Are We Reactionary?
by G.K. Chesterton
In our last issue Sir Henry Slesser quoted at length from the debates of the House of Commons a perfectly lucid and logicial and solid criticism of the social policy which we pursue. It was by Mr. Montague, a Labour member; and apparently the only Labour member to maintain what many suppose to be the whole Labour policy. He criticised our conception from the point of view of the old Fabian intellectual; who did at least differ from many other intellectuals by the possession of an intellect. This criticism, being concerned with fundamental and essential questions of public policy, was very little reported in the press. Newspapers are necessarily limited in their space; and we who are beginners would be the last to deny the difficulties of making up a page. And if the newspapers were to admit into their columns any considerable discussion of what is to happen to the English land or the English labouring class, they would find it impossible to print at length the fourth housemaid's fifth reiteration, in the witness box, that she never saw anything particular about the demeanour of Captain Bingle towards Lady Brown. We should be driven to content ourselves with only five photographs of people paddling in the summer or ski-ing in the winter. We shall endeavour to provide Mr. Montague with an adequate reply, but we feel some pride in the fact that we are probably among the few who will give him even an adequate report.
It is necessary to deal here with the charge of being reactionary and what is really implied in it. It is popularly expressed, as our contributor has noted, in the common phrase about putting back the clock. It makes the brain reel to think how how many million times we have been told that we cannot put back the clock. It is strange that people should use the same mechanical metaphor in the sam mechanical spirit so many times without once seeing what is wrong with it. It looks rather as if their clocks, anyhow, had stopped. If there is one thing in the world that no sane man ought to connect with the idea of unlimited progress, it is a clock. A clock does not strike twelve and then go on to strike thirteen or fourteen. If a clock really proceeded on the progressive or evolutionary principle, we should find it was half-past a hundred in about a week. So far as the significance of the signs go, which is the only value of a clock, the case is altogether the other way. You do not need to put the clock back; because in that sense the clock always puts itself back. It always returns to its first principle and its primary purpose; and in that respect at nay rate it is really a good metaphor for a social scheme. The clock that had completely forgotten the meaning of one and two would be valueless; the commonwealth that has completely forgotten the meaning of individual dignity and direct ownership will never recover them by going blindly forward to an infinity of number; it must return to reality. It must be reactionary, if that is reaction.
But if that is reaction, a great many other things are reactionary. For instance, a Trade Union was and is utterly reactionary. Indeed, when it first appeared it was regarded as reactionary; especially by the people who then considered themselves most progressive. It was regarded by the Radical of the industrial revolution as a piece of unscientific sentimentalism and ignorant discontent. And so it was, upon the principles then counted scientific. The Trade Union was reactionary if the Manchester School was progressive. And the Manchester School was certainly thought itself progessive; and indeed everybody else thought so, too; it was not only praised as progressive but dreaded and denounced as progressive. What is the use, therefore, of Mr. Montague throwing the word "reactionary" at us, when his own grandfather might have thrown the word "reactionary" at him? The Trade Union reacted almost automatically towards the tradition of the Guild because individualism was driving on indefinitely to insanity; because that mechanical clock had gone mad, and was striking a million. We react towards the tradition of the peasant because the divorce between property and personality has become equally impossible; so that a man is not even a clock but one of the works of a clock.
If we can dispute with Mr. Montague over the term "reactionary" we might dispute with him still more over the term "medieval." About that we have a very simple thing to say. If Mr. Montague will get into a little boat and sail away from his native land in any direction whatever (short of the North Pole) he will probably land in a country where small ownership is a living, thriving, staring modern reality, in a greater or less degree according to the inroads of the last "progressive" fad of industrialism. If he goes west and lands in Ireland he will find it. If he goes east and lands in Denmark he will find it. If he goes almost anywhere he will find it much more fully developed than he will find it here. Everywhere doubtless it is modified or thwarted; everywhere doubtless it might be improved; but everywhere it is a thing of the present. If anything in the world is modern, small property is modern. He might as well say the decimel coinage is medieval; for almost every place which has a decimel coinage has some measure of small property. He might as well say Napoleon was a medieval figure; for this tendency has largely followed the code Napoleon. In a legal or strictly historical sense, indeed, Mr. Montague's implication is wildly correct. Medieval civilisation was indeed progressing towards private property for all, when it was split asunder by that strange earthquake whether economic or theological. But medieval civilisation started with the legal fiction of feudalism, by which the land belonged to the King; that is, to the State. In other words medieval civilisation started with the fiction of Socialism. It is Mr. Montague who is medieval. It is Mr. Montague who is reacting towards the first heraldic fictions of the feudal age. We hand him back the emblazoned escutcheon with a bow. Modern Europe, swarming with prosaic and practical peasants, is good enough for us.
Of course, we know what he really means, whether he knows it or not, by our being medieval. He means something that has many other euphemisms. He means something that has survived medievalism thought it made medievalism, just as it survived feudalism though it mitigated feudalism, just as it survived slavery though it dissolved slavery. We know its name if he does not; and we beg to inform him that this also is an exceedingly modern institution. If he will sail round the world in his little boat, he will find out how modern. But nobody expects him to argue on the assumption of Catholic Christianity, and therefore it is irrelevant to deal with that matter here. We will only say that, if he cares for a hint about the nature of the thing in its varied effects, he will find it in the notion of the Will which is at the root of all liberty. Because that philosophy favours voluntary association, it supports Guilds and Trades Unions; because it believes in a province for volition it favours property. And he will find this study more philosophical than playing with a clock and talking of politics in terms of time. It is bad enough when he merely calls that reactionary to-day which was reactionary yesterday.
We shall find an opportunity elsewhere of discussing in greater detail the practical criticisms involved in Mr. Montague's most interesting speech; here we are only concerned with the particular reproach of reaction. But in a general fashion we may say this. Mr. Montague's ideal society is one in which no man will ever have any real control; even over himself. The advantage of the plan he deprecated, the plan by which each worker in a factory might also be an independent worker on the land, is that each man would have something to fall back upon, and that is fundamental. Suppose, for instance, there is a strike; presumably in that case there will be a strike fund. We certainly have never indulged in the vulgar, grumbling, against strike funds or strikes. But after all a strike fund must be in the hands of officials; just as all the money of the Treasury is in the hands of officials. In theory we have control over the money in the Treasury. In practice, men may come to have as little control over the Trade Union fund as over the Treasury. Of course, this iwll not affect one who does not want the people to rule; who would uphold the Trade Union against the Trade Unionists. But the people we want to rule are people and not offices. Against the despotic thing called Supply we set the democratic thing called Demand.