Ernest Belfort Bax

Ernest Belfort Bax

Ernest Belfort Bax, the son of Daniel Bax, a successful businessman, was born in Leamington, Warwickshire on 23rd July, 1854. His parents were strict Nonconformists who came from families that had suffered religious persecution. The family moved to Brighton soon after Ernest was born. He was educated at home by private tutors and as a young man had been encouraged to read John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer.

In 1875 Bax went to Stuttgart, Germany, to study music. While in Germany, he developed an interest in German philosophy. His read Hegel and later was introduced to the work of Karl Marx. Bax became a journalist and after moving to Berlin became a foreign correspondent for the Evening Standard.

After he returned to England in 1882, Bax became a freelance journalist, specializing in history and philosophy. Bax had been converted to socialism by reading Karl Marx and had two articles on the subject published in the journal, Modern Thought. In 1882 Bax joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Bax was impressed by William Morris and supported him in his disputes with the party leader, H. H. Hyndman.

In December 1884, Bax joined Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in leaving the SDF and forming the Socialist League. Bax and Morris jointly wrote the Socialist League Manifesto, where they declared that the organisation would seek to "educate and organize public opinion for the transformation of Britain into a truly socialized society". Bax co-edited the party journal, Commonweal, with Morris. Articles written by Bax and Morris for Commonweal later appeared in the book he two men also jointly wrote the book Socialism, Its Growth and Outcome.

In his books The Religion of Socialism (1887) and Ethics of Socialism (1889), Bax argued that Christian ethics was gradually being replaced by the Utilitarian idea that ethical change was produced by the needs of society rather than from a supernatural level. Bax believed that this would develop into a "new ethic" called socialism. The highest expression of this new ethic was "self-sacrifice for the cause of true social change and human consciousness".

By 1888 the anarchists had gained control of the Socialist League so Bax returned to the Social Democratic Federation. Although Bax still had trouble working with H. H. Hyndman, he believed the SDF was the best Marxist party in Britain. Bax was elected to the party executive and became the editor of Justice, the party's weekly newspaper. After 1894 Bax tended to concentrate on his career as a barrister. He continued to contribute articles on politics and music for The Star and for a while edited the socialist journals, Time and Today.

Bax caused considerable controversy when he published The Fraud of Feminism (1913). Unlike most socialists, he was against women having the vote on the same terms as men. Bax looked at the subject from an historical perspective: "The position of women in social life was for a long time a matter of course. It did not arise as a question, because it was taken for granted. The dominance of men seemed to derive so obviously from natural causes, from the possession of faculties physical, moral and intellectual, in men, which were wanting in women, that no one thought of questioning the situation."

Bax was especially opposed to the militant tactics used by the Women's Social and Political Union: "Now I submit there is a very considerable difference between what is due to weakness that is harmless and unprovocative, and weakness that is aggressive, still more when this aggressive weakness presumes on itself as weakness, and on the consideration extended to it, in order to become tyrannical and oppressive. Weakness as such assuredly deserves all consideration, but aggressive weakness deserves none save to be crushed beneath the iron heel of strength."

During the First World War Bax supported the war effort and opposed the Russian Revolution. His friend, Robert Arch, argued: "The fact that the Bolsheviks, by drawing Russia out of the war, were in effect prolonging the life of the reactionary Central Empires against whom, in Bax’s view, the war was justly – waged, made it impossible for him to support Bolshevism. He was further alienated by the cruelties of the Soviet Government towards its political opponents, particularly its Socialist opponents, and by its wanton invasion and conquest of Georgia. Yet, in conversations with Bax towards the end of his life, one felt that he was never extreme in his condemnation, and that the Soviet war on Christianity, at any rate, had his whole-hearted sympathy. The logic of events alone prevented him, as it should have prevented others, from being a Bolshevik."

Bax published an autobiography, Reminiscences in 1918. This was followed by The Real, the Rational and the Alogical (1920). He also contributed occasional articles for Justice and the Freethinker. A young friend, Robert Arch, claimed he continued to take a strong interest in politics: "Though he could be truculent with his pen, he was personally the most gentle and unassuming of men, and displayed an engaging interest in the ideas even of the youngest of us."

