The Works of H. G. Wells (Atlantic Edition)/The Case for Republicanism


There can be few people alive who have not remarked on occasion that men are the creatures of circumstances. But it is one thing to state a belief of this sort in some incidental application, and quite another to realise it completely. Towards such a completer realisation we have been working in these papers, in disentangling the share of inheritance and of deliberate schooling and training, in the production of the civilised man. The rest we have to ascribe to his world in general, of which his home is simply the first and most intimate aspect. In every developing citizen we have asserted there is a great mass of fluid and indeterminate possibility, and this sets and is shaped by the world about him as wax is shaped by a mould. It is rarely of course an absolutely exact and submissive cast that ensues; few men and women are without some capacity for question and criticism, but it is only very rare and obdurate material—only, as one says, a very original personality—that does not finally take its general form and direction in this way. And it is proposed in this paper to keep this statement persistently in focus, instead of dismissing it as a platitude and thinking no more about it at all after the usual fashion, while we examine certain broad social and political facts and conventions which constitute the general framework of the world in which the developing citizen is placed. I would submit that at the present time with regard to such things as church and kingdom, constitution and nationality, we are altogether too much enslaved by the idea of "policy," and altogether too blind to the remoter, deeper, and more lasting consequences of our public acts, and institutions in moulding the next generation. It will not I think be amiss to pass beyond policy for a space, and to insist—even with heaviness—that however convenient an institution may be, however much it may, in the twaddle of the time, be a "natural growth," and however much the "product of a long evolution," yet, if it does not mould men into fine and vigorous forms, it has to be destroyed. We "save the State" and if in our intentness to save the State we injure or sacrifice our children, we destroy our ultimate for our proximate aim.

Already it has been pointed out, with certain concrete examples, how the thing that is, asserts itself over the thing that is to be; already a general indication has been made of the trend of the argument we are now about to develop and define. That argument, briefly, is this: that to attain the ends of the New Republic, that is to say the best results from our birth possibilities, we must continually make political forms, social, political and religious formulæ, and all the rules and regulations of life, the clearest simplest and sincerest expression possible of what we believe about life and hope about life; that whatever momentary advantage a generation may gain by accepting what is known to be a sham and a convention, by keeping in use the detected imposture and the flawed apparatus, is probably much more than made up for by the reaction of this acquiescence upon the future. As the typical instance of a convenient convention that I am inclined to think is now reacting very badly upon our future, the Crown of the British Empire considered as the symbolical figurehead of a system of hereditary privilege and rule, serves extremely well. One may deal with this typical instance with no special application to the easy, kindly, amiable personality this crown adorns at the present time. It is a question that may be dealt with in general terms. What, we would ask, are the natural, inseparable concomitants of a system of hereditary rulers in a State, looking at the thing entirely with an eye to the making of a greater mankind in the world? How does it compare with the American conception of democratic equality, and how do both stand with regard to the essential truth and purpose in things? . . .

To state these questions is like opening the door of a room that has long been locked and deserted. One has a lonely feeling. There are quite remarkably no other voices here, and the rusty hinges echo down empty passages that were quite threateningly full of men seventy or eighty years ago. But I am only one very insignificant member of a class of enquirers in England who started upon the question, "Why are we becoming inefficient?" a year or two ago, and from that starting-point it is I came to this. . . . I do not believe, therefore, that upon this dusty threshold I shall stand long alone. We take most calmly the most miraculous of things, and it is only quite recently that I have come to see as amazing this fact, that while the greater mass of our English-speaking people is living under the profession of democratic Republicanism, there is no party, no sect, no periodical, no teacher either in Great Britain or America or the Colonies, to hint at a proposal to abolish the aristocratic and monarchical elements in the British system. There is no revolutionary spirit over here, and very little missionary spirit over there. The great mass of the present generation on both sides of the Atlantic takes hardly any interest in this issue at all. It is as if the question was an impossible one, outside the range of thinkable things. Or, as if the last word in this controversy was said before our grandfathers died.

