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2: My fellow traveller to Oxford

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Author Topic: 2: My fellow traveller to Oxford  (Read 3 times)
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« on: January 21, 2023, 10:38:46 am »

WHEN I entered the train at Paddington station I was absent-minded—indeed I was an automaton. I took my seat in a first-class carriage and it was only when someone coughed that I became aware that I was sitting in a corner seat opposite the only other occupant.

You will assume perhaps that it is my habit to go around in a dream. This is not the case. I had been reading a book I had bought the day before, Human Rights, and on the way down in the cab I had been thinking about my "freedom". I had reflected what a wonderful thing freedom of displacement was: what a delightful feature of the individualist way of life it was that I could decide to go to Oxford by the next train and all I had to do was to buy a ticket—or to anywhere in England. Once it had been possible to buy a ticket for anywhere in the world: shades of the prison-house were gathering deeply about us in these islands. Today I could go down to the station, buy a ticket, and go to Penzance or to John o' Groats—quite a big prison-yard to exercise in, and as a matter of fact I seldom went further than a hundred miles. But I could not go to Calais or Boulogne. Tomorrow, it might be, I should have to secure a permit to travel to Oxford. I should then be walking around and around in Rotting Hill.

That I could not go to Calais or to Boulogne without an official permit was no fault of the Government. If anyone is to be blamed it is the selfish greedy fools who pushed England into blood-bath after blood-bath. If a nation ruins itself by going to war on a sumptuous scale twice in a generation its touristically-minded citizens have to be restrained. Also the present government did not withhold its permission for travel to the most distant countries if the journey were to be undertaken for some serious purpose, cultural or commercial. Nevertheless, we were not as free as we were, and, having said that, I reminded myself that it was only the middle-class that had ever been free—had ever gone anywhere, so it was only they who suffered. I was very philosophic—but strangely preoccupied.

As I went along the carriage-corridor I was thinking of that middle-class. And I was still thinking of the middle-class as the cough called me away from it. I looked up. I saw the working class.


These railway-carriage tête-à-têtes in the first-class carriages of English trains can be rather disagreeable; and as the train left the station it was still a tête-à-tête. There are fewer people every day who travel first class in England. Some Englishmen in such a situation bury their countenances in a copy of The Financial Times or The Economist, or look coldly out of the window; make it quite plain that they object to conversation and will pull the alarm-chain if you compel them to do so by remarking that it is warm for the time of year. This man in front of me, however, looked at me fixedly. I did not need, therefore, to examine him furtively. I looked in his eyes and found them grey, self-satisfied, and aggressive. I noticed that his head was rather narrow, of an English pink—that he was probably approaching forty. What a man wears is no longer, in England, any indication of his economic status. It is not a classless society yet, but it is a uniformly shabby one.

I did not like this face but I thought I had better break the ice.

"England is becoming the rat-catcher of Europe," I said.

He gave a frosty, superior smile.

"I was obliged," I continued, "to call in the Ratin Company. We are infested with mice. The Ratin representative informed me that Ratin flew an outfit over to Reikjavik last week, at the request of the Icelandic government. They get many such summonses from abroad. It appears that we have ten times as many rats and mice here as formerly. So the ship cannot be sinking, can it?"

"There are plenty of rats still in this country," he observed disagreeably.

"And mice—who think they are rats and behave as such," I told him. "You would never have thought that ours were mere mice."

I knew that I could say nothing to this individual that he would not be superior about, even scornful. The train was a non-stop to Oxford. What was he doing at Oxford, or was he "a commercial"? In the days when there were classes he would have belonged to some section of the working class. His aggressiveness might be on account of that, alone it would not account however for his smouldering alertness.

"Are you at Oxford?" I asked him.

"Yes. I'm an undergraduate," he informed me (as if to say "any objection?").

"Ah," I looked mildly at his watch-chain. No doubt demobbed late and rewarded for his martial watchfulness in the Azores or in Madras by a University education, like so many others—as they said two years ago that half the undergraduates were "old married men" and that Oxford was full of perambulators and the screams of children-in-arms.

"I see you have the Unesco book, Human Rights." He pointed at my book, which I had placed on the seat at my side.

"I bought it yesterday," I answered. "It interests me."

"Does it?" immediately he said, in a tone that left no doubt as to his feelings about this publication. But he never left one in doubt as to his feelings about anything, and they were invariably strong and intensely disagreeable.

