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About Chesterton and Belloc

It has been one of the less possible dreams of my life to be a painted
Pagan God and live upon a ceiling. I crown myself becomingly in stars or
tendrils or with electric coruscations (as the mood takes me), and wear
an easy costume free from complications and appropriate to the climate
of those agreeable spaces. The company about me on the clouds varies
greatly with the mood of the vision, but always it is in some way, if
not always a very obvious way, beautiful. One frequent presence is G.K.
Chesterton, a joyous whirl of brush work, appropriately garmented and
crowned. When he is there, I remark, the whole ceiling is by a sort of
radiation convivial. We drink limitless old October from handsome
flagons, and we argue mightily about Pride (his weak point) and the
nature of Deity. A hygienic, attentive, and essentially anaesthetic
Eagle checks, in the absence of exercise, any undue enlargement of our
Promethean livers.... Chesterton often--but never by any chance Belloc.
Belloc I admire beyond measure, but there is a sort of partisan
viciousness about Belloc that bars him from my celestial dreams. He
never figures, no, not even in the remotest corner, on my ceiling. And
yet the divine artist, by some strange skill that my ignorance of his
technique saves me from the presumption of explaining, does indicate
exactly where Belloc is. A little quiver of the paint, a faint aura,
about the spectacular masses of Chesterton? I am not certain. But no
intelligent beholder can look up and miss the remarkable fact that
Belloc exists--and that he is away, safely away, away in his heaven,
which is, of course, the Park Lane Imperialist's hell. There he
presides....

But in this life I do not meet Chesterton exalted upon clouds, and there
is but the mockery of that endless leisure for abstract discussion
afforded by my painted entertainments. I live in an urgent and incessant
world, which is at its best a wildly beautiful confusion of impressions
and at its worst a dingy uproar. It crowds upon us and jostles us, we
get our little interludes for thinking and talking between much rough
scuffling and laying about us with our fists. And I cannot afford to be
continually bickering with Chesterton and Belloc about forms of
expression. There are others for whom I want to save my knuckles. One
may be wasteful in peace and leisure, but economies are the soul of
conflict.

In many ways we three are closely akin; we diverge not by necessity but
accident, because we speak in different dialects and have divergent
metaphysics. All that I can I shall persuade to my way of thinking about
thought and to the use of words in my loose, expressive manner, but
Belloc and Chesterton and I are too grown and set to change our
languages now and learn new ones; we are on different roads, and so we
must needs shout to one another across intervening abysses. These two
say Socialism is a thing they do not want for men, and I say Socialism
is above all what I want for men. We shall go on saying that now to the
end of our days. But what we do all three want is something very alike.
Our different roads are parallel. I aim at a growing collective life, a
perpetually enhanced inheritance for our race, through the fullest,
freest development of the individual life. What they aim at ultimately I
do not understand, but it is manifest that its immediate form is the
fullest and freest development of the individual life. We all three hate
equally and sympathetically the spectacle of human beings blown up with
windy wealth and irresponsible power as cruelly and absurdly as boys
blow up frogs; we all three detest the complex causes that dwarf and
cripple lives from the moment of birth and starve and debase great
masses of mankind. We want as universally as possible the jolly life,
men and women warm-blooded and well-aired, acting freely and joyously,
gathering life as children gather corn-cockles in corn. We all three
want people to have property of a real and personal sort, to have the
son, as Chesterton put it, bringing up the port his father laid down,
and pride in the pears one has grown in one's own garden. And I agree
with Chesterton that giving--giving oneself out of love and
fellowship--is the salt of life.

But there I diverge from him, less in spirit, I think, than in the
manner of his expression. There is a base because impersonal way of
giving. "Standing drink," which he praises as noble, is just the thing I
cannot stand, the ultimate mockery and vulgarisation of that fine act of
bringing out the cherished thing saved for the heaven-sent guest. It is
a mere commercial transaction, essentially of the evil of our time.
Think of it! Two temporarily homeless beings agree to drink together,
and they turn in and face the public supply of drink (a little vitiated
by private commercial necessities) in the public-house. (It is horrible
that life should be so wholesale and heartless.) And Jones, with a
sudden effusion of manner, thrusts twopence or ninepence (got God knows
how) into the economic mysteries and personal delicacy of Brown. I'd as
soon a man slipped sixpence down my neck. If Jones has used love and
sympathy to detect a certain real thirst and need in Brown and knowledge
and power in its assuaging by some specially appropriate fluid, then we
have an altogether different matter; but the common business of
"standing treat" and giving presents and entertainments is as proud and
unspiritual as cock-crowing, as foolish and inhuman as that sorry
compendium of mercantile vices, the game of poker, and I am amazed to
find Chesterton commend it.

