The Cult of Pessimism

Not so very long ago it was the fashion for the (somewhat ironically-named) “Intellectual” school to take as its guide, philosopher and friend that master of paradoxical invective, Friedrich Nietzsche. But times and opinions have changed. A wave of pessimism has swept over the scene. Schopenhauer with his negation of all values, intellectual and moral, has apparently taken the place of Nietzsche and the periodical re-valuation of whatever is worth the valuing. Instead of the vision of a race of supermen—that chimera of the mad-brained German professor—we have the ativistic idea of an immovable and unsurmountable obstacle in the path of social progress.

The “Intellectuals,” those gods stationed on Olympus, find that even their superior intelligence is not enough to raise the “lower classes,” (they mean, presumably, the working class) to a level sufficiently high to allow of their vague and Utopian schemes of life ever becoming effective. This failure on their part must, they think, certainly portend “the end of all,” for if they, the favoured ones of the earth, cannot do anything to raise the status of the working class, who can !

Mr. Cecil Chesterton—who belongs to the Church Socialist League and is a member or an ex-member of the Fabian Society, and may thus be considered as within the inner circle of the “elect”—has recently given to the world a book entitled “Party and People,” in which a most gloomy view is taken by him, not only of present-day parties and politics (which is, perhaps, reasonable) but also of the possibility of any change in the condition of parties and people. He has apparently realised the truism that the progress of society coincides with the progress of the majority of the people constituting that society, but he entirely fails to see how political efforts can ever be effective and prognosticates that only by methods of violence can things be changed. He says right at the end of his book :

“Does this political machinery ever really do anything ? Can it do anything ? We preach, and criticise and agitate, and men make crosses on pieces of paper, and other men go into lobbies. And it all goes on. And still Mammon is on his throne, and still the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head . . . We have passed laws to give to the people the control over Parliament—and the people have no more control (perhaps less control) over Parliament than before the first of those laws was passed.
“Is it, after all, only the sword that can change things ?”

Certainly, the undoubted evils in society as at present constituted—the poverty and unemployment, the physical and mental degradation and demoralisation—will never be eliminated if many such books as the one under review are written and accepted as tending towards the political education of the people. The whole book, is, indeed, such a conglomeration of useful criticism and useless expedients, of the mildly helpful and the wholly pernicious, that anyone reading it without a preconceived opinion on and definite knowledge of capitalist society in all its multitudinous bearings, would be hopelessly bewildered by the views expressed therein.

Mr. Chesterton’s criticism of the orthodox political parties and their methods is perhaps worth reproducing. He says :

“To build up an immense apparatus called “politics” having for its object the deception of the people has been for four hundred years the settled object of British statesmanship. So far, it has completely succeeded.”—Intro. XIII.
“The settled policy of the leaders of that organisation” (the author is speaking of the Labour Party) “for the last three years has been to effect an alliance with the Liberal politicians for the sole purpose of saving their seats from attack. It looks as if the only effect of the appearance of a Labour Party on the floor of the House, which was hailed with such a flourish of trumpets four years ago, would be to enable certain Socialist (sic) leaders to follow Mr. John Burns on to the Liberal front bench—at a suitable salary.”—Intro. XVIII.
” As for the Labour men, they have been utterly routed in the South and Midlands, while in the North those that have kept their seats have only done so by exchanging their boasted independence for an abject dependence on Liberal votes. Where they have attempted a three-cornered fight, they have been not so much snowed under as entirely disregarded by the electorate.” (Page 10.)
“Mr. Macdonald is the most splendid organiser of defeat the world has ever seen.” (Page 26.)

There is something really hopeful about the above criticisms. But anyone reading these extracts and expecting to find that the conclusions drawn therefrom by the author will help to solve the problems facing society will, it is to be feared, be woefully disappointed. Why is it that a man such as Cecil Chesterton, who has a certain amount of literary ability, and who has sufficient perception and insight to understand the actual interests underlying the protestations of the Liberal, Tory and Labour parties, should ignominiously shirk the obvious conclusions to be drawn from the premises he himself put forward ? He shows in his book that the Liberal, Tory and Labour parties are absolutely worthless from a working-class standpoint, that they cannot and will not give anything that would benefit the workers ; and yet on page after page he advocates reform measures—National Defence, Tariff Reform, the Eight Hours Day, Nationalisation of the Land and various industries—all of which must, if they are given at all, be given by the aforementioned parties, which parties are admittedly nothing but the expression of interests directly in opposition to the interests of the workers.

No wonder he becomes pessimistic. Finding that be has wandered up an intellectual cul-de-sac he refuses to retrace his steps and seek out the straight and narrow way that leads to Socialism, preferring to attempt the impossible task of breaking down the impenetrable wall to which he has come by the obsolete methods of sword and barricade.

Mr. Chesterton and the entire “intellectual” circle in which he moves have “funked” the obvious facts of life, and ended, in despair, by stultifying their reason and stupifying their imagination in the fumes of a musty and worn-out romanticism.

On page 174 of “Party and People” we are told that the only way of escape from the present muddle is to raise the people in a mass against the politicians of all colours. Mr. Chesterton has, however, made this discovery rather late in the day, as the following extract from the Manifesto of the Socialist Party of Great Britain will show:

“Realising that the economic forces working through the development of capitalist society demanded the formation of a revolutionary Socialist party, believing that the emancipation of the working class can be accomplished only by the members of that class consciously organised in a Socialist party, and recognising that the class struggle can alone be the basis of such a party, a small but determined band of workers assembled in London on June 12th, 1904, and and founded the Party of the Workers, The Socialist Party of Great Britain, a party based on clear and unmistakeable principles interpre-tated in plain and unequivocal tactics.”

We, at any rate, are not pessimistic as to the increasing vitality of the Socialist movement, in this, and in every other, so-called civilised country. We find no reason to doubt that the growth, of intellignce among the class to which we belong will continue. But then we make no pretensions to any excessive intellectuality and the exalted altitude where one’s wits are lost in the clouds is not (and we hope never will be) for us.


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