Harry Quelch 1907

Socialism and Sex Relations

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 8 August, 1907, pp. 456-463;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The election in the Colne Valley, which resulted in the return of a Socialist who avowed his Socialism and stood independent of the Labour Party, as well as of all others, has created quite a flutter of excited apprehension in the ranks of the enemy. “The Menace of Socialism” is now a standing headline in several of the yellow journals, which are frantically appealing to the men of all bourgeois parties to abandon their sham fight with each other, sink all their petty and superficial differences, and stand solidly together to fight this terrible enemy of society – Socialism!

Nothing could suit us Socialists better. That is precisely what we desire – to get all our enemies in front. Nothing has done more to confuse people’s minds and to hinder recruits from coming to our ranks than the apparent differences and antagonisms between our enemies. These differences are entirely superficial, the antagonisms mere show and make-believe, but they have served to divide and mislead many who otherwise would be on our side. As Arthur Balfour said not so long ago: Between the two great parties in the State there are no fundamental revolutionary differences. Their differences are entirely superficial. That is true. But between us and them there is a fundamental revolutionary difference. “As against these Socialists,” said the saintly Jabez Balfour, “we are all Conservatives.” And, although he carried his Conservative principles to a length not permitted by the law, the principles themselves are generally held by the members of the two parties, and the statement quoted above is perfectly accurate. As against us Socialists, men of all other parties are Conservative. They stand for the maintenance of the existing order of society, based upon the class ownership of the means of production, and the consequent enslavement of the majority of the people. We aim at a complete revolution which will establish society on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, with free co-operation for the satisfaction of all social requirements. The sooner, therefore, these facts are recognised, the superficial differences between our enemies eliminated, and the real battle is joined, the better will it be for Socialism and the sooner will our complete victory be achieved.

This our enemies know full well, and, therefore, while they are keen on eliminating the petty differences between themselves so as to oppose a solid resistance to Socialism, they are by no means desirous of relinquishing all means and methods of misleading the people, and misrepresentation and prejudice are still the chief weapons in their armoury. They know that the principles of Socialism are economically sound and ethically just; that it is impossible to gainsay the proposition that the gifts of nature and the products of society should be the property of society, and not of individuals or classes; that the moral justice of our claim, that the workers should enjoy what the workers alone produce, is indisputable, and that a free and unprejudiced inquiry into the principles of Socialism will almost invariably lead to the conversion of the inquirer. But they know also that there is nothing so strong and unreasoning as prejudice, and that, therefore, the best way to prevent anyone from impartially examining Socialism is to assure him that it is primarily an attack upon his dearest prejudices, his most idolised institutions, and most cherished beliefs. Therefore, at the first appearance of the “Menace of Socialism,” good, orthodox people are warned off with the cry that. Socialists are Atheists and advocates of “Free Love,” and that the victory of Socialism means the dethronement of God and the abolition of the institution of marriage.

Of course neither of these questions has anything to do with the fundamental economic theories upon which Socialism is based. No Socialist party demands of any recruit that he should abandon

“the faith of his fathers,” deny his God, break up his family, or share his wife with his fellow-Socialists. And none of those who most virulently attack Socialism on these grounds believe anything of the kind. Not any of them, for the matter of that, as a general rule, are exceptionally devout, or particularly chaste. As a Socialist speaker said in reply to the charge made by an opponent in the Colne Valley contest, that Socialism meant the community of wives – “if that were Socialism many of our opponents would have been Socialists long ago.” No. They know perfectly well that Atheism and Free Love are not essentials of Socialism; that the international Social-Democratic Party has declared religion to be a private matter and in no shape or way interferes with the religious beliefs of its adherents; that, as Socialism tends to improve the moral fibre of men and women, Socialists are almost invariably good husbands, good fathers, good wives and good mothers, and that in matters of marital relations, domestic felicity or conjugal fidelity Socialists will compare favourably with the members of any other party. They know all this; but that does not prevent them from twisting words from their meaning in order to create prejudice; not to refute Socialism, but to misrepresent it. Thus, because Victor Grayson, advocating political, economic and social equality between men and women, spoke of the abolition of sex ties” – meaning thereby such political and economic disabilities as are imposed upon woman by reason of her sex – the yellow press immediately seized upon the expression to represent Mr. Grayson as a champion of “Free Love.” In the same way the fact that many Socialists – recognising that economics are the chief factor in determining the conditions of society – claim that a repudiation of all forms of superstition is the logical consequence of Socialism, is taken advantage of to prejudice religious people against Socialism by asserting that acceptance of Atheism is a condition precedent to becoming a Socialist. It is true that many Socialists are Atheists. It is equally true that there are many Socialists who are not. It is also true that the majority of atheists are not Socialists, and before appealing to religious prejudice or exciting the odium theologicum against Socialism it would be well, perhaps, for our opponents to initiate an inquiry into the religious beliefs of some of the leading lights of the orthodox political parties – the Balfours, Chamberlains, Haldanes, Morleys, Burnses, etc. – to say nothing of some of the dignitaries of the Established Church. I will not suggest that any inquiry should be instituted into the sexual morality of the ruling classes, before any accusation is made on this score against the teachings of Socialism. The facts are too notorious to need any inquiry.

