E.Belfort Bax

The Religion of Socialism

Universal History from a Socialist Standpoint

From The Religion of Socialism, pp.1-37.

“All things flow,” said Herakleitos of Ephesus. Translated into modern language this is as much as to say, “The reality of any given thing is simply the temporary form assumed by the elements composing it.” In the historical development of the world we find stretched out, on (if we may so speak) the procrustean bed of time, the different factors which go to make up our life and civilisation of to-day, no less than that of any other period on which we may choose to fix our attention. Every custom, every law, every religious belief or rite, our very thought, language, characters, habits, not to speak of our architecture, our clothing, our literature, which are their outward and visible expression, could, both severally and as a whole, be traced back and back into the night of the past, till lost in prehistoric times and primitive forms of social life. All this may sound familiar enough, and some may even be disposed to resent the statement of it as a platitude. Yet how few really grasp the great truth, that they and theirs, as they appear to-day, are but products of a long historic development. How little do they realise that, were they to go but a short way back into the past, they would cease to recognise the characteristics of modern society; that their most cherished beliefs and practices, perchance, might be found to take their origin from such as would excite their keenest horror and indignation! How little do they dream that their conceptions of history, of past periods of civilisation, even when they have any, are unconsciously coloured through and through by the world they see around them? The critical conception of history, for which history is a succession of dependent social formations, one born from the other; in short, the true notion of human development as a continuity in diversity is perhaps the most important and wide-reaching speculative truth to which the nineteenth century has given birth. Once we occupy the critical standpoint, and we see history in a new light; then, for the first time, we discern a meaning in the often apparently capricious course of historic events. (See Appendix, I)

The method of historical sequence is based on that of logical sequence, but with the difference, that the abstract logical movement, as realised on the plane of history, has to be discovered by analysis and disentangled, so to speak, in its several lines, from the unessential matter with which it is encumbered. All growth or evolution involves the notion of capacity unrealised, and capacity realised; in the language of the schools, of the potential and the actual, of the matter and the form. The acorn is the unrealised capacity of the oak, which is realised in the oak; the new-born infant constitutes the capacity or possibility of the full-gown man; the capacity present in the child realises itself in the farm of the man. But the realisation of the capacity of a thing involves the destruction or negation of the immediate or present existence of that thing. Every step in the growth of a child is a step towards the negation of childhood. In proportion as the child progresses towards manhood the less he is of a child. In the man, the child, quâ child, no longer exists, any more than if he were dead. In the realisation of the perfection of the child’s faculties his childhood is abolished. In the same way the oak-tree presupposes the negation of the acorn; the acorn, as acorn, wears itself out and breaks up; but the moment of the destruction of the acorn is the moment of the genesis of the oak. The same process is seen throughout all life.

It appears, then, that growth implies a process comprising three terms; the first, indefinite and crude, with the seeds of its own negation present in it as part of its very nature from the first; the second, the accomplishment of this negation, which accomplishment, however, becomes the matrix whence issues the third and final term of the process, which is nothing else than the negation of that negation. Here what was latent capacity becomes reality; what was potential becomes actual; what was merely tendency becomes fact. But this Dialectic does not lie on the surface of history any more than on that of other planes of knowledge. The concrete world is a complex network of many different lines, each working out its own process; and in the entanglement of these lines it is sometimes difficult to discover the central course of development. As we have already pointed out, we are not here concerned with the logical process in its abstract and pure form. In history, as in the real world generally, it may be arrested, delayed, or modified in any particular instance, without any infringement of the general principle. A given seed, for instance, may die, or its vitality be suspended for years; or it may live and its normal development be diverted by some external cause. The aim and meaning of the philosophy of history- is the discovery of the Dialectic immanent in it, of the main process underlying the whole development. For in spite of the complexity which seems at first sight so insuperable, we can undoubtedly discern a main stream of development embodying itself, during one epoch, in one group of races or peoples, and passing on perhaps in the next epoch to another such ethnic group, but maintaining itself through the diversity of the material in which it is successively realised as the same stream of tendency, a movement one and indivisible. (See Appendix, II.) Thus, in history as elsewhere, nothing passes away absolutely, since all that has preceded forms an essential part of all that follows, a truth which, platitude as it may seem at first sight, can never be too assiduously borne in mind.

In the earliest period of human society man does not distinguish himself from the natural forces and objects around him. He conceives of nature as like himself animated and conscious, and hence as capable of being friendly or unfriendly towards him. In this stage, also, the individual man, as an individual, has not consciously distinguished himself or his interests from those of his fellow-men with whom be is associated; in other words, he is completely identified with his social surroundings; he lives simply in and for the society which has produced him. In consequence, all life, all work, all enjoyment, all government, is in common; individual interests and individual property are unknown. The individual, in short, is completely merged in the race. This earliest condition of man as a social being is what is sometimes referred to as Primitive Communism. It is essentially the prehistoric era, in human development – that of the Lake dwellers of Switzerland, of the men of the drift, and of the countless apes which succeeded before chronology begins. Yet, although it is mainly prehistoric, and therefore only to be reconstructed in imagination from its surviving traces in various parts of the civilised world, or from the crude, imperfect analogy afforded by the savage and barbaric races of the present day, we find rich indications of it in the world’s oldest literary monuments; in the Homeric poems, the Icelandic sagas, the Nibelungenlied, etc. As regards the surviving traces of its economical forms which we have spoken of, existing like little oases in the arid desert of civilisation surrounding them, we may refer by way of illustration to the Russian Mir, the Swiss Allemen, and the Hindoo village community, etc. How long this primitive period lasted in undisputed sway we know not. All we know is, that at the dawn of authentic chronology we find that it has been long superseded by civilisation, – civilisation in the form of the ancient Oriental empires. These represent the then highest phase of evolution, the dominating power of the world as the curtain rises on the drama of history.

