What it means to be non-political I have heard absurdly indicated in the remark of an illiterate printer’s labourer in Manchester long ago. Talk was going on about the visit of Queen Victoria to open the Ship Canal, and this poor man brought upon himself the withering scorn of the intelligent bystanders by declaring ‘She’s allus been a good queen. She’s allus seen that we’ve been at peace wi’ t’ world.’ A shout went up in protest, not only against the idea that we had always been at peace, but still more at the idea that she had anything to do with the matter either way.
And yet what real difference is there between this poor ignorant man’s view and the view of millions of male and female snobs, who, although they have had some education, still buzz around Royalty and meanly worship a mean thing with some sort of idea that it has a really worthy significance in the domain of government?
The cataleptic fatalism of the German mind so far as government is concerned is revealed in many ways, of which we shall cite only two. The one is the extraordinary form of reference to the Kaiser as the All-Highest. The other is the fact that while the Allies have had repeated changes of government and many minor changes of office during the three years of war, Bethmann-Hollweg, in spite of all hostile cabals and much disillusion, loss, suffering and the blackest outlook, is at the moment still in office and in almost solitary power.
If the Germans were an ignorant nation who knew nothing of the political forms of their neighbours and enemies, that would account for their tame subserviency. But they know about our popular elective government only to sneer at it as Parliamentarians, and to declare that it is in no way adapted to them nor do they wish to adopt it. They are, as a matter of fact, fighting and dying, pouring out their blood and treasure, in order to avert the democratisation of their State which other peoples have fought and died to secure, as they are now fighting and dying to defend and preserve it. Surely there was never a clearer illustration of how one nation’s meat is regarded by another nation as poison.
The Benign Necessity.
The value of politics and the necessity of being politicians is of all values and necessities the clearest. A community has to have its streets paved and lit, its traffic regulated, has to be lighted, watered, fed, warmed, policed, educated, and defended, has to be supplied with power and the means of transit and transport. All this means politics, much politics, more and more politics. The alternative to having communal services performed well and cheaply by the efficient, responsible public authority is to have them done badly and expensively by the irresponsible private profiteer.
The necessity of public spirit and enterprise was recognised by the Greeks of the Golden Age of Pericles when they called those men idiotees who took no interest in public affairs. That is to say, the oldest meaning of the word ‘idiot’ is, a non-political person. But many good men hold aloof from politics as necessarily an affair of trickery. Municipal representation tends to go a-begging or to get into the hands of anti-social interests. Corruption and jobbery are by no means confined to the land of tammanyism and it is not enough that tammanyism is lampooned all the time and that the more flagrant jobs are now and again publicly exposed in the reports of commissions or the lawcourts. The sentiment with respect to politics is so perverted that often we hear people boast that they take no stock in politics, and it is not accounted disgraceful that an obituary notice should frequently declare that the subject of it ‘took no part in public affairs.’
One has seen men with a passion for music, or for books, or for the theatre, or for wine, or money, or flowers, or horseflesh. We may make shift to do, at a very great pinch, without any or all of these, but we cannot do without politics. Wherever men are gathered together there must be rules of the social road, and these rules are politics. As all are equally oppressed by bad and blessed by good laws, clearly all have an equal right to participate, less or more, as arranged in the making, altering, and administration of the laws. And the inescapable penalty of taking no part in the business of government is that we shall be obnoxiously or even disastrously governed by others. That is precisely what has happened. Had the young men of Britain (and still more of Germany) known ten years ago that the long arm of the State would seek them out and clutchedthem for drill and dirt and wounds and death, dare we believe that they would still have pretended that politics did not matter to them? When the Government may take your very life, without crime committed on your part, surely nothing can be of greater importance than that you should take a hand in deciding whether or not the Government is to embark upon a policy which means that and nothing less to you. With the great nations social-democratised, war would have been unthinkable.
So much for the literally vital importance of politics. But what of the glamour and absorbing interest of the play of social forces in the world? The dullest newspaper is the most fascinating document of all in proportion to the extent to which, in peace as in war, it reflects the endlessly varied and fiercely pulsing life of the nations. One has known men whose grand obsession was draughts or chess. Just imagine anybody being more interested in the movements, according to rule, of inanimate pieces of black and white wood on black and white squares than in the free and fierce or glad and reluctant moves of the human pawns on the endlessly chequered board of life itself!
