Guide The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England

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This article is also available for rental through DeepDyve. View Metrics. Email alerts New issue alert. Advance article alerts. Article activity alert. Receive exclusive offers and updates from Oxford Academic. Related articles in Google Scholar. Citing articles via Google Scholar. John H. No, this idea cannot at all be fitted into the framework of our general picture of Britain. In Britain technique is at a very high level, and technique is decisive in human life. America, true, has outstripped Britain in the field of technique: the daughter of British culture has raced ahead of her mother along the line of technique.

Before the war Germany was rivalling Britain more and more sharply, threatening to outstrip and in certain branches of industry actually outstripping Britain. But today, after the defeat of Germany, Britain leads Europe economically, British science, literature and art have played and are playing a role of the first order in the development of human thought and human creative achievement.

For a contradiction stares us in the face: on the one hand, high technique, science, etc. What conclusion can be drawn? This conclusion. Development is contradictory. In certain spheres a country achieves tremendous successes, but it happens quite often that by these very successes that country holds back its own development in other spheres. Let me speak concretely about this matter. Britain was the first country to take the road of capitalist development and won, thanks to that fact, the hegemony of the world market in the nineteenth century.

The British bourgeoisie became, again thanks to this fact, the richest, strongest, and most enlightened of the bourgeoisies. These conditions enabled it, as we know, to create a privileged position for the upper strata of the British working class and thereby to blunt class antagonisms. The British working class is becoming conscious of itself as an independent class hostile to the bourgeoisie much more slowly than the working class of other countries with less powerful bourgeoisies.

Thus it turns out that the growth of the British bourgeoisie, the most advanced bourgeoisie in Europe, having taken place in exceptionally favourable conditions, has for a long time held back the development of the British proletariat. The revolutionary upheavals of the 17th century were profoundly forgotten. In this consists what is called the British tradition. Its basic feature is conservatism.

More than anything else the British bourgeoisie is proud that it has not destroyed old buildings and old beliefs, but has gradually adapted the old royal and noble castle to the requirements of the business firm. In this castle, in the corners of it, there were its. It made use of them to consecrate its own rule. And it laid down from above upon its proletariat the heavy lid of cultural conservatism. The British working class has developed quite differently from ours.

Our young proletariat was formed in a period of some 50 years, mainly from peasants and handicraftsmen who had lived in the countryside, along with their fathers and grandfathers, in ancient surroundings, in economic backwardness, amid ignorance and religious prejudices. Capital ruthlessly seized the peasant lad or youth by the scruff of the neck and at once flung him into the cauldron of factory life. The change in his conditions took place catastrophically. At that stage the revolutionary party caught up with him and began to explain to him what and where he was.

It gained ascendancy over him all the more easily because he had no conservative ideas: the old village notions did not fit at all; he needed a complete and radical change in his whole outlook on the world. With the British worker things went quite differently. His father and his grandfather were workers, and his great-grandfathers and remoter ancestors were small artisans.

The British worker has a family tree, he knows who his ancestors were, he has a family tradition. For him, the British worker, there was not this sudden, sharp, catastrophic transition from the closed little world of the village to modern industry; he has developed organically from his remote ancestors into gradually changing conditions of factory life and urban culture. In his mind there still to this day sit old, medieval craft ideas and prejudices, only modified in form and adapted to the conditions of capitalism. The life of the crafts and the craft festivals—celebration of the birth of a son, his entry into apprenticeship, graduation to the independent position of master-craftsman, and so on—were shot through and through with religiosity, and this religiosity passed over into trade unionism, which has a heavy conservative tail stretching back into the Middle Ages.

British technique is a fundamentally capitalist technique. It was not brought in from outside, destroying national economic forms, but has developed on the basis of these national forms. It must not be forgotten that human consciousness, taken on the scale of society, is fearfully conservative and slow-moving. Only idealists imagine that the world is moved forward through the free initiative of human thought. In actual fact the thought of society or of a class does not take a single step forward except when there is extreme need to do so.

Where it is at all possible, old familiar ideas are adapted to new facts. We speak frankly if we say that classes and peoples have hitherto not shown decisive initiative except when history has thrashed them with its heavy crop. Had things been different, would people have allowed the imperialist war to happen? After all, the war drew nearer under the eyes of everyone, like two trains hurtling towards each other along a single track. But the peoples remained silent, watched, waited and went on living their familiar, everyday, conservative lives.

