I don’t know what to say. Even Happy New Year seems both belated and unlikely given the state of affairs we are faced with. We loom towards Brexit without any clearer idea about what it will mean – though all the news suggests that everything will get pricier because of a poor exchange rate. Tories have turned their back on austerity, but you wouldn’t really know it would you? Theresa May keeps telling us we’re all in it together in the sort of headmistressy voice that suggests she believes the more you say something the more people will believe you. I have to say personally – there’s no reality in which I am in any form of same boat as Theresa May. And I’m not alone. Even if we’re all in the Titanic, I know who will bag the seats in the life-raft. And it isn’t the likes of me. I am a potential which has never been maximised and never will be. Not through lack of hard work on my part, I add. I’m not complaining. Just saying.
But what is a little local difficulty with all that bigger issues. I watched Obama’s ‘Goodbye’ to America. He urges everyone to keep fighting for democracy – to keep active, to keep the faith. Good luck with that one America. As I write this I feel that (despite the appalling weather outside) we are experiencing the last days of calm before the biggest storm in my lifetime. In a week’s time they will swear in Donald J.Trump as US President. How can that even happen? But it will. It’s the democratic will of the people. Obama told us. We have to accept it. And if we don’t like it, we have to work to change it. The phrase pissing into the wind strikes to mind.
I have to admit I feel pure, naked fear at the prospect of what Donald Trump will do to the world. My best hope is that he’ll be hog-tied by the ‘administration.’ But not much convinces me that there is a way to control him. Appeasement anyone? How can we see anything good coming out of giving the reins of power to the person probably least appropriate to act in the good of any ‘people’. I feel like we are seeing the death, not of democracy, but of any chance for reasoned debate. Obama pointed towards us all existing in our own little ‘post-truth’ bubbles and in the Age of Trump Twitter seems to be the discourse space of choice. That is truly terrifying.
So, from my own wee sinking boat, I just wanted to say that my goal in 2017 is to keep baling. That publishing Gateway may be insubstantial as an act of rebellion but that’s what it is. A small beacon (though not of hope) that I will not love Big Brother. That I will strive to present alternative views from the past and present. Throwing mud at a wall. Yes. Pissing into the wind. Yes. But it’s all that’s left to the likes of me. Until Theresa May acts on her words to help me maximise my potential. And with global warming all around us I don’t expect Hell to Freeze Over any time soon. Our leaky wee Independent boat will keep afloat month by month and I hope you’ll join us if you can deTwit yourself for long enough.
This month we’ve got articles on Burns, and Marx,(liberated from Public Domain Prison), a ‘political’ short story, and a question on the role of the state as well as The Orraman offering his own cultural resolutions. Fill your boots with freedom while you can – before they build a paywall around our virtual lives!
Happy New Year!
January is the double headed month. We look backwards and we look forwards at the same time. Sometimes we get stuck in between. It can be a conflicting and confusing time. I have been looking backwards at my Gateway articles from last year while trying to ponder what should be my focus for the year ahead. My self-imposed field is culture, specifically Scots culture. As every year begins I struggle with the same issues: where to start? ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘who am I to write about culture?’
Last year I started on an exploration of some ‘greats’ (if you’ve read any of my articles you know that I have a problem with ‘great’ as a literary concept and construct) Beyond that I undertook a prolonged exploration of a group of writers called (by me) The Edinburgh Boys. I also started ‘Digging up the Kailyard.’
There is more work to be done on all these areas. There is always more work to be done in the defining, redefining and general exploration of culture in general and Scots culture more specifically. This year I want to push forward and explore more.
I like to work organically, in response to my reading and to things happening round about as well as delving back into ‘theory’ and ‘history’ of Scots literature. Following the lead of James Leatham I’m comfortable giving my own, unique view on things, however unpopular it might be. I’m not trying to become ‘great’ after all. Just trying to bear witness to my own experience and understanding. And because I’m not being paid by anyone I have the freedom to do this. I am not ‘owned’. My writing has no commercial imperative. It’s of little value to the ‘system’ so I am roundly ignored by most. That doesn’t matter. Bearing witness isn’t about making friends, or even influencing people. It’s about bearing witness.
This year I have a few topics/themes/ riffs if you want to be hip, which I intend to explore. But of course I may head off-piste as things develop. My key stated cultural resolution is really to delve into and where possible expose and unpick the actualities of cultural elites in all their forms (including what I think is possibly a unique Scottish trait of the ‘anti-elite elite’.
So in the coming months you’ll be treated to articles entitled:
What Price Culture? Firing the Scots Canon and Whose Culture is it anyway? I will be ploughing my way through some very claggy ground, I don’t crave or expect agreement from my readers but I do hope, through my challenging opinions (and I’d hope through decently reasoned argument) that I will encourage readers to think outside of the box/es into which Scots culture is all too often placed.
I’ll give you a wee starter for ten. Bookfellas. Heard of them? Probably not. Not unless you’re among the Scots cultural literary elite in which case you’re probably not reading this. Yet for them to be what they want to be, we should all be aware of them. They are going to ‘help’ us after all.
In short, Bookfellas is a concept dreamed up by The Scottish Book Trust (hmm… that very name gets me thinking challenging thoughts ) to encourage more men to read and especially to get them to read to their sons/children.
I’m guessing that the cultural reference is to ‘Goodfellas’ while the ‘style’ is ‘Reservoir Dogs’. I suspect it was a good idea when kicked around in the office by a bunch of those who do not think of themselves as the elite but truly believe their own press that they hold the future of Scots literature in trust for the rest of us. But the devil is in the detail. And in this respect I suppose I am the devil’s advocate.
I ask: Are we charity cases? Do we need people to tell us what to read? Of course recommendations are a great thing, especially from respected sources. BUT. The Scottish Book Trust represents something specific (in my view). It is partly a business - they exist to promote the authors/publishers they are in line (or in cahoots) with. Most people are a) unaware of this but b) find no shame in it anyway. After all, the marketplace is important and we all have to face commercial reality no? (Well, no, actually, not if we’re to be ‘trusted’ with representing and being a port of call for anyone interested in Scots writing).
The ‘Trust’ side of the Scottish Book Trust exists to promote and encourage culture (but I suggest a fairly limited and middle class elitist form of Scots culture) and somehow they have to find a way to resolve the commodification of culture. Actually, it’s not something I think they have a problem with. It’s I who stand outside of the capitalist model, not they. Inside the system they probably see no irony in setting up a project thus:
Bookfellas is a Scottish Book Trust initiative that brings together 50 men and aims to raise £50,000 to ensure that everyone in Scotland has the same opportunity to thrive through reading and writing. We want to encourage more men to read for pleasure and highlight the importance of dads reading to their children.
Laudable on the surface. But think about it. Here’s how they are ‘selling’ it to the men they want to be their role-models. First, you dress in a suit and tie like something out of Reservoir Dogs (well, that’s so cool isn’t it. This whole idea of gangsters being smart and ‘goodfellas’ being ‘bookfellas’ etc. Forgive me if I don’t split my sides laughing at the post-modernist intellectual juvenilia of it all)
They state as follows:
Reading and writing have the power to change lives.
And yes, you have no opposition from me on that score. They give some facts and figures, all very worthy of why it’s so important to get folk reading.
Reading for pleasure is more important to educational achievement and future success than wealth or background.
Sounds good but I wonder if that is really true? Their argument is that while over 60% of mums aged under 25 read to their children only 25% of dads do. Okay. But do they consider that these ‘dads’ may be out working? There is scant real interrogation (that I can see) of the socio-economic conditions of people and WHY dads may read less to their children than mums.
Anyway, what they want is to
Help us turn Scotland into nation of booklovers.
Now I would love that. Truly. I do believe that reading (for pleasure or for any other reason) is a great thing. That it’s a great way to access our culture and learn about ourselves and our place in the wider world. Or it can be. It can just be a way to perpetuate propagandistic myths about the capitalist model and a hierarchical society which alienates all but the elite and those aspiring to elitism. And when that is the purpose of books/reading is it any wonder that many folk (of all genders) don’t engage.
