If we were to study the literature of some unknown country and were to discover that all the characters were described as possessing three legs and as preferring the happiness of the uncles to every other consideration, we should be decidedly interested: but if, on subsequently visiting the country in question, we found the inhabitants bipeds like any others, and their feelings towards their uncles quite normal and unimpassioned, our interest would be changed to bewilderment. It would seem to us incredible that a sane people should read vast masses of fiction which showed them as possessing qualities and feelings which they could not help knowing that they never had possessed, and should praise it for so misrepresenting them. We should simply consider those who tolerated such books stark mad. Yet we should but be looking at our own situation as it would appear to an intelligent Martian visiting this extraordinary planet. Take any normal English novel at random, and you will find that it misrepresents life nor merely incidentally, but as systematically as if it assumed that men had three legs. The actions of its characters proceed unvaryingly on certain fixed axioms about human nature, of which no man can live in the world for ten days without discovering the entire falsehood. And yet those who read these novels seem never for an instant to feel the incongruity, though they know perfectly well that these axioms are nonsense, and would generally no more think of acting upon them, or expecting anyone else to act upon them, than they would think of flying. Let me take an obvious example. There is no subject so constantly dealt with in novels as love. How do they treat of it? In nine-tenths of them it is tacitly or explicitly assumed that a man’s whole future invariably depends on whether his love for a particular woman is returned or no. If it is, he lives happily ever after; if it is not, his life is lasted for all time. Yet those who read such tragedies and weep copiously over them would be puzzled to find one single example in real life where an unsuccessful love affair had meant more than about six month’s depression to the sufferer.Published in The New York Times on Dec. 12, 1903 as taken from The Outlook
Monday, September 3, 2007
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
A Plea For Literary Popery: Concerning Him Whose Name and Faith Were Papal and Who Attained Papal Authority in the Domain of Letters
It has often been remarked as a queer coincidence that Alexander Pope was by profession a Papist. But this is only the beginning of the historical punning that can be made upon his name. For while in private he accepted Papal authority, in faith and morals, in public he was, in the latter part of his life and for nearly a hundred years after his death, invested with almost Papal authority in the domain of letters. That authority was broken by the great outburst of Romanticism in English poetry which marked the close of the eighteenth century, the true author of which was, perhaps, Rousseau. Since the overwhelming triumph of that Reformation, the name of Pope has hardly been mentioned in literary criticism except with a veiled sneer or, at best, a “damning with faint praise” such as he himself complained of in
It is the continual plea of Bossuet and Newman and other defenders of authority in matters of religion that while the reformer or heretic might seem at first sight nobler, more full of conviction and enthusiasm, more humane and of more prophetic quality than the Church he was attacking, you must await developments before judging of the quarrel, you must wait till this heresy has worked itself out, and watch the frantic credulities, and more frantic incredulities, the welter of mad sects and the denial of necessary things, which are the ultimate fruit of the gospel that looked so pure and persuasive. Whether such an argument be sound or unsound I am not concerned here to inquire, but I am very sure that it has its analogy in literature. And just as in the anarchy of modern speculation many just and clear minds have turned once more to the Pope of Rome so in the anarchy of modern art such minds will turn increasingly to Mr. Pope of Twickenham. And when this happens a very great poet will be rediscovered for the admiration of men.
For Pope was a great poet. His own generation and those immediately succeeding it may have overrated him, but this is by no means so certain as that the nineteenth century has culpably underrated him. To speak of him, as a little while ago it was the custom to speak of him, as a cold formalist is simply to write yourself down insensible to the grand style. Read some of the speeches in his “Homer.” I am not here concerned with whether they are good renderings of Homer; I say that they are magnificent poetry, full of life and energy. Read, above all, his invectives. Read the “Atticus.” You may call it cold, if you like. But I’d bet my boots that
It is quite true that, after Pope, English poetry began to freeze into too narrow a traditionalism. It is emphatically not true that that age produced no poetry of the highest rank. If it had only produced Gray it would have only produced enough for one century. It also produced Goldsmith, whom the criticism of what may be called the Shelleyan era has abominably neglected. Even Dr. Johnson has not, since the literary revolution, received his fair due for the one or two really great things he achieved in poetry- the description of Charles XII, for instance, in “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Still, it is broadly true that English poetry was at a low ebb when Wordsworth and his companions began to write, and for the galaxy of great men who heralded the new age there are no words that do not minimize.
