Last month you’ll remember I talked (at length) about firing ‘a’ Scots Canon. This month we’ve moved on (just) and I’ll talk about ‘the’ canon. You might ask yourself what’s the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’ and certainly I seem to be hung up on ‘a’ even now. Mostly that’s because to define ‘the’ Scots canon means to ‘name names’ and I’m not really interested in that, but more in the concept of why we would have any works regarded as canonical in Scottish culture.
So please bear with me – what’s an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ among friends eh? For those who like these kind of things – here’s a wee definition:
A and The are two articles used in the English language with difference. It is very important to know the difference between them. A is called as the indefinite article whereas ‘the’ is known as the definite article. This is the main difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’.
The article ‘a’ is called as indefinite article because it represents an object which is indefinite in nature. On the other hand the article ‘the’ is called as definite article because it represents and object which is definite in nature.
In my world of ‘theory’ I’d tend towards the indefinite because I am a great believer in that Daoist principle ‘name is the thief of identity.’ You pin something down when you name/identify it. This may seem like so much guff, but actually it does have a significance when you think about the notion of ‘the’ canon of literature. It’s the point at which you move from theory to practice.
Look at this question and answer and you’ll see what I mean:
Question: What is a canon?
(An) Answer: The idea of a literary canon implies some official status. To enter the canon, or more properly, to be entered into the canon is to gain certain obvious privileges.
It hands on status and privilege. Boil it down and my issue is with hierarchical structures in general. For me, a cultural hierarchy is actually a contradiction in terms. It is not surprising to find cultural hierarchy as the chosen system of those who favour a hierarchical society (eg capitalism) but most people just accept hierarchy as the ‘natural state’ for everything and therefore do not even question what we are doing (never mind what we mean) when we privilege one thing over another.
I’m keen to find written works that challenge the hierarchical mindset – which when you really drill into them, few works do. Even if they challenge the ‘system’ they tend to work within it. I want to know what a non-capitalist structure looks like – it’s not as simple as create an anti-hero and off you go – I want to know how we get rid of all the subliminal, embedded messages of capitalism which are the natural bedfellows of a canonical structure.
In terms of literary culture (which is the branch that interests me, but it’s pervasive in all other art forms) I suggest that it is at least partly the responsibility of the canon (or the concept of a canon) that we have become completely in thrall to the notion of ‘good’ and ‘quality’ and ‘best’. For someone to be an ‘award winning’ writer apparently means something. No one questions where, how or why the recognition is achieved. People seem to want to win and to wear gold star badges – and other people want to be seen to appreciate these tokens of esteem without question. I came across someone describing themselves as a ‘multi award winning’ writer recently and laughed into my hollow boots until they filled to the brim. I mean, come on – is this how anyone with any shred of dignity or integrity would self-describe.
My response to that is: So what?
Bestselling is another term. What does it mean? Shifted a lot of product. Shifted more product than other people or others of your own work. By definition the work that sells most is bestselling even if one of your books sells 3 copies and one 30. Why should this sway an audience, or give any kind of guidance to a reader? What does it have to say to us outside of a hierarchical or canonical structure?
The argument (I call it the sheep argument) seems to be that if other people like something we might like it to. And that if enough of them like it we really should like it too. This agreement seems to me to be based on fear – fear of not being liked and fear of not being accepted – fear of being stupid – of being different – of the stigma of other. And it has no place in a diverse and mature society.
Hear me? No more place than a gold star system.
You will rail against me. We have to be able to distinguish good from bad? Quality from rubbish. Do we? I dispute this. I prefer to think of ‘horses for courses.’ What suits one may not suit another. One size never fits all.
The fact remains that a hierarchical (and therefore canonical) structure applied to culture is bound to privilege the elite – that’s the point of hierarchies – the platform exists to support those at the peak.
Is it possible to flatten the structure? You bet it is. We don’t need the terminology of ‘better’ and ‘quality’ but we do need to be able to recognise things for what they are. Then we can make informed choices.
We then need to accept that we are all different with different interests and desires. Different viewpoints and different ways of seeing the world. This will, surprise, surprise, be reflected in our reading matter. Or should be.
I’m not advocating always sticking in the comfortable world of what you like. I’m all for everyone challenging themselves – but it requires a degree of honesty and courage to engage with work that you don’t like.
I suggest we should all interrogate our reasons for reading each time we pick up a book. Reading is not an easy thing to do. It requires a lot of the brain power/activity. It can be a mind-altering event and it should not be undertaken (even for escapism) without a degree of appreciation that one is engaging in a relationship in which one is not the only party – that compromises may have to be made – that there is something to be learned.
But how can you know what you want to read unless you rely on a/the canon? Or more precisely what is ‘worth’ reading. Again, fuzzy logic. What do we mean by ‘worth reading’? In one respect just about anything is worth reading if you approach it the right way. This is not just saying one man’s trash is another man’s treasure by the way, it’s suggesting that we can seek, find and imbue ‘value’ in anything we read. We just need to be more open and flexible in our mindset. My judgement of a ‘good’ reading experience is when I feel that I have connected with what the writer intended and so have a deeper level of communication or understanding as a result of the exchange. I could, of course, be ‘reading into’ a work – but it’s a much more productive stance than simply dismissing that which you don’t ‘understand’ or naturally favour as ‘rubbish’, ‘bad’, or ‘second-rate.’ You live by a hierarchy, you die by a hierarchy and if you change your structural pattern you open up a whole new world for yourself.
And what of reviews? How can they help you? You have to read them with, if not scepticism, then at least maturity to understand who is writing what and why and who is privileging what and why. Caveat reader! Canons are really just a kind of elitist review. Both ask you to take their opinion on trust. And why should you? A review often tells you more about the reviewer than the work being reviewed. For a review to have any real value for anyone (and we must accept that its value will be different for each reader) it should surely be linked to how it actually explains and explores the ‘reality’ of the work it reviews. It doesn’t need to tell us what’s ‘good’ but what there is to like. Less puff and shiny stars and more spades being called spades is what we need. Those who want to promote or prop up a canon are equally suspect. They may ‘know’ lots about literature – but what they know is how to privilege their own version of ‘the truth.’ That’s not a truth that will set anyone but themselves free.
Now, I am primarily concerned with the culture and canon of my country. And as regards Scotland and canons I have an uncomfortable sense of irony. I don’t think Scots should accept the concept of a canon of literature unless we are happy to self-define as North British once more. I believe (I may be wrong but it’s my belief) that as countries we are individualised by different social structures. English feudalism is different from Scots community. I do not recognise such a thing as ‘British’ identity or culture. Even if you disagree with me on that point, you may still agree that a hierarchical structure such as canonical literature is a negative influence on a culture.
For me the irony rests at least partly in the fact that English literature has long established a canon in which Scottish writing is still the under-privileged poor relation - denied and rebranded as British, or diversified solely for the point of ‘minority’ interest. That others do this to our works of literature is bad enough. That we do it to ourselves is the ultimate irony. We need to throw off all the chains of our oppression.
Scotland is different. Scotland holds community and the oral tradition and diversity of dialect and language in a different (not better, not worse) manner than England, or America, or… well, anywhere else. We are unique unless we homogenise ourselves. At least this is what I believe.
For me, privileging Scott or Stevenson or Burns or MacDiamid or Welsh or Kelman or anyone is simply a folly. An act of hierarchical control or dominance. And we should not embrace it.
