E. Belfort Bax 1895
Source: “Free Love,” Justice, 23 November 1895, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
COMRADE, – The pronouncement anent the Lanchester case in this week’s Justice assumes somewhat of the character of a manifesto of the Social-Democratic Federation on the question of “marriage.” Viewed in this light, in which it would appear to represent the opinions of organised English Socialism, I think it becomes incumbent upon the section which sees reason to disagree with any portion of it to state their reasons for so doing. It is undoubtedly the fact that some of our friends cannot accept, as they stand, either the arguments or the conclusion of the two last paragraphs. Why, they ask, are they to tread so gingerly on the feelings of their “family connections” and other respectable persons in the matter in question rather than in others? Is not the mere fact of joining the Socialist movement, still more engaging in active work therein, likely to pain “family connections,” and is that a reason for refusing to enter upon it? I can remember the time when going for a walk in the country on Sunday or expressing doubts as to the scientific accuracy of the Book of Genesis caused considerable pain to “family connections,” Charles Darwin caused considerable pain, not only to his family connections, but also to his “comrades” in science of the Royal Society, according to all accounts, when he first propounded the thesis developed in the “Origin of Species.” A more deadly reactionary proposition it would be impossible to set forth than that in the latter part of the article on “Socialism and Free Love.” I contend that the first principle of progress is that no action in itself right should be omitted owing to the pain it causes the tender reactionary sentiments of “family connections” or others. In the long run the pain caused is wholesome for the “family connections.” It purifies them of cant. To take the case of religious prejudice. Would the writer of the article under discussion consider it wrong for an emancipated Jew to eat bacon, lamb stewed in butter or “Blutwarst,” or for an emancipated Catholic to eat roast beef on Friday; or again, for an emancipated Methodist to play cricket on Sunday? The general intellectual progress – that progress which Socialism presupposes, although it may not be distinctively Socialistic – has been sadly handicapped by the maudlin dread of giving offence by the protest. The protest against what one believes to be injurious is, to my thinking, a duty. By all means spare feelings which appeal to that common humanity which makes all the world kin, but one may do this while treading out mere reactionary prejudice with a merciless heel. Jewish “law” is not human, it is Jewish; Catholic fasting is not human, it is Christian; Methodist Sabbatarianism is not human, it is middle-class English.
Now, I contend that for those who do not intend to have children, a non-official union is simply a protest against a superstition of the same character as the foregoing. Where the question of children comes in, proper provision for them must, of course, be secured. That goes without saying. But, it is urged, granting the proper provision; there still remains the terrible stigma of bastardy on the children. My answer is, that the guilt of this lies not on the parents, but on public opinion, and public opinion will not be changed until a sufficient number of persons have set it at defiance. Then, as the analogy of other cases suggests, it will soon be modified. For the rest, as regards this point, I think its importance in cases when no next-of-kin windfalls are expected is much exaggerated. It is not the custom to decorate one’s hat with one’s birth certificate, or to wear it in the form of a cravat. The fact need not become known to the Philistines save under special circumstances. The prejudice, moreover, would only operate seriously with certain vulgar minds of the baser sort, and a man must be very thin-skinned who would suffer so very intensely from the manifestly unjust and senseless frowns of such. A gentleman of my acquaintance, although without much doubt born in the most unimpeachable bonds of wedlock, has been known in occasions to protest his bastardy with a view, it is supposed, of adding a spice of piquancy to his abilities.
The analogy between “individual action” in the marriage question and that of the Anarchists in attempting by isolated acts to overthrow the Capitalist system is certainly not happy. Our great argument against the Anarchists is (1) that their deeds are usually crimes in themselves, and (2) that by their foolish individualist acts, though they may, and probably will, do much harm, they cannot possibly further their proposed object. The case is far otherwise with the refusal to enter upon the lifelong binding contract of marriage. Here you have an act in itself admittedly justifiable, and which, if only often enough carried out, must before long effect a modification of public opinion. Though a few or even a good many bombs will certainly not break down Capitalism, no one can assert that a comparatively small number of “free” unions openly entered into will not go a long way towards altering public opinion, and hence in the long run towards helping to break down the marriage laws as they exist in this country to-day.
In conclusion, while feeling quite unable, for the foregoing reasons, to subscribe to the absolute canon that “it is better, in present conditions, that the marriage law should be complied with,” I would equally object to the converse canon that every Socialist is morally bound not to do so. It seems to me that the problem “to be or not to be” legally married must be decided by each individual for himself or herself in accordance with the circumstances of his or her particular case.
E. Belfort Bax.