There is a shrewd warning to be given to all people who are in revolt.
And in the present state of things, I think all men are revolting in that
sense; except a few who are revolting in the other sense. But the warning
to Socialists and other revolutionaries is this: that as sure as fate, if
they use any argument which is atheist or materialistic, that argument
will always be turned against them at last by the tyrant and the slave.
To-day I saw one too common Socialist argument turned Tory, so to speak,
in a manner quite startling and insane. I mean that modern doctrine,
taught, I believe, by most followers of Karl Marx, which is called the
materialist theory of history. The theory is, roughly, this: that all the
important things in history are rooted in an economic motive. In short,
history is a science; a science of the search for food.
Now I desire, in passing only, to point out that this is not merely untrue,
but actually the reverse of the truth. It is putting it too feebly to
say that the history of man is not only economic. Man would not have any
history if he were only economic. The need for food is certainly
universal, so universal that it is not even human. Cows have an economic
motive, and apparently (I dare not say what ethereal delicacies may be in
a cow) only an economic motive. The cow eats grass anywhere and never
eats anything else. In short, the cow does fulfill the materialist theory
of history: that is why the cow has no history. "A History of Cows" would
be one of the simplest and briefest of standard works. But if some cows
thought it wicked to eat long grass and persecuted all who did so; if the
cow with the crumpled horn were worshipped by some cows and gored to death
by others; if cows began to have obvious moral preferences over and above
a desire for grass, then cows would begin to have a history. They would
also begin to have a highly unpleasant time, which is perhaps the same
The economic motive is not merely not inside all history; it is actually
outside all history. It belongs to Biology or the Science of Life; that
is, it concerns things like cows, that are not so very much alive. Men
are far too much alive to get into the science of anything; for them we
have made the art of history. To say that human actions have depended on
economic support is like saying that they have depended on having two legs.
It accounts for action, but not for such varied action; it is a
condition, but not a motive; it is too universal to be useful. Certainly
a soldier wins the Victoria Cross on two legs; he also runs away on two
legs. But if our object is to discover whether he will become a V.C. or a
coward the most careful inspection of his legs will yield us little or no
information. In the same way a man will want food if he is a dreamy
romantic tramp, and will want food if he is a toiling and sweating
millionaire. A man must be supported on food as he must be supported on
legs. But cows (who have no history) are not only furnished more
generously in the matter of legs, but can see their food on a much grander
and more imaginative scale. A cow can lift up her eyes to the hills and
see uplands and peaks of pure food. Yet we never see the horizon broken
by crags of cake or happy hills of cheese.
So far the cow (who has no history) seems to have every other advantage.
But history--the whole point of history--precisely is that some two legged
soldiers ran away while others, of similar anatomical structure, did not.
The whole point of history precisely is: some people (like poets and
tramps) chance getting money by disregarding it, while others (such as
millionaires) will absolutely lose money for the fun of bothering about it.
There would be no history if there were only economic history. All the
historical events have been due to the twists and turns given to the
economic instinct by forces that were not economic. For instance, this
theory traces the French war of Edward III to a quarrel about the French
wines. Any one who has even smelt the Middle Ages must feel fifty answers
spring to his lips; but in this cause one will suffice. There would have
been no such war, then, if we all drank water like cows. But when one is
a man one enters the world of historic choice. The act of drinking wine
is one that requires explanation. So is the act of not drinking wine.
But the capitalist can get much more fun out of the doctrine.
When strikes were splitting England right and left a little while ago, an
ingenious writer, humorously describing himself as a Liberal, said that
they were entirely due to the hot weather. The suggestion was eagerly
taken up by other creatures of the same kind, and I really do not see why
it was not carried farther and applied to other lamentable uprisings in
history. Thus, it is a remarkable fact that the weather is generally
rather warm in Egypt; and this cannot but throw a light on the sudden and
mysterious impulse of the Israelites to escape from captivity. The
English strikers used some barren republican formula (and as the
definitions of the medieval schoolmen), some academic shibboleth about
being free men and not being forced to work except for a wage accepted by
them. Just in the same way the Israelites in Egypt employed some dry
scholastic quibble about the extreme difficulty of making bricks with
nothing to make them of. But whatever fantastic intellectual excuses they
may have put forward for their strange and unnatural conduct in walking
out when the prison door was open, there can be no doubt that the real
cause was the warm weather. Such a climate notoriously also produces
delusions and horrible fancies, such as Mr. Kipling describes. And it
was while their brains were disordered by the heat that the Jews fancied
that they were founding a nation, that they were led by a prophet, and, in
short, that they were going to be of some importance in the affairs of the
Nor can the historical student fail to note that the French monarchy was
pulled down in August; and that August is a month in summer.