Let’s get personal. Tartan Noir is partly a fashion statement, partly a branding operation but also reflective of the concerns of some members of our nation (not all.) You enjoy it or you don’t. You may not even recognise it as a ‘thing’ in and of itself. Why should you? If you like one Tartan Noir work will you like another? Do you like apples because you like oranges? Should you? Personally, I’m not a fan of crime/detective/thriller type stories. Or police procedurals. Or urban based literature. That’s just me. I don’t seek to denigrate them because of my personal opinion. I can see they serve a function and ‘speak’ to many people. I have some reasons why that bothers me and they are of the ‘life reflecting art’ nature. I wonder why it is that our culture seems to be obsessed with crime and horror and the ‘dark’ side of life. It doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly healthy obsession. Replacing the tyranny of hierarchy by the tyranny of what may be voyeuristic tendencies doesn’t seem a positive move. Perhaps it represents a lack of self-confidence or self-worth– but if it’s what people like (genuinely like) then that’s what they like and I can have nothing to say about it other than it’s not my bag, thanks. Of course I go beyond personal comment and talk about what I perceive to be the role of literature in society but my opinion on that is, as ever, simply my opinion which either will or won’t touch you, or convince you, or annoy you – depending on your own views which may or may not be more or less mediated by a hierarchical view of society in general and literature in particular.
It’s worth remember that when I say:
I like Crockett but I don’t like Scott
I like Barrie but I don’t like Oliphant
This is not a hierarchical statement it’s purely a statement of personal preference. I can argue why you might want to read Crockett or Barrie – I can argue why I don’t like Scott and Oliphant but I can like many and diverse texts at different times and for different reasons. And just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I won’t read it. I will read it for different reasons.
I NEVER read to be cool. I NEVER read to be accepted. I never read to have my own personal vision of the world re-inforced. (Just as well, there’s precious little literature that does that!) I read because I’m curious about all kinds of lives and writers are one of the fastest ways into different opinions, different cultural perspectives and different worlds that I know. They tell it how they think it is, unlike conversations with ‘real’ people, who, it seems, always have one eye on the gold stars and where they might be perceived to stand on the hierarchy.
What have I got against Scott and Oliphant? First the style. Too long-winded for me. That’s my problem not theirs. I was not their target audience. Second and more importantly (for me at least) the political stance. That’s all of our problems – they were writing at least partially to promote and reinforce a set of values that I don’t either favour or accept. So I might read them to find out their ‘arguments’ or world-view, but since I don’t agree with or like that view I’m unlikely to find it captivating, enthralling or even enjoyable. And thirdly, perhaps most important of all, they are hierarchical in their approach. Of course they are. Their goal is to reinforce not to overthrow. Barrie and Crockett, however they may be cast (by the canonical hierarchists)as nostalgic, are both closer to my understanding of reality, and both explore the very notion of hierarchy – Crockett primarily through character and setting and Barrie primarily through narrative structure and style.
So I say, fire the canon. Shoot the hierarchical pattern into oblivion. Stop cowtowing to the big guns. Stop looking into the barrel of the gun. Start looking around you, pick up a few stray things you find lying around inconsequentially and see what there is to learn. Discover a few species that are ‘new’ to you. And keep a record as you read of what it is that you like and what you don’t. Ask yourself why this is. See whether you are coherent in your likes and dislikes. Test yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. That’s cultural hierarchy stalking you. Set yourself free to say (for example):
I don’t like anything the Enlightenment stands for
I am unlikely to enjoy Enlightenment literature
But you may find one that you like (you may, I don’t think I have yet) I like this 18th century novel – why? How? What is it that I like about it? Remember it’s okay not to like something. That’s not the only reason to read. The world of words is a much bigger place than that with much more on offer. It begs you to use more of your brain.
I might say, I like Lanark but I don’t like Poor Things. Why? I find Grey disturbing at the best of times. I found the former interesting in terms of what it said to me about politics and society primarily as well as excitingly challenging regarding structure. The latter was just ‘too’ weird for me. Note FOR ME. I didn’t ‘get it’ in the same way I did Lanark. That’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it’s a statement of fact. One day I may read it again, when I am a different person and my relation to the world and the world of Grey is different and I may ‘get’ it, or if not, at least ‘appreciate’ it, or at least be able to engage with it on a deeper level.
The world of words and the authors who write them is infinitely complex. It’s never as simple as if you like a you will like b simply because they are by the same author. For me, the reason that I liked Lanark is more closely linked to why I like Sentimental Tommy. We humans make patterns. We like to draw connections. I am happy to draw my own connections, based on personal preferences on aspects like story, structure, character. A canonical hierarchy would suggest that you must (or should) like a because it is better than b. The question remains better for whom rather than better in what way?
Step away from the pyramid. Flatten the structure. Fire the Scots canon into the cultural hierarchy and get down and dirty amidst the rubble, finding something that you want to read. This is a real cultural revolution.
Next month I’m going to explore a ‘new covenant’ as an alternative way to finding and reading and experiencing culture.
The Only Way With the Land.
Being the Socialist Way. (From 1912)
But do not let it be forgotten that a comparatively high land-tax might easily be paid and the land still be put to very bad uses. The community cannot control the use of land without owning the land itself. Imagine the army of inspectors that would be required to go all over the country, survey every field and moor and bog, and make themselves responsible for the rotation of crops, refusing to let the landlord or the farmer put a field under grass, and refusing to allow the Duke of Sutherland to let a tract of land in Sutherlandshire for shooting. Does anybody suppose that the Duke would turn off good rent-paying farmers and let his ground for less money to an American millionaire for sport. Is it likely? Whoever heard of a man deliberately choosing to sell his goods in the cheapest market?
Land used for grouse, or thrown back from crop-raising to the feeding of sheep, is perhaps land improperly used; but to stop this would require a vast system of inspection and inquisition, involving an amount of labour which would be much better directed into useful channels. With our Customs, Excise, dog licences, gun licences, income tax assessors, factory and shop inspectors, mine inspectors, inspectors of ladders and scaffoldings, smoke inspectors, insurance inspectors, attendance officers, inspectors of explosives, of food and drugs, and of shipping, we spend too much on the policing of Individualism, and are yet all too improperly policed in the interests of efficiency or for that matter bare humanity.
If for the motive of personal gain were substituted the motive of public efficiency we could take all our inspectors off and trust to Collective control securing automatically in an ideal way and to an ideal extent the ends for which all our inspection and inquiry and registration are carried on in vain. All our policing does not prevent the message boy from staggering under a basket-load of provisions towards midnight on a Saturday, and does not prevent our milk being handed in at seven in the morning by a pale little boy or girl who will be at school later in the day, with lessons to be done in the evening. But if the distribution of milk or groceries were done from municipal centres men would be employed, early closing would be the rule, and the children would be at home in bed both at 7 a.m. and long before 11.30 p.m. A public department would be ashamed to live on the labour of children; but not so the miserable little man, carrying on a miserable little business in a miserable shop behind a miserable little counter, who is the essential type of the Individualism which Messrs Wedgwood, Fels, and Outhwaite admire and seek to preserve.
The Only Way.
There is only one satisfactory way with the land, and that is the way of public ownership secured by purchase. That way the Government is already finding, on a large scale in Ireland, as it has already found it on a small scale in Britain. It seeks a solution on the lines, not of peasant proprietorship, as was done by the Wyndham Act, but on the lines of owner ship by the State and security of tenure on the part of the cultivator, who will neither be penalised for his improvements by an increase of rent, nor be liable to ejection at the caprice of a landlord. The State thus far solves, or is about to solve, the problem by becoming the landlord. Rent very naturally and properly varies with the fertility of the land, its proximity to markets, and other causes which contribute to its value. This rent belongs in equity to the community, and under State ownership will, of course, go to the nation .