Which is sort of my case in point. The Scottish Book Trust does not speak for all Scots writers. It claims to champion ‘the good’ but who is it who decides the criteria for ‘good’? That’s where the argument falls down. You might remember me going on about this last year in my ‘Only Connect’ article as well as the articles on Burns and Scott. It’s a recurrent theme of mine, sorry. But I don’t apologise because I think it’s an important theme to interrogate.
I might humbly suggest that many men (and women and children) are alienated from reading because they do not see a reflection of their own lives in the work they read. And they have no way of discovering writers who share their experience. They are ‘sold’ from on high – even if what they’re being sold is Trainspotting. Be it aspirational elite, heroin chic or tartan noir – what’s being sold as culture is a construct and a pretty narrow construct as well. And not one that reflects across the whole of Scottish society/culture. Just think on that – I will explore this in more depth in future articles.
Back to the current example though. In their avowed laudable goal to make Scotland a nation of booklovers, here’s what The Scottish Book Trust are going to do.
The idea is simple. Each of the 50 men commits to raising £1,000 each in any way you like by April 2017. Each of the 50 men becomes a role model for reading in their families, at work and with friends. The money raised will support Scottish Book Trust’s literacy programmes.
Okay… read on… here’s why, as a man, you would sign up (apart from wanting to wear shades, a suit, and be like a combo of Goodfellas and Reservoir dogs of course)
You will immediately become part of an exclusive group of 50 men across Scotland. You’ll meet new people and widen your personal and business networks. You’ll be championing a great cause, having fun and making a real difference to the future of people in Scotland.
Okay, now I really feel I shouldn’t have to point out the herd of elephants trampling round this room. You aim to promote inclusive reading habits by creating an exclusive group? I suppose it’s an example of faith in a trickledown version of capitalism is it? It certainly doesn’t say ‘grassroots’ to me. It smacks of top down thinking. And as such it will surely fail. It may perpetuate the same small elitist circle, reaching out to the aspirational, but it will not engage those who perhaps need most ‘help’ – if you think non-readers need ‘help.’ For me the only ‘help’ such people need is to being able to access appropriate reading matter – and by appropriate I mean what they WANT to read. I believe there are plenty of writers out there living ‘under the radar’ who are writing the kind of things that these ‘non readers’ would read. But they never make the headlines. They have no ‘commercial’ value to the likes of the Trust and therefore they cannot be matched with potential readers. Instead, we are all to be served up with the ‘good’ by the ‘great.’ In the name of preserving and promoting our Culture. Not good enough in my opinion.
It is, of course, easy to criticise. I’m not trying to knife anyone, just trying to raise consciousness, and I will attempt to explore the theory and practice of how we can develop and engage as a nation with our own written culture throughout the rest of this year. That’s my cultural resolution. I hope you’ll join me on the journey. You don’t have to buy anything, you don’t have to wear a tie or be a ‘cool dude’. You don’t have to be a man. Just someone who is open to the idea that culture shouldn’t be boxed up and distributed to the masses – but that it is actually a part of the very essence of who we are.
I’ll leave you with a wee ditty. To the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Feel free to sing along.
‘It’s good because we say it’s good, it’s good because we say
It’s good because we say it’s good, it’s good because we say.’
I need no Bookfella to encourage me to read. Nor do many other men I know. I do know a lot of men who would read more if a) they had the spare time and b) could find something to read that felt appropriate to them. If you’re in this position then you have to do a lot of work for yourself – go ‘under the radar’ and seek out the writers who are writing the sort of thing you’re interested in reading – they are out there but no Bookfella is going to be your guide towards them. I can’t offer recommendations because I don’t know your personal taste. But I can tell you that awards and bestsellers are constructs of an aspirational cultural elite and if you are not one of them, then accepting their recommendations isn’t likely to yield the results you are looking for. If you’re looking for a ‘real’ writer who is something like you – an ‘ordinary’ sort of guy – then you have to look for ordinary guys. Don’t look up. Look under the radar. Don’t worship, explore.
Something to think about till next month then...
Matter, Spirit, and Karl Marx
Is our Science all wrong?
Startling Claims from a Spiritualist Angle
The Rally of an Expelled Communist
(first published July 1927)
‘The history of each of the sciences is a record of the progressive substitution of matter for spirit and law for sponteneity.’ Encyclopedia Britannica.
Recent achievements of applied physical science – such as the gramophone, wireless, telegraphy, and the promised television, with, above all, the new subdivision of matter called the electron – are supposed to have given the philosophical materialist pause, and on this assumption the Spiritists are inclined to be aggressive. When Shakespeare said there were more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy he was making a wise allowance for the extension of the realm of the knowable. We have been extending that realm, and all the legitimate, real extensions of it have been along the lines of simple naturalism. There was a time when spirits pervaded all things. Animism put kelpies in the pools, furies in the winds, fairies on the green, fauns and satyrs in the woods, and ghosts everywhere. ‘Devils’ were exorcised with priestly abracadabra, witches were burnt after they had been forced to confess impossible deeds by the applications of pincers. Even the astronomer Kepler believed there were spirits of the planets, and similarly biology was not yet got rid of ‘final causes.’
An Arrestive Treatise
These reflections are suggested by a pamphlet of an unusually arrestive, and on its human side valuable, kind. The treatise is an answer to the question ‘Is Materialism the Basis of Communism?’ (Henderson, 66 Charing Cross Road, London ,6d). The author, Mrs. Isabel Kingsley makes out an excellent case against the materialist conception of history; and many who see in Collectivism an ideal or ideals which will change, not only the economic basis of society, but will revolutionise the whole of life and human nature itself, will be glad of this excursion into the more attractive realm which lies beyond the politico-economic wrangle.
There are some of us who grudge having to be politicians at all. Decently-minded people want to cultivate their bodies and minds, and enjoy life peacefully in a society where one part of the population does not live by picking the pockets of the majority; and politics represent, broadly, a mere attempt to suppress pocket0picking and to force men like the Duke of Northumberland and the average idle shareholder to do their fair share of the necessary work of the world.
But Mrs Kingsley is not concerned about the wrangle, the immediate thing, such as fighting the Trade Disputes Bill or the attempt to set the House of Lords over both the Commons and the Monarchy. Still less is she concerned with the gradual extension of Municipal and State Collectivism. One of the advantages of keeping free from legislative and administrative entanglements is that one can project one’s mind into the future and get busy over matters that have nothing to do with current issues.
Mrs. Kingsley apparently rejects the philosophy of gradualness. She says the slow course of organic transformation may be ‘rejected on strictly scientific grounds’ and refers to De Vries having shown by verified experiments the abrupt appearance of new vegetable species without any immediate transitional forms. These changes he calls ‘mutations’ and from his observations it is seriously argued that abrupt transformation may well be the rule in evolution.
This is an immensely convenient theory. I have never seen the blue rose that gardeners have long tried to evolve by stages of crossing. I have read of a blue rose and have heard of a black one. But there is such a thing as colour blindness. There is also a thing called throwing the hatchet. When the loganberry was produced by crossing the bramble with the raspberry, gardeners made some noise about it; but if a new variety sprang up like a weed, without being man-planted, and with no known antecedents, there would surely be some shout about the miraculous apparition. The much canvassed problem of priority touching the hen and the egg would have a kindred conundrum. When Topsy said she was not born, but just growed, she did not know that a scientist was to come along and say that it was possible to grow without being born. We have heard an enthusiastic breeder discussing aloud, on the other side of a hedge, and all alone, how, by selection, he could produce something that would carry everything before it in the showyard, beating all he had done before by the same means. To leave it all to ‘mutations’ would, no doubt, have been easier.
Mrs. Kingsley’s view makes short work of all the sciences, including that of healing. She cites from Myers and Richet the case of a rich Belgian workman who had both legs broken. There was:
‘suppuration and no disposition of the bones to unite; the lower part of the leg could be moved in all directions. He refused to have it amputated, and had been on crutches for eight years, when one day, while at prayer at a shrine, he felt himself cured, stood up, put his feet to the ground, and walked without assistance.’
The suppuration, it seems, stopped, the accretions cleared away, the disjointed bones set painlessly and without manipulative pressure! Does Mrs Kingsley, one wonders, have her meals cooked without fire, without cutting vegetables, without any of the adaptation of means to ends that all processes have heretofore been supposed to require?
