The modernization of the world, which began in Western Europe, has involved large-scale changes in the nature of social relations. One fact of life, however, has not yet changed. In industrial and industrializing societies as well as traditional societies, there have remained gross imbalances among the members of the society in the enjoyment of privileges. To be sure, the basis upon which privilege has been allocated changed, but the fact that privilege existed did not, Still, the fact that the privileged groups in bourgeois society were new privileged groups meant that they were less able to claim for their advantages the legitimacy of tradition. In this new situation, two fundamental ideologies arose – one to defend privilege, and one to attack it.
The defenders argued basically the sociological inevitability of privilege and even its moral desirability. As time went on and this argument wore thin, the sophisticated defenders emphasized the fact that the old privileges had disappeared and that the new inequalities were not an instance of privilege but of reward for achievement. This is a specious argument but it is still heard today, in various forms, in all the countries of the world.
Those who have attacked privilege have had the sense of optimism and progress. They have for the most part felt themselves to be in the tide of history, to many of them indeed. the inevitable tide of history. Among this group – let us call them “the progressives’ – there has been a continuing debate as to the mechanisms of historical progress. This debate has grown increasingly acerbic throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as the two wings tended to become two distinct political movements. This is the now classic debate between ‘reformists’ and ‘revolutionaries.’
Both sides placed their faith in reason but the locus of reason was placed differently for them. For the reformists, the locus of reason was in the individual. The theory of Natural Law expounded in the Enlightenment taught that each man had access through insight to the ideas of truth and justice. Out of this tradition came not only the philosophes but the Utopian Socialists and Social Democrats. They felt essentially that, by patient and continuous persuasion, those who believed in equality and freedom could fashion the good society. It can be argued that the historic function of the social encyclicals of the Catholic Church culminating in MATER ET MAGISTRA and PACEM IN TERRIS has been to shift the Church from the side of the defenders of privilege to that of the Reformists.
The great critics of the Utopian Socialists were Marx and Engles, of the Social-Democrats, Lenin. They too, placed their faith in reason, but its locus was in social groups, and specifically during the bourgeois era in the proletariat. They argued that persuasion would never induce men who had privilege to renounce it. Only force, the “midwife of history,” could dislodge them. And violence was only possible when the oppressed had achieved solidarity, when they became conscious of the class struggle and their role in it. Men might be reasonable but they became so not because they were persuaded to be so but because they were forced to be. A similar viewpoint has been shared by others who are not in the orthodox Marxist tradition. Sorel argued it in REFLEXIONS SUR LA VIOLENCE, Niebur argued it in MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY, and most recently Frantz Fanon has argued it in LES DAMNES DE LA TERRE.
The first great arena in which the proponents of the two theories of progress played out their differences was in the industrializing countries of Western Europe in the 19th century – and especially in England, France, and Germany. The dispossessed of the new society – the peasants, the workers, the artisans and small shopkeepers – formed the overwhelming proportion of the population. The privileged – old landlords and new capitalists – were a small minority. If we can use symbolic arithmetic as a shorthand, we can say that society had a ratio of privileged to poor of 1: 2.
The one-third had at their disposal the military apparatus of the state, the monopoly of education and all the institutions of moral legitimation. The Holy Alliance reinforced each nation’s “executive committee of the ruling class.” But industrialism, as Marx and later Michels both argued, created the conditions of alienation and propinquity which made it possible for the workers to become class-conscious. Instead of calmly accepting the prospects of continuing immerserization, the underprivileged – and especially the skilled workers – organized both in trade-unions and socialist parties.
The Working-class movement during this period always had a strong revolutionary wing, and from the Chartists in 1840 to the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Spartakists in 1919, they employed violent means to achieve their ends to the extent that they were able to do so. These revolutions were not successful. But the increasing solidarity of the working class made the continued threat of violence seem even more credible and fearful. The privileged one-third reacted to this solidarity of the oppressed by making concessions – political concessions as when Disraeli extended the suffrage, economic concessions as when Bismarck invented the concept of the welfare state. As John Strachey in his Contemporary Capitalism says: “There is no mystery about what has caused the standard of life of the wage earners to rise roughly in step with the rise in the national income . . . . The operative factor … has been the growing power of the people.” Revolution, or its credible threat, had made reform possible.
Of course, reform did not accomplish all the goals of the revolution. Else the privileged classes should not have conceded it. For they gave up part of their privileges in order not to give up all. They gave up just enough to change the symbolic arithmetical ratio from 1 :2 to 2: 1. By means of state action, enough wealth was reallocated in the society so that the unionized workers, the engineers and the middle levels of the bureaucracies …state and private …. were given a proportion of the national income they have come to consider reasonable. and with the continued increase of productivity, this has meant a considerable increase in real wealth.