The Faith I Hold

Hubert Bland

[A paper read before the Fabian Society in December, 1907.
Reprinted in The New Age, 25 January, 1908]

WITH the intellectual acceptance of the pessimistic philosophy one reaches the antipodes of Socialism. One negates Socialism. Faith in Socialism is compatible with almost every metaphysical system, with almost every religious creed ; and the worst foes of Socialism are they who so much as hint that there is any essential or necessary contradiction between it and most of the creeds and systems that are believed by men. But with religions or philosophies that are based upon, or even deeply tinted by, pessimism, Socialism is for ever incompatible and eternally at war. Socialism calls for energy; pessimism breeds paralysis. Pessimism is the Arctic Circle of the soul, an ice-bound, sterile land in which no flower can bloom, no green thing can grow. If any of you doubt this, let him try for himself. Sooner or later he will find either that his pessimism will submerge and stifle his Socialism, or that he will shake himself free from pessimism as a cleanly man shakes off filthy rags.

I accepted the Schopenhauerian philosophy, then, but although I accepted I never acquiesced. Like the devils I believed and trembled. Against the malignant Will to Live all within me that was not of the intellect was in high revolt, and the intellect alone is not the man. Whatever the Will to Live might be, my own will was not malign. When I came to think it over, I was quite sure of that. Like a man in wrath, the heart rose up and give a flat lie to the brain. But Schopenhauer taught that my own individualised will was only, as it were, a part, a sort of off-shoot, of the fundamental Will of the universe - the malignant Will to Live. If the Will to Live was malignant, my own will, its lawful child, must be malignant too, for one does not gather figs from thistles. But my own will was not malignant. It did not will evil; it willed good. Here, then, was an irreconcileable contradiction. Good, and the desire for good, it seemed had somehow come out of evil. The Will to Live, said Schopenhauer, was a blind Will. Yet out of it somehow had come intelligence; which is not blind, but perceptive. So the blind sire bad begotten a son with seeing eyes - a son who sat in judgment on the father.

Well, this particular son, after a long and patient trial, condemned his sire and sentenced him as an impostor and a fraud. I felt that the Will to Live, even if it were, ought not to be. Deep down in the very depths of roe was a feeling - I may not call it more than that-a Faith, that what ought not to be cannot be eternally, cannot be fundamental, cannot be in the everlasting constitution of things.

I believe now that this Faith, the Faith that the world is rational, and that the world is right, that there cannot be in it unresolvable discords, unreconcileable contradictions, this faith in what R. L. Stevenson called "the eternal decency of things" is a faith capable of philosophical justification, and I believe that the marvellous brain of Hegel philosophically justified it; but even if that be not so, even if it must remain a Faith and a Faith only - the substance of what is only hoped for, the evidence of what is but dimly seen - even so it is a good, sound, wholesome Faith to work with, and the Faith, moreover, which is the stimulus and the inspiration of all social reform, of all social endeavour; the Faith by which we Socialists shall live.

This realisation of the inadequacy of Pessimism as an interpretation of life; this realisation that Schopenhauer leaves out of his reckoning a whole side of man's nature, and that the most important and significant, was my first step towards Socialism and towards spiritual redemption.

The period that followed was, as it were, a period of convalescence, and we all know how the spirits rise in convalescence. I felt as Nietzsche felt when he had thrown off the spell of Wagner; as a man feels when he has broken from the thraldom of some maladive mistress who has enchained his senses and sickened his soul. I was my own man again; once more a young man with his heart in the right place and in search of ideas, hungry for ideas, ready to listen to anybody who had ideas to offer; particularly political ideas, ideas that might lead to action, that might set one doing something. My old friends the Tories were bankrupt of ideas. I was still embittered and too prejudiced to listen to anything a Liberal had to say, and just at that moment I discovered that William Morris was calling himself a Socialist. I knew that if William Morris was a Socialist, whatever else Socialism might be it would not be ugly, and so I turned to the Socialists, who just then were beginning to make a clamour.

It was at this moment, this psychologic moment, to use a hackneyed phrase, when I saw that the world, the immediate, temporal world about me, was full of foulness, but believed that it might be cleansed from its abominations, healed of its gangrenes, purged of its stupidities, that I made the acquaintance in print and in the flesh of three inspiring and invigorating personalities, Henry George, Mr. Hyndman, and Thomas Davidson.

