Skip to Content

Eleanor Marx, Belfort Bax and “the Woman Question”

The barrister and writer Ernest Belfort Bax (1854-1925), even though he was a prominent member of the Social Democratic Federation and had even been for a while in the Socialist League with William Morris, was notoriously prejudiced against women, even to the extent of arguing against giving them the vote and of regarding them as being in a privileged position compared with men.

This was a very strange position to be taken up by the co-author with William Morris of Socialism From the Root Up or Socialism Its Growth and Outcome and of a number of other articles expressing socialist ideas. So strange in fact that his socialist credentials have to be challenged.

One person who did challenge him on the issue was Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, then calling herself Eleanor Marx Aveling, adding to her name that of the man she was living with without being married.

Bax had written an article on “The Woman Question” that was published in the SDF’s paper Justice in its 27 July 1895 issue (see http://www.marxists.org/archive/bax/1895/07/woman.htm). This expressed the position he summed up in a later article (30 November) as:

“( . . .) In conclusion I will give, once for all, in a few words my position on this question, cleared of the prejudice imported into it by railing accusations of woman-hating and other objectionable qualities.
1. I utterly dispute the validity of the attempted analogy between women as a sex and the proletariat as a class, on which analogy the plausibility of the “woman movement” for Socialists so largely rests.
2. While fully recognising the oppression of the capitalist system on women as on men, I deny that, on the whole, it presses more on women than on men, as such.
3. Coming to the question of direct sex-tyranny, if we are to talk of this I am prepared to prove that, at least in all countries where the Anglo-Saxon is dominant, viz., in Britain and its colonies, in the United States, &c., it is invariably men who, both by law and public opinion, are oppressed in the supposed interests of women and not vice versa.
4. That the few (mainly formal) disabilities of women in politics or elsewhere which are perpetually being trotted out, are more than compensated for, by special privileges in other directions.
5. That the woman’s rights agitation as hitherto conducted, in which the “brute man” plays the role of villain, was born of hysterics and “sour grapes,” and is kept alive by a bare-faced system of “bluff,” and both the suppression and perversion of fact, intended to work on the sentimental male with a view of placing women in a safe citadel of privilege and sex-domination – the talk of equality being a mere blind. I am prepared to maintain any or all of these propositions in writing with anyone.”

This sparked off a discussion in the paper’s correspondence column and led to Eleanor Marx issuing the following challenge to Bax to debate the matter at a public meeting:

“Dear Comrade, - As JUSTICE, “the Organ of the Social Democracy,” appears to adopt comrade Bax as the exponent on the sex (not woman) question, and as the subject is certainly one worthy consideration and debate, I desire, through your columns, to challenge my friend Bax to a public debate with me on the subject. The debate to take place in some hall in London before the end of the year, so that the proceeds of it (whether from payments for admission or collection on the evening) may be handed over to H. Quelch, hon. Treasurer of the Zurich Committee for the International Trades Union and Socialist Workers’ Congress, 1896. The debate to follow the usual lines, 30 minutes on each side, and then two quarters of an hour for each speaker consecutively. Bax, as propounder of the general proposition , to open. Chairman to be mutually agreed upon. - Fraternally yours,
ELEANOR MARX AVELING.” (Justice, 16 November 1895)

Bax turned down the proposal of a public debate and instead proposed a written exchange, as the following item from the 23 November issue of Justice reported:

“Mrs. Aveling sends us the following for publication: -

National Liberal Club,
Whitehall Place, S. W.
Saturday.

Dear Mrs Aveling, - I am perfectly ready to undertake a debate on the woman question in writing with you or any other accredited representative of “Woman’s Rights”, but I am too little au fait with oratorical tricks and platform claptrap to be able to successfully defend the most simple and obvious propositions under the conditions proposed even if there were no shrieking crowd against which my voice would find it impossible to contend.

