Oct 11, 1919
LO, THE POOR BOURGEOIS!
IF there was one feature of the great railway strike more melancholy than another, it was the figure cut by a certain section of the middle-classes. For our part we have always been impatient of dull gibes at the middle-classes—gibes that are the boast of the artistic and revolutionary young but that are as cheap as Easter Monday jewellery. One would imagine, to hear some of these pert creatures talking, that the middle-classes had only to disappear in order to give us an earthly Paradise inhabited by idealists, art-students and ballet-dancers. There is a sort of young revolutionary who is fond of saying: “The working-classes and the upper-classes are fine, but the middle-classes ought to be exterminated.” Callow young artists will also occasionally confide to you their opinion that, while there is something to be said for the aristocrat and the working-man, the middle-classes are without a redeeming vice. The words, “middle-class,” “bourgeois,” “respectable” have come to be used for the most part as expressions of contempt. They conjure up a picture of men and women past their first youth, whose one ideal is safety, and who measure virtue, truth and beauty by their value in paper money. The middle-classes are accepters of accepted things. They accept Christianity, Shakespeare and George Washington. They love to help a successful cause or a successful man to succeed. They have Shelley taught to their children in schools a hundred years after he is dead. Their opinion even of Mr. Shaw is modified when they discover that he is earning a large income. In speculation, whether in regard to politics or ethics, they are unadventurous. They like to deal with established opinions as with established firms. It is true that they quickly reconcile themselves to the parvenu, among opinions as among men. They are not entirely opposed to new opinions or new people. All that they object to is dangerous opinions and dangerous people. Opinions about Free Trade and Protection, about Church Disestablishment, about Federalism, and all those things that do not touch the fundamental problems of social justice—these the middle-classes are willing enough to discuss and in a reasonable way to quarrel about. But anything more radical it is their instinct to dismiss as moonshine, rainbow-chasing and even sin. The revolutionary and the artist, to whom safety and money-values seem hardly better than the ideals of domestic animals, are infuriated to find the world in the hands of those whom they regard as spiritual poltroons.
At times it is easy enough to understand their fury. On the other hand, it seems to us that what they regard as the characteristics of the middle-classes are the characteristics of almost all large classes of human beings. Safety is practically a universal ideal. The aristocrat fights for the safety of his estates. All through the eighteenth century, as we see in reading the history of the many hundreds of Enclosure Acts, he was using both Houses of Parliament for financial ends more unscrupulously than manufacturers or stockbrokers have ever been able to use them. He may have shown the recklessness of a gambler on the race-course and at the card-table; but he was never a gambler in his politics. He aimed at wealth, comfort, and the preservation of the established order. He regarded his own class as the nation—the enemies of his class as the enemies of the nation. His ideas were conventional and selfish. He was as timid in intellect as he was fearless in body. The fact that he was a great sportsman does not contradict the essential mediocrity of his ideals. As for the working-classes, they too have shown themselves strangely indifferent to the revolutionary and the artist. They, too, were in pursuit of a meagre safety. So eagerly did they cling to such small safety as was already theirs that again and again they ranged themselves on the side of those who injured them rather than risk its loss. They also must be added to those who accepted the accepted things. Convention, it may be said, is the chief ruler of all three classes. The truth is, the average man has never felt free enough from self-interest to follow an entirely disinterested course, whether in politics, in thought or in the arts. The riches of the rich man and the poverty of the poor man are supposed, by some writers, to afford a certain relief from the mean cares that afflict the man who is neither rich nor poor. But the facts of history do not justify us in accepting this view.