But that is a criticism by the way. Chesterton and Belloc agree with the
Socialist that the present world does not give at all what they want.
They agree that it fails to do so through a wild derangement of our
property relations. They are in agreement with the common contemporary
man (whose creed is stated, I think, not unfairly, but with the omission
of certain important articles by Chesterton), that the derangements of
our property relations are to be remedied by concerted action and in
part by altered laws. The land and all sorts of great common interests
must be, if not owned, then at least controlled, managed, checked,
redistributed by the State. Our real difference is only about a little
more or a little less owning. I do not see how Belloc and Chesterton can
stand for anything but a strong State as against those wild monsters of
property, the strong, big private owners. The State must be complex and
powerful enough to prevent them. State or plutocrat there is really no
other practical alternative before the world at the present time. Either
we have to let the big financial adventurers, the aggregating capitalist
and his Press, in a loose, informal combination, rule the earth, either
we have got to stand aside from preventive legislation and leave things
to work out on their present lines, or we have to construct a collective
organisation sufficiently strong for the protection of the liberties of
the some-day-to-be-jolly common man. So far we go in common. If Belloc
and Chesterton are not Socialists, they are at any rate not
anti-Socialists. If they say they want an organised Christian State
(which involves practically seven-tenths of the Socialist desire), then,
in the face of our big common enemies, of adventurous capital, of alien
Imperialism, base ambition, base intelligence, and common prejudice and
ignorance, I do not mean to quarrel with them politically, so long as
they force no quarrel on me. Their organised Christian State is nearer
the organised State I want than our present plutocracy. Our ideals will
fight some day, and it will be, I know, a first-rate fight, but to fight
now is to let the enemy in. When we have got all we want in common, then
and only then can we afford to differ. I have never believed that a
Socialist Party could hope to form a Government in this country in my
lifetime; I believe it less now than ever I did. I don't know if any of
my Fabian colleagues entertain so remarkable a hope. But if they do not,
then unless their political aim is pure cantankerousness, they must
contemplate a working political combination between the Socialist
members in Parliament and just that non-capitalist section of the
Liberal Party for which Chesterton and Belloc speak. Perpetual
opposition is a dishonourable aim in politics; and a man who mingles in
political development with no intention of taking on responsible tasks
unless he gets all his particular formulae accepted is a pervert, a
victim of Irish bad example, and unfit far decent democratic
institutions ...

I digress again, I see, but my drift I hope is clear. Differ as we may,
Belloc and Chesterton are with all Socialists in being on the same side
of the great political and social cleavage that opens at the present
time. We and they are with the interests of the mass of common men as
against that growing organisation of great owners who have common
interests directly antagonistic to those of the community and State. We
Socialists are only secondarily politicians. Our primary business is not
to impose upon, but to ram right into the substance of that object of
Chesterton's solicitude, the circle of ideas of the common man, the idea
of the State as his own, as a thing he serves and is served by. We want
to add to his sense of property rather than offend it. If I had my way I
would do that at the street corners and on the trams, I would take down
that alien-looking and detestable inscription "L.C.C.," and put up,
"This Tram, this Street, belongs to the People of London." Would
Chesterton or Belloc quarrel with that? Suppose that Chesterton is
right, and that there are incurable things in the mind of the common man
flatly hostile to our ideals; so much of our ideals will fail. But we
are doing our best by our lights, and all we can. What are Chesterton
and Belloc doing? If our ideal is partly right and partly wrong, are
they trying to build up a better ideal? Will they state a Utopia and how
they propose it shall be managed? If they lend their weight only to such
fine old propositions as that a man wants freedom, that he has a right
to do as he likes with his own, and so on, they won't help the common
man much. All that fine talk, without some further exposition, goes to
sustain Mr. Rockefeller's simple human love of property, and the woman
and child sweating manufacturer in his fight for the inspector-free
home industry. I bought on a bookstall the other day a pamphlet full of
misrepresentation and bad argument against Socialism by an Australian
Jew, published by the Single-Tax people apparently in a disinterested
attempt to free the land from the landowner by the simple expedient of
abusing anyone else who wanted to do as much but did not hold Henry
George to be God and Lord; and I know Socialists who will protest with
tears in their eyes against association with any human being who sings
any song but the "Red Flag" and doubts whether Marx had much experience
of affairs. Well, there is no reason why Chesterton and Belloc should at
their level do the same sort of thing. When we talk on a ceiling or at a
dinner-party with any touch of the celestial in its composition,
Chesterton and I, Belloc and I, are antagonists with an undying feud,
but in the fight against human selfishness and narrowness and for a
finer, juster law, we are brothers--at the remotest, half-brothers.

Chesterton isn't a Socialist--agreed! But now, as between us and the
Master of Elibank or Sir Hugh Bell or any other Free Trade Liberal
capitalist or landlord, which side is he on? You cannot have more than
one fight going on in the political arena at the same time, because only
one party or group of parties can win.

And going back for a moment to that point about a Utopia, I want one
from Chesterton. Purely unhelpful criticism isn't enough from a man of
his size. It isn't justifiable for him to go about sitting on other
people's Utopias. I appeal to his sense of fair play. I have done my
best to reconcile the conception of a free and generous style of
personal living with a social organisation that will save the world from
the harsh predominance of dull, persistent, energetic, unscrupulous
grabbers tempered only by the vulgar extravagance of their wives and
sons. It isn't an adequate reply to say that nobody stood treat there,
and that the simple, generous people like to beat their own wives and
children on occasion in a loving and intimate manner, and that they
won't endure the spirit of Mr. Sidney Webb.

H.G. Wells