Nevertheless, among these very men there was one- and he among the greatest-who saw the danger. He threw his whole power into the effort to avert it: he failed, and he ahs paid for his failure in the comparative neglect of half a century. But the event has proved him right. The poetry of the age did want reinvigorating by the inspiration of stronger passion, by the freer expression of individuality, and by a closer contact with nature. Byron saw all this, and no one was better qualified than he to supply what was needed. He had, to use the vigorous metaphor of another writer, more fire in the belly than all the Lake School put together; and at vivid natural description there is, I think, no English poet (except perhaps Tennyson) to touch him. But Byron saw something else. As there was a point at which he withdrew from Shelley in politics, so there was a point at which he withdrew from him in aesthetics. He saw that Shelley’s aesthetics and Shelley’s’ politics would ultimately mean anarchy, and he was a republican, not an Anarchist. The event has justified him on both points.
The matter may be put thus: It is true, I think, that Shelley was a greater poet than Pope. It may be true- though it is not quite the same thing- that it is more difficult to write like Shelley than to write like Pope. But it is certainly immeasurably easier to pretend to write like Shelley than to pretend to write like Pope. And Byron had the vision to foresee a whole world of men pretending to write like Shelley, or to be more Shelleyan than Shelley. That is, he foresaw our time.
Romanticism is a splendid thing. It is impossible not to sympathize with its vigor and even with its anarchy in the inspiration of its first youth. But a stale anarchy is the most intolerable thing in the world, and it is a stale anarchy that we see all around us in the intellectual world today. In philosophy the clear and lucid rationalism of men like Huxley has given place to a thing called Pragmatism, which, as far as I can make head or tail of its babble of meaningless phrases, seems to deny to men altogether the use of their reason. “Bears,” said Burke “are not philosophers,” but bears are excellent Pragmatists. In painting, the very genuine cleverness and insight of Whistler have given place to a school of “artists” who impudently parade the sort of thing a baby would paint after a long, wet day, when it was tired of “drawing things” and found it a pleasant recreation to mix up all the colors in a paint box. In poetry, we find people producing “Canzoni,” or some such stuff, the two qualifications of which are that it shall neither scan nor mean anything.
We have seen the end of the great romantic revolt, and we necessarily look at it with different eyes from those of the men who saw only its beginning. And as we watch in bewilderment the crashing fall of al the traditions that are the defense not of art only, but of sanity, there sounds suddenly in our ears a ringing voice- a voice that we had forgotten for nearly a hundred years- foretelling the end.
She comes! she comes! the sable throne behold
Of Night primeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea's strain,
The sickening stars fade off the ethereal plain;
As Argus' eyes by Hermes' wand oppressed,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is night.
See sulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heaped o'er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defense,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.
Who will deny that the man who wrote those lines was a poet? Who will deny that he was also something of a prophet?
From the New York Times
Monday, August 27, 2007
Romance and Realism: The Exaggeration in Romances the Result of the Great Romanticists’ Frantic Desire to Capture All Types
When I was a boy the literary world was convulsed be a controversy as to whether literature ought to be realistic; and the two writers always chosen as types of the Realist were Zola and Ibsen. Being in the most voracious stage of youthful curiosity, I read them both, or, rather, I read Ibsen, and as much of Zola as I could get through. I will not pretend that there was nothing that I enjoy in Zola, but it was not a type of enjoyment which I feel particularly proud to remember, or on which I care to dwell in this place. Even this kind of gratification was so diluted be the mountainous dullness of all that was not offensive in his books that I preferred to obtain it where I could get it in smaller compass and to some extent disinfected by fun. Small and cackling and unworthy, as such fun usually was, there was yet something in it that recalled the great cleansing wind of laughter that blows from the turrets of Theleme. There was no breath of this in Zola: his work reminded me only of a stretch of soft mud diversified by a few dead dogs and decaying vegetables- as depressing as it was noxious.
