A Commentary (Jan 1936)
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[ 311 A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 15 (Jan 1936) 265-69 The Criterion has never undertaken, but has rather avoided the discussion of topical political issues, however extensive. There are enough other periodicals , of every shade of opinion, which exist primarily for such discussion : discussion which in any case can be more adequately conducted in journals appearing at more frequent intervals. If – what is often doubted – there remains any place for quarterly reviews in the modern world, their task is surely to concern themselves with political philosophy, rather than with politics, and with the examination of the fundamental ideas of philosophies rather than with the problems of application. But whenever any collection of intellectuals, of clercs,1 takes upon itself to issue a manifesto at some moment of crisis, then I think that it is within our province to discuss, not so much the crisis itself, as the opinions of the intellectuals about it. The discharge of collective manifestoes is not such a regular part of the activity of intellectuals in this country, as it is in France. Nor is the occasion for such activity so likely to be a matter of Foreign Policy – there is perhaps a stronger tendency here to trust the Government of the day, or at least to refrain from embarrassing it. The more frequent occasion, here, is when there emerges some menace to civil liberty: in which circumstances the most unlikely company may be found together. In fact, the consent of unlikely company is here rather the rule than the exception: the whole point of our manifestoes is often the surprising agreement of men of very different views. But in France, not only are the occasions which provoke manifestoes more frequent, but they more regularly assemble the signatories on party lines: so that every manifesto gives cause for a counter-manifesto . The Abyssinian situation has naturally produced declarations from three groups of distinguished writers: from the Right, from the Left, and from the Catholics.2 It is the first and the last of these that I have at hand, and propose to examine. There should be no need to mention names; for there must be very few eminent men of letters in France whose names are not to be found on one or another of the three. The declaration of the Right makes a great point, as one would expect, of the need for solidarity of the Occident: a term which seems to confound Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1936 312 ] the old civilizations of Asia with the amalgame de tribus incultes which is Abyssinia.3 It points out the inconsistency of the position of France and Britain, both great colonial powers, opposing the mission coloniale of another great nation of kindred culture.4 It warns both France and Britain that the development of such a policy can only tend to hand over the whole of Europe to the forces of revolution. And it protests against the false assumption of Geneva, which would treat higher and lower, civilized and barbarous nations on the same footing of equality.5 Any interference with the activities of Italy in Abyssinia is an attack upon the civilization of the West. I quote one paragraph in the original, so that I may not appear to be putting my own construction upon the text: L’intelligence – là où elle n’a pas encore abdiqué son autorité – se refuse à être la complice d’une telle catastrophe. Aussi les soussignés croient-ils devoir s’élever contre tant de causes de mort, propres à ruiner définitivement la partie la plus précieuse de notre univers, et qui ne menacent pas seulement la vie, les biens matériels et spirituels de milliers d’individus, mais la notion même de l’homme, la légitimité de ses avoirs et de ses titres – toutes choses que l’Occident a tenues jusqu’ici pour supérieures et auxquelles il a dû sa grandeur historique avec ses vertus créatrices.6 [3] While we must feel a certain sympathy, this sympathy cannot be without important qualifications. The argument is evidently flimsy, unless supported by all the reasons which are not expressed: those of the foreign and domestic politics of France. That the French should be in constant apprehension of German aggression, and that their policy toward Italy should be dominated by this fear, is quite natural, and we should feel warm sympathy with them in their difficulty. But this manifesto is not explicitly based...