G. K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton.

Utopia of usurers, and other essays online

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the act was so avowedly criminal that the law
had to be altered afterwards to cover the crime.
Now suppose some postal official, between here
and Rio Janeiro, had noticed a faint kicking


inside the brown paper parcel, and had at-
tempted to ascertain the cause. And suppose
the clerk could only explain, in a muffled voice
through the brown paper, that he was by con-
stitution and temperament a Rebel. Don't
you see that he would be rather understating
his case? Don't you see he would be bearing
his injuries much too meekly? They might
take him out of the parcel ; but they would very
possibly put him into a mad-house instead.
Symbolically speaking, that is what they would
like to do with us. Symbolically speaking, the
dirty misers who rule us will put us in a mad-^
house — unless we can put them there.

Or suppose a bank cashier were admittedly
allowed to take the money out of the till, and
put it loose in his pocket, more or less mixed
up with his own money* afterwards laying
some of both (at different odds) on "Blue
Murder" for the Derby. Suppose when some
depositor asked mildly what day the account-


ants came, he smote that astonished inquirer on
the nose, crying: "Slanderer! Mud-slinger !"
and suppose he then resigned his position.
Suppose no books were shown. Suppose when
the new cashier came to be initiated into his du-
ties, the old cashier did not tell him about the
money, but confided it to the honour and deli-
cacy of his own maiden aunt at Cricklewood.
Suppose he then went off in a yacht to visit the
whale fisheries of the North Sea. Well, in
every moral and legal principle, that is a pre-
cise account of the dealings with the Party
Funds. But what would the banker say?
What would the clients say? One thing, I
think, I can venture to promise; the banker
would not march up and down the office ex-
claiming in rapture, "I'm a rebel ! That's what
I am, a rebel!" And if he said to the first in-
dignant depositor "You are a rebel," I fear the
depositor might answer, "You are a robber."
We have no need to elaborate arguments for


breaking the law. The capitalists have broken
the law. We have no need of further morali-
ties. They have broken their own morality.
It is as if you were to run down the
street shouting, "Communism I Communism!
Share! Share!" after a man who had run
away with your watch.

We want a term that will tell everybody that
there is, by the common standard, frank fraud
and cruelty pushed to their fierce extreme ; and
that we are fighting them. We are not in a
state of "divine discontent"; we are in an en-
tirely human and entirely reasonable rage.
We say we have been swindled and oppressed,
and we are quite ready and able to prove it
before any tribunal that allows us to call a
swindler a swindler. It is the protection of
the present system that most of its tribunals
do not. I cannot at the moment think of any
party name that would particularly distinguish
us from our more powerful and prosperous op-


ponents, unless it were the name the old Jacob-
ites gave themselves ; the Honest Party.

Captured Our Standards

I think it is plain that for the purpose of
facing these new and infamous modern facts,
we cannot, with any safety, depend on any of
the old nineteenth century names ; Socialist, or
Communist, or Radical, or Liberal, or Labour.
They are all honourable names ; they all stand,
or stood, for things in which we may still be-
lieve; we can still apply them to other prob-
lems ; but not to this one. We have no longer
a monopoly of these names. Let it be under-
stood that I am not speaking here of the philo-
sophical problem of their meaning, but of the
practical problem of their use. When I called
myself a Radical I knew Mr. Balfour would
not call himself a Radical ; therefore there was
some use in the word. ^Vhen I called myself
a Socialist I knew Lord Penrhyn would not


call himself a Socialist; therefore there was
some use in the word. But the capitalists, in
that aggressive march which is the main fact
of our time, have captured our standards, both
in the military and philosophic sense of the
word. And it is useless for us to march under
colours which they can carry as well as we.

