Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Socialism and Literature

by Henry S. Salt

The supposed incompatibility of Socialism and Literature is one of those gloomy prognostications which sometimes afflict the spirits of literary men. And it must be frankly admitted that, if there should prove to be any natural antagonism between the two, their collision would indeed be “very awkward” (to repeat George Stephenson’s historic saying) for literature, since socialism is a moral and economic force which, once started, is not in the least likely to be deflected from its career. There is however good reason to believe that these anxieties are superfluous: the spread of socialistic principles does not imply the corresponding triumph of vandalism over culture, but rather the reserve; and an estimate of the probable effects of socialism on literature may tend to reassure those who see in the coming nationalisation of letters a still more disquieting phenomenon than the nationalisation of machinery and land.

Slowly, but surely, the new idea of co-operation is forcing itself more and more on the minds of thoughtful men, and irrevocably displacing the old superannuated formula of internecine competition; already it begins to be apparent that Socialism—the administration of the State in the interests of the whole, and not a part, of its citizens—is not only ethically just but economically inevitable. Accordingly, we see that a sauve qui peut is setting in among those very powers whose authority was most confidently invoked against the revolutionary gospel; for Science, after blustering awhile, is prudently disposed to take up a “scientific frontier” which shall freely admit of future convenient readjustments; while Religion has bethought itself of the very timely consideration that the welfare of the masses is precisely the question which the Churches have most at heart. And what of Literature? It is full time that it, too, should begin to form some clear conception of the part it is prepared to play in the great struggle, and of the position it will hereafter fill. Let us assume, then, that Socialism, in some form or other, is ultimately certain to be realised: to discuss the various forms is beside our present purpose, the one essential feature of any socialistic régime being that every citizen would, as a matter of course, be assured of a competent livelihood, while none would be able to inherit or amass any nucleus of inordinate wealth. In a State where riches and poverty were alike unknown, where private simplicity went hand-in-hand with public munificence, where the very notion of self-aggrandisement at the expense of one’s fellows was held in utter detestation—what, in such a State, would be the probable condition of literature?

It is noticeable that in the history of every nation a certain stage of artifical society—the stage which sees the accumulation of big fortunes on one side and the pinch of extreme poverty on the other—is accompanied by a corresponding outburst of the cacoëthes scribendi, the “itch for authorship,” which is the bane of all true literary feeling. This evil manifests itself in two different directions. First, we have the well-to-do, dilettante authors, who, being blessed with an “independence,” to wit, the privilege of living in absolute dependence on the labour of others, are able to indulge their private whims at the expense of the community by writing books which are not wanted, and setting other people to print, publish, distribute, review, and in some cases actually to read them. Secondly, there is the not less mischievous, though personally far less contemptible, class of needy, struggling writers, who have taken to the literary profession, as one might take to a pedlar’s or costermonger’s business, for the cogent reason that in the break-neck competition of modern society it chanced to offer itself as the readiest means of earning a precarious living. Like the unhappy vendors of boot-laces, matches, and other sweated goods, who importune unwilling purchasers along the pavements of our chief thoroughfares, so do these impecunious scribblers, the guttermen of literature, flood the market with more or less worthless productions, and vie with their wealthier fellow-penmen in swelling the annual bulk of that vast national refuse-heap which is the receptacle for the ceaseless emptyings of our literary dustbins.

The inevitable result of this double process is the grievous degradation of literature. The vast majority of both classes—of the rich men who live to write, and the poor men who write to live—have no natural capacity for the work they have undertaken; there is no distinction or individuality about them which can be held to justify their choice; they are the mere blacklegs of the profession, without purpose and without self-respect, who debase the standard of literary workmanship, and spoil the market for those craftsmen who have the true artistic gift. For of course it is not to be denied, but rather to be welcomed as a matter for sincerest rejoicing, that there are many such real workers, albeit a small proportion of the entire number, who, in spite of the discouragements of the existing system, do produce good results; though it is important to note that these are usually the men who are not only writers, but have some other and more vital interest in the realities of life. At any rate, it is certain that we here there is true individuality, where an author has positively something to say and a distinct faculty for saying it, things are at present so arranged as to put him entirely at a disadvantage; he finds himself everywhere jostled and hampered by a crowd of self-seeking adventures, while the venerable Bumble, who holds the power of the purse, is not usually observed to lend a favourable ear to the promulgators of new opinions. All which things being considered, it is not surprising that a deep pessimism, which is not less unmistakable because it is often veiled in the guise of persiflage, has settled down on our literature.

