Several months ago I lamented that a normally astute conservative commentator had dismissed Hilaire Belloc’s classic work, The Servile State, as being “strikingly similar” to The Communist Manifesto. Although such a claim is patently absurd, it did set me wondering why it was that otherwise sane and sensible people should have such a blind spot about Belloc’s advocacy of Catholic social teaching. My curiosity aroused, I thought I’d revisit The Servile State to see why it provokes such animosity.
A major reason for the hostility that Belloc’s work arouses is its polemical stance against the evils of “capitalism.” For those who self-identify as capitalists it is indeed understandable that such a polemical approach will raise hackles. It is, however, important to understand what Belloc means by “capitalism” before we presume that he is a socialist or that his views are strikingly similar to those expressed by Marx and Engels. In section one of the book, he defines capitalism in the following terms:
A society in which private property in land and capital, that is, the ownership and therefore the control of the means of production, is confined to some number of free citizens not large enough to determine the social mass of the state, while the rest have not such property and are therefore proletarian, we call capitalist. …
Later, in section five, he reiterates this definition, describing a capitalist society as that “in which the ownership of the means of production is confined to a body of free citizens not large enough to make up properly a general character of that society, while the rest are dispossessed of the means of production, and are therefore proletarian”.
It is likely that those who self-identify as “capitalists” will not accept this as a definition of the capitalism that they espouse. It is, however, necessary to meet Belloc on his own terms if we wish to understand what he is advocating. We might wish that he had used a different label for the thing that he is describing but we need to get beyond the label to the thing itself. Indeed why don’t we remove the problem caused by the label by simply relabeling it? For our present purposes, let’s call it economic proletarianism because it is the economic system characterized by a relatively powerless proletarian majority and a relatively powerful capital and land owning minority.
So much for what Belloc labels as “capitalism” but which we, for the purposes of avoiding an unnecessary argument on mere semantics, have relabeled economic proletarianism.
Let’s now proceed to Belloc’s definition of “socialism”: “An ideal society in which the means of production should be in the hands of the political officers of the community we call collectivist, or more generally socialist.”
Lest we should misunderstand Belloc’s meaning, he is not calling socialism an “ideal society” in the sense that it is idyllic, i.e. good, but in the sense that it is merely an idea, a theoretical ideal, or what we might now call an ideology. He was writing in 1912, five years before the Bolshevik Revolution would turn the theoretical idea into an all too real nightmare.
In point of fact, Belloc had always been a staunch and uncompromising critic of socialism. In 1908 he had written An Examination of Socialism and the following year had published The Church and Socialism, in both of which he had articulated the Catholic Church’s opposition to socialism as taught by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Rerum novarum (1891). In 1911, the year before The Servile State was published, he had argued against the socialist position in a debate with Ramsay Macdonald, the future Labour Prime Minister.
In essence, Belloc’s view of socialism is that it is strikingly similar in practice to “capitalism” insofar as both systems place the means of production into the hands of a privileged few at the expense of the proletarianized masses. Whereas “capitalism” or economic proletarianism centralized the ownership of land and capital into the hands of a small number of powerful businessmen, socialism centralized or collectivized it into the hands of a small number of powerful politicians. In both cases the vast majority of ordinary people remained without either land or capital and was therefore proletarianized. As such, the choice between “capitalism” (as Belloc defines it) and socialism was a choice between economic proletarianism and political proletarianism. It was a choice between being ruled by Big Business or Big Brother, a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber!
In many respects The Servile State is as pessimistic as it is prophetic. His conclusion is that the two forms or proletarianism, economic and political (“capitalist” and socialist), would not fight to the death, with one or the other ultimately emerging triumphant, but would meld into a single politico-economic proletarianism, in which Big Business and Big Brother reach a mutually agreeable modus operandi. This understanding between Big Business and Big Government at the expense of the perennially powerless majority would herald what Belloc calls the servile state and which we might prefer to call the welfare state.
The editors highly recommend Mr. Pearce’s biography Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.