50 Years Ago: Morality and Property

Under a system of chattel-slavery sheer physical force was almost the sole means of holding the slaves in subjection. It was not necessary for a community of interests between master and slave to be hypocritically assumed and inculcated. What the slaves thought was of little or no consequence to their owners: morality was considered no concern of slaves; it was held to be an attribute of and an obligation upon “free-men” alone.

On the contrary with serfdom, the greater cohesion manifested by the workers made it very necessary to use mental as well as physical means to secure their complete subjection. A pseudo-moral code was required for the workers in order to guide their activities along lines consistent with the welfare of their exploiters. But a serf who was compelled to part with both labour and produce to a non-productive lord could never he taught to believe that he was not exploited, that he was a free man. as it has been possible to teach the wage-worker of today.

The awkward problem was ingeniously solved by the Catholic clergy, the intellectual and moral guardians of feudalism. They zealously inculcated into the peasantry the idea that the categories, king, lord, and serf were of divine ordinance and unalterable. and further, that the present life with its poverty and riches, is only a preparation for the coming “kingdom of God”, where those who had been meek and humble while toiling and suffering “here below”, would dwell in happiness “amongst the best”.

From the Socialist Standard, January 1918.