E. Belfort Bax

The Modern Revolution I

(September 1883)

E. Belfort Bax, The Modern Revolution I, Progress, September 1883, pp.129-136. [1*]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Through the observation that our age is one of transition, is perhaps somewhat trite among thinking men, the number of unthinking men who are still possessed by the remains of an “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be” theory of the world and of human nature, is sufficiently great to render its occasional illustration and enforcement desirable. The most obvious way to bring home this fact to the mind incapable of seeing it unaided, is by fixing on a terminus a quo, and showing that while it logically leads to a certain terminus ad quem, we are, historically, but half-way towards the terminus ad quem; in other words, that the present state of things involves a contradiction. This is the method we shall accordingly pursue in the following observations. The expression, “age of transition,” is, of course, only relative. In one sense the whole of history is a vast transition. “All things flow,” said Herakleitos – and truly; but the flowing sometimes takes the form of a cataract, at others of an even, and almost imperceptible, current. This is only another way of saying that the usually slow and gradual course of evolution is, at certain stages, interrupted by more or less prolonged period of revolution. The embryo, arrived at maturity, struggles forth from the egg, the imago insect from the chrysalis. The process of transformation, from being gradual and imperceptible, becomes spasmodic and perceptible.

Let our terminus a quo, then, be the mediaeval system of Europe, and we shall see that every advance, every departure, from that system, has led us deeper and deeper into the region of unresolved contradiction, is fast leading us through incompatibility to impossibility, and thence, let us hope, to a re-organisation of human life which shall mean the resolution of these contradictions. We will examine the system of Medievalism first of all in its industrial organisation. With its industrial system is perhaps most closely bound up the whole social and family life of a people. But no aspect of a civilisation can be logically separated from the other. The social and the political life, and the intellectual conceptions of an age, act and react upon one another. They are the inseparable aspects of that particular phase in the evolution of the one organic, or, if you will, super-organic, whole – Humanity.

The economical system of antiquity, which was founded on slavery – production being entirely, or almost entirely, confined to slaves, consisting either of prisoners taken in conquest or their descendants, or else of the persons of debtors seized in default of payment – became gradually modified, on the disruption of the Roman Empire, into serfage. As the feudal system consolidated itself, serfage finally and definitely superseded slavery. The serf could not, like the slave, be bought and sold at pleasure, but was generally inseparable from the soil on which he was born. Nevertheless, as with the slave, all that he and his family produced over and above what was barely necessary for food and clothing, was the property of the lord. But since, if the number of his serfs was diminished, or their labor-power impaired by ill-treatment, others were not so readily obtainable, as in the case of slaves in ancient times, it became the interest of the lord to maintain them as far as possible in a healthy and contented condition. Hence serfage was a distinct advance on slavery, as regards the condition of the laborer. If we look a little more closely at the conditions of production on a feudal estate, we shall find that it was within itself, generally speaking, an industrial whole, the links connecting it with the outer world being at most few, and even these seldom indispensable to its existence. The total of the commodities consumed on the estate was, in most cases, derived directly from its own ground. The peasant and his sons tilled the soil, hunted the wild animals, raised domestic stock, or felled trees for building or firewood; while the wife and daughters spun the raw flax and carded the wool, which they worked up into articles of clothing, distilled the mead or assisted in the in-gathering of the grapes, the making the wine, and, in some cases, in the rougher work of production. Division of labor and distribution, in a society composed on this plan, were obviously alike, if not unknown, at least unessential. This was the system that continued to form the framework of society throughout Europe for centuries.

But with the decline of the mediaeval civilisation, townships begun to arise, and with them a new industrial organisation, based on guilds of independent burghers. The township got the feudal services of the citizens within its domain commuted for an annual due or payment. It was thus that free labor arose. Each man now worked to maintain himself and his family, at a particular handicraft, by exchanging or selling the products of his labor. In this way specialisation of labor and an organised system of distribution – of commerce came into existence. Leagues for mutual protection against the robber nobles of the period were formed, such as the Hanseatic League. With the Renaissance in the fifteenth century, and yet more with the Reformation in the sixteenth, the strength of the mediaeval system pure and simple was practically broken up. The middle or trading classes of the towns became more and more powerful, and, with their power, more and more restive at the imposts laid upon them, and at the restrictions put upon their liberty and dignity by governments constituted of the lords of the soil, spiritual and temporal, and the crown. The growing breach between the commons or Third estate – a name originally applied to the smaller landholders, but now more particularly used for the burgher population – and the first and second estates, consisting respectively of the lords spiritual and temporal culminated the great French Revolution of 1789. In this convulsion, the third estate was arrayed against the clergy, the nobility, and the crown. But burgher and noble, or, its the French have it, bourgeois and grand seigneur, in their struggles for supremacy, were oblivious of the rise above the social horizon of a little cloud destined ultimately to overshadow both their interests alike. This fourth estate, distinct from the peasantry of the country as the new commonalty or fourth estate was distinct from the copyholding commonalty of feudal times, was none other than the modern proletariat or working class.