When we cannot induce the majority to do the easy and obvious, the thing of proved adequacy, it may be right to suggest something unheard of and unlikely. But as it is, we put on poultices to extract a virus, we reduce inflammations and fevers by ointments, fomentations, quinine and other febrifugres. In politics, when private enterprise breaks down, public effort comes to the rescue, as with housing. Is all this kind of thing a mere tinkering with evils that can be met with a general fiat lux and effort of faith?
This is transcendentalism with a vengeance. Unfortunately it leaves us all awash. Nothing is as it seems. All our knowledge simply misleads us. The only people who do not know about things are the people who have given a lifetime’s study to them. The Belgian workman who would not have his gangrened leg amputated was right, and the doctors were wrong. When your waterpipes burse call in the tailor. When your coat is torn take it to the plumber. Science, like Love, ‘smiles but to deceive.’
There are of course, cases where the scientist and the politicians are wrong. By citing instances here and there you may make all the experts look foolish in turn. But argument based upon exceptions is special pleading. Mrs Kingsley spoils her case against Materialism-ridden-to-death by setting up the Supernatural against it. And that is not only unnecessary, but mischievous.
But I have got ahead unduly, thinking of the treatise as a whole. Let me begin more or less at the beginning, only remarking incidentally that it is ‘signifcant of much’ that Mrs. Kingsley belonged to the Communist Party, and has apparently been expelled for heresy!
Our authoress accepts the dictionary definitions of Materialism:
1. Materialism – The denial of the existence in man of an immaterial substance which alone is conscious, distinct, and separable from the body. The reduction of psychical processes to physical is the special thesis of Materialism.
2. Materialism – He who denies spirit in man or in the universe. In the domain of ethics and practical life, Materialism is a term use to denote the temper of mind which sees in the acquisition of wealth, material comfort, and sensuous pleasure the only reasonable objects of human endeavour.
As the antithesis of this the following definition is given –
Idealism – Any theory which maintains the universe to be throughout the work or the embodiment of reason or mind. Any theory which seeks the explanation or ultimate raison d’être of the cosmic evolution in the realisation of reason, self-consciousness, or spirit.
I have one or two objections to make to these definitions. The reference to an ‘immaterial substance’ is an obvious contradiction in terms. If there is one thing that ‘substance’ cannot be it is ‘immaterial.’ Substance must be substantial in greater or lesser degree. Water is less substantial than wood, and wood than iron; but all three are substances. An immaterial materiality is naturally repudiated by Materialists or anyone who wishes to use language with any degree of accuracy.
The Materialist does not deny ‘spirit in man.’ He does not deny spirit even in horses and dogs. He only denies that spirit is ‘distinct and separable from the body.’ He does not deny music; he only denies that music can be produced without physical means – voice, violin, or organ – while at the same time he denies that the music itself is physical. In the Phaedo Plato gives Socrates most of the talk (in a dialogue at which Plato himself was confessedly not present); but he gives Simmias the best of the argument in the following passage:
Anyone might use the same argument with respect to harmony, and a lyre and its chords – that harmony is something invisible and incorporeal, very beautiful and divine in a well modulated lyre; but the lyre and its chords are bodies and of corporeal form, compounded and earthly, and akin to that which is mortal. When anyone, then, has broken or burst the chords, he might maintain, from the same reasoning as yours, that it is necessary that harmony should still exist and not be destroyed. .. Our body being compacted and held together by heat and cold, dryness and moisture, and other such qualities, our soul is the fusion and harmony of these when they are well and duly combined with each other. If, then, the soul is a kind of harmony, it is evident that when our body is unduly relaxed or strained through diseases or other maladies the soul must of necessity immediately perish, although it is most divine, just as other harmonies which subsist in sounds or in the various works of artizans, but that the remains of the body of each person last a long time till they are without being or decayed. Consider, then, what we shall say… if anyone should maintain that the soul, being a fusion of the several qualities in the body, perishes first in that which is called death.’
After this we read (Phaedo, sec 80) that Socrates, awaiting death, looked ‘steadfastly at us,’ and, smiling said, ‘Simmias indeed speaks justly.’
Those who, like the Swedenborgians and the Spiritualists, conceive of spirit as something which can put on clothes, or be hit with a stick, are more materialistic than the Materialists. The Materialist believes that the spirit is spiritual. The Spiritualist believes it is material, and does not laugh when he sees an imposter or impostress walking about performing senseless tricks while professing to be a spirit. to the Materialist, spirit is mettle, vital force, which he derives from his body nourished with food, air, and sleep. When the Materialist speaks of a person having ‘a poor spirit’ he means simply that the person makes a poor show in energy, hopefulness, courage, or initiative. The dependence of spirit on the material body is shown by the fact that poor health means poor spirits. The same dependence is shown by the fact that the same individual is one person when hungry and a very different person when rested. When the Materialist speaks of a ‘spirited’ horse he means a horse that has plenty of energy and action.
PART TWO WILL BE AVAILABLE IN THE FEBRUARY EDITION OF THE NEW GATEWAY
‘Say, pa, I heard a couple of men talking stocks the other day. What’s stocks?’
‘Stocks, my son, are shares. You see, when a number of men form a company each subscribes so much money, and then he is given so much stock in the company. Sometimes it’s a bank, sometimes a mercantile or manufacturing concern. Do you understand?’
‘Well, no; I don’t think I hardly do, Have you got any stocks, pa? ‘
‘Yes; I have got some shares in a coal company.’
‘Oh, I’ve heard folks talking about a coal ring! Is that it?’
‘Not exactly. Our company is a member of the coal section of the board of trade; that’s what some rascally fellows have been calling the coal ring.’
‘The men I heard talking about it said the coal ring were a gang of thieves, who ought to be in jail. Did they mean you, pa?’
‘No, they couldn’t mean me, my son, for I am only a stockholder in my company, and my company is in the section, or ring as they call it; so even if the ring did wrong, and were extortioners, my company is only one part of it, and I am only one in twenty in the company; so you see, I can’t be personally responsible.’
I don’t hardly see that, pa; but if you say so, then it must be so. The men said that the ring kept up the price of coal unfairly, and one man said that, as they took advantage of the people’s necessities to force them to pay more than was right, they were all the same as highway robbers.’
‘Oh, he was some crank. Why, all business is done that way! Anybody who didn’t take all the chances that offered would get left. He’d be a fool.’
‘If you got a chance to get hold of a man’s pocket-book when he wasn’t looking, would you take it, pa?’
‘No, certainly not; that would be stealing.’
‘But it would be a chance, pa, wouldn’t it?’
‘That is not what I mean by a chance. I mean a fair chance in the way of business.’
‘Well, if the man was so cold that he was just going to die, and you made him give you his pocket-book before you would let him into the house to get warm, would that be a fair chance?’
‘No, my son; that would be most uncharitable, most un-Christian,’
‘Would it be stealing, pa?’
‘Morally it would; in the sight of God it would be.’
‘Well, if you knew that ever so many people were almost dying of cold, and you had all the coal there was, and you said you wouldn’t let them have any till they gave you ever so much more than it was worth, would that be a fair chance, pa?’
‘It wouldn’t be right for me, my son, to charge more than the market price, I suppose,’
‘Well, but if you had all the coal, whatever you said would be the market price, wouldn’t it?’
‘I suppose it would; but one man can’t own all the coal.’
‘But the men, anyway the one you said was a crank, said that the ring had all the coal. So they could make the market price, couldn’t they, pa?’
‘Yes, I suppose they could.’
‘Well, didn’t they, pa?’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’
‘Are the ring fools?’
‘Well, hardly; they’re about the sharpest that’s going.’
‘Then of course they took all the chances in the way of business, wouldn’t they, pa?’
‘Oh, well, it’s pretty generally admitted that the rings do things which would not do for private individuals to do,’
‘I guess if anyone did, they’d think he wasn’t much of a Christian, wouldn’t they, pa?’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘But if your company is in the ring, then it is as bad as the rest, isn’t it?’