"Yes." I reaffirmed my interest.

"I can't see how anyone can find it interesting," he proceeded—for it was a subject that evidently interested him.

"Why?" I enquired, smiling.

"I can't see how a lot of lies can interest anybody."

"You think it gives an untruthful or misleading account of the problem of 'human rights'?"

"Untruthful!" He gave a grating little cackle. "It gives no account at all. It is anti-Soviet propaganda, that is all."

"It surprises me that you should say that. The views on the subject of human rights of exponents of all schools of thought, from the communist to the liberal, are to be found there."

"No they aren't!" he said with some violence.

"You feel that the communist philosophy is unfairly reported?"

"I am not a communist," he said indifferently—as if he was tired of saying it: "just fair-minded. If there is a war I and my friends will be asked to fight the Russians, that's all."

Like other classes of men, communists are not uniformly agreeable or disagreeable. But since the stalinist doctrine is absolutist, and has its roots sunk deep and fast in an ethic—an angry ethic—naturally in conversation stalinists are, on the whole, apt to be intolerant and tough. For communism a sensible man must have mixed feelings. He must feel respect. He can only abhor its brutality—but he must concede that a great deal that occurs in our Western societies is implicity of great brutality too. He may regard its moral indignation as phoney: but he must recognize that horror at the wickedness of others is not a communist monopoly. He may ask "Are they such children as they act and talk?"—but he must allow that to see things with the eyes of a child is very popular, too, with us. And so on and so on. Such good sense may seem to lack force. But good sense has nothing to do with force or power. That is its beauty.

I looked over at my fellow traveller to Oxford as one must at a human squib or obstreperous toy one has been handed, and would gladly put down. But he was a walking idea with which one has to come to terms—or the earth will blow up.

"You are wrong in regarding this book in the way you do. Everybody knows that this next war will be an even greater crime than the last—though there is no war that somebody does not think he is going to get something out of."

"You certainly are correct about that!"

"Yes. But although everyone except that somebody to whom I referred, loathes the prospect of this lunatic blood-bath-in-the-making, we go about averting it in a very half-hearted way."

"Have you heard of the Congress Against War?" he enquired. I did not say: "But that is partisan. That would not remove the causes of war—all it seeks to do is to secure immunity to an aggressor for all the 'peaceful penetrations', guerrilla wars, coups d'état, etcetera, that one of the parties wishes to indulge in": instead of this I proceeded with my argument.

"An influential minority in every nation, and in this nation at present a majority, are agreed that economic collectivism, in some form, is necessary, and certain very soon to be realized everywhere. Russia has such a system; in this country another variety is being developed. Mr. Truman's 'welfare state' policy—his Fair Deal following on the New Deal—is a first step towards economic collectivism. It may be at some distance yet, but the G.O.P., the Republican elephant, is finished. Let me say that it would be hypocritical for a man like myself to express enthusiasm for multitudinous politics tel quel. But industrial conditions and the massive populations ensuing upon them impose such politics. The small world of Jefferson or Locke was more human (but do not quote me as pointing approvingly at its economics—only at its size!). But this monster is here—and socialism of some variety, as much in America as here, is the appropriate political technique."

At the mention of Mr. Truman a sardonic grin fixed itself on his face. I stopped and looked at him. "Go on?" he said.

"As to an international political community, that is a subject upon which, unfortunately, the intelligent minority is divided. We will not talk about that. In this book," and I placed my hand on the Unesco symposium, "human rights is described as the 'king-pin' among contemporary issues. I am sure that it is. Unesco has laid out side by side, as it were, the competing theories—for the U.S.S.R. as much as the U.S.A. is of opinion that human beings do possess 'rights'. The quarrel is as to what kind of 'rights' are the essential ones.

"These 'rights' are of two classes. One class we refer to as political rights—the other—the so-called 'new rights'—are the economic and social rights.

"The first class, the Political Rights, are the traditional rights familiar to Englishmen—those derived from the classical individualist conception of man, as a being inherently entitled to a number of rights.

"These Western rights are the earlier—the best known of these rights and privileges are, of course, free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom to work where and how you please, the protection given by the writ of habeas corpus. Those are the Political rights.