It is not difficult to see that the primitive social formation is an instance of what Herbert Spencer would term “the instability of the homogeneous.” All the oppositions and antagonisms expressed in civilisation are as yet latent; but although latent, they are none the less present and bound to manifest themselves in the end. The first stage of human society is based on the principle of kinship in its various gradations of proximity. This notion of kinship of itself implies an exclusiveness, an antagonism, which must sooner or later issue in civilisation, with its classes and races, and its class and race feuds. This, indeed, we may regard as the chief principle of change in prehistoric society, its chief solvent. It produced the earliest form of organisation, – organisation for military and predatory purposes. Hence the prominence of militaryism in all early civilisations; it having been out of the necessity of organisation for offensive and defensive objects that civilisation first arose.

The term prehistoric as applied to the first period of social man has a deeper meaning than as merely indicating that we have no written records concerning it; it may be taken to mean that the antagonisms, with the unravelling of which history is concerned, have not as yet manifested themselves. Nature was as yet identified with man, being regarded, that is to say, as a system of conscious beings like human society; the individual was identified with the race. Hence the echoes of the prehistoric period, – the period, that is, preceding civilisation, either in the history of the world as a whole, or of any special people present us with the dim and shadowy figures of gods and heroes moving across the stage, with scenes in which the processes of nature personified, stand for the deeds of human beings, and in which the movement or the custom of a whole people or tribe appear as the action of an individual man, – its legendary divine founder. This is what we call mythology. Prehistoric man, his customs, and beliefs, is the material of myth. Time has as yet no significance, Myth knows no chronology.

History, I take it, can hardly be better defined than as the unravelling of oppositions; the bringing to distinctness of latent contradictions, the realisation in their conflict, of mutually hostile tendencies. The oppositions wherein history – or, which is the same thing otherwise expressed, the development of the State, or of Civilisation, consists, may, I think, be reduced to two chief pairs, i.e., the opposition or antagonism between Nature and Mind, and the opposition, or antagonism between the Individual and the Society. The first opposition spoken of, that between external nature and the human mind, is more immediately of speculative, religious, and artistic significance; while the second, that between individual and society, of more immediately practical interest. But they are intimately connected with each other, and advance pari passu. In the antagonism between individual and society is contained the notion of personal ownership of property, with the whole state-machinery which is its expression. In the antagonism between nature and, mind is given religion, that is, religion in the sense of supernatural or spiritual religion, as opposed to the naive nature religions of early man. In the period of primitive communism and that which immediately succeeded it, religion, it must, always be remembered, had for its end and object the society; it was the idealistic expression of the life of the society. Man was concerned with nature, which he conceived as composed of beings like himself, only in so far as it affected the society, – the clan, the tribe, the people, etc. With the progress of civilisation and of the reflective consciousness accompanying it, man separated himself as a conscious being from nature, which became henceforward inert matter for him, governed by deities outside it. At a later period, wider generalisation subordinated these deities to one all-powerful conscious being, to whom they, as well as nature, were subordinated. It was with this being that man now concerned himself, rather than, as before, with the processes of nature per se. What interested him henceforward was the relation of himself to this being. This became the subject-matter of religion, which ceased to occupy itself, as heretofore, with the life and movement of the community. Religion, now gradually ceasing to be social, became individual.

We have said that, what proximately led to the transformation of primitive communism into primitive civilisation was race or tribal exclusiveness, based on the notion of kinship, near or remote, through descent from some common divine ancestor, generally indicated by the possession of a common totem, – a plant or animal specially sacred to the clan or tribe. But within the historical period itself, we can distinguish progressive stages, which we shall see have been also determined by the same principle, – a principle by which the transformation of one form of civilisation into the other has been largely effected. The principle of political exclusiveness has contributed to break down every civilisation, thus paving the way for its successor. Let us now glance at that social whole of prehistoric times from which civilisation was a progressive departure, but yet which left such deep traces upon civilisation, especially in its earlier phases. Early society tends to expand from its simplest and closest form to others increasing in remoteness. The foundation of society, alike in the order of its nature and in the order of its history, is the blood-family. Now the earliest form of the blood-family may for practical purposes be identified with that which Lewis H. Morgan terms the Punalua family; where ascertainable, blood-relationship is recognised as precluding sexual intercourse, or, in other words, in which sexual relations are established on the basis of groups, from which children of the same mother of opposite sexes are excluded. [1] from this family-form the institution of the gens, or clan, directly proceeded; and the gens may be taken as the social basis of that earliest society properly so called, whose economic conditions are expressed in the phrase Primitive Communism: the foundation of the gens-formation primitive social organisation rested on. This formation, all but universal as it is, presents infinite variety in points of detail in various peoples; but the main characteristics are the same. The second great division in the constitution of primitive society is the tribe. The tribe consists in a group of families, clans, or gentes, united together by some bond of consanguinity, either real or supposed. The tribe and gens are the component elements of the earliest organised society; they may seldom be found in isolation, but they are always distinguishable. Other and less important divisions there are [2], which vary according to time, place, and circumstances, but these need not detain us here. The dominating division primarily was doubtless the gens. At a later period the influence of the tribe; gained the upper hand.

But new economical conditions, the introduction of agriculture on a more extended scale, the taming of domestic animals, the acquirement of extensive property in flocks and herds and slaves (the captives taken in war), the beginnings of manufacture, perhaps more than all the improvement in weapons of war, necessitating a closer union and more systematic methods of offence and defence, led to a new social formation, destined to overshadow the original divisions of society. This was the consolidation, within a definite area, under definite institutions, of an aggregate of tribes – in most cases previously knit together in a loose manner as a “people” by supposed ties of remote kinship – into a social system called the city. By the word “city” as here used must not be understood the material city or place of habitation, but rather the society which originated it, and of which the material city, with its buildings, etc., was the outward expression. The city was the turning-point in human development; in it we pass from barbarism – primitive society – to civilisation. The organisation of tribes into a more or less coherent “people” denotes the highest phase of primitive barbaric society (see Appendix, III); the consolidation of the “people” into the organised “city” denotes the first stage in civilisation. (See Appendix, IV.) With the complete ascendency of the city, quâ city, over the earlier social forms within its pale, society has surrendered itself to the state. History – in the sense in which we use the word in the present article – has practically begun. But at the stage at which the city supersedes the gens and the tribe, a great change has already supervened in the primitive family organisation itself. The gens in its old form has fallen into abeyance, and the patriarchal family, with its despotic head, its wives, concubines, children, and slaves, which has sprung up out of it, now represents the unit of social life. Respecting the exact mode of the transformation of the gens-formation into the patriarchal family, we have but slight evidence; but it is nearly certain that from the first such authority or organising power as was necessary for the society was vested in the elders or fathers of the gens or tribe. This authority, as was natural, tended to grow and become regarded as sacred, together with the persons of its possessors. Hence the beginnings of despotism. [3]

