In this postmodern world, cultural conflicts are becoming more dangerous than any time in history. A new model of coexistence is needed, based on man’s transcending himself.
There are thinkers who claim that, if the modern age began with the discovery of America, it also ended in America. This is said to have occurred in the year 1969, when America sent the first men to the moon. From this historical moment, they say, a new age in the life of humanity can be dated.
I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going thorough a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.
Periods of history when values undergo a fundamental shift are certainly not unprecedented. This happened in the Hellenistic period, when from the ruins of the classical world the Middle Ages were gradually born. It happened during the Renaissance, which opened the way to the modern era. The distinguishing features of such transitional periods are a mixing and blending of cultures and a plurality or parallelism of intellectual and spiritual worlds. These are periods when all consistent value systems collapse, when cultures distant in time and space are discovered or rediscovered. They are periods when there is a tendency to quote, to imitate, and to amplify, rather than to state with authority or integrate. New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements.
Today, this state of mind or of the human world is called postmodernism. For me, a symbol of that state is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel’s back. I am not ridiculing this, nor am I shedding an intellectual tear over the commercial expansion of the West that destroys alien cultures. I see it rather as a typical expression of this multicultural era, a signal that an amalgamation of cultures is taking place. I see it as proof that something is happening, something is being born, that we are in a phase when one age is succeeding another, when everything is possible. Yes, everything is possible, because our civilization does not have its own unified style, its own spirit, its own aesthetic.
Science and Modern Civilization
This is related to the crisis, or to the transformation, of science as the basis of the modern conception of the world.
The dizzying development of this science, with its unconditional faith in objective reality and its complete dependency on general and rationally knowable laws, led to the birth of modern technological civilization. It is the first civilization in the history of the human race that spans the entire globe and firmly binds together all human societies, submitting them to a common global destiny. It was this science that enabled man, for the first time, to see Earth from space with his own eyes; that is, to see it as another star in the sky.
At the same time, however, the relationship to the world that the modern science fostered and shaped now appears to have exhausted its potential. It is increasingly clear that, strangely, the relationship is missing something. It fails to connect with the most intrinsic nature of reality and with natural human experience. It is now more of a source of disintegration and doubt than a source of integration and meaning. It produces what amounts to a state of schizophrenia: Man as an observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being.
Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality. And the more dogmatically science treated it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became. Today, for instance, we may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet, it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us. The same thing is true of nature and of ourselves. The more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure, and the biochemical reactions that take place within them are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose, and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique “self”.
And thus today we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We enjoy all the achievements of modern civilization that have made our physical existence on this earth easier so in many important ways. Yet we do not know exactly what to do with ourselves, where to turn. The world of our experiences seems chaotic, disconnected, confusing. There appear to be no integrating forces, no unified meaning, no true inner understanding of phenomena in our experience of the world. Experts can explain anything in the objective world to us, yet we understand our own lives less and less. In short, we live in the postmodern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.
When Nothing is Certain
This state of affairs has its social and political consequences. The single planetary civilization to which we all belong confronts us with global challenges. We stand helpless before them because our civilization has essentially globalized only the surfaces of our lives. But our inner self continues to have a life of its own. And the fewer answers the era of rational knowledge provides to the basic questions of human Being, the more deeply it would seem that people, behind its back as it were, cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe. Because of this, individual cultures, increasingly lumped together by contemporary civilization, are realizing with new urgency their own inner autonomy and the inner differences of others.
Cultural conflicts are increasing and are understandably more dangerous today than at any other time in history. The end of the era of rationalism has been catastrophic. Armed with the same supermodern weapons, often from the same suppliers, and followed by television cameras, the members of various tribal cults are at war with one another. By day, we work with statistics; in the evening, we consult astrologers and frighten ourselves with thrillers about vampires. The abyss between rational and the spiritual, the external and the internal, the objective and the subjective, the technical and the moral, the universal and the unique, constantly grows deeper.
Politicians are rightly worried by the problem of finding the key to ensure the survival of a civilization that is global and at the same time clearly multicultural. How can generally respected mechanisms of peaceful coexistence be set up, and on what set of principles are they to be established?
These questions have been highlighted with particular urgency by the two most important political events in the second half of the twentieth century: the collapse of colonial hegemony and the fall of communism. The artificial world order of the past decades has collapsed, and a new, more-just order has not yet emerged. the central political task of the final years of this century, then, is the creation of a new model of coexistence among the various cultures, peoples, races, and religious spheres within a single interconnected civilization. This task is all the more urgent because other threats to contemporary humanity brought about by one-dimensional development of civilization are growing more serious all the time.
Many believe this task can be accomplished through technical means. That is, they believe it can be accomplished through the intervention of new organizational, political, and diplomatic instruments. Yes, it is clearly necessary to invent organizational structures appropriate to the present multicultural age. But such efforts are doomed to failure if they do not grow out of something deeper, out of generally held values.
This, too, is well known. And in searching for the most natural source for the creation of a new world order, we usually look to an area that is the traditional foundation of modern justice and a great achievement of the modern age: to a set of values that – among other things – were first declared in this building (Independence Hall). I am referring to respect for the unique human being and his or her liberties and inalienable rights and to the principle that all power derives from the people. I am, in short, referring to the fundamental ideas of modern democracy.
What I am about to say may sound provocative, but I feel more and more strongly that even these ideas are not enough, that we must go farther and deeper. The point is that the solution they offer is still, as it were, modern, derived from the climate of the Enlightenment and from a view of man and his relation to the world that has been characteristic of the Euro-American sphere for the last two centuries. Today, however, we are in a different place and facing a different situation, one to which classical modern solutions in themselves do not give a satisfactory response. After all, the very principle of inalienable human rights, conferred on man by the Creator, grew out of the typically modern notion that man – as a being capable of knowing nature and the world – was the pinnacle of creation and lord of the world,
This modern anthropocentrism inevitably meant that He who allegedly endowed man with his inalienable rights began to disappear from the world: He was so far beyond the grasp of modern science that he was gradually pushed into a sphere of privacy of sorts, if not directly into a sphere of private fancy – that is, to a place where public obligations no longer apply. The existence of a higher authority than man himself simply began to get in the way of human aspirations.
Two Transcendent Ideas
The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order. Yet, I think it must be anchored in a different place, and in a different way, than has been the case so far. If it is to be more than just a slogan mocked by half the world, it cannot be expressed in the language of a departing era, and it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith in a purely scientific relationship to the world.
Paradoxically, inspiration for the renewal of this lost integrity can once again be found in science, in a science that is new – let us say postmodern – a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits. I will give two examples:
The first is the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Its authors and adherents have pointed out that from the countless possible courses of its evolution the universe took the only one that enabled life to emerge. This is not yet proof that the aim of the universe has always been that it should one day see itself through our eyes. But how else can this matter be explained?
I think the Anthropic Cosmological Principle brings to us an idea perhaps as old as humanity itself: that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tine particle whirling in the endless depth of the universe. Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us.
Until recently, it might have seemed that we were an unhappy bit of mildew on a heavenly body whirling in space among many that have no mildew on them at all. this was something that classical science could explain. Yet, the moment it begins to appear that we are deeply connected to the entire universe, science reaches the outer limits of its powers. Because it is founded on the search for universal laws, it cannot deal with singularity, that is, with uniqueness. The universe is a unique event and a unique story, and so far we are the unique point of that story. But unique events and stories are the domain of poetry, not science. With the formulation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, science has found itself on the border between formula and story, between science and myth. In that, however, science has paradoxically returned, in a roundabout way, to man, and offers him – in new clothing – his lost integrity. It does so by anchoring him once more in the cosmos.
The second example is the Gaia Hypothesis. This theory brings together proof that the dense network of mutual interactions between the organic and inorganic portions of the earth’s surface form a single system, a kind of mega-organism, a living planet – Gaia – named after an ancient goddess who is recognizable as an archetype of the Earth Mother in perhaps all religions. According to the Gaia Hypothesis, we are parts of a greater whole. If we endanger her, she will dispense with us in the interest of a higher value – that is, life itself.
What makes the Anthropic Principle and the Gaia Hypothesis so inspiring? One simple thing: Both remind us, in modern language, of what we have long suspected, of what we have long projected into our forgotten myths and perhaps what has always lain dormant within us as archetypes. That is, the awareness of our being anchored in the earth and the universe, the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone, but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme. This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions. All cultures anticipate it in various forms. It is one of the things that form the basis of man’s understanding of himself, of his place in the world, and ultimately of the world as such.
A modern philosopher once said: “Only a God can save us now.”
Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, in the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.
It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies – it must be rooted in self-transcendence:
Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe.
Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.
Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.
The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.
Keith Joseph, in whose honour this Lecture is delivered, had the charm of a hundred paradoxes.
He was a modest man; but, unlike so many modest men, he had really nothing to be modest about.
He was (that overworked, but in this case appropriate word) “brilliant”; yet he never indulged in intellectual virtuosity.
He was brave; yet by nature he was timid.
He could seem cerebral and remote; but he had a warm heart and impish humour that made his friendship an inexpressible delight.
Keith was also unusual in that, even when quite old and frail, he seemed somehow to remain young. The secret of this youthful spirit was the opposite to that of Faust. For in Keith’s case it was the fruit of innocence.
Not the innocence of inexperience, let alone of insensitivity. This was the innocence of the pure of heart — of those who have wrestled with the evils of humanity, while remaining unspotted by the world.
Keith’s goodness was shown by the little kindnesses which marked his dealings with both political friends and opponents — he had no enemies.
But Keith was more than good; he was also great. And his greatness lay in his integrity.
Integrity is an old fashioned word. There are even some who will tell you it is an old fashioned thing. But, for a politician, integrity is everything.
It is not just a matter of avoiding bribes and inducements. In our remarkably financially honest British politics, it is not even mainly about that — (whatever learned judges may say about the matter).
In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won — or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in an unswerving belief that you have to be right.
It was not that Keith wore a hair shirt from preference. He was averse to any kind of suffering, especially other people’s — and applying the right remedies to the British disease was bound to require suffering.
But Keith’s integrity was absolute.