But just a word as to the standpoint of the Social-Democratic movement towards the question of marriage and the sex relation generally. The modern institution of monogamic marriage (so-called) is regarded by the orthodox, as – like all other institutions of modern society – eternal, unalterable, the perfection of human wisdom and the crown of divine law. Hitherto, as Marx says in another connection, there has been history, but there is to be history no more. We have reached finality. With the orthodox the present monogamic form of marriage is at once a sacrament, a divine ordinance and a civil contract. Very well. Socialists, as Socialists, do not condemn monogamy, they do not advocate polygamy or promiscuity, they do not object to two persons of opposite sex entering into a civil contract with each other for sexual intercourse, nor do they object to such a contract being regarded as sacred and inviolable. Under Socialism, moreover, such contracts would be treated by society with far greater respect than they are in modern society where, in spite of the fulminations of the orthodox against the immorality of “Free Love,” marriage too often serves merely as a cloak to profligacy, and prostitution is looked upon as an essential concomitant of marriage, and the only safeguard for the chastity of “respectable” women.

Socialists, however, do maintain that the marriage relation, as all other social relations, is subject to change and modification with a change of economic conditions; and in support of this they point to the fact that it has in the past assumed various forms, and does even to-day assume various forms, under different systems of human society. The fact that human society has changed in the past, is good ground for assuming that it will change in the future; and the fact that with these changes have come certain modifications in human relations is equally good ground for assuming that with further changes there will be further modifications.

The “Catechism of Socialism,” by E. Belfort Bax and the present writer, is universally admitted to be an authoritative and simple exposition of the general principles of Socialism. Basing themselves on the irrefutable theory of Marx, that “In every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch,” the authors say, “The existing marriage relation is determined, as such relations have always been determined, throughout human development, by the general economic institutions of the existing society. The existing monogamic relation is simply the outcome of the institution of private or individual property. When private property ceases to be the fulcrum around which the relations between the sexes turn, any attempt at coercion, moral or material, in these relations (such as is implied in laws mechanically and compulsorily prescribing their conditions, as do the marriage laws of to-day), since it would have no reason for its existence, must necessarily become repugnant to the moral sense of the community.”

It is scarcely credible, yet that passage has been made the ground of innumerable attacks on Socialism as being utterly immoral and subversive of any moral sex-relation. And yet what does it convey beyond a statement of self-evident facts? Who will deny that under present conditions private property is the fulcrum around which the relations of the sexes turn? Or that when that fulcrum is removed sex relations which involve both material and moral coercion will inevitably change?

How completely that relation between man and woman which can have no ethical sanction except that of pure affection has been subverted to a mere material question of property; and how long ideas continue to dominate the mind even after the conditions from which they have been evolved have disappeared, is demonstrated by the objection raised to Socialism by our opponents, that communism necessarily involves the community of wives! Because women have been chattels in the past, so they must always be chattels – always property – either of the individual, or of the community. But in all civilised countries woman has long since emerged from the chattel stage. She is no longer property. She is a human being as free as, and the social equal of, man. The social revolution which makes all the means of production common property, will not thrust woman back into the position of a chattel. It will abolish the last vestige of sex subjection or sex privilege on one side as well as the other, and will make men and women equal and free, economically, socially and politically.

This, above all, must be quite clear, that when all men and women are economically free and socially equal, prostitution will be impossible, and whatever relations may be entered into between men and women will and can have no other basis than mutual affection. There will be none of the material or “moral” coercion which to-day condemns thousands of women to a life of shame and infamy, and others, more envied by society, though scarcely more fortunate, to lifelong prostitution under the guise of marriage, and with the sanctification of the Church. The material considerations, the social conventions, which coerce an innocent girl to sell herself as the “wife” of a senile but wealthy debauché, as well as the horrible poverty which forces her humbler sister to the streets and the brothel, will have no place in a society in which all men and women are free and equal, where there will be plenty for all, and where neither man nor woman will need to sell honour, or body, or soul, for bread. For Socialism does mean Free Love, but only in the sense that men and women being free, there will be no coercion to force either man or woman into relations which are repulsive, or to unwillingly suffer the embraces of another. Socialism does not mean, nor do Socialists suggest, that in the future – as in Heaven – there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage; nor that there shall be sexual promiscuity or community of wives. All that is implied is that marriage contracts based upon property, supplemented by debauchery and buttressed by prostitution, will no longer be, because the social conditions which compel women to sell themselves either in the street or at the altar will have been abolished. Neither man nor woman will be the slave of another, either of his lust or his greed. That is a very different ideal, not only from that which our enemies misrepresent as Socialism, but from existing conditions, in which family life for the many is impossible; morality is a mere hypocritical figure of speech, and prostitution in one form or another is the basis of most social relations. Socialism, recognising the importance of the material conditions, seeks to socialise these in order that they shall be dominated by, and no longer dominate, all the higher life of humanity. To quote once more from the “Catechism,” “Material conditions form the fundamental basis of human existence. When these become common property, free to all, and abundant for all, they will cease to have that importance they now possess, the sordid struggle for mere material things will disappear, free play will be given to man’s higher faculties, and the struggle, competition, or emulation between man and man will be for the realisation of his highest conceivable aspirations. With his mind freed from the dreary cares now imposed by the perpetual struggle for daily bread, man will bend his thoughts on nobler things. Absolute master of the material circumstances of his life, his will must dominate and be no longer dominated by them, and such opportunities of existence, such scope of mental and moral gratification, such ideals and aspirations will open up before him as are at present inconceivable.”