To start that thinking process, here are a few details. Blatchford was an Englishman, a friend and debating partner of G.K. Chesterton, and an early enthusiast for socialism. Born in 1851, he was a generation older than Chesterton. Still, both were thinking and writing at a time when it was quite understandable why any Englishman might be an enthusiast for socialism. The industrial revolution was in full sway, industriously creating great wealth and great havoc. Some of that havoc depopulated the English countryside and concentrated factory workers and their families in urban slums.
To combat this havoc, Blatchford founded a weekly socialist newspaper, the Clarion, in 1891. In its pages, he promoted not just socialism, but atheism and eugenics, as well as feminism and imperialism (he favored the Boer War.) Despite his decided views, he occasionally made room in his pages for his opponents.
One such occasion followed his 1903 publication of God and My Neighbour, which was a collection of his Clarion columns. In brief, the book detailed his objections to one faith and advocacy of another. The first was Christianity and the second was socialism.
After the book was published, he invited his critics to respond, promising that he would publish three of the best anti-Blatchfordian essays every week for six months. By following through on that promise, Robert Blatchford demonstrated that he was also an enthusiast for the free and free-wheeling interchange of ideas, as well as an advocate of the kind of diversity which matters most, namely intellectual diversity.
A few of these anti-Blatchfordian pieces were written by a thirty-year-old near-nobody by the name of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. The best of his contributions to this ongoing debate was titled “The Eternal Heroism of the Slums.” More on it shortly.
First, it’s time for a few cheers. If three cheers for socialism are three too many, perhaps two cheers might be given to Robert Blatchford for encouraging and publishing his opponents. And Chesterton? His response and challenge to Blatchford is worth three resounding cheers.
Given the prominence and circulation of the Clarion, Chesterton’s challenge received serious attention in England at the time. And today? It should be read by both proponents and opponents of socialism, as well as by those somewhere in the mushy in between. In sum, everyone could learn from his precocious wisdom.
And as we learn we should keep in mind that we have one clear advantage over Chesterton. He was thinking and writing at a time when socialism was still nothing more than a bright and shiny new idea. On the other hand, we are thinking and reading in the aftermath of decades of repeated, real life failures of socialism. In other words, we should already know better, but too often don’t. He had good reason not to know better, and yet he did.
Perhaps that last sentence isn’t quite accurate. It’s certainly true that as of 1904 Chesterton could not have known of the failure of this or that attempt to implement socialist policies and programs. But he was not at all hesitant to state that he knew something else. He knew that “Mr. Blatchford’s philosophy will never be endured among sane men.”
Why was this near-nobody so able to make such a statement so unhesitantly and so confidently? For two reasons. He knew something about the nature of man, and he knew that Blatchford’s philosophy was essentially one of materialism and determinism. This socialist/eugenicist believed (rather than knew) that two things would follow, if people were provided with “better conditions of environment and heredity.” People, he believed, would be good, and society’s problems would then be solved.
Chesterton was not persuaded: “Mr. Blatchford offers nothing remotely resembling an argument to show that he knows what conditions would produce good men.” For that matter, Chesterton was also not persuaded that anyone knew—or could know—the answer to that question. Surely, Blatchford could not mean that “mere conditions of physical comfort and mental culture (could) produce good men, because manifestly they do not.”
And why not? Chesterton, who had only just become a committed Christian, had detected a “strange thing running across human history.” That would be “Sin, or the Fall of Man.”
In a previous essay in the Clarion, Chesterton had conceded that Christianity had “committed crimes at which the sun might sicken in heaven.” But so what? The same could be said of every “great and useful institution” on this earth. In fact, if Blatchford “really want(ed) an institution to damn,” an institution “much gorier” than Christianity, Chesterton had a candidate in mind: the state or government, any one of which had a past “more shameful than a pirate ship.”
To be sure, the “rack and the stake” had been used by the Church, but each had been the brainchild of a “bitter rationalism older than all religions.” More specifically, each had been an invention of the state, otherwise described by Chesterton as the very institution that “Mr. Blatchford and his socialist following would make stronger than it has ever been under the sun.”
Of course, Robert Blatchford and his followers thought that a stronger state was necessary in order to ease the burdens of those living and/or trapped in England’s slums. Once again, Chesterton was not persuaded. Remember the title of his essay, “The Eternal Heroism of the Slums.” That title was not chosen in order to patronize the poor. Nor was it chosen to glorify them or to celebrate—or lament—their victimhood. He chose it because he and they knew something that Blatchford and his followers apparently did not know. Chesterton and the residents of the slums knew that each person possesses a free will. Therefore, everyone, no matter where they live or how well they live, should behave accordingly and could behave heroically.
As his essay neared its end, Chesterton finally and fully unloaded on Robert Blatchford with words that might just as well be directed at the recently repudiated Jeremy Corbyn or the still hopeful Bernie Sanders. In associating “vice with poverty” advocates of socialist solutions have hurled the “vilest and the oldest and the dirtiest of all the stones that insolence has ever flung at the poor.”
And speaking of stones, Chesterton had a response at the ready for Blatchfordians who wondered how a man “born in filth” could live a “noble life”: He knew many who were doing just that within a “stone’s throw” of his own home.
How did Chesterton know that? Had he wandered through the slums? Perhaps, but not necessarily. He simply knew that “man has something in him which is not conquered by conditions.” That something was a “liberty that has never been chained,” a liberty that had “made man happy in dungeons, as it may make them happy in slums.” How did Blatchford not know that? Had he not wandered through the slums? Perhaps not. Or perhaps he had. But no matter. Blatchford, the atheist, simply refused to believe in either sin or free will, preferring instead to believe that he could create a heaven on earth.
All talk of such a utopia left Chesterton smiling (at its obvious absurdity) and scowling (at its potential reality): “I suppose Mr. Blatchford would say that in his utopia nobody would be in prison. What do I care if I am in prison or no, if I have to drag chains everywhere? A man in his utopia may have, for all I know, free food, free meadows, his own estate, his own palace. What does it matter? He may not have his own soul.”
Karl Marx, of course, presumed that chains would be thrown off in the coming workers’ revolution. And, like Blatchford, he presumed that there would be an absence of chains in his coming utopia. Not so Chesterton.
Both Marx and Blatchford also presumed that religion was the opiate of the masses. Once again, Chesterton thought otherwise—and not because he was bent upon calling for the poor to rise up in rebellion or to meekly accept their lot in life. Both were expressions of a kind of economic determinism. And both denied individual free will. After all, Chesterton believed—and knew—that people who know—and believe—that they have free will can do wondrous things, even heroic things, no matter the difficulty of their conditions. And that is true whether those difficult conditions find us trapped in the worst of slums or consigned to the lap of luxury.
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The featured image is a photograph of Robert Blatchford and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.