E. Belfort Bax

The Curse of Civilisation

(10 & 17 September 1887)

Originally published in Commonweal, 10th & 17th September 1887, p.292-293, 300-301.
Republished in The Ethics of Socialism, 1893, pp.106-119.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is or was a favourite practice of the historical school of Buckle, Spencer, etc., to dwell upon the fact that the attention of the early speculative intellect is more occupied with exceptional than with ordinary phenomena – with comets, meteors and eclipses, rather than with the facts and sequences of everyday Nature. Many a generation has passed since this has ceased to apply to progressive man. He is now perfectly alive to the saliency of the common phenomena and operations of Nature (in its narrower sense) and to the comparative unimportance of those exceptional events which so much excited the terror and wonder of his remote ancestor. But in spite of this change of mental attitude as regards inorganic nature, there is one department of phenomena, that of social life and history, in which the old attitude is unconsciously maintained. It seems to have entirely escaped the notice of students that the current view of history – strange to say, even of modern social life – when we reflect upon it and formulate our reflections, is based mainly on the exceptions of life – battles, murder and pestilence – and that the rule – the everyday routine – is, for the most part, left entirely out of the account. This, conjoined with the still widespread assumption of the eighteenth-century fallacy that all progress is in a straight line, has led to the conviction in most, even candid minds, amounting to the strength of an axiom, that the advance of civilisation has augmented the sum of human happiness; that life under earlier conditions must have been intolerable, and hence that the Socialist contention that the modern world is not only not the best possible, but not the best up to date, is merely a whimsical paradox.

In discussing this subject, two or three points have to be considered. Firstly, we must distinguish between what I may term the dynamic and the static estimation of history. In the first, any particular historical period is regarded as part of the general evolution of history, as a moment merely of that evolution; it is viewed solely in its relation to what preceded and what followed it. In the second a period is regarded abstractly, in itself and not as the element of a. whole; it is treated as an independent whole and compared with other periods also regarded as independent wholes. It is further to be borne in mind, in discussing the subject statically that, the individual being the product of his period and its conditions, it is no answer to the comparative merits of one period over another to point out the impossibility or evil results of suddenly transplanting an individual brought up under the first set of conditions into the second.

On the dynamic view the proposition, “whatever is, is best,” has a certain truth. Every historical period has its meaning or significance for historical progress, considered dynamically, however meaningless considered in itself. Thus, without the decay and dissolution of tribal society and its issue in civilised individualism, a higher universal communism would have been impossible. Nay, without the particular development of civilisation represented by nineteenth century capitalism with its “great industry,” the higher, more universal, more complex communism, which is the ideal of the modern Socialist, would have been inconceivable. Even for the Socialist, therefore, the worst and more brutal forms of civilisation are good. The progress from tribal society to civilisation is thus a progress indeed, every step is a triumph and brings us nearer to the realisation of human hopes. In this sense the Socialist is at one with the Whig historian. But here he joins issue with him. No sooner does he change his standpoint and consider history statically, than he finds that every step toward modern civilisation is a step for the worse. Considered by itself, every historical advance has meant a positive loss to human happiness in the essentials of life, immeasurably outweighing any positive gain in the details. The Socialist is bound, therefore, when viewing civilisation statically, to pronounce it unreservedly an unmitigated evil.

The ordinary historian, who considers only the exceptional incidents of life and ignores its essential aspects, finds everywhere signs of progress as he understands it – that is, signs that the present is better than the past. In the Middle Ages he observes a state of society in which life was relatively insecure from violence, where flagrant acts of cruelty and injustice were often perpetrated, where terrible plagues every now and then devastated considerable areas of population, where open war was a common occurrence. This in the first place. In the second, he finds a complete absence not only of all the modern comforts and luxuries of life, but of many things he is accustomed to regard as necessaries. He finds locomotion difficult and dangerous, and all means of communication of the most rudimentary description. In modern life, of course, he sees exactly the reverse of all this. The positive evils mentioned are reduced to a minimum or removed altogether. Life has become a mass of little wants with the means of satisfying them ready to hand for those who can purchase them. More excitement is required, and can be had for money; tours round the world replace journeys into the next county.

