The Mind in Chains. Censorship and Society

Perhaps the commonest of all traditions in a parliamentary democracy is that a law can be passed to put anything right. “It ought to be stopped” is the expression of most people’s belief that somehow a statute can be got up that will check greed, prevent cruelty, or end any of a thousand kinds of nastiness. There is remarkably little evidence for this; only a few months ago Sir John Wolfenden’s committee reported the impossibility of making laws to deal with prostitution, and modern history is full of unsuccessful attempts to put down social problems by law.

Even where laws do seem to have succeeded, usually the real factor has been something quite different. The decline of gangsterism in America was due less to legislation than to a change from the social climate which produced so many gangsters; similarly, the probable suppression-of fox- and stag-hunting in this country will barely anticipate the death from natural causes of what have ceased to be the upper-class sports.

In the last few years, attention has been repeatedly drawn to the censorship laws. They were in fact extended three years ago by the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act—the “Horror Comics” Act; now there is the report of the Select Committee on Obscene Publications, making recommendations for the consolidation and extension of existing laws.

Most of the Committee’s proposals reiterate those of the draft Obscene Publications Bill which had its first reading in Parliament in 1955 and now awaits further presentation. Briefly, they aim at clarifying the law and removing anomalies so that first, “serious” works may be better distinguished from others, and second, things may be made hotter for the others. Because the emphasis has been on the possible benefit to works of art, the proposals have been viewed favourably all round; the fact remains that they are for an extension, not a relaxation, of the censorship.

Is there any harm in that? The “considerable and lucrative trade in pornography” of which the Committee speaks is a pretty squalid business, and few people would be sorry for its disappearance. The basis of censorship lies much deeper than that. Its function is to suppress anything which seems potentially harmful to the established order. In our society, it concerns itself with three main threats to the régime: subversion of the state, of religion, and of the monogamous sex pattern.

Apart from the legal prohibitions imposed directly by the state, there are a number of subsidiary censorships to the same end: for example, the exclusion of non-régime views by the broadcasting and television monopolies, the film censorship, and the with-holding of news by the press. There is, too, the simple censorship of price: statutes are scarcely needed to restrict the circulation of five-guinea books.

State censorship in this country dates from the granting of the Stationers’ Company’s charter in 1556, giving the Company a monopoly of printing and charging them with the suppression of seditious and heretical works. Under this and the various other licensing acts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the censorship was concerned with religion and the state, and hardly at all with sexual morals.

“Obscenity” did not enter the Common Law until the eighteenth century; even the attack on the Restoration comedies was political much more than it was moral. The first moves towards censorship in this direction were made as the middle-class reading public grew, and its real establishment came with the Industrial Revolution and the puritanical religious movements which followed the new-born industrial working class into the towns.

The big drive was promoted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, an offshoot of the Evangelical Movement founded in 1802 (Sydney Smith called it “a society for suppressing the vices of persons whose incomes do not exceed £500 p.a.”). Among its members were Shakespeare’s “collaborator” John Bowdler, Hannah More, Dr. Wilberforce, and Keate, the flogging head of Eton. Its chief concerns were profanation of the Lord’s Day, blasphemy, disorderly houses, fortune-telling and obscene books.

The pornography trade did rise and thrive in the nineteenth century. Its centre in London was Holywell Street—then by the Strand, now demolished—where, according to contemporary accounts, the sale of all kinds of pornography flourished openly. Apart from the flood of books and pictures there were several magazines explicitly given to homosexuality, flagellation, and so on: some with such innocent titles as the Rambler’s Magazine and The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.

The first major legislation on the subject was Lord Campbell’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857; this, in fact, together with supplementary items from various other statutes, is the law under which the censorship works today. On its introduction it was vigorously opposed in Parliament by members of the upper class who believed „ enough in laissez-faire to hold that morals were a personal matter (including some who had erotic libraries of their own: see Cyril Pearl’s Girl With the Swansdown Seat).

The legal application of Campbell’s Act was given eleven years later by Chief Justice Cockburn. In his judgment of an over-zealous anti-Catholic pamphlet called The Confessional Unmasked he uttered the famous definition of obscenity which has been accepted by judges ever since: “The test of obscenity is whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”

In this century’a number of factors have given novelists reason to assume a wider scope than they had before. The spread of psychological teachings that emphasise sex as a mainspring of behaviour; the decline of the family from the Victorian ideal; the effects of two world wars (war novels, indeed, seem to enjoy impunity in laying on the sex and the swear-words). The result has been a series of prosecutions extending from Wells’s Ann Veronica in 1909 to the recent crop involving Julia, The Philanderer, September in Quinze, The Image and the Search and The Man in Control.

