Sunday, September 30, 2007

Slaves of the working class

Remember the Battle of Lechfeld? In 955, on the plain of the river Lech, the German army defeated a Magyar horde and ended one of the three barbarian invasions of Western Europe.

At least, that was always the conventional, "official" history. As Carl von Rotteck put it in his General History of the World: From the Earliest Times Until the Year 1831(1842)

The Hungarians fell over Austria into Bavaria (955), greedy for plunder, inhuman as in earlier times, more formidable than ever in number and equipment. They conquered and ravaged the country as far as the Lech, crossed this river, and besieged Augsburg. Otho fought these barbarians in the great plain, which is extended from this city between the rivers Lech and Wertach. The most splendid, the most complete victory, crowned the well-commanded forces of Germany. From this battle-day in Lechfeld, Germany was forever delivered from the Hungarians.
This account is echoed in Wikipedia:
The Battle of Lechfeld (10 August 955), perhaps the defining event for holding off the incursions of the Magyars into Central Europe, was a decisive victory by Otto the Great, King of the Germans, over the Magyar leaders
And in Britannica, with a little bit more nuance:
their raiding forces suffered a number of severe reverses, culminating in a disastrous defeat at the hands of the German king Otto I in 955 at the Battle of Lechfeld, outside Augsburg (in present-day Germany). By that time the wild blood of the first invaders was thinning out, and new influences, in particular Christianity, had begun to circulate.
By the 1950s, a new wave of historians had started to question these "official" versions of history, and the great French scholar, Marc Bloch, in his 1964 work Feudal Society, brought his spotlight to bear on the battle of Lechfeld.

He wrote(.doc, 2MB, p.26):
Si brillant qu’il fût et malgré tout son retentissement moral, un fait d’armes isolé, comme la bataille du Lech, n’aurait évidemment pas suffi à arrêter net les razzias. Les Hongrois, dont le territoire propre n’avait pas été atteint, étaient loin d’avoir subi le même écrasement que jadis, sous Charlemagne, les Avars. La défaite d’une de leurs bandes, dont plusieurs avaient déjà été vaincues, eût été impuissante à changer leur mode de vie. La vérité est que, depuis 926 environ, leurs courses, aussi furieuses que jamais, n’en étaient pas moins allées s’espaçant. En Italie, sans bataille, elles prirent fin également après 954. Vers le sud-est, à partir de 960, les incursions en Thrace se réduisent à de médiocres petites entreprises de brigandage. Très certainement un faisceau de causes profondes avait fait lentement sentir son action.
One isolated feat of arms would not have stopped the Magyar invasions, especially one that didn't even reach the Magyar lands. Magyar raids had been dimishing since 926. In Italy, they had ended, without any battle, by 954. They had virtually ended in Thrace by 960.

Bloch pointed out that Hungarian society had been changing, no doubt in part because of the influence of captives, hostages and slaves, from a nomadic, raiding culture to a settled, agricultural one. It's reasonable to suggest the defeat at Lechfeld was important to the Magyars, but it wasn't the reason why their raids ended. They were ending anyway, through a process of gradual change.

The implication here is profound. Although the idea that this battle ended these invasions persists, it is wrong. It isn't, as you might think, and as it might be intended, a simplification. It's just plain wrong.

Though there have been great people and significant events, they tend to decorate, rather than dictate, the movement of history. But that's not how we like to see it. We like the simplicity of raids --> battle in which raiders are defeated --> raids stop.

These are also the terms in which social history has tended to be framed. But although there have undoubtedly been conflicts of interest (between workers and employers, for example), battles and victories, and great personalities and ideas, there has also been more continuity than has often been appreciated. Take, for example, the history of the English working class.

In his book The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson chose to start in 1790. This was much too late. Marx started with the emergence of the Capitalist mode of production in the sixteenth century, and suggested that:
The owners of capital are the dominant capitalist class (bourgeoisie). The working class (proletariat) who do not own capital must live by selling their labour power in exchange for a wage.
From this conflict arose. But he did not understand the continuity with the past, and so started much too late.

The starting point actually needs to be the status of slaves in the late Roman Empire. Slaves were valuable, and gravestones attest to the fact that sometimes they were valued. Slavery was not so bad that people would not sell their own children, or even themselves, into it to pay debts. What's more, slaves could obtain their freedom, sometimes by buying it. In other words, in an odd sort of way there was social mobility. The agriculture of the Roman Empire depended on slave labour and so, as the influence of Rome receeded in the third century AD, England was left with a Villa system of land settlement, in which large estates were cultivated by slaves who lived in more or less tolerable circumstances.

Scroll forwards a few hundred years, and you find a Manorial system of large estates cultivated by serfs who were not free, but who lived in more or less tolerable circumstances (there were also freemen and tenants). There's little documentary evidence for those centuries we scrolled rapidly through, but the possibility of continuity between the two systems seems obvious. It wasn't, though, to past historians. The continuity of Romano-British culture with that of the Romans was downplayed, the "invasion" aspect of the Anglo-Saxon settlements was emphasised, in England the ferocity of the Norman conquest was thought to have swept away much of the Anglo-Saxon settlement pattern. Battles caused changes. A narrative developed wherein feudalism developed as a response to the barbarian invasions, Magyar, Viking and Saracen, and was then modified as commerce developed until it became capitalist.