"The socialist view is that these rights are empty. You may have heard the old French jingle:

   "Liberté de ne rien faire
    Egalité en misère

and so on. It was a reactionary rhyme, directed against the slogans of the French Revolution. It exactly expresses, however, the present-day socialist criticism, directed against the same group of 'rights' as was the reactionary rhyme.

"The second class of 'rights', the economic and social rights, are specifically socialist rights. They are the kind of which the Health Insurance Bills of Lloyd George and Bevan are a recognition. The right to be cared for when sick and when old, to be suitably born and buried: and then there is the right to a proper education, the right to full, adequately remunerated, employment. Such are the economic and social rights—the 'newness' of which Mr. Maritain, I think unsuccessfully, contests in his excellent introduction. Whether it has always been recognized that men are entitled to these advantages, or not, such recognition to the socially awakened mind of our day appears a minimum requirement—and the second class of 'rights' must, of course, be joined to the already existing political rights.

"I agree with the Russian criticism, that political rights without economic and social rights are very imperfect. I agree with Dr. Johnson (the great lexicographer) that habeas corpus is the only one of the classical English 'rights' which, by itself, is worth boasting about (how he put it was that it was the only liberty possessed by the English not possessed by other nations. According to world standards there has always been a great deal of liberty in Europe). But..."

I stopped for a moment and looked at my companion, and before he moved into the gap I continued.

"... I hope you have followed what I have said—but I am bound to disagree with the communist philosophy when it implies or contends that economic and social rights are all that is required. No 'rights' are worth having without political rights. There is no right you could give me I would exchange for the right to speak freely and to move about freely. Remove these rights from me, which are called political, and I certainly should not be consoled by being tucked up in bed every night by a state-nurse, given perpetual employment; being examined weekly free of charge by a state-doctor and state-dentist, given state-pills and state-teeth, and finally by being buried in a state-grave. Those by themselves are slave-rights. The man who barters his liberty for a set of false teeth and a pair of rimless spectacles is a fool. In the slave days of the southern states of the U.S. all sensible slave-owners took good care of their slaves—saw that they came into the world without mishap, did not die if possible when they got ill, and that finally they were decently buried. In antiquity the Romans and the Greeks did not find it necessary to draw up a Bill of Rights of that sort: they cared for their slaves as a matter of course.

"So that second class of rights alone I reject. And if these 'new rights' are to be regarded as substitutes for political rights, as apparently they are, let us not be taken in by the word 'new'. Of course it is a new thing to call the care one naturally bestows upon a slave, or upon a horse or a dog, a right!"

My travelling companion, who had been scornfully lolling back with a disdainful smile while I had, with prudent care, sorted out the rights and labelled them in their respective historical compartments for him, now had sat up and was practically baring his teeth. The dialectical torrent was seething behind his dental plate.

"One moment!" I cried, holding up my hand. "There is one piece in this book to which I would like to draw your attention—pages one hundred and fifty-one, two and three, the name of the writer is John Somerville." I picked up the book. "He points out that the primary emphasis of the Western democratic tradition has so far been on political rights, whereas 'the primary Soviet emphasis so far has been on social rights'. Listen. It is those words so far that are the saving words. And Dr. Somerville on the next page writes, 'Our hope should be that Soviet society, as it grows, will extend its conception of human rights more and more to the political sphere, and that Western society will extend its conception of human rights more and more to the social sphere.' And he gives excellent reasons for believing that this hope will be realized in the case of the Soviet. As to the West, in this country we are far advanced in the procuring of economic and social rights to match our political rights, and other nations will follow suit. So where is the conflict? Must we regard the state of development of Communist Russia as eternally fixed? As we rapidly develop, will not Russia develop too—as it has already, up to and beyond the 1936 Constitution? Cannot the Russians, if they are sincere, allow us a little time to draw level with them in one category of human rights, to develop our collectivist economy, though upon our own lines: and should we take it for granted that their citizens will always be as politically unfree as at present they are? What will be the motive for this war anyway that is being so busily prepared? Will it be the old motives, disputes about territory, about markets, about power? Is it not possible to reconcile Eastern and Western democracy?"

My fellow traveller to Oxford as I stopped burst in with angry impetuosity.