The fearful upheavals of the imperialist war were needed for certain changes to be introduced into consciousness and into social life. The working people of Russia overthrew Romanov, drove out the bourgeoisie and took power. In Germany they got rid of Hohenzollern but stopped half-way … The war was needed for these changes to take place, the war with its tens of millions of dead, wounded and maimed … What a clear proof this is of how conservative and slow to move is human thought, how stubbornly it clings to the past, to everything that is known, familiar, ancestral—until the next blow of the scourge.

Such blows have occurred in Britain too, of course. Thus, after the rapid industrialization there developed in the second third of last century the stormy movement of the working class which is known as Chartism.

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But bourgeois society stood sufficiently firm and the Chartist movement came to nothing. The strength of the British bourgeoisie lay in its maturity, its wealth, its world power, the crumbs which it shared with the upper strata of the working class, thereby demoralizing also the weakened masses. Think over this process to the extent necessary to understand the profound difference from our development, which was extremely delayed and therefore extremely contradictory. Take our metalworking and coal-mining South: boundless expanses of steppe, thinly populated, steppe settlements with deep mud around them in spring and autumn … and suddenly huge metal-working enterprises arise in these steppes.

They did not, of course, develop out of our own economy but broke in upon us thanks to foreign capital. And there you had these fresh proletarians of the Donets Basin, of Krivoi Rog and so on, not bringing with them into the pits and the factories any hereditary traditions, any craft conservativism, any fixed and firm beliefs. On the contrary, it was in these new, unfamiliar and stem conditions that they only for the first time properly felt the need for firm beliefs, which would give them moral support.

To their aid came Social- Democracy, which taught them to break with all their old prejudices and so gave a revolutionary consciousness to this class which had been born in a revolutionary way. This, in broad outline, is the answer to the question which was put to me and which 1, in my turn, have set before you. It is possible to put the matter like this: the richer, stronger, mightier, cleverer, firmer a bourgeoisie has proved to be, the more it has succeeded in holding back the ideological and consequently the revolutionary development of the proletariat.

Here is another expression of the same idea. Let me interrupt myself to introduce a very interesting quotation from the British newspaper, the Sunday Times. But they are rapidly being thrust aside by the avowed revolutionaries, whose influence is increased every time the Government capitulates to them. How has this come about?


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In our country there have never been leaders who won such praise from the bourgeoisie, even if we bear in mind that at a certain period the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks played a considerable role, because our bourgeoisie -discounting the sharpest and most decisive moments, when things were at their most critical—was dissatisfied even with the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. It is due to the fact that the British bourgeoisie themselves have trained these leaders.

This was due to the circumstance that they were powerful and cultured, being the ruling class of an advanced capitalist country. Among us the average petty-bourgeois, the philistine, the member of the intelligentsia of liberal and even radical views, has considered from time immemorial that since Britain is a highly civilized country therefore everything which exists in Britain or which comes from Britain is superior, good, progressive, and so on.

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In this we see expressed the petty-bourgeois incapacity for thinking dialectically, analysing phenomena, grasping a problem in its historical concreteness. There is something which is really good, British technique, and that we are trying to transfer to our country in exchange for grain, timber and other valuable commodities. The British monarchy, hypocritical British conservatism, religiosity, servility, sanctimoniousness—all this is old rags, rubbish, the refuse of centuries which we have no need for whatsoever [applause].

If British culture has affected our average philistine in this way from afar off, by correspondence, so to speak, evoking in him a blind infatuation, how much more strongly, directly and concretely does it affect the British petty-bourgeois and the semi-petty bourgeois representative of the British working class. What the British bourgeoisie has been able to achieve is a sort of hypnotic fascination for its culture, its world-historical importance. The newcomer in this way finds himself in a bourgeois milieu.

They praise him to the skies if he nibbles at the bait, and they give him a good brushing the wrong way if he takes the slightest step against the bourgeoisie. And this does not just happen once, but day by day, week by week, and year in and year out. And the young leader going out into society begins to feel ashamed because his Sunday suit is not sufficiently well-cut; he dreams of a top-hat to wear when he goes out on a Sunday, so as not to be any different from a real.

And in this hypnosis of a way of life lies the art of a ruling class, a powerful, cultured, hypocritical, base, greedy class—an art which consists in exercising an everyday influence whereby to work upon and subject to itself everyone who comes forward from among the working class, everyone who stands a head taller than the others in every factory, in every ward and borough, in every town and throughout the country.

Probably a lot of you have seen The Times. It comes out ev6y day in dozens of pages of splendid fine print, with a variety of illustrations and an endless range of sections, so that everything has its place in the paper, from questions of high politics to all kinds of sport, and including the affairs of the churches and of the world of fashion.

