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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 and tells us that feudalism is alive and well and living in most European countries, or was until the First World War or even after it. Mayer has an admirable reputation for challenging established belief. Some years ago he tried to persuade us that the Bolshevik peril, not the German peril, dominated the peace conference at Paris in 1919. Now he is after bigger game, nothing less than a sweeping revision of European history over the last two or three hundred years. His present book is very much in the nature of a sighting shot, a work of interpretation rather than of original research, designed to provoke new ways of looking at European history. This is Marxism stood on its head, a Marxism that shows the survival of the old class, not the coming victory of a new one.

By the old class or old regime, Mayer means the titled aristocracy and the hereditary monarchy that goes along with it. This may seem obvious when you come to think of it. Everyone knows that all European countries except France and Switzerland had monarchs and aristocrats until after the First World War, and France had played with one monarchy or another until 1870. But most people assume that the function of both was purely decorative—monarchs to provide shows for the populace, aristocrats to keep up the game of titles so that the new rich could be rewarded. Mayer insists that the old regime had still much life in it. This, too, is not altogether surprising. In the three eastern empires—Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia—the monarchs and the aristocracy still had much political power, though only the Russian tsar was absolute, at any rate until 1905. Here Mayer takes a more novel line. The old regime, he argues, had the economic as well as the political power. Aristocrats, not capitalists, were the really rich. Even in England dukes were wealthier than capitalists until after the First World War.

In Mayer’s view full capitalism was long in reaching maturity. Capitalism grasped power when it began to produce capital goods, iron and steel and all that came with these. In the nineteenth century capitalism was still content to produce consumer goods, especially textiles, which did not bring power along with them and did not even lead to great individual accumulations of wealth. Capitalism in its earlier phases was concerned literally with manufacture, that is goods made by hands not by machines. Mayer follows this with an even more telling argument. Industry, he says, was not the main source of either wealth or power. The decisive factor was the private ownership of land and this was almost a monopoly of the aristocracy until the twentieth century. He recites the gigantic fortunes of every aristocracy in Europe from England to Russia. Monarchs were not left out. Kaiser William II was proud to describe himself as “the greatest landowner in Germany.” Nicholas II was content to enter himself as “landowner” in the Russian census of 1897.

All this is unanswerable but it is incomplete. No doubt the landowners were the richest section of the community in most countries but the bulk of their wealth did not come from agricultural land. It came from the profits of the capitalist system. In England urban ground rents were the greatest single source of aristocratic wealth, as the famous case of the Duke of West-minster, still the richest man in England, serves to demonstrate. In the nineteenth century coal royalties counted perhaps even more. A wealthy aristocrat could then be defined as a landowner sitting on coal. Much the same applied to the magnates of Silesia. Railways provide a further example. The building of railways brought fortunes to those over whose land they passed. All the same, the railways were created by capitalist investors and engineers, and the aristocrats would have been lost without them. At first glance the European aristocrats were a feudal survival. More precisely considered they were parasites on the capitalist system. Capitalists created the wealth; the aristocrats merely took it.

However this is only the beginning. Mayer goes on to demonstrate that the aristocrats had most of the political power as well as most of the wealth. This seems true enough of the three eastern empires. Imperial Germany drew all its chancellors except Caprivi from the aristocracy, though I think Bülow was not much more than a jumped-up bureaucrat. Most of the Austrian prime ministers were aristocrats though some of them came from “the second society,” which was not really the same thing. In Russia it was more important to be an imperial official than a great aristocrat but the two classes were often synonymous.

Mayer runs into difficulties when he comes to France. After all France had a great revolution in 1789 which abolished hereditary privilege for good and all. No doubt there was a spluttering restoration in 1814. It did not last. After 1870 and still more after 1877 France was indisputably a bourgeois republic. There was no monarch. The aristocracy did not rule though it provided many of the ambassadors (not all by any means—the two Cambons were promoted civil servants, Barrère had been a Communard). The French aristocrats enriched the volumes of Marcel Proust’s novel but their distinguishing feature in that work is that they played no part in political life except perhaps during the Dreyfus Affair. Mayer triumphantly recites the names of some great survivors: the duc de la Rouchefoucauld-Doudedeauville, the comte de la Rochefoucauld, Baron de Graffenried, the marquis d’Albon, Vicomte Aguado, the prince de Beauvau, Baron Gourgaud, the marquis de Talhouet, the duc d’Audiffret-Pasquier, and the marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat. These are not men of political stature. They sound rather like an array of rich cream cakes.

England is the most difficult case of all. To outward apearance it was a capitalist country and had been since the eighteenth century. All the same the aristocracy came in for much more than its fair share of power. Indeed one can apply to the British political system generally the description John Bright gave of British foreign policy—“a gigantic system of out-relief for the British aristocracy.” Admittedly the British aristocracy obtained many of the official posts and supplied most of the prime ministers until the twentieth century. Mayer implies that England had to wait until Asquith, himself much given to aristocratic society, for a prime minister from outside the charmed circle. This is pushing things too far. What about Sir Robert Peel, a great landowner no doubt but proud to describe himself as “the cotton-spinner’s son”? What about Disraeli, a fashionable novelist who only became a landowner by borrowing money from his aristocratic friends? And Gladstone, son of a Liverpool merchant, was certainly no aristocrat despite his taste for aristocratic society.

