T. A. Jackson
Source: Labour Monthly, April 1929.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription: Adam Buick
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
The deputation of strictly moral nobodies which waited upon Sir William Joynson-Hicks the other week may not have been aware of it but they were a sign and a portent. They urged him, fresh from suppressing a not-quite published novel, to persevere in his self-appointed task of purging both the literature of the land and the night life of London from anything that “might offend these my little ones”—as the Home Secretary himself somewhat blasphemously quoted recently.
The portent did not consist in the newness of the appeal, since the prudes we “have always with us.” It consisted in the readiness with which it was seized to excuse the whole of the policy of repression and suppression with which Joynson-Hicks’ regime has been marked, and the almost gloating enthusiasm with which he made it clear that if he has his way there is more—much more—to follow!
Where this “more” is likely to lead us is worth an effort to imagine.
Before the war your patriotic Briton prided himself upon nothing so much as that Britain was the “land of liberty”—the land where (according to Tennyson) “a man may say the thing he will!” The Continent, cluttered-up with its passport offices and its secret police, pointed the contrast; while Russia under the Tsars, with its censorship, its espionage, its raids, and its arrests for political offences, seemed, in good British eyes, the epitome of tyrannical abominations.
It was this that ensured for the Russian Terrorist-Liberals an almost universal sympathy in Britain as “people rightly struggling to be free”; and ensured general British approval for all Liberalising efforts aimed at securing for “foreign” lands a measure of the “liberty” “guaranteed” by the Union Jack.
We have, of course, changed all that. Not only have “we” revised our bad opinion of the Tsar and Tsardom; but “we” have ceased to boast of the Liberty of Old England. In the years since the war we have heard so many clamours for so many “tightenings up” and “strengthenings” of the law that we have grown to expect them as a matter of course. Legislation against sedition; legislation against blasphemy; legislation against the Trades Unions; against “propaganda”; against “agitators”; against the “growing licentiousness of the age”—all these have been demanded by true-blue patriots and all have been conceded in new acts or administrative measures.
The process began during the war with a sudden and extensive revival of prosecutions for “sedition” (and, later, “blasphemy”) and in the various Orders under the Defence of the Realm Act which swept aside “Habeas Corpus,” trial by jury, and other “milestones” on the path of Liberal progress. To these were soon added a censorship such as Tsardom could envy and a Department of Propaganda which Ignatius Loyola could scarcely have bettered. These “restraints” had, perforce, to be relaxed when the war came, lingeringly, to an “official” end; but they left behind them the “Emergency Powers Act”—which, by reversing the time-honoured British legal maxim (that a man’s innocence must be presumed till the contrary is proved in court) and throwing the onus of proof upon the defendant, let the world know that as the repressive practices of Pitt during the Anti-Jacobin wars had been outdone by D.O.R.A., so the post-war deeds of Sidmouth and Castlereagh were to be exceeded by their post-war successors of a century later.
These things, it is true, did not come to be without revealing a measure of “Liberal” misgiving; nor could they fail to beget logical and psychological consequences far transcending the occasions which provided their excuse.
In the main they were frankly aimed at coping with a crisis of class-conflict. It was against particular class-movements with specific class objectives that the “State” had to be “preserved” and the realm “maintained”; and this formulation of the problem revealed clearly enough that it was to protect another particular class, its institutions, and its conditions of life and rule, that these barriers of repression were erected. Hence even when neither the E.P.A. nor the Trades Disputes Act was actively functioning the ruling class sense of danger and insecurity remained in full and fructifying force. This, and this alone, is the background from which springs Sir William Joynson-Hicks.
The concerted and sustained repression of a lower class (conceived officially as the “public enemy”—since officially in a “democracy” such as “ours” class is a thing unknown) implies necessarily the complete attainable unanimity, discipline, and good order, in the ranks of the class repressing. In the measure, therefore, that the potentially rebel proletariat must be held in check, the ruling class itself must impose within its own ranks and among its own functionaries a tighter and ever tighter discipline and control.
