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Bax, Ernest Belfort (1854-1926)
by Latham, Sean

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Ernest Belfort Bax (1854-1926)

By the time his first articles appeared in The New Age in 1908, Ernest Belfort Bax was already a well-known Socialist writer and political activist. Most of Orage's readers would have recognized Bax as an executive member of the Social Democratic Foundation, on of the earliest socialist organizations in England. He published widely on topics as diverse as music, continental philosophy, revolutionary history, and anti-feminism. In The New Age, he appears most often arguing against the enfranchisement of women, and was a frequent target of the magazine's suffragist contributors and correspondents.

Like many of The New Age's writers, Bax was the product of neither Oxford nor Cambridge, having been educated largely by tutors during an uneventful childhood and adolescence. He was born in Leamington, Warwickshire in July 1854 into a Victorian household remarkable only for its stereotypical adherence to form. In his Reminiscences and Reflections (1916), Bax recalls his upbringing as a stultifying admixture of Calvinist religiosity, Manchester School economics, and what he calls an "unconscious hypocrisy" in social and political matters. The Paris Commune (1871) and its bloody conclusion brought him to political consciousness, and he records his disgust with the English public's casual lack of sympathy for the fate of the Parisian revoltionaries.

Originally intending to become a composer, he departed for Stuttgart's famous convervatory in 1875 only to discover that his ambitions outweighed his talents. Over the next five years he devoted himself to reading philosophy, and was fascinated by the work of Hegel, Kant, and Marx. After a brief stint as the Berlin correspondent for the Evening Standard, he returned to London in 1881 a committed Marxist convinced that the rule of the bourgeoisie was destined to come to a revolutionary end. His return to London marked the beginning of a remarkable career as a political activist, author, and critic. His circle of friends included suchVictorian luminaries as William Morris, Friedrich Engels,Karl Marx (briefly) and Marx's daugher Eleanor. With Morris, he co-edited a weekly socialist magazine entitled Commonweal, and was an executive member of the Social Democratic Foundation (rechristened the British Socialist Party in 1911), and a short-lived splinter group called the Socialist League.

Bax was a prolific writer, whose work covered an array of topics remarkable as much for its diversity as for its originality. As a socialist theorist, he published popular books with titles like The Religion of Socialism (1887), The Ethics of Socialism (1889), and Socialism, Its Growth and Outcome (co-written with William Morris). He translated essays by Schopenhauer and Kant's Prologomena and Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1883). In addition, he published histories of the French Revolution (e.g. Jean-Paul Marat, The People's Friend) and a three-volume study of the Reformation in Germany (1890).

In his later life, and especially during the years when he contributed to The New Age, Bax became a committed anti-feminist. Tapping a deep well of misogyny with books like The Legal Subjection of Men (published by the New Age Press in 1908) and the Fraud of Feminism (1913), he drew the ire of a number of feminists and suffragists who letters and articles fills a number of Orage's columns. His major philosophical statement, The Roots of Reality (1907) , was reviewed by T. E. Hulme in volume 5. Despite his sympathy with Bax's work, even Hulme took a quick jab at his anti-feminism, suggesting that Bax had failed to reach the "promised land" toward which his philosophy gestured, because "somewhere in its pleasant valleys he saw a woman."

Bax worked throughout his life as a barrister, and died in London in 1926.

—Sean Latham

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