But this, after all, means only the nationalization of the rent, not of the land itself. That would require the supersession of the capitalist farmer by the community, the socialization of his profits as well as the landlord's rent, and it would mean, as a most important incident, the proper cultivation of the soil. Farming would be carried on upon the big scale, gangs of workers going forth to their cheerful, sociable labour in the fields, and the work going on, as Burns says, "wi' sangs and clatter." Thus and thus only can the community get the full and proper benefit of its own land, which can no more be farmed out with advantage than the taxes were. And only by making field-work sociable can it be divested of its loneliness and dulness the loneliness and dulness that have so much to do with driving the rural population into the towns. One has seen a quite good-natured ploughman of a lively temperament curse at his horses all day, pull the reins viciously, and even throw clods at the heads of these poor animals, not so much because they were working badly as because he was bored to death at the solitary work. The same man-foreman on a biggish farm-was as brisk and cheery as possible in the hayfield with plenty of company, often of both sexes. A ploughing match is a gala day, largely because there are comrades in competition and others looking on, with whom chaff and talk can be exchanged.
Peasant husbandry does nothing to introduce this atmosphere of sociability and emulation in work, and this is only one of its drawbacks. Unnecessary fences, duplicated farm buildings, duplicated implements of every kind would be the order of the day under a system of small farms. Even if the small farmers co-operated to the fullest extent, field work is largely a matter of times and seasons and weather, and all the small holders of the parish could not have the reaper-and-binder on one day, nor the steam mill in one week. Co-operation does wonders in Denmark ; but all nations are not equally cooperative in spirit, and even in Denmark there are doubtless small holders who under the pinch of poverty have to sell corn or cattle in a bad market just to get the money; and this, not to the advantage of the public, but merely to the profit of some merchant or butcher who can tempt the poor man with ready money. There will, no doubt, be a place for small cultivators for some time yet ; but the large council farm, carried on with the best implements, buildings, cattle, skill, plenty of labour, and a short working day, represents the agriculture of the future and the only agriculture in which the rights of the public will be safeguarded.
Taxation is no substitute for public responsibility and efficiency in administration. If the day of the small struggling farmer, like the day of the small struggling shopkeeper, has not passed, the sooner it passes the better. But the Georgite Individualist s do not recognise this. They are all for the multiplication of small vested interests. The Government is so far proceeding on similar lines; not by taxation indeed, but by the creation of a class of over-industrious and hopelessly narrow-minded peasants who are undone by "the magic of ownership." How that magic works in transforming men into absolute serfs of the soil may be seen in Shaw's portrait of Matthew Halligan in "John Bull's Other Island." Matthew has secured under the Land Purchase Act a miserable tract of land on which he has worked himself crooked in body and crabbed in mind -an opponent of all change or improvement and an in tensely disagreeable man generally. The small holdings legislation of the present Government does not make for peasant proprietorship of the land, but it does make for the creation of a class of small capitalist farmers, who will almost inevitably become hard reactionaries just in proportion to their blighting "success." There is no defender of the status quo and the rights of property so bitter or so bigoted as the small capitalist, especially if he be mortgaged to the neck.
With a Liberal Government adopting public ownership of Irish land, repudiating the peasant proprietorship of the Wyndham Act, stopping the sale of Crown Lands, and actually buying a Lincolnshire estate for experimental purposes, the idea of collectivist farming is brought sensibly nearer. Already Glasgow makes municipal farming pay on a fairly large scale, Bradford city discusses the advisability of starting dairy farming, and a number of Poor Law and Asylum authorities are proving that farming may be made to pay without the "magic of ownership " and even with the not specially suitable labour of paupers and the mildly insane. All this, I repeat, is in the true line of agrarian evolution as opposed to dog-in-the-manger taxing-a spirit which seeks to shun responsibility for the management of the land while still claiming a share of the fruits of other people's management.
This spirit of Individualistic aloofness would find itself defeated by its own success. If it succeeded in imposing the taxation it contemplates, the land would be thrown upon its hands, and a Single-Tax Administration would have to administer the land whether it would or no. This is not the Georgite idea, some of whose exponents have declared (Louis Post in the official journal, The Standard, for one) that they would wish to leave the land in the hands of the present owners, allowing them a moiety of the rent to compensate them for their administration of it. But the owners do not administer it. All the larger and many of the smaller estates are managed by agents, with a staff of clerks, and the owners would mostly have neither the ability nor the industry for estate administration. Any how, Mr. Outhwaite declares that he is for 20s. in the £ of taxation upon the land. All this is pure Imposibilism, a waste of time, and an abandonment of the only lines upon which progress with the land question can be made. In spite of the schemes of purchase already mentioned, the land question is really a question of local governnent. In Germany the great test of the goodness or otherwise of local government is the extent to which the local authority acquires land. Since the time of Goethe at least that has been the watchword in German civic life. In private we ask: Is So-and-so doing any good? By which we mean is he acquiring money or property. That is a better test for the community than it is for the individual. It has operated so beneficially in Germany that we read of rural communities which not only defray all the expenses of local government out of the revenues from the communal lands, but actually distribute wood, turf; and even money to householders as their share of the proceed s of the communal estate.
Whereas in this country so little intelligent or active interest is taken in local government that many men who have not the excuse of being "large ratepayers " actually propose that the expense of rehousing the working class shall be put upon inperial taxation. A "large ratepayer" must have started this proposal; for rates are mostly paid by the well-to-do, while taxes are mostly paid by the working class.
Some thirty years ago municipal housing schemes were started here and there up and down the country, and all of them have done well. Despite the low rents which have ruled, these properties have paid interest and sinking-fund charges, have been well let, are in demand by tenants, and if in some cases a slight burden has been put upon the rates, we can't expect to get houses for nothing. The stone-and-lime is there as an asset, and I have investigated cases where an extra sixpence put on the weekly rents would still have left them quite moderate, and would have obviated the trilling deficit.
If we want the land we must pay for it. If we want houses we must pay for them. There is no way of getting anything for nothing. We may feed the dog with his own tail by creating land scrip, just as it is proposed to get rid of the railway shareholders by creating railway bonds, and redeeming them out of the profits gradually.
And we must not only pay but work for the civic re-awakening in local government. At present, with a Liberal Administration attempting so much, the tendency is to look to Parliament to do everything that is required in the sphere of public affairs. The return of a Labour Party in 1906 helped to confirm this impression that all social reconstruction was an affair of Parliam entary politics. The result is that there is less Collectivist initiative among the municipalities now than there was in the eighties and nineties, when nobody was afraid of Socialism, and things that seemed good were done on the merits whether they were Collectivist or not. Since 1890 two Housing Acts have been passed, and the facilities for municipal house building are greater than ever they were and the house famine is more acute than ever it was. Yet there is more disinclination to embark on housing schemes than there was when money was dearer, when the period of reparement was shorter. Housing schemes adopted as far back as 1882, and successful ever since, arc not added to. There is a dread of the word Socialism, and the impression is rife that the Government will take the responsibility of financing housing schemes. Nothing can be clearer than that housing is a matter of municipal concern and that any expense put upon the State must come back upon the taxpayer. There is no vestige of a plea to justify the placing of house-building upon the Government. The people to be housed are locally employed. They help to increase local trade. They are rated for local purposes. They live within town and city and urban district boundaries. They are in the locality, they are of the locality, it is the locality that gets the first and chief benefit from them. Municipalties are always anxious to extend their boundaries and increase their population and their rateable value; and it is just like middle-class audacity to want to appropriate the advantages of population while shirking the most elementary responsibility of housing it.
