[E. Belfort Bax]

The Forerunners of Modern Socialism

(30 December 1895)

The Forerunners of Modern Socialism, The Daily Chronicle, 30 December 1895. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Die Geschichte des modernen Sozialismus. Erster Band. Zweiter Theil. Von Thomas More bis zum Vorabend der französischen Revolution. (Stuttgart: Dietz.)

What is for practical purposes the second volume of the interesting series noticed by us recently, which is appearing under the editorship of Messrs. Bernstein and Kautzky, is largely devoted to the history of those English movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which bear upon the general purpose of the work. But the book, which is divided into six parts and an appendix, also contains chapters dealing with Campanella and with the Jesuit settlements in Paraguay by Paul Lafargue, and an exhaustive treatment of Socialistic tendencies in France of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Dr. Karl Hugo, who also writes the appendix on the Religious-communist societies of North America. The parts dealing with England are by the editors, Herr Kautzky taking his own subject, Thomas More, and Herr Bernstein, whose sketch occupies rather more than half the book, giving an interesting and instructive survey for the German student of English history of the period covered by the great Civil War, with its social movements, their causes and significance.

The opening section on Sir Thomas More and the Utopia, as might be expected, contains little that is new to Englishmen on the subject of the. social and economic conditions of England under Henry VII and Henry VIII. It is, in fact, but a condensed re-statement of the subject matter of Kautzsky’s separate book on the subject. Lafargue’s account of Campanella and his City of the Sun likewise calls for little remark. It is in what by a freak of publishing eccentricity is termed the fifth section (the present volume being reckoned as a second part of the former) that the real interest of the book begins. While necessarily drawing largely upon the recognised sources, notably the great work of Gardiner, it would be unfair to regard Herr Bernstein’s disquisition as merely second-hand. Not only is the standpoint taken up different from that of any previous historian of the epoch in question, but the treatise shows abundant signs of careful original research. The central figure of the picture of the England of the Great Rebellion as painted by Herr Bernstein is John Lilbourne, who is taken as the personification of the so-called “Leveller” movement. The key to the whole treatment of the subject is to be found in the quotation from an article of Marx with which the first chapter opens, and in which at once a parallel and contrast is drawn between the English middle-class revolution of the seventeenth century and the French middle-class revolution of the eighteenth century. That both of these events belong essentially to the same general movement will not be disputed by any serious historical student of the present day. In the English Civil War, as in the French Revolution, it was the rising middle-class that was the hero of the drama. In both cases this class was united against the same enemies, feudalism, absolute monarchy, and the dominant ecclesiastical organisation. Marx justly observes “The Revolution of 1789 had as a model the English Revolution of 1648, while the latter had as a model only the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain.” The revolutions of 1845 and 1789, Marx continues,

“were no mere English and French revolutions, they were revolutions of a European significance. They were more than the victory of a special class of society over the old political order; they were the proclamation of the political order of the new European society. The bourgeoisie conquered in them, but the victory of the bourgeoisie meant at that time the victory of a new order of society, the victory of middle-class over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism, of free competition over the guild, of division of inheritance oven primogeniture, of the ascendancy of the (proprietor of the soil over the domination of the proprietor by the soil, of rationalism over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of civil jurisprudence over mediaeval privilege.”

The article from which the above quotation is made, and which was written by Marx for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung for Dec. 15, 1848, furnishes the keynote of the present treatise. Herr Bernstein has, in the course of his investigations, unearthed or at least brought together for the first time in manageable compass, much interesting material respecting the various social schemes of the seventeenth century and the different sects embodying them (e.g., “the Fifth Monarchy men”, “the True Levellers”, the “faminists,” &c.). He also treats at some length of the materialism of Overton in his little book on the immortality of the soul, and of the freethinking of Walwyn, who was accused of the “perversion of youth” by holding what seems to have been a kind of Sunday-school in which communistic theories combined with a very free Biblical criticism were taught. The evidence of careful study of all this Leveller literature at first hand is apparent throughout, and certainly this portion of the book would very well bear translation into English. The remarkable anticipations of eighteenth-century, and even in some cases of nineteenth-century views, is at times very striking, though in estimating such one must always discount largely for what the modern mind unconsciously reads into the thought of a past age. Even Herr Bernstein is, perhaps, tempted now and again to see these things in a too modern light. It is difficult, if indeed it be possible to divest ourselves, be it but for a moment of the whole traditions of our intellectual life – to get outside our mental atmosphere, as it were, into that of a bygone time. Our background – what lies between us and it – must necessarily form a more or less distorting veil preventing us from getting at the mental inside of men who had something totally different for their background, when what is for us the familiar and hence often unnoticed presupposition of all our views of life and society lay in an unconscious future before them.

