Review of “Democracy and Reaction” by Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse

I have no idea how to review this book. Hobhouse is a "social liberal" according to Wikipedia. I’m not really sure what that means. He does spend some time trying to reconcile liberalism with socialism. Since, I’m not sure how to proceed, I’ll let Hobhouse do most of the talking.

A big chunk of the book is devoted to the question of whether or not democracy has become a source of reaction (reaction is to be read as opposition to "progress"):

Is it that the Democratic State, the special creation of the modern world, and the pivot of the humanitarian movement, has itself become an obstruction to progress? Does popular government, with the influence which it gives to the Press and the platform, necessarily entail a blunting of moral sensibility, a cheapening and vulgarisation of national ideals, an extended scope for canting rhetoric and poor sophistry as a cover for the realities of the brutal rule of wealth? Are these evils of popular government essential and inevitable, and if so, does it mean that the work of generations of reformers must be undone?

His answer is that Democracy need not necessarily be a source of reaction, but that progressives must admit that democracy is not the source of reaction that they thought it was going to be. Here is his criticism of Democracy:

For that, we have ourselves coined a new abstraction: “the man-in-the-street,” or the “man-on-the- top-of-a-bus ” is now the typical representative of public opinion, and the man-in-the-street means the man who is hurrying from his home to his office, or to a place of amusement. He has just got the last news-sheet from his neighbour; he has not waited to test or sift it; he may have heard three contradictory reports, or seen two lying posters on his way up the street, but he has an expression of opinion ready on his lips, which is none the less confident, because all the grounds on which it is founded may be swept away by the next report that he hears. The man-in-the-street is the man in a hurry; the man who has not time to think and will not take the trouble to do so if he has the time. He is the faithful reflex of the popular sheet and the shouting newsboy. His character and the tone which he gives to our public discussions resemble more the character and tone which the proud and slow-going John Bull of old days was wont to attribute to his volatile and emotional neighbours who made revolutions and cut off the heads of kings, while he at home was priding himself on the slow and orderly march of reform. To this new public opinion of the streets and the tramcars it is useless to appeal in terms of reason; it has not time to put the two ends of an argument together; it has hardly patience to receive a single idea, much less to hold two in the mind and compare

. . .

The man-in-the-street is familiar with everything. Nothing is new to him; it is his business not to be surprised. He knows already all about any appeal that you can make to the better side of him, and he has long ago chopped it up in his mill of small talk and catch phrases and reduced it to such a meaningless patter that the words which must be used have acquired trivial and lowering associations. It used to be thought that education would open men’s minds to the conceptions necessary for the new masters of the State, but education itself must in large measure be ranked among our failures. When our higher education has such dismal results, what are we to expect from the mechanical training in the elements of learning which is all that we are able to give to the public at large? Properly speaking, we have no educated classes; we have numerous men and women who in spite of the schools have educated themselves.

Hobhouse believes that democracy and Darwinism will be forces of reaction, if progressives cannot reframe them. Darwinism is to be defeated by arguing for equality. As you can see, Hobhouse is ahead of his time:

The primitive divisions of class, caste, race, or nationality are replaced by the conception of humanity as a whole, the arbitrary and irrational elements which survive from primitive custom are shed, and the conception of duty becomes remodelled on the basis of a rational understanding of the actual needs of individual and social life. The idea of personal salvation, in which social duty plays a subordinate part, is merged in a conception of social justice with reference to which personal duty is principally determined. In these and other ways, too numerous even for brief reference in this place, there arises by degrees the ideal of collective humanity, self- determining in its progress, as the supreme object of human activity, and the final standard by which the laws of conduct should be judged. The establishment of such an ideal, to which as a fact the historical development of the moral consciousness points, is the goal to which the mind, in its effort to master the conditions of existence, necessarily strives, and all the previous stages of mental evolution may be regarded as marking steps in the movement to this end.

Darwinism is to be destroyed by equality and democracy is to be, shall we say, re-directed:

The problem of popular government begins to simplify itself when it is recollected that no one can effectively govern affairs that he does not understand. This has long been recognised as the limiting principle of absolute monarchy.

What we need is some experts:

Hence in the teeth of theory and of the interests of the party machine Americans are being driven to the formation of a regular civil service of trained administrators on the European model. With the formation of a regular civil service democracy in its first and most obvious form disappears. There remains the second idea, the idea of ultimate popular sovereignty. In this conception the part played by the individual man becomes less important than the part played by the people as a whole. It is held that the details of government are for the expert to arrange, but the expert administrator holds from the people, receives their mandate, and stands or falls by their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the result. The people are the ultimate authority, but only the ultimate authority. An immediate power is delegated to politicians who make a business of public affairs, and through them to civil servants with a professional training in administration. It is admitted that the popular judgment can only be formed on the broad results of policy, and must be as much a judgment of persons as of things.

Hobhouse is very honest, and occasionally, his honesty is downright creepy:

for it is through casting aside self-government that the reaction has made its worst ravages. We shall be under no illusions about democracy. The golden radiance of its morning hopes has long since faded into the light of common day. Yet that dry light of noon serves best for those whose task it is to carry on the work of the world.

