Unconquerable print

“A sad sketch of a vain sin, which could be comically illstrated by any clergyman (*) who is wearied with the monotony of his profession, and has a little money by him to pay for the publication, of the drawings.


A little while ago, in the affairs of the Continent of Europe, lived an Emperor called Frederick the Great. The only unquestionably great thing he did was to kill himself with uncommon vices. He departed a little from the usual insipidness of royal life by taking an interest in Literature and entertaining Voltaire at his court. It would seem that this same hospitable reception of the satirist is the principal act of his life which entitles him to the epithet of “The Great,” just as, among the bulk of inane congregations, a Church of England minister is considered “broad-minded” simply because he murders his wife. One other action in the life of Carlyle’s hero entitles him to remembrance, if not to a fool’s immortal pillory. While driving through one of the cities of Prussia, on a sunny day, he saw on a wall a placard in which he himself was denounced as an idle, intemperate atheist. It had been posted in the dark and was too high to be easily read. The Emperor stopped, his carriage and commanded that a similar bill should be glued at a more readable height; “For,” he said, “my subjects may print what they like so long as I can do what I like.”

It is difficult to say what thoughts were dancing in the Prussian’s skull. Did the old blockhead think that Print remained no more than Print ; this fierce placard, “posted after dark,” no more than, paper and letterpress ? Did he not think that his own coronation, and the docility of the masses, depended on advisory placards far different in spirit from this nocturnal one ; that a word of this fresh sheet might stop those gilt wheels of his ; that a thought of it might he as a whirlwind to knock his golden palace down and blow him and his better-half over the seas out of disgusted Prussia ; that this sheet of letterpress might fire a country to destroy an Emperor, as the Chinaman in Lamb’s essay burnt his whole house down so as to roast a pig ? Call this man, rather, Frederick the Great Fool !

Yet, we must admit, this question of Print is a difficult one to know what to do with ; beyond all it is a sore and sad work for rulers to undertake : much depends on its prominence, or death, or conciliation. It is a most dangerous and subtle task for any administrator. The tigerish Acts of Britain’s Coalition Cabinet seem
as futile as the daring or dense Act of the hospitable Prussian. That the hour to start on the annihilation of Print is now gone by, is a thought to wet with perspiration the brow of the coolest Prime Minister in the world. Had the Egyptian’s legendary policy with regard to Moses been pursued with wisdom and patience during the infancy of writing or the copying of manuscripts, we would never have remembered those ancient thoughts, the vitality of which, yesterday, disturbed the Prussian’s sunny drive, and to-day survives and even outwits Britain’s civil force and military might. When the ancients wrote on leaves of trees, a royal edict might have announced that all palm trees must be destroyed ; when the engraving on bronze began, the digging of mines might have been prohibited ; every Babylonian pot with a song on it could have been dashed to the earth. By these and suchlike proclamations, Egypt, without dates, would have starved ; Rome, without metal and marble, would have sunk to the dust; and Babylon, without pots, would have been everlastingly thirsty ; but had these mighty nations of antiquity ever dreamed what ease of mind such an action would confer on posterity’s Prime Ministers, they would not, I am sure, have shrunk from the sacrifice.

In the hey-day of the mischief some belated attempt was made to massacre Printing and Learning. In that quaint book of Isaac D’Israelie’s. “Curiosities of Literature,” we read this : “The Romans burnt the books of the Jews, of the Christians, of the Philosophers; the Jews burnt the books of the Christians and the Pagans; and the Christians burnt the books of the Pagans and Jews.” As all these antagonists were sincerely animated by religious scruples, I have no doubt the devastation of books, and the punishment of guilty authors, was done with industry and as little bloodshed as was humanly possible. I feel confident that before a man was committed to the flames the utmost care was taken to choose the author, rather than the mere reader, of the heretical tracts. Yet this scheme is obviously too sectarian to have been completely successful. Had an entirely ignorant, or shall we say impartial, dictator been placed at the head of the “Conflagration Department,” he would have burnt books as books, and to-day white bread could have been changed to black without any printed opposition or necessity for Ministerial shivers.

