Illustration by Theodore Schluenderfritz. G.K.’s Weekly, August 1, 1925
The argument underlying most of the arguments of our critics against our ideal is a sort of argument in a circle. It is very necessary to understand and yet it is not very easy to explain. It is like the old oriental symbol of a snake with its tail in its mouth; the occult and mystical image upon which whiting are sometimes made to model themselves. One would think that such a symbol was a simple matter; but in fact it is like the Figure in the Carpet of which Henry James wrote; a thing really recurrent and regular but at the first glance bewildering and even invisible. It is not always easy to trace the pattern of the carpet, even if it be a pattern of self-devouring snakes. It is not always easy to follow the large returning curve in what appears a chaos of intersecting lines. But we for our part are sorry when snakes bite their own tails. We are sorry for the snake and we are sorry for the tail. We weep over the reptile who has such an unsatisfactory meal. We also weep over the tail which has such an unsatisfactory time. And we shall try to explain the point, although it is difficult and may even be dull.
The point is this. When we describe our ideal, our opponents always deride and reject it because it is an ideal; which means in their language a dream. When we denounce existing conditions or current proposals, they ask us what is the use of denunciation which could only lead to destruction; which in their language means to mere negation. We say, for instance, that the only tolerable ideal for a man is that of a free man; and the only tolerable ideal of a free man is that of a man free over a fairly wide area to choose and to create. We say that while this ideal is nowhere ideally realised, it can be really realised. We say there was more of it in a free craftsman than in a modern mechanic; more of it in a farmer’s wife doing as she liked with her own herbs and cordials than in a factory girl doing as she is told by a capitalist combine. We do not desire to produce this precise example of this precise state of things. We do not limit the craftsman to carving gargoyles; we do not force the critic to drink cowslip wine. We give these things as examples of the various ways in which a healthy humanity has attempted to approach this ideal, rather than the other ideals. But when we describe the ideal in such general and ideal terms, we are accused of describing a legendary Arcadia or a mythical Golden Age. We are asked why we should profess to be propounding a social solution like that of Mr. Sidney Webb or Mr. Henry Ford, when in fact we are only describing a Land of Heart’s Desire like Mr. W.B. Yeats. In a word, they say we waste time in describing an unattainable dignity and independence. Very well; let us merely note that complaint and keep it clearly in mind. It will come round again, like the serpent’s tail.
So, on the other hand, they complain of our complaints. They say that the industrial system, like its alleged author, is not so black as it is painted. They say we paint it blacker than it is; and that this (under the circumstances) is a mere waste of blacking. They suggest that it is mere pessimism to insist that things are indefensible when they are really indestructible. They say we are merely throwing away dirty water before we can get clean. Or rather they say we are merely analysing the animalculae in the dirty water, while we do not even venture to throw it away. Why, it is asked, do we waste so many words in making men discontented with conditions with which they are forced to be content? Why do we talk of a thing as an intolerable slavery when we know that it must for a time be tolerated? We say that the rule of mere rich men is far more shameful and benighted than the rule of any king or squire, of any priests or princess. We say there has never been a tyranny pressing so closely upon man as this tyranny of trade gone mad. Individual rulers have done much worse things to individual subjects. But in the matter of the daily bread and the breath of life, the ruler has never been so powerful, the subject has never been so impotent. We say that a hatred of this condition is not a question of a sociological theory, but a question of a sense of honour. And we are asked why we put it with so much heat; why we think it worth while to appeal to such hatred. It is all futile; because nothing can really be done. That is their argument; and again we only ask that it should be realised and remembered. We denounce what we cannot destroy. Therefore we are a pack of idiots. Let us make a note of the fact; and proceed.
Now what follows in practice is this. We are eventually, and very rightly, asked to give some sort of account of how we should set to work. As a matter of fact, we are very much more prepared to go into detail about definite and practical proposals than most of the literary men who have been counted legitimate critics and even reforming influences. Still, we are not parliamentary lawyers and have never pretended to be industrial experts. We can, in the ordinary sense of human speech, suggest a number of things that could be done. They range from things that could be done tomorrow, like turning down a side street to a small shop, to things that are not likely to be done even a hundred years hence, though they could easily have been done six hundred years ago; such as putting a man in prison for making a corner in wheat. We think these proposals practical; but it is not their practicality that is the point here. It is the way in which our critics prove them unpractical. Their argument always amounts to this, in one form or another. You cannot thus reverse the trend of the time and alter the mind of the society. It would mean an effort that men will not make, a sacrifice they cannot be expected to make, a crisis they will not face, a paradox they will not entertain. You cannot get the mob of a modern town to boycott the biggest and best advertised shop. You cannot get a plunging and pleasure-seeking crowd to hunt out the hole and corner homes of a lost liberty or a dying self-respect. Similarly, you cannot make medieval laws against trusts and tricks of the trade; or if you made them you could not enforce them. Your legal campaign would break down; your Anti-Trust law would be checkmated and evaded; your lawyers would be bribed; your witnesses would be brow-beaten; the mob would be turned against you in the end. In short, the real argument against us is just that. We cannot make our cause really practical because we cannot make it really popular. The modern mind is set in its weary ruts. There will not be a change of mind without a change of heart; and we cannot effect it.
Perhaps; but at least you cannot logically blame us because we try. At least you cannot say that people do not hate plutocracy enough to destroy it; and then blame us for asking them to look at it enough to hate it. At least and at last, you may begin to have some notion of why we do think it worth while to attempt to make the ideal inspiring as an ideal and the reality intolerable because it is a reality. At last our critics can find the answer to the question which they asked first; which they have possibly already forgotten. This is why it is worth while to insist on the merely moral beauty of simplicity and sanity. This is why it is worth while to emphasise the mere repulsiveness of corruption and servility. We do not say that we can do it; but we do say it would be worth doing. We do not say that we can be eloquent enough to persuade degenerate Christians of what even the heathens understood; the glory of the household gods and the closeness of the hearth to the altar. But if we preserve the protest of that human tradition, heathen and Christian, men may arise who can sing and speak of it as did the great poets of heroic times. We do not say we can find words foul enough to describe modern wealth, and all that world of bullying and bribing and fawning which vulgar plutocracy offers us as a final home. But the resources of civilisation are not exhausted; and somebody with a richer reserve of bad language may find fitting terms, for it yet. But the point is that it is not illogical, but strictly logical, that we should appeal to the abstractions which our critics deplore, because the actualities are as our critics describe. It is they who are arguing in a circle, when they complain of our merely describing desirable things; and then go on to complain that they cannot be realised unless they are shown to be desirable. It is they who are arguing in a circle, when they object to our denouncing things as detestable; and then object again because it is idle to denounce them until we can get people to detest them. The thing they insist would have to be done is exactly the thing which we, in our humble way, are trying to do. It is to get people to desire the one thing and to detest the other. That is why we describe the virtues of peasants who we know cannot be exactly copied. That is why we describe the corruption of profiteers who we know will never be really punished. We are doing what our own opponents say would be the only practical preliminary. And when we do it, they call us unpractical.