The health of Bax and his wife deteriorated and in the autumn of 1926 they both moved into a London nursing-home. They both died of blood-poisoning on 26th November, 1926.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Ernest Belfort Bax, The Fraud of Feminism (1913)

The position of women in social life was for a long time a matter of course. It did not arise as a question, because it was taken for granted. The dominance of men seemed to derive so obviously from natural causes, from the possession of faculties physical, moral and intellectual, in men, which were wanting in women, that no one thought of questioning the situation. At the same time, the inferiority of woman was never conceived as so great as to diminish seriously, much less to eliminate altogether, her responsibility for crimes she might commit. There were cases, of course, such as that of offences committed by women under coverture (legal "covering" by the husband), in which a diminution of responsibility was recognised and was given effect to in condonation of the offence and in mitigation of the punishment. But there was no sentiment in general in favour of a female more than of a male criminal. It entered into the head of no one to weep tears of pity over the murderess of a lover or husband rather than over the murderer of a sweetheart or wife. Similarly, minor offenders, a female blackmailer, a female thief, a female perpetrator of an assault, was not deemed less guilty or worthy of more lenient treatment than a male offender in like cases. The law, it was assumed, and the assumption was acted upon, was the same for both sexes. The sexes were equal before the law. The laws were harsher in some respects than now, although not perhaps in all. But there was no special line of demarcation as regards the punishment of offences as between men and women. The penalty ordained by the law for crime or misdemeanour was the same for both and in general applied equally to both. Likewise in civil suits, proceedings were not specially weighted against the man and in favour of the woman. There was, as a general rule, no very noticeable sex partiality in the administration of the law.

This state of affairs continued in England till well into the nineteenth century. Thenceforward a change began to take place. Modern Feminism rose slowly above the horizon. Modern Feminism has two distinct sides to it: (1) an articulate political and economic side embracing demands for so-called rights; and (2) a sentimental side which insists in an accentuation of the privileges and immunities which have grown up, not articulately or as the result of definite demands, but as the consequence of sentimental pleading in particular cases. In this way, however, a public opinion became established, finding expression in a sex favouritism in the law and even still more in its administration, in favour of women as against men.

These two sides of Modern Feminism are not necessarily combined in the same person. One may, for example, find opponents of female suffrage who are strong advocates of sentimental favouritism towards women in matters of law and its administration. On the other hand you may find, though this is more rare, strong advocates of political and other rights for the female sex, who sincerely deprecate the present inequality of the law in favour of women. As a rule, however, the two sides go together, the vast bulk of the advocates of "Women's Rights" being equally keen on the retention and extension of women's privileges.

Indeed, it would seem as though the main object of the bulk of the advocates of the "Woman's Movement" was to convert the female sex into the position of a dominant sexe noblesse. The two sides of Feminism have advanced hand in hand for the last two generations, though it was the purely sentimental side that first appeared as a factor in public opinion...

Now I submit there is a very considerable difference between what is due to weakness that is harmless and unprovocative, and weakness that is aggressive, still more when this aggressive weakness presumes on itself as weakness, and on the consideration extended to it, in order to become tyrannical and oppressive. Weakness as such assuredly deserves all consideration, but aggressive weakness deserves none save to be crushed beneath the iron heel of strength.

Woman at the present day has been encouraged by a Feminist public opinion to become meanly aggressive under the protection of her weakness.She has been encouraged to forge her gift of weakness into a weapon of tyranny against man, unwitting that in so doing she has deprived her weakness of all just claim to consideration or even to toleration.

(2) Ernest Belfort Bax, The Fraud of Feminism (1913)

Another statement commonly made is that women's lower wages as compared with men's is the result of not possessing the parliamentary franchise. Now this statement, though not perhaps bearing on its face the wilful deception characterising the one just mentioned, is not any the less a perversion of economic fact, and we can hardly regard it otherwise than as intentional. It is quite clear that up to date the wages of men have not been raised by legislation, and yet sections of the working classes have possessed the franchise at least since 1867. What legislation has done for the men has been simply to remove obstacles in the way of industrial organisation on the part of the workman in freeing the trade unions from disabilities, and even this was begun, owing to working-class pressure from outside, long before - as long ago as the twenties of the last century under the auspices of Joseph Hume and Francis Place. Now women's unions enjoy precisely the same freedom as men's unions, and nothing stands in the way of working women organising and agitating for higher wages. Those who talk of the franchise as being necessary for working women in order to obtain equal industrial and economic advantages with working men must realise perfectly well that they are performing the oratorical operation colloquially known as "talking through their hat." The reasons why the wages of women workers are lower than those of men, whatever else may be their grounds, and these are, I think, pretty obvious, clearly are not traceable to anything which the concession of the franchise would remove. If it be suggested that a law could be enacted compulsorily

