Who needs religious morality?
The capitalist system of society, with its production of wealth for sale at a profit on the market, has not always existed. Contrary to common belief, such social features as wage labour, the cash nexus and capitalist companies are relatively new developments in social evolution, To the citizen of England in the early fifteenth century, the economic characteristics which modern British workers are conditioned to regard as natural and inevitable simply did not exist.
Prior to capitalism the feudal mode of production prevailed. Under the feudal system all land was owned, theoretically at least, by the king. He allowed members of the feudal ruling class—the aristocracy—to control areas of land on his behalf. Those who laboured on the land were peasants, obliged to contribute most of what they produced to the landlord, leaving the remainder for their own subsistence. Feudal Britain was almost entirely dominated by agrarian production; neither industrial manufacture nor trade played any significant economic role. Most agricultural production was arable: in short, producing food for the domestic population was the chief feudal concern. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was the emergence of the European woollen cloth market, centred in Antwerp (the commercial capital of the Holy Roman Empire), that had the most profound effect on the transformation from feudal to capitalist production in Britain. As arable farming was contracted to make way for sheep, as peasants’ arable strips and common lands were enclosed to allow room for the new, relatively massive pastoral farms, and as the landlord increasingly lost social power in relation to the merchant, the imperatives of capitalist trade—caring for nothing but profit and prepared to trample on tradition for the sake of commerce capitalism came to life. As early as the fourteenth century the export of woollen cloth began to be significant: in the 1390s over 43,000 sacks of woollen cloth were exported; by the early 1500s the figure had increased to 84,789 sacks; in the years 1538-42, 118,000 sacks were exported—accounting for 92 per cent of exported wool. With the rise of merchant trading, the priorities of sale and profit shook the social stability of the medieval slumber: the rise of capitalist trade transformed peasants into landless labourers, robbed of their strips by landlords who were forced into commercial avarice by the dictates of the market. Propertyless, the peasants had no option but to offer themselves as hirelings to whoever could afford the price of their mental and physical energies. The class of wage slaves was born.
The morality of feudalism placed value on social routine. The king’s power, and therefore the power of the ruling class which owed feudal allegiance to him, was justified by the theory of divine right. Why was the king on top? Because a god ordained that he should be. And as the feudal god determined that the few should live in privilege, so it was His Holy Word that the poor should accept their lot with humility and deference. Feudal ethics left little room for the prospect of social mobility: inherited privilege and ordained poverty were not to be interfered with by social action. The Roman Catholic code of ethics condemned trade, moneylending for interest (usury) and the general idea that those who were not affluent should pursue riches at the expense of others. Catholicism was not a business morality, but one concerned with the perpetuation of class rule by undisturbed custom. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic moralist, argued that “immoderate love of possessing” is covetous and “covetousness is a sin”. His colleague, St. Antoninus, stated that “If the object of the trader is principally cupidity , which is the root of all evil, then certainly trade itself is evil”. Until 1545 it was illegal for bankers (or moneylenders) in London to lend money for interest: there were cases of men being imprisoned for engaging in such practices. In an age in which the trader and the banker had little or no role, religious morality reflected the material interests of the land barons and the hereditary rulers.
With the rise of capitalism came the birth of a new morality. The ethic of capitalism was the holy scroll which the new legalised robbers wrapped around themselves to cover their naked class thievery. Now, there is a school of thought, dating back to the writings of those far from unreasonable social thinkers, Max Weber and R.H. Tawney, which contends that the emergence of the capitalist ethic—protestantism, and especially Calvinist puritanism—gave rise to capitalism. This is to mistake cause for effect or, to be more precise, to ignore dialectical interaction between economic and intellectual forces (both of which are material) and to present an idealistic interpretation of history, that is, one which assumes that ideas determine material development. The idea of capitalism did not give rise to the new social order. It was the evolution of the new system, generated by the contradictions between the emerging world market and the anachronistic social relationships of feudalism, which gave rise to new ethics.