The ancient form of the gens survives in the city, but it is mainly as a survival, and save for its being the central point of some of the most important religious sentiments and rites, tends to lose more and more of its significance; private property, though not necessarily individual property, has entered into the constitution of society. Classes arise in addition to the fundamental class division between slave and freeman, – classes within the free population of the city. But sometimes the city is not able to maintain an independent and separate existence. In this case it is in its turn absorbed into a larger unity, just as it had itself already absorbed the family and the tribe. This larger unity is the federation of cities (as it is in its origin), which subsequently becomes consolidated into the kingdom or empire, – such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Phoenicia, China, or India. The usual, although not invariable tendency is, for the imperial bond, at first loose and purely of the nature of a federal overlordship, to become drawn closer and closer until the city-state has in extreme cases become completely subordinated to the imperial state.

Such is the general description of the stages which, so far as we can see, led up to the vast Oriental civilisations with which universal history begins. In these, although more or less overshadowed and in abeyance, the earlier social forms are distinctly present as elements in the constitution of society. There is a family organisation, a tribal organisation, and a civic organisation, each with a special cultus of its own, and each presided over by its respective civil and religious head, on the principle of a hierarchy. The fact of the combination of sacerdotal and governmental functions in the same person shows us that religion is not as yet separated from the life of the community; that it still means no more than the ideal expression of social life a devotion to the social whole, and a care for all that contributes to its maintenance and well-being. Nature is as yet not formally separated from Man, not the individual from his social surroundings. The hearth and its sacred fire remains the central embodiment of the highest religious sentiment. The courts of the temples and the sacred fanes themselves are rendezvous for the business and pleasure of the citizens. But the antagonism is developing itself, and although not formally recognised, is every where present. A vast slave population has grown up in subordination to the tree, while the distinction between poor and rich grows ever more marked. With the leisure and culture which accumulation of wealth affords, the old naive belief in the unity of nature and man has become weakened and modified. With industrial development a new division frequently obtains, based not upon the old social principle of kinship, but upon the economical one of occupation. Certain families and tribes assume a particular order of handicraft or other employment which becomes hereditary, and to which they are fixed by custom or law. Thus a warrior caste, a sacerdotal caste, a manufacturing caste arises, the pre-eminent influence of the wealthy classes; composed of the more ancient families, culminating in the civil, military, and religious chief. All we know of the ancient civilisations tends to show us that some such system as is here described prevailed in the earliest period of universal history, – in Egypt, Assyria, Babvlonia, the Palestine of Solomon’s days, etc. But though the material antagonism between individual and community, no less than the speculative antagonism between nature and spirit, has begun, yet, judged from the standpoint of to-day, it may well seem but little developed in these civilisations. It is probable that extreme poverty and starvation were unknown in them as class-conditions; while, although private property-holding existed, the “absolute rights of property,” in the modern sense of the word, were certainly unrecognised, since all property, in case of need, was at the disposal of the state. Religion, as we have already pointed out, concerned itself exclusively with the community, and with this world, and in no way with the individual and another world. The religions of antiquity, even when the earliest belief in the immediate personification of nature, was more or less on the wane, still conceived of man and nature as bound together by a system of subtle affinities, the knowledge of which was requisite to the well-being of the commonwealth, to the end that they might be regulated to its advantage. It was still the highest aspiration of the individual to found a family – that his life as part of the community should be immortal; as to his own personality, his only care was to devote himself to the city, and when his course was done, to go down to his fathers in the under-world of shades. Such science as existed consisted in astrology and magic, in accordance with the prevalent conception of the universe. It was a branch of the state-organisation, which kept in view the importance of the priestly caste, which in these early civilisations was the embodiment of the highest existing culture. (See Appendix, V.)

The Oriental monarchies began to be superseded about from the eighth to the sixth century BC by the Greek races. In the Oriental monarchy the city tended to become strangled by the empire. When the free development of the city was once arrested, the whole civilisation began to stagnate or to crystallise into set forms. It then either lingered on for a time, like Egypt, or became the prey of free neighbouring peoples, like Assyria. Once the East became stationary, and the lead in human progress passed on to the peoples of Southeastern Europe; (first to the Greek communities and their colonies, and afterwards to those of Italy), where, owing to topographical and other causes, the city-form had not been superseded by the federal or imperial bond. It is, therefore, in these Aryan peoples of South-eastern Europe and in those of Asia Minor, that we meet with the purest type of the ancient city. All we have said hitherto respecting the city in its social and religious aspect applies with especial force to the classical city, more particularly in the earlier phases of its development. In this second period of ancient history the development of antagonism goes on apace, the mainspring of political development – the city – being henceforth free. In the cities of the classical world we have the most perfect specimens of the prehistoric tribal and gental forms, after they have been absorbed into the state. Nothing is plainer in classical history than the vitality of the old religious spirit. “The city,” says Fustel de Coulanges, speaking of the classical city, “was founded on religion and constituted like a church. Hence its power; hence also its omnipotence and the absolute empire it exercised over its members. In a society established on such principles individual liberty could not exist. The citizen was subject in all things and without reserve to the city; he belonged to it entirely. The religion which had given birth to the city, and the city which regulated religion, were not two things, but one. These two powers, associated and inseparable, constituted an almost superhuman might, to which mind and body were alike subject.” For a long time after the antagonism of interest between individual and community was strongly developed in the economic sphere, the great end of religion and morality still continued to be social. The introspective ethics of individualism were not from the first so congenial to the Aryan races as they were to the Semitic.