The lawmakers’ dilemma now is to re-frame censorship so as to admit the changes in morality and, at the same time, keep out the undesirable. The difficulty of doing this is obvious. It means, in effect, that some kinds of frankness and even obscenity are useful to our society (both The Philanderer and The Image and the Search are, in fact, heavily moral books) and some harmful: the trouble is finding a yardstick.

Several people pointed out the same thing in the “horror comics” agitation—a Daily Mail editorial, for example, remarked that the news pictures of Mussolini hanging rivalled anything Dr. Wertheim had found. And on the point of obscenity, the News of the World on May 25th had an interesting paragraph in the report of a photographer’s case: “Asked . . . if he had ever taken an improper photograph, he replied : ‘Yes—once during the war for the Foreign Office. I believe it was for propaganda purposes’.”

An enormous amount of pornography, and stuff that is very near to it, does serve the interests of Capitalism. How about the nasty dreams of sexual irresponsibility that have been the films’ great stock-in-trade for thirty years, and have helped replace religion as the opium of the people? Or the dirty fantasies that are provoked to sell anything from sedatives to soap? Or the pornography of wartime, sanctified because it spurs on our gallant boys and shows what beasts the other side are?

That does not condone the back-street pornography trade, of course. Apart from the stuff detailed in the police statement to the Select Committee—a good deal of which is sold openly at shop counters, despite what the police say about the difficulty of obtaining evidence of sale—there is a considerable trade in near-pornographic books and pictures. The vital part of the near-pornographer’s art is to accurately assess the changing wind, and much of his business is done by post and advertized in likely magazines: “Young Lady Photographer can supply unusual studies to private collectors, send s.a.e.”, etc.

What all this shows is the need, not for more censorship, but for something to be done about the world in which these stupid trades can flourish. Most of the matter in question is miserable rubbish, but its real authors are the people to whom Capitalism must be doing something bad: how frustrated must one be to pay the pomographer’s price for a second-hand sexual thrill? Here is the condemnation of censorship—that it aims to protect and perpetuate the social order which causes so much of frustration and unsatisfied need.

There is little to show, as the Home Office officials had to tell the Committee, that anyone is “depraved and corrupted” by pornography. Indeed, it becomes harmful when it is legalized and used for economic and political ends like fomenting hatred in wartime. The censors, the magistrates, the policemen and the members of the Public Morality Council do not seem to be transformed into satyrs by all that they see. This is one case, in fact, where those who do not care need not be affected. Most people go through life without ever seeing a dirty book or picture, and the common effect on those who see involuntarily is not corruption but revulsion.

On the other hand, the everyday world is full of well-established means to “deprave and corrupt” on which there are no prohibitions. Few things deprave more than the sight of money, or corrupt more than a little power over others. Empires and businesses are built on depravity, and exposing the young to its influence is a statutory requirement under the Education Act.

Whatever one thinks about obscenity, the extension of laws against it means the extension of the State’s domination over what people may read and think. And, always, the concern is to secure conformity in the working class. In a prosecution in 1935, a main question which helped lead to suppression was whether the book was “fit and decent for people of the working class to read.” The proposed new Obscene Publications Bill has the same regard in asking for, as evidence of obscenity, “ evidence, if any, as to the persons to or among whom the said matter was, or was intended, or was likely to be distributed, sold, or offered for sale.” And N. St. John-Stevas, in his Obscenity and the Law—largely an advocacy of the new Bill—is explicit on the point:

“Publishers certainly act on the presumption that a high-priced book will not be prosecuted, and sometimes produce editions of the same book, one bowdlerised at a low price, and the other unexpurgated at a high one . . . the protection of the mass of the people from the corrupting effects of pornography is not so much class prejudice as a realistic recognition that the present educational level leaves them open to victimisation.”

In other words, the mass of the people don’t know what is good for them: an argument which is unfailingly used to support taking away any freedom of choice or expression. Incidentally, Mr. St. John-Stevas devotes six pages immediately following this passage to showing that pornography has no “corrupting effects,” and so leaves one to wonder if it isn’t “class prejudice” after all.

All censorship should be opposed. Bernard Shaw called it “the intolerance of the community,” but he mistaken: it is the necessary intolerance of rulers towards any apparent threat to the security or stability of the society they rule. It is not expressed like that, of course —it does not have to be, because while the ideas of the ruling class are dominant most people see them as the “natural” ones.

Nevertheless, it is a weapon against knowledge and thought. In a free and sensible society it could have no place; in the meantime, censorship can be nothing but an impediment to progress towards such a society.


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