Ibsen was another matter altogether. Ibsen was a great genius; and I read him with a delight of which I have no reason to feel ashamed. But it puzzled me then, and it puzzles me now, what people can possibly have meant by calling him a realist. Of course no art can really be realistic in the sense of copying life. But if ever there was a great artist who defiantly flung away al decent pretenses of such copying, that artist was Ibsen. Assuredly the most reckless writer of melodrama that ever made his hero leap over Niagara on horseback, or his villainess coerce his heroine be threatening to cut out portions of her brain, would never have dared to present the public with such a plot as that of “The Lady from the sea” or “The Master Builder” as a probable story of contemporary middle-class life. Nor can it be said that such fantasies are the blots on Ibsen’s art; they are the triumphs of his art. Cut them out, cut out the wild Duck and the Rat Wife, the frantic imaginings of Ellida, and the black cloud of supernatural doom that broods over Borkman and you have plays like “The Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler”- plays saved from stupidity only by that perfect stagecraft, the sense of which was sure and unfalling instinct with Ibsen as it was with Shakespeare. Cut out everything else- especially everything that the Ibsenites used to praise in him- and you have “Peter Gynt,” his unapproachable and unforgettable masterpiece.
It always seemed pretty clear, and it seems clearer still now that the dust of it has settled, that the parties to rather futile controversy of which I have spoken attached no clear or defining meaning to the word “Realist.” A man was so-called sometimes because he dealt with topics generally excluded from literature, which is a mere matter of local and temporal custom: sometimes because he took a rather gloomy view of the life he described, which is a matter of temperament or philosophy: sometimes because he was rather dull, which is a matter of taste. Let us see if we cannot draw some broad lien of artistic cleavage which may separate the Realist from the- Romanticist- or whatever you like to call his antithesis.
It is clear that you cannot distinguish them by saying that the Realist draws on his observations and the romanticist on his imagination. The Realist who put down all that he had observed, exactly as he had observed it, would be unreadable, and the Romanticist, whose imagination bore no relation to anything that he or anyone else had observed, would be unintelligible. We have examples on both sides approximating nearly enough to these two extremes to enable us to form some estimate of their appalling nature. But all good artistic work consists in the application of invention, selection, and arrangement to the raw material of observation.
Nevertheless it seems to me that a real distinction is possible which you may call a distinction between Realism and Romance if you like, though it is not a good name for it.
Take, at the one extreme, Jane Austen. That remarkable young woman applied a perfectly astounding acuteness of observation and the most delicate powers of character-draughtmanship, criticism, and humor to the painting of a particular kind of life that she had herself experienced. She did not, of course, “transcribe life:” she was an artist. She selected, arranged, invented. But she gave us in the end what convinces us as a very exact picture of a tiny section of English society in the dawn of the nineteenth century. Beyond that section she never wandered. There is not, so far as I remember, a single character of the smallest importance in any of her novels that does not enjoy the income of an ordinary member of the professional classes. And the very wealthy are almost as completely left out as the populace. The years during which Jane Austen was writing were the very years during which the English aristocracy was enjoying that last great riot of extravagance that we call the Regency. But that riot leaves her work as untouched as does the riot of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. It is hardly possible to convince one’s self that some of the naval officers of whom she wrote must actually have served under Nelson. It is almost as difficult to recall the fact that the
Now in Jane Austen this limitation of subject is association with a temperament and talent peculiarly quiet, critical, and averse to sensationalism. But that association is not of the essence of her artistic method. That method can be and has been used by men passionately romantic, lovers of the startling and even incredible. Mr. Kipling, for example, fills his Indian tales with portents and catastrophes, madmen who see blind faces in their dreams, lepers who turn men into beasts by witchcraft. Yet his method is, at root, Jane Austen’s method. He takes a slice of life that he knows and paints it, paints it perhaps with violence and exaggeration, but paints it in such a way that for the moment we believe it. Whenever Mr. Kipling has tried to work in any other fashion I think he has failed.
Now, just as the temper and the taste of the writer may be altered without fundamentally changing the method, so may the range of the writer’s observations. Thackeray, for example, had a far wider range than Jane Austen. He presents his readers with social types as far apart as Lord Kew and Capt. Costigan. But it is still the description from the inside of social circles with which the artist was familiar. Thackeray describes more than Jane Austen because he knows more. But he is still describing the life he knows best.
If this method be called Realism, then Realism as full possession of Anglo-American fiction to-day. From Mr. Henry James’s studies of rich Americans to Mr. Zangwill’s studies of poor Jews, from the epigrammatic novel of the smart set to the pessimistic novel of the mean street, practically all the fiction that is now being produced is an attempt, successful or unsuccessful, to describe some particular word.
