G.K. Chesterton: Radical Populist


G.K. Chesterton: Radical Populist, by Margaret Canovan, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, 175 pp., $10.95.

The great temptation in reviewing a book on Chesterton, as in writing one, is to simply assemble a string of quotations, tied together by a minimum of commentary. The only safe alternative would be to include no quotes at all. Margaret Canovan has had the courage to follow the middle course and consequently comes out of the book rather less well than her subject. Her examples of Chesterton's writing make her own attempts to defend him appear rather like Woody Allen volunteering his services to bodyguard Mohammed Ali. In truth, Chesterton needs no defense; whatever his faults, he is so good that anyone who deserves the pleasure of reading him will gladly forgive them. He resembles in this the other great political essayists of this century, H.L. Mencken and George Orwell; it was Orwell who, in an attack on the later Catholic apologists, described them as "the leavings on Chesterton's plate."

For Canovan, the central puzzle is how Chesterton could be at the same time a revolutionary and a defender of private property, a radical opponent of both the conservative ruling classes and their socialist adversaries. How could a man both good and intelligent not only fail to support measures such as national health insurance, state regulation, and child labor laws, but actively oppose them? How could it be that Chesterton, the most radical of Liberals, who had the courage to openly oppose British imperialism during the Boer War, broke with the Liberal Party not merely when, but explicitly because, it became "progressive"?

It is to her credit that Canovan does not dismiss Chesterton as merely a talented madman. She instead argues that he saw progressive legislation as a paternalistic and often self-interested attempt by a ruling elite to tell the masses what was good for them and to compel them to do it. She thus converts the dispute into a class conflict, with Chesterton defending the "good" lower class against the "evil" upper. Those are terms that she, and her modern English audience, can accept.

This description is correct as far as it goes, but it makes Chesterton's position seem much narrower than it was. It is true that he wrote at length and with feeling about the class nature of paternalistic state action. But his point was not that such action would be desirable if the common people were behind it; it was, instead, that the people were not behind it precisely because it was not desirable. For Chesterton, what is wrong is taking away a man's freedom to run his own life; that it is taken away by a rich man who says he is doing it for the victim's good only adds insult to injury. That the rich man is, in practice, exempt from his own law is an additional injustice but also an explanation of why he supports it.

The narrowness of Canovan's interpretation makes her final chapter on Chesterton's relevance curiously flat. She ties him in with everything from Watergate to the Concorde and repeats the usual clichés concerning the ills of the modern world. What she fails to note is that, whether or not Britain and the United States are—as Chesterton believed that England was—class societies ruled by an elite, most of the specific tyrannies that Chesterton fought, including some of those that Canovan finds especially horrifying, still exist. Consider, for example, the Mental Deficiency Act, "which authorized any two doctors to identify any person or child as 'deficient'…and lock him up for life." As Chesterton pointed out, "If I want to dispossess a nephew, oust a rival, silence a blackmailer, or get rid of an importunate widow, there is nothing in logic to prevent my calling them feeble-minded too. And the vaguer the charge is the less they will be able to disprove it." If Miss Canovan is aware that in much of the United States a man can be committed on the word of two psychiatrists without having been convicted of any crime, and locked up until he succeeds in persuading his keepers that he is "cured," she does not mention it.

The same narrowness of interpretation leads to her main thesis—that Chesterton was a populist. She quotes Peter Wiles's identification of populism's major tenet as "Virtue resides in the simple people, who are the overwhelming majority, and in their collective traditions." She observes, correctly, that Chesterton believed the masses of the population were in favor of both liberty and common sense. But by implying that he was for those things because the people were for them, she, as she realizes, creates a serious problem for her interpretation. Chesterton's writing was popular, but his views were not. His attempt at a political movement, the Distributist League, was a flop. If he held his views because they were the wisdom of the people, why did the people not support him? If the people did not support him, why did he not change his views?

Chesterton not only did not accept the identification of what is "right" with what is "popular"—he despised it. In What's Wrong with the World (1910) he wrote: "We often read nowadays of the valour or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one's grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be."

If not a populist, what was he? "I am a Liberal. It is the other people who are not Liberals." And, "As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals."

There was a time, long ago, when liberalism meant belief in individual liberty. Chesterton left the Liberal Party when it abandoned that belief in favor of what is now called liberalism—democratic socialism and water. In explaining his "paradoxical" opposition to both the status quo and socialism, he put the liberal case very simply. "I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization is decentralization. It has been described as a paradox. There is apparently something elvish and fantastic about saying that when capital has come to be too much in the hands of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hands of the many. The Socialist would put it in the hands of even fewer; but those people would be politicians, who (as we know) always administer it in the interests of the many."

The best way to understand Chesterton's political position is to look at the radical liberal movement that now calls itself libertarianism. One finds there not only the same opposition to increases in State power, under whatever guise, but also, at times, the same tendency to view government oppression as not only bad but deliberate, as the outcome of a conspiracy, explicit or implicit, among the political parties against the populace. This is, I think, an error, a failure of analysis—a point I discuss in The Machinery of Freedom. But it is an error entirely natural to one who recognizes, unlike many of his (and our) contemporaries, the limits of formal democracy as a mechanism for controlling State power. Similarly, while many advocates of private property might be disturbed by Chesterton's "distributionist" objective of dividing up land among the population and his opposition to large aristocratic estates, they should realize that he, like some of the more radical of modem libertarians, believed that existing land holdings reflected historical acts of theft, so that redistribution would be a vindication, not a violation, of legitimate property rights.

There is at least one important respect in which Chesterton's position was superior to that of many liberals, then or now. He realized that a commitment to liberty still left the most fundamental questions unanswered, that a consistent libertarian, like anyone else, still requires a philosophical basis for choice.

"Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.…The modern man says, 'Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.' This is, logically rendered, 'Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.' He says, 'Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.' This, logically stated, means, 'Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.' He says, 'Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.' This, clearly expressed, means, 'We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.'"

A discussion of Chesterton's own answer to that problem would carry us into the other principal area of his writing—religion. Miss Canovan is, I think, correct in believing that the two areas are intimately related; she may also be correct in arguing that his "orthodoxy" was, if not Catholicism made over in his own image, at least one strand isolated from a diverse fabric.

The weakness in Canovan's analysis of Chesterton's political views shows itself as a concentration on those elements of his thought with which she can most easily sympathize. In her analysis of his religious views, it appears as distance; the ideas never come alive as they so often do in his own writing. For the most part she contents herself with showing how he could be a Catholic without being a conservative, an authoritarian, and a fascist. That maybe an appropriate approach for a study of the political elements of Chesterton's thought, but readers of her book should at least be aware that there are other elements.

Despite its faults, Margaret Canovan has written a useful book. For those who do not know Chesterton she provides a sample that may prove addictive. Those who do will find her attempt to fit his ideas into a single pattern at least suggestive of the unity that underlies the writing of this most articulate and least successful of 20th-century radicals.

David Friedman teaches economics at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and is the author of The Machinery of Freedom, recently reissued by Arlington House.