But is that really so? It is permissible to suggest that for a time the last word had been said, and still to reopen the discussion now. All these papers, the very conception of New Republicanism, rests on the assumption—presumptuous and offensive though it must needs seem to many—that new matter for thought altogether, new apparatus and methods of enquiry, and new ends, have come into view since the early seventies, when the last Republican voices in England died away. We are enormously more aware of the Future. That, we have already defined as the essential difference of our new outlook. Our fathers thought of the Kingdom as it was to them; they contrasted with that the immediate alternative, and within these limits they were, no doubt, right in rejecting the latter. So, to them at any rate, the thing seemed judged. But nowadays, when we have said the Kingdom is so and so, and when we have decided that we do not wish to convert it into a Republic upon the American or any other existing pattern before Christmas, 1904, we consider we have only begun to look at the thing. We have then to ask what is the future of the Kingdom; is it to be a permanent thing, or is it to develop into and give place to some other condition? We have to ask precisely the same question about the American democracy and the American constitution. Is that latter arrangement going to last for ever? We cannot help being contributory to these developments, and if we have any pretensions to wisdom at all, we must have some theory of what we intend with regard to these things; political action can surely be nothing but folly, unless it has a clear purpose in the future. If these things are not sempiternal, then are we merely to patch the fabric as it gives way, or are we going to set about rebuilding—piecemeal of course and without closing the premises or stopping the business but nevertheless, on some clear and comprehensive plan? If so, what is the plan to be? Does it permit us to retain in a more or less modified form, or does it urge us to get rid of, the British Crown? Does it permit us to retain, or does it urge us to modify, the American constitution? That is the form, it seems to me, in which the question of Republicanism as an alternative to existing institutions, must presently return into the field of public discussion in Great Britain; not as a question of political stability nor of individual rights this time, but as an aspect of our general scheme, our scheme to make the world more free and more stimulating and strengthening for our children and our children's children; for the children both of our bodies and of our thoughts.

It is interesting to recall the assumptions under which the last vestiges of militant Republicanism died out in Great Britain. As late as the middle years of the reign of Queen Victoria, there were many in England who were, and who openly professed themselves to be, Republicans, and there was a widely felt persuasion that the country was drifting slowly towards the constitution of a democratic republic. In those days it was that there came into being a theory, strengthened by the withdrawal of the Monarch from affairs, which one still hears repeated, that Great Britain was a "crowned republic," that the crown was no more than a symbol retained by the "innate good sense" of the British people, and that in some automatic way not clearly explained, such old-time vestiges of privilege as the House of Lords would presently disappear. One finds this confident belief in Progress towards political equality—Progress that required no human effort, but was inherent in the scheme of things—very strong in Dickens, for example, who spoke for the average Englishman as no later writer can be said to have done. This belief fell in very happily with that disposition to funk a crisis, that vulgar dread of vulgar action which one must regretfully admit was all too often a characteristic of the nineteenth-century English. There was an idea among Englishmen that to do anything whatever of a positive sort to bring about a Republic was not only totally unnecessary, but inevitably mischievous, since it evidently meant street fighting and provisional government by bold bad blood-stained vulgar men in shirt sleeves, as the essential features of the process. And under the enervating influence of this great automatic theory—this theory that no one need bother because the thing was bound to come, was indeed already arriving for all who had eyes to see—Republicanism did not so much die as fall asleep. It was all right, Liberalism told us—the Crown was a legal fiction, the House of Lords was an interesting anachronism; and in that faith it was, no doubt, that the last of the Republicans, Mr. Bright and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, "kissed hands."

Practically the Crown has now gone unchallenged by press, pulpit, or platform speaker for thirty years, and as a natural consequence there is just now a smaller proportion of men under forty who call themselves Republicans even in private than there ever was since Plutarch entered the circle of English reading. To-day the Aristocratic Monarchy is an almost universally accepted fact in the British Empire, and it has so complete an air of unshakable permanence to contrast with its condition in the early nineteenth century that even the fact that it is the only really concrete obstacle to a political reunion of the English-speaking peoples at the present time, seems merely a fact to avoid.