So much is this that it may be difficult to make modern people realize that a totally different kind of novel once existed in
This kind of novel begins with a man going out into the street and shutting his door. It may not actually begin that way, but that is the essence of it. A man does not come in to tell us about his world. A man goes out to see the world- the varieties of human experience- and tells us about them as he comes across them. The difference does not lie in the relation of the narrative to observation. No novels give one a sharper impression of having been based on transfigured experiences than those of Dickens- except, perhaps, those of Fielding, who belongs to the same school. The wanderer is as much an observer as the inhabitant, perhaps more so; though he observes different things.
Nevertheless the second type of novelist will always give, as compared with the first, a certain impression of extravagance and exaggeration: and that for the very good reason that it is the exaggeration and extravagance that strikes the attention of the wanderer as a mountain or a high tower strikes the attention of a man surveying a vast landscape. He strays through section after section of society, picking up here a preposterous peer, there a preposterous plumber. These people exist all right-not of course in the exact shape into which the creative imagination of the artist transforms them- but the fantastic Dickens character, the incredible dickens remark are there for those who have eyes to see and ears o hear. A man did say to a friend of mine whom he met for the first time and on a purely business footing: “All my family are so inferior to me.” These things happen. But it requires the Dickens eye and the Dickens ear to catch them: and in the eagerness they trouble not to catch anything else, but hurry on to the next impossible fact.
For instance, Jane Austen describes in her novels a number of clergymen, and one of them is an absurd clergyman. In that there is nothing extravagant: Jane Austen would naturally have met absurd clergymen in her social circle. But Dickens, looking in at the window, so to speak, would have culled Mr. Collins like a flower of spring, and, neglecting the many comparatively sensible clergymen whom Jane Austen so carefully and accurately characterized, would have gone on along the open road in search of an absurd rat-catcher.
That is the whole difference. You may call it the difference between Realism and Romance. You may call it the difference between Intensive and Extensive Fiction. I would rather cal the second the Novel of the
I am not saying that this form of art is of its nature better or greater than the other. Both have their great names and their well-earned immortalities. But I say that of these two kinds of fiction we have forgotten one, and that in consequence we misunderstand its masterpieces.
It will return.
From the New York Times
Thursday, August 23, 2007
All free men feel that the only tolerable condition of Government is Democracy. No such man will tolerate the compulsory direction of his actions by any temporal authority save the general will of his fellow-citizens. This great truism I shall assume as the foundation of all that I have to say in this essay. With those who do not feel its truth, with those who regard a Hereditary Aristocracy or merely the Rich or Experts or Men in Advance of their Age as the proper repositories of political power I shall not here argue. I will argue with them when they have answered the plain question of the Jesuit Suarez, "If sovereignty is not in the People, where is it?"
Democracy, then, we assume as the fundamental condition of the state of society which we desire to create; but it is of vital importance to have in our minds a clear and unalterable idea of what Democracy means. Democracy means Government by the General Will. That is to say, it means that such laws as the mass of the population approves are passed and enforced, while such laws as are obnoxious to the mass of the population are rejected. It is clear that this has on the face of it nothing to do with special devices such as representation, by which modern men have attempted to achieve the end of Democracy. Despotic institutions, hereditary rulers, and representative bodies must alike be judged from the democratic standpoint by whether they do or do not result in a system of Government which accords with the general will of the people. Democracy, considered in this sense, is not a new thing (as our Moderns suppose), but just about the oldest thing in the world. In what Mr. Wells has christened "The Normal Social Life" practical Democracy has always prevailed in the matters which most deeply affect the ordinary existence of the common man. Now and then, no doubt, a far-off ruler not chosen by him might force the common man to take part in a war which was not of his making. Taxes not levied with his consent would occasionally be imposed upon him. But in the matters that concern his daily life, in his sowing and reaping, in his buying and selling, in his marrying, in the bearing and upbringing of his children, in his religion, and in all other things for which such a man normally cares, his actions would be regulated by the customs of his tribe or commune, and any disputes would be settled by a council of his neighbors. That is to say, these matters would be settled by the general will. He would be living, whether he knew it or not, under the conditions of Democracy.