Meanwhile Mr. Lloyd George utters a weekly threat of something tremendous which is to be done about the Land System, but has never once condescended upon particulars. When the landlords find the name of Earl Beauchamp associated with his in the oft-threatened, long-delayed crusade they need not expect anything very drastic.
Meanwhile also the Land-Tax party in Parliament practises an occasional hold-up of other measures in the interests of its own particular fad, which cannot possibly come to anything useful in their hands.
As a road to social felicity the Single Tax is not only a blind alley, but has a dead wall at this end as well as the other-the nearest wall being the vested interests, including the vested interests of the working class, much of whose savings are invested in land. Single-Tax Individualism will not do, but Collective Ownership is the biggest and most successful thing in public life.
Twixt Desk and Shelves; Being Parleys with the Public in a Repository of Learning.
(From early 1920s)
To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show…the very age and body of the time his form and pressure (Hamlet)
‘What a muddle of a world!’ said Peter Peevery as he put down the Printer’s paper.
Printer (coolly): What is it in particular?
Peter: I see here that the Government is rushing up the assessments upon houses by 30 to 40 per cent.
Printer: Ay, having taken sixpence off the rich man’s income tax they have to find the money in other directions. For one thing, they are imposing income tax upon people who never paid it before and are not fairly assessable now. They have been distraining on fishermen, who have done nothing since the war, and must be hard put to it to find a living, let alone pay income tax.
Peter: (with the idle person’s invariable insistence upon industry in other people): Well, why aren’t they working then?
Printer: We’re talking about incomes, not about diligence. The Income Tax Commissioners have no right to tax a man upon an income he doesn’t receive, whether he ought to receive it or not. Fishermen are discouraged from work because there is no market for their fish. The herring fishing used to occupy them practically all the year round, from the February fishing in the ‘South Firth,’ the spring fishing on the west coast and at Shetland, till the great summer fishing on the north-east coast and the autumn and winter fishing at Scarborough, Lowestoft and Yarmouth, which ended in December.
Peter: Well, why does it not occupy them now?
Printer: Because there is no market for the herrings.
Peter: There’s as good a market as ever. But I ‘aven’t seen a bloater for years, and not many kippers.
Printer: You good old fathead, you don’t know what you are talking about! Kippers and bloaters for home consumption don’t take a hundredth part of the herrings that used to be pickled for the German and Russian markets. The Germans and Russians can’t buy them, with the rouble and the mark so depreciated. Pickled herrings were to the Russian peasant and the German what brose and potatoes are to the Scots ploughman, or bacon and beans to the English. A servant engaging was promised so many herrings, and the farmers and others liked small herrings, since there was more in a barrel and a herring was a herring all the same.
Peter (with uncharacteristic disdain): I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Printer: You don’t need to know. You don’t mean to say that you refuse to accept facts because you’ve never heard them before? You think of fishing as an industry carried on for home consumption. And it isn’t. The capitalist fishing which now obtains is an export industry. Herrings outnumber in weight and value all other fish caught.
Peter: Nay, nay. When we see a fish truck – and smell it – it’s usually ling and ‘alibut and cod.
Printer: Ay, but you don’t see the fleets of steamers that carry pickled herrings in barrels to Stetting and Riga – or used to do. (He fished out a volume of a work of reference.) This is not up to date: but in 1900 there were 5,5200,000 cwts. Of ling, 424,000 cwts of cod, 157 cwts of ling 75,000 cwts. Of whiting, 72,000 cwts of skate and 143,000 cwts of mussels.
Peter: For the whole country?
Printer: I beg your pardon. I ought to have mentioned that these were the figures for Scotland only. But here’s another table for England and Wales. In England there are more haddocks and fewer herrings; but even then the herring has it against all other fish, though the English fishermen don’t pursue the herring to the same extent as the Scots.
Peter: But the English fish are not exported. They are for home consumption.
Printer: By no means entirely, sir. There is a big export trade – used to be at any rate – in dried cod and other white fish to Roman Catholic countries, for Lent and Fridays. There are vast yards in Hull, Grimsby, and Aberdeen for sun-drying and kiln-drying the fish and I knew a man who used to make journeys to Spain, Portugal and Italy just to sell fish.
Peter: A fishy bagman!
Printer: Quite so. The point is that in this as in other branches of capitalism, the production is so great, and the consumption by the underpaid workers is so small, that the enormous surplusage has to be sent abroad. Trawling is probably a very wasteful form of fishing; it rakes up the spawn and immature fish as well as edible fish. Anyhow all the grounds that have been trawled over for any length of time are scraped clean.
Peter: Fish are often scarce enough.
Printer: Tons of fish are carted off to the fields ever day at Aberdeen and I daresay at Grimsby as well. Twenty tons a day sometimes at Aberdeen.
Peter: I don’t believe it!
Printer: Well, it’s candid of you to say so. Some would refuse to believe , without saying so. But the facts have nothing to do with your knowledge or your belief.
Peter: It isn’t sense to ask me to believe that twenty tons of good food are wasted as manure.
Printer: Oh, Mary Ann! Have you never heard of tons of apples and plums being allowed to fall and rot because they can’t be marketed? Have you never seen turnips being ploughed back into the ground because too many have been produced? If a thing can’t be marketed at a profit, it won’t as a rule, be marketed at all. When the railway companies penalise home trade and encourage the foreigner by grossly preferential rates it is a wonder if apples come to London cheaper from California than from Kent.
Peter: But that’s nonsense.
Printer: Well, if it’s nonsense it is well enough known. It is part of the endless nonsense with which we put up in the name of private enterprise. A State railway wouldn’t carry American apples for a fraction of the price charged to British orchard=keepers.
Peter: You do ask one to accept some steep stories!
For only answer the Printer produced a book by a barrister-at-law and quoted the following carriage-rates – Ton of apples, Folkstone to London 11/1 California to London 15/8; British meat, Liverpool to London £2 Foreign do, Liverpool to London 15s; Eggs, Galway to London £4,14: Denmark to London 24s; Normandy to London 16/8 plums and pears Queensborough (Kent) to London 25s, from Flushing (Holland) 12/6; timber, foreign 8/10; home 16/8. There’s a lot more of it, the items including home pisnos, £3 1/ foreign 25s; timber foreign 8/10, home 16/8; and so on. You began about a muddle of a world. I don’t know what you had specially in mind/ But all that is, I take it, part of the muddle. How can we expect an unregulated world to be anything but a muddle?
Peter: Ay, there was the muddle at Wembley. More folk bought than there was room for.
Printer: Yes, all the railway companies worked on their own. But who would have expected the crowds to behave so childishly? Instead of going away quietly, when they saw the place full, as they might have done with complete advantage, they stormed the place.
Peter (Groaning): Ye don’t know football crowds, or ye wouldn’t expect them to go away.
Printer: There was the Tower, the Zoo, the British Museum, National Gallery, St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and matinees and sights galore.
Peter: Muddle I ‘ad in view was not only this I told you of – about the risin’ of assessments, but I see the Government sold the seized German ships for an old song, and it hasn’t even got all the money for them yet.
Printer: No. The ships were sold two or three years ago, and only ten millions have been paid instead of something like 19 ½ millions.
Peter: Yes, something like that.
Printer: It looks as if you had only to be a big defaulter in order to get off. However, the ships are no use. There was plenty of shipping laid up already. The German ships only made bad worse.
Peter: What would you have done with the Germans? We ‘ad to take their shipping.
Printer: Had we? I didn’t know. We were not bound to punish ourselves even in order to punish the Germans.