enforcing equal rates of payment for women as for men, what the result would be the merest novice in such matters can foresee - to wit, that it would mean the wholesale displacement of female by male

labour over large branches of industry, and this, we imagine, is not precisely what the advocates of

female suffrage are desirous of effecting.

Male labour, owing to its greater efficiency and other causes, being generally preferred by employers

to female labour, it is not likely that, even for the sake of female beaux yeux (beautiful eyes), they are going to accept female labour in the place of male, on an equal wage basis. All this, of course, is quite apart from the question referred to on a previous page, as to the economic responsibilities in the interests

of women, which our Feminist law-makers have saddled on the man--namely, the responsibility of the husband, and the husband alone, for the maintenance of his wife and family, obligations from anything corresponding to which the female sex is wholly free.

(3) Ernest Belfort Bax, The Fraud of Feminism (1913)

Modern Feminism has two sides, the positive, definite, and articulate side, which ostensibly claims

equality between the sexes, the chief concern of which is the conferring of all the rights and duties

of men upon women, and the opening up of all careers to them. The justification of these demands

is based upon the dogma, that, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, women are endowed

by nature with the same capacity intellectually and morally as men. We have further pointed out that there is another side in Modern Feminism which in a vague way claims for women immunity from criminal law and special privileges on the ground of sex in civil law. The basis of this side of Feminism is a sentimentalism - i.e. an unequally distributed sentiment in favour of women, traditional and acquired. It is seldom even attempted to base this sentimental claim for women on argument at all. The utmost attempts in this direction amount to vague references to physical weakness, and to the claim for special consideration deriving from the old theory of the mental and moral weakness of the female sex, so strenuously combated as out of date, when the first side of Modern Feminism is being contended for. The more or less inchoate assumptions of the second or sentimental side of the modern "Woman's Movement" amounts practically, as already stated, to a claim for women to be allowed to commit crimes without incurring the penalties imposed by the law for similar crimes when committed by men. It should be noted that in practice the most strenuous advocates of the positive and articulate side of Feminism are also the sincerest upholders of the unsubstantial and inarticulate assumptions of the sentimental side of

the same creed. This is noticeable whenever a woman is found guilty of a particularly atrocious crime. It is somewhat rare for women to be convicted of such crimes at all, since the influence of sentimental Feminism with judges and juries is sufficient to procure an acquittal, no matter how conclusive the evidence to the contrary. Even if women are found guilty it is usual for a virtually nominal sentence to be passed. Should, however, a woman by any chance be convicted of a heinous crime, such as murder or maiming, under specially aggravated circumstances, and a sentence be passed such as would be unanimously sanctioned by public opinion in the case of a man, then we find the whole Feminist world up in arms. The outcry is led by self-styled upholders of equality between the sexes, the apostles of the positive side of Feminism, who of course claim the eradication of sex boundaries in political and social

life on the ground of women being of equal capacity with men, but who, when moral responsibility is in question, conveniently fall back on a sentiment, the only conceivable ground for which is to be found in the time-honoured theory of the mental and moral weakness of the female sex.

