An Introduction to Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State (1912)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                            15 November 2018

Saint Albert the Great (d. 1280)


“The Reformers and the Reformed are alike making for the Servile State—I propose [therefore] in this [8th] section to show how the three interests which between them account for nearly the whole of the forces making for social change in modern England [as of 1912-1913] are all necessarily drifting towards the servile state….

“These three interests are, first, the socialist, who is the theoretical reformer working along the line of least resistance; secondly, the ‘practical man,’ who as a ‘practical’ reformer depends on his shortness of sight, and is therefore today a powerful factor….while the third is that proletarian mass for which the change is being effected, and on whom it is being imposed….

The second factor [, moreover,] in the change [i.e., both in the proposed and in the actually operating reforms in England] is the ‘practical man’; and this fool, on account of his great numbers and determining influence in the details of legislation, must be carefully examined….

“It is not difficult to discern that the practical man in social reform is exactly the same animal as the practical man in every other department of human energy, and [he] may be discovered suffering from the same twin disabilities which stamp the practical man wherever found: these twin disabilities are an inability to define his own first principles and an inability to follow the consequences proceeding from his own action. Both these disabilities proceed from one simple and deplorable form of impotence, the inability to think.

Let us help the practical man in his weakness and do a little thinking for him.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (London & Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1912, 1913), Section Eight—pp. 121, 130-131—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added.)


“[Donec…] nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus…. (“[Until we have reached such a point now that….] “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies.” (Titi Vivi: Ab Urbe Condita by Livy, the Roman Historian, from his own Preface to his multi-volumed Histories) (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 2.)


“If we do not restore the Institution of Property, we cannot escape restoring the Institution of Slavery; there is no third course.” (Hilaire Belloc’s own terse Epigraph to The Servile State—my emphasis added)


When The Servile State was first published in 1912, Hilaire Belloc was forty-two years of age and full of energy, due in part to his largely robust and astonishingly varied experiences over his formative years. His own 1912 book, moreover, at once prompted such a range of intelligent and unintelligent commentary—to include some grave misunderstandings—that Belloc in fairness decided to publish a second edition in 1913, only one year later, which contains his important, articulate expansion, by way of a new, nine-page Preface, simply called “Preface to [the] Second Edition.”

Our wholehearted and manfully compassionate author was attentive throughout his life and his writings—at least those I have come to know rather thoroughly down the years—to the always consequential combination of “Insecurity and Insufficiency,” which constitutes a challenging and an abiding vulnerability for any human being, and for his dependents in society. Throughout The Servile State, Hilaire Belloc especially considers and quite vividly shows to us the recurrent “economic factor” and how men and their families, whether organized or not, cope with insecurity and insufficiency; and, obversely, how they also strive to attain to and preserve a modest consolation, one which, with more stability, combines a more reliable continuity of “security and sufficiency.”

In Hilaire Belloc’s first main chapter on “Definitions,” he tells us what he means by a servile state or a servile status and basis:

My last definition concerns the Servile State itself, and since the idea is both somewhat novel and also the subject of this book, I will not only establish but expand its definition.

The definition of the Servile State is as follows:–

That arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individuals [so] as to stamp the whole community with the mark [i.e., with the character and the status] of such labour we call THE SERVILE STATE.’…

A clear boundary exists between the servile and non-servile condition of labour, and the conditions upon either side of that boundary utterly differ one from the other. Where there is compulsion applicable by positive law to men of a certain status, and such compulsion enforced in the last resort by the powers at the disposal of the State, there is the institution of Slavery; and if that institution be sufficiently expanded the whole State may be said to repose upon a servile basis, and is a Servile State. (italics in the original)

G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc’s intimate long-standing friend, has some unexpected insights that will further help us approach the content and methods of The Servile State and to understand, a little better, what it is not. In his 1934 book of essays, entitled Avowals and Denials, Chesterton has composed a six-page essay “On Dogs with Bad Names,” which begins and then continues like this—in part so as to render, as well, a very gracious tribute to Hilaire Belloc:

A negative disadvantage attaches to almost any man who has a positive character or, what commonly goes with it and is even more important, positive convictions. A literary man, for instance, who has strong likes and dislikes, in the style of Dr. Johnson or [William] Cobbett or Coventry Patmore [the Poet], becomes so much more of a proverb or a joke that nobody can believe there is anything new to be learnt about him. Anything new that he does say is coloured, or rather discoloured, either by what people know he has said or by what people think he would say….

But, curiously enough, in the course of this [an attempted interpretation of H.G. Wells], Mr. Shaw [George Bernard Shaw, himself a committed Socialist and a trenchant Dramatist] had occasion to refer to Mr. Belloc, and said that the theory of the Servile State was only Herbert Spencer’s attack on Socialism. From which it was obvious that Mr. Shaw never read Mr. Belloc’s book on the Servile State, or he would have known that it is not an attack on Socialism, and that it has not the remotest resemblance to Herbert Spencer. But, just as Mr. Wells took it for granted that Mr. Shaw would write certain [erroneous] things about the Superman, so Mr. Shaw took it for granted that Mr. Belloc would write certain things about the Servile State….This curious, crooked doom, on strong characters with strong convictions, has pursued Mr. Belloc also in later times, [for example,] in connexion with his historical biographies.1

Hilaire Belloc, though it was largely unrecognized by George Bernard Shaw, has presented to us in a fresh—but realistic– way the long-standing, ancient history of the institution of slavery and of its protracted forms of servility, along with some of their later implications, to include, as of 1912, its drifting—or a sleepwalking–into servitude and some subtle and spreading forms of bondage (to include debt bondage); and it was just before the precarious outbreak of World War I.

But, Belloc makes no denunciation of Socialism or Collectivism, as such. Nor does he consider in his book whether the implantation of servility is, without any qualification, good or bad in itself. For, many persons may well accept certain forms of openly or subtly coercive servility if they (and their families) would thereby have more security and a greater sufficiency or perceived abundance. Rather, Belloc is proposing to show us analytically what is happening and how it is happening since the effective sixteenth-century looting in the monastic breakups and the greedy usurious dispossessions of other forms of Church property within “Christendom,” in “Catholic Civilisation” (Belloc’s own words).

Belloc also gives hints as to why—in the course of the Protestant reformations, especially in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—traditional Catholic Christendom became fractured and dissociated, and thus why the new Capitalist Overlords became a powerful class of oligarchs and plutocrats.

For those who may have preferred Socialism (along with the necessary operation of its indispensable Political Trustees and State Administrators), Belloc tried to convince them that, even collectively, they were not sufficiently able—directly or indirectly—to “confiscate” and “socialize” the inordinate cumulative wealth of the Big Capitalists (their land, stores, equipment-instruments, owed debt, varied finances along with usury, and the like). Nor does Belloc think that the State—to include a more “Collectivist State”—would be able “to buy out the Capitalists,” instead of “expropriating” them, as Belloc’s separate and extensive, analytical Appendix (in his Section VIII) proposes to show us, more fully.

After his giving us a principled description of how the ancient institution of slavery was, with the advent of Christianity, very gradually transformed over the years into a society (especially in Western Europe) of much greater “economic freedom,” not just as a putative increase of “political freedom,” Belloc then more explicitly shows us their changing forms of service and ownership, and the manifold increase of many co-operative associations (such as the protective and fair standard-setting array of Guilds), with their various and often seasonal connections with the Church. In contrast with later usurpations, confiscations, and the unaccountable monopolies or oligopolies and depleting forms of merciless usury (even for a non-productive loan, not just towards a productive loan), the high moral standards and ethos of Christendom (e.g., against inordinate greed and against unfair competition, as in the “leonine contracts”) were to become more respected and rooted, and they were gradually to spread in commerce and agriculture and the skilled crafts, as was also the case, somewhat, even with the military in the gradual Christianization of Warfare—until the retrograde story of Joan of Arc. Belloc considered that the fullest good fruits of Christendom were to be found to be gradually manifested from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.

After presenting his account of the growing and more rooted economic virtues of Christendom, as it were, he later shows us in his book why such a civilization and culture would likely not come again in the Modern World, and certainly not in any rapid manner or hasty way. Belloc was also doubtful that citizens today (as of 1913) would even want to bear the various burdens and responsibilities of private (and small) ownership. Belloc wondered about the extent to which men and their families would still want to possess private property in land and for its productive agricultural uses and capital equipment. Therefore, he quite realistically expects that—at least in England—Modern Civilization and the mass of society would continue to drift into servitude, especially into the more permanent and permeating Servile State. Even the Legislature (Parliament) would promulgate laws and stifling regulations which would not favor small ownership.