Do you believe in Democracy? The devils
also believe and tremble. Do you believe in
Trades Unionism? The Labour Members also
believe; and tremble like a falling teetotum.
Do you believe in the State ? The Samuels also
believe, and grin. Do you believe in the cen-
tralisation of Empire? So did Beit. Do you
believe in the decentralisation of Empire ? So
does Albu. Do you believe in the brotherhood
of men : and do you, dear brethren, believe that
Brother Arthur Henderson does not? Do you
cry, *'The world for the workers !" and do you
imagine Philip Snowden would not ? What we
need is a name that shall declare, not that the


modern treason and tyranny are bad, but that
they are quite literally, intolerable : and that we
mean to act accordingly. I really think "the
Limits" would be as good a name as any. But,
anyhow, something is born among us that is as
strong as an infant Hercules: and it is part
of my prejudices to want it christened. I ad-
vertise for godfathers and godmothers.


A THING which does not exist and which is
very much wanted is "A Working-Man's His-
tory of England." I do not mean a history
written for working men (there are whole dust-
bins of them), I mean a history, written by
working men or from the working men's stand-
point. I wish five generations of a fisher's or
a miner's family could incarnate themselves in
one man and tell the story.

It is impossible to ignore altogether any
comment coming from so eminent a literary
artist as Mr. Laurence Housman, but I do not
deal here so specially with his well known con-
viction about Votes for Women, as with an-
other idea which is, I think, rather at the back



of it, if not with him at least with others; and
which concerns this matter of the true story of
England. For the true story is so entirely dif-
ferent from the false official story that the
official classes tell that by this time the working
class itself has largely forgotten its own ex-
perience. Either story can be quite logically
linked up with Female Suffrage, which, there-
fore, I leave where it is for the moment ; merely
confessing that, so long as we get hold of the
right story and not the wrong story, it seems
to me a matter of secondary importance
whether we link it up with Female Suffrage or

Now the ordinary version of recent English
history that most moderately educated people
have absorbed from childhood is something like
this. That we emerged slowly from a semi-
barbarism in which all the power and wealth
were in the hands of Kings and a few nobles ;
that the King's power was broken first and


then in due time that of the nobles, that this
piece-meal improvement ^yas brought about by
one class after another waking up to a sense of
citizenship and demanding a place in the na-
tional councils, frequently by riot or violence;
and that in consequence of such menacing pop-
ular action, the franchise was granted to one
class after another and used more and more to
improve the social conditions of those classes,
until we practically became a democracy, save
for such exceptions as that of the women. I
do not think anyone will deny that something
like that is the general idea of the educated man
who reads a newspaper and of the newspaper
that he reads. That is the view current at pub-
lic schools and colleges ; it is part of the culture
of all the classes that count for much in gov-
ernment ; and there is not one word of truth in
it from beginning to end.


That Great Reform Bill
Wealth and political power were very much
more popularly distributed in the Middle Ages
than they are now; but we will pass all that
and consider recent history. The franchise has
never been largely and, liberally granted in
England ; half the males have no vote and are
not likely to get one. It was never granted in
reply to pressure from awakened sections of
the democracy; in every case there was a per-
fectly clear motive for granting it solely for
the convenience of the aristocrats. The Great
Reform Bill was not passed in response to
such riots as that which destroyed a Castle;
nor did the men who destroyed the Castle get
any advantage whatever out of the Great Re-
form Bill. The Great Reform Bill was passed
in order to seal an alliance between the landed
aristocrats and the rich manufacturers of the
north (an alliance that rules us still) ; and the
chief object of that alliance was to prevent the


English populace getting any political power
in the general excitement after the French
Revolution. No one can read Macaulay's
speech on the Chartists, for instance, and not
see that this is so. Disraeli's further extension
of the suffrage was not effected by the intel-
lectual vivacity and pure republican theory of
the mid- Victorian agricultural labourer ; it was
effected by a politician who saw an opportunity
to dish the Whigs, and guessed that certain
orthodoxies in the more prosperous artisan
might yet give him a balance against the com-
mercial Radicals. And while this very thin
game of wire-pulling with the mere abstraction
of the vote was being worked entirely by the
oligarchs and entirely in their interests, the
solid and real thing that was going on was the
steady despoiling of the poor of all power or
wealth, until they find themselves to-day upon
the threshold of slavery. That is The Work-
ing Man's History of England.