Peter: If the Government ‘ad got that money it would have saved taxation.
Printer: Well it wouldn’t have helped our shipyards… No, no; the whole idea of reparations looks to me to be fatuous – under industrialisation Take our debt to America. How can we pay it all?
Peter: It can be paid like any other debt, can’t it! We’ve got it reduced.
Printer: Yes, we’ve got it funded, and will have to pay only 30 millions a year instead of 50 millions a year. But what have we to pay it with?
Printer: We have no gold and we have no goods that America wants. America has more gold already than is good for her. She has 79 point something of a gold reserve – twice as much as the American Federal law requires, and all it does is raise prices and hurt trade. The only things we could export would be coal and shipping: and America already exports coal and doesn’t want ours. As to shipping, nearly one half of her mercantile marine is laid up already – close on 6 million tons out of just under 11 millions of a total tonnage. What can we send to America that she hasn’t got too much of already?
Peter: Aih, I give it up. But it’s a funny thing that Germany should come so well out of the war, and everybody else so badly.
Printer: The people with no conscience, no brains, and no morals always seem to score. But there is something in the saying that virtue is its own reward.
Peter (slily): I reckon ‘at to be.
The Printer gave him a look; but what, he felt, was the use of arguing with a disease.
Colonel Buchan, in the article to which I have referred, says he hopes for something from the Clydeside members of Parliament, and he thanks God that they are ‘not genteel.’ It seems an odd aspiration from a Tory M.P. and romancist; but I take it he means that to be genteel means to be feckless. And he is right. The parts of the country that have done well for themselves are parts where the son has followed in his father’s footsteps, developing and perfecting the business and employing more people generation after generation. That is the opposite of the Scots way. In Scotland useful production is despised as not genteel. If a boy show some aptitude, his father, instead of taking him into his own business, concludes he must be doctor, lawyer, parson, or officer. The one who is taken into the business is usually the stupid one. The farmer makes his clever son a doctor and his dull son a farmer, with the result that talent is expatriated to England, India, or the Colonies, and the dulness is carefully conserved at home, to breed more dulness and let business stagnate or run to seed. I think probably the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son is to be found here. The enterprising lad was allowed to go away and make a hash. The boor was retained at home, probably more or less despised by his father, who would naturally think the clever son was more credit to him, even if he did do a bit of plunging. If the hankering after gentility is responsible for the production in Scotland of so many teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, and journalists, who mostly have to leave the land that has spent its money upon them - then we do need to set our faces in the other direction - that of producing useful things, and especially the food and clothes of our own people.
I think Colonel Buchan is right in his expectation that the ungenteel Labour M.P.s will do something for Scotland. One of them, George Hardie, a younger brother of Keir, was asked by the Lord Provost of Glasgow to get a warship to build for the Clyde. Hardie replied that he would rather have houses built than warships. It was a creditable sentiment, and the houses have been built. But if and when there are no shipping orders for the Clyde it will be found that there are too many houses in Glasgow already. A sane social system would abolish cities like Glasgow, sending the people back to the Highlands and to Ireland, where so many of them came from originally.
It was another Labour M.P. - David Kirkwood - who told Mr. Lloyd George that an engineer was worth half-a-dozen lawyers - a highly ungenteel remark, but with some truth in it. At least engineering employs more people and has more to show for their work than the lawyer, who is largely concerned with quarrels which he is said sometimes to foment and with the administration of property which should not have been accumulated.
This brings me to another point. There is far too much saving in Scotland. A half-crown turned over eight times becomes £1. It does that amount of service as a medium of exchange, and at the end of the eight transactions it is still a half-crown in someone’s possession. As member of a pensions authority I am amazed at the savings of elderly people who have omitted to take the good of two, four, and even five hundred pounds of the money they have earned, and come upon the pensions fund at 7o. Those who have employed these people will probably be, in some cases, overdrawn at the bank.
When I read of the number of War Savings Certificates that have been taken up, I recollect that many of those who waste their money in this way are living in hovels, with a stone floor, a thatched roof, a box bed, a paraffin lamp with a single wick, and are denying themselves proper food, clothing, books, newspapers, amusements, a holiday and a sight of the world. There are many persons, in saving Scotland especially, who might well grudge to die, since they have never been more than half alive. But they will probably be all the more willing to die, since life has intrigued them so little that they have not cared to live it.
The properly constituted person is more interested in the game of life than in the stakes. Too many Scotsmen think all the time of the stakes and neglect to play the game. Money withdrawn from consumption is a double robbery. It robs the man to whom it belongs and who does not use it, and it robs industry and trade of orders that would help to keep it brisk and further the economic development and all the civilization that comes of it. It is better to live rich than to die rich.
One specific remedy for Scotland’s troubles is Home Rule; and with this Colonel Buchan, being a Tory, has no sympathy. The Government he supports, indeed, is taking away a large part of the Home Rule we have. Any proposal that tends to rob the rural areas of the elements of political life and of interest in public affairs is entirely bad. We want as many persons interested in the business of Government as possible. Town Council work has been efficiently and intelligently done according to the standards of the time. The shopkeepers and business men of the small towns know more about local affairs than the lords, lairds, major-generals, factors, and farmers who form the county council.
A Parliament in Scotland would tend to revive interest in Scottish national affairs, in which the prevailing views of the Scottish representatives at Westminster are overwhelmed by reactionary English votes. If tyranny be, as De Toqueville said it was, the imposition upon a people of a will in opposition to its own, then Scotland has the genuine article. The same principle holds in local affairs. If decentralisation and local responsibility carried to the fullest extent be good principles in national government, as I believe they are, the same considerations apply to local government. If the work of local bodies had been neglected, or had been done either wastefully or parsimoniously, there would have been a case for interference and alteration. But this cannot be alleged. If here and there it can be, then the same charges could be brought against County Councils to a much larger extent. The stripping of town councils of their functions is a step in the wrong direction, a checkmate to democracy which will exclude the best element in the people in favour of the leisured class, who are comparative amateurs in life. I can only hope that the next Labour Government will reverse a piece of flagrant class legislation and restore the local councils, with greater powers and responsibilities than they have ever possessed.
Summing up my points, I say Scotland is kept back by the migration and emigration of her people. A healthy community absorbs its own natural increase. The country has no moral right to dump its sons and daughters wholesale and as a matter of course on the cities, which have to absorb their own much greater natural increase.
Scotland is slow. I heard and saw a local auctioneer one day offer two yokels a run in his car. They were slow to respond, being apparently unable to realise that anyone should offer them a ride out of pure good nature. When at last they jumped in, overjoyed, he swore, although an elder of the Kirk. The incident is typical.
Scotland is churlish. In the East Yorkshire town of 9000 population which I left to come here, my shop was a haunt of the six local clergymen, the two local doctors, an M.P. resident in the place, and a member of the House of Peers. In Turriff neither of the two parish ministers has called upon me in twelve years, nor have I ever had a pennyworth of custom from them. In Cottingham I had hospitality all round; here I have rarely had a meal (except in two quarters) that I haven’t paid for. Even a trade competitor who lived in my last town, but had his premises in Hull city, was very agreeable to me, though I had taken the work of all the local churches from him. Here the representative of my nearest trade competitor cuts me, and used to say of certain jobs I did that they were not done in Turriff, till one day a local chemist assured him that he (the chemist) was present while one such job was being done and saw the work going on. Another (a Macduff) competitor came and ranged over my place in my absence, spying of course. The English people spoil Scots folk with kindness.
