The Restoration of the Peasantries

With especial reference to that of India

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 6

The Ascendancy of the Town

THE first phase, created by the new dominant idea of the modern era, was the degradation of the peasants and small holders, in favour of the capitalistic owners of large estates. The second phase was the defeat of the large landowners by the urban capitalists in the struggle for ascendancy; the triumph of the town over the country.

We have already briefly reviewed this second phase as shown by Rome. The Rome of the early Republic was the urban centre of agricultural communities. Such trade as was carried on was conducted by the servants of the patricians or nobles in the same way as trade was carried on in mediaeval England by the lords of the manors and their officials.

Carthage was the great trading and capitalistic power of the western Mediterranean basin. The conquest of Carthage delivered this means to wealth into the hands of the conquerors. From the Carthaginians the Romans were quick to learn the capitalistic management of large estates or latifundia. The works of Mago, the leading Carthaginian economist, were translated into Latin and Greek, and became the textbooks of the wealthy Romans, as well as of the magnates of the eastern section of the empire, where Greek was the chief language. Capital was freely and successfully applied to the land, for abundant cheap service was at hand in the form of slaves, who poured into Italy and whose labour proved as stimulating to the wealth of their owners as later, in the nineteenth century, did the labour of machines.

In Rome itself and in other large towns, the second great upper class, the equites or knights, inferior in rank only to the nobles, found roads to fortune by the use of capital in trade and in the exploitation of the wide territories, which Rome had acquired.

There were, then, two classes of capitalists, the nobles or capitalistic landowners, and the equites or capitalists of trade and its development. These two types of capitalists have their counterparts in modern civilization in the landed aristocracies and the urban financiers.

Between the two classes there was a prolonged struggle for the upper hand in political power, which filled the last century of the Republic's existence, with fierce political conflicts in the capital itself; revolt of the farmer and middle class of rural Italy against the moneyed aristocracy of Rome; rebellions of labour due to what Mommsen termed "the utter unscrupulousness characteristic of the power of capital" towards the slaves of Italy and the provinces; and civil wars between the two classes of capitalists, in which the landowning capitalists assumed the character of conservatives, and the urban capitalists that of progressives, seeking the support of the urban populace "with the names of liberty and equality in their mouths," as Dean Merivale states it in his History of Rome, 1875.

The struggle was ended by the dictator, Julius Caesar, and by his great-nephew, Augustus, the founder of the Empire and its first supreme ruler.

All these features of Roman history have their counterparts in modern capitalistic civilization, which has been founded upon the capitalistic development, not of the Mediterranean world only, but of the world itself. The trading system of the Romans knit the Mediterranean world together, as that of the west now knits the modern world together. The Roman means of traffic was wonderfully organized; the roads were admirably planned and durably built; the posts and marine services were regular and exact. Only in one thing was the Roman world lacking, as compared to the modern world; it had not the prodigious power and speed of our machines. Yet so great was its mechanical skill and knowledge that it was on the verge of the discovery.

Lacking the speedy multiplying power of the machines and of science, the Romans' progress along the second agricultural path, though like in character, was much slower in speed than that of their modern successors. Great as were their demands upon the soil and the cultivators of their extensive empire, it could not be compared to the prodigious requests made by machines and their masters upon the soil and upon the rocks, minerals and oils of the earth. The speed of to-day in consumption and production is incomparably greater, and the effects of waste correspondingly swifter, as we shall see in the next chapter.

After the fall of Rome, there was a long period of disintegration and slow recovery. Agriculture was the first to recover; later trade revived. After many centuries, rich citizens of towns once more began to claim their "rights" from the kings and nobles of an agricultural regime.

These claims began in Italy itself, where Venice and Genoa in particular became wealthy trading city-states. They were able, in their own localities, to establish once more the dominance of urban capitalism. Their stories need not detain us. They and those of other northern Italian cities may be read in Signor J. C. L. Sismondi's famous work.

