work. The new society demands, therefore, that each of its members should execute a certain amount of work in manufacturing, in a handicraft or in agriculture, by which he contributes a given quantity of products for the satisfaction of existing needs. Without work no enjoyment, and no work without enjoyment. ...

“... As the Socialistic community does not constitute itself in order to lead the life of proletarians, but in order to abolish the proletarianism of the majority, and to bring the largest possible measure of the amenities of life within the reach of all, the question arises, how high will society place its average claims.”

Official posts are only held by delegates for a time:

“The character of an official does not attach to the delegates, inasmuch as the appointment is neither permanent nor affords the possibility of advancement. There is no such thing as an hierarchical system. For the same reason it is an indifferent matter whether any intermediate body shall be established between the central and local executives, for instance, provincial executives. If they appear necessary, when the time comes, they will be established; if they are superfluous, they will not be established. The practical necessity decides. When more advanced development has made old forms of organisation obsolete, they will be abolished, without any flourish of trumpets or violent disputes, as the question touches no personal iaterests, and a new organization will be introduced with just as little trouble. One sees, this executive is as far removed from our present system as the heavens are from the earth.”

Moreover, both the individual and the community being equally interested,

“All will devote their ingenuity to the improvement, simplification and acceleration of the process of production. The ambition of inventors and discoverers will be stimulated to the highest degree. The community of the future will have scholars and artists of every kind, and in very considerable numbers, who will devote a small portion of each day to assiduous physical toil, and spend the remainder of their time according to their tastes, in the pursuit of their studies or arts. The antagonism which exists to-day between hand and head-work, which the ruling classes have done their best to accentuate ... will thus be abolished.

“As therefore there are no 'wares' in the new community, neither will there be aay money. Money is the representative of wares, and yet at the same time a ware itself; it is the social equivalent of all other wares. But the new society possesses no wares, only objects of necessity, of use, whose making requires a certain amount of social working time. The working time which the making of an article requires is therefore the only scale by which its social value can be measured. Ten minutes of social work in one branch, are exchangeable for ten minutes of social work in another, neither more nor less. For society is not intent on earning, its task consists only in effecting the exchange of articles of equal quality and equal use-value among its members. If society finds for instance that three hours work a day is necessary for the production of the requisite quantity of goods, it will appoint three hours as the length of the working day.”

Everyone will therefore receive from society the equivalent of his labour, neither more nor less. Socialists protest, and Bebel most energetically, against the confusion of the present State administration with a really Socialistic administration. In Socialistic administration for all there are no employers, no superiors, as no oppression; all are equals, and enjoy equal rights.

In these "equal rights" all — i.e, women as men — have their share. In the new community woman being entirely independent, she becomes a free being, the equal of man.

“Her education is the same as that of man, except where the difference of sex makes a deviation from this rule and special treatment absolutely unavoidable; she develops all her mental and physical powers and capabilities under natural conditions of existence; she can select such fields for her activity as her wishes, tastes and faculties may direct. She works under exactly the same conditions as a man. Having performed her share of social labour in some branch of industry, the next hour she becomes educator, teacher, or nurse, later on she devotes herself to art or science, and afterwards exercises some executive function. She enjoys amusements and recreation with her own sex or with men, exactly as she pleases and occasion offers.

“In the choice of love she is free just as man is free. She woos and is wooed, and has no other inducement to bind herself than her own free will. The contract between two lovers is of a private nature as in primitive times, without the intervention of any functionary, but it is distinguished fron the primitive contract by the fact that the woman no longer becomes the slave of a man who obtained her as a gift or by purchase, and can cast her off at his pleasure.”

Under such conditions "her household and children, if she has any, cannot restrict her freedom, but only increase her pleasure in life. Educators, friends, young girls, are all at hand for all cases in which she needs help.”

On the vexed question of population, I suppose I need hardly say that Bebel rejects the "theory" which has been called after Parson Malthus (although his book "did not contain a single sentence thought out by himself "). He here, as in all other matters, accepts the teaching of Karl Marx. The relative over-population of to-day, a result of our capitalistic system of to-day, will disappear with the system of which it is the outcome. It is a well-established fact that families "increase in an inverse ratio to the height of wages," and that the poorer a district the more densely it is populated. Happier circumstances would not, then, conduce to increase, but rather to diminish, the number of children. Further, "for two thousand years man has been possessed by the most insane aversion to concern himself frankly, freely and naturally with the laws governing his own origin and development, and to study scientifically the conditions of generation and conception in the human race." With a more healthy and natural condition we shall better understand the natural laws that bear upon this question, and

“We must finally take into account that woman will occupy a totally different position in the society of the future, and will have no inclination to bring a large number of children, as 'gifts of God' into the world; that she will desire to enjoy her freedom and independence, and not to spend half or three-quarters of the best years of her life in a state of pregnancy, or with a child at her breast. Certainly there are few women who do not wish to have a child, but still fewer who wish to have more than a limited number. All these things will work together in regulating the numbers of human beings, without there being any need for our Malthusians to rack their brains at present.”

Before concluding this short review, I feel it my duty to call attention to the supremely careless manner in which the English translation of Bebel’s book has been printed. Of slight errors as to the meaning of the original, due chiefly to the translator’s want of familiarity with the technical terms of economy, and of certain grammatical errors for which the translator may also be accountable, I do not speak. I refer only to simple mistakes in printing and the use of type. Of these, in a volume of 264 pages, there are no less than 176!

I end with a quotation from this fine, thought-compelling work, in which Bebel so eloquently calls upon every man and every woman to help in our great struggle:

“This final victory will be all the more decisive, the greater the zeal and energy with which each individual pursues the path before him. No one has a right to consider whether he himself, after all his trouble and labour, will live to see a fairer epoch of civilisation, and still less has he the right to let such a consideration deter him from the course on which he has entered. Although we cannot predict the duration of the single phases of development, nor the form which they will assume, just as little as we can with any certainty foresee the length of our own fives, in a century such as ours we have no cause to relinquish all hope of witnessing the victory. We struggle and strive onwards, unconcerned as to when or where the boundary posts of new and better times for humanity shall be erected. If we fall in fight, the rearguard will take our place ; we shall fall with the consciousness of having done our duty as men, and with the conviction that the goal will be reached, in spite of all opposition from the enemies of humanity and progress.”

Eleanor Marx Aveling