The truth is that in England there was a compromise between the two upper orders of society. The wealthy middle class sent their sons to Eton and took on some upper-class habits. The upper class worked the political system as it had been devised under middle-class and even lower-class pressure. The Whigs carried the great Reform Bill of 1832 but it might not have been carried without out the Bristol riots. The marquis of Salisbury, a great aristocrat, was as effective as Gladstone as a speaker at mass meetings. Incidentally Salisbury owed his wealth and, it is said, his brains to the fact that his ancestor had married the daughter of a Liverpool merchant earlier in the century. The earl of Derby was known as the “uncrowned King of Lancashire” not merely because of his ground rents but because of his political skill. Radicals may rail against this compromise but it has gone on until the present day. Lloyd George became an earl, even if reluctantly. Trade union leaders still accept peerages and sit resplendently in the House of Lords.

This is not such a startling discovery as Mayer makes out. Engels remarked long ago that “society became more and more bourgeois while the political order remained feudal.” Throughout the nineteenth century one section after another of the bourgeoisie moved into alliance with the aristocracy. This was not necessarily a symbol of weakness. Rather it was a snobbery that came from strength. A successful capitalist who commissioned a feudal castle as his home was not succumbing to the aristocracy; he was demonstrating that he was as great and powerful as it was. Mayer makes great play with the fact that great public buildings—town halls, parliaments, museums—were built as Gothic cathedrals or as classical temples. This, Mayer says, was a wily attempt by the aristocrats to evoke or even to restore the distant times in which they really had been supreme. On the contrary it was a demonstration by the members of the bourgeoisie that the past now belonged to themselves more than to the aristocracy. Capitalism, too, claimed its feudal grandeur. The railway terminus of St. Pancras Station celebrated a capitalist triumph even though it ranks among the grandest Gothic buildings in England—“c’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la Gare,” as the Empress Eugénie is alleged to have said.

The monarchs still displayed their grandeur in imperial palaces. But examine the living rooms in these palaces as we often can do nowadays and what do we see? Rooms indistinguishable in their furniture, taste, and living conditions from those of any wealthy bourgeois. The resplendent ceremonies, the uniforms, the social ritual were fancy dress. Mayer insists that the feudal survivors resisted all modern art from the impressionists onward as a matter of urgent self-preservation. But the bulk of the bourgeoisie took exactly the same line. When Albert, the Prince Consort, advised Sir Robert Peel to buy Italian primitives, the cotton-spinner’s son replied, “I do not think we should collect curiosities.” The members of the bourgeoisie saw themselves not as the inferiors of the aristocracy but as its inheritors, and it is well known that an heir is usually anxious to get his forebear out of the way.

Once started on the path of cultural history, Mayer sets off more briskly than ever. A substantial chapter is devoted to Darwin and Nietzsche, characters not at first glance to be associated with feudalism. Mayer knows better. The central principle of Darwinism was natural selection and this operated by the survival of the fittest. Aristocracy, or at any rate its advocates, had no difficulty in identifying with the fittest elements in society. Nietzsche wrote with contempt of the many and extolled the few who would ultimately produce the superman, once more propaganda for monarchs and aristocrats. It is odd that Marx should have admired Darwin and Shaw have admired Nietzsche, Or perhaps not all that odd. Both Marx and Shaw were elitists in their different ways, and thought themselves the fittest and the supermen of the future. Certainly the run-of-the-mill king or aristocrat looked very unlike Nietzsche’s superman or even Shaw’s. This chapter is rather a letdown after the serious and original analysis earlier, but cultural history has an irresistible appeal once you start on it.

The final chapter goes back to Mayer’s earlier theme with considerable brilliance. For he has solved the problem that has puzzled historians for so long—what caused the First World War? Not nationalism, it seems, not imperialism, not capitalist rivalry, but the survival of the feudal order. Monarchs and aristocrats felt that their doom was at hand unless they took some violent action. They apprehended that war, too, might bring this doom. As Moltke, the German chief of staff, said, the war he had planned “would destroy the culture of all Europe for decades to come.” Nevertheless the panic-stricken rulers of Europe were prepared to take the risk. In Mayer’s words:

Under the aegis of the scepter and the miter, the old elites, unrestrained by the bourgeoisie, systematically prepared their drive for retrogression, to be executed with what they considered irresistible armies. They, the horsemen of the apocalypse, were ready to crash into the past not only with swords and cavalry charges but also with the artillery and railroads of the modern world that besieged them.

Not only emperors and nobles followed this disastrous course. Such civilized gentlemen as Asquith and Sir Edward Grey also took part. Disaster duly followed but apparently with some consolation at the end. “It would take the two World Wars and the Holocaust, or the Thirty Years’ War of the twentieth century, to finally dislodge and exorcise the feudal and aristocratic presumption from Europe’s civil and political societies.”

I wonder.

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