There are certain consequences that must follow from the unchallenged acceptation of an aristocratic monarchy, consequences that do not seem to be sufficiently recognised in this connection, and it is to these that the reader's attention is now particularly drawn. There are a great number of British people who are more or less sincerely seeking the secret of national efficiency at present, and I cannot help thinking that sooner or later, in spite of their evident aversion, they will be forced to look into this dusty chamber of thought for the clue to the thing they need. The corner they will have to turn is the admission that no State and no people can be at its maximum efficiency until every public function is discharged by the man best able to perform it, and that no Commonweal can be near efficiency until it is endeavouring very earnestly to bring that ideal condition of affairs about. And when they have got round that corner they will have to face the fact that an Hereditary Monarchy is a State in which this principle is repudiated at a cardinal point, a State in which one position, which no amount of sophistication will prevent common men and women regarding as the most honourable, powerful, and responsible one of all, which is indeed by that very fact alone a great and responsible one, is filled on purely genealogical grounds. In a State that has also an aristocratic constitution, this repudiation of special personal qualities is carried very much further. Reluctantly but certainly, the seeker after national efficiency will come to the point that the aristocracy and their friends and connections must necessarily form a caste about the King, that their gradations must set the tone of the whole social body, and that their political position must enable them to demand and obtain a predominating share in any administration that may be formed. So long, therefore, as your constitution remains aristocratic you must expect to see men of quite ordinary ability, quite ordinary energy, and no exceptional force of character, men frequently less clever and influential than their wives and lady friends, controlling the public services, a Duke of Norfolk managing so vital a business as the Post Office and succeeded by a Marquis of Londonderry, and a Marquis of Lansdowne organising military affairs, and nothing short of a change in your political constitution can prevent this sort of thing. No one believes these excellent gentlemen hold these positions by merit or capacity, and no one believes that from them we are getting anything like the best imaginable services in these positions. These positions are held by the mere accident of birth, and it is by the mere accident of birth the great mass of Englishmen are shut out from the remotest hope of serving their country in such positions.

And this evil of reserved places is not restricted by any means to public control. You cannot both have a system and not have a system, and the British have a system of hereditary aristocracy that infects the whole atmosphere of English thought with the persuasion that what a man may attempt is determined by his caste. It is here, and nowhere else, that the clue to so much inefficiency as one finds it in contemporary British activity lies. The officers of the British Army, instead of being sedulously picked from the whole population, are drawn from a really quite small group of families, and, except for those who are called "gentleman rankers," to enlist is the very last way in the world to become a British officer. As a very natural corollary, only broken men and unambitious men of the lowest class will consent to become ordinary private soldiers, except during periods of extreme patriotic excitement. The men who enter the Civil Service also know perfectly well that, though they may possess the most brilliant administrative powers, and develop and use themselves with relentless energy, they will never win for themselves or their wives one tithe of the public honour that comes by right to the heir to a dukedom. A dockyard hand who uses his brains and makes a suggestion that may save the country thousands of pounds will get—a gratuity. Throughout all English affairs the suggestion of this political system has spread. The employer is of a different caste from his workmen, the captain is of a different caste from his crew, even the Teachers' Register is specially classified to prevent "young gentlemen" being taught by the only men who, as a class, know how to teach in England, namely, the elementary teachers; everywhere the same thing is to be found. And while it is, it is absurd to expect a few platitudes about Freedom, and snobbishness, and a few pious hopes about efficiency, to counteract the system's universal, incessant teaching, its lesson of limited effort within defined possibilities. Only under one condition may such a system rise towards anything that may be called national vigour, and that is when there exists a vigorous Court which sets the fashion of hard work. A keen King may for a time, make a keen nation; but that is an exceptional state of affairs, and the whole shape of the fabric gravitates towards relapse. Even under such an influence the social stratification will still, in the majority of cases, prevent powers and posts falling to the best possible man. In the majority of cases the best that can be hoped for even then will be to see the best man in the class privileged in relation to any particular service, discharging that service. The most efficient nation in the world to-day is believed to be Germany, which is—roughly speaking—an aristocratic monarchy; it is dominated by a man of most unkingly force of character, and by a noble tradition of educational thoroughness that arose out of the shames of utter defeat, and, as a consequence, a great number of people contrive to forget that the most dazzling display of national efficiency the world has ever seen followed the sloughing of hereditary institutions by France. One credits Napoleon too often with the vigour of his opportunity, with the force and strength it was his privilege to misdirect and destroy. And one forgets that this present German efficiency was paralleled in the eighteenth century by Prussia, whose aristocratic system first winded Republicans at Valmy, and showed at Jena fourteen years after how little it had learnt from that encounter.