When he became convinced — finally convinced, after the endless discussions which were a mark of his open-minded, open-hearted style — that a proposition was correct, he felt he had to defend it. He had to fight for it. When he faced those raging, spitting Trotskyist crowds at our great liberal centres of learning, I suspect he wondered sometimes whether he would have to die for it. But there he stood. He could do no other.
This Lecture is not, however, intended as a eulogy. The purpose of recalling the turbulent times of twenty years ago when Keith Joseph and I reshaped Conservatism — with the help of a handful of others, whose dedication compensated for their fewness — is that the same qualities as Keith’s are required in our Party today.
RETHINKING CONSERVATIVE POLICY
Keith Joseph’s name will always be closely associated with the rethinking of Conservative principles and policies in preparation for the Conservative Government of the 1980s.
You will recall that the Party was out of office — having lost the February 1974 Election — when Keith began delivering, in the summer and autumn, a series of speeches analysing what had gone wrong, and suggesting a change of direction.
In June came the Upminster speech. Keith dared to talk about what he called the “inherent contradictions [of the] … mixed economy “.
This, in the eyes of the Tory establishment, whose only real criticism of the socialists was that they were mixing the economy in the wrong proportions, was bad enough.
But it was the Preston speech in September — delivered almost on the eve of a second general election — which most horrified Keith’s critics. In it, he dared to tell the truth about inflation: and that truth was inevitably damning for the previous Conservative Government, of which he and I had been a part.
Inflation was properly to be ascribed to the excessive growth of the money supply. And since, as Keith devastatingly observed, there was a time lag of as much as a year or two between the monetary cause and the inflationary effect, the high inflation of the summer of 1974 — 17 per cent and rising — was the responsibility of the Conservatives.
Keith also rightly noted that the root of the Conservative Government’s failure to control inflation was fear of unemployment. But — as he and I would go on to argue on other occasions — unemployment was not an alternative to inflation, but one result of it.
Ever higher doses of inflation were required in order to have even a short term effect on jobs. And in the longer term inflation undermined confidence, pushed up wage costs, promoted inefficiency and aborted new employment.
For saying such things, Keith was publicly ridiculed and privately vilified. His colleagues accused him of disloyalty, splitting the Party and so on.
Those whom Hayek had described as “the socialists of all parties ” united to denounce him. For Keith in their eyes was demonstrating the worst possible political seamanship. He was “rocking the boat “. But in fact it was Keith’s compass that was true — and it was the boat that was already adrift and threatened by total shipwreck.
Most of the economic analysis which Keith Joseph offered has since been accepted. But Keith was not only, or even primarily, interested in economics. It was simply that in the 1970s the economics had gone so devastatingly wrong that this was where any new analysis had to focus. Indeed, that remained true to a large extent in the 1980s.
Reversing Britain’s economic decline was such a huge and painful undertaking that, at least until the later years, the economy had to come first.
Keith himself, though, was even more interested in social than in economic issues. He had come into politics not from personal ambition but from an idealistic urge to diminish the misery of poverty. But his one foray at this time into rethinking social policy, in the form of the Edgbaston speech, went badly wrong.
In fact, though flawed in some respects, the speech with its emphasis on remoralising society and on strengthening the family, deserves re-reading.
It does not though, reveal much about his essential philosophy, which with Keith — as with most professional politicians — remained below the surface.
The kind of Conservatism which he and I — though coming from very different backgrounds — favoured would be best described as “liberal “, in the old-fashioned sense. And I mean the liberalism of Mr Gladstone not of the latter day collectivists.
That is to say, we placed far greater confidence in individuals, families, businesses and neighbourhoods than in the State.
But the view which became an orthodoxy in the early part of this century — and a dogma by the middle of it — was that the story of human progress in the modern world was the story of increasing state power.
Progressive legislation and political movements were assumed to be the ones which extended the intervention of government.
It was in revolt against this trend and the policies it bred that Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, which had such a great effect upon me when I first read it — and a greater effect still, when Keith suggested that I go deeper into Hayek’s other writings.
“How sharp a break — with the whole evolution of Western civilisation the modern trend towards socialism means — becomes clear if we consider it not merely against the background of the nineteenth century, but in a longer historical perspective. We are rapidly abandoning not the views merely of Cobden and Bright, of Adam Smith and Hume, or even of Locke and Milton, but one of the salient characteristics of Western civilisation as it has grown from the foundations laid by Christianity and the Greeks and Romans. Not merely nineteenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, but the basic individualism inherited by us from Erasmus and Montaigne, from Cicero and Tacitus, Pericles and Thucydides is progressively relinquished. “
So, Ladies and Gentlemen, against that background, it is not surprising that the Left claimed all the arguments of principle, and that all that remained to the Right were the arguments of accountancy — essentially, when and how socialism could be afforded.
It was this fundamental weakness at the heart of Conservatism which ensured that even Conservative politicians regarded themselves as destined merely to manage a steady shift to some kind of Socialist state. This was what — under Keith’s tuition — we came to call the “ratchet effect “.
But all that was not just bad politics. It was false philosophy — and counterfeit history.
Let me remind you why this is so.
Creativity is necessarily a quality which pertains to individuals. Indeed, perhaps the one immutable law of anthropology is that we are all different. Now, of course, individuals can’t fulfil their potential without a society in which to do so.
And to set the record straight — once again — I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the State rather than other people.
Conservatives do not take an extreme atomistic view of society.
We need no lectures now, or at any other time, about the importance of custom, convention, tradition, belief, national institutions or what the ancient Romans would describe as “piety “.
Nor do we dispute that the bonds of society need ultimately to be guaranteed by the State.
It is Marxists, not Conservatives, who imagined — or at least pretended to imagine — that the State would wither away.
No. What marks out our Conservative vision is the insight that the State — government — only underpins the conditions for a prosperous and fulfilling life. It does not generate them.
Moreover, the very existence of this State, with its huge capacity for evil, is a potential threat to all the moral, cultural, social and economic benefits of freedom.
States, societies and economies, which allow the distinctive talents of individuals to flourish, themselves also flourish. Those which dwarf, crush, distort, manipulate or ignore them cannot progress.
Those eras in which a high value has been placed on the individual are the ones which have known the greatest advances.
By contrast, although the great monolithic states, empires and systems can produce impressive monuments and a high level of cultural sophistication, they are not able to mobilise the initiative of their populations to ensure that each generation can expect a better life than its predecessor.
It is only Western civilisation that has discovered the secret of continual progress. This is because only Western civilisation has developed a culture in which individuals matter, a society in which private property is secure, and a political system in which a range of competing views and interests is accommodated.
The moral foundation of this system — which is so spontaneous as hardly to seem a system — is the Judaeo-Christian outlook.
The system’s institutional foundation is the rule of law.
Expressed like this, it all sounds very abstract. But we in Britain are extraordinarily, indeed uniquely, lucky. Because, with us, these things have become second nature and a way of life.
Over the centuries, the habits of freedom became ever more established in these islands. They and the institutions which came to embody them — independent courts, the common law, above all Parliament — were in a special sense democratised: that is, they came to be regarded as the birthright not of any class or group, but of the nation as a whole. In a more doctrinal form they have found their way into the Constitution of the United States.
All this meant that when Keith and I were struggling to shift Britain back from the Socialist State, we were also acting as conservatives, with a small ‘c’.
We were seeking to re-establish an understanding of the fundamental truths which had made Western life, British life, and the life of the English-speaking peoples what they were.
This was the foundation of our Conservative revolution. It remains the foundation for any successful Conservative programme of government.
And that is the first lesson which needs to be drawn from the rethinking of Conservatism, which Keith inspired and led. The principles which he restated, and which formed the basis of the policies the Conservative Government pursued while I was Prime Minister, are as true and as relevant now as they were two decades ago — or indeed, give or take a little economics, two centuries ago.
The cause of limited government — in which the State is servant not master, custodian not collaborator, umpire not player — is the one beneath whose standard Keith Joseph and I gathered all those years ago.
It is time to take it out of mothballs, brush off the odd collectivist cobweb that’s hung on to it, and go forth to meet the foe.
The second lesson is that avoiding debate about the large issues of government and politics leads to directionless failure. Being prepared to state uncomfortable truths, as Keith insisted in doing, is the precondition for success.
It is extremely doubtful whether the Conservative Party lost support because of Keith’s controversial Preston speech in September 1974. But I am quite sure that without it we would never have embraced the approach that yielded, first victory in 1979, and then a remarkable string of achievements in the years which followed.
Splits and disagreements over important issues never did a Party so much harm as the absence of honest, principled debate.
There is, however, one apparent lesson that we would be most unwise to draw. That is the suggestion, which one hears from time to time, that the only hope for the Conservative Party is a period in Opposition.
The situation today in the Party is entirely different from that in 1974, when Keith was making his great speeches. In the present Prime Minister, the Party has a leader who shares the broad analysis that Keith Joseph and I put forward.
It is no secret that between John Major and me there have been differences … on occasion.
But these have always been differences about how to achieve objectives, rather than what those objectives should be.
What is required now is to ensure that those objectives are clearly explained, so that a re-elected Conservative Government can go further towards fulfilling them.
The attractions of Opposition are greatly exaggerated by those who have not experienced it.
WHAT HAS GONE WRONG?
But, judging from the opinion polls, Opposition is where the electorate is at present inclined to send us. For a variety of reasons, which I shall describe shortly, I believe that this would be ill-judged on their part.
The Conservative Party still has much to offer.
And from Mr Blair’s New — or not so new — Labour Party there is much to fear.
But we must not ignore the present discontent.
Some of it is more or less inevitable. A constant struggle is required to ensure that long-serving governments don’t run out of steam. I always regarded it as necessary to combine my role as Prime Minister with that of Chief Stoker so as to keep up the pressure.
It is also true that the political world is more complicated than in the ’80s. The sharp divide between the forces of freedom represented by the Conservative Party and the West on the one hand, and the forces of collectivism represented by the Labour Party and the Soviet bloc on the other, is a thing of the past.
The extent of the success we achieved in the 1980s has, in this sense, caught up with us.
That may be politically inconvenient; but I for one would not change it.
During most of my political life, freedom in this country was under a direct challenge from fellow-travelling Socialists and an aggressive Soviet Union.
