by Hilaire Belloc
It must, however, finally be asked of the man who criticizes the Socialist proposal: “If you will not accept his positive and clear remedy for the intolerable conditions of modern industrial society, what alternative have you?”
It is as though a man suffering from a bad limb were to hesitate to have it amputated, and the surgeon were to say to him; “If you will not let me cut it off, what other course do you propose to pursue in order to be cured?”
This question is a strong and insistent one; it is the root question of the whole affair, and it requires reply; for any one who pretends that the present condition of society in England is tolerable, or has even the least chance of enduring, is of a mental caliber worthy rather of what is called “practical politics” than of serious and vital discussion. Let us see, then, what the answer is which the serious opponents of Socialism (not the politicians, for they do not count) make to its demand.
What they say is, that if you could make a society in which the greater part of citizens owned capital and land in small quantities, that society would be happy and secure. They say (as everyone must) that such a subdivision is quite possible with regard to land; but they also believe it to be possible with regard to shares in industrial concerns. When they are told that a high division of this sort would necessarily and soon drift again into a congested state of ownership, with a few capitalists on the one hand and a wretched proletariat on the other, they answer that, as a matter of fact, in the past, when property was well divided, it did not drift into that condition, but that the highly divided state of property was kept secure for centuries by public opinion translating itself into laws and customs, by a method of guilds, of mutual societies, by an almost religious feeling of the obligation not to transgress certain limits of competition, etc. When they are told that a State in which property was highly divided would involve more personal responsibility and personal anxiety than would the Socialist State, they freely admit this, but they add that such responsibilities and anxieties are natural to freedom in any shape and are the price one must pay for it.
Consider carefully this alternative theory. It is valuable because—First, it is the only possible alternative; secondly, because it is one which has hardly entered into the consciousness of English people.
So few English people have ever owned anything during the last few generations that the idea of highly divided capital is not present as a social experience. It is hardly an historic memory. Nevertheless, it remains with English people, just as much as with any other Europeans, an instinctive ideal. And I repeat, between that ideal of highly divided capital and Socialist collectivism there is no possible third ideal; we must go one way or the other. Every reform, every little tinkering and futile Bill which people maunder through the House of Commons necessarily tends one way or the other.
The whole contention of the future in Europe lies between these two theories. On the one hand you have the Socialist theory, the one remedy and the only remedy seriously discussed in the industrial societies which have ultimately grown out of the religious schism of the sixteenth century. On the other hand a better division of property. The interest of all our debates in the near future in Western or European society will lie, I think, in the victory of one or other of these two ideals—the Socialist ideal, in which the diseased industrial world will attempt to heal itself upon lines consonant with its existing nature; the ideal of widely-diffused ownership, in which the healthier and older world, which has survived outside the modern industrial system, proposes to build up its new life, until it can see its way to basing an intensive production upon highly divided individual property. If the first succeeds it will (probably) produce not Socialism, as it hopes, but servitude.
Which of the two systems will win no one can say. The Socialists, of course, do the most prophesying: but then they have grown out of that Biblical enthusiasm in religion and philosophy to which prophecy is native. But prophecy has always been worthless in human affairs, save where it regarded transcendental things.
Printed and published by The Catholic Truth Society. —Oct., 1926.