From about 1905 to 1925, three of the most prominent popular intellectuals in England were George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and G. K. Chesterton. Both Shaw and Wells are still considered important figures but Chesterton is remembered, outside of conservative Catholic circles, only as the author of some early mysteries.
The reason is not the quality of what Chesterton had to say. Those of his views which seem odd to a modern reader are mostly ones he shared with his opponents and with much of the advanced opinion of the time. The positions which distinguished him from those around him, in particular his distrust of socialism, paternalism, and the general philosophical trends of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, look more and more convincing with every decade that passes.
Shaw and Wells, however wrong and dangerous their visions of supermen and scientific or socialist Utopias have turned out to be, were left, therefore progressive, therefore significant. Chesterton was not. He was a radical liberal in the nineteenth-century tradition, what would now be called a libertarian, a believer in private property (and its wide distribution) who denied that the only alternatives were socialism or the status quo. As he put it:
“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 hand of even fewer; but those people would be politicians, who (as we know) always administer it in the interests of the many.”
Chesterton was not a conservative; in one of his debates with Shaw he pointed out that his opponent was spending a good deal of time attacking “the present system of industrial England. Who except a devil from hell ever defended it? …. I object to his solution of Socialism … because it will be … devilishly like Capitalism.”
That sounds paradoxical; when you have eliminated capitalism and socialism what remains? But to Chesterton capitalism did not mean private property and individual liberty. It meant what he believed he saw around him, a society dominated, economically and politically, by capitalists, in which most people worked for large companies, bought from large monopolies, and read newspapers controlled by a few millionaires who were, by a curious coincidence, the friends, supporters, and relatives of the ruling political establishment. He accepted much, perhaps too much, of the socialist critique of the then current state of England, while arguing that the socialists’ cure went in precisely the wrong direction.
The response of many of his critics was to claim that Chesterton’s ideas were simply out of date. He responded that date was irrelevant:
“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.”
Chesterton did not limit his unpopular views to politics. In religion he began his intellectual career as an agnostic of vaguely Christian inclinations, became a more and more orthodox Christian and towards the end of his life converted to Catholicism. If he had chosen his beliefs with the deliberate objective of offending contemporary intellectual opinion he could scarcely have found two better suited to the purpose than nineteenth-century liberalism and Catholicism. Perhaps what is surprising is not that he is generally forgotten but that his books have not yet been publicly burned.
When I first discovered Chesterton I was already a libertarian. I enjoyed his political essays while being puzzled and intrigued to find him defending, with equal intelligence and persuasiveness, Christian and even Catholic orthodoxy, ideas which seemed as indefensible to me as his and my political views seemed to everyone else. It was still more intriguing to learn that he was a Christian not in spite of being a libertarian but because of it. In trying to find a secure basis from which to defend his political position, indeed his whole view of reality and man’s place therein, Chesterton, by his own report, found himself pushed step by step towards Christian orthodoxy. Asked why he believed what he did, he replied: “Because I perceive life to be logical and workable with these beliefs and illogical and unworkable without them.”
Modern libertarians will find that a strange claim; despite a small minority of Christians, most vocal libertarians today seem to be either agnostics or atheists. So far as my own intellectual experience is concerned, I have not, despite my admiration for Chesterton, become a Catholic or even a theist. I have, however, found myself forced step by step into a philosophical position that might be described as Catholicism without God, the belief that statements about right and wrong are true or false in essentially the same way as statements about physical reality, that ‘one should not torture children’ is a fact in very nearly the same sense as ‘if you drop things they fall’. I will not try to defend that conclusion here, but I think it worth recording as evidence that modern readers, especially libertarians, should take seriously Chesterton’s claim concerning the connection between his political and religious views.
In arguing that Chesterton’s current invisibility is due more to our faults than to his, I must deal with one serious charge made against him: that he was anti-semitic. It is, I think, exaggerated but not entirely without foundation. The accusation arises in part from his association with two other writers, his brother Cecil Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc, who may well have been anti-semitic, in part from an accident of Chesterton’s personal history, and in part from an important element of his political ideas.