These challenges were overcome because the Conservative Party in Britain and other right-of-centre parties elsewhere — under the international leadership of Ronald Reagan — proved too much for them.
The fashionable expression is that Communism and indeed Socialism “imploded “. If that means that their system was always unviable, so be it — though many of the people who now say this scarcely seemed to believe it true before the “implosion ” occurred.
But, anyway, let’s not forget that the system collapsed because it was squeezed by the pressure that we on the Right — I repeat on the Right — of politics applied.
And the Left should not be allowed to get away with pretending otherwise.
But, of course, in politics there is only gratitude for benefits yet to be received. That is why, however successful they’ve proved to be, governments and parties have to keep on re-applying their enduring principles to new circumstances.
The Conservative Party today has problems not because our analysis has been wrong or our principles faulty.
Our difficulties are due to the fact that, in certain limited but important respects, our policies and performance have not lived up to our analysis and principles.
That is why the current idea, put around by some malcontents, that the Conservative Party is in trouble because it has moved to the Right, and that this is what needs to be remedied, is boloney — and Denis might be able to suggest a still more telling description.
The test is simple. Just ask yourself: is it because the Government has not spent, borrowed and taxed enough that people are discontented?
Or is it that we have gone too far towards increasing government spending, borrowing and taxation?
The answer is obvious. We are unpopular, above all, because the middle classes — and all those who aspire to join the middle classes — feel that they no longer have the incentives and opportunities they expect from a Conservative Government.
I am not sure what is meant by those who say that the Party should return to something called “One Nation Conservatism “.
As far as I can tell by their views on European federalism, such people’s creed would be better described as “No Nation Conservatism “.
And certainly anyone who believes that salvation is to be found further away from the basic Conservative principles which prevailed in the 1980s — small government, a property-owning democracy, tax cuts, deregulation and national sovereignty — is profoundly mistaken.
That mistake in most cases has its origins in the acceptance of the picture of the 1980s which has been painted by the critics. That decade changed the direction of Britain to such an extent that it is unlikely that even a Labour Government would altogether reverse it — try as they might.
Inflation was brought down, without the use of the prices and incomes controls which the great and the good all agreed were indispensable.
Public spending as a share of GDP fell, which allowed tax rates to be cut — and government borrowing was reduced. We repaid debt. 364 economists who claimed that it was madness to think you could get economic growth by cutting government borrowing were proved wrong: I’m told they were never the same again.
Reform of the public finances was matched by reform of the trade unions, deregulation and privatisation of industries and a great extension of ownership of houses, shares and savings — quite a lot of “stakeholding ” in fact!
The economic growth and the improvement of living standards which resulted from these reforms were so great that for a time materialism, rather than poverty, became the main accusation against us. “Hunting the yuppie ” became the favourite sport of the neo-puritan, liverish Left.
But, of course, the reality was that the success which free enterprise brought over those years was not just expressed in conspicuous consumption — though what would we give for a few more of those yuppies today!
It also allowed a doubling — that’s over and above inflation — of voluntary giving to good causes.
Moreover, though we made mistakes of financial management by allowing the economy to overheat and inflation to rise towards the end of that period, the general advance of prosperity was solidly based upon real economic improvements.
Above all, there was a rapid and sustained rise in industrial productivity, which has continued. And as a result of the control of public expenditure over those years — particularly the reining back of future commitments on pensions — Britain advances towards the next millennium with a large advantage over our European competitors as regards taxation and costs.
The message from all this is not that everything in the 1980s was perfect or that everything that has followed it in the 1990s has been bad.
Every Prime Minister has his — and her — regrets.
The important message, rather, is that in Britain we have seen from the 1980s what works — just as we saw in the 1970s what did not.
And what works here, as elsewhere, is free enterprise and not big government.
So it would make no economic sense at all for us to move closer to the policies of our opponents.
Rather, the economic challenge is to cut back the burden of state spending, borrowing and taxation still further.
And trying to move towards the centre ground makes no political sense either.
As Keith used to remind us, it is not the centre ground but the common ground — the shared instincts and traditions of the British people — on which we should pitch our tents. That ground is solid — whereas the centre ground is as slippery as the spin doctors who have colonised it.
THE LABOUR PARTY
Ladies and Gentlemen, one of Keith Joseph’s most admirable characteristics — and one which secured for him respect and affection — was that he never cast doubt on the motives of his opponent. So, following in his footsteps, I am not going to cast doubt on the motives of the Leader of the Opposition.
But what about the Party he leads? The Labour Party itself may have changed many of its policies, but it hasn’t changed its spots. You can tell this from the unpleasant noises it makes when anything like profits are mentioned.
There is still virtually nothing that Labour spokesmen wouldn’t spend more taxpayers’ money on, or wish to control more tightly. They have learned to accompany these prescriptions with Conservative-sounding rhetoric, and even some Conservative-sounding policies.
But the distinctive mark of every Labour policy, from health to education, from privatised utilities to the labour market, is more government interference.
All sorts of worthy people believe that Mr Blair in office would control his Party, and not they him. But this would be a large gamble to take.
Moreover, Mr Blair is not only human; he is also (as his record shows) by instinct a man of the Left.
Confronted with the sort of choices you face in Government — decisions which often go unmentioned in the manifestos — it is the Prime Minister’s gut instincts which count. The pressures to solve problems and assuage demands by more public spending, intervention and controls can become almost irresistible — even for an instinctive free marketeer.
Mr Blair may believe with his head that government spending is not the universal panacea: but what about his heart — and, indeed, his gut?
In any case, government is not about generalities but about specifics. Only if you have the conviction — the Conservative conviction — that it is wrong to spend more taxpayers’ money unless the reasons for doing so are overwhelming — and even if then you don’t sleep easily after doing so — are you likely, as Prime Minister, to face down the pressure.
Suspicions that a Labour government would in practice become too soft a touch on public spending are compounded by all the misty talk about boosting communities and community values.
Now, communities can be sustained in two ways only — either by the State, which is what community politics, community leaders, community health, community housing, community centres and so on ultimately rely on.
Or communities can be based on genuine volunteers, sometimes local businesses, sometimes individuals with a common, freely chosen goal — like those who founded the great voluntary movements of the Victorian era which are still with us.
In some cases, to be sure, the State — often in the form of local government — can play a modestly useful part in “community projects “.
But the risk is that community comes to mean collective; collective comes to mean State; and thus the State expands to replace individual effort with subsidised activism.
It is free, enterprising, self-reliant, responsible individuals that Britain needs. It’s when we have more of them, our communities will take better care of themselves.
But I believe there is a still more important reason why Labour should not be entrusted with government. They may protest that they are no longer Socialists: but they have lost none of their zeal for constitutional upheaval.
The Labour Party’s proposals on devolution threaten chaos, and possibly the dissolution of the Union of the United Kingdom itself.
Moreover, by embracing European federalism — through the European social chapter and, above all, the European single currency — a Labour government could deal a terminal blow to the traditions of British parliamentary democracy.
CUTTING THE STATE DOWN TO SIZE
Traditionally, the Socialists believed that the State must make people equal; though an honest look at the perks and privileges of the Communist nomenklatura might have set them right about that.
The New-look Labour Party now apparently wants the State to make people highminded and socially aware; though a thought for how difficult the Churches find it to change people’s behaviour ought to induce some doubts when mere politicians start to preach.
It seems to me that New Labour has a new song — one that was made famous by Dame Vera Lynn:
“Wishing will make it so Just keep on wishing, and cares will go … And if you wish long enough, wish strong enough You will come to know Wishing will make it so. ”
But it won’t — any more than you can make people good by legislation.
So the limitation of government is still the great issue of British politics — and indeed to a remarkable degree of global politics.
The threat to limited government did not end with the collapse of communism and the discrediting of socialism. It remains an issue in Western — particularly European — democracies. There is a constant tendency, in which pressure groups, vested interests and the media play a part, for government to expand.
One of Thatcher’s laws — for which I owe something to Lord Acton — is that all government tends to expand, and Socialist government expands absolutely.
If you start with their view of the State — that it exists to right social wrongs rather than to create a framework for freedom — you can never find the definitive justification for saying “no “. Above all, you cannot say “no ” to demands for more spending on welfare.
That is why in Sweden the share of national income the government took reached some seventy per cent. It’s why it’s several points higher in Europe on average than here. The dominant political philosophies of those countries have been Socialist, or Social Democrat or Christian Democrat — all of them views which hold that the State, rather than individuals, is ultimately responsible for what happens in society.
This is in marked contrast to the United States which, even when the Democratic Party is in charge, has never been converted to the idea that government — let alone the Federal Government — has the right to intervene whenever it wants.
It is also in marked contrast to those Asia Pacific countries — like Hong Kong, the Little Tigers and, of course, the mighty Japan — where government’s share of GDP remains very low.
Spending at just over a third of GDP in the United States, and a quarter or less in the Asia Pacific, has resulted in low taxes and high growth rates.
Their example, like that of Britain in the 1980s, shows what works — just as the over-spent and over-regulated Scandinavian model shows what does not.
It was with the best intent that post-War governments spent more on welfare, believing that as the standard of living rose, people would do more to look after themselves. What we had to do, as Keith often said in earlier years, was to break the “cycle of deprivation “.
But the more we spent, the greater the dependency, illegitimacy and crime became. And of course the tax burden rose.
Western countries have now woken up to the problem. But they are still paralysed by it.
Here, though, Peter Lilley has been advancing steadily with social security reform, making important changes to reduce future burdens. Yet, as Peter himself often reminds us, social security still accounts for over 40 per cent of central government spending and costs every working person £15 every working day.
Certainly, the proposals increasingly favoured by the Labour Party for a much higher compulsory second pension — paid for by much higher compulsory contributions — offer no way out.
It is one thing to encourage people to make provision for themselves, as we do with housing, health and pensions. It is also acceptable in some cases to ensure that people make some minimum contribution towards benefits, as we do through the National Insurance system.
But the Labour Party’s plans would involve a large increase in compulsory saving which — as you would expect from them — results in a large decrease in personal liberty.