The northern Italian cities had almost the monopoly of the trade of goods from the east, brought across Asia by caravans or from India via Aden to an Egyptian port in the Red Sea. The seizure of the western Mediterranean by the Turks, blocked the trade routes. The discovery of the sea route round the Cape of Good Hope followed, and the centre of oriental trade was transferred to Portugal, Holland, and eventually England.

The Dutch townsmen or burghers, enriched by this trade, grew in political power. "The burgher class controlled the government, not only of the cities, but also of the provinces, through its influence in the Estates," are the words of John Motley, in his vivid history, The Rise of the Dutch Republic. "Industry and wealth had produced their natural results. The supreme authority of the sovereign and the power of the nobles were balanced by the municipal principle which had even begun to preponderate over both." In the sixteenth century the burghers broke out into rebellion against their suzerain, Philip the Second of Spain. Inspired by the Christianity of John Calvin of Geneva with its passionate hatred of kings and the Catholic Church, it was the townsmen who were successful. They overthrew royalty and nobles, and established their republic.

The next revolution, that of the Puritans and Parliament against Charles the First, was inspired by the same doctrines of Calvin. The Covenanters of Scotland, inflamed by John Knox, the pupil of Calvin, named their revolutionary forces the army of Christ's Crown and Covenant. The parliamentary army of England, reaching back to the teaching of Cartwright, another pupil of Calvin, was termed Christ's Army. Revolutions, leading to a transvaluation of values and the triumph of new dominant ideas, always have some such religious fervour to inspire them. At that time Calvinism, Puritanism and other forms of Protestant Christianity represented the hostility of the new dominant ideas to the old, as embodied in the Catholic Church of the agricultural, mediaeval era. The townsmen desired freedom from the old controls. The cry of "liberty and equality" of the Roman progressive party was echoed by the Dutch Calvinists, the English Puritans, and a century later by the revolutionists of France.

The revolution, which brought Charles to the scaffold, was in the main a revolution of the new towns and townsmen, as was that of their more wealthy neighbours, the Dutch. "The towns were the natural centres of Puritanism and Parliamentarianism," writes Mr. F. Milner in his Economic History of England, 1931, "and they provided the wealth and bulk of the men to oppose Charles the First in the Civil War. The triumph of Cromwell was largely the triumph of the towns."

Men of small station rose to leadership, carpenters, drapers, shopkeepers, servants, and so on. But these men were unable to hold their power after the death of their great leader. The Stuart kings were restored, a second revolt led to the expulsion of James the Second, and from that time it was the families of large landed estates, who governed England.

Land in England remained the main form of wealth; trade and manufacture were as yet no rivals, and those who made fortunes in commerce, invested them in land. As in post-Punic Rome, so in England after 1688, the government became that of a landowning oligarchy. Manufacture, trade, and their financing, however, continued to increase. The insular position of the English saved them from the fate which overtook the Dutch, who upon the continent were exposed to the wars of their larger neighbours. As the Dutch declined, the English took the leading position in world trade. The invention of machines from 1760 onwards immensely augmented the power of the manufacturers and commercial magnates. They, the English "equites," defeated the large landowners in the struggle for political power, and with their rise to supremacy the ascendancy of the town over the country, urban over rural, was sealed.

England in no way stood alone in this great change. Throughout western civilization the same change in political authority and in values took place.

In France the change began with the famous Revolution of 1789. It was a true revolution, a transvaluation of values. As Henry the Eighth and later the Puritans in England overthrew the civilizing values of the mediaeval Catholic Church, so also did the French Revolution. So also were the rigid class distinctions overthrown, as the Puritans overthrew them in England. Both revolutions brought the king to the execution block. Both were the revolt of the burghers, bourgeois, or townsmen, according as to whether one use their Dutch, French, or English name, against the privileged classes, against royalty, higher priests, and nobility. Both were inspired by a religious republican fervency, the Puritans by Calvin of Geneva, the French by Rousseau also of Geneva. Both promoted the ascendancy of urban capital.

