E. Belfort Bax

The Economical Basis of History

(January 1891)

E. Belfort Bax, The Economical Basis of History, Time, January 1891, pp.69-81.
Republished in E. Belfort Bax, Outlooks from a New Standpoint, 1891, pp.125-141.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialists often talk of the economic basis and interpretation of history without always further explaining their meaning. This I propose to do in a few words in this article. The economic interpretation of history rests on a well-known, simple and obvious law of human nature, if I may be allowed to employ that often much-abused term. There are probably few of my readers who, if they had had nothing to eat all day, would prefer a lecture to a supper, were it offered them; nay, who would not prefer the supper to the finest theatrical spectacle imaginable, let them be never so fond of theatrical spectacles. The reason of this is that our human nature presupposes our animal nature, and that this animal nature must and will be dealt with before all else. So long as we are hungry, thirsty, cold, etc., the one object of our interest is food, drink, clothing, shelter, etc. These things are the one visible object of our desires; we conceive ourselves happy if we have them. We see, we wish for, nothing beyond them. Any organic or animal discomfort, be it a positive pain, like toothache, or a negative pain (a want), like hunger, makes us feel that its removal would be the consummation of all bliss. Balzac narrates a story in his Contes drolatiques, of a trick played by King Louis XI of France upon his courtiers, by which he prevented them, under circumstances of urgency, from fulfilling a natural function of the body. “Oh,” said the archbishop to his neighbour, the master of the horse, “what pleasure in life is equal to,” etc. Now, this story of Balzac’s puts in an absurd form a very important truth, no less than the truth upon which the economic basis of social development rests – that the satisfaction of material, animal, wants takes precedence of all else in human affairs. The absence or threatened absence of the material conditions of existence obscures the desire of all else. The attainment or security of these becomes the one visible goal of energy. Instead of being the foundation they become the zenith of human aspiration.

On the other hand, when the means of comfortable living are there and secured, these material conditions of existence assume their normal function as the means and not the end of life. Just the same as the want of the necessaries of life obscures the desire of all else, so the fear of that possible want, when not actually present, also affords a like stimulus, a like indifference to all else than to the removal of the possibility of want. If we have enough food to-day, but feel that to-morrow we may possibly have to go without, the chief end of life still seems to us the assurance of a sufficiency. In short, wherever the consciousness of physical, bodily, material want, as present or as imminent, possesses us, we can see nothing before us but the removal of this want or the danger of it. The sight of superior advantages in another class also acts in the same way; the non-enjoyment of them is felt as a want to be relieved; everything, the whole object of life centres in the obtainment of the coveted position. Now, the endeavour after these things may either be confined to the individual who seeks to free himself from material discomfort and win for himself comfort – in short, to desert his class – and whose end in life is limited to this; or it may become a class instinct, a class endeavour, in which the whole class is engaged, and in which every member of a class feels his solidarity with his class, so that he is prepared to sink his individual interests in those of his class as a whole. We see the first illustrated to-day the commonplace man of the world, be he working-man or middle-class man, and the second, in the great working-class movements, and above all, in modern Socialism. The only aim of the former man is to place himself and his immediate family in a comfortable position. The aim of the latter is to conquer economic freedom for his class, inasmuch as he sees that there is no certainty for himself, and still less for his descendants, so long as his class remains in economic subjection. It is this latter form of unselfish selfishness, of egoistic disinterestedness, which is alone the lever of historical progress. We saw it exhibited yesterday in the emancipation of the middle-classes from feudal trammels, we see it to-day in the struggle of the fourth estate with Capitalism. What in the individual is at best merely low and sordid, though often excusable and natural, becomes purified and ennobled when the individual negates himself an individual in his class, always provided that class has human equality as its ultimate aim.

We see, therefore, that for economics to be the motive-power of progress, presupposes, to put the matter shortly,

  1. a class in a position in which it is either deprived of the average necessaries and comforts of life possessed by another class, or in which its enjoyment of these is precarious;
  2. a consciousness in the former class of this deprivation, i.e., a consciousness of its own inferiority and precarious success;
  3. a belief in the possibility of its attaining the coveted comfort, leisure, or security by class-action.