"Where your pretty plan of kissing and making friends breaks down is right at the start. You are wrong from the word go about the 'new rights'. They are new. Russian democracy postulates a totally different conception of human life. It is a totally new civilization—a Russian communist's nervous system, his entire cerebration, is upon a different plane to that of a Western democrat. It is impossible to compare, even, Western and Soviet ways of feeling—they are unrelated upon any level. It would be no use speaking to a contemporary Russian about rights in the Soviet being defective in the Western sense—he would not understand what rights of our sort mean. A Russian would have no use whatever for political rights. Why should he? The Western conception of political 'rights' and civil liberties came into being to enable the capitalist to do what he liked, freely and without interference, with the worker and with the coloured 'native'. Political rights gave him a free hand, that is what liberty means in the Western sense. 'Free enterprise' is freedom to exploit.

"Charles I of England deserved what he got—but it was not the people who executed him for his crimes, it was as big criminals as himself. The Merchant Adventurers and other seventeenth century monopolists plotted to get him put out of the way—out of their way. They also rigged the building up of a code of defensive 'rights' behind which to operate. Political freedom is individualist freedom. The Russian does not want to be an individual. No thank you! the Russian would say. I don't want to have the 'right' to be an individual and to starve. I wish to be an integral social being. The socialist organization of the national economy produces a new kind of individual, one who ceases to be an individual in your sense, so I should not know what to do with the anarchic liberties of your individuals. That's what the Russian would say! Our liberation from capitalist slavery, he'd say, that is my liberty—the abolition of private ownership of the instruments and means of production has put me beyond the need of your protections. My body is part of the socialist body, what can habeas corpus mean to me? That was invented to protect an individualist against a King. There are no Kings and no individuals of that sort in Soviet Russia. Your 'hope', my dear sir, of a 'development', as you call it, of the communist philosophy towards individualism, and its corresponding 'rights', makes me laugh. I'm sorry."

"Thank you," I said, "for explaining my error so fully."

"Not at all."

"You talk as Boris Tchechko writes," I told him amiably.

"That's an insult!" he expostulated. "P'raps you don't know it but that's an insult! Tchechko's an agent of the U.S. government. I have never read such dirty tripe as his. That would be the kind of phoney expert they would get to explain the 'Russian point of view' to people."

"I know nothing about that."

"I hope you don't. Yes, it's a very good book. A very good book! Good for whom?"

"If what you say is true, it is unfortunate. But such criticism of the experts selected does not affect what I was saying. Such a publication is of great value unless you wish to banish reason from the scene altogether. To know what a war would be about is of some importance.

"Irreconcilable ideologies, sooner or later, would attack one another. But when I look around me, in this country, and see a socialist state being rapidly built up, the leaders of which are by no means fundamentally opposed to Soviet Russia—even inclined to imitate it—then I cannot for the life of me see why England should go to war with Russia, or Russia with England, except for imperialist reasons. And what would socialism be doing with imperialism? That is a horrible perversion. In the past it has been inherently and essentially international—from my standpoint that has been its strongest card. The moment it ceases to be international, it becomes national-socialism—a most perverse theory of the state."

"You have forgotten the U.S.!"—with a sour smile he reminded me. "You didn't mention that!"

"No, I have not forgotten it at all. The New Deal, and now the Fair Deal is killing capitalism in the U.S. slowly but surely. The United States will not go communist. Why should it? There is a danger that this country may. Unfortunately in England socialism has taken over a ruined society, drifting towards conditions of want and helplessness, which makes the problem more like that confronting Lenin than it would have been possible to believe twenty years ago. What we must fear here is that although the English people acquire those economic and social rights which were not there before, they may in the process lose the political rights, without which the economic and social rights are a fraud."

"We must fear, must we..." he was beginning, when a tall man considerably his junior stuck his head in at the door.

"Ronald," this man said.

"Oh, hallo," said Ronald, and got up. He moved out of the carriage grilling me with a passing gaze of fierce sarcasm.

Minus Ronald, I went on turning these things over in my mind. There is a great deal too much Ronald in the Soviet position. All the same, the directors of Russian policy are not Ronalds luckily. The arguments that Ronald used with me are a crude distortion of the official polemic. Yet there is something harsh and rigid, undoubtedly, even at the highest level. Is a working compromise possible, of the kind the Unesco publication has in mind? The answer to that seems to lie not in the realm of ideas, where Unesco could play a part, but in the iron-curtained regions of Soviet imperialism.

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