What then would Socialism do to remedy these evils? To take only that one essential condition of any conceivable socialist State—the certainly that every citizen, man or woman, would be provided with the means of earning a sufficient and honourable livelihood—can it be doubted that this alone would revolutionise the profession of letters? For consider briefly what it implies. While all necessary writing work, journalistic, clerical, official, and the like, would be organised and paid on the same scale as any other, there would be an end to the existence of a self-appointed literary class, except possibly where the possession of real talent gave promise of public utility. Henceforth there would be no idle rich gentlemen, who, for sheer lack of anything better to do, would cumber the world with translations from Horace or Heine, or dissertations on art, or volumes of travels, or (that last indignity) their own “reminiscences.” There would be no poverty-stricken quill-drivers, compelled, in defiance of the inward monitor and the public neglect, to “dree their weird” to the bitter end, and write the more because they write in vain. Incalculable would be the benefit of the mere lessening of the number of published books, and a fair field would thus be opened for those authors who are attracted to writing by a natural and spontaneous aptitude. It was long ago discovered by the poet Ovid that the best remedy for blighted love is regular occupation, and it may safely be surmised that the blighted littérateur would be directed, in a socialist community, to find comfort in the same infallible prescription. To “itch for authorship” would not survive the establishment of a system where everyone could put his hand, and indeed would be compelled to put his hand, to some wholesome and productive employment; and together with the cacoëthes scribendi would vanish, we may reasonably hope, that prevalent habit of morbid introspection and that tone of cultured cynicism which have so largely paralysed the literary strength of the present generation.

In the prophetic sketch which has been given of the organised society of the future by the author of Looking Backward, it is observable that a successful writer is permitted to support himself by pen alone, and to claim immunity from the ordinary work which the State requires of its citizens; but Mr. Bellamy, as if conscious that he is here on perilous ground, is careful to add that the popular judgment, by which success is conferred, would be far less partial and erratic than that of nineteenth-century readers, so that the literary class thus established would be at once a smaller and more efficient one. There is little to be gained by speculating on the minor details of the Socialism of a century hence, which, whatever it may prove to be, will not be the tyranny that its opponents anticipate; but pace Mr. Bellamy, it may be hoped that in a socialised community there will be no authors, successful or the contrary, who would desire to be put on a different footing to their fellows. For literature (here I refer to belles lettres and the ornamental departments of writings) is not, and never can be, “work” in the ordinary sense of the term, nor can it be made a fair equivalent for such work; and thought it may be desirable in special cases, and for stated periods, that certain students should be exempt from other duties, it will be found that in the mass, and in the long run, literature itself degenerates when its professors avail themselves permanently of any such immunity. “Can there be any greater reproach,” say Thoreau, “than an idle learning? Learn to split wood at least. Steady labour with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one’s style, both of speaking and writing.”

Still more difficult would it be, let us hope, for a special class of professional critics to exist under a socialist régime; it is hardly conceivable that such a class would care to exist in a society where any amount of healthy, useful work was to be had for the asking. To reapply Tennyson’s words:

For I trust if an enemy’s fleet came yonder round by the hill,
And the rushing battle-bolt sang from the three-decker out of the foam,
That the smooth-faced, snub-nosed rogue would leap from his counter and till,
And strike, if he could, were it but with his cheating yardwand, home.

That there will be abundance of free and fearless criticism when every work can be judged on its own merits, and there are no “prudential considerations” to make cowards of us all, is not to be doubted; but it seems improbable in the highest degree that individual men of letters will then be so infatuated as to suppose that their personal judgment can be worth giving to the world, systematically and periodically, on any and every literary topic.