I think I cannot be accused of having stated the case unfairly for modern civilisation; but after all, what does the difference amount to? In the view of many persons, the medieval famine, pestilence, war, and host of other evils, are conceived as occurring all in the same place in the same week. Were this popular view of mediaeval society correct, it is manifest that no flesh could have survived. But as a matter of fact “flesh” did survive; and so far as can be gathered, the average length of human life was not much inferior then to what it is now. For if, as is sometimes contended, great age is more frequently reached now than then, this is more than counterbalanced by the fact, confirmed by all accounts, that premature death (properly so called) from organic disease was of comparatively rare occurrence. Now, although a fringe of well-to-do people may attain a greater average age than a corresponding set of people in the Middle Ages, in the nineteenth century whole sections of our ever-increasing town population are doomed by the conditions of their life to a premature grave. The difference is this, as I take it: the well-to-do middle and upper classes have the chance of an average year or two’s longer life than the wealthy classes of former ages, but the mass of the population, although relieved from the fear of famine, sword, and, to a great extent, even of decimating epidemics and other sensational incursions of the grizzly skeleton on their front, are relieved only to find him stolidly clinging on at the rear, in the shape of anxiety for daily bread, overwork, bad and insufficient food, squalor, insanitary housing, etc. The ordinary historian sees the exceptional and horrific evils of sword, violence, and famine incidental to the life of past ages; he passes over the common-place evils essential to modern life. Yet under the one set of conditions early death is certain; under the other at most only probable.

Now let us compare two cases – an ancient and a modern – in which the result is the same, and note the difference between them otherwise. Say the modern town artisan dies at forty; the medieval guildsman is killed at forty. But the modern town artisan has been qualifying for death from infancy, every step in his life has been dogged by that death – literally in the midst of life he has been in death. If actual disease be not upon him, potential disease is, in the form of low bodily condition, rendering him absolutely incapable of any enjoyment other than “boozing.” His tendencies, inherited and acquired, all converge to the one end. He is throughout life decaying. Now take the medieval guildsman. What is his life? He also works at his trade, but under what conditions? With plenty of air, food, leisure, work in which he takes an interest and a pride, and in healthy emulation with companions similarly circumstanced to himself, his life is a healthy and a happy one. Suddenly news comes that a hostile lord is advancing upon the town with his retainers, and that all must arm in its defence. The excitement is a not altogether unwelcome interruption to the peaceful daily life of burghers possessed of nerves begotten of generations of life under healthy conditions. The citizens sally forth and the walls are manned. Our forty-year old workman takes his place. The fight begins; bolts, arrows, and javelins fly. In the thick of it all our burgher is struck and falls moaning; he is carried home, and after a few hours of pain, dies. Now here you have your choice: death by the exceptional thunderbolt of medieval society; death by the undying worm of modern civilisation. Which do you prefer? In the one case unsettled conditions, life and property insecure – in short, all the bogies of the Whig historian; in the other settled conditions, law and order reigning over all the land, and every blessing of civilisation. I think few can honestly hesitate as to the answer they give.

Now we have just been supposing the case of an individual with whom the specific evils of medieval society were actually operative. But it must be borne in mind that the balance of probabilities against any particular individual being affected by any of them was probably almost, if not quite as great as against any given individual in the present day being killed in a railway accident, blown up in an explosion, drowned in an over-insured, unseaworthy ship, run over on a London crossing, crushed in a panic at a public building, etc., etc. One or other of these disasters peculiar to modern life is chronicled every day in the newspapers, and often several the same day, yet the apprehension of them does not seriously affect the happiness of the modern man, with all his instability of nerve. How much less, then, must the fear of being killed in battle or by robbers or by pestilence have disturbed the equanimity of the mediaeval baron, peasant, or citizen, with his iron nerves and sturdy frame?

By far the most powerful popular indictment of mediaeval society in favour of modern civilisation is that of Mr. Owen Pike. In his History of Crime in England Mr. Pike has taken a single year – 1349 – and carefully and laboriously collected all the cases of private war, forcible entry, highway robbery, etc., etc., he could find in the official records as having taken place throughout England in that year. He has certainly done his best to paint the Middle Ages as black as possible; yet after reading his catalogue of crime, spread over a whole year and distributed over the whole of England, one rises with the feeling of an anti-climax. The chief thing that strikes one about mediaeval crime is not so much its amount as the brutal frankness, the undisguised straightforwardness, of it. On the whole, the most unfavourable presentment of mediaeval conditions will, we think, confirm what we have just said, in the mind of every candid reader – namely, that the chances of these evils affecting any given person or even locality was, to say the least, not so very much greater than the chances of any given person or locality being affected by the other and often quite as great, if more commonplace, evils peculiar to modern life. Men were at least robust and healthy for the most part until they were cut off by famine, war, or pestilence. They were not harassed by the dread of loss of employment and starvation, or by the horror of their children being left without means of subsistence, If no one else did, the Church would always care for them. But here again, the sensational, exceptional evils of mediaeval life are so much more dramatic, appeal to the imagination so much more than the commonplaces of stunted growth, deficiency of vital power, trade depressions, strikes and lock-outs, that in a general estimate of the respective periods the one is taken prominently into account, while the other is left altogether unnoticed.