And from what point of view is everything presented? Naturally, from the point of view of the interests of the bourgeoisie. This hypnosis is supplemented by direct terrorism. To belong to a church is in Britain the same as covering your nakedness with clothes, or paying what you owe in a shop. May one walk down the street naked?


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May one not belong to a church? To declare that one does not belong to a church, and still more than one does not believe in God, requires in Britain the same sort of extraordinary courage as to go naked in public.

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That is the reason, in the last analysis, why British Menshevism is so strong and communism weak. After our analysis we have no grounds for failing into the trap of such a mechanical presentation of the question. We say: it is at one and the same time a symptom of very early development and of great backwardness, because history operates not mechanically, but dialectically: it combines during long periods advanced tendencies in one sphere with monstrous backwardness in another. If you take the average philistine and say to him: Britain and Turkey—well, of course, Britain means civilization and progress, Turkey means backwardness and barbarism.

But see what is happening. There is now in Britain a government of Mensheviks and in Turkey a bourgeois-nationalist government. And this bourgeois-nationalist government of Turkey has found it necessary to abolish the Caliphate. The Caliphate is the central institution of Pan-Islamism, that is, one of the most reactionary trends in the entire world.

But the Menshevik government of Britain has re-established the Caliphate of Hejaz, in order to uphold the rule of the bourgeoisie over its Moslem slaves. Such is the dialectic of history! Of course, from the standpoint of the development of technique, science and art, Britain is immeasurably superior to Turkey. The accumulated wealth of Britain is beyond comparison with what Turkey possesses in this respect. There is no abstract yardstick applicable to all spheres of life. It is necessary to take living facts in their living, historical interaction. If we master this dialectical approach to the question, the latter becomes much clearer to us.

Germany, for example, is placed not by accident, as regards this question of the relationship between the forces of the Communist Party and of Social-Democracy, between Russia and Britain. This is to be understood by the course of development of capitalism in Germany. It is necessary, of course, to investigate concretely the history of each separate country, in order to discover more exactly the causes of the delayed or hastened growth of the Communist Party.

In a general way, however, we can draw the following conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat in countries which have entered the path of capitalism very late in the day, like our country, is easier than in countries with an extensive previous bourgeois history and a higher level of culture. But this is only one side of the matter. A second conclusion, no less important, states: socialist construction after the conquest of power will be easier in countries with a higher capitalist civilization than in countries which are economically backward like ours.

This means that for the British working class to break through to real proletarian power, to dictatorship, will be incomparably harder than it was for us. But once having broken through to power, it will advance to socialism much quicker and much more easily than ourselves. And it is even uncertain, history has spoken with a double tongue on this question, who will build socialism earlier, we or the British. Decades will be needed to transform our North and our South into a centralized socialist economy, based on a high level of technique, with our great expanses of territory still only thinly populated.

Such is the dialectic of history. Politics has held the British worker back, has for a long time, so to speak, hobbled him, and he is advancing with such timid, pitiful, MacDonaldite little steps. But when he frees himself from his political trammels, the British racehorse will outstrip our peasant nag. To generalize theoretically what I have said, in the Marxist terminology which is familiar to us, I should say that the question itself boils down to the inter-relation between the basis and the superstructure and to the inter-relation of bases and superstructures of different countries one with another.

We know that superstructures—state, law, politics, parties and so on—arise on an economic basis, are nourished and determined by this basis. Consequently, basis and superstructure have to correspond. And this happens in fact, only not simply but in a very complicated way. A powerful development of one superstructure the bourgeois state, bourgeois parties, bourgeois culture sometimes holds back for a long time the development of other superstructures the revolutionary proletarian party , but in the last analysis—in the last analysis, not immediately—the basis reveals itself nevertheless as the decisive force.

We have shown this by the example of Britain. If we approach the problem in a formal way, it may appear that the weakness of the British Communist Party contradicts the Marxist law of the relationship between basis and superstructure. But this is certainly not the case. Dialectically, the basis, as we have seen, will, in spite of everything, secure its victory. In other words: a high level of technique, even through the barrier of ultraconservative politics, will nevertheless manifest its preponderance and will lead to socialism sooner than in countries with a low level of technique.

That, comrades, is what I conceive the fundamental answer to be to the question which was put to me at Sokolniki. We have a strong suspicion that Mrs. We even suspect that Mr. Henderson puts this question to us not without irony, that is if irony can be at all compatible with piety. We confess that we are not acquainted with the Absolute Morality of the Popes, either of the Church or of the University, of the Vatican or of the P.