Alleviating the burden of the social security budget is a thankless but vital task, for which real Tory stamina is required. It will not be done by financial sleight of hand.
But the possibility of a really radical approach to spending, requiring large scale removal or transferral of government functions, must also remain on the agenda.
Last November, a brilliant and provocative Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet by Patrick Minford — Public Spending — a twenty year plan for reform — reminded us how far we still might go, and how great the potential gains. The spending cuts he proposes would also lead to dramatic tax cuts — with a big impact on growth.
Whether Professor Minford’s proposals are deemed acceptable or not, they are extremely valuable in illustrating the possibilities.
So I welcome the determination of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to bring public spending below 40 per cent of GDP. And I hope that at the next election we will be equipped with plans to bring it down over a period of years by much more.
Limited government doesn’t mean weak government, only less government.
This is shown by the courageous and far reaching reforms which Michael Howard has been making in the criminal justice system. The strength of the opposition he faces from the vested interests shows he is right — almost as much as do the encouraging recent crime figures.
“OUR NEW [EUROPEAN] MASTERS “
But today the main challenge to limited government comes not from within these shores at all, but rather beyond them — from the European Union. There is, of course, also a challenge to self-government — and the two are closely connected.
The activity of the European Court, which can only ultimately be checked by amending the European Communities Act itself, is increasingly undermining our judicial system and the sovereignty of our Parliament.
Proposals are being made for common European defence — proposals which Michael Portillo has roundly and rightly attacked.
They too are a threat to national independence.
But most important, of course, is the proposed single European currency which, as John Redwood has argued, “would be a major step on the way to a single European nation “.
The Prime Minister will have the support of all of us who wish to see these dangerous and damaging proposals resisted, and the present trends reversed, as he argues Britain’s case at the forthcoming intergovernmental council. And we look forward to a successful outcome.
But vital as the issue of self-government is, it is limited government that concerns me today. For the European Union not only wishes to take away our powers; it wishes to increase its own.
It wants to regulate our industries and labour markets, pontificate over our tastes, in short to determine our lives. The Maastricht Treaty, which established a common European citizenship and greatly expanded the remit of the European Commission, shows the outlines of the bureaucratic superstate which is envisaged.
And Maastricht is the beginning, not the end of that process.
Indeed, we are increasingly seeing the emergence of a whole new international political class.
Some of them are politicians who have failed in their own countries, and so have tried their luck overseas.
Some are officials who understand nothing of our British distinction between the legitimate powers of the elected and those of the unelected.
Almost fifty years ago, the Conservative journalist, Colm Brogan, wrote an incisive critique of the post-war Labour Government with its arrogant bossiness and intrusive cackhandedness. He called it Our New Masters.
The title is equally appropriate to the “new European masters “.
And it is no surprise to me — as someone who always recognised the Socialist destination of this Euro-federalist dream — that now the Labour Party welcomes it all so warmly.
What they can’t achieve in an independent, free enterprise Britain, they can hope to secure in a Euro-federalist Britain, whose people’s instincts are ignored and whose parliamentary institutions are over-ridden.
And if we Conservatives explain that they are now in peril, they will not be lightly surrendered.
In The Reeds of Runnymede, celebrating the signing of Magna Carta, Rudyard Kipling puts it like this:
“At Runnymede, at Runnymede, Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede: You mustn’t sell, delay, deny, A freeman’s right or liberty. It wakes the stubborn Englishry, We saw ’em roused at Runnymede!… And still when Mob or Monarch lays Too rude a hand on English ways, The whisper wakes, the shudder plays, Across the reeds at Runnymede. And Thames, that knows the mood of kings, And crowds and priests and suchlike things, Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings Their warning down from Runnymede! “
I have received from Major-General Hull and Brigadier General Walker your unanimous address from Lexington, animated with a martial spirit, and expressed with a military dignity becoming your character and the memorable plains on which it was adopted.
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
An address from the officers commanding two thousand eight hundred men, consisting of such substantial citizens as are able and willing at their own expense completely to arm and clothe themselves in handsome uniforms, does honor to that division of the militia which has done so much honor to its country.
Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken and so solemnly repeated on that venerable spot, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.
I Am one of that class of people that feeds you all, and at present is abus’d by you all; in short I am a Farmer.
By your News-papers we are told, that God had sent a very short harvest to some other countries of Europe. I thought this might be in favour to Old England; and that now we should get a good price for our grain, which would bring in millions among us, and make us flow in money, that to be sure is scarce enough.
But the wisdom of Government forbad the exportation.1
Well, says I, then we must be content with the market price at home.
No, says my Lords the mob, you sha’n’t have that. Bring your corn to market if you dare; we’ll sell it for you, for less money, or take it for nothing.
Being thus attack’d by both ends of the Constitution, the head and the tail of Government, what am I to do?
Must I keep my corn in barn to feed and increase the breed of rats? be it so; they cannot be less thankful than those I have been used to feed.
Are we Farmers the only people to be grudged the profits of honest labour? And why? One of the late scribblers against us gives a bill of fare of the provisions at my daughter’s wedding, and proclaims to all the world that we had the insolence to eat beef and pudding! Has he never read that precept in the good book, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn;2 or does he think us less worthy of good living than our oxen?
O, but the Manufacturers! the Manufacturers! they are to be favour’d, and they must have bread at a cheap rate!
Hark-ye, Mr. Oaf; The Farmers live splendidly, you say. And pray, would you have them hoard the money they get? Their fine cloaths and furniture, do they make them themselves, or for one another, and so keep the money among them? Or do they employ these your darling Manufacturers, and so scatter it again all over the nation?
My wool would produce me a better price if it were suffer’d to go to foreign markets. But that, Messieurs the Public, your laws will not permit. It must be kept all at home, that our dear Manufacturers may have it the cheaper. And then, having yourselves thus lessened our encouragement for raising sheep, you curse us for the scarcity of mutton!
I have heard my grandfather say, that the Farmers submitted to the prohibition on the exportation of wool, being made to expect and believe, that when the Manufacturer bought his wool cheaper, they should have their cloth cheaper. But the deuce a bit. It has been growing dearer and dearer from that day to this. How so? why truly the cloth is exported; and that keeps up the price.
Now if it be a good principle, that the exportation of a commodity is to be restrain’d, that so our own people at home may have it the cheaper, stick to that principle, and go thorough stitch3 with it. Prohibit the exportation of your cloth, your leather and shoes, your iron ware, and your manufactures of all sorts, to make them all cheaper at home. And cheap enough they will be, I’ll warrant you—till people leave off making them.
Some folks seem to think they ought never to be easy, till England becomes another Lubberland, where ’tis fancied the streets are paved with penny rolls, the houses tiled with pancakes, and chickens ready roasted cry, come eat me.
I say, when you are sure you have got a good principle, stick to it, and carry it thorough. I hear ’tis said, that though it was necessary and right for the M——y to advise a prohibition of the exportation of corn, yet it was contrary to law; and also, that though it was contrary to law for the mob to obstruct the waggons, yet it was necessary and right. Just the same thing, to a tittle. Now they tell me, an act of indemnity ought to pass in favour of the M——y, to secure them from the consequences of having acted illegally. If so, pass another in favour of the mob. Others say, some of the mob ought to be hanged, by way of example. If so, ——but I say no more than I have said before, when you are sure that you have got a good principle, go thorough with it.
You say, poor labourers cannot afford to buy bread at a high price, unless they had higher wages. Possibly. But how shall we Farmers be able to afford our labourers higher wages, if you will not allow us to get, when we might have it, a higher price for our corn?
By all I can learn, we should at least have had a guinea a quarter more if the exportation had been allowed. And this money England would have got from foreigners.
But, it seems, we Farmers must take so much less, that the poor may have it so much cheaper.
This operates then as a tax for the maintenance of the poor. A very good thing, you will say. But I ask, Why a partial tax? Why laid on us Farmers only? If it be a good thing, pray, Messrs. the Public, take your share of it, by indemnifying us a little out of your public treasury. In doing a good thing there is both honour and pleasure; you are welcome to your part of both.
For my own part, I am not so well satisfied of the goodness of this thing. I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer. There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavours to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burthen? On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependance on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty. Repeal that law, and you will soon see a change in their manners. St. Monday, and St. Tuesday, will cease to be holidays.4 Six days shalt thou labour, though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase, and with it plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend, and more will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.
Excuse me, Messrs. the Public, if upon this interesting subject, I put you to the trouble of reading a little of my nonsense. I am sure I have lately read a great deal of yours; and therefore from you (at least from those of you who are writers) I deserve a little indulgence.
I am, your’s, & c.5
The London Chronicle, November 29, 1766
1. In reprinting the paper in 1779 Benjamin Vaughan cautiously added a footnote at this point: “It is not necessary to repeat in what degree Dr. Franklin respected the ministers, to whom he alludes. The embargo upon corn was but a single measure: which, it is enough to say, an host of politicians thought well-advised, but ill-defended. Of the great and honourable services of the Earl of Chatham to his country, Dr. Franklin has borne the amplest testimony. E.”
2. Given in this version in I Corinthians 9: 9, citing “the law of Moses,” where it appears in Deuteronomy 25: 4 in a slightly different form. The newspaper account of the wedding of the farmer’s daughter has not been located, but a very similar report of a farmer’s christening party “within this fortnight” appeared in London Chron., Nov. 15–18, 1766. The guests were numerous enough to have to be seated in two large rooms, and the table in each room was laden with: a buttock of beef, a filet of veal, a ham, three boiled fowls, a goose, a pigeon pie, a rice pudding, and an apple pie. The “Liquors” consisted of: red port and mountain wines, rum punch and brandy punch, three sorts of “made Wine,” bottled beer, old October beer, and “Muld Ale.”
3. “Thorough stitch”: thoroughly, completely.
4. In describing his life as a young man among the London printers in 1724–26 in his Autobiography, bf used the expression “making a St. Monday” for a printer’s absence from work on that day because of week-end dissipation. Autobiography. (APS-Yale), p. 101. Here he extends it to include Tuesday as well.
5. “&c.” is an archaic abbreviation for “et cetera”
The Great age of English humorous writing — not witty and not satirical, but simply humorous — was the first three quarters of the nineteenth century.
