Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters V and VI

Today’s chapters from The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice are: V. The Land of Dreams: The Utopia of the Socialist; and VI. How Mr. Bellamy Looked Backward. They could be taken as one chapter, because Leacock segues explicitly from the first to the next, using Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1887 and immensely popular in its day,—you can find it on-line at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/624,—and still listed as in print by Penguin Random House with an introduction by Cecelia Tichi, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and Professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University. So you see, Bellamy’s book can still attract the attention of a serious scholar of literature, if not of political economy. It is in fact a fascinating work of fiction and I am pleased to have read it.

Looking Backward (the title refers to the perspective of the narrator, who is looking back on 1887 from the year 2000 in which he finds himself after a sleep of 113 years) quickly made a Canadian footprint, albeit a faint one. In 1891 some people wanted to found a community to be called Bellamy Village in Scarborough Township, Ontario, just east of Toronto. They got as far as negotiations with the township council. The idea ran into resistance and died, its only legacy being the name of Bellamy Road in Scarborough, which beginning at Kingston Road proceeds northward with only one break for railroad tracks finally to meld perpendicularly into Corporate Drive. But I digress.

Stephen Leacock’s views on socialism, as they stood in 1919, are neither sophisticated nor interesting today, although clearly stated. What is important is the cast of mind he brings to them:

For in the whole program of peaceful socialism there is nothing wrong except one thing. Apart from this it is a high and ennobling ideal truly fitted for a community of saints. And the one thing that is wrong with socialism is that it won’t work. That is all. It is, as it were, a beautiful machine of which the wheels, dependent upon some unknown and uninvented motive power, refuse to turn. The unknown motive force in this case means a power of altruism, of unselfishness, of willingness to labor for the good of others, such as the human race has never known, nor is ever likely to know.

He does not doubt that those he later called people “of good will, whose hearts are in the cause”, who embrace a spirit of “righteousness”, can be found, even among officials. What he doubts is the human capacity to sustain that kind of virtue in a system where officials,—even if elected under the best possible rules,—are given the raw power literally to decide everything to do with economic life.

Mr. Bellamy pictures his elected managers,—as every socialist has to do,—as a sagacious and paternal group, free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions and animated only by the thought of the public good. Gravely they deliberate; wisely and justly they decide. Their grey heads—for Bellamy prefers them old—are bowed in quiet confabulation over the nice adjustment of the national production, over the petition of this or that citizen. The public care sits heavily on their breast. Their own peculiar fortune they have lightly passed by. They do not favor their relations or their friends. They do not count their hours of toil. They do not enumerate their gain. They work, in short, as work the angels.
Now let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?

“With perfect citizens any government is good,” he claims towards the end of the chapter. “In a population of angels a socialistic commonwealth would work to perfection. But until we have the angels we must keep the commonwealth waiting.”

Last week I drew attention to Leacock’s own dream of a “sane, orderly and continuous social reform”, yet in the peroration to his chapter on Mr. Bellamy he scorns the figure of “the gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, [who ]frames for himself a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of socialism achieved little by little, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they are to reach somehow or somewhere in cloud land the nirvana of the elimination of self.” Suppose I were to rephrase that just a little, imagining:

a gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, framing for his country a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of social reform achieved little by little in a sane, orderly and continuous process, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they reach by this means and in this land a practical, muddled, benign kind of nirvana where the valid claims to well-being of both self and others are accommodated in a humane way.

I don’t think Stephen Leacock would disagree with that. I think that’s where deep down he wants to go. I think it’s where he was, almost, in 1912 when he wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a little town that for all its muddled thinking and living achieves a kind of organic unity and spirit of accommodation if not reform. It’s where Isaiah Berlin, prophet of Pluralism, arrived in 1950.

Did Stephen Leacock get there in 1919? Muddled or otherwise, we’ll find out next week when we look into Chapter VII of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. What Is Possible? What is Not?

 

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