On the first rise of the town-system every tradesman, burgher, or citizen combined in his own person, or those of his immediate household, the functions of workmen, supervisor, and distributor, as regards his particular commodity. But, with the development of the new industrial system these functions became separated. With their separation the distinction between employer and employé, master and workman, bourgeois and proletaire, arose. The whole processes of production and exchange, which had hitherto been carried out on the small scale exclusively adapted to individual work, had become gradually changed by simple co-operation, the ever-extending subdivision of labor, and other causes. The distinction between the middle and the working classes first became definitively marked in a political sense during the French Revolution, and it has been yearly accentuating itself ever since. The middle, or capitalistic, classes have long ago come to a compromise with the hauled aristocracy. This compromise has taken the political form of constitutional government, in which Toryism, or landed interest, and Liberalism, or capitalistic interest, take it by turns to sponge upon the people. The prodigious development of capitalism in this century is due to the sudden and revolutionary acceleration of the process of development referred to as previously taking place gradually, namely, the socialisation of the modes of production. This sudden acceleration of the process, amounting almost to a transformation of previous conditions, is the result of the introduction of machinery. It is to machinery that we owe the polarisation of wealth and poverty we see around us: luxury on the one hand and starvation on the other, colossal fortunes and abject misery. This is rendered possible by the fact that while production has become more and more socialised in character, exchange still remains in individual hands. The workers do not, own the means of production or the product, either individually or collectively. Hence the capitalist obtains a leverage power by which he can wring from the working classes all the value of their labor over and above what is barely necessary to their subsistence. It is thus that interest or profit is obtained. This is facilitated by competition, the competition amongst laborers and the competition amongst capitalists themselves. There is an ever-increasing section of the laboring population on the verge of starvation, and ready to work at starvation wages. Small capitalists are being daily thrown into the ranks of the proletariat by their inability to compete with the larger firms. Capital tends daily to a concentration in fewer and fewer hands; in other words, the bulk of the population are forced to labor in order that a smaller and smaller oligarchy of grasping capitalists may enter into the fruits of their labor. As it is, out of the thirteen hundred millions produced annually by this country, the small minority of capitalists and landowners absorb one thousand millions, leaving just three hundred millions for the overwhelming majority of the community. I should say that the landowners only take a hundred and thirty-six millions out of the total, more than half of which is mortgaged back to the capitalist class. This is a fact those who regard land nationalisation alone as the panacea for all evils would do well to consider. Machinery, as employed at present, simply serves to produce profit for the capitalist and to increase the misery of the working-classes. As Mr. Hyndman well puts it: “The socialised system of production revolts against the individualised system of exchange.” Here, then, is our first contradiction. The homogeneous communistic production of the Middle Ages, in which exchange did not exist, gave place to an individualistic mode of production and of exchange. This is, in its turn, superseded to-day by a highly developed social system of production, which yet remains allied to the old individualist principle of exchange. The logical terminus ad quem, the resolution of the contradiction involved in the situation, is obviously – a return to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries being out of the question – the completion of the process of socialisation, i.e. the complete socialisation not only of production but of exchange as well. This means nothing less than the abolition of the current regime of capitalism and land-holding, which furnishes the middle and upper classes, so-called, with interest, profit, and rent by the concentration of land, raw material, instruments of production, and funded properly in the lands of a democratic State really representing the people. [1] That this is impossible with our boards of guardians of vested interests furnished under the various constitutional governments, monarchical or republican, it is scarcely necessary to observe.

We have already touched indirectly upon the political question in discussing the economical. First, as to its internal, as distinct front its international, aspect. In the Middle Ages all political power was in the hands of the hierarchy of the Crown, with its advisers, the clergy and the large and small landed proprietors, the three estates as they were termed. On the decline, and especially after the break-up, of the Mediaeval system, when the towns and the smaller landed proprietors were becoming a power as against the old feudal nobles, strong efforts were made by the monarchy to utilise the state of things thence arising for rendering its prerogative absolute: a feat which was attempted by all the Tudor and Stuart sovereigns in England, and resulted in the overthrow of Charles I. It was left for the genius of Louis XIV of France to effectually accomplish the change in the nature of the royal authority. The advent of the first crisis of our revolutionary epoch – the French revolution of 1789 – was thus facilitated. The true significance of this convulsion is the definite assertion by the middle or capitalistic classes of political equality with the noble or landed classes. Although during the actual crisis the fourth estate or proletariat achieved some signal successes, notably in the constitution of ’93, yet these were one and all subsequently swept away again in the ebb of the revolution, the only thing left high and dry, past the chance of subsequent loss, being the political power of the bourgeoisie. Every reform during the present century has tended to increase and consolidate this power. Constitutional government itself is simply a tacit compact for the key of power to be transferred from land to capital, from aristocracy to plutocracy. Even where, as in England, the fundamental bases of the old political order, the Crown, and House of Peers, remain intact formally, the force they embodied is departed from them into other hands. It will be thus readily seen that the political power of the middle classes has grown with the growth of the capitalistic system and increased with its strength, and that the monopoly of political power by knots of influential, i.e. moneyed, men of which modern constitutional governments – be they Liberal or Conservative, monarchical as in England and Germany, or republican as in France and America – one and all consist, is simply the corollary of our industrial contradiction, the monopoly of a socialised or semi-socialised system of production and of its fruits by a comparatively small number of individuals. The social system which contradicts the first laws of justice and of human welfare, merely because the majority are at present too stupid to see this, owing to the complexity of the machinery involved, has as its natural pendant a corresponding political system – a system which must stand or fall with it.