Within that period lie Dickens’s enormous output of comic writings, Thackeray’s brilliant burlesques and short stories, such as ‘The Fatal Boots’ and ‘A Little Dinner at Timmins’s, Surtees’s Handley Cross, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Douglas Jerrold’s Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, and a considerable body of humorous verse by R. H. Barham, Thomas Hood, Edward Lear, Arthur Hugh Clough, Charles Stuart Calverley and others. Two other comic masterpieces, F. Anstey’s Vice Versa and the two Grossmiths’ Diary of a Nobody, lie only just outside the period I have named. And, at any rate until 1860 or thereabouts, there was still such a thing as comic draughtsmanship, witness Cruikshank’s illustrations to Dickens, Leech’s illustrations to Surtees and even Thackeray’s illustration of his own work.
I do not want to exaggerate by suggesting that, within our own century, England has produced no humorous writing of any value. There have been, for instance, Barry Pain, W. W. Jacobs, Stephen Leacock, P. G. Wodehouse, H. G. Wells in his lighter moments, Evelyn Waugh, and — a satirist rather than a humorist — Hilaire Belloc. Still, we have not only produced no laugh-getter of anything like the stature of Pickwick Papers, but, what is probably more significant, there is not and has not been for decades past, any such thing as a first-rate humorous periodical. The usual charge against Punch, that it ‘isn’t what it was’, is perhaps unjustified at this moment, since Punch is somewhat funnier than it was ten years ago: but it is also very much less funny than it was ninety years ago.
And comic verse has lost all its vitality — there has been no English light verse of any value within this century, except Mr. Belloc’s, and a poem or two by Chesterton — while a drawing that is funny in its own right, and not merely because of the joke it illustrates, is a great rarity.
All this is generally admitted. If you want a laugh you are likelier to go to a music hall or a Disney film, or switch on Tommy Handley, or buy a few of Donald McGill’s postcards, than to resort to a book or a periodical. It is generally recognized, too, that American comic writers and illustrators are superior to our own. At present we have nobody to set against either James Thurber or Damon Runyon.
We do not know with certainty how laughter originated or what biological purpose it serves, but we do know, in broad terms, what causes laughter.
A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution. If you had to define humour in a single phrase, you might define it as dignity sitting on a tin-tack. Whatever destroys dignity, and brings down the mighty from their seats, preferably with a bump, is funny. And the bigger they fall, the bigger the joke. It would be better fun to throw a custard pie at a bishop than at a curate. With this general principle in mind, one can, I think, begin to see what has been wrong with English comic writing during the present century.
Nearly all English humorists today are too genteel, too kind-hearted and too consciously lowbrow. P. G. Wodehouse’s novels, or A. P. Herbert’s verses, seem always to be aimed at prosperous stockbrokers whiling away an odd half hour in the lounge of some suburban golf course. They and all their kind are dominated by an anxiety not to stir up mud, either moral, religious, political or intellectual. It is no accident that most of the best comic writers of our time — Belloc, Chesterton, ‘Timothy Shy’ and the recent ‘Beachcomber’ — have been Catholic apologists; that is, people with a serious purpose and a noticeable willingness to hit below the belt. The silly-ass tradition in modern English humour, the avoidance of brutality and horror of intelligence, is summed up in the phrase funny without being vulgar. ‘Vulgar’ in this context usually means ‘obscene’, and it can be admitted at once that the best jokes are not necessarily dirty ones. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, for instance, never made jokes of that description, and Dickens and Thackeray very rarely.
On the whole, the early Victorian writers avoided sex jokes, though a few, for instance Suttees, Marryat and Barham, retained traces of eighteenth-century coarseness. But the point is that the modern emphasis on what is called ‘clean fun’ is really the symptom of a general unwillingness to touch upon any serious or controversial subject. Obscenity is, after all, a kind of subversiveness. Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’ is a rebellion in the moral sphere, as Gulliver’s Travels is a rebellion in the political sphere. The truth is that you cannot be memorably funny without at some point raising topics which the rich, the powerful and the complacent would prefer to see left alone.
I named above some of the best comic writers of the nineteenth century, but the case becomes much stronger if one draws in the English humorists of earlier ages — for instance, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift and the picaresque novelists, Smollett, Fielding and Sterne. It becomes stronger again if one considers foreign writers, both ancient and modern — for example, Aristophanes, Voltaire, Rabelais, Boccaccio and Cervantes. All of these writers are remarkable for their brutality and coarseness. People are tossed in blankets, they fall through cucumber frames, they are hidden in washing baskets, they rob, lie, swindle, and are caught out in every conceivable humiliating situation. And all great humorous writers show a willingness to attack the beliefs and the virtues on which society necessarily rests. Boccaccio treats Hell and Purgatory as a ridiculous fable, Swift jeers at the very conception of human dignity, Shakespeare makes Falstaff deliver a speech in favour of cowardice in the middle of a battle. As for the sanctity of marriage, it was the principal subject of humour in Christian society for the better part of a thousand years.
All this is not to say that humour is, of its nature, immoral or antisocial. A joke is a temporary rebellion against virtue, and its aim is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that is already degraded. A willingness to make extremely obscene jokes can co-exist with very strict moral standards, as in Shakespeare. Some comic writers, like Dickens, have a direct political purpose, others, like Chaucer or Rabelais, accept the corruption of society as something inevitable; but no comic writer of any stature has ever suggested that society is good.
Humour is the debunking of humanity, and nothing is funny except in relation to human beings. Animals, for instance, are only funny because they are caricatures of ourselves. A lump of stone could not of itself be funny; but it can become funny if it hits a human being in the eye, or if it is carved into human likeness.
However, there are subtler methods of debunking than throwing custard pies. There is also the humour of pure fantasy, which assaults man’s notion of himself as not only a dignified but a rational being. Lewis Carroll’s humour consists essentially in making fun of logic, and Edward Lear’s in a sort of poltergeist interference with common sense. When the Red Queen remarks, ‘I’ve seen hills compared with which you’d call that one a valley’, she is in her way attacking the basses of society as violently as Swift or Volaire. Comic verse, as in Lear’s poem ‘The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’, often depends on building up a fantastic universe which is just similar enough to the real universe to rob it of its dignity. But more often it depends on anticlimax — that is, on starting out with a high-flown language and then suddenly coming down with a bump. For instance, Calverley’s lines:
Once, a happy child. I carolled On green lawns the whole day through, Not unpleasingly apparelled In a tightish suit of blue,
in which the first two lines would give the impression that this is going to be a sentimental poem about the beauties of childhood. Or Mr. Belloc’s various invocations to Africa in The Modern Traveller:
O Africa, mysterious land, Surrounded by a lot of sand And full of grass and trees … Far land of Ophir, mined for gold By lordly Solomon of old. Who, sailing northward to Perim, Took all the gold away with him And left a lot of holes, etc.
Bret Harte’s sequel to ‘Maud Muller’, with such couplets as:
But the very day that they were mate Maud’s brother Bob was intoxicated
plays essentially the same trick, and so in a different way do Voltaire’s mock epic, La Pucelle, and many passages in Byron.
English light verse in the present century — witness the work of Owen Seaman, Harry Graham, A. P. Herbert, A. A. Milne and others — has mostly been poor stuff, lacking not only in fancifulness but in intellectuality. Its authors are too anxious not to be highbrows — even though they are writing in verse, not to be poets. Early-Victorian light verse is generally haunted by the ghost of poetry; it is often extremely skilful as verse, and it is sometimes allusive and ‘difficult’. When Barham wrote:
The Callipyge’s injured behind, Bloudie Jack! The de Medici’s injured before; And the Anadyomene’s injured in so many Places, I think there’s a score, If not more, Of her fingers and toes on the floor.
He was performing a feat of sheer virtuosity which the most serous poet would respect. Or, to quote Calverley again, in his ‘Ode to Tobacco’:
Thou, who when fears attack, Bidst them avaunt, and Black Care, at the horseman’s back Perching, unseatest; Sweet when the morn is grey, Sweet when they’ve cleared away Lunch, and at close of day Possibly sweetest!
Calverley is not afraid, it will be seen, to put a tax on his reader’s attention and to drag in a recondite Latin allusion. He is not writing for lowbrows, and — particularly in his ‘Ode to Beer’ — he can achieve magnificent anticlimaxes because he is willing to sail close to true poetry and to assume considerable knowledge in his readers.
It would seem that you cannot be funny without being vulgar — that is vulgar by the standards of the people at whom English humorous writing in our own day seems mostly to be aimed. For it is not only sex that is ‘vulgar’. So are death, childbirth and poverty, the other three subjects upon which the best music-hall humour turns. And respect for the intellect and strong political feeling, if not actually vulgar, are looked upon as being in doubtful taste. You cannot be really funny if your main aim is to flatter the comfortable classes: it means leaving out too much. To be funny, indeed, you have got to be serious. Punch, for at least forty years past, has given the impression of trying not so much to amuse as to reassure. Its implied message is that all is for the best and nothing will ever really change.
It was by no means with that creed that it started out.
Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: ‘What is Fascism?’
One of the social survey organizations in America recently asked this question of a hundred different people, and got answers ranging from ‘pure democracy’ to ‘pure diabolism’. In this country if you ask the average thinking person to define Fascism, he usually answers by pointing to the German and Italian régimes. But this is very unsatisfactory, because even the major Fascist states differ from one another a good deal in structure and ideology.