‘Well, maybe it is,’
‘Then if you are one of your company, you are just as bad as the ring, too. You are not much of a Christian, are you, pa?’
‘Oh, nonsense, boy! A man can’t be blamed for what a company does because he happens to hold stock in it.’
‘Well, your company gets a share of what the ring squeezes out of the people, doesn’t it, pa?’
‘Yes, I suppose it does.’
‘And you get your share of what your company gets, don’t you?’
‘I’m not supposed to know how every shilling of my dividends is made.’
‘Say, pa, my Sunday-school teacher says Moses was the greatest law-giver; I reckon he wasn’t very smart, was he?’
‘Yes, my son, Moses was the greatest law-giver that ever lived.’
‘Well, I reckon he didn’t know everything, for all that, did he, pa?’
‘What do you mean? Don’t you know it’s wicked to talk that way?’
‘Well, pa, it wasn’t very smart to tell us we mustn’t steal, when all we have to do is for a lot of us to get together in a company, and then the company can steal all it likes and nobody to blame?’
‘Oh, you are talking nonsense, boy.’
‘Why is it nonsense? Isn’t getting a man in a fix and then making him pay more for his coal than it’s worth, stealing? You said it was. Then if the company can do this without the members being thieves, doesn’t that get round Moses’ laws. I reckon Moses didn’t know much about companies, did he, pa?’
‘Oh, bother; don’t talk so much!’
‘Say, pa, I read in the paper the other day about a band of thieves away out in the country, and the people got guns and went after them and killed them all. Was that true?’
‘Very likely it was.’
‘Well, it wasn’t right, was it, pa? ‘
‘Oh, out there where the courts are not regularly established, the people have to take the law into their own hands sometimes.’
‘But the members of the thieves’ company were not responsible for what the company did, were they, pa?’
‘Why, of course they were.’
‘But you said that even though the coal ring were extortioners that didn’t make you an extortioner. If a member of a ring isn’t to blame for what a ring does, how is a member of a thieves’ company to blame for what the company does, pa? ‘
‘Oh, bother! you chatter too much, boy.’
‘Say, pa, you told me once that the majority of people can make any laws they like. Can they?’
‘Yes, to be sure they can.’
‘Well, suppose the people who think that members of rings are just the same as thieves and highway robbers, get to be the majority, would they get their guns and go for you and the other members of the ring, like the folks out west did for the thieves, pa?’
‘Oh, drop it! I’m tired of your senseless jabber.’
‘Say, pa, what is that big place over there?’ asked the inquisitive boy, as he was taking a walk out on Sunday afternoon.
‘That is the central prison, my son.’
‘What is it for, pa?’
‘Oh, for putting bad people in; thieves and such.’
‘Oh, yes, I know now. When Bill Fisher went into Mr, Shortweight’s grocery store and bought some things, and then, when Mr. Shortweight wasn’t looking, put a whole lot of other things in his basket, they said he was a thief. He was sent to prison, wasn’t he, pa?’
‘Yes, my son. Everybody said it served him right, too.’
‘No, not everybody, pa. I heard one man say that the judge should have considered that Bill’s wife was sick, and he hadn’t any money except what he had just paid the grocer, and had no work, and that the things he stole were just what his wife and his little baby needed. He said the jury should be strung up. You was on the jury, wasn’t you, pa?’
‘That man was a Socialist, or something. It would not do to allow sentiment to interfere with justice.’
‘I heard a man say, pa, that Bill’s wife had died of a broken heart, and two of the girls had turned out bad, and it was more than likely all the others would, as no one would hire them because their father was a thief. He said, too, that Bill would come out of prison a regular criminal.’
‘You see, my son, the way of the transgressor is hard; and the sins of the parents are visited on the children.’
‘If ma was sick, and me and the rest were starving, and you had no money, and couldn’t get work, and had the chance to steal a loaf of bread, and couldn’t get it in any other way, what would you do, pa?’
‘I’d — Why do you ask such foolish questions?’
‘Because I think you’d be too mean to live if you didn’t steal it, pa. And if I had been on the jury, Bill wouldn’t be in jail and his girls wouldn’t be gone bad.’
‘But stealing must be put down, my son.’
‘Then it’s really and truly stealing if a man takes two dollars’ worth of goods and only pays for one of them, is it, pa? Even if he does it to keep his family from starving?’
‘To be sure.’
‘Say, pa, is Sam Jones working in your brickyard now?
‘Yes, and he’s a pretty good man; about as good as I’ve got.’
‘How much do you pay him, pa?’
‘A dollar a-day.’
‘Well, I heard you tell ma that Sam did more work than three men; does he, pa?’
‘Yes, my son, he is a first-class man.’
‘Why does he work for the same as the men who don’t do as much work? Why don’t he leave, pa?’
‘He’s hired by the year, my son, and his time is up in the slack time, when he couldn’t get another job. Then he has a lot of children, and his wife is mostly sick, so he can’t risk losing his job.’
‘My! you got him in a fix, didn’t you, pa?’
‘Oh, well, you see, business men have to make the most of their opportunities.’
‘I guess Bill Fisher thought he was making the most of his opportunities when he took his chances when the grocer wasn’t looking, don’t you, pa?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh, nothing; only I was thinking whether there was much difference between you and Bill Fisher. He took more things from the grocer than he paid for; and you take more work from Sam Jones than you pay for. Is taking more work than you pay for stealing, pa?’
‘No, stupid! What I make off Sam is profit; it is perfectly legitimate!’
‘What’s legitimate, pa?’
‘Legitimate is legal; sanctioned by law. Anything the law allows is legitimate, you must know!’
‘Oh, I see. Taking a man’s work without paying for it is profit, because it’s legitimate; taking a man’s groceries without paying for them is stealing because it isn’t. That’s the way, is it, pa?’
‘Oh, don’t bother; you make me tired, boy!’
‘Say, pa, what’s law? What makes anything law?’
‘Why, the voters; that is, those who have votes elect men to Parliament, and then Parliament says what is to be law. Do you understand, my son?’
‘Have you a vote, pa?’
‘Yes, I vote for four members.’
‘Has Sam a vote, too, pa?’
‘Yes, he has one.’
‘Does he vote for the same men as you do?’
‘Well, I expect him to. If I found he didn’t I might discharge him.’
‘I reckon men who work like Sam haven’t much to say in making the laws, have they, pa?’
‘Well, they have their votes, but intelligence counts. We generally fix things so they can’t do much harm. Last election our side nominated Mr. Straddle and the other side put up Mr. Jumper, and so, whichever was elected, we knew that the laws would be all right anyhow.’
‘I guess if Sam and his set had the making of the laws, pa, they would send men to prison for the legitimate stealing just the same as the other kind. How would you like to be sent to jail, and have ma die and your children go bad, like Bill Fisher, and when you couldn’t say that you stole Sam Jones’s work to keep your sick wife and children from starving, either?’
‘Tut, tut, boy, don’t be silly.’
‘Say, pa, I heard the minister telling you that Sam and his wife are real Christians: are they?’
‘I believe they are.’
‘He said though they were very poor, and had no carpets and pictures, and no furniture to speak of, and hardly enough to eat, they were content and piously thankful to God. Do you believe that, pa?’
‘Why, of course, my son.’
‘Are you piously thankful, too, pa? ‘
‘I hope so.’
‘Well, you ought to be, pa. If Sam is thankful for one dollar when he works for three, you ought to be pretty thankful for two when you don’t work for any.’
‘Run away now, and play. Here’s sixpence to go to the Zoo and see the monkeys.’
‘I don’t want to see the monkeys; I’d rather stay and ask you questions, pa. The minister said it was the devil that tempted Bill Fisher to take the things from the grocer; was it he that put you up to making that bargain with Sam, pa?’
‘Oh, don’t bother me; you’re talking nonsense now, boy.’
‘Say, pa, will Sam Jones go to heaven?’
‘Likely; he’s a good Christian.’
‘Will you go, too, pa?’
‘I hope so, my son.’
‘What will you say if he asks you about that eight shillings a-day, and begins to talk about doing unto others as you would like them to do to you?’
‘Oh, don’t chatter so; you make my head ache.’
