Sunday, January 21, 2007

About the Workers

by G.K. Chesterton



It is often said truly, though perhaps not often understood rightly, that extremes meet. But the strange thing is that extremes meet, not so much in being extraordinary, as in being dull. The country where the East and the West are one is a very flat country. For such extremes are generally extreme simplifications; and tend to a type of generalization flattening out all real types, let alone real personalities. Two of the dreariest things in the world, for instance, are the way in which the snobs among the rich talk about the poor; and the way in which the prigs who profess to have an economic cure for poverty themselves talk about the poor. On the one side, we have the class of people who are always talking about "the lower classes," thereby proving that they belong to a class very much lower; a class so low that it almost deserves to be called classy. It is sufficiently weak-minded to be proud; but this type is generally merely purse-proud; and, as Thackeray said, "It admires mean things meanly"; for example, it admires itself. To hear such people talking about servants or about working men will be enough to send the wise and good away with a wild impulse to make, if not a barricade, at least a butter-slide. But, curiously enough, there is something that produces almost exactly the same impression on my own feelings; and that is the pedantic way in which all people who happen to be poor are classified by some professors of Socialism or social reform; and even by some who are supposed to be working-class representatives themselves. Somehow they seem to talk about the Proletariat in exactly the same tone of voice in which the wealthier snobs talk about the lower classes. Why, for instance, is it never correct to call them "the workmen" or "the working men" but always crushingly correct to call them "the workers"? Somehow that word alone, and the ritual repetition of it, seems to discolour and drain the whole subject of any human interest. To be a workman is perhaps the noblest of all human functions; and I was delighted the other day to hear a speaker describe Mr. Eric Gill, the great sculptor, as "the first workman in the land." But the person swallowed up in these sociological generalizations is no more the last than the first. He is not a working man because he is not a man; he is not any workman anybody has ever known; he is not the funny Irish bricklayer you talked to when you were a little boy; he is not the plumber or the mysterious plumber's mate; he is not the gardener, who was rather cross; he is not the needy knife-grinder or the romantic rat-catcher. He is The Workers; a vast grey horde of people, apparently all exactly alike, like ants; who are always on the march somewhere; presumably to the Ninth or Tenth International. And this de-humanizing way of dealing with people who do most of the practical work on which we depend, merely because they unfortunately have to do it for a wage, is really quite as irritating to anybody with any real popular sympathies as the ignorant contempt of the classes that are established and ought to be educated. And both fail upon the simple point that the most important thing about a workman is that he is a man; a particular sort of biped; and that two of him are not a quadruped nor fifty of him a centipede.

These amusing but annoying habits are but the outer expression of a social truth, which will grow more and more obviously true; but which very few people of any political or social group have yet seen to be true at all. Talking as if I were myself a wild Communist, the voice of the rough and simple masses of the poor, and therefore using the longest words I can and putting what I mean as pedantically and polysyllabically as possible, I might state the matter thus. The sociology of capitalistic industrialism began with an identification with individualism; but its ultimate organization has corresponded to a complete loss of individuality. So far so bad. But what is even worse, the sort of constructive discontent in revolt against it, which is still most common in the varieties of popular opinion, has itself inherited and carried on this indifference to individuality. For Communism is the child and heir of Capitalism; and the son would still greatly resemble his father even if he had really killed him. Even if we had what is called the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, there would be the same mechanical monotony in dealing with the mob of Dictators as in dealing with the mob of wage-slaves. There would be, in practice, exactly the same sense of swarms of featureless human beings, swarms of human beings who were hardly human, swarms coming out of a hive, whether to store or to sting. And when I thought of that word, I suddenly realized why I so intensely disliked the other words I have mentioned; for, now I come to think of it, I believe there is one whole section of such insects that is called "the workers."

Upon this similarity, generally called a conflict, between an industrial order and an equally industrial revolution, is largely founded that third thesis, on which I have sometimes touched in this place; the insistence on true individualism instead of false individualism; the distribution of private property to the individual citizens and individual families. I am not now arguing about its political prospects or economic effectiveness; though they are much more hopeful than most modern people suppose. I am thinking of it merely in relation to the sweeping criticism and the swarming crowd; the general tendency of people at both extremes to simplify the problem either by contempt or by pedantry. I mean that some of us think the Irish bricklayer might be even funnier if he were as free as the Irish peasant; that if the plumber always owned his own tools, he might sometimes neglect to leave them behind; that though a man can be cross as well as contented with his own garden, the fact of ownership itself tends on the whole to contentment; and that even discontent of that sort does not mean that a man is at once discontented and indistinguishable or invisible; or reduced to making a vague noise out of the voices of many nameless men, like the buzzing of bees in his back garden. For I do not believe that any human being is fundamentally happier for being finally lost in a crowd, even if it is called a crowd of comrades. I do not believe that the humorous human vanities can have vanished quite so completely from anybody as that; I think every man must desire more or less to figure as a figure, and not merely as a moving landscape, even if it be a landscape made of figures. I cannot believe that men are quite so different that any of them want to be the same. I admit that the beginning of men for the purposes of social protest may have some of the justification of a just war. I even admit that the menace of such a war may palliate the panic-stricken arrogance of some of the ignorant rich, who do not know what the war is about. But I repeat that in both cases I think that habit of dealing with men in the mass, not merely on abnormal occasions, as in a war or a strike, but in normal circumstances and as a part of ordinary social speech, is a very bad way of trying to understand the human animal. There are only a few animals, and they are not human animals, who can be best judged or best employed in packs or herds. Some may compare the workers of a Communist state to a pack of wolves; I should very strongly suspect that they bear more resemblance to a flock of sheep. But neither of these animals can be said to have a very complex or entertaining type of mentality; few of us would be eager to listen, even if we could, to the flowing and continuous reminiscences of a sheep; and St. Francis seems to have been the only man who was ever on intimate terms with a wolf. It is precisely because man is the most interesting of the creatures that he finds his proper place among those creatures who dig a domestic hole or hang up an individual nest; and the disgrace of our society is not when he has not a hive or an ant hill; but when, among so many nests and holes, he has not where to lay his head.

Interview with Thomas Storck

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