Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking

History at an end?

(June 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.121, June 1989, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ONE THING always amazes me about the new realist “post Marxists” of Marxism Today, especially since their top guru is historian Eric Hobsbawm. It is their complete lack of historical sense.

Their argument is that socialism is “old fashioned” because socialist revolution has never succeeded in an advanced capitalist country.

The socialist aim is the complete reconstruction of society, starting with the way production is organised. Previous such reconstructions of society did not take a few decades to achieve success, but centuries. And there were many cases of defeat or regression on the way.

The rise of feudalism was a case in point. It began with the decay of the slave mode of production on which the Greek and then Roman empires were based.

This decay began around the second century AD. The slave based civilisation was unable to develop better ways of producing wealth and so was increasingly incapable of warding off the pressures upon it from the agricultural and pastoral peoples across its north eastern borders.

Yet the Roman empire hung on in the West for another 300 years, It was not until the eighth or ninth century that the structures of the feudal mode of production that succeeded it were fully established.

The next great historical transition, that from feudalism to capitalism, took, if anything, even longer to reach fruition.

Feudalism was an overwhelmingly rural society, based upon a manorial system. Under this peasants were bound to the land, able to make a precarious livelihood for themselves tilling their individual strips, but also compelled to provide for the upkeep of the local feudal lord.

In its classic phase this was a system with few towns and virtually no exchange of commodities. Both lords and peasants expected to live on what was produced within the individual manor, and so there was virtually no production for the market.

But this began to change during the great spell of expansion feudal society experienced between the 10th and the 14th centuries. The feudal lords, in their own interests, encouraged some increased production on land and, as this gave them a growing surplus of agricultural produce, looked to exchange some of it for other goods – for luxury goods, for improved armaments, for building materials for castles and churches. They encouraged the growth within agricultural, feudal society of towns as centres of the production and trade in non-agricultural goods.

In doing so, without intending to, they encouraged the growth of a new class which was based on different principles to those of feudal society – a class of handcraft producers and merchants, known as burghers, burgesses or, eventually, the bourgeoisie.

This class grew up in feudal society and assumed that no other form of society was possible. Its wealthier members often bought land and turned themselves into feudal lords, and its poorer members often tried to use the structures of feudal society to protect their own monopoly of skills against further development of production.

There were repeated clashes between sections of this class and the feudal lords. The 13th and 14th centuries saw revolutionary upheavals in the most advanced urban areas – those of Flanders and Northern Italy – as sections of this class challenged the political power both of the feudal lords and of those in the towns who were aligned with them.

Yet these challenges failed, partly because of the youthful weakness of the new class, and partly because of the collaboration of so many of its most successful elements with the feudal order. When feudalism entered into a great crisis in the 14th century, the outcome was not a revolutionary transformation of society, but a temporary decline of production and with it the towns and the burghers.

So it was a reinvigorated feudalism which emerged from the crisis, even if it was a form of feudalism which used certain of the new mechanisms associated with the burghers – especially money, the encouragement of trade and increasing reliance upon a centralised state.

This second expansion of feudalism led, like the first, to a further growth of the bourgeoisie, especially in North Western Europe.

As a result the onset of a second feudal crisis at the beginning of the 17th century saw a wave of wars and civil wars that spread right across Europe – the French Huguenot wars, the wars for Dutch independence, the Thirty Years war, the English civil war. These were on a much bigger scale than the rebellions of the 13th and 14th century, and involved complex shifting alliances as sections of the new bourgeoisie, old feudal lords and ambitious monarchs tried to manipulate one another in order to achieve their goals.

But only in the Netherlands and Britain did the bourgeoisie emerge victorious from these conflicts. Elsewhere the outcome was as dismal for it as had been the case two centuries earlier. In France it was left with no choice but to accept a subordinate role within the French feudal state for more than a century and a half. And in Germany, as war and civil war halved the population and devastated the towns, much of the bourgeoisie was physically eradicated.

No doubt German new realists surveying the ruins of their country in the 1650s would have concluded that capitalism had always been a utopian pipedream and that the future lay with feudalism. And they wouldn’t have been definitely proved wrong for another 80 years.

There are important differences between the transition from slavery to feudalism and from feudalism to capitalism on the one hand, and from capitalism to socialism on the other. The very tempo of the development of capitalism means it cannot have a further lifespan of centuries – it will lead to the destruction of humanity if it is not destroyed before then.

But it is absurd to see history as coming to an end, as Marxism Today does, simply because the left has not won yet.

Last updated on 19.9.2013