There is, at all events, just as much to be said for the opposite view of those who hold that great riches, like great poverty, reduce energy and initiative; and that these qualities (which make for artistic, intellectual and political greatness) are more likely to be found in the middle-classes than in any other. Certainly, if we turn to literary genius, we shall find that it is mainly a bourgeois growth. English poetry, from the time of Chaucer (whose father was a vintner) to that of Browning (who was born in Camberwell), has been for the most part a middle-class affair. Horace Walpole’s Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors included no Shakespeare. In politics, in science, in every branch of life indeed that makes a special demand on intelligence and devoted industry, the bourgeois may flatter himself that he belongs, if not to the best of all possible classes, at least the to the best of all existing classes. His record is, comparatively speaking, so excellent as to take all meaning from the gibe that would make him out a sort of odious slug and an insult to the sun. Holding his class in reasonable esteem as we do, however, we were alarmed to find a considerable section of it during the recent strike behaving with so little sense of the trend of events. It was not that his prophets had not warned him that a rush for Utopia was coming. They had told him that the war had changed everything, that England was to be made a home fit for heroes to live in, that justice was no longer to be a flower in an orator’s peroration but a living principle in social life. Scarcely a middle-class paper during the war that did not contain leading articles which were practically I O U’s to the working-classes to be redeemed after the signing of the Peace. What a beautiful house the working-man was to have! And the old theory that he was a dangerous animal who could fairly be asked to work a maximum of hours for a minimum wage—that was to go the way of Prussianism. What the working-classes had done since the coming of Peace has been to present their I O U’s and to suggest payment. The old-fashioned bourgeois were horrified by the magnitude of their promises. They had a Government which thought in terms of money except when it was necessary to waste it, and which whispered: “This will mean bankruptcy.” Seeing itself face to face, however, with an indignant host of creditors, it concocted a scheme for buying off some of them, in the hope that the remnant would be less formidable and might even be unable to press for payment of its demands. What was contemplated, in other words, was nothing less than a repudiation of a large part of the national debt. Luckily, the common sense of the nation defeated this. But it was not defeated before it had been made clear that there were still hundreds of thousands of men and women who had no ideal beyond that of the safety of things as they were before the war. They longed to put back the hands of the clock as well as to wind up the watch on the Rhine. They had the idea that nothing could be better than to return to 1914. Their favourite attitude, indeed, was the 1914 attitude. They told themselves, with swelling chests, that, in standing up to the railway men, they were but doing as they had done in August, 1914, when they accepted the German challenge to a fight to a finish. In so far as the strike has come to a satisfactory end, it is due in a measure to those bourgeois who have begun to think of something better than a 1914 bourgeois England. That the strike broke out at all, however, and that it was waged in many quarters with so much bitterness of speech, was the result of the incapacity of great masses of the bourgeois to escape out of their old bourgeoisie of thought. People of this kind fear above all things the disappearance of the bourgeois world. They cannot conceive a better world, unless it be a world of better servants and better telephones. Hear them discuss their servants in the railway train. “My wife said to me,” observed the man with the cigar and the weeping moustache, “ ‘I think I have found a cook, if you don’t mind a fat ‘un.’ I said I didn’t mind a bit. I don’t think there’s anything the matter with her, except that she’s stout.” His friend opposite, on hearing the cook’s name, said that his wife had already tried her. “She’s honest, but that’s about all there’s to be said for her.” “Well,” observed the man with the weeping moustache, “that’s better than nothing.” He threw up his right hand in a gesture of despair: “The things we have had in the last three years, my dear fellow!” To him cooks were “things,” and we do not doubt that many of them deserve the name. But it is the vice of the traditional bourgeois view that it looks on all human beings of the employed class as things, and is surprised when the things come alive, and prove to have the same passions, needs and hopes as their betters. The conception of the human being as a thing was at the basis of slavery. It was at the basis of child-labour and all the worst horrors of the industrial revolution. It is at the bottom of the resentment felt at the present day by people who denounce as a Bolshevik every working-man who proves himself alive by standing upright. We have arrived at a stage at which things are once more becoming men, and the event seems to many people as horrible as a miracle. As a matter of fact, it is a perfectly natural development of society. It would be almost as difficult to oppose it effectively as to oppose the rising sun. There is no need for the bourgeois to feel alarmed. Again and again the world has seen the chattel evolving into a citizen, and the world has been in most cases a more comfortable place as a result. Our troubles at the present moment are merely a sign that the chattel era is slowly—quite slowly—coming to an end. The bourgeois will be perfectly safe if he does not insist on continuing to live in the day before yesterday, which is already in flames. Ruin can fall on him only if he stays in a ruined house, as many of his advisers are inciting him to do. It is, we admit, still a question how far our education has fitted us to grasp and solve the questions of tomorrow—whether, indeed, we are capable of thinking except in terms of the ruined house. This future will be decided by the extent to which we are capable of doing so. To doubt our capacity is to despair of the human race. If we do not possess it, there is nothing for it but catastrophe—a catastrophe in which would temporarily go down the upper-classes, the lower-classes, the middle-classes, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.