In the cities of the classical world we have a wealth of material preserved, in which we may trace individual interest steadily gaining the upper hand over social interest; while at the same time the supernatural view of the universe and man’s relation to it as steadily supersedes the old naive and natural one. Here also, as in the Oriental world, a slave-holding production, of which direct exploitation of human labour-power was the special foam, tended to supersede all free labour. This was now exercised for the benefit of the individual rich citizen, and not, as in earlier stages, for that of the gens, the tribe, or the city. The religion, again, notwithstanding the vigorous survival of its original forms, steadily gave way before the advance of individualism; it inevitably became less social and more personal. The various “mysteries” which sprang into vogue, many of them imported from the East, had for their end the setting forth of the mystical relation of the individual to the supposed divinity outside nature. The gods themselves gradually became transported to a heaven above the nature and society of which previously they were simply the personifications. The ghosts of ancestors, too, became relegated to the same super-sensible sphere. But these tendencies cannot be said to have fully realised themselves until the city-form had been reduced to a meaningless phrase, had developed its own contradiction, in the great city-empire of Rome; although from the earliest period in which the Greek cities appear on the arena of history we can see them at work. As already stated, at first the classical city seems to embody considerable traces of the primitive communistic society out of which it arose; but as the Greek cities developed, productive labour came to be more and more relegated to the slave population, who far exceeded the limited number of freemen. Exchange of commodities – commerce – now took place on a much more extended scale than before, – a circumstance facilitated by the opening of the Egyptian ports. The internal struggle which characterised the growth of the Greek or Roman states between the rich minority and poor majority of free inhabitants of the city was the framework within which the principle of individualism in economics asserted itself in the ancient world. (See Appendix, VI.) It is important to understand the meaning of these struggles, which in their main features seem so uniform in character. Their meaning would seem to be this. The so-called democracies of the classical cities were really a middle class, in many cases composed largely of aliens, or at least persons belonging to none of the older gentes. In breaking down the ancient aristocracies they were really breaking down the social institutions which had descended from early society, but which in the course of time had lost meaning, or redounded merely to the advantage of a clique of privileged families. The strife between the aristocratic and democratic factions was a struggle for political equality among the free men. But on neither side was there any idea, of the great slave majority of the state having any rights at all. The economic development made the individual citizen’s gain and advancement, whether as trader, mercenary soldier, or professional politician, a point of first importance in life. But even in spite of this the religious bond of solidarity with the city-state sufficed to prevent the complete ascendancy of individual over social interest (in the limited sense in which the latter was then understood). The state had not as yet entirely lost its social character; it had not quite degenerated into a mere machine for protecting property and privilege. Now just as the material ascendancy of individual interest was undermining the old religious sentiment described, there; appeared on the market-place at Athens a teacher, giving utterance to a doctrine which implied the undermining of it from its moral side. In the “Know thyself” of Socrates we have the first expression in the Greek world of that personal morality as opposed to the old social morality, which culminated in the Christianity of later ages. The Athenians felt instinctively the danger of this new ethic, and in a panic condemned Socrates to death for proclaiming it. (See Appendix, VII) But it had taken root already, and the writings of Plato and Aristotle exhibit the two moralities in conflict and an ineffectual attempt to reconcile them. From this time forward the progressive weaning of the mind from its old conception of nature, and its old satisfaction in the “city,” becomes marked; although it was given to the dreamy Semitic rather than to the practical Aryan intellect to be the typical exponent of the new tendency. The races of South-eastern Europe were destined in the ancient world to work out the opposition of interest between individual and society on its economical side; but for a satisfactory ethic of Individualism they had to look to Western Asia. This ethnical peculiarity is illustrated by the unsatisfactoriness of the Greek attempts in this direction, which, although making much noise with the educated, evoked but little enthusiasm even among their votaries, and none among ordinary men. We refer, of course, to the various philosophical sects – Cynic, Cyreniac, Stoic, Epicurean – which arose during the declining period of Greek independence. As the old political life of the Greek cities was dying out, the cultivated citizen turned his attention to the question of the most satisfactory manner in which he, as an individual, could spend his life. The “philosopher” and the “virtuous man,” wrapped up in himself, superseded the “citizen” among the educated classes. The thoughtful man began to feel disgust at the old morality which was limited in its application to the single city-state, and did not apply to all the members of that. Yet he in vain searched for something satisfactory to supply its place.

Such was the Greek world when the victorious Roman armies destroyed the last vestige of Greek independence by reducing the country to a Roman province, from which event the “lead” in historical progress – i.e., in the development of the dual opposition between individual and society, and between nature and spirit – passed on to the new city-empire. In imperial Rome, as already observed, the ancient city-form evolved its own contradiction. The moment the city became an imperial centre, owning nominal citizens among every people, its citizenship being reduced to a mere commercial value, from that time forward it is plain that the sacredness, the meaning, the reality of the ancient city-form had passed away. The last vestige of primitive society with the political exclusiveness it implied had given place to a cosmopolitanism in which social solidarity lingered solely as a survival in the official religion, and in which in reality individual interest alone obtained. Historically the function of the Roman empire answers in the political sphere to the function of Christianity in the religious sphere, namely, the destruction of the tribal and race exclusiveness, which had had its day. (See Appendix, VIII.) This meant on its obverse side absolute predominance of the individual – i.e., of individual interest – in the one case in economics, in the other in ethics and religion.

