A Socialist World is Probable (III): A River of Blood

March 11, 2013 9:30 pm

socialistLaunch a discussion or debate about ‘socialism’ and, before you can say ‘religion is the opium of the masses’, some cynical bright spark will pipe up with the usual string of cliches.

‘Ah,’ they’ll say. ‘Socialism doesn’t work. Look at Stalin. He had more people murdered than Hitler ever did. Revolutions always  fail. It’s all food queues, secret police and labour camps.’

They don’t get it.

Years, decades even, of lies and gross distortions being drip fed by our media, educationalists and politicians have taken their toll on people’s understanding of what socialism actually means. Small wonder our ruling class wishes to distort the truth. The very idea of socialism is pure anathema to capitalists. Nothing must stand in the way of their system that seeks to exploit the vast majority of the population for the benefit of a privileged few. But let’s take a look at how society developed capitalism and where it has brought us.

Primitive communism

Karl Marx defined history as ‘the history of class struggle’. He identified that, from prehistorical times to the present, human society consists of class structures which could develop subject to changes in modes of production.  Population and available resources were also factors in this development. The earliest societies were families, or groups of families, formed into clans or tribes. They held the tools of production in common and shared goods and division of labour. They were hunters and gatherers, usually nomadic, following the seasons, the game they hunted and the harvests they gathered.

A tribe would be governed by a council of elders with the consent of all members. Inadequate leaders could be ousted. It was a form of  ‘primitive communism’. Given social and scientific developments, society would reach a certain level through combined and uneven development and pass through into the next stage of social organisation.

Where conditions were favourable, tribes began to form more fixed settlements and developed farming – the sewing of crops and the raising of livestock initially supplemented then supplanted food supplied by hunting and gathering. As one settlement might trade and inter-marry with another settlement, they may also have bartered goods and shared land and access to water. They may also have waged tribal wars to capture resources, land and slaves.

This inevitably led to the forming of separate bands of armed retainers gathered around a warrior leader or leaders. This would lead to the next stage towards ‘slave-based economies’ such as the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Macedonians, Carthaginians, and its most powerful single expression – the Roman Empire.

A slave-based economy meant most of the hard, physical labour would be carried out by captives held in life long bondage and sold like cattle. They were a source of the cheapest of labour which left their owners time to develop other skills in architecture, art, culture, philosophy.

As Rome extended its boundaries, so it became more vulnerable at its centre as many of its freeman masses were a source of discontent who often formed the basis of many an attempted coup led by a disgruntled legionnaire or senator. Likewise, ambitious military figures at the empire’s periphery frequently sought to vie for power. The growing hordes of advancing ‘barbarians’ contributed to the fall of such a cumbersome empire as they nibbled at its heels and made regular inroads into its interior. It was the changes and developments of class struggles that charted the rise and fall of such empires that would dissolve and reconstitute into its component parts.

The Roman Empire dissolved into two separate parts, in the west, the catholic ‘Holy Roman Empire’ and the east, the Orthodox East Roman Empire based at Constantinople.


Within the ‘Holy Roman Empire’  in western Europe, new, more compact kingdoms were formed – the ‘Kingdom of the Franks’ (France), ‘Germania’, ‘Espana’. A new mode of social organisation gradually passed from slave-based economies to feudal forms of society. A warlord – or monarch – at the pinnacle, his armed retainers around him who received land and a share of war booty for their loyalty, and a layer of clergymen who doubled as a literate bureaucracy and spiritual guides.

Beneath them, the greater mass of peasants who worked the land owned by their lords of the manor to whom they paid homage with goods and services. A peasantry that was tied to the land and the seasons. For it was land that was the crucial source of power in a feudal economy. Whoever controlled the most arable, productive land, owned political power. The lands of Europe were at a premium compared with the continental landmasses, say, of Asia, Africa and the ‘undiscovered’ continents of the Americas.

