William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up – Chapter 5 – Preparing for Revolution – England

The English seventeenth century revolution was from the first purely middle-class, and as we hinted in our last [chapter] it cast off most of its elements of enthusiasm and ideality in Cromwell's latter days; the burden of the more exalted Puritanism was felt heavily by the nation and no doubt played its part in the restoration of Monarchy; nor on the other hand was England at all ripe for Republicanism; and so between these two disgusts it allowed itself to be led back again into the arms of Monarchy by the military adventurers who had seized on the power which Cromwell once wielded. But this restoration of the Stuart monarchy was after all but a makeshift put up with because the defection from the high-strung principle of the earlier period of the revolution left nothing to take the place of Cromwell's absolutism. The nation was quite out of sympathy with the Court, which was un-national and Catholic in tendency and quite openly debauched. The nation itself though it had got rid of the severity of Puritanism was still Puritan, and welcomed the Sunday Act of Charles II which gave the due legal stamp to Puritanism of the duller and more respectable kind. And though enthusiastic Puritanism was no longer dominant, it was not extinct. John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" shines out, though a religious romance, amidst the dulness of the literature of the time. The Quakers who represented in their beginning the peaceable and religious side of the Levellers, arose and grew and flourished in spite of persecution; the Cameronians in Scotland, as we mentioned in our last chapter, made an ineffectual armed resistance to the dying out of enthusiasm; while across the Atlantic the descendants of the earlier Puritans carried on an almost theocratic government, which, by the way be it said, persecuted the Quakers most cruelly. Little by little, however, all that was not quite commonplace and perfunctory, died out in English Protestantism, and respectable indifferentism had carried all before it by the end of the century. Politics and religion had no longer any real bond of union, and the religious side of Puritanism, Evangelicanism, disappears here, to come to light again in the next century under the leadership of Whitfield.

Yet, such as English Puritanism had become, its respectable, habitual, and formal residuum was strong enough to resent James the Second's Papistry, and to make its resentment felt; while at the same time the constitutionalism which began the anti-absolutist opposition in Charles the First's time, and which had been interrupted by Cromwell's iron and Charles the Second's mud absolutism, gathered head again and began to take definite form. The Stuart monarchy, with its 'divine right' of absolute sovereignty, was driven from England in the person of James the Second, and a constitutional king was found in William of Orange, and constitutional party government began.

Thus, in spite of interruption, was carried out the middle-class revolution in England; like all other revolutions, it arrived at the point which it really set out to gain; but not until it had shaken off much which did at one time help forward its progress, and which was and still is mistaken for an essential part of it. Religious and Republican enthusiasm, although they (and especially the first) played their part in abolishing the reactionary clogs on the progress of the middle-classes, had to disappear as elements which would have marred the end proposed by that revolution; to wit, the creation of an all-powerful middle-class freed from all restrictions that would interfere with it in its pursuit of individual profit derived from the exploitation of industry.

Thenceforth, till our own times, respectable political life in England is wrapped up in Whiggery; tinged, indeed, on one side with the last faint remains of feudalism in the form of a quite unreal sentiment, involving no practical consequences but the acceptance of the name of Tory; and on the other by as faint a sentiment towards democracy, which was probably rather a traditional survival of the feeling of the old days of the struggle between King and Parliament, than any holding out of the hand towards the real democracy which was silently forming underneath the government of the respectables.

The first part of the eighteenth century, therefore, finds England solid and settled; all the old elements of disturbance and aspiration hardened into constitutional bureaucracy; religion recognized as a State formality, but having no influence whatever on the corporate life of the country, its sole reality a mere personal sentiment, not at all burdensome to the practical business of life. The embers of the absolutist re-action on the point of extinction, and swept off easily and even lazily when they make a show of being dangerous; the nobility a mere titled upper order of the bourgeoisie; the country prosperous, gaining on French and on Dutch in America and India, and beginning to found its colonial and foreign markets, and its navy beginning to be paramount on all seas; the working-classes better off than at any time since the fifteenth century. Art if not actually dead represented by a Court painter or so of ugly ladies and stupid gentlemen, and literature by a few word-spinning essayists and prosaic versifiers, priding themselves on a well-bred contempt for whatever was manly, passionate, or elevating in the wealth of the past of their own language.

Here then in England we may begin to see what the extinction of feudality was to end in. Mediæval England is gone, the manners and ways of thought of the people are utterly changed; they are called English, but they are another people from that which dwelt in England when 'forestalling and regratting' were misdemeanours; when the gild ruled over the production of goods and division of labour was not yet; when both in art and literature the people had their share, – nay, when what of both there was, was produced by the people themselves. Gone also is militant Puritanism, buried deep under mountains of cool formality. England is bourgeois and successful throughout its whole life; without aspirations, for its self-satisfaction is too complete for any, yet gathering force for development of a new kind, – as it were a nation taking breath for a new spring; for under its prosperous self-satisfaction lies the birth of a great change – a revolution in industry – and England is at the time we are writing of simply preparing herself for that change. Her prosperity and solid bureaucratic constitutional government – nay, even the commonplace conditions of life in the country, are enabling her to turn all her attention towards this change, and the development of the natural resources in which she is so rich. The fall of the feudal system, the invasion of the individualist method of producing goods, and of simple exchange of commodities, were bound to lead to the final development of the epoch – the rise of the great machine industries – and now the time for that development is at hand. The growing world-market is demanding more than the transitional methods of production can supply. In matters political prejudice is giving way to necessity, and all obstacles are being rapidly cleared away before the advent of a new epoch for labour; of which, indeed, we may say that if no great change were at hand for it in its turn, it would have been the greatest disaster which has ever happened to the race of man. In our next chapter we shall deal with the elements at work in preparing the transformation of the commercial system, for which this development of the great machine industry was so necessary and so mighty a servant.

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 22, 12 June 1886, PP. 82-83