These, I say, are the conditions for the economic movement to make itself felt in history. They are conditions under which, when present in a class forming the majority, or even a considerable minority in the State, they most make themselves felt. I do not say that they are always distinctly formulated; the class-consciousness spoken of, the consciousness of insecurity of social position, or of positive discomfort or want, may be, and often has been, rather instinctive than definite. But be it vague or clear, its removal constitutes the highest conceivable goal, political and social, for the members of that disinherited body. It is almost a truism, nowadays, that throughout history, classes have existed, and there is no period throughout history in which the foregoing conditions have not prevailed more or less. But I maintain that in precise ratio to the degree of their prevalence, has the course of history depended on the question of the production and distribution of wealth, in short, on economics. People used to trace all historical phenomena back to speculative or literary causes. How erroneous this view is is obvious when we consider that a man in want of food is actuated, not by the religious belief he may happen to hold, but by the necessities of obtaining food, which necessities may very likely modify his religious belief, while his mere religious belief is not at all likely to modify his economic necessities. Religious belief, superstition, or whatever we may like to call it, on the contrary, bends at once before the material exigencies of life. This was illustrated a few years ago in Scotland, when the chief article of the Presbyterian creed, the duty of not performing any useful or agreeable act on Sunday, was violated under the pressing danger of the loss of a harvest and consequent starvation, and when thrifty highland men and women were to be seen garnering in the sheaves of corn on the Sabbath. The pulpits indignantly fumed against the impious act, but still it went on in different districts for three or four Sundays in succession. The highlanders may respect the Sabbath, but they respect the inexorable laws of self-preservation even more.

The most striking instances of the way in which class-antagonisms and economic pressure become the direct causes even of religious change in society, are discoverable in the final dissolution of mediaeval and the foundation of modern society, in the period, that is, known as the Reformation. These causes are also conspicuous in the first of those great crises which denoted the overthrow of the ancient world and the establishment of Christianity. To take the latter case first. The cities of the Roman Empire exhibited a restless crowd of proletarians, emancipated slaves, whom it did not pay their masters to keep, of landless and moneyless freemen – the bulk of industry being still carried on by slaves for the consumption of their owners, such free skilled manufacture as there was being rigorously “protected” by the collegia or guilds, which had the monopoly of handicrafts and trade. The economical history of the time of Constantine and that immediately preceding is sufficiently obscure, but we can see that by that time affairs were in extremis. The great, peasant and proletarian revolt in Gaul, early in the reign of Diocletian; the laws of maximum and minimum which followed in 296 and which covered all the necessaries of life; possibly also the last great persecution of the Christians – all these things point to a period of great economical pressure. Then again the wealthy provincials were continually harassed by the dread of ruin. Under the name of Decuriones they formed a kind of local senate and were responsible to the fiscal administrator of the emperor for all deficits in the revenue supposed to come from their district. The Church at this time exercised the function of a general insurance society. It was a mine of riches which it distributed to those who had paid the premiums of “faith” and baptism. Its wealth was already enormous and attracted numbers, and its aim was to absorb wealth by any means within its power. Monasticism was advancing with rapid strides, and the ecclesiastical organisation was already a refuge for thousands who were otherwise dependent on the precarious support of patrons or the public donations. A tremendous impulse was given by the official establishment of Christianity under Constantine; the profession of the Christian faith became increasingly a means of livelihood. But the most significant thing of all in this connexion is the struggle between Paganism and Christianity which went on during the fourth century and which resulted in the final overthrow of Paganism. It must be remembered that Christianity throughout the fourth century was almost entirely confined to the town populations. In the total population of the empire the Christians were a minority.