The earlier historical development of the Roman city does not differ essentially from that of the Greek cities; but our information is fuller in the one case than in the other. We can trace the development of oppositions more in detail in Roman history. Rome is the type of the later classical evolution. As soon as all public offices were thrown open to the Plebeian, all public life became a scramble for wealth. The antagonism between private and common interest, or, which is the same thing, between individual and community, manifested itself here, as elsewhere, in the degeneration of the gentes which had originally formed the whole city into a privileged aristocratic class within the city. This naturally brought in its train the opposition of all elements of later date. The struggle of these elements for equality meant the breaking down of the now obsolete survivals of the ancient communal and tribal system, and its complete reconstruction on the basis of wealth and individual property. For these opposing classes (the Plebs) it must be remembered had little or no tribal solidarity among themselves. They were composed largely of heterogeneous elements, the only bond of cohesion between them being the city within whose domains they dwelt, and for which they fought, but from the inner civil and religious system of which they were for a long time excluded, and which in consequence it was their aim to deprive as far as possible of its meaning. The Plebs, at first, largely consisted of small farmers and poor handicraftsmen who worked for their living; but with the development of the State politically and economically, with the great slave imports derived from foreign conquest, etc., a wealthy commercial Plebs arose, and it was this Plebs that profited by the reforms in the constitution, while in the same proportion the poorer Plebs became less and less able to cope with the slave-holding production now becoming universal. This poorer class of freemen must, indeed, have succumbed altogether, or else have created a social revolution, had it not been for the fact that to the last so much primitive communism remained in the Roman state-system that no free citizen could starve, since he could always obtain sufficient for his maintenance from public resources. With the conquest of Greece, BC 146, Rome inherited the more advanced culture of the Greek world. By this means progress in civilisation – or, which is the same thing, progress in corruption – was enormously accelerated. The Gracchan legislation marks the period of the complete ascendency of Roman Bourgeoisdom as such. From this time forward the power of the money-bag was supreme. The imperial policy itself no longer had for its object the glory of the city, but simply and solely the conquest of new provinces for the sake of the aggrandisement either by direct plunder or by oppressive taxation, of the particular party which happened to be in power in Rome, together with its enormous army of dependents.

In morality and religion the same symptoms we have already noticed as belonging to the decline of Greek independence appear in an intensified form – i.e., the withdrawal of culture and intelligence from public affairs, and their concentration on the individual and the problem of his happiness. All the Greek sects, claiming to offer a solution of this now all-important problem, spread rapidly. These, to a large extent, sought the conditions of happiness in this life. But there was another and deeper phase of the same movement which was characterised by a contempt for nature, society, and this world, and a concentration on the notion of another life beyond the grave. This craving was sought to be satisfied by the introduction of new mystical Oriental cults, and in various other ways. To be brief, these symptoms of the divorce of the individual from the life of the state, and his concentration on himself, together with those of the rise of a speculative dualism between nature and spirit, alike found their ultimate idealistic expression in the great Semitic creed – Christianity, – the religion of individual salvation and of the other world. The accentuation of the practical antagonism between individual and community, between private and public interest, and of the speculative antagonism between nature and spirit, between this world and the other world, went on apace as the twilight of ancient civilisation gradually deepened into darkness.

The outward shell of the forms of ancient city life, rotten through and through, was shattered in the fifth and sixth centuries by the German tribes, fresh from their primitive village communities. In the establishment of Christianity, personal as opposed to social morality and the religion of another world, as opposed to the ancient social religions of this world, had first, received official expression. The Christian empire accordingly presented both economically and ethically a more complete triumph of the principle of individualism over the principle of socialism than the world had seen before. The opposition between the various phases of human life was becoming concentrated in the great antithesis of the Middle Ages between religious and secular. The Graeco-Roman world steadily progressed from its earlier communistic form, in which the city was all in all towards the ascendency of individual interest here and hereafter; and the progress culminated in its death as a civilisation. But the economic forms of which civilisation is capable had as yet not all been passed through. The classical development was limited in various ways; first it was limited ethnically, it centred itself in one particular branch of the Aryan race, the Graeco-Roman, and left entirely out of account another equally important branch, the Teutonic; secondly, it was limited economically by the conditions of a slave-holding production. This is essentially different from our modern capitalistic production. Men had as yet imperfectly learnt the art of buying in order to sell again; the middleman was absent. The wealthy Roman purchased what slave handicraftsmen and labourers he could, and enriched himself directly by their labour. The element of exchange value per se, which rules to-day with a rod of iron, entered in a very minor degree into the constitution of classical society. Trade would seem to have been viewed by the classic much as card-sharping is by us. Thus Cicero, in his De Officiis, speaks of trade as disreputable, while Suetonius says of the Emperor Vespasian: “He likewise engaged in a pursuit disgraceful even in a private individual; buying great quantities of goods, for the purpose of selling them again to advantage.” It is obvious, therefore, that the great economic expression of an individualistic society- viz., commerce – had very imperfectly established itself in the classical world. It was not until humanity had passed through another distinct period of development, a period in which the Teutonic races were the chief actors, – that the opposition between individual and society attained the completeness towards which it tended.

The German tribes of the time of the Roman Empire, already constituted as “peoples,” being in the highest phase of barbarism, and on the verge of civilisation, were (since the germ of a new society was already present in them) the fittest instruments for the transformation of the effete civilisation of antiquity into a new world. The German, fresh from his nature worship and his tribal communities, was precipitated headlong into a civilisation with its antagonisms fully developed – that is, as fully developed as was compatible with the then current economic conditions. The great industry being non-existent, the then world market having collapsed from various obvious causes, the old slave production became unprofitable. Vast numbers of slaves were, therefore, virtuously and religiously manumitted, in order to save the expense of their maintenance.

“Slavery,” says Engels, “ceased to pay, and, therefore, it died out. But it left its sting behind it in the freeman’s contempt for productive labour ... Slavery was economically impossible, the labour of freemen was morally despised. The one had ceased to be, the other had not begun to be the ground-form of social production. The only help here was a complete revolution.”

And, in fact, an economic as well as a racial revolution did take place. The feudal system, which was the ultimate issue or this revolution, was nothing else than primitive communistic society, with the notion of sovereignty on the part of the head of the community super-added. It is true, this was a modification of the first importance, but it must not be forgotten that it was limited in many ways, and that it did not prevent the serf of the Middle Ages from being, as a rule, in a far better condition than the slave of antiquity, not to speak of the modern labourer.

