I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

William Morrisfootnote1

‘Look! There are mountains on the moon!’ exclaimed Brecht’s Galileo to a group of theologians as he invited them to look through his newly invented telescope. But they never dared to check the overwhelming evidence, which would have forced them to revolutionize how they and all their contemporaries understood the nature of the universe. During the last few years, the equally historic events surrounding the collapse of the Communist regimes have made it necessary for the whole of humanity radically to change its conception of the twentieth century. An understanding of this epochal phenomenon requires a quite new conceptualization of twentieth-century revolutions. For, whatever may be said now, every protagonist and detractor of these revolutions, every observer, critic and supporter, was convinced that they really were what the first of them proclaimed itself to be: the way out of and beyond the capitalist regime.

This old conception has left everyone in a theoretical blind alley. Those who think we are living through the final victory of capitalism over its successor are forced into the unlikely conclusion that history has come to an end. But nor is the task easy for those who consider these momentous processes to be only a setback in the transition begun earlier this century toward the overcoming of capitalism; they have to come up with ‘explanations’ utterly alien to the historical method, or else refuse to look through the telescope. And that is not to count those who simply stop believing.

There is no way out of the paradox that the processes initiated by this century’s socialist revolutions eventually speeded up the transition to capitalism—not, that is, if we remain within the theoretical space defined by the concepts we have used up to now. To solve the dilemma, then, we need to broaden that theoretical space by adding a new conceptual dimension.

It may be useful to start from the hypothesis that the epoch of the twentieth century has been no different in character from that of the nineteenth century: that is, that right up to today we have been living through the period of transition from the old agrarian, aristocratic society to capitalist modernity. In this view of things, the revolutions of the twentieth century have not been anti-capitalist (despite the wishes or programmes of their protagonists and the fears of some of their enemies) but rather the same as the revolutions of the last century.

This hypothesis makes it possible: a) to understand our fin-de-siècle historical processes in their unity with, but also as a break from, the earlier processes of revolution and transformation in the same countries; b) to claim that those revolutionary processes were progressive and ultimately successful, even though they culminated not as they said they would but, curiously enough, in the opposite way; and c), most important, to clear the theoretical ground for the struggle really to overcome capitalism. If we review some of what is known about older societies and transitions, we will see that this looks like quite a reasonable idea.

History seems to show that ‘it is merely in the night of our ignorance that all alien shapes take on the same hue’.footnote2 Slave societies took on forms as different as the Athenian (where slaves were the individual property of their masters) and the Spartan (where they were the collective property of the citizenry). Lordship—a concept used by historians to refer to the modes of production that arose between slavery and capitalism on various continents—reflects in its very ambiguity the multiplicity of forms ranging from Aztec to Chinese lordship, as well as the still rudimentary state of our knowledge. Feudalism is the term usually employed for the dominant mode of production in Europe and Japan between roughly the fifth and the nineteenth century—the form of lordship that has been most extensively studied. But feudalism itself presents a number of distinct forms and stages, in respect of which the development of various regions has been centuries out of step. Thus, in the history of Europe, feudalism stretches for nearly fifteen centuries through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Absolutism.