Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Arthur Penty's Post-Industrialism

Preface by G.K. Chesterton

MR. PENTY, the author of this book, is one of the two or three truly original minds of the modern world. In the very first chapter he proceeds to do what is always done by minds that are 'original; he goes back to origins. For this reason the men whose minds are narrowed by contemporary conventions always accuse any such thinker of being a sort of romantic reactionary. An absurd legend has been manufactured among the critics who have reviewed Mr. Penty's remarkable books (and who have in some cases even read them), to the effect that he regards the medieval period as a golden age of human perfection, and wishes the modern world to make a careful copy of it. His critics talk for all the world as if he had merely recommended us to wear jxnnted shoes or to practise archery. So far is this from being true that his historical studies of medievalism, which are really historical, condemn many medieval things which it is comparatively common to admire ; such as the cult of the Roman Law. But this book is not a study of medieval, but of modern conditions. And from modern conditions alone we could deduce the absurdity of this attempt to silence anybody with a charge of sentimentalism, merely because he wishes for a reasonable restoration of certain things which were lost by accident or by anarchy.

At the very time that such journalists are flinging about the charge of reaction, they are filling their newspapers with the necessity for reconstruction. When people wish to rebuild the villages that were burned in Belgium, we do not describe them as dreamers so deluded as to think that Belgium before the war was a paradise of perfect human happiness. When people hope to re-establish pre-war conditions of normal production or exchange, we do not charge them with thinking that the pre-war period was a golden age. We merely recognize the fact that certain things normal to the nations have been destroyed by an abnormal disaster, and that we must reconstruct them as well as we can. Now, it is Mr. Penty's thesis that the recent rush of commercialism and industrialism, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have led us to an abnormal disaster ; and that it remains for us to recur to the more stable social ideal, recognized not only in the Middle Ages, but in some degree in most ages, and by the great mass of mankind. That is the thesis, so far as medievalism is concerned ; it is the business of the critics to refute the thesis ; and it will require a very different sort of criticism to refute it.

But the general power to return to origins is an even greater matter ; and what it needs is intellectual independence. Indeed, there is an un-conscious truth in the phrase of shallow people who talk of a man like Mr. Penty as if he were behind the times. In one sense he is behind the times ; as we speak of a man being behind the scenes. The man behind the scenes is at the back of things and the beginning of things. He knows where the actors come from, and how; the whole performance began. He has seen all the machinery, and can consider the play as a play, and not as a temporary illusion. Mr. Penty has seen the machinery of the modern world and does not think much of it ; he has seen the illusion of progress and prosperity which it produced on the crowd, at least to some extent and for a time, and he knows it is an illusion. That is to say, he is what so few modern people can be, he is outside the modern world, and in a sense surrounds it. He can judge it freely, not merely by comparison with a real past, but by comparison with a possible future. And, as a matter of fact, that future is becoming more and more possible. It is the present that is becoming impossible. Those who blame Mr. Penty for looking to the past for an alternative to industrialism, do not realize that industrialism itself shows many signs of soon becoming a thing of the past.

What is called industrial unrest might more truly be described as industrial collapse ; and the things that are not collapsing are exactly the old things that it was the fashion to regard as decaying, such as the ancient peasantries of Christendom. It is these modernists who are behind the times ; it is these materialists who have tied their fortunes to a failure ; and it is the modern industrial city that has become a home of lost causes. These people do not understand the meaning of the Bolshevisk concession to the peasantry, of the revival of Italy, of the new power of France, of the successful revolution in Ireland.

What is wanted in this transition is a practical policy for England ; and Mr. Penty propounds his practical policy. As he points out, it is really far more practical, in the sense of adaptable to existing conditions, than the alternative schemes of a more elaborate and systematized Guild Socialism, let alone the elaborate and systematized schemes of the Fabians, the Marxians, or the Douglasites. But the special thesis of this book, as distant from the author's other books, is set out much too clearly to need any anticipatory amplification. From the first discovery of the error of Socialism about its own prigin, to the final forecast of a real reconstruction analogous to the real reconstructions of the past, the reader can follow the argument in detail, and differ or agree as the case may be ; but if he is intelligent he will certainly not dismiss it as a fad or fable about the good old times. I am content here to express something of the gratitude felt by all thinking people to the author, and to leave the book to speak for itself.

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