Now let us look at the other side of the political question, the international or external. The feudal system was essentially Federal in character. The fulcrum of government lay in the local centre, not in the national centre. The autonomy of the different feudal jurisdictions was incomparably greater than is to be found within any existing State. Like the method of production, the system of government was suited to small and semi-independent communities. Each estate of the feudal hierarchy owed direct allegiance only to the one immediately above it; after this the allegiance became more and more indirect, more and more shadowy, even where, as in England, it nominally existed, and between the extremes was altogether nil. At the same time the whole political system of Europe had for its coping-stone the papacy. But, as we have seen, on the dissolution of the feudal system, monarchy began to assert a centralising influence, and this was the first beginning of our modern State system. With the Reformation the political power of the papacy was ended, and hence the two opposite checks to national centralisation, the local and the cosmopolitan, were almost simultaneously abolished. On the ruins of feudalism and papal domination, then, arose the modern State system of Europe. As in the case of industrial production the methods are social but in individual hands, so with the State system, its tendency and machinery, although involving international relations at every turn, is administered for national ends. The administrative unit, the feudal commune, is abolished, and the nationality takes its place; but while the whole system of modern life is cosmopolitan, government is still carried on in the interests of this racial unit. The illogicality of this administrative halting-place between the local community and the system of nations constituting the civilised world, is shown by the empire-tendency of modern States – that empire-tendency which means the ruthless sacrifice of weaker races for the sake of the stronger. Here again we have a parallel: in industry the larger capitalists absorb the smaller, so in politics the larger States absorb the smaller. Hence, as the tendency of capital is to become concentrated in a few large firms, so the tendency of government is to become concentrated in a few large empires, our smaller independent centres being crushed out. I have spoken of nations, but it must be remembered that by this term is meant, in modern politics, merely the privileged and ruling classes of nations. Parliaments are simply boards consisting of members of these classes; and in voting war estimates, railway guarantees, grants for expeditions to occupy territory, or for schemes for “opening up” new channels of commerce, new markets, etc. etc., they are only consulting their own interests, under the specious masks of “national honor” and the public welfare.

In foreign politics the capitalist is no less king than in domestic. Well-nigh every war within the present generation has been the work of a clique of bourse speculators, stock-jobbers, or manufacturers anxious to secure markets. Such was, to a large extent at least, the Franco-German war; such have been, unblushingly, all our small English “wars” (so-called), but which might more truly be termed cowardly massacres of untrained and ill-armed barbarians. Such have been no less the French expeditions in Tunis, Tonquin, and Madagascar. What advantage do the workers of a nation derive from the extension of empire? What does the possession of India, for example, benefit the English working-class, or any but the larger capitalists and the functionaries who are their hangers-on? The working-classes are taxed for the maintenance of this imperial system, and have as their reward the somewhat barren honor of belonging to it.

Chauvinistic nationalism is the political side of the status quo of which capital is the corner-stone. There is nothing more cherished by the ruling classes than a patriotic cry. It is their most serviceable ally in times of danger. Thus, our second great contradiction – the political – lies in administration being carried on in the quasi-interests of special nationalities in au age when the whole civilised world has really the same interests, as it has the same science, the same inventions, the same communications – in short, when the whole system of things is international. We have noticed the connexion existing between this political and the industrial contradiction, in so far as the diplomatic nation really means the “privileged classes” of that nation – or, in other words, the capitalists, the landowners, and their salaried allies. The logical terminus ad queen of the situation is plainly the internationalising of government. The centralisation must be carried to its furthest point, and not arrested at the national frontier, often a mere arbitrary diplomatic, or geographical expression. This would have as its natural correlate the rehabilitation within certain limits of the local centre. When we think what the disappearance of capitalism, landlordism, and class privilege would really involve, it is easily seen that national and diplomatic boundaries would, under such circumstances, no longer have any raison d’etre. It is thus, and not by bourgeois propagandism and humanitarian talk that war will be abolished and the ostensible ends of the Peace Society accomplished.

E. Belfort Bax



1. One of the first to have seen this was the great Socialist economist, Karl Marx, to whose chief work, “Das Kapital” we refer our readers


Transcriber’s Note

1*. Progress was very much oriented to Rationalism and anti-clericalism. It was edited at this time by Edward Aveling.


Last updated on 19.7.2005