1920s >> 1925 >> no-249-may-1925

Economics and Ideas. Their influence on Political Institutions

(continued from last month)

The modern “democratic” state is the only form that has been found adequate to ensure the stability of capitalist society. It alone is capable of giving expression to the interests of the propertied class, interests presenting more intricate political problems than those of any ruling class of the past. Let us consider one of these problems.

The activities of all governments, no matter of what form, are largely determined and limited by the prevailing ideas, amongst the dominant class primarily, but to a greater or less degree amongst the general subjected population also. Even by a so-called “autocracy” the deep-rooted customs and prejudices of its subjects must be respected in the main, if it is to maintain its authority.

In pre-capitalist societies, however, which possess a large heritage of patriarchalism, the mode of life changes very slowly. Generation after generation live after the manner of their fathers and, as a result, the general outlook alters so little except under abnormal circumstances, that for practical political purposes, it may be regarded as fixed and changeless, and is so regarded by the governing authority. Now a constant factor in a problem can be allowed for, taken for granted, and then ignored or made use of as different situations suggest, and this is what actually happens in “despotic” states.

But capitalist society presents a very different problem. Its technical basis is ceaselessly changing, incessantly generating new situations and problems. The immediate requirements and interests of the various groups within the propertied class are constantly and often rapidly assuming new forms. The fluctuations of the world-market affect whole sections of the bourgeoisie, and only less directly every individual in the community. With changing production a whole industry may be undermined and swept rapidly out of existence, whilst another as rapidly arises to pre-eminence. “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”—(Communist Manifesto.)

It is evident that, under such conditions, socio-political opinions cannot be expected to manifest either the uniformity or the stability found in less inconstant orders of society, and in point of fact, one of the characteristic features of politics under capitalism is the endless rise and fall of creeds and panaceas designed to advance sectional interests amongst the owning class or meet the problems constantly arising and pressing for solution.

The only stable and efficient mode of government for capitalism is that which allows expression to the varied and changeful sectional interests, and is sensitive to the fluctuating balance of opinions arising from the vicissitudes of the economic situation. Everywhere capitalist society solved its political problem in the same way by establishing the sovereignty of a representative assembly in which the property owners make laws and control the armed forces directly through their chosen deputies instead of indirectly and inefficiently through the inflexible, arbitrary instrument of a monarchy. Further factors will be considered later.

From the same root springs the “party system.” The representation of diverse interests necessarily gives rise to political factions and through these, using the representative machinery, rival interests can compete for power—up to a certain point—without resorting to the disruption of armed conflict. Internicine warfare—by no means such a regrettable thing to the feudal baronage—is ruinous to modern industry and to the bourgeoisie.

The establishment of parliament, the representative assembly of the propertied classes as the sovereign power in the state—as the legislating and government-making authority, was only accomplished after a severe struggle with the landed aristocracy and the crown in which the merchant bourgeoisie played the leading revolutionary role.

Kingship and nobility were an inheritance left over from feudal society. In their day they had been the only possible instruments of government. Monarchy was essential to feudalism. Property rights in land was the main plank in its economic system. Now land cannot be produced in unlimited quantity like factory products. But though it is limited in quantity it can be differently divided. The estates of the feudal baronage were originally acquired in war. and in the earlier feudal period they could only be retained by armed force and increased or decreased by conquest and seizure. The barons began as military leaders and continued as such, defending their territories by the swords of their armed retainers. A feudal kingdom was in reality an assemblage or alliance of such lordships in a unified territory, and its political structure was essentially a heirarchy of war leaders under a supreme chief—the king. After centuries of existence feudalism had become a rigidly traditional system, with all its institutions sanctified by its spiritual guardian the Church.

During the feudal period the institution arose that was to evolve, in some cases at least, into the parliamentary system of the future. The mediaeval “parliament” was, however, not a governing body, but a means of raising revenue. In it were gathered the representatives of the “estates of the realm”—the nobility, the clergy and the burghers summoned by the king for the purpose of granting supplies or taxes. Parliament in those days was extremely unpopular with those it represented, who had to pay the piper without calling the tune. Through pressure and precedent, however, it gradually acquired certain limited powers and privileges. From its right to petition the king evolved its influence in legislation. Sovereign power, legislative and executive, still rested with the crown and its council of great nobles, and parliament only assembled at the king’s summons.

Commercial progress undermined the economic basis of the feudal system, while gunpowder wiped out the military strength of the barons and concentrated the armed forces in the hands of the crown. Then arose the Great Monarchies almost or entirely independent of parliament. The State became a centralised bureaucracy, largely dominated by astute politicians like Richelieu. The modern nations were consolidated, whilst the Reformation signalised the breakaway from feudal ideas.

Thus in an increasingly commercial age the power of the State tended to become more arbitrary, less representative and more difficult for the propertied classes to directly control. This was of little concern to the aristocratic landowners, whose vast estates entailed in their family lines were almost changeless, provided no great economic problems, and were a guarantee of perpetual security. They retained their social privileges, and the rule of the State was primarily in their interests, though they had little direct political control. But to the increasingly wealthy and important merchant bourgeoisie with no political privileges, the absolute monarchy, though at first advantageous in comparison with the old feudalism, became more and more not only a serious obstacle to their social development, but, by its revenue-snatching, strangle-hold upon commerce, an actual economic menace.


When, in the 17th and 18th centuries the bourgeoisie were aspiring towards political emancipation, they naturally found themselves coming up against the tenacious idea of the divine rights of kingship and the traditional, almost sacred, veneration for the hereditary privileges of the landed nobility. A necessary step in their progress, then, was the freeing of their own minds from such paralysing conceptions, and the growth of a new and acceptable theory of social rights.

Such a theory was readily provided by the economic conditions of their existence. It was possession of property, not “blue blood” or “divine right,” that was the basis of their economic importance to society and their sole claim to social influence. In the market all forms of property are interchangeable and meet on equal terms. Accordingly the merchants tended to repudiate the feudal idea that land—“real” property—is a superior kind of wealth and that landowners are a class apart with a natural right to social and political privileges. In opposition, they upheld the principle of the equal rights of all property-owners.

Moreover, the acceptance of property as itself a legitimate basis for social rights led to even more revolutionary doctrines. Property is not a personal attribute like “noble birth,” and “free” bourgeois property is not attached to a family line like entailed real estate. It can be exchanged, increased or decreased, acquired or lost. The idea is inescapable that all men are potential property-owners and have to this extent potentially equal rights. From this, it is only a step to the doctrine upheld by all bourgeois philosophers from Hobbes and Rousseau to Paine and Herbert Spencer—that men are born with equal “natural rights.” Such ideas could commend themselves little to a money-worshipping, narrowly, class-minded plutocracy, but they could and did affect a small minority who could rise, in their search for intellectual consistency, a degree superior to the bias of material interests or class conceit.

The bourgeoisie, like every class, had its theorists—men who took the immediate and particular needs of the class, and from them evolved general principles. Few people are interested in abstract theories for their own sake, but most people look with favour upon and readily come to embrace with sincerity, principles that they can interpret as a justification for their desires, or offer as an “ideal” motive for their actions.

Such “general principles” are of the greatest value in providing a class with weapons of argument and a basis for moral enthusiasm. That which is “material necessity” for the class becomes “moral right” and a “matter of principle” to the individual.

The theoretical basis of a class movement is, however, a growth. It acquires definition and coherence, takes on new forms and becomes of increased utility, as the actual social struggle provides new and unfore¬seen situations and problems for solution.

(To be continued)


(Socialist Standard, May 1925)

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