Now what was the cause of the savage attacks on the pagan cults which took place during the fourth century? I answer with the late Mr. King of Cambridge; it was the desire of the ecclesiastics, in conjunction with the shiftless populations of the towns, to obtain possession of the enormous treasures locked up in the temples. That there was genuine fanaticism in the Vandalic destruction which took place, I would not deny, but there is to my mind just as little doubt that the direct economic reason was in most cases the leading one. The Christians of the fourth century were a noisy minority of the total population of the empire, and the overthrow of Paganism was accomplished like all other great revolutions in history by this active and energetic minority. The celebrated edict of Theodosius was the official expression of what had been going on for over fifty years. Precisely the same thing took place in the revolution which gave the death-blow to the mediaeval system and which also assumed the form of a change of belief. Then also the new middle class and the town-populations generally wished to enrich itself with the spoils of the monasteries. The Protestants up to the reign of Elizabeth, at least, were a noisy handful. The confiscation of the monasteries went on simultaneously with the expropriation of the people from the land, by enclosures and the formation of large sheep-walks, and by the transformation of industry, which gave rise on the one hand to the new proletariat, and on the other to the new employer class, together with the other great changes which destroyed or jeopardised the previous means of existence of large sections of the population. These classes found themselves, without any conscious determination on their part, forced into a reformative or revolutionary attitude, alike in politics and religion. [1] Their great enemy they saw in the old system of society with its trammels or free contract, its local imposts, its independent jurisdictions, its ecclesiastical organisation, and the hundred other evils which crushed them down or prevented them from rising.

The above are instances given very briefly of cases where the economic movement is obviously the dominant and leading one, and they might be multiplied a hundredfold. But it is a mistake, as I take it, to regard the economic side of things as in all periods of history equally determinant. For the material conditions of existence, the modes of the production and distribution of wealth to become the leading factor in determining the course of human affairs, it is, as we have already intimated, necessary that the whole community, or a considerable portion of it, should be vaguely or definitely conscious of the fact that its means of maintenance in average comfort are threatened if not already compromised. Now this has been the case more or less throughout history, that is, throughout the period we term civilisation, which has always been based on the individual holding of property and on the existence of propertied classes over against propertiless classes in some form or shape. But the economic element has not been equally operative throughout history. During periods of quiescence the dominant classes whose means of existence has been assured have not been subject to it, and certain forms of progress have taken place independently of it. For we must never forget the great fact that, although economics are the basis of human existence, they are the basis merely and not the complete whole – that we have to do with a synthesis, human society comprising various elements. As I have just said, though throughout the historical period the economical side of things has operated more powerfully than any other single influence, yet its operation has not been uniform. There have been periods when it has been counterbalanced by the concurrent action of other influences not deducible from it. It may contract so as to appear comparatively insignificant as an active force, just as it may expand so as to dwarf all other factors. For example, there is much in the history of the first two centuries of the Christian era which cannot be directly referred to economical causes. Fiscal exigencies will account for a good deal, but they will not account for all the speculative or all the political changes which form part of its history. Again, it would be difficult to deduce the rise of the Saracen power from the special conditions of Arabian society in the seventh century, or the Crusades from the conditions of the mediaeval manor of the eleventh century. In both these cases we obviously have to do directly with speculative causes. If we look into these periods we shall find, I think, that the means of existence on the lines of the current organisation of society, of the majority, or of a considerable minority of society, was not immediately threatened and that the dominant classes did not feel their position endangered. In the case of the Europe of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, for instance, though all living was rough enough, no classes were directly threatened by the then existing organisation of society as they were three or four centuries later. The Arabia of Mahomet’s time, again, was in a barbaric and semi-barbaric state, in which classes either did not exist at all in an economic sense, or were only just beginning to show themselves, while we have no reason to suppose that there was any greater pressure of food supply, etc., on the Arabian tribe of the seventh than of any preceding century. We are here clearly concerned with movements having their roots in the ideological or religious aspect of human nature which came to the fore now that the economic side of affairs fell into the background. We see the same in the case of privileged classes who feel their position tolerably secure. There are certain human interests whose development cannot be interpreted economically, that is, referred to any large extent to economical conditions. The higher aspects of intellectual development usually come under this heading, the reason being that philosophic speculation, scientific research in its earlier phases, and certain, forms of art are developed within a wealthy and leisured class, i.e., within a class for whose consciousness economic conditions are at zero.