As regards the influence of the French Revolution upon the peasants, Monsieur Paul Lafargue in his Evolution of Property (translation of 1890), uses these words: "The bourgeois historians have invented the legend of the Revolution of 1789 bestowing the land upon the peasant, and freedom and happiness therewithal; whereas the plain truth is that the great Revolution stripped him of his rights of common and similar rights of equal importance, delivering him up defenceless, into the clutches of usurers and middlemen; loading him with taxes and forcing him into competition with the great landed proprietor equipped with capital and machinery. The great bourgeois revolution was fraught with misery and ruin for the peasant."

In the United States of America, Civil War raged from 1861 to 1865. It was a war of the industrial north against the capitalistic agriculturalists of the south, who based themselves upon negro slaves. The war terminated in the victory of the north.

The next great revolution in Europe was that of Russia. Russia before the revolution had many resemblances to pre-revolutionary France, but under the influences of the nineteenth century Russia had become divided into northern and western regions, which were becoming industrialized, and southern and eastern, which were agricultural. It was a division similar to that of the United States before the Civil War. There were, then, two main elements in the revolution. The first was the abolition of the privileged classes. This was effected by Lenin. Lenin was inspired by a fresh conception of society, namely a communistic organisation of the people, which in course of time would become so actuated by the agreement of its local groups, that the people would move on their course spontaneously, making government interference as needless as it had been, for instance, amongst the historic Chinese. The vision and its achievement were to be so promising of happiness and content, that the peoples of the world would be induced by it to throw off the shackles of the privileged classes and join up with the Russians in the new society of concord.

After the death of Lenin, the second element, namely the claims of Russian industrialism to take a place amongst the power-nations of the modern world, prevailed. In course of time the vision of Lenin faded and its faithful disciples were slaughtered as ruthlessly as had been the previous privileged classes. Industrialization, mechanization, mass production, became the means to power in place of the society of concord. Everything that stood in the way of their swift establishment was evil, of which Russia and Russians had to be purged. The government, which Lenin had designed to sink into comparative insignificance, rose to a degree of ruthless autocracy, paralleled only by that of the most ruthless rulers of the old regime. Stalin, as dictator, limited himself to his panacea of industrialization, with the creation of a new bourgeois class of officials and technologists. To this urban aim the peasants have been completely subordinated. In recent years some millions of peasants have died of starvation as a sacrifice to the faith. They fell dead sometimes by the roadside or upon the fields, while the food and raw products they cultivated were transported to the industrial centres of Russia or exported to pay for the foreign machinery which they required. No leader has, in a time of transition, dragged the juggernaut of industrialization more swiftly over a village peasantry than has the latest leader of a great revolutionary people. This is in accordance with the speed of the present time compared to the past, and is sinister in its relation to the future of backward peasantries in the hands of leaders without the objectivity and understanding of mastery.

It is a relief to turn from the brutalities of the bigotted French and Russian revolutions to two, which were characterized by leadership of understanding and genius.

Bismarck was the first supreme master of the revolutionary changes of the time. Other so-called statesmen were driven from the unforeseen to the unforeseen; Bismarck alone guided and directed. His course reveals with exactitude the successive waves of this stupendous transition.

In 1848 revolution broke out in Berlin, and the king was driven from the capital. The course of the French Revolution was then begun in Prussia, and there seemed every reason to suppose that it would continue with all the known horrors of its progenitor. In 1862, Bismarck, already for ten years the chief opponent of the revolution, was appointed chief minister.

His first step was to stop revolution and to re-establish the authority of the king and the old regime. Parliament was suppressed; revolt was quelled; the large landowners were reinstated in authority and privilege; both they and the peasants were protected against urban ascendancy and usury by the most stringent laws. Then, having made the new industrialists and capitalists subjects and not masters of the State, Bismarck encouraged their manufacturing enterprise. But he did not permit them to exploit the working class, for the safety of which he devised his famous system of workmen's insurances.