Religion had in the medieval period a twofold aspect. On the one side was the Church hierarchy, the legacy of the Roman Empire, on the model of whose organisation it was formed. This, with its elaborate body of semi-pagan ceremonials, customs, and rites, entered closely into the whole political and social constitution of the Middle Ages. As a political power it claimed supreme jurisdiction over emperors and kings. Its superior clergy and religious corporations were themselves powerful feudal potentates, possessing vast territories with all the rights of independent sovereigns. As a social power its influence, its rites, ceremonies and superstitions, entered into all relations in life. It gave a religious colouring to every department of human interests. Even the merchant guilds, and after them the craft guilds, were in a sense religious bodies, – a fact which served Henry VIII with a plausible excuse; for confiscating their property under the edict abolishing the religious orders. Side by side with this aspect of religion in which it simply ideally expressed the general social and political life of the community much in the same way as the religions of antiquity, was its essentially Christian aspect, that of a personal, introspective, and spiritualistic theory of the universe and of life. This more distinctively Christian side of Catholicism, although never dominant daring the Middle Ages, was continually manifesting itself in a sporadic manner; its most remarkable products being Francis of Assisi and Thomas à Kempis. It influenced in some cases those who sought refuge from the world in the monasteries and various religious brotherhoods that arose, having personal holiness anal salvation as their aim. But it never entered into the ordinary everyday life of the average man and woman, as was subsequently the case with Protestantism. The barbarians had accepted Christianity; they accepted, that is, a religion which in its inner significance belonged to a period of ultra-civilisation, which was the supreme expression of the revolt of the individual against the old social morality and against the old conception of the universe; in short, which pre-supposed a long development. Much of the old tribal morality of the Germans, and many of their old modes of thought continued, therefore, to exist under the sanction of the Church, and to this we owe the chivalry and “honour” of the Middle Ages, besides mach of their folk-lore and superstition. Add to this that the Church itself, modelled as it was externally on the Roman imperial system had absorbed, with but little modification, large fragments of classical paganism, But, as we have said; the individualism and super-naturalism of Christianity subsisted side by side with the semi-paganism of the popular creed. It was always the ultimate court of appeal, and supplied what was considered as the highest object in life – namely, preparation for another world. The poetry, the chivalry, the enthusiasm of the Middle Ages are clearly traceable to their barbaric side, and in no wise to the creed of the blasé Roman world. (See Appendix, IX.) The Medieval mind had reserved to itself the idea of two separate spheres, a religious and a secular. To the “secular” man religion consisted in external and pagan observances, in consideration of which the Church guaranteed his ultimate salvation. It was only to the monastic recluse, and rarely even to him, that religion was a personal matter. Not until the final disruption of the mediaeval system and the ascendancy of the middle class Protestant creed, did the theory of individual freedom of contract here and hereafter come into general vogue. The Church, in spreading its glamour over every department of human life, from war to handicraftship, which thus came to have a mystical religious significance attaching to them, was only fulfilling the function and acting as the succedaneum of the old family, tribal, and social religion of the heathen German; in which the opposition between sacred and profane did not exist. The medieval instinct with true logicality felt that it was needful for the man who aspired to the truly and specially Christian ideal of personal holiness to come out of a world in which the personality merely counted as part of the general social hierarchy.

We may divide the Middle Ages into two epochs. The first, the period of Feudalism proper, that is, of production on a small scale for use on the feudal estate, in which exchange was very limited. This period we may roughly assign to from the eighth to the thirteenth century. Towards its close a surplus began to be produced for purposes of commerce. Markets for the exchange of necessaries and luxuries became more numerous. Finally, independent townships arose, that is, the villains clustered together on the larger estates, especially the ecclesiastical, shook off the more onerous feudal dues in consideration of an annual rental, while within these towns a distinct industrial system arose under the auspices of the guilds. This brings us to the second period of the Middle Ages, which may also be approximately assigned to from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. This is the flourishing age of the guild industry, and during this period arose the first form of the opposition between middle class and proletariat. The guilds naturally soon developed into close corporations, entry to which became hedged round with ever-increasing expenses and difficulties. For all that the great social struggle of the period was between the burghers and the nobles. The typical instance of this straggle is the revolt in the Netherlands under the Arteveldtes against the Count of Flanders. The gradually lapsing power of feudalism proper was shown in the comparative freedom the agricultural serf had acquired, and the attempt to deprive him of which in England was the main cause of the Wat Tyler insurrection. This interesting and important period to be properly dealt with demands a separate treatise.

In the sixteenth century the antagonism latent in mediaeval society had reached, a point of development which was incompatible with the continued existence of that society. The world-market was opening up. The middle classes had become one of the most important factors in civilisation. The modern national systems of Europe were becoming fixed. Trade and industry were everywhere in the ascendant. Beside,, this, the Christian religion was emerging from the semi-pagan form it had assumed during the Middle Ages, and asserting in their fulness the individualist and introspective tendencies peculiar to it. The distinction between religious and secular was only broken down on one side to reappear with increased asperity on another. Protestantism proclaimed the doctrine of personal salvation by faith alone – i.e., the whole of religion was resolved into a purely personal matter, with reference to which, as extreme Protestant sects like the Puritans very logically maintained, a Church tradition and organisation were entirely superfluous. In Protestantism the supremacy of individualism in religion, its antagonism to the old social religions, reaches its highest point of development. It has shaken off the last fragment of pagan poetry and sentiment, if not of pagan doctrine. It is personal and matter of fact. Under Protestantism religion has become necessarily divorced from worldly avocations. The continual interruption to industry, the time allowed by Catholicism in its festivals and holidays for enjoyment, not less than the time exacted for penance, etc., could not be tolerated. The rising middle classes were beginning to find out the “dignity of labour,” that it was appointed to men to work, etc., and that the longer the journeyman worked, and the less time he wasted in amusement, the better it was for his soul and their bodies.