Morality is a function of living human society. There is nothing absolute in its character, for it changes with the progress of that society, and serves as an expression of the interests of its classes, and chiefly of the governing classes. Official morality is a bridle to restrain the oppressed. In the course of the struggle the working class has elaborated its own revolutionary morality, which began by dethroning God and all absolute standards.

But we understand by honesty a conformity of words and deeds before the working class, checked by the supreme end of the movement and of our struggle: the liberation of humanity through the social revolution. We hate or despise our enemies, according to their deserts; we beat them and deceive according to circumstances, and, even when we come to an understanding with them, we are not swept off our feet by a wave of forgiving love. But we firmly believe that one must not lie to the masses and that one must not deceive them with regard to the aims and methods of their own struggle.

The social revolution is entirely based upon the growth of proletarian consciousness and on the faith of the proletariat in its own strength and in the party which is leading it. One may play a double game with the enemies of the proletariat, but not with the proletariat itself. Our party has made mistakes, together with the masses which it was leading.

We have always quite openly acknowledged these mistakes to the masses, and, together with them we have made the necessary changes. What the devotees of legality are pleased to call demagogy is merely truth, too plainly and too loudly expressed. That, Mrs. Snowden, is our conception of honesty. We Russian Marxists, owing to the belated development of Russia, were not weighed down by a powerful bourgeois culture.

We became allied to European spiritual culture not through the medium of our miserable national bourgeoisie, but independently: we assimilated the most revolutionary conclusions of European experience and European thought, and developed them to their highest pitch.

This has given some advantages to our generation. Let us declare frankly: the sincere and profound enthusiasm with which we contemplate the products of the British genius in the most varied spheres of human creative endeavour, only the more sharply and pitilessly accentuates the sincere and profound contempt with which we regard the spiritual narrow-mindedness, the theoretical banality and the lack of revolutionary dignity, which characterize the authorized leaders of British socialism.

They are not the heralds of a new world; they are but the surviving relies of an old culture, which in their person expresses anxiety for its further fate. And the spiritual barrenness of these relics seems to be a sort of retribution for the profligate lavish past of bourgeois culture. The bourgeois mind has imbibed some of the great cultural achievements of mankind. Yet at the present time it is the chief obstacle to the development of human culture.

One of the leading virtues of our party, which makes it the mightiest lever of development of the epoch, consists of its complete and absolute independence of bourgeois public opinion. These words signify much more than they at first sight seem. They need to be explained. Particularly if we bear in mind such a thankless section of the audience as the Second International. Every revolutionary thought, even the simplest truth, must be nailed down here with extreme care.

Bourgeois public opinion is a close psychological web which envelops on all sides the tools and instruments of bourgeois violence, protecting them against any incidental shocks, as well as against the fatal revolutionary shock, which, however, in the last resort is inevitable. Active bourgeois public opinion is composed of two parts: first, of inherited views, actions, and prejudices which represent the fossilized experience of the past, a thick layer of irrational banality and useful stupidity; and second, of the intricate machinery and clever management necessary for the mobilization of patriotic feeling and moral indignation, of national enthusiasm, altruist sentiment, and other kinds of lies and deceptions.

Such is the general formula. But some explanatory examples are necessary. When in famine-stricken Russia, a Cadet lawyer, who with funds supplied by Britain or by France, helped in making a noose for the neck of the working class, dies of typhus in a prison, the wireless and cables of bourgeois public opinion produce a sufficiently great number of vibrations to arouse a wave of indignation in the receptive conscience of the collective Mrs.

It is quite obvious that all the devilish work of the capitalist wireless and cables would have been useless if the skull of the petty-bourgeois did not serve as a gramophone box. Let us take another instance: the famine on the Volga. In its present form of unprecedented calamity, this famine, at least half of it, is a result of the civil war raised on the Volga by the Czechoslovaks and Kolchak, that is by the Anglo-American and French capital which organised and sustained it.

This drought fell upon a soil that had been already exhausted and ruined, denuded of working cattle, machinery and other stock. We, on the other hand, have cast into gaol some officers and lawyers which we by no means hold up as an example of humanitarianism , and bourgeois Europe and America attempted then to picture the whole of Russia, with its hundred million inhabitants, as a vast hunger-prison. They encircled us with a wall of blockade, while their hired White Guard agents applied the bomb and torch to the destruction of our scanty supplies.

If there is anyone who handles the scales of pure morality, let him weigh up the severe measures that we are compelled to adopt in our life and death struggle against the whole world, against the calamities which world capitalism, in quest of unpaid interests on loans, showered upon the heads of the Volga mothers. Yet the machine of bourgeois public opinion works so systematically, and with such arrogant self-righteousness, the cretinism of the middle-class represents such a valuable gramophone box, that as a result, Mrs. Snowden pours her surplus human pity out upon … the poor down-trodden agents of imperialism in our land.