Economic conditions are a potent factor the first stage of poetry, the epos, which takes its rise in the popular consciousness at a time that class antagonisms are beginning. Again, architecture is an art which, owing to its subordination to utilitarian purposes, is also powerfully affected its development by economic conditions. The same with all the decorative arts. Philosophic speculation, on the other band, which is never popular, and which does not arise except, as already remarked, within a class economically safe and sound, has no positive connexion with the prevailing modes of the production and distribution of wealth, – and, in fact, cannot in most cases even indirectly be deduced therefrom. The metaphysic of Plato and Aristotle has no assignable basis in the material conditions of Greek life. On the other hand, economic conditions may react on the results of speculative thought, may prepare the way for their acceptance by the popular mind, as also the media which shall interpret them. The great historical instance of this is the popular acceptance of the introspective morality – the morality of the individual and of personal holiness. This, which was in the first instance merely a speculative aspiration of isolated thinkers, fell upon a soil favourably prepared by the economical conditions accompanying the consolidation of the Roman supremacy, and rapidly spread, in the form of the Christian religion, among the vast free proletarian and slave population of the empire. But even here it may be doubted whether the political movement, the destruction of the ancient, independent city life, and the consequent breaking down of the old barriers and of the interests with which these barriers were connected, did not as much contribute to the spread of Christianity, and the other systems embodying the new speculative and ethical principles, as the one before mentioned. It was the latter, certainly, rather than the former, which must be regarded as the predisposing influence amongst the possessing classes. An economic interpretation of human, evolution presupposes in an advanced society an inequality of economic condition, the existence of classes, or, in other words, the private holding of property. Thus it is that throughout the historical period the economic movement has been a leading one, most commonly the leading one. But if this has been the case throughout history, what of the pre-historic period in which the highest social development was the tribal society of kinship with its economic basis of primitive communism? What of the society of the future with a socialist betwixt its economic basis of collectivist production for social uses? Has the economic basis been, and will it be the lever or motive power of progress in these cases? To take the former instance first. Owing to the undeveloped state of early man’s resources over nature, tribal communistic societies are always liable to economic pressure from without, that is, from natural causes. Famine, drought, disease, are in such societies particularly fatal in character. They are always exposed moreover to attacks from without from other societies, and may be forced by stress of economic circumstances to make such attacks themselves. Hence, warfare is generally the most important and honourable avocation, and personal prowess the highest virtue of such societies. But in the internal development of such a society economics does not occupy the constant predominance as an active motive power that it does in civilised societies.

For example, the origin of the wealth and influence of priesthoods, in so far as this is to be found in pre-historic times, is not traceable to any economic condition, but rather to the speculative condition of the early human mind. It is true, fear of evil consequences, economic and other, for the society, induced special attention to be sometimes paid to the world of conscious and willing beings with which primitive man felt himself surrounded, and in whose hands he believed his destinies to be. But this did not originate the belief in these agencies. It was only one of the many circumstances in which the aid of the gods was invoked. Ancestor-worship, which in primitive and all early forms of society plays such an important part, is certainly not to any appreciable extent influenced by questions of mere material exigency. In primitive society the general aim may be defined as the maintenance, continuance and glory of the kinship organisation. In this stage the special goal aimed at is either not consciously present at all, or only vaguely so. The economic factor in the evolution of tribal society is only a leading one under special circumstances imposed from without. A sudden failure of food supply, or the pressure of other tribes, determines migrations, wars, etc. But, apart from this, under favourable circumstances, there is no reason to suppose that, within the tribe or kinship – society itself, the economic factor, per se, is more operative than any other.