Now in this, as in other matters, what we must seek to effect is a return to what is wholesome and natural to Man in the Normal Social Life while availing ourselves of the advantages which a more elaborate system of society affords us. We must seek under the conditions imposed by the growth of larger States and the consequent necessity of a more extensive political organisation to obtain that which is obtained so easily in a simple society by the meeting of villagers under a tree. The matter is the more urgent because so long as our system of government remains essentially undemocratic every step in the direction of Collectivism will be a step away from Democracy. It is no use denying that the "permeation" of our politicians and others with what are called "Socialist" ideas has tended, up to the present, rather to diminish than to increase the power of the General Will. Not only have measures directed towards the regimentation of the poor and tending, not to Collectivism, but to the
Now it is clear that the success of this experiment depends essentially upon the exact correspondence between the actions of the delegate and the wishes of those from whom his authority is derived. I say this is clear to any one who has attempted to think out the problem of representation. It is apparently by no means clear to a great many writers in the press or to a great many speakers on political platforms. These people are forever drawing an entirely meaningless distinction between "a Delegate" and what they call "a Representative." What this distinction means I have never been able to conceive. A man must vote either according to the wishes of his constituents or against those wishes. If he does the former he is acting as a faithful delegate would act. If he does the latter, he is neither a delegate nor a representative. He is an Oligarch. For how can we say that a man "represents" Slocum when he is in the habit of saying "Aye" where the inhabitants of Slocum would, if consulted, say "No"?
Now it is pretty obvious to most of us that, in
at the cheapest restaurants.
Nothing could be more absurd than the present practice in England, the practice, I mean, of rewarding success in politics with salaries varying from £ i, 200 to £10,000 a year, and then pretending that these sums are of no account at all to the persons who receive them. Such a practice directly tends to produce corruption of the worst kind. A Professional Politician may be, like a Professional House-Agent, a perfectly honest man—that is, he may endeavour to give in return for his salary honest and efficient service to the State. But we all know what would happen if it were a general assumption, which it was "in bad taste" to challenge, that House- Agents were entirely indifferent to their fees and were actuated solely by compassion for persons whofound themselves for the moment homeless and by a desire to see them adequately housed. Such a general assumption would be used by really dishonest house-agents to cover their offences, while the honest house-agent, working, no doubt, for money but fairly earning it, would find himself handicapped. And that is exactly the condition of English Politics to-day. Politics in
“It happened to Lord Lundy then,
As happens to so many men,
About the age of twenty-six
They shoved him into Politics.
In which profession he commanded
The salaries his rank demanded."
This is on the whole the most harmless and least corrupt kind of professionalism in politics. Such men are apprenticed to politics as a profession (that is, as a means of making money) just as men of humbler rank are apprenticed to be Solicitors, Greengrocers, or Compositors, because their parents happen to be able to command for them an opening in these trades. Such men, if they happen to be honest men, often try to do their best to earn their money by serving the community to the best of their ability. This method of choosing governors is repugnant to Democracy, but is not clearly reignant to plain morals or to the national interest. is the method by which all oligarchical States are governed. It was the method by which
One necessity stands out manifest and incontrovertible. If politics are to be an Profession, the profession of Executive Administrator must be kept strictly separate from the profession of Delegate to the Legislature. If this is not so, the Legislature can never in the nature of things be really independent of the Executive, and can, therefore, never really act as an effective check upon it. Every member of the Legislature body will be on the lookout for the more profitable administrative posts. These posts will of necessity be in the gift of the Executive. They will necessarily be bestowed upon those of whose conduct the Executive approves. The Executive will naturally approve of the conduct of those who do not oppose or even criticise it. Therefore there will be (as in fact there is to-day) an immense pressure upon members of the Representative Body not to act in a representative fashion, but rather to use all the power and influence they possess to support, not those who have elected them, but those from whom they expect benefits.
It is obvious that in any state of society some one or other must be intrusted with the business of practical executive administration. It is equally obvious that no man can reasonably be expected to take on such a task as a mere hobby. He must be paid for it; it must be his means of livelihood, in a word, his profession. To that there is, in the abstract, no more objection than there is to the profession of Doctor, House-Agent, or Butcher, provided always that the employer of such a man— i.e., the Community—has as full a control over him as a man has over the tradesmen he employs. A butcher does not supply you with such meat as he may think will suit your health or personal efficiency, but with such meat as you demand. So long as the expert administrator confines himself to endeavouring to satisfy his clients as the butcher does and makes no pretence to an authority superior to that of his clients, he is harmless and may be exceedingly useful. It is impossible to deny that the details of administration in a modern state are so complex that the sheer routine work of administration does, and must, involve a degree of special knowledge to which the ordinary citizen cannot and would not choose to attain. So does the trade of a bootmaker. I cannot make a pair of boots. I have to ask a bootmaker to make them for me. But—and this is the essential point—I am the judge of the pair of boots when made: if they do not fit me I reject them and dismiss my bootmaker. I am in no way deterred from following this course by the assurance that the bootmaker is "an expert" or that he is "more advanced" than I, or by any other of the pretences by which oligarchy is being once more foisted upon the people.