Now our main argument lies in this: that the great mass of a generation of children born into a country, all those children who have no more than average intelligence and average moral qualities, will accept the ostensible institutions of that country at their face value, and will be almost entirely shaped and determined by that acceptance. Only a sustained undertone of revolutionary protest can prevent that happening. They will believe that precedences represent real superiority, and they will honour what they see honoured, and ignore what they see treated as of no account. Pious sentiment about Equality and Freedom will enter into the reality of their minds as little as a drop of water into a greasy plate. They will act as little in general intercourse upon the proposition that "the man's the gowd for a' that," as they will upon the proposition that "man is a spirit," when it comes to the alternative of jumping over a cliff or going down by a ladder.

If, however, your children are not average children, if you are so happy as to have begotten children of exceptional intelligence, it does not follow that this fact will save them from conclusions quite parallel to those of the common child. Suppose they do penetrate the pretence that there is no intrinsic difference between the Royal Family and the members of the peerage on the one hand, and the average person in any other class on the other; suppose they discover that the whole scale of precedence and honour in their land is a stupendous sham;—what then? Suppose they see quite clearly that all these pretensions of an inviolate superiority of birth and breeding vanish at the touch of a Whitaker Wright, soften to a glowing cordiality before the sunny promises of a Hooley? Suppose they perceive that neither King nor lords really believe in their own lordliness, and that at any point in the system one may find men with hands for any man's tip, provided it is only sufficiently large? Even then!—How is that going to react upon our children's social conduct?

In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they will accept the system still, they will accept it with mental reservations. They will see that to repudiate the system by more than a chance word or deed is to become isolated, to become a discontented alien, to lose even the qualified permission to do something in the world. In most cases they will take the oaths that come in their way and kiss the hands—just as the British elementary teachers bow unbelieving heads to receive the episcopal pat, and just as the British sceptic in orders will achieve triumphs of ambiguity to secure the episcopal see. And their reason for submission will not be absolutely despicable; they will know there is no employment worth speaking of without it. After all, one has only one life, and it is not pleasant to pass through it in a state of futile abstinence from the general scheme. Life, unfortunately, does not end with heroic moments of repudiation; there comes a morrow to the Everlasting Nay. One may begin with heroic renunciations and end in undignified envy and dyspeptic comments outside the door one has slammed on one's self. In such reflections your children of the exceptional sort, it may be after a youthful fling or two, a "ransom" speech or so, will find excellent reasons for making their peace with things as they are, just as if they were utterly commonplace. They know that if they can boast a knighthood or a baronetcy or a Privy Councillorship, they will taste day by day and every day that respect, that confidence from all about them that no one but a trained recluse despises. And life will abound in opportunities. "Oh, well!" they will say. Such things give them influence, consideration, power to do things. . . .