Let us now consider that portion of the indictment of more primitive society – again taking the Middle Ages as its type – which refers to the absence of change, variety, comfort in life; and in this we will take as an example the subject of locomotion. “Steam” is pre-eminently the material symbol of modern civilisation, and its advocate invariably adduces the blessings of free intercourse and locomotion as against the restricted communication of earlier ages as a convincing argument, not merely of the greater capacity of acquiring wealth in the modern world, but of the greater possibilities of happiness which the facilities of modern times for change, intercourse, and education, afford. Now there can be no doubt that “steam” has provided the means of travelling long distances for a vastly greater number of persons than have ever been able to travel before. But have our tours round the world or to the most distant countries for the comparatively well-to-do who have a few weeks, or even in some cases a few days, to spare, or our day-trips to distant parts of the same country for the less well-to-do who have only a few hours, have these things really or only apparently increased the possibilities of change of scene and ideas and the education thence resulting, as against those supplied by the restricted communication of former days? I am convinced the distinction is merely in appearance, and that the change of ideas derived from a visit to a foreign country to-day is very little more than would have been derived from a visit to another county in the Middle Ages.

The reason is obvious. Where the steam-engine has penetrated, the bourgeois civilisation which it represents, with the uniformity of condition which specially characterises that civilisation, has penetrated also. Everywhere that the steam-engine carries you, it carries along with it the world you intended to leave behind you; the same architecture – the big hotel, the railway station, the cheaply-built house as you find them in London, Paris, or Berlin: the same costume – the shoddy cloth of the “world-market,” the Parisian “cut,” the “top” or “bowler” hat; the country, as at home, cut up by the railway itself, with its long rows of telegraph posts, its shunting yards, – in short, everything as like as possible to what it is at your own door. You open up a conversation with the natives; the old local dialect, with the old local dress, customs, and traditions, have long since fled, and in the quondam peasant you find a clumsy approach to the getting-on townsman.

This is your change, your variety in life, which “steam” has brought you. For none can deny that a railway sooner or later brings all these things in its wake. Is, then, the variety in life, the change of scene, the freshness of intercourse, so much greater here than when every district had its special features; its own hills and dales unscarred by the ubiquitous “navvy;” its own manufactures; its own characteristic architecture; its own homespun costume; its own dialect and mode of expressing its ideas; its own local laws and customs; and its own traditions and legends? Has the modern London bourgeois who occasionally, by the help of Cook, strives to get away from the routine world in which he lives, by a desperate effort and at a considerable expenditure – has he, I ask, so great an advantage over his ancestor of the thirteenth century, who by a stroll into Kent or Surrey on any Church holiday could find himself in a district with an individuality in many respects quite distinct from the one he left? With a great price the modern bourgeois obtains (or tries to obtain) his freedom from the dull monotony of his life; but the mediaeval guildsman of London was freeborn. After his day’s work he could probably obtain more real change and amusement than the modern “city man” during the whole of his autumn outing.

But if we must confess thus much of the privileged man, the man of means, how does it stand with the poor mechanic, who on his every holiday has to pay the tax of the railway company, and to be stived up in its cattle boxes, perhaps for three or four hours, in order to get a breath of fresh air and a glimpse of country, which in earlier ages he could have had, even though he lived in the heart of London, within an hour’s walk of his own door? When rurality and variety were comparatively close at hand, there was no need or desire to travel far afield. Now people travel much and have little change in former ages they travelled less and had more change.

It is clear, therefore, that the pseudo-advantages of civilisation (such as they are) refer, in this case at least not only to the exceptions of life rather than to its ordinary round, but also to the man of exceptional social advantage; in other words to the “classes,” and not to the “masses.” What applies in this case is only typical of the great truth that modern civilisation not only accrues at best solely to the advantage of a propertied and privileged class, but that even that very questionable advantage has been gained by an untold loss for the mass of the people.

