Bernard Shaw

Socialism and Marriage

Written: 1928;
Source: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism;
Published: Pelican Books, 1937;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan Sally Ryan.

WHEN promising new liberties, Socialists are apt to forget that people object even more strongly to new liberties than to new laws. If a woman has been accustomed to go in chains all her life and to see other women doing the same, a proposal to take her chains off will horrify her. She will feel naked without them, and clamor to have any impudent hussy who does not feel about them exactly as she does taken up by the police. In China only Manchu ladies dared defy fashion with uncrippled feet. It is easier to put chains on people than to take them off if the chains look respectable.

In Russia marriage under the Tsars was an unbreakable chain. There was no divorce; but on the other hand there was, as with us, a widespread practice of illicit polygamy. A woman could live with a man without marrying him. A man could live with a woman without marrying her. In fact each might have several partners. In Russia under the Communist Soviet this state of things has been reversed. If a married couple cannot agree, they can obtain a divorce without having to pretend to disgrace themselves as in Protestant England. That shocks many English ladies, married or unmarried, who take the Book of Common Prayer literally. But the Soviet does not tolerate illicit relations. If a man lives with a woman as husband with wife he must marry her, even if he has to divorce another wife to do it. The woman has the right to the status of a wife, and must claim it. This seems to many English gentlemen an unbearable tyranny: they regard the Soviet legislators as monsters for interfering with male liberty in this way; and they have plenty of female sympathizers.

In countries and sects where polygamy is legal, the laws compelling the husband to pay equal attention to all his wives are staggering to a British husband, who is not now, as he was formerly, legally obliged to pay any attention to his one wife, nor she to him.

Now marriage institutions are not a part of Socialism. Marriage, of which we speak as if it were one and the same thing all the world over, differs so much from sect to sect and from country to country that to a Roman Catholic or a citizen of the State of South Carolina it means strict monogamy without the possibility of divorce; whilst to our high caste fellow subjects in India it means unlimited polygamy, as it did to the Latter Day Saints of Salt Lake City within my recollection. Between these extremes there are many grades. There are marriages which nothing can break except death or annulment by the Pope; and there are divorces that can be ordered at a hotel like a bottle of champagne or a motor car. There is English marriage, Scottish marriage, and Irish marriage, all different. There is religious marriage and civil marriage, civil marriage being a recent institution won from the Churches after a fierce struggle, and still regarded as invalid and sinful by many pious people. There is an established celibacy, the negation of marriage, among nuns, priests, and certain Communist sects. With all this Socialism has nothing directly to do. Equality of income applies impartially to all the sects, all the States, and all the communities, to monogamists, polygamists, and celibates, to infants incapable of marriage and centenarians past it.

Why, then, is it that there is a rooted belief that Socialism would in some way alter marriage, if not abolish it? Why did quite respectable English newspapers after the Russian revolution of 1917 gravely infer that the Soviet had not only nationalized land and capital, but proceeded, as part of the logic of Socialism, to nationalize women? No doubt the main explanation of that extravagance is that the highly respectable newspapers in question still regard women as property, nationalizable like any other property, and were consequently unable to understand that this very masculine view is inconceivable to a Communist. But the truth under all such nonsense is that Socialism must have a tremendous effect on marriage and the family. At present a married woman is a female slave chained to a male one; and a girl is a prisoner in the house and in the hands of her parents. When the personal relation between the parties is affectionate, and their powers not abused, the arrangement works well enough to be bearable by people who have been brought up to regard it as a matter of course. But when the parties are selfish, tyrannical, jealous, cruel, envious, with different and antagonistic tastes and beliefs, incapable of understanding one another: in short, antipathetic and incompatible, it produces much untold human unhappiness.

Why is this unhappiness endured when the door is not locked, and the victims can walk into the street at any moment? Obviously because starvation awaits them at the other side of the door. Vows and inculcated duties may seem effective in keeping unhappy wives and revolting daughters at home when they have no alternative; but there must be an immense number of cases in which wives and husbands, girls and boys, would walk out of the house, like Nora Helmer in Ibsen's famous play, if they could do so without losing a single meal, a single night's protection and shelter, or any of their social standing in consequence.

As Socialism would place them in this condition it would infallibly break up unhappy marriages and families. This being obviously desirable we need not pretend to deplore it. But we must not expect more domestic dissolutions than are likely to happen. No parent would tyrannize as some parents tyrannize now if they knew that the result would be prompt disappearance of their children, unless indeed they disliked their children enough to desire that result, in which case so much the better; but the normal merely hasty parent would have to recover the fugitives by apologies, promises of amendment, or bribes, and keep them by more stringent self-control and less stringent parental control. Husbands and wives, if they knew that their marriage could only last on condition of its being made reasonably happy for both of them, would have to behave far better to one another than they ever seem to dream of doing now. There would be such a prodigious improvement in domestic manners all round that a fairly plausible case can be made out for expecting that far fewer marriages and families will be broken up under Socialism than at present. Still, there will be a difference, even though the difference be greatly for the better. When once it becomes feasible for a wife to leave her husband, not for a few days or weeks after a tiff because they are for the moment tired of one another, but without any intention of returning, there must be prompt and almost automatic divorce, whether they like it or not. At present a deserted wife or husband, by simply refusing to sue for divorce, can in mere revenge or jealousy, or on Church grounds, prevent the deserter from marrying again. We should have to follow the good example of Russia in refusing to tolerate such situations. Both parties must be either married or unmarried. An intermediate state in which each can say to the other'Well, if I cannot have you nobody else shall' is clearly against public morality.

