E. Belfort Bax

How the Governing Classes Write History

(26 October 1901)

How the Governing Classes Write History, Justice, 26th October 1901, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It has been truly said that “man makes God in his own image.” No less certain is it that the dominant class of every age makes the morals of that age is its own image, and dictates its moral judgments on men and movements as it suits its purpose. The attributes right and wrong as applied to actions and events simply mean that these things have been favourable or unfavourable, as the case may be, to the material interests direct and indirect of the class that is economically, socially and politically dominant during the period in question, or, as sometimes happens, in that immediately succeeding it.

In the Hebrew Scriptures we have indications pointing plainly to the fact that the old Semitic chroniclers, on occasions, knew as well as a British jingo editor how to blacken the adversaries of the conquering race and its ruling priestly caste whose interests they represented in their chronicles. It is a commonplace of our Secularist friends that the Biblical hero, judged even by the standard of barbaric ethics, will often not pass muster, while the Biblical villain is sometimes not so bad after all. Similarly in the Greek historians we have plenty of evidence of moral judgments dictated by class-bias. Even the verdict of history on Socrates’ execution is probably not uninfluenced by the fact that that philosophical worthy owed his fate partly, at least, to the fact that he had been something like a traitor to the Athenian democracy, i.e., the bulk of the free citizens of Athens – in favour of the Athenian Patriciate. Had it not been that the historians of the period belonged to the latter party the story might have been differently told. The democracy for the moment in the ascendant used their power to rid themselves of an enemy.

Turning to Roman history, it may be asked why the Gracchi have come down the stream of history as respectable patriots, seeing that they certainly made things economically uncomfortable for the Roman possessing classes. The answer is, I think, to be found in the fact that their legislation, although undoubtedly among other things aiming at relieving the bankrupt peasant and urban proletarian, yet also largely tended to consolidate the new and subsequently powerful middle class, the “equestrian order,” economically and politically – as against the older leading classes. But in any case, at the time in question the systematic art of garbling history and blackening the actors in movements hostile of dominant privilege and greed, had not yet been invented.

The cases indicated, whether in the East, or in Greece, or in Italy, represent more or less sporadic and unconscious effects of class-bias. The first conscious and determined attempts to calumniate a popular leader, dangerous to the status quo of the possessing classes are to be found in the accounts given by Cicero and Sallust respectively, of Catiline and his “conspiracy.” To the honour of Professor Beesly be it said, that be was the first to point out the real historical significance of Catiline and his movement, to rescue the name of the great champion of the oppressed classes of Rome at the close of the republic from the foul abuse of his official calumniators. Cicero and Sallust, of course, had taken a brief for the privileged classes, the really “corrupt oligarchy” of which I the Roman Senate was the centre, and in which debauchees like Pompey and “austere” humbugs like Cato hugged each other in their fear lest the order of society by which they and their class profited should be overthrown – just as now we see the wealthy pleasure-loving man-about-town and the “ascetic” representative of the Nonconformist conscience embracing each other in the expansive bosom of modern capitalist exploitation.

Passing on to imperial times, we find the early Christians who represented the subsequent heirs of the Caesars and the Roman privileged classes, to wit, the Catholic hierarchy, painted by the Church historian as injured lambs, whereas it requires a very little reading between the lines to see that in many cases at least the severities exercised against the Christians were provoked by their own violent and aggressive attitude towards the established cultus. Had the Pagan accounts of these matters not been destroyed by Christian zeal, doubtless a very different light would be thrown at least on some of the “persecutions.”

A clearly defined class-standpoint is less marked during the earlier Middle Ages, when the lines of class demarcation often cross and were always less sharply accentuated in certain directions than in the later classical or in modern times.

With the rise of the modern capitalistic system, however, even in its very beginnings, the conscious attempt on the part of the dominant classes to hocus history and determine the verdict of contemporaries and posterity by means of shrieking abuse of their enemies assumes a very prominent place, and is only modified where the interests of the decaying feudal and of the rising middle class come into collision. Thus, throughout the reformation movements those which issued in official Protestantism, in a sense the religious seal of the middle classes, have come down history belauded and with the official stamp of respectability attached to them, but woe betide others, such as the Anabaptist movement, which embodied the interests of the “common man,” the peasant and handicraftsman alike, against both Catholic and Protestant, feudal noble and wealthy burgher! Just as when a Boer nowadays not only refuses to stand still enough when he is being shot at by His Majesty’s troops (which is bad enough), but actually dares to shoot back, he becomes in the eyes of the patriotic British press a treacherous and brutal ruffian, so the Anabaptist, tired out with years of seeing his companions let themselves he tortured and slaughtered with the mien of sheep, ventures to raise his hand in self-defence, and in so doing, maybe hurt the representative of class-authority, assumes, under the pen of the official chronicler of the time, the guise of a monster of cruelty, unparalleled in human annals. As the capitalist system has advanced, the trick of hocussing history, contemporary and other, in the interests of the capitalist classes and the remains of the aristocratic class with which they are allied, has become a part of the equipment of the journalist and conventional historian.

The French Revolution is a case in point. The truculent schemes of Royalists, Bouillé’s massacre at Nancy, the “white terror,” are all in the natural order of things, but the September massacres, but Marat, oh, horror! What bourgeois writer was ever shocked at the systematic slaughter of National Guards by the Versaillese Government in 1871, or at the subsequent wholesale butchery by Thiers’ orders of thousands of men, women, and children in Paris? What bourgeois writer was not shocked at the execution in reprisal of Darboy and company by the partisans of the Commune, in all 72 persons? What British imperialist editor, in his zeal for capitalist expansion in South Africa, had a word of disapproval for the cold-blooded murder by British lancers of wounded Boers after Elandslaagte? What British imperialist editor was not fired with indignation at the alleged reprisal on British wounded after Vlakfontein?

So the story might be followed up throughout modern history in all its details. The dodge of the dominant class journalist and historian has served its purpose hitherto only too well. It is high time it was once for all exposed and gibbeted. The dominant and privileged classes of every age wish to reserve to themselves the monopoly of killing those opposed to them whenever it suits their purpose. Such killing is all right, “necessary,” “inevitable” in the general way, or, at the very worst, shows an “excess of zeal” in the instrument. The privileged classes want themselves and their agents to be able to kill and yet keep whole skins themselves, just as the heroes of capitalist expansion in the Soudan under Kitchener and Wingate liked slaughtering inconvenient Arabs who could not shoot properly, themselves carefully sheltered from behind machine-guns at long range. Their emotion of pity, an undiscoverable quantity when hecatombs of human beings are sacrificed to their greed, swells to Gargantuan proportions and its howl rends heaven when one of them or theirs gets a scratch in his skin in return. The fact is, no revolutionary party or weaker race has ever committed any act against a dominant class or a powerful State with which it has found itself in conflict, which has not been provoked by deeds tenfold and oftentimes a hundredfold more atrocious, and hence which has not been more than richly deserved by the class or State, whose spokesmen endeavour to fake up gasps of horror at the act in question for their own purposes. How obedient the non-class-conscious masses are to the behests of their pastors and masters in the matter of emotion, we know only too well. Their indignation at some poor, misguided fanatic who has shot some pillar of State, and who is already in the bands of justice, will vent itself in heroic attempts to lynch him with perfect safety to themselves but devil a bit can they be worked up even to an effective protest when it is a question of shooting down strikers, slaughtering prisoners of war, or expressing indignation at any crime committed in the name of law and established order. Moral: Let all fighting revolutionary parties and weak States snap their fingers at hostile “public opinion,” and devote their sole attention to inspiring a wholesome fear in their antagonists.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.6.2004