It is not easy, for instance, to fit Germany and Japan into the same framework, and it is even harder with some of the small states which are describable as Fascist. It is usually assumed, for instance, that Fascism is inherently warlike, that it thrives in an atmosphere of war hysteria and can only solve its economic problems by means of war preparation or foreign conquests. But clearly this is not true of, say, Portugal or the various South American dictatorships. Or again, antisemitism is supposed to be one of the distinguishing marks of Fascism; but some Fascist movements are not antisemitic. Learned controversies, reverberating for years on end in American magazines, have not even been able to determine whether or not Fascism is a form of capitalism. But still, when we apply the term ‘Fascism’ to Germany or Japan or Mussolini’s Italy, we know broadly what we mean. It is in internal politics that this word has lost the last vestige of meaning. For if you examine the press you will find that there is almost no set of people — certainly no political party or organized body of any kind — which has not been denounced as Fascist during the past ten years. Here I am not speaking of the verbal use of the term ‘Fascist’. I am speaking of what I have seen in print. I have seen the words ‘Fascist in sympathy’, or ‘of Fascist tendency’, or just plain ‘Fascist’, applied in all seriousness to the following bodies of people:
Conservatives: All Conservatives, appeasers or anti-appeasers, are held to be subjectively pro-Fascist. British rule in India and the Colonies is held to be indistinguishable from Nazism. Organizations of what one might call a patriotic and traditional type are labelled crypto-Fascist or ‘Fascist-minded’. Examples are the Boy Scouts, the Metropolitan Police, M.I.5, the British Legion. Key phrase: ‘The public schools are breeding-grounds of Fascism’.
Socialists: Defenders of old-style capitalism (example, Sir Ernest Benn) maintain that Socialism and Fascism are the same thing. Some Catholic journalists maintain that Socialists have been the principal collaborators in the Nazi-occupied countries. The same accusation is made from a different angle by the Communist party during its ultra-Left phases. In the period 1930-35 the Daily Worker habitually referred to the Labour Party as the Labour Fascists. This is echoed by other Left extremists such as Anarchists. Some Indian Nationalists consider the British trade unions to be Fascist organizations.
Communists: A considerable school of thought (examples, Rauschning, Peter Drucker, James Burnham, F. A. Voigt) refuses to recognize a difference between the Nazi and Soviet régimes, and holds that all Fascists and Communists are aiming at approximately the same thing and are even to some extent the same people. Leaders in The Times (pre-war) have referred to the U.S.S.R. as a ‘Fascist country’. Again from a different angle this is echoed by Anarchists and Trotskyists.
Trotskyists: Communists charge the Trotskyists proper, i.e. Trotsky’s own organization, with being a crypto-Fascist organization in Nazi pay. This was widely believed on the Left during the Popular Front period. In their ultra-Right phases the Communists tend to apply the same accusation to all factions to the Left of themselves, e.g. Common Wealth or the I.L.P.
Catholics: Outside its own ranks, the Catholic Church is almost universally regarded as pro-Fascist, both objectively and subjectively;
War resisters: Pacifists and others who are anti-war are frequently accused not only of making things easier for the Axis, but of becoming tinged with pro-Fascist feeling.
Supporters of the war: War resisters usually base their case on the claim that British imperialism is worse than Nazism, and tend to apply the term ‘Fascist’ to anyone who wishes for a military victory. The supporters of the People’s Convention came near to claiming that willingness to resist a Nazi invasion was a sign of Fascist sympathies. The Home Guard was denounced as a Fascist organization as soon as it appeared. In addition, the whole of the Left tends to equate militarism with Fascism. Politically conscious private soldiers nearly always refer to their officers as ‘Fascist-minded’ or ‘natural Fascists’. Battle-schools, spit and polish, saluting of officers are all considered conducive to Fascism. Before the war, joining the Territorials was regarded as a sign of Fascist tendencies. Conscription and a professional army are both denounced as Fascist phenomena.
Nationalists: Nationalism is universally regarded as inherently Fascist, but this is held only to apply to such national movements as the speaker happens to disapprove of. Arab nationalism, Polish nationalism, Finnish nationalism, the Indian Congress Party, the Muslim League, Zionism, and the I.R.A. are all described as Fascist but not by the same people.
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It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.
Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.
But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.
The thought of Christmas raises almost automatically the thought of Charles Dickens, and for two very good reasons. To begin with, Dickens is one of the few English writers who have actually written about Christmas. Christmas is the most popular of English festivals, and yet it has produced astonishingly little literature. There are the carols, mostly medieval in origin; there is a tiny handful of poems by Robert Bridges, T. S. Eliot, and some others, and there is Dickens; but there is very little else. Secondly, Dickens is remarkable, indeed almost unique, among modern writers in being able to give a convincing picture of happiness.
Dickens dealt successfully with Christmas twice in a chapter of The Pickwick Papers and in A Christmas Carol. The latter story was read to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right: but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has interesting sociological implications. To begin with, however thick Dickens may lay on the paint, however disgusting the ‘pathos’ of Tiny Tim may be, the Cratchit family give the impression of enjoying themselves. They sound happy as, for instance, the citizens of William Morris’s News From Nowhere don’t sound happy. Moreover and Dickens’s understanding of this is one of the secrets of his power their happiness derives mainly from contrast. They are in high spirits because for once in a way they have enough to eat. The wolf is at the door, but he is wagging his tail. The steam of the Christmas pudding drifts across a background of pawnshops and sweated labour, and in a double sense the ghost of Scrooge stands beside the dinner table. Bob Cratchit even wants to drink to Scrooge’s health, which Mrs Cratchit rightly refuses. The Cratchits are able to enjoy Christmas precisely because it only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.
All efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures. Utopias (incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn’t mean ‘a good place’, it means merely a ‘non-existent place’) have been common in literature of the past three or four hundred years but the ‘favourable’ ones are invariably unappetising, and usually lacking in vitality as well.
By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H. G. Wells. Wells’s vision of the future is almost fully expressed in two books written in the early Twenties, The Dream and Men Like Gods. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. We cannot write this off as merely a silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too-comfortable world.
All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness. News From Nowhere is a sort of goody-goody version of the Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a sort of watery melancholy. But it is more impressive that Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest imaginative writers who have ever lived, is no more successful in constructing a ‘favourable’ Utopia than the others.
The earlier parts of Gulliver’s Travels are probably the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written. Every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time. Where Swift fails, however, is in trying to describe a race of beings whom he admires. In the last part, in contrast with disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the inhabitants of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, ‘reasonable’ lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from ‘passion’, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic principles, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the earlier parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and scoundrelism lead him: but take away the folly and scoundrelism, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.
Attempts at describing a definitely other-worldly happiness have been no more successful. Heaven is as great a flop as Utopia though Hell occupies a respectable place in literature, and has often been described most minutely and convincingly.
It is a commonplace that the Christian Heaven, as usually portrayed, would attract nobody. Almost all Christian writers dealing with Heaven either say frankly that it is indescribable or conjure up a vague picture of gold, precious stones, and the endless singing of hymns. This has, it is true, inspired some of the best poems in the world:
Thy walls are of chalcedony, Thy bulwarks diamonds square, Thy gates are of right orient pearl Exceeding rich and rare!
But what it could not do was to describe a condition in which the ordinary human being actively wanted to be. Many a revivalist minister, many a Jesuit priest (see, for instance, the terrific sermon in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist) has frightened his congregation almost out of their skins with his word-pictures of Hell. But as soon as it comes to Heaven, there is a prompt falling-back on words like ‘ecstasy’ and ‘bliss’, with little attempt to say what they consist in. Perhaps the most vital bit of writing on this subject is the famous passage in which Tertullian explains that one of the chief joys of Heaven is watching the tortures of the damned.
The pagan versions of Paradise are little better, if at all. One has the feeling it is always twilight in the Elysian fields. Olympus, where the gods lived, with their nectar and ambrosia, and their nymphs and Hebes, the ‘immortal tarts’ as D. H. Lawrence called them, might be a bit more homelike than the Christian Heaven, but you would not want to spend a long time there. As for the Muslim Paradise, with its 77 houris per man, all presumably clamouring for attention at the same moment, it is just a nightmare. Nor are the spiritualists, though constantly assuring us that ‘all is bright and beautiful’, able to describe any next-world activity which a thinking person would find endurable, let alone attractive.
It is the same with attempted descriptions of perfect happiness which are neither Utopian nor other-worldly, but merely sensual. They always give an impression of emptiness or vulgarity, or both. At the beginning of La Pucelle Voltaire describes the life of Charles IX with his mistress, Agnes Sorel. They were ‘always happy’, he says. And what did their happiness consist in? An endless round of feasting, drinking, hunting and love-making. Who would not sicken of such an existence after a few weeks? Rabelais describes the fortunate spirits who have a good time in the next world to console them for having had a bad time in this one. They sing a song which can be roughly translated: ‘To leap, to dance, to play tricks, to drink the wine both white and red, and to do nothing all day long except count gold crowns’ how boring it sounds, after all! The emptiness of the whole notion of an everlasting ‘good time’ is shown up in Breughel’s picture The Land of the Sluggard, where the three great lumps of fat lie asleep, head to head, with the boiled eggs and roast legs of pork coming up to be eaten of their own accord.
It would seem that human beings are not able to describe, nor perhaps to imagine, happiness except in terms of contrast. That is why the conception of Heaven or Utopia varies from age to age. In pre-industrial society Heaven was described as a place of endless rest, and as being paved with gold, because the experience of the average human being was overwork and poverty. The houris of the Muslim Paradise reflected a polygamous society where most of the women disappeared into the harems of the rich. But these pictures of ‘eternal bliss’ always failed because as the bliss became eternal (eternity being thought of as endless time), the contrast ceased to operate. Some of the conventions embedded in our literature first arose from physical conditions which have now ceased to exist. The cult of spring is an example. In the Middle Ages spring did not primarily mean swallows and wild flowers. It meant green vegetables, milk and fresh meat after several months of living on salt pork in smoky windowless huts. The spring songs were gay Do nothing but eat and make good cheer, And thank Heaven for the merry year When flesh is cheap and females dear, And lusty lads roam here and there So merrily, And ever among so merrily! because there was something to be so gay about. The winter was over, that was the great thing. Christmas itself, a pre-Christian festival, probably started because there had to be an occasional outburst of overeating and drinking to make a break in the unbearable northern winter.
The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem. Dickens can describe a poverty-stricken family tucking into a roast goose, and can make them appear happy; on the other hand, the inhabitants of perfect universes seem to have no spontaneous gaiety and are usually somewhat repulsive into the bargain. But clearly we are not aiming at the kind of world Dickens described, nor, probably, at any world he was capable of imagining. The Socialist objective is not a society where everything comes right in the end, because kind old gentlemen give away turkeys. What are we aiming at, if not a society in which ‘charity’ would be unnecessary? We want a world where Scrooge, with his dividends, and Tiny Tim, with his tuberculous leg, would both be unthinkable. But does that mean we are aiming at some painless, effortless Utopia? At the risk of saying something which the editors of Tribune may not endorse, I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.