He thus established continuity between the old and new, and, by limiting and protecting each section of the people in their rightful functions, he steered Germany through the period of transition without the horrors of the blind and bloody course it pursued in other countries. Whilst he was in power, in spite of the dark confusion of other men, he seemed to make no fault, but led with the unerring confidence of one who bestrode a well-known road.

In Japan the guidance of the period of transition was no less masterful. Its course is particularly instructive, because Japan accepted the inevitable change and passed by the means of continuity into the new era directly from the ancient and highly developed agricultural civilization of the Far East. China, the parent of that civilization, did not show the prescience of her off-spring; her enforced entrance into the struggle has been accompanied by the disasters of those who enter without guidance. These misfortunes Japan escaped. It is advisable, therefore, to give particular attention to Japan in her period of transition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century she found herself powerless before, the "fireballs" of the west. She was exposed, almost helplessly, to acquisitive foreigners.

At this time of imminent crisis, she was blessed with statesmen of objectivity. One of them was outstanding, Hirobumi Ito, born in 1841. When but a youth Ito was profoundly impressed by the miraculous superiority of the western guns over the Japanese weapons. To leave the home country was then a crime punishable with death. In 1863 Ito and four friends, at the risk of their lives, escaped from the homeland and eventually reached London, there and thence to study the monstrous strength of the west.

Three years after his return to Japan, Ito persuaded the Elder Statesmen or Genro, to take the first step in the great venture of transition. It was one of almost immaculate vision. They endowed the national venture, to which they were committed, with the consecrated strength of religion. But it was no new and untried religion to which they looked, no new values, such as inspired the western revolutions. The Japanese statesmen drew from the deepest wells of the national faith.

The Mikados had in the long past been the actual and spiritual heads of the people. It was they who gave sanctity to the reality of rulership. But for seven centuries, the actual power had been in the hands of the imperial viceroys or Shoguns; the Mikados had been shadow-kings confined to a mystic, spiritual, and ceremonial office. Ito and his associates abolished the Shogunate and restored the reality of sovereignty to the Mikado. The loyalty, which, from the most ancient times, the Japanese had shown to their Mikados, was no longer confined to the spiritual and ceremonial; it was made real; their obedience to the decrees of the Mikado or of ministers acting in his name in this critical time, when many decrees were necessary, became the obedience of the social and religious soul of the people.

Objectively it could be maintained that certain Mongol peoples long ago reached civilization, that is to say positive reciprocal relations between all grades of a people, to a degree which the western peoples have still failed to reach. They have lived century after century under the Confucian ethic and ceremonial, which permeated the relation of rulers to subjects and subjects to rulers, social ranks towards each other, and the mutual duties of the members of the large joint families. The spirit of reciprocal loyalties was one which prevented or modified any such separation as that of the higher castes in India, the privileged classes of the French before the revolution, or that of the upper and lower classes in other countries.

This religion of reciprocal loyalties, exhibited outwardly by ceremonious observances between upper and lower, and lower and upper, and inwardly by the impulse to right social action, was the religion which bound the Japanese together during the period of transition, the period of Ito. The Japanese acted as one family, not only in protecting their soil against the aggression of foreigners, not only in raising themselves with incredible rapidity to an equality in power with the modern nations, but also in humanizing the industrial means by which these objects could alone be achieved. "The utter unscrupulous character characteristic of the power of capital," as Mommsen termed it, was softened in a way that no other country displayed. In England at the time of the entry of industrialism, the creed of the time was frankly individualistic and, though the unscrupulous character of capital towards labour was not of the extreme brutality, which Mommsen describes of the Roman capital, yet it was such as still wrings the hearts of sympathetic Englishmen, when they read the descriptions of it in the official reports upon public health, factory conditions, and the employment of children, written at that time; even as they feel, when they read the conditions of the new Indian industrial labour in the Report of the Royal Commission on Labour in India of 1929 and in other documents, and realise that at the end of the industrial time-gap between England and India of less than a century, subjectivity has permitted similar scarcely less tragic conditions to arise in India.

