Every Friday morning, I travel back in time 100 years. I pour a cup of Earl Grey and open a volume of Chesterton’s Collected Works to read his contribution to The Illustrated London News, a column called “The Notebook” that ran nearly every Friday from 1905 to 1936. In the span of three decades, Chesterton wrote nearly 1,600 essays.
For years now on Friday mornings, I’ve read what thousands of English men and women were reading a century before on the same day. Sometimes, the column focuses on political figures or global intrigues that no longer seem relevant. Other times, the essays deal with the future of England. For several years, nearly all of the Fridays focused on WWI. But some of the essays are just as insightful today as when first published. And traveling back to consider the concerns of a brilliant newspaper columnist from a century before helps me put today’s news in perspective.
Two columns from October 1920 featured Chesterton musing on terms like “reactionary,” “progressive,” and “conservative,” before explaining why socialism continues to prove appealing.
Forgetting Past Follies
The first essay points out the irony of conservatives who admire the past uncritically. “He is the darkest reactionary who defends all the reforms,” Chesterton writes, pointing out the irony of conservatives in his day exalting the Victorian progressives of the 19th century who, due to their view of social evolution and progress, minimized or denied their mistakes.
“This forgetfulness . . . marked the century. It was a great century, in producing great men and great works, but it suffered from one great folly: that of forgetting its own follies. It committed one great crime: it denied its crimes.”
Although they were right to focus on manners and decency, many Victorian leaders characterized their era as a one-directional ladder of progress. Chesterton points out the contradictory nature of this assessment:
“[The problem] with nineteenth-century England was . . . that it really claimed to be always right. Its particular theory of progress was simply a trick to prove that it was always right. It was right when it established an institution and right when it abolished it; right when it deserted its allies too easily, and right when it tried to rescue them too late; right when it destroyed the liberty it had encouraged, and right when it tried to re-establish the liberty it had destroyed; right by an eternal and ever-ascending spiral of faultless social evolution.”
The problem with today’s progressive (as well as the conservative who praises the past uncritically) is the inability to appropriately acknowledge error. Instead, both the error and the solution get repackaged as “progress.”
“Instead of admitting that their own modern mistakes had produced the modern miseries, they made a merit of relieving any of the misery or looking for any of the mistakes. . . . They had hopes of perpetual peace, because hopes depend on the future; but they had no real regrets for the past.”
Rebellion Without Repentance
Chesterton believes the philosophical failure of that era was the country’s “failure to apologise, or, in other words, to repent.” Whether conservative or progressive, a person was “ready to rebel . . . but he would not repent; and the only really practical type of a rebellion is that which is also a repentance.”
“All real reform springs from this sense of something wrong, not only in our surroundings, but in ourselves. And there is one thing that must come before even reform in our relations to the changing and challenging social conditions of our time. There is something we have to do even before we reform, before we reconstruct, before we revolutionise or refuse to revolutionise. We have to apologise. We have to admit frankly that the modern mind has made a series of very bad mistakes . . .”
Truth Determined By Time?
Chesterton’s next essay, published a week later, considers Bolshevism in Russia. He employs the metaphor of “painting the town red” and then chastises progressives for thinking they can apply a particular color to “the whole of the rooted and varied social life of the countrysides” and then imperialists for thinking they can turn the whole world the same color as England. The only way a town is painted red, he says, is “because the process is not really a revolution, or even an anarchy, but rather an ugly uniformity. It is only possible because a society is ruled by only one group possessed of only one idea. A free people would prefer to paint their town all the colours of the rainbow.”
How do we resist this “progressive” uniformity? We may be inclined to see the solution in conservatism, but Chesterton points out that conservatives are often just as likely as progressives to make the same error:
“Each of them allows truth to be determined by time. . . . He judges a thing by whether it is of yesterday or today or tomorrow, and not by what it is in eternity.”
Past events and revolutions (considered “progressive” at the time) are received by many conservatives as sacred and untouchable, while present events and revolutions are to be resisted simply because they are new. Why is this a problem? Chesterton answers:
“Instead of considering a process, and testing it by a principle, he merely considers how far that process has yet gone, and tests it only by whether it is going farther. . . . It is not that it loves the past, but rather that it loves the present––a far more absurd appetite. It is an essentially impossible illusion, for it is perpetually destroying itself. Every step of the Progressive becomes a status for the Conservative. Every wicked revolution becomes a worthy institution. Every abominable thing that is attempted becomes an admirable thing because it has succeeded––not because it is a successful institution, but solely because it has been a successful revolution. A Conservative often means merely a man who conserves revolutions.”
Russell Moore has issued a similar warning that too many conservative evangelical churches are filled with “slow motion sexual revolutionaries,” adapting to where the culture already is, simply 10 or 20 or 30 years behind.
Creed Over Calendar
Better to be a reactionary, Chesterton says, than the kind of conservative who shares the same basic orientation as the progressive:
“I am a reactionary, in the true sense that I would react against a great many things in the past as well as the present. I would test them not by a calendar which records whether they have happened, but by a creed which decides whether they ought to happen. Some of the things I desire have already happened, and I would therefore preserve them; others have not yet happened, and I would therefore join in any revolution to obtain them. . . . Those who believe themselves to be wisely resisting change are often simply tying themselves to the most recent changes.”
Both the progressive and the conservative should appeal to a creed, not the calendar. And this, Chesterton says, is why Bolshevism remains compelling to so many people. Our society will never be able to resist socialism if the battlefield is made up of conservatives and progressives who, ultimately, share the same ideal but “only object to the ideal being any further realized.” What we need is an alternative vision.
“The Socialists have one solid and respectable quality––that they know what they want; and they will never be successfully resisted, except by somebody who really knows that he wants something else.”
And that is the question of our times. What is it we really want? Do we know? Do we have a positive vision for a world of human flourishing that can stand up against the tyranny of those who are maniacally devoted to just one idea?
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