But these are vain regrets for the irrevocable past; and the future is black before the Capitalist. Despite the efforts which have been recently made, it is surely evidently vain to attempt to eradicate thought by the tethering of the Printing Presses. It would have been difficult in the chattel days by the prohibition of pits the burning of palm trees, and the smelting of hieroglyphic pots ; to-day it is utterly impossible by raiding the S.P.G.B. offices, by Scottish “Forward,” London “Globe,” and limiting the circulation of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, or even by stopping its publication entirely. To endeavour to suppress thought by such means is only misdirected energy.

All through history the measures taken against the printing of poetry and science alternate between the crafty, yet savage, oppression of our own times, and the dissipated indifference of the Prussian clown. Though it is now idle to lament the increase and swelling in the volume of beautiful and useful printing, a poet of last century, Francis Thompson, did not think it too late in the day to suggest a plan for the building of a waterway for the torrent. In a kind of prefatory word to one of his essays he advised the Catholic Church to deal with fiery poetry, in a way which may very well be imitated by the foes of science :

“This beautiful, wild, feline poetry, wild because left to range the wilds, restore to the hearth of your charity, shelter under the rafter of your faith ; discipline her to the sweet restraints of your household, feed her with the meat of you table, soften her with the amity of your children ; tame her, fondle her, cherish her— you will n longer then need to flee her. Suffer her to be wanton, suffer her to play, so she play round the foot of the Cross !”

The Pope, however, was too busy kindling candles to take any notice of such a plea ; so Francis Thompson stood on the Thames Embankment enduring,

“. . . through watches of the night
The abashless inquisition of each star,”

and sold matches to other good Catholics who were keen to waste wax on an indifferent Mary. His Holiness in the Vatican is notoriously unconcerned with temporal matters, but Mister Lloyd George, who is a Cabinet Minister, is not. This conciliatory scheme of our poet’s must appeal to him. George’s prestige in the art of conciliation is most high. Think of his memorable master-strokes in the Government, in Wales, and in Ireland. Has he not conciliated Lord Northcliffe and secured the Premiership ? When the Welsh miners refused Runciman’s offer of half-terms, did not Lloyd George calm them by granting all they asked ? Was not Ireland reconciled after the forcible suppression of the irreconcilables ? In Ireland, some say, you can now hear a pin drop.

Why, that same Irish insurrection we lately saw, looking at the matter rightly, was all under the direction of Print. For whole generations the country has been full of dumb yearnings and unspeakable dreams, ready for revolt at any time for the last hundreds of years : if only it knew what to revolt for. Then Print came and half explained the evils they felt ; then Print summoned the sufferers together and followed up with many impetuous declaiations. Other movements, too, are partly under the direction of Print which rulers are swift to recognise but do not know how to deal with. Certainly they think, this fiery sort of print should be swept aside. A most immense business and not at all easy to get done. Each day the forces which aim to break thrones, split empires, unite the workers on a class basis, are becoming more powerful, more defiant, more subtle. Revolutionary books are taken into houses whose threshold they never neared long ago, while men are touched who were never so touched before. A vast, damnable business ! Such a state of things, pitiful to the rulers at any time, is worst when the country is at war. Since that fool, Marx, wrote, some have got his words, his message, indelibly in their minds. The influence of the man is extending despite all caution, all prisons, all bribes, all labour leaders ; editorials are running to waste. Editorial Harmsworth, alias Northcliffe, says in hectic Print, “Here is a cause which merits a vast expenditure of wealth and a vast loss of blood.” The cool Print of the Socialist replies, “We have looked at your record and see that you are not to be trusted ; we have also looked at the causes of this war and see that, far from there being any necessity for bloodshed, there was no need to spend a farthing of English money or disturb a single French grasshopper.”

We are now come at last to the war which is the cause of the new tethering of the Printing Presses. It is not always that we can speak of the carnage with such lightness as at the end of the last paragraph. Yet unless we can smile a little at the more clownish elements of the tragedy we would soon drift into insane melancholy. Yet there is this matter of the Liberty of the Press, so closely connected with the war, over which we cannot smile much either. The thoughts of the democracy, and from thoughts actions, depend so much on their being in touch with literature that any imperfect instruction from bad literature is at once evident in the national conduct. Those millions lie dead on the plains and hills abroad in consequence of the imperfection of their initial thoughts on social questions ; those other cold and drenched millions are antagonists from the same cause. That thousand of threatening ships were unwisely built and are being insanely used. With a deeper knowledge of Marx’s printed word amongst the workers, that Clyde keel of a war ship would be the keel of a friendly-ship, which would not injure foreign cities with a storm of missiles, but would enter strange harbours with a cargo to give health ; would not with cannon widen the world’s natural wounds, but would take wealth which would soothe the ineradicable distresses of life. Let the workers get hold of good Print, and, in consequence, let their ideas change, and not another soldier will fall with lead in his heart in the fields of France, not a stealthy and murderous boat will be left on the ocean. That which is the burnt and bloody “No Man’s Land” to-day, would be rich with vines to-morrow ; and the seas would be sweetened with pleasant vessels. The “Man with the Hoe” is evil enough, for France to cope with.

