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11 August 2020updated 17 Aug 2020 9:52am

From the NS archive: We must drift: a letter from Joseph Conrad

1 June 1935: Where’s the man to stop the rush of social, democratic idiocy? 

By Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 to ethnically Polish parents living in western Ukraine. After a time in the British merchant navy, “Conrad” became a British citizen in 1886. The following letter was written the previous year at a time when Conrad had not yet achieved full fluency in English. The letter, addressed to a Polish friend, remained unpublished until 1935 when the naval officer and politician Oliver Stillingfleet Locker-Lampson offered it to the New Statesman with the permission of the addressee’s family. H G Wells wrote in his 1934 autobiography that Conrad never quite managed to speak English without a Polish accent but, as this letter shows, at 28, and despite random lapses into italics, he was already mastering the language in which he later wrote novels, short stories and essays. Conrad died in 1924.


December 19th, 1885 Calcutta

My Dear Sir,

I received your kind and welcome letter yesterday, and today being Sunday, I feel that I could not make better use of my leisure hours than in answering your missive. By this time, you and the rest of the “right thinking” have been grievously disappointed by the result of the General Election. The newly enfranchised idiots have satisfied the yearnings of Mr Chamberlain’s hoard by cooking the national goose according to his recipe. The next culinary operation will be a “pretty kettle of fish” – of an international character! Joy reigns in St Petersburg – no doubt, and profound disgust in Berlin; the International Socialist Association are triumphant, and every disreputable ragamuffin in Europe feels that the day of universal brotherhood, despoliation and disorder is coming apace, and nurses day dreams of well plenished pockets amongst the ruins of all that is respectable, venerable and Holy. The great British Empire went over the edge and got on to the inclined plane of social progress and radical reform! The downward movement is hardly perceptible yet and the clever men who started it may flatter themselves with the mistaken and delusive sense of their power to direct the great body in its progress; but they will soon find that the fate of the nation is out of hands now! The Alpine avalanche rolls quicker and quicker as it nears the abyss – its ultimate destination! Where’s the man to stop the crashing avalanche?

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Where’s the man to stop the rush of social, democratic idiocy? The opportunity and the day have come – and are gone, believe me gone for ever. For the sun is set and the last barrier removed. England was the only barrier to the pressure of infernal doctrines born in continental back-slums. Now there is nothing!

The destiny of this nation and of all nations is to be accomplished in darkness amidst much weeping and gnashing of teeth, to pass through robbery, equality, anarchy and misery under the iron rule of a military despotism. Such is the lesson of history! Such is the lesson of common-sense logic!

Socialism must inevitably end in Cesarism. Forgive me this long disquistion; but your letter – so earnest on the subject must be my excuse. I understand you perfectly. You wish to apply remedies to quell the dangerous symptoms; you evidently hope yet —. I do so no longer. Truthfully I have ceased to hope a long time ago. We must drift!

The whole herd of idiotic humanity are moving in that direction at the bidding of unscrupulous rascals, and a few sincere and dangerous lunatics. Those things must be. It is a fatality!

I live mostly in the past – and in the future. The present has – you easily understand – few charms for me. I look with the serenity of despair and the indifference of contempt upon passing events. Disestablishment, Land Reform, universal brotherhood are but like milestones on the Road to Ruin. The end will be awful – no doubt! Neither you nor I shall live to see the final crash; although we may both turn in our graves when it comes for we both feel deeply and sincerely. Still there is no earthly remedy. All is vanity…!

This is signed,

Yours very sincerely and faithfully,

K N Korzeniowskil

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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