Socialist thought has to deal in prediction, but only in broad terms. One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed. The world wants something which it is dimly aware could exist, but cannot accurately define. This Christmas Day, thousands of men will be bleeding to death in the Russian snows, or drowning in icy waters, or blowing one another to pieces on swampy islands of the Pacific; homeless children will be scrabbling for food among the wreckage of German cities. To make that kind of thing impossible is a good objective. But to say in detail what a peaceful world would be like is a different matter.
Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness. This is the case even with a great writer like Swift, who can flay a bishop or a politician so neatly, but who, when he tries to create a superman, merely leaves one with the impression the very last he can have intended that the stinking Yahoos had in them more possibility of development than the enlightened Houyhnhnms.
About a year ago I and a number of others were engaged in broadcasting literary programmes to India, and among other things we broadcast a good deal of verse by contemporary and near-contemporary English writers — for example, Eliot, Herbert Read, Auden, Spender, Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece, Alex Comfort, Robert Bridges, Edmund Blunden, D. H. Lawrence. Whenever it was possible we had poems broadcast by the people who wrote them. Just why these particular programmes (a small and remote out-flanking movement in the radio war) were instituted there is no need to explain here, but I should add that the fact that we were broadcasting to an Indian audience dictated our technique to some extent. The essential point was that our literary broadcasts were aimed at the Indian university students, a small and hostile audience, unapproachable by anything that could be described as British propaganda. It was known in advance that we could not hope for more than a few thousand listeners at the most, and this gave us an excuse to be more ‘highbrow’ than is generally possible on the air.
Since I don’t suppose you want to fill an entire number of P.R. (Partisan Review) with squalid controversies imported from across the Atlantic, I will lump together the various letters you have sent on to me (from Messrs Savage, Woodcock and Comfort), as the central issue in all of them is the same. But I must afterwards deal separately with some points of fact raised in various of the letters.
Pacifism. Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr Savage remarks that ‘according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be “objectively pro-British”.’ But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. The Germans even run a spurious ‘freedom’ station which serves out pacifist propaganda indistinguishable from that of the P.P.U. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of freedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.
I am not interested in pacifism as a ‘moral phenomenon’. If Mr Savage and others imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen. As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British government. So he will be to the Japanese if they get there. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force. But though not much interested in the ‘theory’ of pacifism, I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself. In the letter you sent on to me, Mr Comfort considers that an artist in occupied territory ought to ‘protest against such evils as he sees’, but considers that this is best done by ‘temporarily accepting the status quo’ (like Déat or Bergery, for instance?). a few weeks back he was hoping for a Nazi victory because of the stimulating effect it would have upon the arts:
As far as I can see, no therapy short of complete military defeat has any chance of re-establishing the common stability of literature and of the man in the street. One can imagine the greater the adversity the greater the sudden realization of a stream of imaginative work, and the greater the sudden katharsis of poetry, from the isolated interpretation of war as calamity to the realization of the imaginative and actual tragedy of Man. When we have access again to the literature of the war years in France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, I am confident that that is what we shall fined. (From a letter to Horizon.)
I pass over the money-sheltered ignorance capable of believing that literary life is still going on in, for instance, Poland, and remark merely that statements like this justify me in saying that our English pacifists are tending towards active pro-Fascism. But I don’t particularly object to that. What I object to is the intellectual cowardice of people who are objectively and to some extent emotionally pro-Fascist, but who don’t care to say so and take refuge behind the formula ‘I am just as anti-fascist as anyone, but—’. The result of this is that so-called peace propaganda is just as dishonest and intellectually disgusting as war propaganda. Like war propaganda, it concentrates on putting forward a ‘case’, obscuring the opponent’s point of view and avoiding awkward questions. The line normally followed is ‘Those who fight against Fascism go Fascist themselves.’ In order to evade the quite obvious objections that can be raised to this, the following propaganda-tricks are used:
The Fascizing processes occurring in Britain as a result of war are systematically exaggerated.
The actual record of Fascism, especially its pre-war history, is ignored or pooh-poohed as ‘propaganda’. Discussion of what the world would actually be like if the Axis dominated it is evaded.
Those who want to struggle against Fascism are accused of being wholehearted defenders of capitalist ‘democracy’. The fact that the rich everywhere tend to be pro-Fascist and the working class are nearly always anti-Fascist is hushed up.
It is tacitly pretended that the war is only between Britain and Germany. Mention of Russia and China, and their fate if Fascism is permitted to win, is avoided. (You won’t find one word about Russia or China in the three letters you sent to me.)
Now as to one or two points of fact which I must deal with if your correspondents’ letters are to be printed in full.
My past and present. Mr Woodcock tries to discredit me by saying that (a) I once served in the Indian Imperial Police, (b) I have written article for the Adelphi and was mixed up with the Trotskyists in Spain, and (c) that I am at the B.B.C. ‘conducting British propaganda to fox the Indian masses’. With regard to (a), it is quite true that I served five years in the Indian Police. It is also true that I gave up that job, partly because it didn’t suit me but mainly because I would not any longer be a servant of imperialism. I am against imperialism because I know something about it from the inside. The whole history of this is to be found in my writings, including a novel (Burmese Days) which I think I can claim was a kind of prophecy of what happened this year in Burma. (b) Of course I have written for the Adelphi. Why not? I once wrote an article for a vegetarian paper. Does that make me a vegetarian? I was associated with the Trotskyists in Spain. It was chance that I was serving in the P.O.U.M. militia and not another, and I largely disagreed with the P.O.U. M. ‘line’ and told its leaders so freely, but when they were afterwards accused of pro-Fascist activities I defended them as best it could. How does this contradict my present anti-Hitler attitude? It is news to me that Trotskyists are either pacifists or pro-Fascists. (c) Does Mr Woodcock really know what kind of stuff I put out in the Indian broadcasts? He does not — though I would be quite glad to tell him about it. He is careful not to mention what other people are associated with these Indian broadcasts. One for instance is Herbert Read, whom he mentions with approval. Others are T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Reginald Reynolds, Stephen Spender, J. B. S. Haldane, Tom Wintringham. Most of our broadcasters are Indian left-wing intellectual, from Liberals to Trotskyists, some of them bitterly anti-British. They don’t do it to ‘fox the Indian masses’ but because they know what a Fascist victory would mean to the chances of India’s independence. Why not try to find out what I am doing before accusing my good faith?
‘Mr Orwell is intellectual-hunting again’ (Mr Comfort). I have never attacked ‘the intellectuals’ or ‘the intelligentsia’ en bloc. I have used a lot of ink and done myself a lot of harm by attacking the successive literary cliques which have infested this country, not because they were intellectuals but precisely because they were not what I mean by true intellectuals. The life of a clique is about five years and I have been writing long enough to see three of them come and two go — the Catholic gang, the Stalinist gang, and the present pacifist or, as they are sometimes nicknamed, Fascifist gang. My case against all of them is that they write mentally dishonest propaganda and degrade literary criticism to mutual arse-licking. But even with these various schools I would differentiate between individuals. I would never think of coupling Christopher Dawson with Arnold Lunn, or Malraux with Palme Dutt, or Max Plowman with the Duke of Bedford. And even the work of one individual can exist at very different levels. For instance Mr Comfort himself wrote one poem I value greatly (‘The Atoll in the Mind’), and I wish he would write more of them instead of lifeless propaganda tracts dressed up as novels. But his letter he has chosen to send you is a different matter. Instead of answering what I have said he tries to prejudice an audience to whom I am little known by a misrepresentation of my general line and sneers about my ‘status’ in England. (A writer isn’t judged by his ‘status’, he is judged by his work.) That is on a par with ‘peace’ propaganda which has to avoid mention of Hitler’s invasion of Russian, and it is not what I mean by intellectual honesty. It is just because I do take the function of the intelligentsia seriously that I don’t like the sneers, libels, parrot phrased and financially profitable back-scratching which flourish in our English literary world, and perhaps in yours also.
I am speaking on literary criticism, and in the world in which we are actually living that is almost as unpromising as speaking about peace. This is not a peaceful age, and it is not a critical age. In the Europe of the last ten years literary criticism of the older kind — criticism that is really judicious, scrupulous, fair-minded, treating a work of art as a thing of value in itself — has been next door to impossible.
If we look back at the English literature of the last ten years not so much at the literature as at the prevailing literary attitude, the thing that strikes us is that it has almost ceased to be aesthetic. Literature has been swamped by propaganda. I do not mean that all the books written during that period have been bad. But the characteristic writers of the time, people like Auden and Spender and MacNeice, have been didactic, political writers, aesthetically conscious, of course, but more interested in subject-matter than in technique. And the most lively criticism has nearly all of it been the work of Marxist writers, people like Christopher Caudwell and Philip Henderson and Edward Upward, who look on every book virtually as a political pamphlet and are far more interested in digging out its political and social implications than in its literary qualities in the narrow sense.
This is all the more striking because it makes a very sharp and sudden contrast with the period immediately before it. The characteristic writers of the nineteen-twenties — T. S. Eliot, for instance, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf — were writers who put the main emphasis on technique. They had their beliefs and prejudices, of course, but they were far more interested in technical innovations than in any moral or meaning or political implication that their work might contain. The best of them all, James Joyce, was a technician and very little else, about as near to being a ‘pure’ artist as a writer can be. Even D. H. Lawrence, though he was more of a ‘writer with a purpose’ than most of the others of his time, had not much of what we should now call social consciousness. And though I have narrowed this down to the nineteen-twenties, it had really been the same from about 1890 onwards. Throughout the whole of that period, the notion that form is more important than subject-matter, the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’, had been taken for granted. There were writers who disagreed, of course — Bernard Shaw was one — but that was the prevailing outlook. The most important critic of the period, George Saintsbury, was a very old man in the nineteen-twenties, but he had a powerful influence up to about 1930, and Saintsbury had always firmly upheld the technical attitude to art. He claimed that he himself could and did judge any book solely on its execution, its manner, and was very nearly indifferent to the author’s opinions.