The great problem, then, is that of the control of the necessary professional administrator by the General Will. It is, I admit, an exceedingly difficult problem, and for the present I can see no solution save the old expedient of a representative assembly- defective as I know that expedient to be. I have often wondered whether some one would not one day hit upon a method of extending to general politics the much more really democratic method of the Common Jury. I have often had a fancy, for example, for a Second Chamber constituted upon that principle—a name chosen by lot from the voting list of every constituency, attendance to be compulsory, and a reasonable and equal remuneration to be granted to every person compelled to attend. I am quite confident that such a chamber would represent the General Will a great deal better than either the House of Lords or the House of Commons has1 done in the past, and would make very short work (to the great satisfaction of the mass of the population) of much legislation that has passed with ease and with "the consent of all parties" through our present Parliament.
But I do not pretend to have any such scheme ready for practical advocacy; and so for the present we must rest content with the representative system, doing, at the same time, all that we can to prevent its abuse, to mitigate its inevitable failings, and, above all, to keep it continually controlled by the direct expression of the General Will. Let us first draw as clear a distinction as we can between the inevitable defects of representation and the accidental evils to which it does make it quite intolerable in this country. Take the latter first.
Their constituents can deprive them of their salaries; the "Government" cannot. On the lowest motive, therefore, it will be better for them to please those who elect them than those whom they are elected to control. What, then, will become of "the Ministry"? It will disappear. The professional head of a department—strictly excluded from the assembly—will remain. The popular assembly elected to control that permanent head will remain. Probably the assembly will find it convenient to divide itself into Committees for this purpose, though such Committees should have no more than investigatory and advisory powers. The decision must rest with the assembly itself. But the "Minister"—that is, the Professional Politician who has entered Parliament by pretending to represent some body of electors and has consented for a salary not to represent them, but to represent instead the Caucus that pays him— for him the new Democracy will have no use. But when you have liberated the Representative Assembly from the control of that little group of Professional Politicians which is commonly called "The Government," but which I have always preferred to designate more accurately as "The Two Front Benches," you have not, therefore, necessarily made it really responsible to the people. That is, you have not achieved Democracy. It must be insisted upon again that, though the present political regime in
Against this peril the only real security is a vigilant and instructed popular opinion. With such an opinion always goes an extreme distrust of the representative, a feeling that he will always cheat you if he can, and a determination that he shall not be allowed to do so. Walt Whitman saw very far indeed into the truth when he set down as one of the conditions of his ideal State that the people should be "always ready to rise up against the never-ending audacity of Elected Persons." The chief change needed, then, is, it must be admitted, a change in the popular psychology. Nevertheless, there are changes in machinery which would be the necessary accompaniments of such a change, and which may do a great deal to make it easier. And here I come to methods which the peculiar independence of the several States of the
Of course, it would not do to give the coal-miners, for example, irresponsible control of the coal-fields. The coal-fields must be national property; on that we agree. But I do not see why all details of management, such matters as the hours of labour, provision against accident, and the like, should not be settled directly by the organised workers concerned. If such powers were vested in these Guilds, you would start with the immense advantage, from the democratic point of view, of an electing body accustomed to debate, to decisive action, and to the control of its own affairs, which would be able to thrash out the instructions to be given to its delegate, and to send him to the representative assembly with a real mandate derived from themselves. Incidentally it should be remarked that such an infusion of reality into the operations of the electoral unit would go far to meet such cases as that of the United States, where the evils arise, not from the oligarchical control of a small clique, but rather from the omnipotence of a political Machine subject to no real popular control. And a further check upon the development of a two-party system in which there is no wider alternative than the chances of two candidates may, perhaps, be found in some such method of voting as Proportional Representation affords. Of course it is essential that the control of the Electing Body over the delegates should be absolute. Two checks on their action would greatly help to accomplish this. The first check is the Recall. Not only should elections be reasonably frequent, but a certain proportion of the Electors should at any time have the right to demand a general poll on the question of whether the delegate was or was not carrying out the mandate of his constituents. Should the vote go against him, the delegate would have to resign, and another would be elected in his place. The mere threat of this action would probably be enough in most cases to prevent the delegate from shamelessly and continually violating his trust, as is so often done to-day.
