The politician and the intellectual

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 20 July 1940</strong>

The writer Leonard Woolf was a

THE intellectual has never been popular in Britain and his presence in or influence upon politics during the last 100 years has been barely tolerated by us. No intellectual, in the strict sense of the word, has ever been Prime Minister, though in the widest sense Disraeli, Gladstone, Balfour, and Asquith belonged mentally to this category of unfortunates. But even these four were primarily professional politicians, and they overcame the handicap of intellect either by living it down or by countervailing advantages of overwhelming strength. Of the four Balfour is the most illuminating instance. Mentally he was the most typical British intellectual, with all their vices and virtues, and it is safe to say that, if he had not, as a young man, entered politics with the countervailing advantage of being a Cecil and the nephew of Lord Salisbury, he would never have struggled higher than an under-secretaryship or possibly the Board of Education. The lesser Cabinet posts tell the same tale; they have been filled monotonously by the professional ruling families or class, by lawyers, business men, trade unionists, or professional politicians. Morley was a rare exception and H. A. L. Fisher the nearest approach to a professor among British Cabinet Ministers. This last fact alone would show our difference from other peoples, including the Americans,

for their Cabinets are full of men who are intellectuals by profession and can write “Professor” or” Doctor” before their names.

This divorce of the British intelligentsia from practical affairs has had profound and disastrous results upon our politics, our politicians, and our intellectuals. Let us take the politician and politics first and leave the anatomy of the civic psychology of the intellectual to the end. In the second volume of Austen Chamberlain’s Life and

Letters, recently published, there are two passages which show his profound distrust of the use of the intellect by politicians. On March 24th, 1925, amid the cheers of the Conservative M.P.’s, he explained why, as Foreign Secretary, he had rejected the Geneva Protocol, and this is what he said:

“I profoundly distrust logic when applied to politics, and all English history justifies me.”

And five years later in an address to Chatham House, defending his policy as Foreign Secretary, he noted with satisfaction that we English “decide the practical questions of daily life by instinct rather than by any careful process of reasoning, by rule of thumb rather than by systematic logic. The Frenchman, trusting thought, endeavours to foresee every case and to regulate every action in advance; the Englishman, distrusting the purely intellectual and more conscious of the many accidents of wind and tide, trusts to his experience to inspire the right act at the critical moment and varies his course with the shifting of the winds.”

Here, baldly expressed in the distrust of thought and the intellect, one can see the root of our distrust of the intellectual in po1itics. But looking back over the history of the past 15 years and of our position in the tenth month of the war it is a little difficult to share Austen Chamberlain’s complacency and his certainty of our wisdom. This is no academic question; it is a question or national and individual life and death. The Protocol was an attempt, by deliberately taking thought, to strengthen and complete the system of collective security tentatively established by the League Covenant. Chamberlain does not consider whether it was a good or bad method of doing this: he objects to it because it was a product of reasoning, long-term planning of a peace system. The whole of the subsequent international policy of his successors in the Conservative and National Governments followed the same lines. They rejected the collective security system as the product of “reason” applied to politics; they preferred to trust to their instinct and to the shifting improvisations of appeasement. That is another way of saying that they refused the disagreeable business of “thinking through” a disagreeable situation; they shied from the logic of events and the long-term plan which that logic exacts from us if we are to be masters of our fate. The effect of the same British tradition can be observed entangling the policy of the Left in sterile knots. The Left has always been less afraid of intellect and reason than the Tories, and it did think through the unpleasant post-war situation and see that the logic of events made a planned system of collective security or another war the only alternatives. But it refused to think through to the bitter end, for, as soon as the menace of the Fascist and Nazi rose in Europe, the bitter end was inevitably rearmament; it did not face that end with the courage of its intellectual convictions, and this made its policy sterile and hamstrung its action.

Austen Chamberlain looked to British history to justify the British policy of improvisation, instinct and muddling through. But history also shows that nations perish if they cannot alter their traditions and methods to meet changed conditions. The world of the twentieth century is not the world of the eighteenth or even of the nineteenth. it is a world of large-scale industry, of trusts and cartels, of life organised nationally and municipally—and internationally—on a vast and complicated scale, of totalitarian war. To think that it is possible for a nation to deal competently with such a world, either in peace or war, by instinct and improvisation is a suicidal delusion. In the Liberal, individualist, capitalist economy of the nineteenth century such methods were still adequate, and the business man who trusted to instinct and experience to inspire the right act at the right moment could skim rich cream off the milk of commerce, industry and finance. To-day his methods are as anachronistic and ineffective against a

long-term, large-scale planned national economy as those of a knight in armour would be on a modern battlefield—and for much the same reason. The British system of improvisation may still get a man or an army out of a tight place, as we saw at Dunkirk. The Prime Minister was right to tell us plainly that Dunkirk was not a victory, but a disaster. Nothing could have been more magnificent, but it was not war, not war as it must be waged to-day if there is to be any hope of something more than a magnificent disaster. For modern totalitarian war, like modern industry, is a matter of vast, complicated, long-term, large-scale planning and organisation. It requires an intellectual effort to “foresee every case and to regulate every action in advance.” Instinct, no matter what its quantity or quality, will never win a totalitarian war.

The structure of society to-day makes national (and international) planning essential both in peace and war. But that kind of planning is severely intellectual. If a nation is to survive, its soldiers, sailors, statesmen, economic and political administrators must all be intellectuals. That means that they must be men who can apply the intellect to all practical affairs and are encouraged to do so. To do that in Britain requires a revolution in our traditions and methods. For the divorce of thought from practice, of the man of action from the intellectual, is ingrained in us. It has proved, as we have seen, disastrous to our politics and armies and has brought us to the perilous position in which we stand. But it has been no less disastrous to our intellectuals. In all practical affairs they know that the voice of the intellect is a voice crying in a British wilderness. They have therefore naturally acquired an inferiority complex in practical affairs and a superiority complex in intellectual affairs, and both are equally unpleasant and harmful. The lamentable result can be seen in the discussions in “highbrow” papers regarding what the attitude of the intellectual or “artist” should be to this war. The editor of Horizon, the organ of the younger intellectuals, wrote the other day :—

The war is the enemy of creative activity, and writers and painters are

wise to ignore it and to concentrate on other subjects. Since they are politically impotent they can use this time to develop at deeper emotional levels, or to improve their weapons by technical experience.

Reading those words, it is impossible not to think of the poet Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon in the first great war of European civilisation and democracy against barbarism and dictatorship, and who wrote one of the first European masterpieces about it—or of Socrates, the greatest of all the intellectuals, who is described by Alcibiades fighting in the ranks at the battle of Potideaea and calmly “stalking along like a pelican, just as he does in the streets of Athens” when the Athenian troops broke and ran at Delium. To these Greeks who created the civilisation of free men it would have seemed

that literature should be divorced from the life of society either in peace or in war, or that the intellectual should be “impotent in politics,” just as it would have seemed to him ludicrous that a statesman should refuse to use his intellect and trust to his “instinct.” He knew that Pericles, who was the greatest of his statesmen, was also one of the greatest of his intellectuals. And if he could return to earth today and examine the plight of British democracy, he would certainly say that the sterility of our statesmen and of our intellectuals came from the same imbecile “Lacedemonian” tradition, that the man of affairs must have nothing to do with intellect and the man of intellect nothing to do with affairs. He would probably be right.

Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) was a political theorist, author and civil servant. He was involved with the New Statesman from its earliest days, and advised Kingsley Martin regularly during his editorship.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent