I had a laugh with a friend the other day, wondering how many Labourists were there in the House of Lords of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. We ignorantly and naively supposed there was none. When we checked, we were stunned: the answer is 200 out of the Lords.
Of course, this is related with the “democratization” of ennoblement since the second half of the 20th century. For instance, Paul McCartney or Elton John were granted knighthoods based on their merits, not on their descent. But there’s more than that. Historically, there have been “authentic” peers with more than sympathies for the Left, some truly obsessed with it or outright Communists.
Also in the UK, even the Communist Party of Great Britain, disbanded in 1991 after the fall of the Iron Curtain, once had a representative in the House of Lords. His name was Wogan Philipps, 2nd Baron Milford, an aristocrat by birth. As a young man, he volunteered for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, before joining the Communist Party, an act that made his father exclude him for inheritance. His second wife was Cristina Casati, Viscountess Hastings, previously married with an Earl of Huntingdon; she was also a member of the CPGB.
In 1946, he was elected as a Communist councillor of an urban district, and in 1962, he inherited his father’s title and seat in the House of Lords. In his first speech in the House, he demanded its dissolution. In 1989, when he was 87, the (still) Soviet newspaper ‘Izvestia’ published a laudatory article about him, titled ‘The Comrade Lord’.
Let us remember that Petru Groza was a landlord, Piotr Kropotkin was a prince, and John Maynard Keynes was ennobled as a baron; and there are many other such examples.
What is the explanation? Of course, we can psychoanalyze biographically and conclude that extreme Leftist political options among aristocrats are just forms of rebellion against authoritarian fathers, accompanied by a sense of guilt for the inherited estate and privileges, not acquired by merit. But there is probably also a more deep historical and sociological reason.
Indeed, Communist noblemen do not rebel against their own class, but against the bourgeoisie and capitalism. Because their power in economy and society has been destroyed by capitalism and trade and free markets, not by socialism. The democratization in economy provided equal opportunities in society, making obsolete the nobiliary privileges inherited by birth. Aristocrats do not rebel against the bourgeois because these “exploit” the proletariat, but because the bourgeoisie has “usurped their power” with the invisible hand of the market.
In this contexts, it’s worth mentioning that although Marx asserted - in the first chapter of his ‘Communist Manifesto’, the inaugural pamphlet of his socialist movement - there is an irremediable conflict between classes, he could only illustrate this thesis with pre-capitalist examples.
In the Middle Ages, a family could be aristocratic and could own significant estate; a lineage of dukes, marquises, earls or barons could continue for hundreds of years, irrespective of the qualities, talents, character or morality within it.
But in modern capitalist conditions, there is a thing sociologist called “social mobility.” The active principle of this mobility, according to Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto, is the circulation of elites. It’s about the fact that at the top of the social ladder, people are rich and politically important, but these individuals in these positions - the elites - are constantly replaced.
So someone born a serf in the Middle Ages could not escape this status, and was in an irremediable conflict with his lord - a fact speculated by Marx, who made it the cornerstone of the socialist movement. But in a capitalist society, there is a permanent mobility - the poor get rich, and the descendants of rich lose their fortunes and get poor.
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