Scotsmen are not greedy, but they are frugal, and it comes to the same thing. The canard about Sandy in London is that when he discovered he could see the Big Ben clock out of his bedroom window, he stopped his watch. What is true is that Sandy often does not wear his watch on weekdays. I have heard a neighbour ask the time thrice in one day, his own watch being laid up from Sunday to Sunday.
Sandy rarely has time for a job that is not paid for; but attach a small honorarium, and he will come to canvass you at eleven o’clock at night for it.
Sandy will not wear an overcoat on workdays, however cold it may be, unless he be a railway employee, who gets a red-collared coat from the company, and takes the good of it. The Scots country mason will rather risk the collapse of a newly built wall than be at the expense of a tarpaulin to keep out the rain. From this cause the house I live in is still exuding damp after a year’s occupation, with fires and open windows.
Considering how many Scotsmen go abroad among strangers, a newcomer ought to have a less churlish welcome from Sandy at home when the stranger comes with good intentions and does not ask anything for nothing.
All these are aspects of Scottish small-town life in which I think there is room for improvement, and I trust that criticism so mild will not fall upon stony ground. There are nice people everywhere. With all their faults, I love my countrymen, and have twice shaken the dust of England from my feet because I prefer to live and work in the country and among my own people, having an idea that the less they want me the more they need me. My life has been largely spent in public work wherever I have gone, and if I left Turriff now it would be substantially in my debt. I should go poorer than I came, which for an industrious man is hard fortune. I shall not complain if Sandy will but wake up and take his part in the world’s progress, as he is being exhorted on so many hands to do, and as his decaying country demands. We were celebrating Armistice Day on Sunday, and very properly so. A German conqueror would not have suited us. But to defend this country against the threat of foreign invasion, and then leave it to Italians, Jews, and Irishmen, all of whom come with low standards of life, is the depth of futility. Where there is no vision the people perish. I look ahead to a great future for the race, and I should like to see my mother country taking her full share in the work of building it.
In writing thus I am not as the ill bird that fouls its own nest. The nest is not so much foul as empty, and I want to see it keep its own birds, not as a nursery, but as a permanent home. I am sorry to see any old, settled land being stripped of its greatest asset, its people. The Scotland which is good enough to be a pleasure-ground to the rich should be made better worth living in to the common man. It can be made so only by definite changes. A vague, backward-looking patriotism of song and sentiment, confined to St. Andrew’s and Burns nights, and celebrated with most unction by Scots who have run away for more money, is merely nauseous. What ails the Sleepy Hollows is their sleepiness, and, as a country of four cities and the rest a spreading desert, Scotland is in special need of being stabbed, if possible, broad awake.
ONE YEAR ON… CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT.
In the spirit of reduce, reuse, recycle which, let’s face it is the only environmental option worthy of consideration in the face of what’s happening to the planet, its resources and people, I’ve delved back into my editorial from this month last year. Here goes.
We all know the cliché a week is a long time in politics, but the last month has just blown that cliché right out of the water. As our new Prime Minister has just told us ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – and a pundit remarked on one of the interminable political programmes that have spawned like a virus post Referendum/Referendum (Indy/EU) ‘that’s clear but we need to know what Brexit means.’
It’s clear we are in a state of uncertainty at present and meaning seems to be thin on the ground. I cannot speculate what is going to happen – apart from to suggest it is going to be a very bumpy ride.
We’ve seen the Conservative AND UNIONIST (as our new PM reminds us) go through the mother of all political pogroms, and the Labour Party/Labour Movement is not just going through a leadership challenge, or even an identity crisis, but perhaps a defining moment. Not, I should add, its first. The Labour Party suffered its birth pangs just over a century ago. Is it now in its death throes? Thirty years ago I might have been accused of exaggeration – but then did we really see the break up the Soviet Union after a mere 70 years? I didn’t. That’s worth thinking about when we consider the European Union and our part (or not) in it as of 2016. These are not just ‘interesting’ times; they are dangerous times. Change is coming – but we are floundering around trying to make meaning of what that change might be.
I venture to suggest that a lot of our current ‘troubles’ are the result of a failure to understand that democracy comes in several flavours (not all of them tolerable.) For oh, so long, we have given ourselves up to representative democracy – and those who didn’t agree with it simply voted (or didn’t) with their feet. Then came a wave of participatory democracy in the form of Referenda. And verily, the public discovered they liked participatory democracy. It made them feel empowered.
I see it as akin to the bird in the gilded cage being let out, or the shadow people getting out of Plato’s Cave. But there is no obvious happy ending to either of those scenarios, or indeed to the one we face now.
What was overlooked in our recent process was that once the questions had been asked (and answered) people wanted to stay in the loop. But that’s not the way it works in a representative democracy.
Representative democracy is about abdication of responsibility – passing the buck to someone else who will ‘do it for you,’ whereas participatory democracy suggests that ‘we the people’ actually get involved and take some responsibility. The two things are rarely compatible.
The Labour Party/Movement debacle (for want of a better word) gives us a great example of this. Whatever you think about him here’s the basic story: The Labour Party (under New Labour and post New Labour) lose touch with ‘the people’. In an attempt to ‘democratise’ the party they open up the parliamentary leadership voting process to the ‘members’ and ‘the people’ raise a new champion – one JC- who gets their votes. He, however, almost inevitably, is at odds with the Parliamentary members (the ones who have hopelessly lost touch, remember). At the first chance of a backlash, the PLP hit back. They don’t want the people’s champion to be the leader so they try to depose him. They are really just espousing representative democracy over participatory democracy – albeit in a heavy handed and somewhat crass kind of way. We anticipate a fight to the death – and the ‘good’ bit about it is that ‘the people’ will still have something of a say in that voting process. So in a couple of months JC may rise again. If it all sounds a bit like a soap opera, or a Shakespeare play (Coriolanus anyone) then you might like to consider that this in-fighting in the Labour Movement is not new. James Leatham records a lot of the first iteration (but he’s recording it from the position of one who would not succumb to ‘party’ lines, being a firm believer in the power of people not parties) Reading Leatham’s writings, especially from the 1890’s through till the 1920’s really shows a different view of the history of the Labour Movement (and parties.) Who says history isn’t relevant?
So. Theresa May is still there (just?) and JC has risen but only to be a slightly louder buzzing irritation. No one knows what Brexit means – or even what it means to say Brexit means Brexit. And strong and stable have been redefined for a generation. At risk of sounding cynical – same old, same old.
This month, you have the chance to take a wider view through The Gateway articles. The Settling of Britain offers a broad, historical opinion piece. ‘Education and Enjoyment’ offers a provocative, time-sensitive and yet oh so relevant view of both reading and rights (especially the right to vote).
This month 2017 you have the opportunity to read the final part of Leatham’s exploration of Scotland and her ‘problems’ ‘What’s Wrong with Sleepy Hollows?’ as well as the second and final part of his historical critique on The French Revolution. As it’s summer we’ve got his ‘The Only Way with the Land is the Socialist Way’
Don’t expect to agree with everything Leatham says – that’s not the point – he’s a provocateur from the past whose value today is to help us draw comparisons and challenge what we see in front of us. The Orraman continues his exploration of the literature of ‘The Edinburgh Boys’ in 1894 and the role of publishing,
This year the Orraman’s going his dinger about the Scots ‘canon’whereas ‘ in ‘Twixt Desk and Shelves’ we look into the 1920’s to find out just how much and how little has changed regarding issues such as housing crises (what crises?) and the fishing industry. Different times. Largely the same questions. And if we do not find the answers we are destined to keep repeating these questions ad nauseam.