It is difficult to picture even to one's own memory; it is impossible to present to the vision of others, the effect upon young, eager, and rebelling minds of the torrential eloquence, the red-hot rhetoric of Henry George. And it was something more than eloquence, something more than rhetoric; something quite other than mere magnificent gift of the gab. It was filled with invincible conviction, charged with a naive, an almost child-like but no less puissant sincerity, that gave a decorative quality to occasional platitudes, and a fascination to not infrequent fallacies. Henry George was not a Socialist, but he deeply ploughed and fertilised the soil in which the seeds of Socialism, scattered by other hands than his, took root and grew ; and English Socialism owes to him a debt that can never be repaid.

The lectures and speeches of Mr. Hyndman and one of his books, "England for All," I think, completed the conversion that Henry George had begun. Mr. Hyndman was the apostle of the Marxian economics. He preached the Marxian gospel with all the fervour and force of a Peter the Hermit or a General Booth. He fired off the Marxian principles at his audiences as a battery of quick-firing guns pours shells upon an exposed position - and it was almost as difficult to keep one's head level before the one as before the other. The Marxian system, as expounded by Mr. Hyndman, with its air of pontifical infallibility, with its prophetic note of fatefulness, with its pose of scientific exactitude, with its confident appeal to history, is of all others best fitted to impose upon and to impress the plastic mind of the uninstructed enquirer. It is the system perhaps best of all suited to the purposes of propaganda. Then there was always something electrically contagious about Mr. Hyndman himself. His air of cocksureedness, his breezy bonhomie, the exhilarating atmosphere of optimism which seemed to exhale from his very presence, carried . . . well, I won't say carried all before it, but I will say carried me before it. Even when he said absurd things, such as his prediction of the social revolution for the year 1889, although we didn't believe him, we more than half hoped that it might be true. Personally, I gave the capitalist regime at least another ten years of life.

In recalling the several factors that have brought about a conversion, it is not easy to discriminate the particular ones that were predominant, but I think I may say without very much dubiety that the predominant factor in my own conversion to the Socialist Faith was Mr. Hyndman, and I am glad to be able from the platform of this Society to pay him this poor little tribute of thankfulness.

Mr. Hyndman had the faculty of inducing you to think as he and his master thought. Thomas David-son had the power in a still higher degree of prompting you to think for yourself. He compelled you to realise that your own thought was an indispensable preliminary to any profitable action. He had a short way with catch words, with shibboleths, with pinchbeck paradoxes. He demanded of you that you should define your terms, and he put his demand with an authority-that you felt little inclined to question. His method was the Socratic. If in a talk with him you let drop a heedless-phrase, such a phrase, say, as "sex freedom" or "property in women and children," that phrase was not suffered to He where it dropped. You had to pick it up, exhibit it under the lamp, possibly even under the microscope, and explain it, or admit ruefully that you could not explain it because you really did not know very much about it. It is extremely wholesome to the soul, if extremely annoying to the amour proper to have to admit that one has been a parrot. That was the sort of healthy discipline one underwent in an hour's conversation with Davidson. He was a spiritual tonic. One came away from an evening's talk with him with a sharpened appetite for ideas. I think it was he who rid me of the last clinging mud of the pessimist bog. He convinced me that to abandon the solution of a problem either intellectual or social because to the practical understanding it looked insoluble was to be guilty of sheer mental sloth and moral cowardice, so charged was he with the conviction that the human mind is capable of solving all problems and the human will of overthrowing all obstacles. It was by no accident that the little knot of men who in the winter of 1883 met in Mr. Pease's rooms to talk over some common methods of reaching common ends, and who, a few months later, founded this Society, came there, nearly all of them, with minds fresh from contact with the mind of Thomas Davidson. And I believe that many of the qualities that are most traditionally characteristic of our Society - its dislike of exaggeration, its contempt for the gaseous and the flatulent, its suspicion of the mawkishly sentimental, its impatience of pretentious formulas, no matter how felicitously phrased, above all, the critical attitude of its corporate mind, are largely due to his impress. In the interests of sane Socialism, my hope and faith are that these traditional characteristics may long continue to be ours.