The historical basis was the Marconi Affair, a political scandal in which a number of government ministers made money speculating in the stock of the American Marconi company, apparently taking advantage of inside information that the British Marconi Company was to be awarded a government contract to build a chain of wireless stations. Cecil Chesterton wrote a series of vituperative articles attacking several of the principal figures, was sued for criminal libel, conducted his own defense (incompetently) in the belief that the ability to argue was an adequate substitute for knowledge of the law, was convicted and briefly jailed. Three of his opponents in the case, Godfrey Isaacs, a director of both the British and American Marconi Companies, his brother Sir Rufus Isaacs (later the Marquis of Reading), then Attorney General, and Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster General, were Jewish.
G. K. Chesterton was very much affected by the case, partly because of the threat to his adored younger brother and partly because the attempt by the (Liberal) government to cover up the scandal and squelch dissent was to him symbolic of the abandonment of Liberal principles by the Liberal party. As he put it somewhat later “more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.” One result is that when villains in G. K. Chesterton’s stories are rich and powerful, they are also quite likely to be Jewish.
A more important element in Chesterton’s attitude towards Jews was his view of nationalism. He was an anti-imperialist and Little Englander who believed that patriotism was an appropriate attitude for small countries, not empires. When Britain attacked and annexed the Boer Republics of South Africa, he was pro-Boer. Later, commenting on World War I, he wrote:
“I myself am more convinced than ever that the World War occurred because nations were too big, and not because they were too small. It occurred especially because big nations wanted to be the World State. But it occurred, above all, because about things so vast there comes to be something cold and hollow and impersonal. It was not merely a war of nations; it was a war of warring internationalists.”
What does this have to do with anti-semitism? For the answer one must read ‘The Problem of Zionism’, a 1920 essay which contains both ammunition for attacking him as an anti-semite and evidence that he was not. Its central thesis is that the Jewish problem comes from the fact that the Jews are a nation in exile, so that British Jews, French Jews, or German Jews are not really Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away; the solution, if any solution is possible, is to establish a Jewish state.
One difficulty with doing so is that the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine view Jews with suspicion, precisely because of national characteristics such as the tendency to be bankers instead of blacksmiths and lawyers instead of farmers, which have resulted from their exile. In order for Israel to work, “The modern Jews have to turn themselves into hewers of wood and drawers of water. … It will be a success when the Jews in it are scavengers, when the Jews in it are sweeps, when they are dockers and ditchers and porters and hodmen.” Chesterton recognized that this was precisely the ideal of some of the Zionist settlements; commenting on the collision between the anti-semitic stereotype and the Zionist ideal, he wrote “It is our whole complaint against the Jew that he does not till the soil or toil with the spade; it is very hard on him to refuse him if he really says, ‘Give me a soil and I will till it; give me a spade and I will use it.’ It is our whole reason for distrusting him that he cannot really love any of the lands in which he wanders; it seems rather indefensible to be deaf to him if he really says, ‘Give me a land and I will love it.’”
It is an extraordinary essay; the best, perhaps the only, way to understand in what sense Chesterton was either anti- or pro-semitic is to read it in full. It is easy to extract chunks which appear anti-semitic, such as his half serious suggestion that Jews be freed from all legal restrictions save one, the requirement that they dress like Arabs in order to remind themselves and their hosts of their essential foreignness. It is equally easy to find passages that could have been written by a Zionist. I found his assertion that Jews are foreigners in the countries where they live, which seems very odd to an American, less shocking than I might have precisely because I had heard it first from European Jews.
Such arguments sound somewhat different from an outsider, yet I think it would be hard to read the essay with an open mind and not end up admiring Chesterton for his attempt to deal honestly with what was and is a difficult problem. And it is worth noting that he applied the same principles to himself. His eventual decision to convert to Catholicism was a decision to identify himself with a group viewed by most Englishmen as alien and suspect. He was defending the same principle, the idea that national groups should be themselves and not poor imitations of someone else, when he criticized Indian Nationalism for being “not very Indian and not very national” in an article read by a young Indian student named Mohandas K. Gandhi.
What most sharply distinguishes G. K. Chesterton’s writing from that of most other ideological writers, before and since, is its essential sanity and good humor. His ideological opponents, even the villains of his fiction, are neither devils nor fools but fellow human beings, in many ways admirable, whose views he thinks mistaken. In both his debates and his novels the ultimate objective is not to destroy those who are in the wrong but to convert them.