Japanese labour has, on the whole, escaped from the sufferings of English and Indian labour. The family feeling, upon which Japan's national religion was based, softened the relations between capital and labour, and effected what only Bismarck was able to effect in Europe. To this day in Japan the same feeling prevails, as an account in The Times, in May 1936, testified. It was headed "Factory Life in Japan. Paternalism as a Principle. The Girl Workers." It told of the unexpected visit of The Times' Tokyo Correspondent to a spinning mill, which had not previously been visited by any foreigners.

Nearly a thousand girls were employed. They were on contracts for two years, and were recruited from the farms by agents employed by the industry. They were housed in rooms of exquisite cleanliness; they had good food; they had tennis courts, a playing field, flowers, a clear atmosphere free from smoke. The day began with a religious service; on the day of the visit with an address by an old gentleman on "Mutual Love." On other days the manager himself addressed the girls and read to them out of a book based on the Buddhist scriptures: "He who is master of his mind is happy even if he has nothing ... Rely on your mind, it is the only thing upon which you can ultimately depend. Cultivate your mind and a way will be open to you." The girls, on their part, promised to be diligent in duty, kind to one another, and faithful subjects of the Mikado. After the service all bowed respectfully in the direction of the Imperial Palace. They then changed into working clothes and streamed into the factory.

"The idea is paternalism," are the words of the writer. "It seeks to convince the workers that the company takes care of them, physically, mentally, and morally, and it inspires the feeling that they are part of an organism which has a claim upon their loyalty ... Thus the Japanese industrialists study the moral means of success as carefully as its material machinery."

It was this realisation of the influence that a national religion could have upon the period of transition, which made the first step of Ito and his colleagues one of almost immaculate vision.

In 1882, Ito was sent to Europe upon an imperial mission to study the various forms of constitutional government, in order that one might be framed for Japan. After a profound study, he selected the constitution devised by Bismarck for the new German Empire, both because of its success and because its parliamentary chambers, representing the new, were subordinate to the traditional national authority, the emperor and his ministers.

In his constitution, Ito began by confirming the Mikado as the supreme head of the State and the embodiment of it as one people. Dependent upon the Mikado and upon him only were his ministers, the Genro or elder statesmen. Then came the Houses of Parliament.

Modern features were inevitable as a part of the new constitution. The lower parliamentary chamber was largely and characteristically composed of the vocal urban or bourgeois elements, lawyers, doctors and professional politicians, who made themselves conspicuous in opposition to the Genro and the landed aristocracy, and publicly claimed the monopoly of progressive patriotism and the capacity to rule the people as the people desired. But the spirit of their loyalty was not broken, and in private they admitted that the Genro were necessary to the safe governance of the realm. They, therefore, did not provoke open revolution. The great transition from the old oriental agricultural civilization to the modern passed swiftly almost without bloodshed.

In the 37th Bulletin of Indian Industries and Labour, 1926, the average daily number of operatives employed in factories is given as about 500,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century and about three times as many at the end of its first quarter. The numbers compared to the total population are small. They show that India has only stepped over the threshold of industrialism. Nevertheless, the personnel of those concerned with the Reforms was overwhelmingly urban in character. The Statutory Commission was almost exclusively composed of men who represented the latest political urbanism; the First Round Table Conference had twenty two lawyers, twelve urban business men, seven zemindars [landowners] and no ryots; the Franchise Committee possessed, it is said, but one real agrarian amongst its eighteen members; the Commission upon Labour none; the Third Round Table Conference was similarly quite unrepresentative of the overwhelmingly agricultural character of the great peninsula. Subjectivity has led to governments which are preponderatingly urban in character. Reformed India is India under the ascendancy of the town.

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. British and Native Systems of Government in India
2. Conflicting Dominant Ideas
3. The First Agricultural Path
4. The Second Agricultural Path
5. The Degradation of the Peasants
6. The Ascendancy of the Town
7. The Degradation of the Soil
8. The Village System
9. The Restoration of the Peasants

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