History from the sixteenth century downwards is a picture of the struggle of the rising middle or manufacturing and trading classes, to emancipate themselves from the trammels of the feudal or landowning classes, and thereby to attain to individual freedom of action in the furthering of private interests. Of the causes, such as the dissolution of the old feudal estates, the appropriation of common lands, the new inventions, etc., which all contributed to bring about the rise of capitalism as the leading economical form of society, it is unnecessary to say anything in this place; our purpose here being, to suggest the ultimate meaning of universal history from the point of view of modern socialism, rather than to expound the modus operandi of historic evolution. There is one fact, however, to be noted which is extremely significant, namely, that the ascendancy of the middle classes in the shape they now assumed was incompatible with the continued existence of the old guild organisations. The guilds had the reason of their being in feudal privilege and landed tenure like the nobles; like the latter the power of these great municipal monopolies began rapidly and hopelessly to decline in proportion to the strides mane by the new individualist capitalism. The middle class of the second medieval period (as we have termed it) was essentially an aristocracy. The medieval city of the fifteenth century was in some respects a kind of rude reflex of the classical city; If we like to carry out the parallel, we may compare the guildsmen to the patricians, the journeymen to the plebeians, and the apprentices, who were in statu pupillari, and, therefore, without rights at all, to the slave class. The new capitalistic middle class differed from the guildsmen of old as the new proletariat, the precursor of the proletariat of to-day, differed from the merry journeymen of the mediaeval township.

But the meaning of history since the close of the medieval period is so plain as to be unmistakable. Every political aspiration, every political reform, has meant a breaking asunder of the bonds which held the old civilisation together, the freeing of the individual from the duties now obsolete which bound him in some sort to the social whole. In Economics the middle-class revolution accomplished itself immediately through the subdivision of labour and the workshop system, the so-called periode manufacturère, in the course of which the master gradually ceased to be himself a worker, and became an overseer. The gradual and apparently limitless unfolding of the world-market assisted the development, but its final phase was reached in the great machine industry which from the last quarter of the eighteenth century to our own day bas been steadily progressing.

In Politics the movement was characterised by the consolidation of the European nationalities (in the Middle Ages loose feudal confederacies), which was accomplished by (1) bureaucratic centralisation; (2) the extension of royal prerogative; and (3) the rise of modern commercial patriotism. Its great political expression is Constitutionalism – i.e., the real supremacy of the middle classes in the State, though this may in some cases be varnished over by the nominal ascendancy of the older order, as in England. This was finally and definitely attained by the French Revolution of 1789.

In Religion it is expressed in the accentuation of the Protestant doctrine before alluded to, of “the religion of the heart,” that is, of the working out of your own salvation, as opposed to the mediaeval Catholic doctrine, that belonging to the Church organisation itself constitutes a claim to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a theme upon which the evangelical preacher is never tired of enlarging. It is also shown in the separation of religion from daily life, as expressed in the emphasis laid upon the distinction between sacred and profane; in short, in the modern Protestant notion of reverence. (See Appendix, X.) To the medieval mind, trinity, saints, and angels were little more than a company of boon companions, whose adventures could be represented on the stage of any village fair with edification to the beholder. The miracle-plays extant (which it must be remembered were played often by priests themselves, and always under the auspices of the Church) contain what the modern Protestant mind would deem blasphemies, compared to which those of Mr. George Foote are reverential. The notion of “reverence,” like that of personal religion, is the creation of that middle-class order which took its first rise in the sixteenth, and has culminated in the world of the nineteenth century.

In its Morality the individualistic character of the movement is no less apparent than in its religion. Bourgeois morality is eminently personal. A man in his public acts, in all he does that concerns the people, may prove himself an ill-conditioned ruffian or an unscrupulous adventurer, careless though he plunge a whole nation into misery to serve his own purposes or ambition; he may be a Napoleon III, a Prince Imperial, a Bartle Frere, a Gordon; yet he may still, if he only make himself sufficiently prominent, expect honourable mention when living and a public monument when dead. All is fair it is said in love and war. This principle is nowadays commonly extended to public life, and in politics all is fair that tends to personal advancement. The man who takes a serious view of social and political duty is an enthusiast or a fool to be laughed at. Not so he who can persuade the public, whether truly or not, that he is that rather washed-out product of the nineteenth century, the “man without a vice.” This man extolled for the “purity” of his life may commit any public rascality he pleases; on the other hand, if an offence against the conventional personal ethics were brought home to a man, it would be deemed sufficient to blast the most single-minded public career.

And what does this middle-class order mean with its isolation of every aspect or department of human life from every other? The only answer that can be given on the lines of the foregoing argument is that it denotes the final phase of Civilisation. Here the antitheses, latent in primitive human society, for the first time reach their fullest development. The cardinal practical antagonism (as we have termed it) between individual and community has resulted in the complete subjection of social or public, to individual or private interest. Ever since civilisation began, the aim of man has been to free himself as individual from what he conceived to be his bondage to the social whole. The moment he distinguished his private interest or property from the public interest or property of the society of which he was hart, from that moment did history begin in its long array of crimes, tyrannies, and slaughters. An economic and social individualism necessarily implied sooner or later a change in the conception of duty. With the abstraction of individual interest from its relation to the common interest of society came that other abstraction expressed in the great speculative antagonism between Nature and Spirit, World and God, Body and Soul, etc. This speculative antagonism has reacted on the practical; it has superseded the old ethical sentiment by placing the individual man’s highest object of duty and devotion, not in the society without him, but in the Divinity believed to be revealed within him; by placing the goal of human aspiration, not in this world, but in another world; by lulling individuals and classes into condoning their sufferings here by holding out imaginary hopes of bliss hereafter. Thus has the natural been completely subjugated by the spiritual in the popular theology and ethics.