A keen-minded (often slightly ironic) European friend of mine memorably said to me back in the late 1990s: “We are moving to a situation where there will be ‘Criminal Capitalism for the Elites and Socialism for the Masses.’” (He also saw that “organized crime is protected crime, protected by political and financial elites.”)

We then also proceeded to discuss a colleague and friend of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and especially his friend’s books: namely Igor Shafarevich’s book, entitled (in English) The Socialist Phenomenon (1980), which was more revealingly entitled–in the original Russian—Socialism as a Manifestation of World History (1975). Furthermore, the mathematician Shafarevich’s deeply searching and uncommonly candid 1989 book in Russian, entitled Russophobia, was promptly translated into English by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and published by them on 22 March 1990. (JPRS-UPA-90-1990: pages 2-39—“Nationality Issues”—to include the phenomenon of “Jewish Nationalism”)

Belloc’s The Servile State and Shafarevich’s The Socialist Phenomenon and Russophobia could both be—and should be—fruitfully studied together and refreshingly counterpointed, which would also help restore the writings of the gifted Catholic historian, Augustin Cochin, who, as a young man, was to be killed in combat in 1916 on the battlefield in France in World War I. Cochin—often quoted by Shafarevich—had already brilliantly analyzed in his several learned books, not only the French Revolution, but also, especially, the nature and influential operations of oligarchs and the decisively formative networks of oligarchies (which sometimes includes influential plutocrats). He also knew of the frequent “civil wars” among certain sets of oligarchs, such as between the Girondins and the Jacobins, and within the Capitalists of High Finance, who were themselves, and significantly, not openly mentioned by Karl Marx in his own strategic and analytical writings. However, these civil wars within the Revolution are still ongoing against the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church, and even against a diminishing remnant of what was once called Catholic Culture and Civilization.

As we in conclusion again consider the far-sightedness of Hilaire Belloc—and the abiding truths of his objective analyses—we realize that, in 1912, he saw the Catholic Church (with Pope Pius X in leadership) as a strong and deeply rooted Cultural Institution, and more. Were he writing today, however, he would likely be more reticent and cautious and even pessimistic about that once fortifying bulwark, the Catholic Church.

Were he writing today, he would also likely include an analytic section on the nature and servile effects of modern technologies—to include some “breakthrough technologies” and modern forms of our “electronic servitude.”

Belloc would also likely refer to two clear-minded and far-sighted American thinkers who flourished in the twentieth century: Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) and James Burnham (1905-1987).

If Belloc had read and robustly discussed Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) in person, he would have likely also applied three fundamental socio-economic laws in the way Nock himself had so deftly applied them to many, not just to economic, aspects of human life and literature: namely, the Law of Diminishing Returns; Thomas Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”—i.e., good, sound money); and Epstein’s Law (named after Nock’s friend): “the inherent tendency of human beings to satisfy their wants through the easiest means available,” and even with the dubious propensity and decision “to try to get something for nothing” and “with minimum impact on themselves” (in the words of Major General Mickey Finn).

Belloc would also have wanted to read and have discussions with James Burnham, a strategic-minded, lucid thinker and writer—a former Trotskyite who, near the end of his life, returned to his earlier-abandoned Catholic Faith. We would then have especially discussed James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (1964) and The War We Are In (1967). Belloc might also have wanted to examine with Burnham his own profound understanding of the growing “Managerial Revolution” as an equivocal development of Industrial Capitalism and its derivative, stifling bureaucratic and political society and civilization.

With such men Belloc would have had a recurrent feast. Such men, for sure, would have greatly enriched each other’s thought and conduct. Belloc never forgot Cardinal Henry E. Manning’s words to him in his youth: “Truth confirms truth” and “All human conflict is ultimately theological.”

In his own recurrent and searching Catholic reflections down the years, Hilaire Belloc might often likely have posed Livy’s own profound question. Have we come now to such a point where “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies(“nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus”)?

Just think of how Belloc would consider the growing problem of “opioids.”

What, if anything, will first need to be sufficiently restored? What, for example, are the preconditions to be established before our achieving a stable institution of well-divided, small property in society and the State?

In The Servile State, Belloc recurrently articulates as well as implies that, throughout civilisation and culture, there must first be a more secure and sufficient restoration of the Faith.


© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

This essay has been written in the form of a book-preface to a recently published German translation of Belloc’s 1912 book by Renovamen Verlag.

1G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1934), pp. 85, 88-89—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original. The essay “On Dogs with Bad Names” (Chapter XV) is to be found in its entirety on pp. 85-90.

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