Hobhouse’s discussion of liberalism is also interesting. Much of the work is a defense of Cobden. Hobhouse believes that liberal policies cannot be chosen from at random – they come as a package:

Cobden himself would have held it strange that Free Trade should remain the only abiding monument of his work. We may almost say he would have thought it impossible—for Free Trade to him was no isolated doctrine but part of a very compact political system. Cobden saw politics as a whole in which the parts were very closely united. Free Trade, non-interference, a policy of peace, the reduction of armaments, retrenchment of expenditure, popular government at home, self – government for the Colonies—these were not, as he conceived them, isolated views any one of which might be taken up or discarded without affecting the remainder. They were strictly interdependent.

. . .

This was the practical connection. War meant expenditure. The old system of holding the Colonies by force meant expenditure, and expenditure involved indirect taxation and made Free Trade virtually impossible. Conversely, Free Trade would diminish the commercial inducements to military aggression, and by limiting taxation to forms in which any increment is immediately felt as a palpable burden, would incline men to look at both sides of the question before plunging into war.

Hobhouse also spends a lot of time criticizing the idea that the Empire (the British one) can be a force for good.

But, to quit this extreme case, we cannot find elsewhere that freedom and equality have been fostered by territorial extension. On the contrary, that spirit of domination which rejoices in conquest is by nature hostile to the idea of racial equality, and indifferent to political liberty.

I wonder if he’d still believe this after seeing what happened when colonialism ended.

He concludes the book by trying to reconcile liberalism and socialism:

The Liberal and the Socialist have attacked the problem of progress, or what is the same thing [emphasis mine], of social justice, at different sides. The Liberal stands for emancipation and is the inheritor of a long tradition of men who have fought for liberty, who have found law or government or society crushing human development, repressing originality, searing conscience. Against this repression the Liberal is for the unimpeded development of human faculty as the mainspring of progress. The Socialist, or if the vaguer term be preferred, the Collectivist, is for the solidarity of society. He emphasises mutual responsibility, the duty of the strong to the weak. His watchwords are co-operation and organisation. The two ideals as ideals are not conflicting, but complementary. For after all it is not every development of every faculty that can reasonably be desired for the sake of progress. There are mischievous as well as benevolent talents capable of cultivation.

. . .

I may be told that I have ignored the fundamental point that Socialism is an attack on property which Liberalism would preserve. It is, I think, truer to say that the Collectivist’s conception of property follows logically from his analysis of the State, and is in accord with the view to which the best political thinkers seem to be tending. Property is not an absolute right of the individual owner which the State is bound to maintain at his behest. On the contrary, the State on its side is justified in examining the rights which he may claim, and to criticise them, seeing that it is by the force of the State and at its expense that all such rights are maintained. Further, it is under shelter of the State and its laws that men accumulate wealth, and the precise nature of those laws has a good deal to do with the methods by which wealth may be accumulated.

. . .

I venture to conclude that the differences between a true, consistent, public-spirited Liberalism and a rational Collectivism ought, with a genuine effort at mutual understanding, to disappear.


6 Responses to Review of “Democracy and Reaction” by Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse

  1. ErisGuy says:

    In the late part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, intellectuals attacked democracy because its creatures the bourgeoisie drew their knowledge from shallow newspapers (and “those little radios”–Cole Porter), unlike the sophisticated men of science (and of scientific socialism).

    “To this new public opinion of the streets and the tramcars it is useless to appeal in terms of reason; it has not time to put the two ends of an argument together; it has hardly patience to receive a single idea, much less to hold two in the mind and compare” – Hobhouse

    We have been down that road before. The road of the self-important, self-appointed elite. We know what lies at its end: the Jew-free Europe; the destruction of the Kulak; the removal of the running dogs of Capitalism (in Hobhouse’s language: “Property is not an absolute right of the individual owner which the State is bound to maintain at his behest.”). Do we really want to do this again?

    Not even Hobhouse can be excused. He died in 1929, long enough to see the terror descend on Russia and to have repudiated his Socialism.

  2. Lester Hunt says:

    Hobhouse is worth studying because it is in him that liberalism implodes, morphing from Cobden liberalism to socialism-plus-tapwater — ie, what it is today. How did this happen? I find this sentence revealing:

    “..the State on its side is justified in examining the rights which [the individual] may claim, and to criticise them….”

    Oh, so that’s what governments do to individual rights, when they aren’t enforcing them? They “criticize”! Nothing illiberal there!

    Ortega y Gasset tells us that the liberals never did appreciate “the ferocity of the state,” a thing that even authoritarians like Comte understood very well.

    Perhaps this was their Achilles’ Heel.

  3. Tschafer says:

    Good Lord, Foseti, is this book really as incoherent as it sounds? Why do I get the feeling that the answer is “yes”?…

  4. I venture to conclude that the differences between a true, consistent, public-spirited Liberalism and a rational Collectivism ought, with a genuine effort at mutual understanding, to disappear.

    Incoherent or not… Hobhouse seems to have seen farther than the rest. One must wonder, in fact, if there was not some sort of quantum paradox in it: By his very imagining, he made the unimaginable come true.

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