All in all, whether you dip in and out, or binge on this month’s edition, I hope there’s some food for thought in your consumption. Never has it been more important for us to learn to think for ourselves in the face of the machinery of parliamentary politics. We may not be about to man the barricades but we do need to be informed beyond the soundbites we are spoon-fed on social media. It’s up to us. We have been given the smallest taste of empowerment – if we want our democracy to be more weighed in favour of participation rather than representation we need to do something about it. Something more than talk. Before they talk us out of some of our fundamental freedoms, convincing us we don’t need to worry because ‘they’ will take care of all that for us. Human Rights. Climate Change. Free Movement of People. Workers Rights… these are things people have fought (and died) for in the past. We must work out how to step up to the plate and keep the fight alive. It won’t be won in the hallowed halls of the political elite. At least not to our satisfaction and benefit. Despite what the New Prime Minister says. After all, she’s not ‘new’ is she – she looks like a re-tread to me. Margaret Thatcher for the 21st century anyone?
I don’t know whether I should be comforted or supremely worried by the fact that a year on, just about everything I said this time last year is still fresh, relevant, and that we are no further ‘forward.’ I don’t think ‘forward’ is a direction of travel any more (if ever it was.) What I do know is that reading Leatham is as rewarding, relevant and challenging as ever and my recommendation is that we should all do a deal more of it.
The Rage of the Heathen.
Looking backward on the Revolution and thinking of how comparatively little it accomplished of definite improvement in the lot of the masses - of how little of a definite idea anybody then had of what required to be done - we of another race and of a colder and more calculating age are apt to wonder that men’s passions of love and hate were so stirred.
A liberty that carried no opportunity with it, an equality and fraternity that had no economic foundations - how could men slay and be slain for such empty shibboleths? And yet our wonder is unreasonable. The very absence of any feasible plan for the ordering of social relationships on a permanently workable basis, the palpable inefficacy of each successive proposal made, may well have been at the bottom of the popular wrath against the exploiters. One can imagine the workers of those days saying: ‘No, this Law of Maximum, this abolition of titles, this guillotining of king and aristocrats, will not secure the earnings to the earner, will not compel the idle rich to work, will not make an end of the robbery of the poor, will not give us the general life-conditions we need. But at least it is clear that the idle rich are the cause of all our troubles, and we hate them and can kill them.’ The heathen raged because they imagined a vain thing, and either felt in advance that it was vain or shortly saw its proved futility.
Our Happier Position.
The Socialist, who has a plan in which he has clear and well-grounded confidence, can afford to be patient because he is hopefully assured of the triumph of his principles. He is encouraged to work and to wait because he sees his ideals being realised by instalments, small enough it may be, and adopted slowly and with many of the current social imperfections incorporated into them, but yet representing definite and permanent progress in the right direction. The modern Socialist can afford to be merciful and tolerant to the rich because he recognises that the rich man is living only according to conditions for which he is no more responsible than the poorest citizen who misuses his vote at election time. The Socialist of to-day is full of hate as of zeal; but it is hatred not of individuals, but of an evil system which has risen by a natural growth from antecedent conditions for which the masses are even more to blame than the classes. The masses have had political power for fifty years, and they had ‘the sacred right of insurrection’ always. But with no interest in the maintenance of the present system, they have used the franchise to perpetuate their own exploitation. The classes, with less political power and nothing to gain by legislation now, cannot be blamed if they are not zealous for the destruction of their own privileges.
The Sympathy Accorded and the Sympathy Denied.
But while the un-ideaed Frenchman of the Revolution could only hate and slay aristocrats, he was, all things considered, wonderfully merciful even in that. Played upon by such makers of harrowing pictures as Carlyle - to whom men and events were everything and principles and tendencies so little, because of the excess of his sympathy with the veritable men and women who came under his notice as historian - we are still mostly in the position, not of people who can take a long philosophic view of the Revolution, but rather of sympathetic contemporaries and sorrowing friends of its victims. We think of the beauty, the sorrows, and the sufferings of Marie Antoinette and the Princess Lamballe, not of the sorrows and sufferings of the millions of poor women who constituted, perhaps, one-third of the adult population of France. Arthur Young’s woman who was only twenty-eight, but looked sixty, is nameless in history, but there were millions like her. Marie Antoinette was but one fine, useless woman among the millions, and she personified the heedless prodigal selfishness of autocracy. We of the Socialist movement, who are full of the idea of social service, of making a full return to society for the bread we eat, the clothes we wear out, and the houseroom we occupy, how can we be expected to think so much of the sufferings of one idle, extravagant woman, and so little of the age-long privation and torture of the hard-working useful mothers and sisters of France?
The Soft-Hearted Democracy.
The crimes of ignorant, passionate democracy, of which Burke and Carlyle have made so much, are as a drop in the sea by comparison with the deliberate enormities perpetrated by enlightened, cold-blooded autocracy, from Herod to Nicholas. The victims of the French democracy in the Hundred Days may be numbered by the score. The victims of democracy the world over, think of them, they are a comparative handful. When even Charles the First, the tyrant, the breaker of faith, the torturer, when his false handsome head was cut off, and the executioner, holding it aloft, cried, ‘This is the head of a tyrant,’ the soft-hearted people groaned. The democracy has always been pitiful, reminding us of Casca’s remark on the women who said ‘Alas, good soul! and forgave them with all their hearts . . . if Caesar had stabbed their mothers they would have done no less.’
Even the September massacres, carried out by the lowest of the low in an enraged and degraded and terror-stricken populace, even they are brightened by golden patches of clemency and love such as the annals of class punishment nowhere reveal. Old Marquis Cazotte emerges to the long line of pikemen and sabreurs apparently to his death; but, his young daughter clutching him and pleading for his life, he is spared. Old M. de Sombreuil has also a daughter, and she, with the abandon of love and the quick eloquence and faith of hot France, appeals to the butchers; - ‘My father is not an aristocrat, O good gentlemen, I will swear it and testify it, and in all ways prove it; we are not; we hate aristocrats.’ ‘Wilt thou drink aristocrats’ blood?’ And, as the story goes, the glass of blood is presented and drunk by the devoted daughter. ‘This Sombreuil is innocent, then,’ says the tribunal of soft-hearted, merely democratic butchers. ‘The bloody pikes rattle to the ground. The tiger yells become tearful bursts of jubilation’ over two lives saved from a fancied just and necessary death. The father and daughter are ‘clasped to bloody bosoms with hot tears, and borne home in triumph of Vive la Nation, the killers even refusing money.’
The Cruel Classes.
When did the aristocracy of France or any other country liberate ‘persons suspect’ in this fashion? There is no cruelty in the world like that of the class man, who feels that his only salvation lies in the hardness of his heart and face. Says William Morris by the mouth of John Ball; ‘Forsooth, in the belly of every rich man dwelleth a devil of hell, and when the man would give his goods to the poor, the devil within him gainsayeth it and saith ‘Wilt thou then be of the poor, and suffer cold and hunger and mocking as they suffer, then give thou thy goods to them, and keep them not.’ And when he would be compassionate, again saith the devil to him, ‘If thou heed these losels and turn on them a face like to their faces, and deem of them as men, then shall they scorn thee, and evil shall come of it, and even one day they shall fall on thee to slay thee when they have learned that thou art but as they be.’’
The utter contempt and hatred of the French seigneur for the French serf was manifested even after the revolution was in full swing. One landlord invited the people on his estate to a banquet in the family chateau. When the guests were all assembled he blew up the castle with all in it, and himself cleared out. Appearing on the scene long afterwards, he represented the explosion as the result of an accident.