Now, as I have said, I care comparatively
little what is done with the mere voting part of
the matter, so long as it is not done in such a
way as to allow the plutocrat to escape his re-
sponsibility for his crimes, by pretending to be
much more progressive, or much more sus-
ceptible to popular protest, than he ever has
been. And there is this danger in many of
those who have answered me. One of them,
for instance, says that women have been forced
into their present industrial situations by the
same iron economic laws that have compelled
men. I say that men have not been compelled
by iron economic laws, but in the main by the
coarse and Christless cynicism of other men.
But, of course, this way of talking is exactly
in accordance with the fashionable and official
version of English history. Thus, you will
read that the monasteries, places where men of
the poorest origin could be powerful, grew cor-
rupt and gradually decayed. Or you will read


that the medieval guilds of free workmen
yielded at last to an inevitable economic law.
You will read this ; and you will be reading lies.
They might as well say that Julius Caesar grad-
ually decayed at the foot of Pompey's statue.
You might as well say that Abraham Lincoln
yielded at last to an inevitable economic law.
The free mediaeval guilds did not decay; they
were murdered. Solid men with solid guns
and halberds, armed with lawful warrants from
living statesmen broke up their corporations
and took away their hard cash from them. In
the same way the people in Cradley Heath are
no more victims of a necessary economic law
than the people in Putumayo. They are vic-
tims of a very terrible creature, of whose sins
much has been said since the beginning of the
world; and of whom it was said of old, "Let
us fall into the hands of God, for His mercies
are great ; but let us not fall into the hands of


The Capitalist Is in the Dock

Now it is this offering of a false economic
excuse for the sweater that is the danger in
perpetually saying that the poor woman will
use the vote and that the poor man has not used
it. The poor man is prevented from using it;
prevented by the rich man, and the poor woman
would be prevented in exactly the same gross
and stringent style. I do not deny, of course,
that there is something in the English tem-
perament, and in the heritage of the last few
centuries that makes the English workman
more tolerant of wrong than most foreign
workmen would be. But this only slightly
modifies the main fact of the moral responsi-
bility. To take an imperfect parallel, if we
said that negro slaves would have rebelled if
negroes had been more intelligent, we should
be saying what is reasonable. But if we were
to say that it could by any possibility be rep-


resented as being the negro's fault that he was
at that moment in America and not in Africa,
we should be saying what is frankly unrea-
sonable. It is every bit as unreasonable to say
the mere supineness of the English workmen
has put them in the capitalist slave-yard. The
capitalist has put them in the capitalist slave-
yard ; and very cunning smiths have hammered
the chains. It is just this creative criminahty
in the authors of the system that we must not
allow to be slurred over. The capitalist is in
the dock to-day; and so far as I at least can
prevent him, he shall not get out of it.


It will be long before the poison of the Party
System is worked out of the body politic.
Some of its most indirect effects are the most
dangerous. One that is very dangerous just
now is this: that for most Englishmen the
Party System falsifies history, and especially
the history of revolutions. It falsifies history
because it simplifies history. It paints every-
thing either Blue or Buff in the style of its
own silly circus politics : while a real revolution
has as many colours as the sunrise — or the end
of the world. And if we do not get rid of this
error we shall make very bad blunders about
the real revolution which seems to grow more



and more probable, especially among the Irish.
And any hmnan familiarity with history will
teach a man this first of all: that Party prac-
tically does not exist in a real revolution. It is
a game for quiet times.

If you take a boy who has been to one of
those big private schools which are falsely
called the Public Schools, and another boy who
has been to one of those large public schools
which are falsely called the Board Schools, you
will find sonie differences between the two,
chiefly a difference in the management of the
voice. But you will find they are both English
in a special way, and that their education has
been essentially the same. They are ignorant
on the same subjects. They have never heard
of the same plain facts. They have been taught
the wrong answer to the same confusing ques-
tion. There is one fundamental element in
the attitude of the Eton master talking about
"playing the game," and the elementary


teacher training gutter-snipes to sing, "What
is the Meaning of Empire Day?" And the
name of that element is "unhistoric." It knows
nothing really about England, still less about
Ireland or France, and, least of all, of course,
about anything like the French Revolution.