The principles here indicated were nearly, although not quite (for reasons before stated), realised in the decadent period of the Roman Empire. Now, at last, they are present in their rankest growth, and constitute the essence of our nineteenth-century world. Along a steep and tortuous path man has attained to a complete civilisation. Above the gods, said the Greeks, are the fates; and a strange fate it is which has lured, nay, forced, man forward by the very necessities of his existence, under the pretence of realising his liberty as an individual, to such a shrine as this. Now, in a sense, the goal of the march of history is attained, attained in the victory of principles which are the antithesis of those under the auspices of which civilisation started, but whose ultimate victory civilisation implied. In the well-known phrase, “Every man for himself, and God for us all,” or in that other phrase, which is, indeed, the same thing otherwise expressed, “The devil take the hindmost,” we have a rough and concise statement of that principle of individualism and of the relegation of religion to a supersensible sphere, which together form the pillars of the modern world.

But have these principles, for which so many in days gone by have fought and bled, have they realised the happiness expected of them? Here they are; you have it now all for which you have craved. And what has it proved? Now that the fruit of individualism is plucked; by the virtual admission of every thinking person, whether socialist or not, it is but Dead Sea fruit after all. In the supremacy of individual interest here and hereafter was seen the mirage of human happiness and progress. Once attained, and behold the fancied happiness is an illusion; hence that characteristic product of the present day – cynical pessimism. The ordinary mind sees the illusion, but cannot see beyond it – cannot see that the mirage which has lured men on, although in itself a phantasm, is yet the foretaste of a reality more distant, yet none the less real for that; and that the dreary waste which the place of the mirage proved to be, had to be traversed before the reality lying below its horizon could be reached.

In the present day the abstract, the nominal freedom of the individual is complete. But individualism has no sooner shaken itself free from the supports which, though they may have cumbered it in its advance, yet did at least keep it from falling; it has no sooner completely realised itself, than its death-knell is rung, and it finds itself strangled by the very economical revolution which had rendered its existence possible. For that revolution which has brought about an absolute separation of classes, has deprived the one class of all individuality whatever, albeit their abstract freedom still remains to mock them. Production in its process has become more than ever before social and co-operative, notwithstanding that its end and object is more than ever before mere individual aggrandisement. The majority are the slaves of modern Industrialism. Individualism, therefore, for the majority has become a meaningless phrase. The same with supernatural religion. The distinction between God and World has practically ceased to exist for the educated classes. With the Hegelian philosophy and that vast body of contemporary thought which, whether consciously or unconsciously, is the outcome of that philosophy, the distinction survives merely as a conventional phrase.

What, then, does all this point to, if it does not point to the fact that civilisation, having accomplished its end in social evolution, must cease to be; that it must suffer a transformation, in the course of which its essential nature will be abolished? Its essential nature, as we have sought to show, consists in antagonism – antagonism of class, creed, nationality. It involves an isolation or abstraction of every aspect of human life from every other; it is the direct negation of the communistic solidarity in which the nature of prehistoric society consisted, and in which politics, morality, religion, and art were as yet undivided from each other, and from the life of the whole. Now, civilisation, we have said, is the negation of this primitive society as implying universal division, strife, and opposition. But if the next stage in evolution implies the negation of the opposition of which civilisation consists, it must mean a return in a sense to the conditions of primitive society. Two negations make an affirmation. The negation of civilisation, which is itself the negation of early society, must therefore, mean a return to the essential characteristic of that society – i.e., Solidarity, Communism, or Socialism. We say the essential characteristic, as, of course, although the socialised world of the future will present a correspondence with the socialised world of the past, it, will be a correspondence on a higher plane – a likeness in difference. The passage from Primitive Communism to the Communism of the future was only possible through the mediation of History otherwise expressed, of Individualism. It was impossible for the race solidarity, on which early society was based, and which is implied in its economies, in its ethics, in its religion, and its art, to pass at once into that human solidarity for which we are preparing to-day. The race barrier had to be broken down, effectually and completely, and this could only be done by the temporary sacrifice of the social principle itself. The early solidarity of kinship had to be resolved into its direct antithesis – individualism, universal and world-wide. Individualism in economics, in ethics, in religion, was the necessary intermediate step before the final goal of universal solidarity or communism, which unites the solidarity of early society with the cosmopolitan principle of individualism, could be reached. The society of the future will not be limited by consideration of kinship or of frontier, as was the society of the past. It will embrace the whole world, irrespective of race, in so far as it has overcome civilisation and become socialised. The test will be one of principle, not of blood. The infirmities of early society, its spirit of race exclusiveness, with its unconsciousness of the meaning of the changes it underwent, its ignorance of nature, its crudity of conception, – these things have passed away for ever. Yet none the less will the society of the future, to which socialists look forward, be a society in which all interests are again united, since they will all have a definite social aim; in other words, since the interest of the individual will be once more identified, and this time consciously, with the interest of the community; and lastly, since our ideal will cease to have for its object God and “another world,” and be brought back to its original sphere of social life and “this world.”

How or when this great revolution will take place we are not now concerned to discuss; whether, as some think, the Slav races of the East will be the chief actors in it, or whether it will be carried out by the older Western nations. To the present writer there seems a kind of solemnity in the drama of universal history – of humanity overcome and crucified by the wealth and organisation which is the work of its own hand. It is only relieved by the thought that the old Pagan-Christian myth of purification through suffering is susceptible of a new application here. Mankind having passed through the fire of the state-world, of Civilisation, of history, must come out the stronger and more perfect. Latterday society redeemed from Civilisation will be a higher and a more enduring society than that early society which knew no Civilisation. It is towards this world, where Civilisation shall have ceased to be, that the socialist of to-day casts his eyes. In this he has a right to feel that in a literal sense his faith and his hope is founded on the “rock of ages;” that where the ages are for him, nought can be against him.

“There amidst the world new budded shall our earthly deeds abide,
Though our names be all forgotten, and the tale of how we died.”


1. For a full description of this primitive form of the family, see Morgan’s Ancient Society, also Engels’ Ursprung der Familie.

2. E.g., the so-called Phraterie.

3. It is in the Semitic peoples that the patriarchal phase in the evolution of the family is most strongly marked, and shows the greatest tenacity of life. In the Aryan races it is it general much less accentuated, and consequently tends to pass away much sooner. The Romans, however, form a noteworthy exception in this respect.


Last updated on 14.1.2006