Inspirers of the Revolution.
The Revolution was in its conception, its inception, and its results a Middle-Class Revolution. It was inspired by such thinkers as Voltaire and Diderot; and Diderot wrote:- ‘It is property that makes the citizen; every man who has possessions in the State is interested in the State, and whatever be the rank that particular conventions may assign to him, it is always as a proprietor; it is by reason of his possessions that he ought to speak and that he acquires the right of having himself represented.’
Not much democratic sentiment there. It took other three revolutions to establish the right of universal manhood suffrage in France.
It is refreshing to turn from Diderot’s view of popular rights to Mr. John Morley’s statement of the basis of representation as given in his Life of Diderot. Says Morley:- ‘. . . the poorest classes are those who have most need of direct representation; they are the most numerous, their needs are sharpest, they are the classes to which war, consumption of national income, equal laws, judicial administration, and the other concerns of a legislative assembly, come most close.’
The revolution was inaugurated, as we have seen, by the Parliament of Paris - a pettifogging legal assembly.
In their social and economic results, what have all the revolutions of France done for the proletarian? What but to leave him a proletarian - that is to say, a wage-slave and a breeder of wage-slaves, enjoying only such a share of the wealth he produces as suffices to keep life in him and to enable him to raise somehow a family to carry on the world’s work after he has done with the world and its work.
Diderot on the Multitude.
That the Encyclopedists who so largely inspired the revolution were not men of popular sympathies is shown by the following passage from the article on ‘Multitude’ in the Encyclopedia. It is understood to have been written by Diderot:- ‘Distrust the judgment of the multitude in all matters of reasoning and philosophy; there its voice is the voice of malice, folly, inhumanity, irrationality, and prejudice. Distrust it again in things that suppose much knowledge and a fine taste. The multitude is ignorant and dulled. Distrust it in morality; it is not capable of strong and generous actions; it rather wonders at such actions than approves them; heroism is almost madness in its eyes. Distrust it in the things of sentiment; is delicacy of sentiment so common a thing that you can accord it to the multitude? In what, then, is the multitude right? In everything, but only at the end of a very long time, because then it has become an echo, repeating the judgment of a small number of sensible men who shape the judgment of posterity for it beforehand. If you have on your side the testimony of your conscience, and against you that of the multitude, take comfort and be assured that time does justice.’
This is not what a man of popular sympathies would have said. The multitude means thoughtless people of all classes; and it is worth while pointing out that while there are wise men in all classes, the worker, reading and thinking disinterestedly and at his leisure, may well be, and at his best is, a wiser man than the pleasure-hunting aristocrat or the profit-hunting bourgeois. That the workman has not struck out for himself politically on any general scale is a proof, not of his incapacity, but of the difficulty and danger of an attitude of active independence. [This is less true now. He is striking out. - J. L.]
Diderot wrote under the shadow of the Bastille, and many of the articles in the Encyclopedia were mere pieces of common form, written by the author with his tongue in his cheek, just because articles were expected on certain subjects. He could not bluff authority and risk penalties over every article he wrote. Sacrifice had to be made to the conventions, or there would have been no Encyclopedia. In justice to this versatile, indefatigable man, and in answer to numerous attacks upon the Encyclopedia as a whole, I reproduce the lengthy and interesting description of this great work given by Diderot’s biographer, John Morley, who says:-
Virgil’s Georgics have been described as a glorification of labour. The Encyclopaedia seems inspired by the same motive, the same earnest enthusiasm for all the purposes, interests, and details of a productive industry. Diderot, as has justly been said, himself the son of a cutler, might well bring handiwork into honour; assuredly he had inherited from his good father’s workshop sympathy and regard for skill and labour. The illustrative plates, to which Diderot gave the most laborious attention for a period of thirty years, are not only remarkable for their copiousness, their clearness, their finish; and in all these respects they are truly admirable; but they strike us even more by the semi-poetic feeling that transforms the mere representation of a process into an animated scene of human life, stirring the sympathy and touching the imagination of the onlooker as by something dramatic. The bustle, the dexterity, the alert force of the iron foundry, the glass furnace, the gunpowder mill, the silk calendry are as skilfully reproduced as the more tranquil toil of the dairywoman, the embroiderer, the confectioner, the setter of types, the compounder of drugs, the chaser of metals. The drawings recall that eager and personal interest in his work, that nimble complacency which is so charming a trait in the best French craftsman. The animation of these great folios of plates is prodigious. They affect one like looking down on the world of Paris from the heights of Montmartre. To turn over volume after volume is like watching a splendid panorama of all the busy life of the time. Minute care is as striking in them as their comprehensiveness. The smallest tool, the knot in a thread, the ply in a cord, the curve of wrist or finger, each has special and proper delineation. The reader smiles at a complete and elaborate set of tailor’s patterns. He shudders as he comes upon the knives, the probes, the bandages, the posture of the wretch about to undergo the most dangerous operation in surgery. In all the chief departments of industry there are plates good enough to serve for practical specifications and working drawings. It has often been told how Diderot himself used to visit the workshops, to watch the men at work, to put a thousand questions, to sit down at the loom, to have the machine pulled to pieces and set together again before his eyes, to slave like any apprentice, to do bad work, in order, as he says, to be able to instruct others how to do good work. That was no movement of empty rhetoric which made him cry out for the Encyclopaedia to become a sanctuary in which human knowledge might find shelter against time and revolutions. He actually took the pains to make it a complete storehouse of the arts, so perfect in detail that they could be at once constructed after a deluge in which everything had perished save a single copy of the Encyclopaedia.
Such details, said D’Alembert, will perhaps seem extremely out of place to certain scholars, for whom a long dissertation on the cookery or the hair-dressing of the ancients, or on the site of a ruined hamlet, or on the baptismal name of some obscure writer of the tenth century, would be vastly interesting and precious. He suggests that details of economy and of arts and trades have as good a right to a place as the scholastic philosophy or some form of rhetoric still in use, or the mysteries of heraldry. Yet none even of these had been passed over.
The importance given to physical science and the practical arts in the Encyclopaedia is the sign and exemplification of two elements of the great modern transition. It marks both a social and an intellectual revolution. We see in it, first, the distinct association with pacific labour of honcur and a kind of glory, such as had hitherto been reserved for knights and friars, for war and asceticism, for fighting and foraging. If the nobles and the churchmen could only have understood, as clearly as Diderot and D’Alembert understood, the irresistible forces that were making against the maintenance of the worn-out system, all the worst evils attending the great political changes of the last decade of the century would have been avoided. That the nobles and churchmen would not see this, was the fatality of the Revolution.
We have a glimpse of the profound transformation of social ideas which was at work in five or six lines of the article Journalier. ‘Journeyman - a workman who labours with his hands, and is paid day-wages. This description of men forms the great part of a nation; it is their lot which a good government ought to keep principally in sight. If the journeyman is miserable the nation is miserable.’ And again – ‘The net profit of a society, if equally distributed, may be preferable to a larger profit, if it be distributed unequally, and have the effect of dividing the people into two classes, one gorged with riches, the other perishing in misery.’
If all this was not as much as was needed, was it not as much as could have been expected in that day and from that generation?
The men of the eighteenth century could but help by pulling down. The modern reformer can build up, revolutions having now everywhere largely cleared the ground. In France, as elsewhere, the only remedy for the poverty and overwork of the industrious, for the occasional enforced idleness of the poor and the permanent voluntary idleness of the rich, for the million wastages of chaotic competition and the meanness and ugliness of Twentieth Century civilization, lies in the conquest by the people, in their corporate capacity, of the means of life.
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