Revolution by Snap Division

Now what general notion does the ordinary
English boy, thus taught to utter one ignorance
in one of two accents, get and keep through
life about the French Revolution? It is the
notion of the English House of Commons with
an enormous Radical majority on one side of
the table and a small Tory minority on the
other; the majority voting solid for a Repub-
lic, the minority voting solid for a Monarchy;
two teams tramping through two lobbies with
no difference between their methods and ours,
except that (owing to some habit peculiar to
Gaul) the brief intervals were brightened by


a riot or a massacre, instead of by a whisky
and soda and a Marconi tip. Novels are much
more reliable than histories in such matters.
For though an English novel about France
does not tell the truth about France, it does
tell the truth about England; and more than
half the histories never tell the truth about
anything. And popular fiction, I think, bears
witness to the general English impression.
The French Revolution is a snap division with
an unusual turnover of votes. On the one side
stand a king and queen who are good but weak,
surrounded by nobles with rapiers drawn ; some
of whom are good, many of whom are wicked,
all of whom are good-looking. Against these
there is a formless mob of human beings, wear-
ing red caps and seemingly insane, who all
blindly follow ruffians who are also rhetori-
cians ; some of whom die repentant and others
unrepentant towards the end of the fourth act.
The leaders of this boiling mass of all men


melted into one are called Mirabeau, Robes-
pierre, Danton, Marat, and so on. And it is
conceded that their united frenzy may have
been forced on them by the evils of the old

That, I think, is the commonest English view
of the French Revolution ; and it will not sur-
vive the reading of two pages of any real speech
or letter of the period. These human beings
were human ; varied, complex and inconsistent.
But the rich Englishman, ignorant of revolu-
tions, would hardly believe you if you told him
some of the common human subtleties of the
case. Tell him that Robespierre threw the red
cap in the dirt in disgust, while the king had
worn it with a broad grin, so to speak ; tell him
that Danton, the fierce founder of the Repub-
lic of the Terror, said quite sincerely to a
noble, "I am more monarchist than you;" tell
him that the Terror really seems to have been
brought to an end chiefly by the efforts of peo-


pie who particularly wanted to go on with it —
and he will not believe these things. He will
not believe them because he has no humility,
and therefore no realism. He has never been
inside himself ; and so could never be inside an-
other man. The truth is that in the French
affair everybody occupied an individual posi-
tion. Every man talked sincerely, if not be-
cause he was sincere, then because he was an-
gry. Robespierre talked even more about God
than about the Republic because he cared even
more about God than about the Republic.
Danton talked even more about France than
about the Republic because he cared even more
about France than about the Republic.
Marat talked more about Humanity than
either, because that physician (though him-
self somewhat needing a physician) really
cared about it. The nobles were divided,
each man from the next. The attitude of
the king was quite different from the atti-


tude of the queen ; certainly much more differ-
ent than any differences between our Liberals
and Tories for the last twenty years. And it
will sadden some of my friends to remember
that it was the king who was the Liberal and
the queen who was the Tory. There were not
two people, I think, in that most practical
crisis who stood in precisely the same attitude
towards the situation. And that is why, be-
tween them, they saved Europe. It is when
you really perceive the unity of mankind that
you really perceive its variety. It is not a flip-
pancy, it is a very sacred truth, to say that
when men really understand that they are
brothers they instantly begin to fight.