When resources became scarce, due to population growth, tribes could migrate to pastures anew on the seemingly unlimited expansive steppes, prairies or grasslands. By comparison, geographically, Europe was a mere peninsula of the Eurasian landmass so farming and science had to develop newer, more advanced means of production to fulfil the needs of its societies. When there was an abundance of land available, exhausted lands could be abandoned and virgin soil exploited. When land was scarcer, new methods were developed to make use of the land available – crop rotation, fertilisers were developed as well as intensive farming methods.

roman empireThe seas around Europe, and especially around the shores of the island that was Britain, were exploited as a source of protein and, more importantly, trade routes were established. Beyond trade with neighbours, voyages of discovery brought new materials, new foods, new resources. Old orthodoxes were challenged; the straitjacket of Catholicism was challenged by Protestantism, which sought to break the control of an international clerical bureaucracy. Britain’s mixed economy led the way in new scientific developments. Trade not only brought new goods to these shores but new dangers – the prime example the ‘Black Death’ of bubonic plague. Mortalities meant a shortage of labour that demanded higher wages and a series of peasant uprisings. The aristocratic families fought a bloody series of battles in the ‘Wars of the Roses’, which were nothing more than wars of succession.

New trading centres grew up around embryonic coal and iron industries, and around the trading centres of ports. Demands for political representation for a new rising class of merchants, traders and industrialists began to be sounded.

The English Revolution of the 17th century saw the temporary Cromwellian Republic curb the power of monarchical absolutism and intensified a rolling back of the Catholic church. This freed up an ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and opened the way for the establishment of an overseas empire built on the bloody enslavement of primitive peoples and the trade of valuable foodstuffs and materials such as cotton, silver, gold and sugar. The European powers built their empires on the skulls of generations of the peasant societies of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Historically progressive

The profits from mercantile capitalism underwrote the investments of industrial capitalism at home where, in Britain, the political parties of  the landed aristocracy shared power with the powerful capitalists, hiding behind the fig leaf of a muted constitutional monarchy.

They fended off the imperial rivalries of, first, Spain, Holland then especially France, in a series of wars between 1588 and 1815. The British capitalist class emerged triumphant and safe in the knowledge that, with its most powerful naval force, and its incisive professional army backed by the treasures of its unrivalled extensive trade and industrial output, they could go on to own a quarter of humanity and ‘rule the waves’.

Nobody could deny that, at this point,  Britain’s was the most expansive and richest empire in history. Imperialism was, in Lenin’s planet Earthwords, ‘the highest form of capitalism’, and Britain was its highest exponent. Karl Marx himself wrote that ‘capitalism was, for all its faults, for a period, definitely historically progressive’. Yet, as with all the preceding stages of development in human society – as we have seen with ‘primitive communism’, ‘slave-based economies’, ‘feudalism’ – capitalism will be another stage humanity is passing through as its character passes on to the next stage of human development.

Capitalism, Marx says, has fulfilled its historical tasks. It has created the nation state, created wealth through industry and science, developed early forms of political representation (albeit with a restricted franchise) and pushed back the forces of mediaeval religious reaction.

Historical dead end

However, in its wake, capitalism is locked in cycles of boom and slump; the upheavals of wars and famine; the scourge of oppression and poverty; and the enrichment of the few over the comparitive impoverishment of the many.

The capitalist class became increasingly parasitic, exploitative, avaricious to the detriment of society at large while the toilers, the workers, the actual creators of wealth, are left in relative or absolute poverty.

Marxism offers a way out of the historical dead end. A future is offered where the wealth created is distributed among those who create it, where the wealth can be invested for the common good.

The great empires ran out of lands to colonise and began to rub up against each other as the world was partitioned between them. More global re-division meant war, and this is what led to the two greatest conflagrations – two world wars – as capitalist rivalries came to their own murderous illogical conclusion.

Instead, socialism offers a more humane alternative. A river of blood lies between the barbarism of capitalism and the ideas of genuine democratic socialism.


NEXT: The final instalment.

‘A Socialist World is Probable (IV): Barbarism or Socialism?

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