The real point to be remembered is that we have to deal with a concrete synthesis – “social life” – and that all the elements which go to make this synthesis are organically dependent on each other. The basis is, of course, the production and distribution of the necessaries of material welfare: but this is an element, merely of a synthesis, and not the synthesis itself. In a primitive communistic society the several departments of human interests are as yet latent or implicit, and it is, therefore, no such easy matter to assign definite limits to each, as it is in a highly developed and differentiated society, where the domestic, economical, political, speculative, religious and artistic spheres are clearly distinguishable and even separable in function. Every social net in all early tribal society of equals partakes at once, more or less, of all these characters. Thus every public assembly of the tribe, in itself primarily a political act, involves, not as a mere accessory appendage, but as part of its essential character, sacrifices and other religious ceremonies, processions, music and dancing, the presence of the image of the tribal god, often feasting and other domestic functions, divination, astrological pronouncements (the early representation of applied science), while matters relating to the economical arrangements or position of the tribe may at the same time be decided. Now all these timings are so undifferentiated in primitive social life that it is difficult to say which is predominant. Under favourable natural conditions the economical movement will probably not be the decisive one. It is conceivable that a purely speculative belief might be the occasion of very important results. For example, it was presumably the quasi-religious veneration attached to the elders of the society, connected as it was with ancestor-worship, which gradually undermined the primitive forms of the gens and tribe and gave rise to the patriarchal family and the earlier phases of monarchy. It could scarcely have been on any other than superstitious grounds that the assumption of wealth and power by individuals was tolerated. The old modes of production may have proved unsuitable as the society expanded; the plunder taken in war, the capture of slaves, etc., may all have contributed to the accumulation of property in private hands; but without the religious element it could hardly have acquired the sanction of custom, since it was manifestly opposed altogether to the traditions and interests of the majority of a tribal society. But whatever element it is which is the immediate cause of change, the other elements which go to make up the synthesis are, so to speak, dragged along with it. The specific change denotes or is the sign of the advent of a stage in the organic development of the society. There is no such thing as a fundamental economic change without a corresponding political, social and religious, and even artistic change. And so it was in the change from primitive communistic society to civilisation. Every phase of social life underwent modification in a corresponding manner. The religious side of things was, as usual, the most conservative, and undoubtedly hindered to some extent the course of the political and economic revolution. This is especially noticeable in the religious conservatism of the old gentile forms.

When once the revolution which instituted civilisation, with its individual of private holding of property, was fully accomplished and fixed in law and custom, the methods of the production and distribution of wealth, in other words, the economic movement, became and continued in varying degrees throughout history the dominant factor in social evolution. As we have before remarked, this must of necessity be so whenever the economic equilibrium of society is disturbed. The private holding of property involves the existence of classes, of a class possessing property and the power which property brings when held in exclusive possession, and a non-possessing class who are dependent for bare living upon the former, at whose mercy they are therefore placed. Henceforward, in precise ratio to the development of the civilisation, to the concentration of property in the hands of individuals, is the importance of economic condition as the measure of progress. The ethical movement which is directly traceable to economics, is also noteworthy. With the indirect connexion of the new individualist ethics which ultimately gained the ascendancy over the earlier social ethics and the corresponding economic development, we are not here concerned. I have dealt with this at some length elsewhere. But there is one point which may be mentioned as illustrating the aspect of the question now under discussion. It is the notion of asceticism. The satisfaction of material exigencies is the conditio sine qua non of all the “higher” human activities. Now asceticism is, at least from one point of view, a recognition of this fact in an inverted form. The ascetic finds the material conditions of civilisation incompatible for most men with high aspirations. Instinctively feeling, therefore, the impossibility of finding a foothold in the quicksand of civilised life, in the sense of a satisfaction by social means of material needs, he seeks this footing in the arbitrary suppression of those needs by the individual. He preaches, and sometimes practises, the “simplification of life.” This soon becomes his chief aim. He does not stop to inquire the use of all this simplification. In what sense the man who succeeds in making himself more uncomfortable than his fellows is better than they, never seems to occur to him as a subject of inquiry – at least, in the case of your Count Tolstois and other cultured modern ascetic preachers who claim to represent rational principles. This notion of suppression rather than satisfaction as forming the starting-point of a higher life, which has drawn its foul trail through the historical period, will assuredly pass away with the economic disabilities under which the major part of mankind have laboured during that period, and which are accountable for the “fox-and-the-grapes” like spirit to which it is due.