It might seem at first glance a far cry from the release of the “Zinoviev” letter to the imprisonment of Mrs. Meyrick and of ex-Sergeant Goddard, or from the crushing of the General Strike and the miners to the banning (and burning) of the “Well of Loneliness” and the “Sleeveless Errand.” Yet the connection is there and easily to be traced.
We would err profoundly, and concede Joynson-Hicks’ basic claim, did we take the view of those who imagine that in literature, the arts, and in personal morals there have been “great advances” since the war came; all which “progress” the Home Secretary is seeking to cancel on stupidly Puritanical grounds.
The new feature of the modern period is not so much the return to Elizabethan frankness as the genuine endeavour, among a section of the intelligentsia at any rate, to treat sex-relations seriously in their relation to social relations. It is this very seriousness and not its incidental bawdiness which has caused the Home Secretary to repudiate both in precept and in practice all the basic assumptions of nineteenth-century Liberalism, and adopt frankly the maxims and methods of Tsarism. He feels, and his Cabinet colleagues, presumably, share his feeling, that any fundamental critique of social-relations, any truly scientific scrutiny of conventional moral standards cannot fail, in an age of literacy and libraries, to shatter all those optimisms upon which a disintegrating social system always relies.
The Home Secretary in vindicating his department against criticism for detaining postal packets (containing scientific works in one case and manuscript poems in another) talked at large of the “mass” of “indecent” books and photographs imported into this country in this way.
That there exists a demand for and a supply of these things is not in question, any more than is the fact that the demand centres chiefly upon the adolescents in the “great” public schools. Whether any good purpose is served by driving this traffic “underground” (as it has been for the past half-century) is more than doubtful; but what is certain and highly significant is that the law of “obscene libel” (like its legal kinsmen the laws of “seditious” and “blasphemous” libel) has all through its history been a pretext for repressive action against the proletariat and its actual or political allies.
The first important case of “obscene libel” on record was that of John Wilkes, whose agitations infuriated the government of George III at the time when the revolt of the American colonies was growing serious.
Driven desperate by the refusal of juries to convict him of “sedition” the Government (in a truly Jix-like manner) raided John Wilkes’ home, looted his private papers and prosecuted him for his privately printed and circulated Essay on Woman—a parody of Pope’s Essay on Man. It was hardly pretended even that this bawdy jest, produced for the private entertainment of a club of thorough-going and notorious rakes, was likely to “corrupt the morals” of the nation. It was not even “published” in any honest sense of the word. The object of the prosecution was to silence an inconvenient agitator; and it, temporarily, succeeded.
That has been the barely concealed motive of all the chief prosecutions for “obscene” libel from then till now.
To repress “obscenity” was one of the chief objectives announced by the “Society for the Suppression of Vice, Indecency and Profaneness” which played the part of common informer against the English sympathisers with the French Revolution. In fact their chief efforts were directed at the suppression of Paine’s Age of Reason and kindred works.
Actual prosecutions for “obscene” libel were rare in those days—as now—notwithstanding much talk of its “prevalence.” Shelley’s Queen Mab was prosecuted (for blasphemy) but not his Cenci. Byron’s Cain and his Vision of Judgment were prosecuted (as “seditious”) but not his Don Juan. The only case of “obscenity” to reach public notice in the Sidmouth-Castlereagh period was that of Wm. Benbow (afterwards famous as the first advocate of the social general strike) who was prosecuted for a Malthusian pamphlet.
The political motives inspiring the prosecution of Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant in 1869 for another “obscene” Malthusian pamphlet were obvious. Only less so were the motives of the prosecution in 1890 of Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex—since Ellis was known as a sympathiser with the then rising Socialist movement. (A similar motive intensified, by the way, the ferocity with which Oscar Wilde was pursued—a ferocity which more than defeated its own object by throwing over Wilde and his practices the halo of martyrdom.)