‘And suppose they ask you about being on that jury, pa, and about Bill Fisher and his girls?’
‘Stop talking, I say, you young monkey!’
‘Say, pa, have they got dictionaries in heaven?’
‘What a question! What would they do with dictionaries?’
‘Oh, I just thought it would be lucky for you if they had, or they mightn’t know the difference between legitimate stealing and the other kind, pa.’
‘Be silent now! Not another word, or I’ll send you right home.’
‘What place is this, pa? ‘
‘This, my child, is a brickyard.’
‘Whose brickyard is it, pa?’
‘Oh, it belongs to me, my child.’
‘Do those big piles of bricks belong to you, pa?’
‘Do those dirty men belong to you too, pa?’
‘No, there is no slavery in this country; those are free men.’
‘What makes them work so hard, pa?’
‘They are working for a living.’
‘Why do they work for a living?’
‘Because they are poor and are obliged to work.’
‘Why is it that they are so poor when they work so hard, pa?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Don’t somebody steal from them what they earn, pa?’
‘No, my child. What makes you ask such ridiculous questions?’
‘I thought perhaps some of that dirty clay got in their eyes and blinded them. But, pa, don’t the bricks belong to them after they have made them?’
‘No, they belong to me, my son.’
‘What are bricks made of, pa?’
‘Clay, my son.’
‘What! That dirt I see down there, pa?’
‘Yes, nothing else.’
‘Who does the dirt belong to, pa?’
‘It belongs to me.’
‘Did you make the dirt, pa?’
‘No, my child. God made it.’
‘Did he make it for you specially?’
‘No, I bought it.’
‘Bought it of God, pa?’
‘No, I bought it like I buy anything else.’
‘Did the man you bought it of buy it of God?’
‘I don’t know, my son; ask me something easy.’
‘Anyway it’s a good thing you’ve got the land, isn’t it, pa?’
‘Why, my son?’
‘Because you’d have to make bricks for a living like those horrid men. Shall I have to work for a living when I’m a man, pa?’
‘No, my boy. I’ll leave the land to you when I die.’
‘Don’t people turn into clay when they’re dead, pa?’
‘I don’t know. Why do you ask?’
‘Nothing. Only I was thinking what a hard old brick your clay would make.’
The Treatment of Robert Burns What it was and what it ought to have been.
We have had lives of Burns by the score. We have had essays, lectures, articles, memoranda, and annotated editions by the hundred. But an appraisement, a more or less adequate estimate of the man, of the value of his writings and the meaning of his life – that has yet to be made. Currie has, perhaps unintentionally, misunderstood and misrepresented him. Gilfillan has come near vilifying him. Chambers, Cromek, Wilson, Walker and Morrison have accumulated further misrepresentations, Mackenzie and Lockhart have patronised him with a condescension which in the circumstances is absurd and annoying, and even Carlyle has perpetrated the patronage while making claims on behalf of Burns that imply a lack of adequate reading or adequate appreciation of the significance of what he read.
Many – perhaps most – of these people have been less concerned about doing justice to Burns than about fine writing, the launching of ingenious theories, or the showing off of their own faculty of moralising, often quite perverse and purblind. As for the people of the Henley type – and Henley is one of the latest of our Daniels come to judgement upon Burns – they are more concerned to air their malevolent, myopic, and one-sided theories than to arrive at a just and truthful estimate of the man and his work. The man who is wanted as the ideal biographer and critic of Burns is some fine, sympathetic doctor man; a man with an understanding of the bearings of physiology upon psychology; a man of literary tastes, with an understanding of social questions, a wide outlook upon life, and no concern about fine writing; a man who, while he writes, is thinking primarily about his subject, and only very secondarily about himself and what the public will think about his book; a man who regards it as his business neither to praise nor to blame, but to explain.
It may seem a small matter to some people whether we thoroughly understand and appreciate Burns or not. A maker of love songs for young people and foolish old people to sing! A satirist who lampooned all that was respectable in his day, and whose poetry is often not fit to be read in a miscellaneous company. A fellow who ended his days at the age of six-and-thirty by debauchery! Where is the necessity for understanding and appreciating him, unless, indeed, it be to take warning from his follies, his failures, and his sad and evil end. This, I make bold to say, is the reasoning of many people about Burns.
To such reasoning I answer that few of us are likely to be subject to the same temptations as Burns from the same causes. It was that part of Burns’s nature which made him a poet that led him, not indeed into debauchery, for a debauchee Burns never was, but that led him into frequent convivial bouts which his delicate through strong organisation could not sustain. Burns was an essentially sociable, social, altruistic man; a man who,, though full of defensive pride, yet fell upon the necks of his fellows and lauded men inferior to himself out of pure generosity and the enthusiasm of humanity; a man who had ambitions, but whose ambitions had reference to what he could do for Scotland’s sake rather than what he could do for the sake of Robert Burns. The average man stands in no great need of taking warning by the defects of Burns’s character: he mostly has the self-regarding virtues quite sufficiently developed to avoid convivial habits and the penalties attaching to them. To be fond of merry company and witty and spirited conversation is no vice, but, if it can be kept in its place, a virtue rather; and that many men contrive to avoid conviviality and its penalties reflects no particular credit on them. It may only mean that they have no great love of their fellows, and that their fellows, doubtless for reason good, have just as little love for them.
What one is concerned for is that we should understand as much as possible of Burns the man, of the conditions of his poetic inspiration, and, above all, of his poems themselves. To realise Robert Burns the ploughman, scorning the literary traditions of his country and the critical canons of an artificial, ‘elegant’ insincere century, rising from out the ruck of Popes and Hayleys and other versifying triflers of less and lesser note, revolutionising the whole conception of poetry, and taking his place at a bound among the great poets of all time – to realise something of the import of all this is surely to enhance our appreciation of the work of Burns itself.
I do not think the work of Burns is as well known as it ought to be; but I am satisfied that we know his work better than we knew the man himself in spite of all that has been written about him. And so far are we from understanding the meaning of his life that were another such poet to come among us, he would not be treated even as well as Burns was; for Burns had gifts that commanded instantaneous popularity, and that comparatively few poets possess.
I am not of those who would lament, as so many have lamented, over the fact that Burns was allowed to live for a number of years as a gauger and to die in no better or more profitable walk of life than that. Burns himself elected to be a gauger, probably because he felt that any calling which made an exacting demand upon his attention would unfit him for what was in his case the higher vocation of a poet. That vocation he undoubtedly wished to follow. What I complain of in connection with the treatment of Burns was the comparative neglect of his poetry. I do not mean to say that he and his poetry were not talked about and the latter to a certain extent read. We know that he was lionised in Ayrshire, in Edinburgh, in Nithsdale and, later, in the town of Dumfries. But in spite of all the talk and the lionising, Burns’s poetry was not bought. Of the first edition of his poems, published at Kilmarnock, only 600 copies were printed. Of these only 350 were disposed of to subscribers; and the remainder must have been rather stiff to sell; for Burns could not induce Wilson the printer to bring out a second edition. The Kilmarnock edition was published in 1786; the Edinburgh edition in the following year. The later consisted of 2800 copies, which were taken up by 1500 subscribers. A third edition was suggested while the poet was in slight and temporary difficulties in Dumfries; but the suggestions came to nothing. The first edition, as I say, was printed in 1786; and the poet died in 1696. (1796?) So that in ten years all the copies of Burns’s collected works that the public wanted was 3400.
The truth is, the public will entertain an author; will present him with the freedom of cities; will buzz around him to stare and criticise his looks, and dress, and speech; but the last think it will think of doing is to buy and read his writings, which is at once the greatest favour it can confer upon him and the greatest compliment it can pay him.
Says poor Robert Heron, the poet’s unfortunate friend; ‘Old and young, high and low, grave and gay, learned or ignorant, were alike delighted, agitated, transported. I was at that time resident in Galloway, contiguous to Ayrshire, and I can well remember how even ploughboys and maidservants would have gladly bestowed the wages they earned the most hardly, and which they wanted to purchase necessary clothing, if they might but procure the works of Burns.’