In primitive communistic society then, to return again to our more immediate subject, the economical movement only made itself apparent as the motive-power of social development owing to the interposition of external causes – resulting partly from the limited command possessed by early man over the forces of nature, and partly by the limitations of tribal society itself, which gave rise to continual hostilities with neighbouring societies. Throughout civilisation, on the other hand, it has been the dominant motive-power in most periods, though in varying degrees, for the simple reason that its prominence has resulted from a cause not merely external and casual, but one inherent in the internal structure of civilisation which is based on Individualism, and on the consequent existence of a propertied and therefore powerful, and a propertiless and therefore powerless class – the existence of these two opposing classes having implied the continually recurrent want or threatened want of the necessaries or average comforts of life by vast sections of the population, thereby raising the mere material conditions of life to the rank of the telos or end-purpose of all human endeavour. Hence the phenomena of avarice, and the attachment to money as money – i.e., as the symbol of security for the means of life – which permeates all civilised society. But now, how about the future?

The degree in which material conditions have influenced progress has been, as we have seen, ceteris paribus, in direct ratio to that concentration of the wealth of the community in private hands by which the livelihood of the majority is rendered precarious. In the present day this has reached a point at which the production and distribution of wealth is not merely the central point of human interest as it has often been before in history, but in which it has absorbed all other interests into itself. Other departments of human activity have become the more appendages – mere rudimentary offshoots – of this one. The one reality of the nineteenth century is the scramble for wealth; politics, literature, science, religion, art, are, apart from money-getting, mere lifeless wraiths. The necessities of modern life bind men like Ixion to the wheel of production and distribution. The mere economic machinery enslaves us to-day in a manner which it has never before done throughout history. To-day, therefore, the economic factor in evolution has acquired an unequalled importance, being, in fact, very generally, the only one worth serious consideration. But “when night is darkest dawn is nearest.” The absolute despotism of economic interests and economic processes reduces life itself to an impossibility for some, to an absurdity for all. The moment the majority of men, the class immediately affected by it, become conscious of this, its end is at hand. The contradiction, whereby the means of living usurp the place of the end of life once fully manifest, must resolve itself, and there is only one way in which it can resolve itself. Whereas now the will of man is unconsciously determined by economic processes and economic interests, then economic processes and economic interests will be consciously determined by the will of man. For, it must be admitted, we are already in a fair way of conquering the powers of nature to the service of man, while in the society of the future, inasmuch as we believe it to be international in its character and organisation, war will have ceased. The causes, therefore, why economic conditions influenced the development of pre-historic society will no longer obtain. On the other hand, the internal organisation of society under collectivism implies essentially the abolition of classes, and of the private property-holding on which civilised society is based. The causes, therefore, of the ascendancy of economic condition in the historical period will also no longer obtain. But this pre-supposes a communistic organisation of society – an organisation for all, by all. Here, for the first time, will Human Evolution have once for all subordinated its material conditions, and subordinated them, not after the manner of the ascetic by the suppression of the desire for them, but rather by its satisfaction. Men will cease to think unduly of their appetites when the means of healthy satisfaction is within reach of all, when they are not, as now, debarred from it by social conditions. Here, for the first time, will the economical interest definitely cease to be the determining power of Human progress. The material conditions of life may be luxurious, or may be simple, according to the needs and tastes of the new generation of men; but in a world where the resources of nature, as developed by modern applied science, will be used and indefinitely further developed for the common advantage and not for the exclusive benefit of individuals and classes, where production will be regulated, expanded and contracted, from year to year, as common necessity may dictate, and, therefore, where “thrift” will have become an extinct virtue – in such a world it is manifest that economic developments will follow and not lead the desires and aspirations of men, and will no longer dictate the consequent modifications and re-adjustments which social life will from time to time undergo.

E. Belfort Bax



1. I do not dwell on this period, as it has been often dealt with by Socialist writers. For England, Hyndman’s book may be consulted; for Germany, Engel’s Bauernkrieg, and for a general view of the situation Kautsky’s Thomas More, especially the Introduction up to p.120.


Last updated on 14.1.2006