In our own day the cry of “obscenity” has similarly been begotten by a sub-conscious political terror. The plays banned as “obscene” in pre-war days—those of Ibsen, Shaw, Barker and Brieux, all challenged the validity of conventional morality; and all demonstrated that that “morality”had no effect upon the actual practices of the ruling and respectable classes. The novels banned in our own day do no more.
This continuity was underlined by the fact that the deputation (referred to at the outset) was specially insistent that there should be further restrictions and restraints upon the sale of “birth-control” literature. This is not only in the direct line of tradition but presages the mobilisation at the back of the Home Secretary in any future essays into Tsarism of the whole body of truculent clericalism which in every political crisis has always been the “Hindenburg Line” of the British Torquemada from Thomas Cromwell to William Pitt, from Henry, Lord Sidmouth, to William “Lord”(?) Hicks.
That “Jix” knows this and banks upon it is patent; his legal agent in the latest suppression case pleaded (quite irrelevantly) that in addition to being “obscene” the work was “blasphemous”—citing, as an example, the quotation.
In 1842, the Chartist agitation then being at its height, George Jacob Holyoake, a Chartist-Socialist “missionary,” was convicted of blasphemy for suggesting that “we are too poor to afford a God!” In 1794, the lawyer Gale Jones was convicted of “sedition” for saying in a casual conversation: “I’m for equality and no king!”
If doubt still remains there is the clinching fact of the espionage upon the Post, The Home Secretary vindicating himself for seizing D. H. Lawrence’s MS, poems in the post, claimed that they contain in half-a-dozen places as any “obscene” words. It seems to have escaped every newspaper critic and Parliamentary questioner that the discovery of these words by the Home Office implies an elaborate organisation for opening, reading, and commenting upon not merely printed, or photographic, but MSS, matters committed to the post.
When far back in Judge Jeffries’ days a conviction was secured against Algernon Sydney by using as evidence a private paper found in his study, Sydney became a classic martyr to the cause of English liberty. When in early Victorian days the British people learned that the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, had opened Mazzini’s letters in the Post, and revealed the contents to the Austrian rulers of Italy (thereby causing the death of his correspondents), an all-but universal howl of execration drove Sir James Graham from office. To-day, it seems, such things pass without comment, not merely when the victims are Communists (whose correspondence is invariably “grahamised”), but even when they are distinguished men of letters.
If this can be done without uproar, what is there that is not possible?
Before the war Britons prided themselves on nothing so much as their “liberty”—their freedom from “Tsarist” censorship and espionage. Since the war—!
Scheme and contrive as they will the rulers of Britain can win back neither their pre-war industrial pre-eminence nor the pre-war docility of the working-mass which was a pre-requisite for that pre-eminence. As a matter of life and death for their social system they must, in a world where everything has changed and is changing re-create, by some means or another, the once common belief in the Gibraltar-like stability of the British State and Empire. They can “tune the pulpits” as Elizabeth did, but the pulpits matter little nowadays. They can “manage” politicians as Walpole managed them and the Press, so far as it is not theirs to manipulate already, they can “gag” as Castlereagh did and all printed matter along with it.
Already there are laws enough to deal with “agitators” industrial and political; it needs but a little more and the whole system of British Tsarism—censorship, espionage, and repression—will be complete.
But even that “little more” needs (such is the persistence of the “liberty” illusion) dexterous political preparation. The self-exposure by their intellectuals of the weariness, disillusionment, decadence, and disgust growing in the ranks of the bourgeoisie is of little moment in itself either historically or as a practical problem for the Home Office. But it is just the thing to provide a hard-pressed ruling-class with an excuse for Essays in the Censorship that their needs will force them to establish sooner or later.
“In the fear of the proletariat is the beginning of wisdom.” Thus and thus alone can one interpret the policy of Sir William Joynson-Hicks.