If, then, so much folly, so much crime, is dependent on our education in printed matter, let us see what obstacles there are to keep the good from us. The first and fatal thing is the education of children. This sacredest duty is misdone in a most wilful and malignant way. Inefficient teachers are put in schools to instruct children : the more sensible are bound to teach particular lies or else fall in their profession ; and this criminal thing is done because there is the class of capitalists who profit by the blunders and narrowness of the mass. It is apparent to any observant man that youths of the board schools are sent into the world intellectually half made up. When they become grown men they move about in a barren acre or so of thought, and, by them, the wide land of reason and imagination is untrodden ; its existence is almost unsuspected. Music, statues, pictures books, are indeed sign-posts to them, but in the chronicles of misery they read that they point to no contented lands; that they just indicate the ways into the darkness of poverty. Over that dismal heath is the realm of poetry, populated by the sad ; along that desolate lane are the villages of music, tenanted by the sad ; while far into those other shadows are the studios, filled with sad and poor. Along none of those prickly roads may a man find ease of wealth nor any ease of mind, “In those fields of science,” say the pulpit folk and crafty book, “is only godlessness and dejection. Among that sculpture, amid those violins, is misery and poverty. Come among us, then, and by piety and labour seek here wealth and in the hereafter immortal joy. Leave these sinners and idlers to their pens, their tinklings, their carvings, their colour-boxes, their dreams of social reconstruction, ideals of brotherhood, and that nemesis which always shadows such waywardness—sadness.” The above is, in its essence, a specimen of the arguments which hold the workers from the delights of the intellect. Of course, there are many elements of capitalism, perhaps more fatal than these, which limit our outlook. Yet it is certain that we are fettered, in no small degree, by hopes of immortal joy, by threats of immortal punishment, by hope of riches, by threat of poverty. Religion and Commerce stand at the beginning of our lives and prevent entire liberty of thought and emotion. Christ and Baron Rothschild are as scarecrows to keep us from the wheaten fields of the printed book.

Still, whether we have Liberty of the Press or not our work will move like a powerful flood. It would be wise for the administrators to learn that much. The most the masters can hope for with regard to the principles of Socialism is a postponement of their establishment. And as Socialism will bring liberty to every Art and Science it follows that postponement is all that they can hope for, in all directions. Privilege based on ignorance cannot last side by side with wisdom and liberty.

Postponement ! that will not be long either. The waters of Learning, from the remote Greek hills, come sweeping through the ages like through difficult and undulating country, patiently finding the valleys, circling past impediments : and they will not be stilled. Even if Parliamentary locks are closed they will be encircled ; such crime will be without fruit. If this water is to be deprived of its old path there are other meadows near, pathless, over and beyond the banks—even other channels beneath the locks. It would be well for M.P.’s to know that torrents may not be imprisoned or closeted up ; to know that Thought is as persistent as water, more impalpable, more ungovernable than water. When free it is sunny, mighty, and refreshing ; when not free it is subterranean, terrible, and unhealthy.

Homer struck the rock of the world and the beauty he produced is our inheritance. In marvellous flood the volume of beauty, the inspiration of his work, visited Italy, wound through Spain and Holland and came to us in the end with glorious witchery. We must not be robbed of this gift by the journalistic images of the Government. I will go further and say that I do not think the beauty and instruction given to us by old poet, Italian painter, English scientist, can lie for long imprisoned by a newspaper proprietor, or by a thievish politician, nor even by both united in a professional bond of common interests. It only gives us further evidence of their imbecility when our Rulers think that the flood of Learning released by a noble Greek can be stopped by a London police constable : damned fools !

(*) Preferahly a minister who has gone from church to church, tried all the rammifications of his business and found all unprofitable, for the up-to-date spirit of revenge which would then animate his pencil would ensure the success of the volume.

H. M. M.

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