I will enter upon a literary debate on similar lines to that I had with Bradlaugh on Socialism, and shall be pleased to arrange for such a discussion. My weapons in this controversy are fact and argument and not ill-manners and name-calling either direct or indirect. This being so I naturally prefer the written method, when fact and argument are “ausschlaggeben.” - Yours sincerely,
E. BELFORT BAX.

To the above the following reply has been sent: -

Green Street Green,
Orpington,
Nov, 19, 1895.

Dear Bax, - I am in receipt of your letter (undated). I offered to debate with you on the Sex Question. I am, of course a Socialist, not a representative of “Woman’s Rights”. It is the Sex Question and its economic basis that I proposed to discuss with you. The so-called “Woman’s Rights” question (which appears to be the only one you understand) is a bourgeois idea. I proposed to deal with the Sex Question from the point of view of the working class and the class struggle.

I may remind you that “tricks” and “claptrap” are not confined to the platform. There are, as you know, literary tricks and journalistic claptrap. With a fair and able chairman there would be no shrieking crowd; and you have no more right to assume that those holding the views I should attempt to put forward would “shriek” than I have to assume that your supporters would howl. I remind you that you recently gave an address, followed by an open debate, upon this very subject, at Essex Hall, Strand. I fail to see, therefore, why you do not take up my challenge now. I here repeat it, and will, if you wish it, debate at Essex Hall. And if you still refuse I shall give a lecture, probably at the Athenaeum Hall, Tottenham Court Road, some Saturday in December, on “Mr Bax and the Sex Question”. The proceeds of this lecture will be given to the Zurich Committee Fund for the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress to be held in London in 1896, - Yours faithfully,
ELEANOR MARX AVELING.”

Eleanor Marx went ahead with her lecture, with the following notice appearing in Justice of 7 December:

The Sex Question
Eleanor Marx Aveling
will lecture on
“Mr. Bax and the Sex Question”
at the
ATHENAEUM HALL,
73, Tottenham Court Road.
At 8 P.M., on
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 21st, 1895.
Admission 1s, 6d, and 3d.
All proceeds to go to the funds of the Zurich Committee,
International Socialist Workers and Trade Union Congress,
London, 1896.

Unfortunately, no report of what she said appeared in Justice, so we can only surmise, from the hints in the above letters, that she would have analysed the “Woman’s Rights” movement as one of woman property-owners to secure equal rights with men property-owners and argued that women workers were exploited alongside men workers and that both should join together  in waging the class struggle that would eventually end in the establishment of socialism which would be “a society in which all the means of production are the property of the community, a society which recognises the full equality of all without distinction of sex” as she and Aveling quoted from Bebel’s Woman—Past, Present and Future which they jointly reviewed for the Westminster Review in 1886  http://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/works/womanq.htm

Bax insisted on having the last word, accusing Eleanor Marx of having refused to debate in writing, while in fact it was he who had refused her challenge to a public oral debate (despite being a barrister), and re-iterating his prejudiced views on women:

“Dear Comrade, - Now that the “Woman” controversy in JUSTICE is over, and that Mrs. Aveling has prudently shirked my offer to meet her in debate on mutually fair terms, I should be obliged if you will allow me to state that I am still prepared to debate in writing on the basis of the five points laid down by me in my last JUSTICE letter on the subject, with any representative advocate of (so-called) “Woman’s Rights” (i.e., the further increase of the sex-privileges of women), or with any representative Socialist who is opposed to me in this question . . .(Justice, 4 January, 1896).

Bax, incidentally, wrote his letters from the National Liberal Club, an all-male establishment (of course) which included leading members of the Liberal Party, to which the SDF was supposed to be implacably opposed.  Henry Hyndman, the SDF’s leader, was also a member, an indication of how reformist the top leaders of the SDF had become.

It only remains to add that things ended tragically for Eleanor Marx, who committed suicide in 1898, at the age of 43, after she learned that Aveling had gone off with another woman.