(4) Robert Arch, Ernest Belfort Bax, Thinker and Pioneer (1927)

Bax records in his Reminiscences that he always felt, from childhood on, the need of an intelligible doctrine of history. The view of history which he eventually adopted bears, as we might expect, a strong impress of Hegelian philosophy. He was also influenced by his Socialist masters, Marx and Engels (who also, it will be recalled, took Hegel as their point of departure), though he never accepted the “Materialist Conception of History” as a sufficient explanation of the whole course of events. In the essay on “Universal History from a Socialist Standpoint,” which stands first in the volume entitled The Religion of Socialism, published in 1886, we have a resumé of his general theory. Human society starts with primitive Communism, in which the individual is completely identified with his group, his attitude to the world about him is naively animistic, and the opposition, between man and the State, and between nature and mind, which characterise civilised life and thought, have not emerged. Civilisation begins with the introduction of agriculture, and is marked as the centuries proceed by the growth of inventions, the improvement of lethal weapons, and the aggregation of tribes for defensive purposes into city-States, and of cities into kingdoms. In the course of this process, primitive Communism has given way to a class society, with slavery at its base and a hierarchy of castes above it, as in Egypt and the Asiatic Empires of antiquity. With the disappearance of the old solidarity of the tribe, and the growth of opposition between individuals and between classes, religion also becomes less social and more personal, as in the Greek mystery-cults and the later philosophers. The process culminated in the Roman Empire, which brought with it the final submersion of group solidarities in one gigantic system of exploitation based on slavery, the complete divorce of the individual from the life of the State, the ever-increasing vogue of other-worldly religions, and eventually the establishment of Christianity. So “the twilight of ancient civilisation gradually deepened into darkness.”

(5) Robert Arch, Ernest Belfort Bax, Thinker and Pioneer (1927)

The Great War had taught Bax that a straight line is not always the shortest distance between two political points. The fact that the Bolsheviks, by drawing Russia out of the war, were in effect prolonging the life of the reactionary Central Empires against whom, in Bax’s view, the war was justly – waged, made it impossible for him to support Bolshevism. He was further alienated by the cruelties of the Soviet Government towards its political opponents, particularly its Socialist opponents, and by its wanton invasion and conquest of Georgia. Yet, in conversations with Bax towards the end of his life, one felt that he was never extreme in his condemnation, and that the Soviet war on Christianity, at any rate, had his whole-hearted sympathy. The logic of events alone prevented him, as it should have prevented others, from being a Bolshevik.

(6) Robert Arch, Ernest Belfort Bax, Thinker and Pioneer (1927)

Bax was always hostile to the claims of women to equal rights with men in politics and in the professions. On this subject he was opposed to the overwhelming majority of Socialists both here and abroad, and his attitude, extraordinarily bitter as it was, alienated many, and maimed his otherwise magnificent work. His earliest published utterance on the subject (in “The Religion of Socialism,” 1886) is a comparatively temperate statement. At one time, says Bax, the claim to equality amounted to a legitimate movement for the removal of certain undoubted grievances. But for some time past the tendency of legislation and sentiment has been, under the pretext or equality, to confer privileges on women at the expense of men. Various instances are adduced in support of this contention, e.g., the Married Women’s Property Act protects the property of a wife from spoliation by her husband, while notwithstanding this, the husband is liable for his wife’s debts and torts, and is obliged, moreover, to maintain her however flagrant may be her unworthiness. Feminist sentiment, according to Bax, is responsible for the infliction of the punishment of flogging on men for certain forms of sexual misconduct, while at the same time exempting women in any circumstances from similar punishment. As long as women enjoy such privileges, he argues, their claim to political equality with men is nothing short of an addition of insult to injury. Nevertheless, in the early passage I am quoting, Bax looks forward to the realisation, under Socialism, of a “real equality between the sexes,” based on the economic, independence of women, as opposed to the “sham equality” of present-day society, which really amounts to the subjection of men.

In Bax’s later pronouncements on this question, all saving clauses and qualifications are thrown to the winds. In his later years he seems to have systematically searched the police-court and other news for instances of real or imaginary injustice to men in the interests of women. As a result, he produces a cumulative indictment of judges, juries, magistrates and legislators which, if taken at its face value, would force us to the conclusion that these makers and administrators of the law – most of whom, strange to say are themselves men – are in a nefarious conspiracy to grind the male sex under the tyrannical high heel of the feminine boot. Men are flogged; women are not. The seduction by a man of a girl under sixteen is a criminal offence; the seduction by a women of a boy under that age is not. A man convicted of murder is usually hanged, especially if the victim be a woman; a murderess is almost invariably reprieved. And this intellectually inferior sex, rolling in privilege, injustice and oppression, have the impudence to treat it as a grievance that they are unable to vote on the same terms as men