My answer to that is that a maid-servant or a ploughman may here and there have wared some part of their ‘sair-won’ penny fee’ on a copy of Burns; but the fact remains that in ten years only 3400 of these books were sold over the country as a whole, the majority of these being subscribed for and secured by well-to-do people. A number of copies often went to the same person, one Kilmarnock wine merchant putting down his name for 35 copies of the first edition.
Making all due allowance for the smaller population, the less diffused taste for reading, the higher price of books, and the comparative poverty of Scotland in those days, it is egregious that in ten years not more than 3400 copies should have been sold of the greatest writings Scotland has produced. Burns was writing poetry for a score of years. Hundreds of thousands of pounds must have been made by the sale of his writings during his lifetime and since his death. Yet all that he ever earned by those writings was an aggregate sum of something like £900.
It is clear, then, that the public did not do its duty by Burns in the matter of buying his books. Were such books being published nowadays they would run through as many editions in a year as they did in a decade in Burns’s time, and the publishers would produce by the ten thousand instead of by the single thousand.
I do not believe that a poet should attempt to live by the making of verse; but I do contend that Robert Burns ought to have received more money for his writing than he did. Of course, the only way in which he could have done so would have been by an enhanced sale of the poems. Walter Scott perversely speaks of ‘the efforts made for his relief’ having been trifling. Relief! As if Burns were a pauper, or what is called in Scotland an ‘object.’ Burns would have welcomed honest work, with fair remuneration for it. As a journalist he should have been able even in his day to earn more money than as a gauger, for he wrote at least good prose, and wrote, as I believe, with some degree of fluency. Newspaper work occurs to one as the kind of work at which Burns could probably have earned a livelihood most readily and with most pleasure in the work, for he had the mental readiness and the universality of sympathy and interests that go to the making of the best type of newspaper man. But I grant that it would not be easy to provide suitable employment for one so independent as was Burns. If he wished to be a gauger that was clearly what he ought to have been allowed to be. I have no sympathy with the denunciation of Pitt because he refused to do anything for the ‘relief’ of Burns. Pitt could hardly be expected to enjoy the best of the poet’s work – his Scots poems and songs; but he was not without appreciation of Burns’s poetry as a whole. At the table of Lord Liverpool the great minister said; ‘I can think of no verse since Shakespeare’s that has so much the appearance of coming so sweetly from Nature.’ I detest the name of patronage, and when Pitt said that literature could be left to look after itself, he was, or should have been, quite right. There are, of course, circumstances in which it is right to give pensions. If a man spend a lifetime in some out-of-the-way field of research, securing valuable results for which there can be no direct recompense by the public, it is pre-eminently the duty of the State to redress the defect of circumstances. But a writer of popular poetry might reasonably expect to have his mere money reward in the shape of kudos for the sale of his books. My complain, then, is I repeat, not that nothing was done for the ‘relief’ of Burns; not that he was allowed to remain a gauger; not that he was not made a college professor, as somebody suggested; but that his books were not bought.
Not only did the public of Burns’s own day fail to buy his books. It also robbed him of his time and substance. While he farmed at Ellisland his house was almost daily besieged by tuft hunters who came to eat and drink and keep him from his work, going away to afterwards speak slightingly of the entertainment they had received, as his biographers tell us.
Now, the average man, seeing there was little profit in the making of verse, would have turned his attention to some form of business in which there was at least a prospect of making money. But it was part of the mental make-up of Burns that to be true to the highest he knew meant in his case that he had to obey the call of the muses. A douce, worldly-wise man like Walter Scott would have sent the muses packing, and, finding himself at Ellisland, as Burns did, a married man with a family, would have given his best attention to farming. He would have worked hard, lived frugally, and would probably have made Ellisland pay. From the ordinary point of view it would have been right to do so. But while Nithsdale would thus have had one more moderately prosperous and decorous farmer, Scotland would have lost her great legacy of song, for the ascendancy of the farmer would have doubtless meant the crushing of the poet, and the gain of Burns and his family would have been the loss of Scotland and the world.
I have hardly any doubt but that Burns was mainly to ‘blame’ for his failure as a farmer. When he entered Ellisland he was not without mean. He had just received the money for the Edinburgh edition, and his biographers say that the land was good, markets were rising, and the rent was low. It is not until he is clearly failing to make the farm pay that they cast about for excuses. As if these were necessary to account for business failure in the case of a poet! The father of Allan Cunningham said of Ellisland that in renting it Burns had made a poet’s choice rather than a farmer’s but at the same time it is admitted that Burns could have done better with the farm such as it was. He kept a comparatively large staff of servants, who ate much and worked little, and he did little regular work himself, although he was found of ploughing and excelled as a ploughman, and although he donned the sower’s apron in seedtime, and as a worker could put all around him to shame. He had not been long in the farm before he added the duties of exciseman to those of farmer, and his work in the former capacity not only took him much from home, but led him into temptation. Although as a farmer Burns failed both at Mossgiel and Ellisland, it is clear that he did not fail from fecklessness of character. Farming may not require a high order of mind, but it at least requires attention, forethought and energy. To succeed in farming, as in any other business, a man must give his best thoughts to his business, and Burn’s best thoughts had, in accordance with the bent of his mind, to be given to poetry.
What is more – and doubtless this is still news to many – Burns was afflicted, as Johnson was, with hereditary hypochondria, constitutional melancholy, what we nowadays call pessimism; and this would naturally predispose him to meet failure half-way. He confessed himself that he had no turn for business; and this distrust, probably well grounded – for Burns knew himself thoroughly – would render it difficult for him to succeed unless the conditions were naturally very favourable.
It strikes one with surprise to learn that Burns was a hypochondriac, a man cursed with a temperament of invincible melancholy. It is not difficult to believe that the man who could conceive and give matchless expression to the wild revelry of ‘The Jolly Beggars,’ the grim fan of ‘Death and Dr Hornbook’ and the grotesque diablerie of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ might have been a pessimist, for it is well known that melancholics are often the most successful professional humourists, seeking refuge from their gloomy thoughts in the opposite extreme of Titanic laughter. But it is not so easy to realise that a pessimist could write ‘The Cottars Saturday Night’ and the radiantly optimistic ‘Epistle to Davie.’
The testimony of all his biographers is clear upon this point, however,; and it is the less difficult to receive when we remember poems such as ‘Man was made to mourn,’ the stanza in the ‘Address to a Daisy’ beginning ‘E’en thou who mourns the daisy’s fate,’ ‘Winter, a dirge,’ ‘Despondency,’ ‘A Winter’s Night’ and ‘The Lament,’ and the frequent recurrence , even in his songs, of magnificent descriptions of the phenomenon of storms. In the song of ‘Menie’ we have the conclusion
‘Come, Winter, with thing angry howl,
And, raging, bend the naked tree.’
And the forlorn lover in ‘My Nannie’s Awa’,’ seeks the same consolation in the ‘dark, dreary winter and wild-driving snaw.’ Burns had a fierce delight in the war of the elements, and it will be remembered that ‘Scots wha hae’ was composed while he rode across a moor in a storm of wind and rain. I have a theory that this delight in the tempest was the outcome of the same physical characteristics that made him a pessimist. With all his muscular strength – admitedly great – and the spirit and wit which made him the life of whatever company he was in, Burns inherited the taint of consumption from his father. This, combined with the excessively hard work done by Burns as a young man on the farm of Mossgiel, the exhausting excitements of an intensely emotional and imaginative nature, and the effects of drinking matches, after which, as he said, he sometimes felt as if he had parted with a slice of his constitution – these allied causes not only greatly hastened his end, but must have engendered a physical feverishness to which the blast and pelt of wind and rain would be a welcome antidote. I think it will be found that high-strung people, when in good health, are always most fit and comfortable in cold weather.
Henry David Thoreau, a man of a strange, shy genius, who also, despite his asceticism and outdoor life, died a comparatively young man, speaks of longing to sit in a wet sea cave through three weeks’ storm, to give a tone to his system. The experiment would more likely have killed him; still one can sympathise with the feeling, which expresses the instinctive hankering of the hectic ‘decadent’ man for health and for getting close to the forces and elements of Nature as a means of recovering health.