It is on marriage that the secular State is likely to clash most sensationally with the Churches, because the Churches claim that marriage is a metaphysical business governed by an absolute right and wrong which has been revealed to them by God, and which the State must therefore enforce without regard to circumstances. But to this the State will never assent, except in so far as clerical notions happen to be working fairly well and to be shared by the secular rulers. Marriage is for the State simply a licence to two citizens to beget children. To say that the State must not concern itself with the question of how many people the community is to consist of, and, when a change is desired, at what rate the number should be increased or reduced, is to treat the nation as no sane person would dream of treating a ferryman. If the ferryman's boat will hold only ten passengers, and you tell him that it has been revealed to you by God that he must take all who want to cross over, even though they number a thousand, the ferryman will not argue with you, he will refuse to take more than ten, and will smite you with his oar if you attempt to detain his boat and shove a couple more passengers into it. And, obviously, the ten already aboard will help him for their own sakes.

When Socialism does away with the artificial overpopulation which Capitalism, as we have seen, produces by withdrawing workers from productive employments to wasteful ones, the State will be face to face at last with the genuine population question: the question of how many people it is desirable to have in the country. To get rid of the million or so for whom our capitalists fail to find employment, the State now depends on a high deathrate, especially for infants, on war, and on swarming like the bees. Africa, America, and Australasia have taken millions of our people from us in bee swarms. But in time all places comfortable enough to tempt people to emigrate get filled up; and their inhabitants, like the Americans and Australians today, close their gates against further immigration. If we find our population still increasing, we may have to discuss whether we should keep it down, as we keep down the cat population, by putting the superfluous babies into the bucket, which would be no wickeder than the avoidable infant mortality and surgical abortion resorted to at present. The alternative would be to make it a severely punishable crime for married couples to have more than a prescribed number of children. But punishing the parents would not dispose of the unwanted children. The fiercest persecution of the mothers of illegitimate children has not prevented illegitimate children from being born, though it has made most of them additionally undesirable by afflicting them with the vices and infirmities of disgrace and poverty. Any State limiting the number of children permitted to a family would be compelled not only to tolerate contraception, but to inculcate it and instruct women in its methods. And this would immediately bring it into conflict with the Churches. Whether under such circumstances the State would simply ignore the Churches or pass a law under which their preachers could be prosecuted for sedition would depend wholly on the gravity of the emergency, and not on the principles of liberty, toleration, freedom of conscience, and so forth which were so stirringly trumpeted in England in the eighteenth century when the boot was on the other foot.

In France at present~the State is striving to increase the population. It is thus in the position' of the Israelites in the Promised Land, and of Joseph Smith and his Mormons in the State of Illinois in 1843, when only a rapid increase in their numbers could rescue them from a condition of dangerous numerical inferiority to their enemies. Joseph Smith did what Abraham did: he resorted to polygamy. We, not being in any such peril ourselves, have seen nothing in this but an opportunity for silly and indecent jocularity; but there are not many political records more moving than Brigham Young's description of the horror with which he received Joseph's revelation that it was the will of God that they should all take as many wives as possible. He had been brought up to regard polygamy as a mortal sin, and did sincerely so regard it. And yet he believed that Smith's revelations were from God. In his perplexity, he tells us, he found himself, when a funeral passed in the street, envying the corpse (another mortal sin): and there is not the slightest reason to doubt that he was perfectly sincere. After all, it is not necessary for a married man to have any moral or religious objection to polygamy to be horrified at the prospect of having twenty additional wives 'sealed' to him. Yet Brigham Young got over his horror, and was married more than thirty times. And the genuinely pious Mormon women, whose prejudices were straiter than those of the men, were as effectively and easily converted to polygamy as Brigham.

Though this proves that western civilization is just as susceptible to polygamy as eastern when the need arises, the French Government, for very good reasons, has not ventured to propose it as a remedy for underpopulation in France. The alternatives are prizes and decorations for the parents of large families (families of fifteen have their group portraits in the illustrated papers, and are highly complimented on their patriotism), bounties, exemptions from taxation, vigorous persecution of contraception as immoral, facilities for divorce amounting to successive as distinguished from simultaneous polygamy, all tending towards that State endowment of parentage which seems likely to become a matter of course in all countries, with, of course, encouragement to desirable immigrants. To these measures no Church is likely to object, unless indeed it holds that celibacy is a condition of salvation, a doctrine which has never yet found enough practising converts to threaten a modern nation with sterility. Compulsory parentage is as possible as compulsory military service; but just as the soldier who is compelled to serve must have his expenses paid by the State, a woman compelled to become a mother can hardly be expected to do so at her own expense.

But the maintenance of monogamy must always have for its basis a practical equality in numbers between men and women. If a war reduced the male population by, say 70 per cent, and the female population by only one per cent, polygamy would immediately be instituted, and parentage made compulsory, with the hearty support of all the really popular Churches.

Thus, it seems, the State, Capitalist or Socialist, will finally settle what marriage is to be, no matter what the Churches say. A Socialist State is more likely to interfere than a Capitalist one, because Socialism will clear the population question from the confusion into which Capitalism has thrown it. The State will then, as I have said, be face to face with the real population question; but nobody yet knows what the real population question will be like, because nobody can now settle how many persons per acre offer the highest possibilities of living. There is the Beer ideal of living out of sight of your neighbors' chimneys. There is the Bass Rock ideal of crowding as many people on earth as it can support. There is the bungalow ideal and the monster hotel ideal. Neither you nor I can form the least notion of how posterity will decide between them when society is well organized enough to make the problem practical and the issues clear.