But here it will be objected that “pure literature,” being the very flower and consummate expression of thought, must not be thus lightly subjected to the risks consequent on a rough equalisation of civic duties, but must rather be fostered and safeguarded with all possible care; the condition of the people is no doubt the most momentous subject for politician and sociologist, but the interest of “pure literature” are of a still higher and more lasting importance. To which it may fairly be answered that to neglect the material well-being of society, out of sentimental reverence for an act which is ultimately dependent on that well-being, is to repeat the error of the old woman in the fable, who killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. Pure literature, invaluable treasure though it is, becomes a mockery and a sham, if once men recognise that it is the voice of class supremacy and not of a nation’s life, even as at present time we are more and more recognising that much of our so-called “culture” is based on a hideous substructure of degradation and suffering. A refinement which can ignore the misery around it, or even batten on that misery, is no refinement at all. Our literœ humaniores are not humane, and not being humane they are soon found to be illiterate; so that there is real truth in the caustic remark of the satirist Peacock, that “Great indeed must be the zeal for improvement, which an academical education cannot extinguish.” Learned professors and busy scientists may shut their eyes to the facts which have made Socialism a necessity, and may elect to play the part of accomplished ostriches in a barren literary wilderness; but the facts are none the less obvious to those who face them. If literature in the future is to be something more than a sickly hothouse exotic, it must draw its sustenance from the subsoil so a just and humanely organised community—which is Socialism.

Equally striking is the contrast between the actual and the possible state of letters when regarded from a purely economic standpoint. At present there is an immense competitive system of production from private interests; books are largely written, printed, and published, not because they contain matter of real value, but because a profit is expected to result from them, which profit usually goes to parties whose share in the work is not literary but commercial. In each grade of the process the same sordid conditions are observable. The publisher too often sweats the author; the author sweats the copyist or literary hack; the printer sweats the printer’s devil: then, in many cases, a false market is manufactured by log-rolling, puffing advertisements, and the various devices of the middleman—and lo! another worthless book has been foisted on the reading public, who, in the confusion thus generated, are naturally rendered more and more incapable of forming a sound and reliable judgement. Thus it is that the whole canon of taste is in great measure distorted, and productions of monumental dulness are artificially exalted into “standard works.” “It is among the standing hypocrisies of the world,” says De Quincey, in reference to an instance of the kind, “that most people affect a reverence for this book, which nobody reads.”

It is pitiable to think of the amount of human labour, mental and physical, that is thus wasted in the production of worthless volumes. An author who has no manner of business to be an author at all writes, let us say, a bad novel, and forthwith gives employment (perhaps with a proud consciousness of stimulating trade) to a number of persons, publishers, printers, reviewers, and others, who, like herself, would be capable, in a rationally ordered society, of performing some useful part. Under a socialist system all this would be amended, there would be no unworthy inducements to do bad work in one direction when one could do good work in another, and private extravagance would give way to considerations of public economy. Editions de luxe would no longer be issued to mark the crowning degradation of letters; for who would care to waste his substance upon nonsense bound in vellum, when he could buy good literature in cheap and serviceable form? And, finally, the State, which at present spends so much on military armaments that it is compelled to plead its poverty whenever literature asks for a share, would be able, out of its abundant treasury, to endow a handsome library in every town and village, and to do more for the encouragement of national culture in a single year than can be done in half a century of our haphazard, suicidal individualism.

From whatever point of view one looks at this question, it is difficult to resist the conviction that the true lover of literature has nothing to fear, but, on the contrary, everything to hope, from Socialism. The author of Looking Backward is of opinion that the adoption of a socialist system would be followed by a revival of letters even greater than the Renaissance—“an era of mechanical invention, scientific discovery, art, musical and literary productiveness, to which no previous age of the world offers anything comparable.” Whether this be probable or not, we may at least feel assured that it will be an age of genuine, and not artificially stimulated, production; that there will be an immense improvement in the quality of the books produced, in proportion to their quantity; that there will be no Grubstreet to send out bad work on the one side, and no Belgravia on the other; and that the whole of our literature will be informed by a hopeful and helpful spirit of belief in human comradeship, in place of the present pessimistic tone of cynical dilettantism.