Now, how is one to account for this very sudden change of outlook? About the end of the nineteen-twenties you get a book like Edith Sitwell’s book on Pope, with a completely frivolous emphasis on technique, treating literature as a sort of embroidery, almost as though words did not have meanings: and only a few years later you get a Marxist critic like Edward Upward asserting that books can be ‘good’ only when they are Marxist in tendency. In a sense both Edith Sitwell and Edward Upward were representative of their period. The question is why should their outlook be so different?
I think one has got to look for the reason in external circumstances. Both the aesthetic and the political attitude to literature were produced, or at any rate conditioned by the social atmosphere of a certain period. And now that another period has ended — for Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939 ended one epoch as surely as the great slump of 1931 ended another — one can link back and see more clearly than was possible a few years ago the way in which literary attitudes are affected by external events. A thing that strikes anyone who looks back over the last hundred years is that literary criticism worth bothering about, and the critical attitude towards literature, barely existed in England between roughly 1830 and 1890. It is not that good books were not produced in that period. Several of the writers of that time, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollop and others, will probably be remembered longer than any that have come after them. But there are not literary figures in Victorian England corresponding to Flaubert, Baudelaire, Gautier and a host of others. What now appears to us as aesthetic scrupulousness hardly existed. To a mid-Victorian English writer, a book was partly something that brought him money and partly a vehicle for preaching sermons. England was changing very rapidly, a new moneyed class had come up on the ruins of the old aristocracy, contact with Europe had been severed, and a long artistic tradition had been broken. The mid-nineteenth-century English writers were barbarians, even when they happened to be gifted artists, like Dickens.
But in the later part of the century contact with Europe was re-established through Matthew Arnold, Pater, Oscar Wilde and various others, and the respect for form and technique in literature came back. It is from then that the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ — a phrase very much out of fashion, but still, I think, the best available — really dates. And the reason why it could flourish so long, and be so much taken for granted, was that the whole period between 1890 and 1930 was one of exceptional comfort and security. It was what we might call the golden afternoon of the capitalist age. Even the Great War did not really disturb it. The Great War killed ten million men, but it did not shake the world as this war will shake it and has shaken it already. Almost every European between 1890 and 1930 lived in the tacit belief that civilization would last forever. You might be individually fortunate or unfortunate, but you had inside you the feeling that nothing would ever fundamentally change. And in that kind of atmosphere intellectual detachment, and also dilettantism, are possible. It is that feeling of continuity, of security, that could make it possible for a critic like Saintsbury, a real old crusted Tory and High Churchman, to be scrupulously fair to books written by men whose political and moral outlook he detested.
But since 1930 that sense of security has never existed. Hitler and the slump shattered it as the Great War and even the Russian Revolution had failed to shatter it. The writers who have come up since 1930 have been living in a world in which not only one’s life but one’s whole scheme of values is constantly menaced. In such circumstances detachment is not possible. You cannot take a purely aesthetic interest in a disease you are dying from; you cannot feel dispassionately about a man who is about to cut your throat. In a world in which Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another, any thinking person had to take sides, and his feelings had to find their way not only into his writing but into his judgements on literature. Literature had to become political, because anything else would have entailed mental dishonesty. One’s attachments and hatreds were too near the surface of consciousness to be ignored. What books were about seemed so urgently important that the way they were written seemed almost insignificant.
And this period of ten years or so in which literature, even poetry, was mixed up with pamphleteering, did a great service to literary criticism, because it destroyed the illusion of pure aestheticism. It reminded us that propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book, that every work of art has a meaning and a purpose — a political, social and religious purpose — that our aesthetic judgements are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs. It debunked art for art’s sake. But is also led for the time being into a blind alley, because it caused countless young writers to try to tie their minds to a political discipline which, if they had stuck to it, would have made mental honesty impossible. The only system of thought open to them at that time was official Marxism, which demanded a nationalistic loyalty towards Russia and forced the writer who called himself a Marxist to be mixed up in the dishonesties of power politics. And even if that was desirable, the assumptions that these writers built upon were suddenly shattered by the Russo-German Pact. Just as many writers about 1930 had discovered that you cannot really be detached from contemporary events, so many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed — or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer. Aesthetic scrupulousness is not enough, but political rectitude is not enough either. The events of the last ten years have left us rather in the air, they have left England for the time being without any discoverable literary trend, but they have helped us to define, better than was possible before, the frontiers of art and propaganda.
I said at the beginning of my first talk that this is not a critical age. It is an age of partisanship and not of detachment, an age in which it is especially difficult to see literary merit in a book with whose conclusions you disagree. Politics — politics in the most general sense — have invaded literature, to an extent that does not normally happen, and this has brought to the surface of our consciousness the struggle that always goes on between the individual and the community. It is when one considers the difficulty of writing honest unbiased criticism in a time like ours that one begins to grasp the nature of the threat that hangs over the whole of literature in the coming age.
We live in an age which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist — or perhaps one ought to say, in which the individual is ceasing to have the illusion of being autonomous. Now, in all that we say about literature, and (above all) in all that we say about criticism, we instinctively take the autonomous individual for granted. The whole of modern European literature — I am speaking of the literature of the past four hundred years — is built on the concept of intellectual honesty, or, if you like to put it that way, on Shakespeare’s maxim, ‘To thine own self be true’. The first thing that we ask of a writer is that he shall not tell lies, that he shall say what he really thinks, what he really feels. The worst thing we can say about a work of art is that it is insincere. And this is even truer of criticism than of creative literature, in which a certain amount of posing and mannerism, and even a certain amount of downright humbug, doesn’t matter, so long as the writer is fundamentally sincere. Modern literature is essentially an individual thing. It is either the truthful expression of what one man thinks and feels, or it is nothing.
As I say, we take this notion for granted, and yet as soon as one puts it into words one realizes how literature is menaced. For this is the age of the totalitarian state, which does not and probably cannot allow the individual any freedom what ever. When one mentions totalitarianism one thinks immediately of Germany, Russia, Italy, but I think one must face the risk that this phenomenon is going to be world-wide. It is obvious that the period of free capitalism is coming to an end and that one country after another is adopting a centralized economy that one can call Socialism or state capitalism according as one prefers. With that the economic liberty of the individual, and to a great extent his liberty to do what he likes, to choose his own work, to move to and fro across the surface of the earth, comes to an end. Now, till recently the implications of this were not foreseen. It was never fully realized that the disappearance of economic liberty would have any effect on intellectual liberty. Socialism was usually thought of as a sort of moralized liberalism. The state would take charge of your economic life and set you free from the fear of poverty, unemployment and so forth, but it would have no need to interfere with your private intellectual life. Art could flourish just as it had done in the liberal-capitalist age, only a little more so, because the artist would not any longer be under economic compulsions.
Now, on the existing evidence, one must admit that these ideas have been falsified. Totalitarianism has abolished freedom of thought to an extent unheard of in any previous age. And it is important to realize that its control of thought is not only negative, but positive. It not only forbids you to express — even to think — certain thoughts, but it dictates what you shall think, it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison. The totalitarian state tries, at any rate, to control the thoughts and emotions of its subjects at least as completely as it controls their actions.
The question that is important for us is: can literature survive in such an atmosphere? I think one must answer shortly that it cannot. If totalitarianism becomes world-wide and permanent, what we have known as literature must come to an end. And it will not do — as may appear plausible at first — to say that what will come to an end is merely the literature of post-Renaissance Europe.
There are several vital differences between totalitarianism and all the orthodoxies of the past, either in Europe or in the East. The most important is that the orthodoxies of the past did not change, or at least did not change rapidly. In medieval Europe the Church dictated what you should believe, but at least it allowed you to retain the same beliefs from birth to death. It did not tell you to believe one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday. And the same is more or less true of any orthodox Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim today. In a sense his thoughts are circumscribed, but he passed his whole life within the same framework of thought. His emotions are not tampered with.
Now, with totalitarianism, exactly the opposite is true. The peculiarity of the totalitarian state is that though it controls thought, it does not fix it. It sets up unquestionable dogmas, and it alters them from day to day. It needs the dogmas, because it needs absolute obedience from its subjects, but cannot avoid the changes, which are dictated by the needs of power politics. It declared itself infallible, and at the same time it attacks the very concept of objective truth. To take a crude, obvious example, every German up to September 1939 had to regard Russian Bolshevism with horror and aversion, and since September 1939 he had to regard it with admiration and affection. If Russia and Germany go to war, as they may well do within the next few years, another equally violent change will have to take place. The German’s emotional life, his loves and hatreds, are expected, when necessary, to reverse themselves overnight. I hardly need to point out the effect of this kind of thing upon literature. For writing is largely a matter of feeling, which cannot always be controlled from outside. It is easy to pay lip-service to the orthodoxy of the moment, but writing of any consequence can only be produced when a man feels the truth of what he is saying; without that, the creative impulse is lacking. All the evidence we have suggests that the sudden emotional changes which totalitarianism demands of its followers are psychologically impossible. And that is the chief reason why I suggest that if totalitarianism triumphs throughout the world, literature, as we have known it, is at an end. And, in fact, totalitarianism does seem to have had that effect so far. In Italy literature has been crippled, and in Germany it seems almost to have ceased. The most characteristic activity of the Nazis is burning books. And even in Russia the literary renaissance we once expected has not happened, and the most promising Russian writers show a marked tendency to commit suicide or disappear into prison.
I said earlier that liberal capitalism is obviously coming to an end, and therefore I may have seemed to suggest that freedom of thought is also inevitably doomed. But I do not believe this to be so, and I will simply say in conclusion that I believe the hope of literature’s survival lies in those countries in which liberalism has struck its deepest roots, the non-military countries, western Europe and the Americas, India and China. I believe — it may be no more than a pious hope — that though a collectivized economy is bound to come, those countries will know how to evolve a form of Socialism which is not totalitarian, in which freedom of thought can survive the disappearance of economic individualism. That, at any rate, is the only hope to which anyone who cares for literature can cling. Whoever feels the value of literature, whoever sees the central part it plays in the development of human history, must also see the life and death necessity of resisting totalitarianism, whether it is imposed on us from without or from within.