I have selected locomotion as the type of modern progress, but it would be easy to show that the telegraph, a “cheap” press, etc., although they have changed human life, have been no positive benefit – that as much pleasure was to be had out of the medieval ballad-singer’s version of Robin Hood as out of the modern newspaper or the penny or shilling dreadful.

That the exceptionally circumstanced man, the man of the middle and upper classes, and not the ordinary man, the man of the people, is the chief beneficiary also by other reforms whose praises are sung so loudly, is curiously illustrated by the sacredness of the modern statesman or bureaucrat. Time was, when a statesman, if he misbehaved himself, ran some risk of losing his head, or at least of imprisonment or exile, accompanied by confiscation of property. Now the plutocracy have succeeded in making statecraft a perfectly safe trade for themselves and their satellites, the worst evil that can befall a “man of position” in the country being temporary loss of office. Of course it was altogether barbarous when a member of the leading governmental ring who was suspected of having striven to aggrandise himself (whether in reputation, influence, or material wealth) at the expense of justice and the public he was professing to serve could be arraigned as a criminal! Nowadays, even Opposition journals of the most pronounced character would deprecate with polite horror the bare suggestion of the “honourable gentleman” having been actuated by any but the highest of motives, or being guilty of anything more heinous than an error of judgment. Nevertheless, satisfactory as this arrangement may be in the interests of the governmental industry, and to the wealthy classes who have such a large stake in it, there can be no question that it is both reasonable and just that delegates in whose hand vast powers for weal or woe are vested should be criminally responsible for their “errors of judgment.” No man is obliged to accept a position of such responsibility, and no age but the present would have thought of allowing him, having done so, to slink out of the consequences of his misdeeds under the cover of their being due to “error of judgment.”

What shall we say then? If the benefits of modern life, considered in themselves, concern mainly its exceptions and not its ordinary round, and have been for the most part achieved at the expense of its ordinary round; if they further mainly benefit an exceptional or privileged class and not the ordinary man, and have been achieved at the expense of the ordinary man, – are we, like Mr. Ruskin, to call ourselves conservatives and, to hark back upon an impossible past, while renouncing the present as hopelessly bad? A thousand times No! But let us make no mistake, or confound two distinct standpoints. The fact that, dynamically viewed, modern capitalism, with all that it entails – railways, machinery, squalor is a good (nay, might be better were it intensified to the fourth power), since it is the necessary condition of the higher social life to follow, must not blind us to the fact that, statically viewed, modern life is in no sense an improvement on the life of past ages. Do not let us delude ourselves with thinking that railways have in themselves contributed an iota to human happiness, or are in themselves anything else than an unmitigated evil, without a shred of compensating advantage. Again, though the acute evils of earlier ages have indeed gone, let us not forget they have gone only to be supplanted by chronic evils in the present. In this static sense I call civilisation a curse. I say, let us clearly recognise it as such. And in doing this, one thing there is which will give us cause to take heart of grace: there has been no evil of which mankind has once become conscious as such that mankind has not already half vanquished. The acute dramatic evils of the Middle Ages – insecurity of life and property, feudal trammels and imposts, ecclesiastical abuses – three centuries ago filled the field of human vision. Thinking, forward-looking men saw in the vanquishment of the evils of their upas-tree – effete feudalism – the goal of all human hopes. It steadily and surely withered, and now it is long since first its place knew it no more. The evils they saw were vanquished, with what results we now know. We in our turn see a fatal upas-tree, blasting all human aspiration and happiness. The fact that we see it as it is, is an earnest that its destruction is nigh. We need not be discouraged by the immensity or the solidity of the fabric we see standing. How little could it have seemed to the man of the sixth century, with all the outer forms of Roman life around him, that the Roman empire was a thing of the past and that a new world was on the point of growing up to take its place; how little to the careless man of the sixteenth, with all the superficial signs of a mediaeval civilisation standing, that the era of lord and vassal, knight and squire, was in reality gone, and a world in which the time-honoured symbols, relations, and conceptions of the Middle Ages would be meaningless was fast arising. Much as he might have desired this, it must have seemed impossible to him. So with the Socialist to-day. He sees the great curse, bourgeois civilisation, around him on all sides. The one hope which fills the whole horizon of his vision is the destruction of that curse. The strength of that hope within him is the streak of light denoting the coming of the day.


Last updated on 15.1.2006