The Revival of Reality

Now these things are repeating themselves
with an enormous reality in the Irish Revolu-
tion. You will not be able to make a Party


System out of the matter. Everybody is in re-
volt; therefore everybody is telHng the truth.
The Nationahsts will go on caring most for the
nation, as Danton and the defenders of the
frontier went on caring most for the nation.
The priests will go on caring most for religion,
as Robespierre went on caring most for relig-
gion. The Socialists will go on caring most
for the cure of physical suffering, as Marat
went on caring most for it. It is out of these
real differences that real things can be made,
such as the modern French democracy. For
by such tenacity everyone sees at last that there
is something in the other person's position.
And those drilled in party disciphne see noth-
ing either past or present. And where there is
nothing there is Satan.

For a long time past in our politics there
has not only been no real battle, but no real
bargain. 'No two men have bargained as Glad-
stone and Parnell bargained — each knowing


the other to be a power. But in real revolu-
tions men discover that no one man can really
agree with another man until he has disagreed
with him.


There is a certain daily paper in England
towards which I feel very much as Tom Pinch
felt towards Mr. Pecksniff immediately after
he had found him out. The war upon Dickens
was part of the general war on all democrats,
about the eighties and nineties, which ushered
in the brazen plutocracy of to-day. And one
of the things that it was fashionable to say of
Dickens in drawing-rooms was that he had no
subtlety, and could not describe a complex
frame of mind. Like most other things that
are said in drawing-rooms, it was a lie. Dick-
ens was a very unequal writer, and his suc-
cesses alternate with his failures; but his suc-
cesses are subtle quite as often as they are sim-
ple. Thus, to take "Martin Chuzzlewit'* alone,



I should call the joke about the Lord No-zoo
a simple joke: but I should call the joke about
Mrs. Todgers's vision of a wooden leg a subtle
joke. And no frame of mind was ever so self-
contradictory and yet so realistic as that which
Dickens describes when he says, in effect, that,
though Pinch knew now that there had never
been such a person as Pecksniff, in his ideal
sense, he could not bring himself to insult the
very face and form that had contained the leg-
end. The parallel with Liberal journalism is
not perfect; because it was once honest; and
Pecksniff presumably never was. And even
when I come to feel a final incompatibility of
temper, Pecksniff was not so PecksnifRan as he
has since become. But the comparison is com-
plete in so far as I share all the reluctance of
Mr. Pinch. Some old heathen king was ad-
vised by one of the Celtic saints, I think, to
burn what he had adored and adore what he
had burnt. I am quite ready, if anyone will


prove I was wrong, to adore what I have
burnt; but I do really feel an unwillingness
verging upon weakness to burning what I have
adored. I think it is a weakness to be over-
come in times as bad as these, when (as Mr.
Orage wrote with something like splendid com-
mon sense the other day) there is such a lot
to do and so few people who will do it. So I
will devote this article to considering one case
of the astounding baseness to which Liberal
journalism has sunk.

Mental Breakdown in Fleet Street

One of the two or three streaks of light on
our horizon can be perceived in this: that the
moral breakdown of these papers has been ac-
companied by a mental breakdown also. The
contemporary official paper, like the "Daily
News" or the "Daily Chronicle" (I mean in so
far as it deals with politics), simply cannot


argue; and simply does not pretend to argue.
It considers the solution which it imagines that
wealthy people want, and it signifies the same
in the usual manner; which is not by holding
up its hand, but by falling on its face. But
there is no more curious quality in its degra-
dation than a sort of carelessness, at once of
hurry and fatigue, with which it flings down
its argument — or rather its refusal to argue.
It does not even write sophistry : it writes any-
thing. It does not so much poison the reader's
mind as simply assimie that the reader hasn't
got one. For instance, one of these papers
printed an article on Sir Stuart Samuel, who,
having broken the great Liberal statute against
corruption, will actually, perhaps, be asked to
pay his own fine — in spite of the fact that he
can well afford to do so. The article says, if I
remember aright, that the decision will cause
general surprise and some indignation. That
any modern Government making a very rich


capitalist obey the law will cause general sur-
prise, may be true. Whether it will cause gen-
eral indignation rather depends on whether

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Online LibraryG. K. (Gilbert Keith) ChestertonUtopia of usurers, and other essays → online text (page 4 of 8)