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Volume 21, Number 2 (Winter 1981)

Belloc’s Social Thought

book cover imageHilaire Belloc, Edwardian Radical
by John P. McCarthy.
Liberty Press, 1978
[IHS Press, 2009, 373 pages.]

Jane Soames Nickerson

To have known someone very intimately and loved him very dearly is not a good qualification for making a useful judgment of his work. Under these limitations, not shared by the author of this book, who never met Belloc, I would suggest that his admirable study has one weakness: it does not sufficiently emphasize Belloc’s essential quality as a prophet. He always saw the big picture, though he often went astray on contemporary application of his theories, which he worked out independently.

For Belloc was a very poor collaborator and found it difficult, if not impossible, to work with others except as a leader, as in the case of his long continued association with G. K. Chesterton, who himself defined their relationship in his autobiography.

To be conscious of exceptional powers, spend one’s whole life swimming against the stream, and still retain independent judgment and faith unembittered is a supreme achievement. Belloc was unresigned, and to the end resented the refusal of Oxford to grant him his Fellowship, and the boycott of much of his work by many publications, but

The spouting well of joy within
That never yet was dried

sustained him, and until his health failed, he continued to expound his views, uninfluenced by their unwelcoming reception.

Most of this book deals with his parliamentary episode, which was essentially a failure in the sense that he had no effect upon legislation and that he alienated many colleagues by his opposition to the Boer War. Time has justified his view of that futile colonial enterprise. Yet the main effect of Belloc’s membership in the House of Commons was that he learned at first hand how England is governed and by whom. It is all common knowledge now, and nobody is surprised or much disturbed to learn the details of the venality of politicians. But Belloc, disgusted, thought and hoped, erroneously, that the public would share his distaste for the techniques by which the ruling classes in England enriched themselves through inside knowledge and covered up for one another when their wheeling and dealing was exposed. Mr. McCarthy aptly quotes Chesterton, who ascribed Belloc’s inability to accept the way England is governed to his French-Irish ancestry, his temper and point of view being more French than English, whence his inability to appreciate certain British institutions. In any event, Belloc never could accept the general English passivity and lack of interest in the way the governing classes managed their affairs. He indeed exposed scandals, but the general public paid him very little attention, being accustomed to leave the management of public affairs in the hands of a small class. Where Belloc saw shams and abuses, most Englishmen saw nothing more than they had expected to see.

As to Belloc’s nationality, though he was proud of his distinguished Irish-French ancestry and did not become a naturalized British subject until middle life, he never lived in France, was brought up and educated entirely in England, and, though he volunteered to serve his term in the French Army, an experience which left an abiding mark, it reinforced his instinctive return home to England.

No society is more conscious of the danger to which any critic of or even commentator upon the race of Israel is exposed than our own. If not praise, then silence is enjoined. Anyone who dares to discuss publicly any one of the many facets of the Jewish impact upon society is indelibly marked as an enemy. Belloc suffered the penalty for discussing what he considered the dangerous influence of international Jewry on public policy. He was labelled antisemitic, with very damaging effect upon his reputation, in defense of which Mr. McCarthy aptly quotes Belloc’s statement: “The detestation of the Jewish cosmopolitan influence especially through finance is one thing, and one may be right or wrong in feeling that detestation or in the degree to which one admits it, but mere antisemitism or a mere attack on a Jew because he is a Jew is quite another matter.” In this, as in many other matters, Belloc was a true prophet.

The Servile State, now fortunately reissued, was Belloc’s effort to produce a reasoned theoretical economic system, to replace both industrial capitalism and socialism, neither of which satisfied his most ardent desire for real liberty and independence for every individual. In his choice of title for this important work, I have often speculated that the variant meanings attached to the word “servile” may have obscured his thesis. The Oxford Dictionary defines “servile” as “like or as of a slave, cringing, mean spirited, menial, without independence.” Belloc used the word in the last sense, “without independence,” but the pejorative implications of cringing, etc., still remained. He appreciated that his own priorities, real personal independence, reposing on property with all its risks and responsibilities, were not shared by the mass of Englishmen, who “think of themselves as wage-earners. They only understood betterment as an improvement in the remuneration and conditions of wage-labor.” His great contribution was in defining that situation and depicting the kind of society to which it was bound to lead, and has led. His advocacy of distributism was unappreciated. In Belloc’s cutting across accepted economic theories and defining the status of the majority from an unfamiliar angle, he was like the child who pointed out that the king had no clothes. And as has happened to many prophets, his focus on reality was unappreciated. McCarthy makes the point that his contemporaries—notably H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, and the Webbs—had far greater influence upon contemporary thought, while Belloc’s unorthodox definition of reality was generally dismissed as an eccentric aberration, the more unacceptable as coming from an avowed Catholic apologist.

Belloc’s espousal of the cause of monarchy was even more out of tune with the political ideas of his time than was his advocacy of distributism. One cannot avoid the impression that his distaste for plutocracy and the parliamentary system led him into advocacy of a cause in which he did not really believe as an actual possibility. By monarchy he did not mean an increase in the legal power of British Royalty, but the personal responsibility of a ruler, hereditary or elected like the President of the United States, to stand above and outside party pressures. McCarthy deals very generously and impartially with this phase of Belloc’s political theory, though I personally believe it was engendered by reaction, a kind of over-elaborated debating point which in his later career he did not emphasize.

One very strong theme runs through all Belloc’s work, both early and late; he was ardently pro-French and equally ardently anti-German, or, as he would have put it, anti-Prussian. This deeply held admiration for the French genius in all its manifestations, and equally deeply held distrust for German politics and German influence upon scholarship, was in part due to intellectual conviction, but also undoubtedly part of his family tradition. Belloc was born in 1870 and escaped the siege of Paris as an infant because his family fled to London, probably by the last train, where they stayed with his English relatives until the war was over. But other members of the family stayed and suffered all the horrors and deprivations of the siege; their property in the suburb of Bougival was occupied by the German Army and partially destroyed. To be brought up with such memories had upon Belloc an influence of which he was fully conscious and proud. Such a background gave him a perspective different from that of his English contemporaries. He saw what they took for granted from another angle, and his great powers of exposition and tremendous vitality got a hearing for his views, even though they were discounted.

It is important to recollect the temper of the time in which the works with which Mr. McCarthy deals were written. Belloc was elected to Parliament in 1906, and wrote The Servile State in 1912. The British Empire had reached its greatest extent and played an enormous role in English life both directly and indirectly in trade and finance. Belloc took little interest in imperial affairs; he was an ardent European with strong ties to the United States, which he loved, criticized, and visited frequently all his life, and his Franco-American focus was unfamiliar and unattractive to his contemporaries absorbed in the problems and opportunities of governing the Empire. Many aspects of English life left him cold. I remember a day when I was going to the Derby, with eager anticipation, and he said sadly that, in his being unable to share such widely felt enthusiasm, “I feel out of communion with my kind.” He often felt so on far more important matters than an interest in racing.

book cover imageMr. McCarthy’s book, focusing on Belloc’s early period when he was actively involved in national politics, is a first-class study, and the Liberty Press has done a great service in re-issuing The Servile State, his most important and influential work in that field.

Belloc’s many-sided genius was humorously defined by his friend Bentley:

Mr. Hilaire Belloc
is a cause for legislation ad hoc;
For he seems to think that nobody minds
His books being all of different kinds.  

Jane Soames Nickerson, once assistant to Hilaire Belloc, is the author of the study Homage to Malthus (Kennikat Press).

Posted: April 29, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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