This narrative spoke of a system of military service being rendered in return for land holdings, and those holdings being cultivated by serfs who were tied into labour by armed lords. But service for tenure goes back to the Romans, and there is evidence even of the later aspects of feudalism like scutage (the remission of the duty of service in return for payment), something that was taken as a symptom of the expiry of feudalism, in the Dark Ages. Always there is continuity, when history is examined closely.

Let's take a look at the late Roman slaves. They had little freedom, though even this varied and some were almost day labourers who were free to do as they liked when not working. Some, indeed, were quite comfortably off. They did, though, have an extraordinary degree of security. They had jobs for life. They had places to live, provided by their owner. They had little responsibility. For the ambitious, there was the possibility of freedom; for the unsuccessful free there was the possibility of slavery.

The same things were true of the medieval serf and remained true of their agricultural labourer descendants, down to the tied cottages. The focus of their lives was the estate and its lord, their freedoms were limited but so were their responsibilities. For the ambitious, there were possibilities of military service, the monastery, even commerce. For the unsuccessful elsewhere, an opposite path was open. These structures have persisted into living memory, though mechanised farms generally rent out the old tied cottages in England today. The farm workers have gone, but this process began with the industrial revolution when they started moving into cities to work for the new types of employers.

But little else changed. Employers still built and provided housing, and jobs for life. Freedoms were limited but so was responsibility. Slavery was mutating, evolving, modernising even. But it was still slavery, and a second-century Roman would have recognised it as such.

What, in the past half century, has differentiated a lower middle class person from a working class person? Not necessarily income: skilled trades pay very well indeed. It's attitude. One, the working class person, will live in a council house or flat. This is the direct descendant of the corporation house, and the factory-built house, and the tied cottage, and the serf hut that were its ancestors. They can't repaint the outside or change the front door. They can't move where they like when they like. But they have subsidy, and a lack of responsibility. A middle class person on the same or even lower income will pay their own way and take the freedom that comes with that responsibility.

That both might have had the same grandparents shows that social mobility still exists, and that on this level at least it is a matter of volition.

But this also casts an odd light on the labour movement and on trades unions. Through their adherence to the ideas of jobs for life, and their demands that working class people be able to depend on benevolent and paternalistic forces, be they employers or the state, or both, and take the consequent lack of freedom that results from this they not only stand in direct line of descent from Roman slaves, but they also demand that they be able to remain as slaves. The dignity of labour is no more than the degrading comfort of the steel slave collar on the neck.

And for all their Pooterish, John Major, Little Chef aspects, the lower middle classes have this in their favour: they came from there. They would not accept the collar. They aspired to independence and freedom.

Until the psychology of the working class disappears, Britons will always include some slaves among their number. Perhaps the most disturbing consequence of the past couple of decades is that a resurgent left has spread the idea that dependency is respectable to the point where even the wealthy collect state benefits (especially child benefit); even those who could support themselves are taxed until they cannot, then turned into dependent slaves by benefits that give them back some of their own money; even those who will not work are allowed the benefits of slavery.

Another half century of this, and all Britons shall be slaves.


Roger Thornhill said...

And this is their intent. Re-enslave the masses. Get everybody dependent on The State.

Socialists are not mad at the rulers for being rulers, just that it is not they who rule. They covet.

All Socialist revolutions have, IIRC, replaced, not removed, tyrants and dictatorships.

Anonymous said...

Except in very, very general terms, I beg leave to doubt your central proposition that, to paraphrase (rather teasingly), history is the 'continual continuation' of society by different names', that is, slaves to serfs, serfs to feudal peasants and so on. On Romano-British history, for example, I quote this by Simon Young from his excellent book "Farewll Britannia":

"Indeed, in the 5th c., as the walls came tumbling down throughout the western half of the Roman Empire, Britain was not only seperated from the rest of the Graeco-Roman civilisation, but was torn up into confetti-sized pieces. The Romano-British economy collapsed, towns emptied, long distance trade broke down, learning and technical know-how vanished, and into this confusion came a riot of different barbarians [...]. There is nothing in British history to compare with this trauma."

Of course, out of the shambles eventually a new society emerged in which some were rich, some were poor; a few led, most followed, either willingly or not. In other words, the same old, same old; despite the pseudo-scientific nomenclature that Marxist sociologists attach to it.

Also, in my opinion, Marxists underestimate the huge importance of individuals. One only has to consider for a minute the implications for world history if Lord Halifax had become prime minister in 1940 instead of Churchill. Halifax would have cut a deal with Hitler which would have meant that Russia could not have been re-supplied by the allies and would probably have been defeated. America would not have had an off-shore island from which to launch an attack on mainland Europe. Please, don't tell me that individuals don't make a difference!

Peter Risdon said...

The discontinuity between the Roman period and the British society that followed has been questioned by recent scholarship. What's more, the history we read often concerns the movements of ruling classes through and above the estates they fought over and handed to one another, on which agricultural labourers continued to labour under much the same conditions as before.

Individuals are of course important. It's just that they're often less important than we've been led to believe, and they'd like to think.

Jackart said...

A very interesting essay. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

A Thought-provoking piece. Well done!