The beginning of concessions is so entirely reasonable and easy! But the concessions go on. Each step upward in the British system finds that system more persistently about them. When one has started out under a King one may find amiable, but whom one may not respect, admitted a system one does not believe in, when one has rubbed the first bloom off one's honour, it is infinitely easier to begin peeling the skin. Many a man whose youth was a dream of noble things, who was all for splendid achievements and the service of mankind, peers to-day, by virtue of such acquiescences, from between preposterous lawn sleeves or under a tilted coronet, sucked as dry of his essential honour as a spider sucks a fly. . . .

But this is going too far, the reader will object! There must be concessions, there must be conformities, just as there must be some impurity in the water we drink and flaws in the beauty we give our hearts to; and that, no doubt, is true. It is no reason why we should drink sewage and kneel to grossness and base stupidity. To endure the worst because we cannot have the best is surely the last word of folly. Our business as New Republicans is not to waste our lives in the pursuit of an unattainable chemical purity, but to clear the air as much as possible. Practical ethics is, after all, a quantitative science. In the reality of life there are few absolute cases, and it is foolish to forego a great end for a small concession. But to suffer so much Royalty and Privilege as an Englishman has to do before he may make any effectual figure in public life is not a small concession. By the time you have purchased power you may find you have given up everything that made power worth having. It would be a small concession, I admit, a mere personal self-sacrifice, to pretend loyalty, kneel and kiss hands, assist at Coronation mummeries, and all the rest of it, in order, let us say, to accomplish some great improvement in the schools of the country, were it not for the fact that all these things must be done in the sight of the young, that you cannot kneel to the King without presenting a kneeling example to the people, without becoming as good a teacher of servility as though you were servile to the marrow. There lies the trouble. By virtue of this reaction it is that the shams and ceremonies we may fancy mere curious survivals, mere kinks and tortuosities, cloaks and accessories to-day, will, if we are silent and acquiescent, be halfway to reality again in the course of a generation. To our children they are not evidently shams; they are powerful working suggestions. Human institutions are things of life, and whatever weed of falsity lies still rooted in the ground has the promise and potency of growth. It will tend perpetually, according to its nature, to recover its old influence over the imagination, the thoughts, and acts of our children.

Even when the whole trend of economic and social development sets against the real survival of such a social and political system as the British, its pretensions, its shape and implications may survive, survive all the more disastrously because they are increasingly insincere. Indeed, in a sense, the British system, the pyramid of King, land-owning and land-ruling aristocracy, yeomen and trading middle-class, and labourers, is dead—it died in the nineteenth century under the wheels of mechanism—and the crude beginnings of a new system are clothed in its raiment, and greatly encumbered by that clothing. Our greatest peers are shareholders, are equipped by marriage with the wealth of Jews and Americans, are exploiters of colonial resources and urban building enterprises; their territorial titles are a mask and a lie. They hamper the development of the new order, but they cannot altogether prevent the emergence of new men. The new men come up to power one by one, from different enterprises, with various traditions, and one by one, before they can develop a sense of class distinction and collective responsibility, the old system with its organised "Society" captures them. If it finds the man obdurate, it takes his wife and daughters, and it waylays his sons.[1] Because the hereditary kingdom and aristocracy of Great Britain is less and less representative of economic reality, more and more false to the real needs of the world, it does not follow that it will disappear, any more than malarial fever will disappear from a man's blood because it is irrelevant to the general purpose of his being. These things will only go when a sufficient number of sufficiently capable and powerful people are determined they shall go. Until that time they will remain with us, influencing things about them for evil, as it lies in their nature to do.

  1. It is not only British subjects that are assimilated in this way, the infection of the British system, the annexation of certain social strata in the Republic by the British crown, is a question for every thoughtful American. America is less and less separate from Europe, and the social development of the United States cannot be a distinct process—it is inevitably bound up with the general social development of the English-speaking community. The taint has touched the American Navy, for example, and there are those who discourage promotion from the ranks—the essential virtue of the democratic State—because men so promoted would be at a disadvantage when they met the officers of foreign navies, who were by birth and training "gentlemen." When they met them socially no doubt was meant; in war the disadvantage might prove the other way about.