In some of the sects of the Commonwealth period (e.g., the “Diggers”) we have the last dying flicker of the spirit and ideas animating the Communist sects of the middle ages, that played such an important role in the great peasant revolts which prevailed more or less continuously throughout mediaeval times. All these movements, so to say, unconsciously look back with longing to the golden age of the primitive communism of the mark or the clan. It is true the conscious form which their aspirations took was that of a return to an imagined primitive Biblical simplicity, but the actual demands made always involved the old agrarian communism in more or less pronounced form. The last great peasant revolt, of course, took place a century earlier in East Anglia, but the aftermath is to be seen in the “True Leveller” and kindred sects. The spirit of revolution from this time forward was absorbed by rising middle class movements, whose aims and ideals were at bottom widely different whatever the temporary and superficial form they at times assumed. This was the case until the advent of modern Socialism within the present century. Among the especially, commendable portions of Herr Bernstein’s treatise may be mentioned Chapter XII, headed The Quakers up to John Bellers. The sketch and appreciation of the Quaker movement in its inception and spread strikes us as admirably sound and just.

The so-called sixth section of the book consists of a sketch of the Jesuit mission settlements in Paraguay, by M. Paul Lafargue. The Jesuit “Republic” of Paraguay has often been vaunted as a model of benevolent despotic Communism. According to Mr. Lafargue it was, on the contrary:–

A Capitalistic State in which men, women, and children were condemned to compulsory labour and to the whip, and were deprived of all rights, in which all vegetated in equal misery and equal degeneracy, no matter how well agriculture and industry flourished, no matter how great was the surplus of the goods which they produced.

We await with interest the results of the researches on which we have reason to believe Mr. Cuninghame Graham is occupied at the present time in connection with this subject before pronouncing a final judgment on the question.

Socialism in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries occupies the concluding section of the present instalment of the History of Socialism. After a brief characterisation of the conditions leading up to the “reforms” of Colbert, Dr. Hugo devotes a long chapter to an exhaustive discussion of the conditions and principal grievances of the peasantry under the “ancien régime.” France, in the period from Louis XIV to the Revolution, Dr. Hugo observes, underwent, agriculturally, and almost identical development to Germany.

“What in the latter case was accomplished by the thirty years’ war was just as thoroughly effected in France by the religious wars of the second half of the sixteenth century, by the Fronde, and by the glorious government of Louis XIV.”

In spite of increased taxes, the general position of the peasant in the first half of the sixteenth century had rather improved than become essentially worse. From this time began, however, that desertion of the country for the towns on the part of the nobility which, less than two centuries later, ruined the French peasant under one of the most oppressive systems of absentee landlordism known to history. Accustomed to increased luxury, by the sudden change of economic conditions and the increase of wealth of all kinds at the close of the Middle Ages, the noble was little able to endure the ruin which the religious wars had in many cases brought upon him. The extravagant Court life of the period, to which he had accustomed himself, made demands upon him that could only be met by “squeezing” the peasant in ways and to a degree before unknown. This tendency which the economic development was pressing forward was forced to its utmost limits by the centralising policy of Louis XIV, whose aim it was to turn wealthy and powerful nobles entrenched in their castles into obsequious Court parasites dependent upon his royal bounty. After a short sketch of the industry and legislation of Colbert, Dr. Hugo proceeds to deal with one who may be regarded as the direct ancestor, longo intervallo, of the great Utopian Socialist writers (Owen, Fourier, St. Simon) of the beginning of the present century. Vairasse was a Frenchman, who, after service in the Royal Army, came to England, apparently soon after the advent of Charles II to the throne, for the purpose, as he expressed it, “of penetrating the intrigues of the Court at London, and of investigating the maxims of the Government of this land.” He afterwards wrote a French grammar, “composed for the particular benefit and use of the English.” His great work was also first published in English, and bears the following title-page:-

“The History of the Sevarites or Sevarambi, a Nation inhabiting Part of the third continent commonly called Terra Australes Incogitae, with au account of the admirable Government, Religion, Customs and Language written by one Captain Siden a worthy Person, who together with many others was cast upon these coasts and lived many years in that country.” London, Printed for Henry Broome at the Gun at the West End of St. Paul’s Church Yard, 1675.

A second part was published in 1679, “more wonderful and delightful than the first,” which is described, however, as a jejune composition from another hand. The book passed through several editions in France, besides being translated into Dutch, German, and Italian. The form of the narrative recalls More’s Utopia, and earlier works of the same character, but is distinguished from them by its more obviously didactic purpose, and it is this latter aspect which gives its transitional character as a cross between the earlier Utopian writers whose productions meant no more than literary jeux d’esprit, and the later earnest seekers after a “new moral world.”

The work of Vairasse called forth numerous imitations even in the eighteenth century, the most important of which are shortly described by Dr. Hugo. The appendix on the religious Communistic societies of North America, by the same hand, is largely though not exclusively taken from Nordhoff’s well known work on the subject. Altogether, we may congratulate the editors on this latest instalment of their series.


Transcriber’s Note

1. This was published anonymously by Belfort Bax but is mentioned by Bernstein in a letter to Kautsky. – See Edouard Bernsteins Briefwechsel mit Karl Kautsky (1895-1905), Teil A, IISG, Campus Verlag 2003. Letter 503: Edouard Berstein an Karl Kautsky, 4. November 1895 (Londres) when Bernstein says he is seeing Bax in London and the review of Geschichte des Sozialismus will be in the Daily Chronicle. (Thanks to Jean Ducange for this reference.)


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