Nor is there any reason to doubt, in view of the impending social struggle, that the sympathies of the literary class, even as now constituted, will be in the main with the workers; for, as has been well remarked, “literary men in all ages have been the organs of the sapienza volgare or general sentiment of the people.” The literary man is the client of Dives, and an excessive consideration for the patron’s susceptibilities, and sometimes for his own comfort, has enfeebled the vigour of his thought and dulled the incisiveness of his pen; but he, too, has not seldom known what it is to suffer, and his heart has all along been with his brother Lazarus at the gate. It is now over a century since literature emancipated itself from the thraldom of the individual aristocrat—is it not time that it were also rid of the plutocratic ascendancy? Socialism, while removing the raison d’être for a special class of authors, will simultaneously remove the cause of their economic subservience; they will doff their livery as a sect to find their true distinction as a power. Is not this a benefit which should conciliate the literary man? Or is he so enamoured of the present state of his profession as to be inflexibly bent on the perpetuation of the same system for his successors, like Sidney Smith’s country gentleman, who, having wasted his own youth in fruitless classical instruction, is resolved that he shall not be the last of a long line of victims?—“Aye, aye, it’s all mighty well—but I went through this myself, and I am determined my children shall do the same.”

Unless the signs of the times are wholly deceptive, literature, like every other expression of thought, is now approaching a new and critical phase of its development. The existing forms of literary workmanship have been carried, in the hands of a few great masters, to the ne plus ultra of technical excellence, and it seems improbable that any further progress will be made on the old lines: a fresh impetus is needed, and this can only be supplied by a new ideal. Whence will this new ideal be forthcoming? Assuredly not from that withered, wrinkled, unlovely creed of pitiless competition which has long made a national literature as impossible as a natural art. Not from that so-called “individualism” which has stultified itself by banishing true individuality from the monotonous death-in-life of the masses. Not from that precious “freedom of contract” which is so mysteriously allied with the worst form of class-slavery. Not from the “gentility” which abnegates gentleness; nor the independence” which lives on sweated labour; nor the “respectability” which is everywhere creasing to be respected; nor the beauty-worship which ignores the hideous moral deformities of modern life. There is but one source from which there is the slightest possibility of the new ideal uprising, and that is the growing sense of the universal brotherhood and equality of man. This equality, I need scarcely state, is not the uppish, priggish attempt to be level with one’s intellectual superiors, which is periodically deprecated by certain learned professors, who are so steeped in the atmosphere of competition that even their concept of equality is tinged by it; but simply the recognition of the fact that all human beings hold their lives by the same tenure, and that no individual can find true happiness who in his inmost heart can conceive of himself as better or more deserving than the meanest of his fellows.

If anything can put new life into the culture which at present faints and flags under its half-consciousness of the inhuman and sordid conditions of its social environment, it will be this ideal of equality. The literature that will result from the cheering sense of world-wide solidarity and fellowship will be tenfold saner than that which is now supported (I will not say inspired) by the craving for personal distinction or the necessity of somehow earning a living among a host of hungry competitors; furthermore, it will be based on the rock of actuality and self-knowledge, instead of on the shifting sands of a fastidious and sentimental “refinement.” Concurrently with this progress, the general conception of the duties and privileges of authorship will be ennobled and elevated. “The Idea of the Author,” said Fichte, “is almost unknown in our age, and something most unworthy usurps its name. This is the peculiar disgrace of the age—the true source of all its other scientific evils. The inglorious has become glorious, and is encouraged, honoured, and rewarded. According to the almost universally received opinion, it is a merit and an honour for a man to have printed something, merely because he has printed it, and without any regard to what it is which he has printed and what may be its result. They, too, lay claim to the highest rank in the republic of letters who announce the fact that somebody has printed something, and what that something is; or, as the phrase goes, who review the work of others. It is almost inexplicable how such an absurd opinion could have arisen.”

The literature of the socialised community of the future will surpass that of the present era of unlimited competition by so much as union is stronger than discord, love nobler than hate, and the natural sense of perfect equality with one’s fellows a truer and more vital wisdom than the academic culture of oneself.

Published: The New Review, January 1891