As bearing on this point, I must not omit to mention a story, though it is not well vouched, of the means alleged to have been taken by Burns to overcome the attacks of ‘palpitation and suffocation’ from which he suffered. It is stated by Lockhart and Chambers, on the authority, apparently of one John Blane, who was a farm servant at Mossgiel, that at one period these attacks came upon the poet almost nightly, and that it was his custom to have a great tub of cold water by his bedside, into which he would plunger oftener than once in the course of a night as a means of procuring temporary relief.
I have called Burns a portent; and is not the name warranted? The son of an irritable, consumptive, yet high-minded father – a Puritan of the Puritans, who was so much concerned about the religious training of his sons that he drew up a kind of Unitarian Catechism for them; and who, while proud of the genius of his eldest son, fretted his heart out over the youth’s hankering after country dancing assemblies. On the father’s side there is the stern Puritanism, the liberal ideas, the taste for literature, the debilitated frame, and the irascible temper. In the mother, again, we have a strong, couthie woman, full of passion and the love of song, with a great repertoire of Scottish songs and traditional tales, which she would make the more of when she saw how much they held and delighted her eldest born. Her nature seems to me revealed in the love and pride with which she welcomed her son back to Mossgiel after his triumphs in Edinburgh: ‘Oh,Robbie!’ was all the articulate ovation she could give him as he appeared in the door to her, and we are left to import a world of meaning into the words. As if such a farmer and such a mother were not enough to complete the poet’s equipment, there was in the house of William Burnes an ancient dame full of superstition and endless tales of witches, warlocks, brownies, water kelpies, and other eerie lore.
Here was have our man, then, with the Puritan intellect of his father, the strong sensuous emotions of his mother, and the training which they and the credulous crone would give him. Add to this the excellent elementary schooling, the miscellaneous reading, and the habits of disputation and comparatively high converse held in the cottage of the Puritan peasant. Add to these, again, a celestial something in the lad himself, a strenuous spirit, very largely out of touch with the whole intellectual life of his century, an animalism which led him in one way, a Puritan severity on the rational side of his mind which led him in another way, and which, combined with the low spirits borne of his functional disorder, would make him his own most remorseless judge and censor! Have we not here obviously the elements that go to make up a prodigy – a bundle of seeming contradictions – divided from actual insanity, as many great minds are, by only the thinnest and frailest partition.
Burns combined the greater virtues of the Puritan with the greater virtues of the Bohemian. Independent and conscientious, scrupulously punctilious as to the meeting of financial obligations, he was nevertheless conspicuously generous. He kept open house both at Ellisland and at Dumfries. His first act on getting the money for the Edinburgh edition of his poems was to erect a monument upon the neglected grave of Fergusson, his elder brother of the muse; and the advance he made to Gilbert of £200 to assist him in the farming of Mossgiel appears to have been made without a moment’s hesitation; although the prospect of its repayment was by no means of the nearest. Fond of company as he was, he had the domestic virtues too, and we have abundant testimony as to the uncommon interest he took in the education of his children.
Part Two will be on this site next month – hopefully you won’t have forgotten all about Burns by the middle of February – but if you can’t wait, you can read the whole of this article, and a range of others in ‘On Burns – to see oursel’s as others see us’ Download the free ebook from www.unco.scot
Is the state the enemy? PART TWO
Nor was capitalism created by the State. It was created by individual cunning and the simple willingness and even anxiety of working men to attach themselves to a master, even if they must labour for his profit. Even to-day one sees many a man who is possessed of both the money to start in business and the skill to carry it on, continue to work for a master owing to sheer lack of initiative and self-confidence. Such men have been the creators and perpetuators of capitalism, small blame to them. The primitive craftsman employing a journeyman and an apprentice or two, who boarded with him, was the natural enough precursor of the joint stock company of to-day, with its shareholders drawing their dividends thousands of miles away. The public had to be served somehow. Certainly the State is not to blame for having allowed capitalism to grow. It had no mandate to prevent it or to organise production itself, which would alone have prevented capitalism from growing bloated.
It was not the State that caused long hours in factories; but it was the State that curtailed them. It was not the State that sent coffin ships to sea and pocketed the insurance money when they went down with all hands in mid-ocean, as it was intended they should do; but it was the State that introduced the load line, the Merchant Shipping Act, the Survey, and the Board of Trade Regulations. It was not the State that sent the climbing boys up the chimneys; but the State forbade it. It is not the State that causes railway and coal strikes; but the State often intervenes to stop them. The State did not cause parents to bring up their children in ignorance; it passed the Education Acts. It did not make fiery mines or ordain that machinery should be used in factories; but it insisted on the safety lamp, and ventilation, and pumping; and it ordered dangerous machinery to be fenced and sent inspectors to see that it was done.
The Strong shall bear Rule.
The State is the organ of whichever class has the courage, the ability, and the numbers to capture and run it. The upper class once controlled it; the middle class since 1832 has taken hold of it; the workers now have the power to capture it and wield it to their purposes, and if they use that power it will be THEIR State - the State will be the people incorporated.
The State is not merely a repressive Policeman or Tax-Gatherer. It is the servant of the comunity as well. The hundreds of thousands of postal employees were some years ago joined by 18,000 telephone workers. The Municipality is not a mere Night-Watchman. It sends you gas men, sanitary men, electricians. It will send you others if you will have it so.
The enemy is not the responsible Public Servant. The enemy is the irresponsible private adventurer. It is not the elected persons who are ‘audacious.’ The audacious person is the non-elected capitalist or landlord, strong in the mere fact of possession and in the ignorance and subserviency of the public.
Socialism is the bringing of the processes and services of life under the Reign of Law. It is the substitution of communal order for commercial chaos. The only alternatives to the State of to-day would be a congeries of warring communities, polluting each other’s drinking water, wrangling about each other’s sewage, refusing to join for common purposes as they often refuse at present, each taking its own way as to education, the protection of foreshores, the maintenance of roads, the running of through traffic. It is possible to have too much home rule.
The Natural State.
The people of Great Britain speak, write, read the same language. Their habits, local institutions, business methods, food, dress, traditions, music, domestic arrangements, literature, drama, ideas, tastes, are similar - sadly similar. Why should they not be a State, a united Nation? Why should Bradford seek to be independent of Manchester because they are in different counties? Why should they want to be independent? Race, language, the mountain chain, the broad river, the sounding sea constitute the natural divisions of nations. To say that these should count for nothing is to fly in the face of Nature. But Socialism is not a divider, but a uniter. They who pretend that Socialism is at war with the State are not Socialists, but Anarchists, who wish to set up a monopoly of the craftsmen for the monopoly of the capitalists. Socialism sets up the community as above both.
Obviously there can be no nationalization without a State, and without a State one can readily imagine the complications and bickerings that would arise between the not too wise men of the various Gothams, over postal facilities, sewering, rivers, railways, defence, education, and other matters as to which the State has the final word to-day. The strife of the Brugeois and the Ghentois, of the Italian states, of the early Saxon kings of counties might well be repeated in pitched battles between the men of Manchester and the men of Liverpool. Leeds and Bradford and Sheffield, no longer content with football victories, would march against each other with more than Ulsterian venom and with more deadly weapons than dummy muskets and wooden cannon. The hordes of Glasgow would overrun Scotia’s ancient capital inflamed with the animus of a jealousy nursed for generations, and Cardiff and Bristol would carry on a war of tariffs that might end in reciprocal bombardments.
As it is, the Government keeps the scattered townships knit together under the law. It lends them money at the lowest possible rate of interest, and it must have power to enforce the payments of the loans. It gives imperial taxation to be used for local purposes - as education and roads - and it insists upon a certain standard of efficiency in the teachers, a certain standard of suitability in the school buildings and equipment. It can enforce its demands by refusing to pay grants to the local bodies who want to conduct public services on the cheap.
The State a Blessing.
