restricted access A Commentary (Oct 1931)
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354 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 11 (Oct 1931) 65-72 Being willing to improve my scant knowledge of the theory of politics, I welcomed the appearance lately of two small books, both of which, to judge from their titles, were elementary enough for my needs. One was An Introduction to Politics, by Mr. Harold J. Laski (Unwin: 2s. 6d.), and the other Ich Dien: The Tory Path, by Lord Lymington (Constable: 4s. 6d.). Mr. Laski is more than well known as an exponent of moderate Socialism; Lord Lymington, as the title of his essay indicates, is a Conservative M.P.1 Surely, by combining and contrasting such points of view, one could arrive at some conclusion. The conclusions were indeed interesting to myself, though hardly what I expected. Professor Laski begins with comfortable words. “The state, so to say,” he says, “is the crowning-point of the modern social edifice” [15]; and this is reassuring; the phrase “social edifice” has a pleasant sound to the timidhearted . “Its subjects desire, for instance, security for their persons and property” [19]. Indeed we do. It is true that we may be a little disconcerted, a page or two further on, by a sentence in Mr. Laski’s best style: Yet it may be taken as a general rule that the character of any particular state will be, broadly speaking, a function of the economic system which obtains in the society it controls. [21] This was a little puzzling. For one was encouraged by the author’s prefatory statement that he intended to set out the basic problems of politics: yet if the “character of any particular state” is the “function” of an economic system, then we may suppose that the character of politics is a function of economics: and therefore it seems that there are basic problems more basic than the political ones. This is rather disheartening to the beginner. Is it possible that I ought to have consulted some primer on the “basic problems” of economics – the basic problems of which Oustric, Madame Hanau, Teapot Dome and Marconi Shares were particular manifestations – before reading Mr. Laski?2 And so far as Mr. Laski’s politics is concerned, its function seems to be merely to be a function of that economic variable, for he says: [ 355 A Commentary (Oct) Not a little of the malaise of modern civilisation is due to the fact that the institutions of the state have not kept pace with other changes, particularly economic, in the society it attempts to control. [55] So if the business of “institutions” of the state is merely to keep pace with economic changes, not to control them, the detached enquirer must begin to lose heart about politics, and to reflect that a more important subject of study might be these economic changes, and how to control them. Finally, however, I began to suspect that Mr. Laski’s “introduction to politics” was perhaps only an introduction to one kind of politics; and that kind simply a development of the old-fashioned American conception of Democracy. This view is assumed, not defended. For he says straight out: . . . no state will realise the end for which it exists unless it is a democracy based upon universal suffrage in which there are not only freedom of speech and association, but also a recognition that neither race nor creed, birth nor property, shall be a barrier against the exercise of civic rights. [38] Such a sentence merely provokes a fresh explosion of questions. For what end does the state exist? And why should not race, creed, birth and property , any one or more of them, be a desirable barrier? And what are civic rights? It is just these questions which we want answered in an “introduction to politics”; and we must admit that there is more than one possible answer to all of them. And some such assumption is apt to turn up just when needed, throughout Mr. Laski’s essay. “Historical research,” he says, “has shattered all systems, which claim to operate under theological sanctions” [28]: not practice, you observe, but “historical research” – this bombshell against theocracy was flung from a window of the London School of Economics. “The power of the state is justified to the degree that it secures, at the least possible sacrifice, the maximum satisfaction of human wants” [33]. But does wants here mean needs? Or does it include all the fluctuating capricious or undesirable desires of men? Later, Mr...