The second check is the Referendum accompanied by the Initiative. How powerful a weapon even under the present degrading political conditions is the popular plebiscite may be perceived by noting the horror with which the Professional Politicians regard it, and the panic which seized them when one of their own number was imprudent enough to mention it a couple of years ago. But for the Referendum to be a really effective democratic weapon it must be capable of being put into force, not merely on the initiative of the legislature itself or on any section of it, but on the initiative of a fixed proportion of the Electors. Indeed, for my part, I am disposed to think that under the freer political system such as I have sketched no substantial alteration of the laws should be passed without a direct appeal to the popular will. To those who are incapable of looking beyond the corruptions and futilities of modern politics such a pronouncement will doubtless seem absurd. But we are presupposing that those corruptions and futilities are at an end; and when they are at an end there will be no need whatsoever for all this plethora of legislation which we have come to think of as something inevitable. When one comes to consider it in the abstract it is really rather absurd that a nation should have to keep some six hundred men busy for nine months in the year at the interminable task of continually altering its laws. If just laws can once be established, it is reasonable to suppose that for some considerable time at any rate they will prove adequate Doubtless from time to time some unforeseen change in economic or other conditions may necessitate modifications, but I do not look forward in the Great State to the unending legislation of our own time—a legislation which owes its necessity at best to the need for patching up a system in process of active decay, and at worst to the requirements of the Party "Programme" and, what is much more important, the Party War Chest No doubt the change from the present basis of society to a juster and healthier one will mean a good deal of drastic law-making—and I suspect a good deal of law-breaking also—but, once the change accomplished, I should expect a vital alteration of the laws under which citizens are to live to be almost as rare a thing in the State of the Future as it was in the settled and happy communities of the past. Such are a few of the comparatively rough and crude suggestions that I would make for the democratic organisation of the State of the future.
They pretend to be nothing more than an outline, and even as an outline they will doubtless require much modification. Every democrat must feel a certain disinclination to lay down hard-and-fast conditions for the future, if only for this reason, that, if his democratic faith be genuine, he desires that the people should have, not the form of government he likes, but the form of government they themselves like. That is what has always made me dislike answering detailed questions as to how this or that would be done "under Socialism." I may have thought of a very ingenious answer, but it does not follow that it is the answer that my fellow-citizens will give. And it is for them, not for me, to pronounce the ultimate decision. Securus judicat orbis terrarum.
From the book "Socialism and the Great State" published in 1912 by Harper & Brothers
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Cecil Chesterton's and Hilaire Belloc's classic 1911 expose "The Party System" will be available from IHS on September 1 with a foreword by Presidential Candidate Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX)
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Oh people bespitten and rifled
Of the fruits that were gone by toil
Have revenge upon those who have trifled
With you, come down to your spoil
Ye are firm in your faith that we scoff at
Ye are strong in your hope that we scorn
While our angels are cast into Tophet
Our creed is outworn
Ye have conquered the night of your longing,
Ye have conquered and shown yourself brave,
Ye have risen in multitudes thronging
When we though you pressed down to the grave.
The hands of Christ’s people shall stab us,
Support his pale godhead who can.
O Caiaphas, Annas, Barabbas,
Behold ye the man
The hands of the lord may quicken
New creeds, but one thing shall be sure,
When the God of the Christians is stricken,
The God of the Jew shall endure.
When Christ shall be dead as Apollo,
Buried in aeons in mouldering sod,
The children of Jacob shall follow
The children of God.
The above poem was written by Chesterton in pencil on lined school book paper during his schooling at
Because for once the sword broke in her hand,
The words she spoke seemed perished for a space;
All wrong was brazen, and in every land
The tyrants walked abroad with naked face.
The waters turned to blood, as rose the Star
Of evil Fate denying all release.
The rulers smote, the feeble crying "War!"
The usurers robbed, the naked crying "Peace!"
And her own feet were caught in nets of gold,
And her own soul profaned by sects that squirm,
And little men climbed her high seats and sold
Her honour to the vulture and the worm.
And she seemed broken and they thought her dead,
The Overmen, so brave against the weak.
Has your last word of sophistry been said,
O cult of slaves? Then it is hers to speak.
Clear the slow mists from her half-darkened eyes,
As slow mists parted over Valmy fell,
As once again her hands in high surprise
Take hold upon the battlements of Hell.