1920s >> 1925 >> no-250-june-1925

Economics and Ideas. Their influence on political institutions

(Continued front last month).


The struggle of the bourgeoisie for political emancipation culminated in England in the Great Rebellion of 1642-48. The chief immediate cause of the outbreak was the dispute over the right of the crown to levy charges upon property owners either by taxes or forced loans without the consent of their representatives. Its general social causes however must be sought in the developing antagonism between the domination of hereditary privilege and kingly prerogative and the political needs of an increasingly commercial society.

As the crisis approached Parliament definitely demanded the right to appoint and dismiss Ministers, and the control of the army. In the six years’ Civil War which followed, the established regime—the “King’s cause” was defended by the nobility and the more old-fashioned of the landed gentry, whilst to the Parliamentary forces adhered the traders of the cities allied with the freehold farmers.

At this stage no purely political doctrine had an appeal wide enough to rally all revolting sections, and we find the morale of the Cromwellian Army—the backbone of the Parliamentary forces, provided by “puritanism,” which in belief was the antithesis to the Catholicism of the crown and in its attitude to life the mirror of the needs of the yeomen farmers and the small traders.

It was not until the first phase of the struggle had ended in a bourgeois victory, and the question of “divine right” answered emphatically in the negative by the execution of Charles, that its theoretical expression was forthcoming. As Stopford Brooke says,

“the opposition to the theory of the Divine Right of Kings did not enter into literature till after it had been worked out practically in the Civil War. During the Commonwealth and after the Restoration it took the form of a discussion on the abstract question of the Science of Government, and was mingled with an enquiry into the origin of society and the ground of social life.” (“English Literature” p. 132.)

The result of this enquiry showed clearly the wide influence commercial relations of life now had in the sphere of political thought. The productive organisations and customs of feudalism had their origin in the remote and misty past. Through unnumbered generations they persisted with little change and they were looked upon with veneration and believed to have a supernatural origin.

But commerce arid money had brought a new form of organisation. The firms and companies of the traders and manufacturers had a perfectly well-known origin. They were deliberately established as a result of definite agreements between men. The law of “contract,” not of “status” or custom, was their basis and safeguard. What more natural then than that the theorists of the new order should suggest that human society and the State were originally formed by a common agreement for the social good and that therefore the governing authority could be repudiated if it violated the terms of the “original contract.”

Such a theory was put forward by Hobbes in his “Leviathan” (1651) and later taken up by Locke and Rousseau. Though Hobbes’ materialistic views met with much opposition on religious grounds the effect of the idea of the “social contract”

“at the time of its first appearance was immense. Its almost universal acceptance put an end to the religious and patriarchal theories of society, on which Kingship had till now founded its claim of a Divine right to authority which no subject might question.” (Green’s “Short History,” p. 615).

In the next phase of the struggle ending in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the argument of the “social contract” was used with effect in the Parliamentary debates on the abdication of James II. and, in the final indictment against the King, his violation of the “contract” was specifically mentioned.

The Revolution with its “Bill of Rights” vested supreme authority in the House of Commons—the representative assembly of the propertied classes. Following it came another advance in bourgeois political theory by Locke, who cast into more acceptable form Hobbes’ ideas and definitely declared the supremacy of legislative assemblies. Again fact preceded theory. Locke’s “Essay on Civil Government” was the outcome

“not of a pure development of scientific ideas, but of the necessity for having a theory to justify accomplished facts.”

It was

“in truth an elaborate apology for the Revolution of 1688; not ostensibly for its righteousness or policy in the particular circumstances, but for the possibility of such a proceeding being rightful in any circumstances.” (Pollock, “Science of Politics,” p. 65.)

In the new regime the landowners were still predominant but the commercial and banking interests were a great and a growing social power. In the Commons the two rival groups faced each other as the Tory and Whig parties. But many of the wealthier landowners were by now interested also in commerce and finance and the antagonism between the two orders of property tended to become less. The power of the capitalists was manifested in the founding in 1694 of the Bank of England—originally a whig finance company; in the commercial laws based on the “mercantile” principle of accumulating bullion by restricting: imports of manufactured goods whilst encouraging their export; and in the trade wars against France which the landed class generally discouraged.

The British Constitution now remained without serious modification for a century and a half, the most important development being the “cabinet system” which placed the executive under the control of the Commons. As an instrument giving political liberty to the exploiters of labour whilst securing the suppression of the producing masses the Constitution was one of the most perfect pieces of machinery in political history. The ruling’ classes rightly revered it as a perpetual guarantee of their wealth and privileges. They lavished adulation upon it. To Blackstone, the jurist, it was—”this noble pile,” whilst Burke went into ecstatic when he contemplated its “delicate equilibrium.” Based upon the right to representation of only a wealthy handful of the population—with an electorate of merely some 12,000 this allegedly democratic constitution was in reality an oligarchic despotism of the few over the many.

Through it was carried out by all due forms of law one of the most callous examples that history records of the spoliation and starvation of a helpless class through the enclosure and appropriation by the large landowners of millions of acres of the “common lands” used by the peasants of England for centuries. As a result of the growing numbers of landless and propertyless and the intense poverty of the new labouring class laws of unprecedented stringency were enforced for the protection of property. Thousands of working-class “criminals” were hanged for stealing no more than five shillings or a sheep, or for firing a rick of hay.