In spite of all this, however, I have some little difficulty myself in
accepting so simple a form of the Materialist Theory of History (at these
words all Marxian Socialists will please bow their heads three times), and
I rather think that exceptions might be found to the principle. Yet it is
not chiefly such exceptions that embarrass my belief in it.
No; my difficulty is rather in accounting for the strange coincidence by
which the shafts of Apollo split us exclusively along certain lines of
class and of economics. I cannot understand why all solicitors did not
leave off soliciting, all doctors leave off doctoring, all judges leave
off judging, all benevolent bankers leave off lending money at high
interest, and all rising politicians leave off having nothing to add to
what their right honourable friend told the House about eight years ago.
The quaint theoretic plea of the workers, that they were striking because
they were ill paid, seems to receive a sort of wild and hazy confirmation
from the fact that, throughout the hottest weather, judges and other
persons who are particularly well paid showed no disposition to strike.
I have to fall back therefore on metaphysical fancies of my own; and I
continue to believe that the anger of the English poor (to steal a phrase
from Sir Thomas Browne) came from something in man that is other than the
elements and that owes no homage unto the sun.
When comfortable people come to talking stuff of that sort, it is really
time that the comfortable classes made a short summary and confession of
what they have really done with the very poor Englishman. The dawn of the
mediaeval civilisation found him a serf; which is a different thing from a
slave. He had security; although the man belonged to the land rather than
the land to the man. He could not be evicted; his rent could not be
raised. In practice, it came to something like this: that if the lord
rode down his cabbages he had not much chance of redress; but he had the
chance of growing more cabbages. He had direct access to the means of
Since then the centuries in England have achieved something different; and
something which, fortunately, is perfectly easy to state. There is no
doubt about what we have done. We have kept the inequality, but we have
destroyed the security. The man is not tied to the land, as in serfdom;
nor is the land tied to the man, as in a peasantry. The rich man has
entered into an absolute ownership of farms and fields; and (in the modern
industrial phrase) he has locked out the English people. They can only
find an acre to dig or a house to sleep in by accepting such competitive
and cruel terms as he chooses to impose.
Well, what would happen then, over the larger parts of the planet, parts
inhabited by savages? Savages, of course, would hunt and fish. That
retreat for the English poor was perceived; and that retreat was cut off.
Game laws were made to extend over districts like the Arctic snows or the
Sahara. The rich man had property over animals he had no more dreamed of
than a governor of Roman Africa had dreamed of a giraffe. He owned all
the birds that passed over his land: he might as well have owned all the
clouds that passed over it. If a rabbit ran from Smith's land to Brown's
land, it belonged to Brown, as if it were his pet dog. The logical
answer to this would be simple: Any one stung on Brown's land ought to be
able to prosecute Brown for keeping a dangerous wasp without a muzzle.
Thus the poor man was forced to be a tramp along the roads and to sleep in
the open. That retreat was perceived; and that retreat was cut off. A
landless man in England can be punished for behaving in the only way that
a landless man can behave: for sleeping under a hedge in Surrey or on a
seat on the Embankment. His sin is described (with a hideous sense of
fun) as that of having no visible means of subsistence.
The last possibility, of course, is that upon which all human beings would
fall back if they were sinking in a swamp or impaled on a spike or
deserted on an island. It is that of calling out for pity to the passerby.
That retreat was perceived; and that retreat was cut off. A man in
England can be sent to prison for asking another man for help in the name
You have done all these things, and by so doing you have forced the poor
to serve the rich, and to serve them on the terms of the rich. They have
still one weapon left against the extremes of insult and unfairness: that
weapon is their numbers and the necessity of those numbers to the working
of that vast and slavish machine. And because they still had this last
retreat (which we call the Strike), because this retreat was also
perceived, there was talk of this retreat being also cut off. Whereupon
the workmen became suddenly and violently angry; and struck at your Boards
and Committees here, there, and wherever they could. And you opened on
them the eyes of owls, and said, "It must be the sunshine." You could only
go on saying, "The sun, the sun." That was what the man in Ibsen said,
when he had lost his wits.