Thucydides within: the origins of Reaction

As announced in the last post, the next few installments on our series on Marxist thought will focus on the different schools of Socialism identified and targeted by the Communist Manifesto. Today we will start discussing Reactionary Socialism, which was a powerful ideological adversary to Communism for much of the 19th and the 20th century. In its original form, it was the last refuge of the losers of the Capitalist Revolution, a violent death spasm of the Middle Ages. According to Marx and Engels, it comes in three varieties: (a) feudal, (b) petty-bourgeois and (c) German or “true” socialism. The first two are named after the class the interests of whom they represented.The third one is specific to the German context, and over the decades evolved into something very different. We will focus on feudal and petty-bourgeois socialism for now, leaving German socialism for later posts.

The collapse of Medieval institutions, the rise of the Secular Westphalian State, the Protestant Reform and the advent of the Industrial Revolution, had conspired to modify the economic relations between classes at an ever-increasing speed. The upwardly-mobile merchants, manufacturers and bankers had acquired the means to multiply their productive force, thanks to a combination of technological ingenuity and shifting attitudes to money, religion, and politics. They had developed a habit of Capital Accumulation, much more abstract and less prone to disaggregation than Land Accumulation. Using an inverse alchemical process, they had been transforming gold into lead and iron: turning their economic power into political power, buying their way into the nobility, and participating in its conflicts as financers. They were an ascending class. This ascent of the merchant class was parallel to the decline of traditional institutions: churches with different, sometimes radical ideologies were proliferating, and economic activity was moving towards the cities and away from country estates. Gunpowder democratized killing, by ending the advantage of highly trained military-aristocratic elites. The traditional establishment felt threatened by this twilight of their supremacy. An internal trap of Thucydides was set in the middle of European social organization,tearing its fabric apart: the forces controlling the Ancien Régime had to react against these uppity bourgeois.

For the communists, feudal socialism is the interested agitation of the Proletariat by the secular and clerical nobility, with the intention of throwing them against the increasingly rich and influential bourgeois. As such, it is absolutely opposed to Progress and the March of History. The main issue feudal authority had with bourgeois systems, they argue, was not their creation of an oppressed proletarian majority, but the fact that the workers of industrial societies were more prone to hold a revolutionary tendency. In other words, feudal socialism was the reaction of an old ruling class, afraid of capitalist economic relations pushing the working classes too far and thus favoring their class resentment. Marx and Engels praised the acute criticism of liberalism developed by the feudalists, but correctly identified the dangers it posed to the Revolution. Although it made an accurate diagnosis and was successful in prodding the peasants against the bourgeois, feudal socialism had an unavoidable counter-revolutionary substrate. This completely interfered with the vector of History, a fact which justified issuing the Communist fatwa against it.

The Manifesto explicitly cites French Legitimists and the Young England party as examples of feudal socialism, but even the earlier failed royalist uprising in the Vendée represented this “peasant revolt” trope to some extent, and embroidered religious themes within it. Indeed, Marx and Engels argue that the recombination of socialist memes with religious ideals of asceticism, charity and poverty results in the various strains of what they call Christian socialism, which they dismiss as the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat”. The extent to which feudal and Christian socialism is attributed to a genuine peasant feeling or to a manipulation by the ruling classes depends a lot on where you lie in the memetic spectrum of the conflict. What is clear, though, is that in some European regions, and for a long time, factions possessed by this spirit regularly revolted and had to be violently defeated in the battlefield to conform to the bourgeois liberal State.

Landed nobility was not the only class rendered obsolete by the bourgeois system and the Industrial Revolution. Farmers who owned their own plots of land and craftsmen were also heavily affected by technological advances, the new organization of labor and the change in productive relations. Petty-bourgeois socialism was the version of socialism customized for this numerous sector of society. It was composed of socialist memes indigenous to countries such as France, where peasants and artisans comprised at the time more than half of the population. Aiming to restore traditional relations of production both in manufacture in agriculture, petty-bourgeois socialism sets the medieval corporate guild and the patriarchal family farm as models.

While feudal socialism wants to stop the wheel of History, its petty-bourgeois allies just wants to reset it to a previous state of affairs, being completely oblivious to the fact that it was precisely traditional relations of production what gave way to capitalism. Interestingly, while this meme is completely unable to catalyze any Revolution, it is perfectly viable as an idea, and its spirit has stood well the test of time. Common contemporary iterations of it are classical conservative stances of idealizing the 1950s, or the (sometimes admittedly ironic) aesthetic glorification of the 1980s in the alt-right. It’s an innocuous, but very contagious and mutable mental virus, which adapts to present cultural environments by periodically updating the prior era it fetishizes. Its toothlessness is what guarantees its survival. As any epidemiologist (or bioterrorist) worth their salt knows, diseases notoriously symptomatic and highly lethal –like Ebola– rarely cause a pandemic, because they kill the host too quickly and spectacularly for the patient to spread it around. It’s the inconspicuous, not-so-deadly viruses –like coronaviruses– which get to travel the world.

Feudal and petty-bourgeois socialists frequently were allies in the armed struggle against Revolution. While the first served as ideological justification for the rulers of the Ancien Régime, the latter was directed to the bulk of the reactionary fighting body: the dejected peasantry and impoverished petty-bourgeois craftsmen. It was a predominantly rural alliance, politically led by the feudalists. An iconic example of it can be seen in the Carlist Wars, were this absolutist core resisted viciously the liberal bourgeois system established by Queen Isabella II. The white side of the Russian Revolution also offers many instances of this type of collaboration. The disappearance of the rural world brought by improved communications and technologically put the final nail in the coffin of this type of movements. Their last unironic and unmodified iterations had practically died out in the West by the 1950s, their shattered remains rallying to the heirs of German Socialism, which meanwhile had been undergoing a fascinating transformation of its own.

This article is part of a series centered around the Communist Manifesto. You can read the previous article here, or go to the beginning of the series. The following installment is available here.