The Chance of the Peasant

by G. K. Chesterton

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G. K. Chesterton

The Chance of the Peasant

by G. K. Chesterton
Everyman, October 18, 1912, page 4

Two very extraordinary and rather unexpected things have happened in the recent political thought of this country. I mean the simultaneous collapse of the thing that is called Individualism and also of the thing that is called Socialism - at least in England and by the English Socialists. When I was last in Paris I remember seeing an election placard, advocating the claims of which a gentleman with the attractive name of Baube; in which, if I remember right, that politician described himself as "Deputé Sortant Radical Republican Socialist Anti-Collectiviste." I have never been a Deputé (thank God), and if I had been I should doubtless have been Sortant at an early opportunity; but in all other respects I think that portentous catalogue describes my own political opinions with a precision and lucidity which I and my countrymen can seldom rival. For the sake of clearness, therefore, and the avoidance of a mere verbal wrangle, I will call the Marxian and Fabian scheme for giving up to the government all the primary forms of property, by the special term Collectivism; while I call the old English trust in competition and individual enterprise by its old name of Individualism. It is appropriate to get the names of these two causes quite clear cut and legible. For epithets are important in epitaphs: and both these causes are dead.

An ideal, it is true, can never die; not even when all the idealists are sick of it. But these two things never were ideals. They were compromises: and nothing, not a thousand door-nails, can ever be so dead as a dead compromise. It is as dead as a joke that nobody laughed at, a compliment that did not please, or a piece of exquisite social tact that made things worse than they were. And these two compromises of Collectivism and commercial Individualism - these two compromises have proved very compromising indeed. Our fathers endured the ugliness and cruelty of competition because it would lead at last to everybody being rich. We, in our Socialist youth, endured the dreariness and insane simplification of State ownership because it would lead at last to nobody being poor. But no human being to whom the word Liberal meant anything more than the word lollipops, ever really liked the notion of sacking everybody till everybody found his economic level; or ever really liked the notion of State officials distributing gardens as postmen distribute letters; or stopping building and bargaining as policemen stop traffic in the Strand. Individualism was a second best, even for the Individualist. Collectivism was a second best, even for the Collectivist.

But it was not through any idealist quarrel with these compromises that they have become impossible. They have become impossible as skating in a mild winter or bathing in a cold spring becomes impossible. The facts of this world have worked persistently the other way. It is useless to preach a hope in the competition of capitalists; because the capitalists will not compete. At every opportunity they do not compete, but combine. The Socialists are often taunted because they disagree. But the capitalists do something much more wicked and heathen: they agree. We know what is happening on a neighboring hill while Herod and Pilate are shaking hands. There was some sense in Individualism as long as there were individuals: so long as it was really a question whether a daring and ironical upstart from Liverpool might or might not undercut the powerful optimism, the sense and the strong humour of an English upstart from Leeds. But what is the good of talking about the irony of the International Toothbrush Trust, and its struggle with the strong Humour of the Amalgamated Hair Brush Company? Individuality has been destroyed by Individualists, not by Socialists.

The Collapse of Collectivism has been more recent, but is even more complete. Briefly, the English populace simply will not stand the State intervening on behalf of the poor, for the quite simple and sufficient reason that the State always intervenes on behalf of the rich. It is utterly useless to talk of boards of arbitration, or commissions and committees, representing both Labour and Capital. On every committee the chairmanship is given to a plutocrat. In most cases both chairmanship and casting vote are given to a quite incongruous and even scandalous plutocrat. Perhaps the best chairman ever chosen was chosen to investigate the Railway Strike: he was an English policeman employed to crush the Irish people. Perhaps the worst was the chairman chosen for the Coal Strike: he was an English aristocrat who had actually led the worst reactionaries and defended the worst Capitalist intrigues. For these or other reasons the insurgent workers to-day are useless for the purposes of State Socialism. They believe rather less in the State than in anything else. If they invoke the Government against their employer, they know it means invoking a man dressed like their employer, talking like their employer, talking to their employer, betraying them to their employer. For good or evil, the faith in the Government official has finally and utterly broken down. And without faith in the official there can be no Collectivism.

That is the extraordinary modern situation. The competing capitalists won't compete; and when once you really collect the poor, they won't be Collectivist. It is not fantasy, it is not idealism, it is not insanity, it is nothing so high-minded, that is driving modern men back upon the project of Peasant Proprietorship. It is the visible destruction of everything else.

Among those miners who asked to have higher wages, I believe that most would have preferred to have no wages. I believe that most would have preferred a piece of private capital, a garden no bigger than a carpet. Cabbages can be got out of the earth more easily than coals; and they are better worth their trouble. Among those dockers who asked for higher wages, I believe that most would have preferred to have no wages. They would rather have owned a loose boat in some little harbour or canal; and been free to load it to sinking, or to empty it for idle caprice. The miners and the dockers will not trust what is called Society; but still less will they trust what is called Socialism. They must and will retreat upon the older and more unanswerable claim; they must and will demand a distributed but quite private property. That may yet be the revival of Peasant proprietorship, and that may yet mean that England is free.

This is the hour of the English Peasant; he would be bound to conquer if he could only exist. Kings and nobles, capitalists and empires, would flee from the Peasant - if only there were any Peasant for them to flee from. The brute logic of events has shown that being bullied by employers and being bullied by officials is, in a solid and literal sense, the same thing. The employer has a stake in the Government. The Government has a yet heavier stake in the employer. The man who works with his hands has less and less part in such stakes with every sunrise and sunset. I can think of nothing else to give him except a stake in the country.


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