T. E. Hulme was killed in the last war and left little completed work behind him, but the ideas that he had roughly formulated had great influence, especially on the numerous writers who were grouped round the Criterion in the twenties and thirties. Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene all probably owe something to him. But more important than the extent of his personal influence is the general intellectual movement to which he belonged, a movement which could fairly be described as the revival of pessimism. Perhaps its best-known living exponent is Marshal Pétain. But the new pessimism has queerer affiliations than that. It links up not only with Catholicism, Conservatism and Fascism, but also with Pacifism (California brand especially), and Anarchism. It is worth noting that T. E. Hulme, the upper-middle-class English Conservative in a bowler hat, was an admirer and to some extent a follower of the Anarcho-Syndicalist, Georges Sorel.
The thing that is common to all these people, whether it is Pétain mournfully preaching ‘the discipline of defeat’, or Sorel denouncing liberalism, or Berdyaev shaking his head over the Russian Revolution, or ‘Beachcomber’ delivering side-kicks at Beveridge in the Express, or Huxley advocating non-resistance behind the guns of the American Fleet, is their refusal to believe that human society can be fundamentally improved. Man is non-perfectible, merely political changes can effect nothing, progress is an illusion. The connexion between this belief and political reaction is, of course, obvious. Other-worldliness is the best alibi a rich man can have. ‘Men cannot be made better by act of Parliament; therefore I may as well go on drawing my dividends.’ No one puts it quite so coarsely as that, but the thought of all these people is along those lines: even of those who, like Michael Roberts and Hulme himself, admit that a little, just a little, improvement in earthly society may be thinkable.
The danger of ignoring the neo-pessimists lies in the fact that up to a point they are right. So long as one thinks in short periods it is wise not to be hopeful about the future. Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist. By and large the prophets of doom have been righter than those who imagined that a real step forward would be achieved by universal education, female suffrage, the League of Nations, or what not.
The real answer is to dissociate Socialism from Utopianism. Nearly all neo-pessimist apologetics consist in putting up a man of straw and knocking him down again. The man of straw is called Human Perfectibility. Socialists are accused of believing that society can be—and indeed, after the establishment of Socialism, will be—completely perfect; also that progress is inevitable. Debunking such beliefs is money for jam, of course.
The answer, which ought to be uttered more loudly than it usually is, is that Socialism is not perfectionist, perhaps not even hedonistic. Socialists don’t claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better. And any thinking Socialist will concede to the Catholic that when economic injustice has been righted, the fundamental problem of man’s place in the universe will still remain. But what the Socialist does claim is that that problem cannot be dealt with while the average human being’s preoccupations are necessarily economic. It is all summed up in Marx’s saying that after Socialism has arrived, human history can begin. Meanwhile the neo-pessimists are there, well entrenched in the press of every country in the world, and they have more influence and make more converts among the young than we sometimes care to admit.
|We discussed the future of Germany; and John [Strachey] said to an American present, ‘You surely don’t want a Carthaginian peace, do you?’ Our American friend with great slowness but solemnity said, ‘I don’t recollect we’ve ever had much trouble from the Carthaginians since.’ Which delighted me.|
It doesn’t delight me. One answer to the American might have been, ‘No, but we’ve had a lot of trouble from the Romans’, But there is more to it than that. What the people who talk about a Carthaginian peace don’t realize is that in our day such things are simply not practicable. Having defeated your enemy you have to choose (unless you want another war within a generation) between exterminating him and treating him generously. Conceivably the first alternative is desirable, but it isn’t possible. It is quite true that Carthage was utterly destroyed, its buildings levelled to the ground, its inhabitants put to the sword. Such things were happening all the time in antiquity. But the populations involved were tiny. I wonder if that American knew how many people were found within the walls of Carthage when it was finally sacked? According to the nearest authority I can lay hands on, five thousand! What is the best way of killing off seventy million Germans? Rat poison? We might keep this in mind when ‘Make Germany Pay’ becomes a battle-cry again.
The operative phrase is any other war. There are plenty of us who would defend our own country, under no matter what government, if it seemed that we were in danger of actual invasion and conquest. But ‘any war’ is a different matter. How about the Boer War, for instance? There is a neat little bit of historical irony here. Mr A. K. Chesterton is the nephew of G. K. Chesterton, who courageously opposed the Boer War, and once remarked that ‘My country, right or wrong’ was on the same moral level as ‘My mother, drunk or sober’.