Reverence of bourgeois public opinion is a more impassable barrier to the activity of social reformers than even the bourgeois laws. Why have an outward policeman over Mr. MacDonald when there is an inward one within his soul? Here we must not shirk the question, the very mention of which is a menace to respectability. I speak of religion. It was not so very long ago that Lloyd George called the Church the central power station of all parties and currents, i. This is particularly true in reference to Britain.

Not in the sense, of course, that Lloyd George derives the real inspiration for his politics from religion, or that the hatred of Churchill for Soviet Russia is due to his burning desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or that the Notes of Lord Curzon are copied directly from the Sermon on the Mount. Oh no! The driving force of their politics are the very mundane interests of the bourgeoisie which put them in power. The legal restraint that has been put over men, over classes, and over society as a whole, as a sort of ideological whip, h merely the unadorned application of religious restraint—that heavenly whip which is held over the head of exploited humanity.

After all is said and done, it is a hopeless matter to impose upon an unemployed Dockers a faith in the sacredness of democratic legality by the force of formal arguments. The first essential thing here is material argument—a policeman with a heavy club on earth, and above him—the Supreme Policeman, armed with the thunder in Heaven. When speaking of the treasonous and betrayals of the social reformers, we by no means desire to assert that they are all, or a majority of them, merely bought. If so, they would never do for the serious role set to them by bourgeois society.

It is even unimportant to guess the extent to which the vanity of a middle-class man might feel flattered by becoming an MP in a loyal opposition, or even a member of the Imperial Cabinet, although there is a good deal of that sentiment, of course. Suffice it to say that the same bourgeois public opinion which in days of quietude permits them to be in the Opposition, at a decisive moment, when the life or death of bourgeois society is at stake, or at least its most important interests—in a war, a rebellion in Ireland or in India, the great coal lock-out, or the Soviet Republic in Russia -proved capable of forcing them to take the political position which was necessary to the capitalist order.

Without wishing in any way to attribute to the personality of Mr. Henderson any titanic features that it does not possess, we may confidently assume that Mr. For in the heads of the Hendersons the fundamental elements of bourgeois education and the fragmentary scraps of socialism are welded into one by the traditional cement of religion. The question of the economic emancipation of the British proletariat cannot be seriously put as long as the labour movement is not purged of such leaders, organizations, and moods, which are the embodiment of the timid, cringing, cowardly and base submission of the exploited to the public opinion of the exploiters.

The inward policeman must be cast out before the outward policeman can be overthrown. The protest of a number of the clergy of Great Britain against the preferment of charges against the former patriarch Tikhon, addressed to the Soviet Government, makes it necessary to give the following clarifications.

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Only some elements of the church, not numerous ones, the most privileged and debauched by their connection with the Tsarist aristocracy and with capital, constitute the group of the former Patriarch Tikhon. Public opinion in Russia will note the fact that the protecting British ecclesiastical hierarchy is identifying itself not with the hungry, toiling masses of Russia, not even with the majority of the priesthood, but with a numerically insignificant church hierarchy, which has always gone hand in hand with the tsars, the bureaucracy, the nobility, and has now entered upon an outright struggle against the regime of the workers and peasants.

The population of Russia has equally not heard of any protest by the Protestants against the attempt to strangle the toiling Russian people in the noose of usury. Draft of Soviet government reply to a protest by a number of British church leaders dated 3rd June and first published in Izvestia 8th June. The document is reproduced by kind permission of the International Institute for Social History. Many of you have probably seen them. This is the issue for just one day with 32 pages and the paper is printed in brevier and nonpareil. Today I asked a comrade to count up how much this would come to if transferred into our Pravda.

On six pages in Pravda , there are , printed characters, but here on 32 pages there are 2,, i. What a lot of lies that makes! You will ask: where do they find such an amount of material every day? Then comes a page devoted to the law report. In the courts we have a reflection both of our day-to-day life and our whole process of construction but an inverted reflection as it were. However, coverage of the courts is done badly in our press: we have neither enough space nor the necessary know-how.

Next, on two pages of The Times comes the sport—of every kind: who spilt whose blood at boxing; football takes up a huge space; and finally every vixen hunted by a lord will find its biography here. Next comes parliament, again in very small type, nonpareil, two pages, receiving about the same attention as football and boxing, then home affairs compact and packed in tightly.