The success of the mercantile interests in England in establishing their rule through Parliament gave a stimulus to the bourgeoisie in France—oppressed by economic fetters imposed by a despotism raised upon the remnants of feudalism, bearing the chief burden of a heavy taxation and excluded entirely from political power. Along with the smouldering discontent of the bourgeoisie developed a vigorous attack by the French intellectuals upon all the institutions and traditions of the established regime. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and the authors of the great “Encyclopedia ” directed their shafts of criticism and satire upon the “unreason” of social relations, the despotism of the State over men’s bodies and of the Church over men’s minds.

The English Constitution was eagerly discussed and applauded. In it the French bourgeoisie and their theorists saw the ideal framework of society. Buckle in his “History of Civilisation” gives a detailed account of the extraordinary influence that English literature and institutions had at this time in France. Even Rousseau’s famous work the “Contrat Social,” which became the text book of the revolution, was little more than a development of the ideas of Hobbes and Locke. In it Rousseau declared the irrationality and tyranny of all existing social structure and idealised the “free, independent individual” — the “natural” man. The book had an immense vogue with all the disaffected and its popularity was so feared by the authorities that it was accorded the honour of being burnt by the public hangman.

The philosophers of the “age of reason” were sincere enough in their fierce denunciations of tyranny and glorification of “liberty”—but they could not transcend the times in which they lived. When Rousseau wrote his famous words, “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains,” he was not thinking of the same “chains” as those of the equally famous declaration —”The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” Rousseau and those who thought with him denounced the chains of obsolete conventions and beliefs and of legal and political restrictions upon the individual and his goods. They did not conceive of property as a means of enslavement—to them it seemed the guarantee of freedom, of personal independence. Their utopia was a society of independent farmers, craftsmen and traders, and it was from this ideal basis that they formulated the inalienable Rights of Man— “to liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.” It required machinery and the “great industry” to demonstrate the titanic power of slavery latent in the “free rights of property” and the “liberty of the individual,” and thus to lay the basis for the slogan of Marx.

But while the philosophers were indulging themselves with universal principles the merchants, lawyers and politicians were concerning themselves with practical realities. They were not troubled with abstract intellectual problems but with urgent economic, legal and political ones. But the main problems that confronted the revolutionary bourgeoisie in France, though the same in essence as those their English comperes had faced differed in historical setting.

The “grand seigneurs” had not been “corrupted” by commerce to the extent of the English aristocracy. They were still an exclusive, arrogant caste, despising trade, holding ancient feudal rights over the peasantry such as were long extinct in England, and—a most important point, they were entirely exempt from taxation. While the English nobility had faced merely a check to their political domination, only affecting: them indirectly in an economic sense, the French nobility were confronted with a threat to their economic security, to their feudal dues and fiscal privileges—with virtual expropriation. Hence the com¬promise that was achieved with little difficulty in England was in France next to impossible.

When the crisis was upon them the bourgeoisie were reluctantly compelled to ally themselves with the stirring propertyless populace of the cities. It was the “common mob” who took the Bastille. But the traders, the lawyers and the politicians had a wholesome dread of the hungry masses—inflamed with revolutionary phrases and extravagant promises and freed for the moment from their customary habits of subjection. Mirabeau warned the assembly against its “seditious allies.”

Whilst they had need the bourgeoisie readily used the multitude as a threatening weapon against the crown and the aristocrats, but when the strength of the old regime was broken, when

“the King could no longer collect an army, the force of the crowd was no longer necessary to the Assembly. A kind of Riot Act was accordingly passed under which certain officials might at any time proclaim Martial Law ; to restrain the forces of agitation a censorship was established over newspapers and public meetings and even over the sale of literature.” (Packwood Adams—”The French Revolution,” p. 100.)

Thus the bourgeoisie endeavoured to maintain its newly-acquired and precarious power, to stay the surging forces of revolt that it itself had done so much to unleash and to secure “order”—the bourgeois order of peaceful exploitation.

The great rallying cry that stirred all the sections opposed to the old regime was “liberty ! Equality ! fraternity !” But these vague words meant different things to different men. In the mouth of a bourgeois they had a definite, limited meaning. “Freedom” meant—liberation from the tyrannical control which the autocratic rule of the Bourbons had exercised over the lives and property of its unprivileged subjects. “Equality” implied the abolition of hereditary privilege and the guarantee of legal and political equality for all “responsible citizens”—all who possessed property and paid taxes.

When, in June, 1789, the deputies of the “third estate” constituted themselves the National Assembly of France their general aim was nothing more than the abolition of feudal restrictions and the erection of a representative Constitution with a limited Monarchy on the lines of that in England. And when, three years later, the Constitu¬tion of 1791 was framed, though prefaced by the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” it divided the people into “active” and “passive” citizens; the former consisted of men who owned property and contributed taxes, and who alone were to exercise the franchise and bear arms in the National Guard; the “passive” citizens were the propertyless multitude who were allowed neither representation nor legal means of resistance. But the “have-nots” proved not quite so “passive” as the “haves” were desirous they should be.

With the further developments—the war, the republic, the inability of the bourgeoisie to consolidate its power, the temporary domination of the propertyless of Paris followed by the dictatorship and “order” of Bonaparte—we need not here concern our¬ selves.

Twenty-three years before the Revolution in France, a bourgeois republic—untrammelled by any effete feudal structure, had been set up in America. In spite of its “Declaration” that “all men are born equal” its political system gave the franchise only to property owners, and to show how cynically inconsistent its founders could be, it established the legality of the slave-trade.


(Socialist Standard¸ June 1925)

Leave a Reply