The morality of capitalism reflected the class interest of those whose affluence was derived from surplus value—rent, interest and profit. The old feudal ethics were swept aside, much to the displeasure of the aristocratic remnants who maintained their moral whining for the old system of parasitism well into the nineteenth century. According to the new morals there was no contradiction at all between becoming rich at the expense of others and being morally pure: “O ye rich citizens, we tell you from Him, whose title is Rich in Mercy, that ye may be at once rich and holy”, proclaimed the protestant preacher, Joseph Hall. The Nonconformist preacher, Richard Steele, urges capitalists “to be most happy in your shop and business and drive the nail whilst it is going. But direct all to a right, the honour of God, the Public Good as well as your Private Commodity, and then every step and stroke in your trade is sanctified”. The protestant ethic of justification by faith left morality to the conscience of the individual: it you can kid yourself that your actions are motivated by love of god, only the outward expression of “simple faith” is required to ensure moral righteousness. In his ‘Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses‘, the celebrated spokesman for the new capitalist theology, John Calvin. justified usury, rejecting the claims of those Christians who still hung on to the old feudal morality:
… those who think differently may object, that we must abide by God’s judgement, when he generally prohibits all usury to his people. l reply, that the question is only as to the poor, and consequently, if we have to do with the rich, that usury is freely permitted. (London, 1852 edn, Vol l, p.151.)
And so it came to pass that this god, invented by men to give moral backing to their class actions, had one law for the poor—who must not lend money for interest—and another for the capitalists.
As capitalism evolved, especially when it entered its industrial phase, the morality of the ruling class became more and more based upon the principles of profit as a reward for righteousness and thrift, humility and faith being the best virtues for the propertyless majority. The Church went hand in hand with the state, following the industrial capitalists in all of their sordid efforts to enrich themselves at the expense of others. And, as Bishop Sprat wrote in 1667, in his History of the Royal Society:
If our Church should be an enemy to commerce, intelligence, discovery, navigation, or any sort of mechanics, how could it be fit for the present genius of this nation?
As men, women and children were forced to labour in the most filthy, dangerous and undignified conditions, the churches blessed those who profited from such exploitation and counselled the exploited to accept their fate in obedience — for the righteous wage slave here on earth would be rewarded with paradise beyond the grave! The Church controlled education before 1870 and, in the age before mass broadcasting or the popular press, it fell to the religious bodies to spread information to the workers. Despite “Thou shalt not kill”, the moralists of 1914 found it within themselves to justify the slaughter of lives for the sake of the material advancement of the ruling class. Indeed, the sight of vicars blessing bombs has not been an uncommon one during this century of ethical hypocrisy. In 1916, when workers were conscripted to fight in the war, the Seventh Day Adventists (a small, fundamentalist Christian sect) refused to fight on the grounds that
As a Christian Church, believing in the undiminished authority and perpetuity of the moral law, given by God himself in the Ten Commandments, we hold that we are thereby forbidden to take part in combatant service in time of war. (Quoted in Seventh Day Adventists in Time of War by F. Wilcox, Washington DC, 1936.)
Ironically, more pragmatic Christian theologians were appointed to sit on tribunals and do their best to drive the fundamentalists away from their politically unacceptable position. In fact, the position taken by the Seventh Day Adventists demonstrates very clearly why it is that morals, which are always presented as absolute precepts, are relative standards of social behaviour, adapted over the years to fit in with the class needs of different rulers. A striking modem example is the attitude of Islamic morality towards commerce. R. Levy points out that “The Koran forbids as a deadly sin all taking of increment as distinguished from . . . transfer for equivalents” (The Social Structure of Islam, Cambridge, 1962, p 257). This has not prevented the extensive growth of banking and interest-taking in the Islamic countries in modem times.
Socialism is not a moral proposition based on absolute values but the product of a class analysis of capitalist society and its material contradictions. Once we have socialism there will be no need to advocate “socialist ethics”: the people of the world will live their lives unfettered by the certainties of dogma.