The Individualist or Anarchist critics attack the State as if it were and must remain a pure evil to be fought. It is, as a matter of fact, a blessing. It behaves better to the workers than they would behave to themselves. It educates them in spite of themselves. It has given them old-age pensions which they would never have devised for themselves. It inspects their food, their workplaces, and the ladders and scaffoldings upon which private enterprise compels them to risk their necks. It condemns rotten fruit, tuberculous beef, milk which is below the standard. It insists on dangerous machines being fenced, upon a certain amount of cubic air space being provided in factories and in the forecastles of ships. It stipulates for a certain food standard on board ship. It forbids excessive deck-loading. It insists on a load line. It makes regulations as to pumping, air fans, shot-firing, and props in the mines, and if accidents occur it is because of the cupidity of the owners or the carelessness of the men, which more inspectors might correct, but could never abolish. Of course Socialism would substitute public ownership of factories, ships, and mines; and a good deal of the inspection and regulation and registration would be quite unnecessary under Socialism; but the point is that the State in all these matters behaves, not as the enemy, but as the friend of the workers.
The State insists on many things for their good that they themselves often do their best to defeat or render nugatory. What is the good of pretending that anybody or anything is to blame except the stupidity and apathy of the workers themselves, who vote against the people who would confer benefits upon them? To look back upon all the silly causes for which the people have shed their blood is pitiful. To think of all the good causes they have neglected or deserted is tragic. The London apprentices turned out for Essex, as the Scotsmen did for the Old and the Young Pretenders later in the day. The farm labourers of Somersetshire mustered, scythe in hand, to fight for Monmouth, unworthy son of a king’s strumpet, and for this base cause they died in thousands on the rhine banks of Sedgmoor. But they deserted Wat Tyler and John Ball and John Cade at the first promise of redress from the authorities or the first sign of failure on the part of these honest and capable working-men leaders, as later in the day they melted away from Robert Owen, and Ernest Jones, and Joseph Arch in the early Socialist, the Chartist, and the trade union movements.
Who is to Blame?
How can Socialists pretend that the State is to blame? As clearly as anything can be, it is the workers who are to blame, possessed of political power as they are to make the State whatever they want it to be. They elect the slum-owner in preference to the slum-abolisher. They prefer the landlord to the land nationaliser. They elect the capitalist, and put the worker at the bottom of the poll. When they get a good servant who gives all his waking hours for little reward and no thanks they cast about for accusations to urge against him. The sincere man who hates rhodomontade and talks plain good sense is assailed with abuse and watched with suspicion, while the adventurer who is at best only an indifferent ‘variety turn,’ and will lecture on anything for fees - this man is taken to the heart of the gullible ones, and the more fierily impossible or the more jocularly useless he is the better they will like him. The stabs of the enemy, the boycott of the capitalist, the contumely of the rich and proud, are as nothing by comparison with the folly, the suspicion, the rudeness, the ungrateful desertion, and the political malingering of the workers.
The only practical question for to-day is: ‘Should the working class make use of its political power?’ Must the State CONTINUE to be the organ of the possessing classes? Of course I say No. I say the workers can capture the political machine and use it for their own purposes, and I want to see them do it. But when I say the State I do not mean merely or chiefly the Central Government. I am not specially enamoured of the legislative adjustments of the Wage System which are what we mostly get from Parliament. I attach (as I say with necessary iteration) more importance to capturing the machinery of local government. I hold that it would be absurd to nationalise local services like the milk or the coal supply or the running of the textile industries. All these must be municipalised. Yet without Socialist possession of the Central Government as well we should not be allowed to develop Socialism locally. More than that, a hostile Central Government could conceivably take away our local governing powers. So that I am all for getting Socialists elected to the local bodies first; though of course we could not do that without having enough power to enable us to return Socialist members of Parliament as well.
In a passage which Statophobists are fond of quoting, H. T. Buckle, the Individualist Victorian author of a ‘History of Civilisation,’ says
Every great reform which has been effected has consisted, not in doing something new, but in undoing something old. The most valuable additions made to legislation have been enactments destructive of preceding legislation; and the best laws which have been passed have been those by which some former laws were repealed.
This untenable view is based on such measures as the Catholic Emancipation Act, the Act removing the Disabilities of the Jews, with, above all, the Acts repealing the Corn Laws. It would be nearer the truth to say that the best legislation has been that which created rights and privileges to the whole common people as against classes and individuals holding power and enjoying possession, not so much by the help of the law as by means of superior force and cunning exercised often in defiance of the law. Magna Charta, ‘the foundation-stone of English liberty,’ gave rights which no previous law or charter either DENIED OR AFFIRMED. So did the Bill of Rights. So did the Factory Acts. The Reform Bills of ’32 and ’67 and ’85 did not so much abolish previous legislation as create new and additional civic rights and powers for the whole body of householders. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the Merchant Shipping Acts, Mines Regulation Acts, Truck Act, Education and Free Libraries Acts did not abolish previous legislation, but called into existence new legal rights to remove old social wrongs, The evils from which civilised nations suffer to-day are not evils which have been created by law. They are evils which have arisen because there was no law and no practice to prevent them from arising. In the hour of need we call for the police, and as our servant the policeman comes at the call of the humblest. If the police were not the servants of the community, the rich could hire both their own police and their own soldiers, as they did in days gone by.
The True State.
The true Socialist view of the State is thus enunciated by Laurence Gronlund:
It is Society, organised society, the State, that gives us all the rights we have. To the State we owe our freedom. To it we owe our living and property, for outside of organised society man’s needs far surpass his means. The humble beggar owes much to the State, but the haughty millionaire far more; for outside of it they both would be worse off than the beggar now is. To it we owe all that we are and all that we have. To it we owe our civilization. It is by its help that we have reached such a condition as man individually never would have been able to attain. Progress is the struggle with Nature for mastery, is war with misery and inabilities of our ‘natural’ condition. The State is the organic union of us all to wage that war, to subdue Nature, to redress natural defects and inequalities. The State, therefore, so far from being a burden to the ‘good,’ a ‘necessary evil,’ is man’s greatest good.
This is simply a striking paraphrase and extension of the passage from Ferdinand Lassalle which we have prefixed as an epigraph to these pages.
So much by way of abstract principles; but what are the practical implications of this theory of the function of the State as head of the grouped communes of a nation? What has Socialism to say of the present?
The great cleavage between Socialists and all Individualist politicians is that in spite of the manifest failure of Individualism on every hand, all so-called practical politicians continue to believe in it, and in spite of the universal success of Socialism, continue to treat Socialism as utopian and unpractical.
Although State and Municipal service is everywhere better and cheaper than capitalistic service, although State and Municipal employees are better treated than the employees of private enterprise, although the most important jobs are everywhere done by the State and the Municipalities, and the State and the Municipalities are constantly having to come to the rescue of Private Enterprise, the amazing fact remains that this triumphant thing Socialism is still a nickname.
Daniel O’Connell enraged the Irish virago by calling her a Logarithm, and when a Tory wishes to be specially exasperating he calls a piece of legislation Socialistic, with the never-failing result that ministers rise and indignantly repudiate the opprobrious epithet, without having even the Irishwoman’s excuse, for she was angry because she did not know what a Logarithm was.
In social service no other principle save public control and public responsibility and public efficiency is now or ever was any good. All that has been of any service in legislation from the beginning of time has been where corporate control was extended over the means of life, where the State stepped in to preserve the peace, to protect life and property, to educate the ignorant, to provide legal aid to accused persons, to run the mails, to inspect mines, ships, ladders, scaffoldings, weights and measures, to develop telegraphs and railways, to help with great distance-saving canals, to encourage agriculture, fishing, and handicrafts.
Is a great estuary of the sea to be reclaimed from Father Neptune and made into good arable land? The Dutch Government does it once and again - first with the Polders and then with the Zuyder Zee. One third of the area of the country has been ‘made’ by the State in this way. Has a railway to be built through a desert inhabitated by hostile tribesmen? Again the undertaking is so large that only the State can do it. When the Manchester Ship Canal Company had spent all its money, Manchester City had to come to the rescue and finish the canal. Though armies of old were raised by private enterprise, the Great War could only have been waged by States and State armies. The very largest jobs always have to be done by the State or the Municipality. In resources, in command of credit, in command of the best talent, the State and the Municipality are easily first. This is so obvious that it would not be worth stating if it were not habitually forgotten in practice and theory alike.
The Concluding part - part three will be available in the February edition of Gateway.
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