God Save Our Old Nobility

The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War

by Arno J. Mayer
Pantheon Books, 368 pp., $16.95

F.W. Maitland spoke of history as “a seamless web” and lesser historians bow to Maitland’s authority. As a matter of practical convenience however history is usually divided into separate areas and periods. Europe-oriented historians chop their subject into three chunks—ancient, medieval, and modern. We can forget about antiquity, which was obliterated by the barbarians and the Dark Ages. Each of the succeeding ages has had its special characteristics. The Middle Ages had feudalism, a hierarchic order of society, with nobles at one end, serfs at the other, and land the principal source of wealth. Modern times have capitalism, a free-enterprise society with capitalists at one end, wage earners at the other, and industry the principal source of wealth. Feudal society was static, capitalist society fluid. Feudalism and Catholicism went together; capitalism bred a variety of religions and then turned to science instead.

Capitalism grew out of feudalism in some undefined way. Historians differ widely on when this happened. The Christian Reformation of the sixteenth century has been identified with the rise of capitalism. Oliver Cromwell has been singled out as the first capitalist ruler of England. Elsewhere capitalism had to wait for the French Revolution of 1789 or even for the European revolutions of 1848. Some societies lagged still further behind—Japan, for instance, until the later nineteenth century. One thing is certain: the change from feudalism to capitalism took place. This change was taken for granted rather than demonstrated. Most historians regard progress, that is perpetual improvement, as a law of nature. Capitalism was an improvement on feudalism; therefore it happened. Marx and his followers embraced this doctrine with special zeal, for since communism was in their eyes an improvement on capitalism, it will inevitably succeed in its turn. The survival of the fittest applied in society as well as in nature. Capitalism was fitter than feudalism; communism will be fitter than capitalism. This is what made the wheels of history go round.

Nearly all historians share this outlook except of course for the communist moral at the end. We all think that feudalism is dead. We all think that capitalism prevails. A little uneasy about the word “capitalism” as too narrow and technical, we do better with the French bourgeoisie or even take refuge with the English term, middle class. We may be a little slipshod with our definitions but we know what we mean. Bourgeois or middle-class society has freedom of expression, equality before the law, and constitutional if not democratic government. Reason or at any rate rationality is its guiding principle. Its motive force is the pursuit of wealth. This was the system under which our forebears flourished a hundred years ago. It is the system under which we flourish now with a slight skid over the currency. Any antiquated institution or outlook is dismissed as “feudal.” But no one takes this seriously. It is merely the equivalent of describing your next-door neighbor as a “barbarian.”

Now the Princeton historian Arno Mayer appears …

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