What the Politicians can do.
Writing in an age in which the best knew less about politics than comparatively humble men do today, Emerson said:
Republics abound in young civilians who believe that the laws make the city, that grave combination of the policy and modes of living, and employment of the population, that commerce, education, and religion may be voted in or out; and that any measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed upon a people if only you can get sufficient votes to make it a law.
Well, it can be, and historically it has been so. It is not necessary in a despotism to have even a majority of votes in order to carry laws which will make the people poor, or which will change all the social forms. In Germany one man can do it now, as Napoleon did it in France over a century ago. The Protestant Reformation was carried in England by Henry VIII because he wanted unlimited wives and the Pope raised difficulties. The monks were smoked out in Scotland because the rapacious nobles wanted the Church lands. Cromwell altered the entire aspect of life and the status of the nation for the duration of his life. Mr Lloyd George imposed an Insurance Act upon a recalcitrant nation in spite of all opposition. By a stroke of the pen the Kaiser plunged the world in war, as by a word he could depose his Chancellor, depose his chief-of-staff, and reign absolute and alone, with such State servants as he chose to carry out his Imperial will.
So that the young men of Emerson’s day and nation were not far wrong, though he throws cold water on their ideas at one point, and then immediately proceeds to confirm it later on. He says:
‘What the tender, poetic youth dreams, and prays, and palate today, but shame the ridicule of saying outloud, shall presently be the resolutions of public bodies, then shall be carried as grievance and bill of rights through conflict and war, and then shall be triumphant law and establishment for a hundred years, until it gives place, in turn, to new prayers and pictures.
Exactly; but always provided that your community is constitutionally governed – and has the young men who dream and aspire and make mental pictures of the State they desire.
Are there any such in Germany? Are there many such in Britain? There was a time when they were numerous in Britain, and the breed was not unknown in Germany. Karl Blind, Marx, Auguste, Babel, Freiligrach, Leibknecht, Lessner, were in their youth familiar with exile and the inside of prison. But the German youth of immediate pre-war times was only a bigger bounder than ‘Arry or Albert. The whole concern was ‘getting on.’ The German youth took his own case with portentous seriousness. He learned languages, he studied physical science, and he was not insensible to music and literature. But always his concern was for Number One. Even when he joined the Socialist movement there was, apparently, little idealism in his Socialism. He simply wanted a better time for himself, and had at least the sense to see that Socialism stood to give him that.
As it Was.
What influence moved the British young man of the pre-war period I do not pretend to know. In my own young manhood there were literary and debating societies on every hand. At one time I belonged to four. We read and discussed Herbert Spencer’s ‘Study of Sociology’ and ‘Social Statics,’ Henry George’s ‘Progress and Poverty’ and Laurence Grunlunds ‘Co-operative Commonwealth.’ We discussed the views of Bain, Buchner, Darwin, the politics of the hour, and we ranged over the whole field of belle lettres from Shakespeare to John Burroughs. We heckled members of Parliament, wrote to newspapers, served on committees, read ‘papers’ here and there, and proselytised among our associates. Workmen, bank clerks, young solicitors, medicatl students, were all in these four societies. I know nothing of the kind that existed in the immediate pre-war years. There were adult schools where old men lectured to the young men, the young men sitting dumb. There were Socialist branches where discussion did go on, a few young men taking part, more or less. But to most of us the young men of pre-war days, a well groomed lad, fond of tea, learned as to football teams, Cup statistics, cricket and racing form, with a straw hat, turned-up trousers, the deleterious cigarette constantly in his mouth, and he himself on the constant lookout for ‘a lark.’ He ran after girls a little, but fought more and more shy of marriage, that not being a lark. He was fond of music and sometimes played and sang. He preferred ‘the pictures’ or a music hall to the theatre. He was a ‘nice lad’ at home and ‘a good lad’ in the office or shop.
And that was about all there was to him. Do we blame him for being a pleasant, harmless, good-looking, colourless lad? We don’t. But if he does not blame himself by now – if he has learned nothing from the form of hell – we shall, to put it mildly, be very much surprised. Anyhow, there will still be some kick and a world of constructive purpose left in the men who were born in the sixties and earlier – before the world became tame and colourless.
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