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Catholic restorationist

by Jeremiah Wilkes

Novelist, poet, essayist, political and economic radical, military historian, journalist, member of parliament, incessant traveller and lecturer - if Hilaire Belloc does not count as a latter-day Renaissance Man (though he would have despised the term since he disliked this period), then nobody does. And yet to attempt to capture the man that was Belloc in such a list is to turn the genial into the positively humdrum. For Belloc was in every way larger than life, a thunderous personality who shook the increasingly insipid arena of English public affairs during the most event-filled years of the twentieth century. Those years shaped the present climate. Belloc understood the formative power of the period in which he lived, peerlessly diagnosed its sickness and foresaw its sequel. He also proclaimed the cure. Many listened but most did so uneasily. The reason is that Belloc was a Catholic, and if there is any label that describes him best, it is that of one of this century’s leading Catholic apologists.

In the short compass available it is impossible to map in any detail the contours of Hilaire Belloc’s life, every day of which is worth recording. Instead we must content ourselves with a brief and incomplete sketch, concentrating not so much on chronology but on the leading ideas of Belloc’s thought and how they fit together. The aim is to show why Belloc is great: not merely why he is admired by so many, even his ideological enemies, but also why you should admire him too. And why you should turn to his writing. (Much of it is out of print, for reasons that will become obvious, although reprints of the most controversial works are slowly appearing.)

Hilaire Belloc was, as must never be forgotten, a religious man. There are those who would try to sanitise him, pretending that his poetry, or his travel writing, or his radical economics, for example, can be shaved off from the rest, cleansed of their ideological baggage and presented to the public as one or more great achievements for which he should be remembered. The futility of the task becomes apparent as soon as it is undertaken; for Belloc is unreconstructible and every word that he wrote bears some relation, however tangential, to his religion. This is one of his remarkable features, and so discomfiting to those who, at the tired end of a tiresome century, are unable to cope with the very concept of a coherent worldview. To the talking heads who fill our soundspace with so much dross on a daily basis, to the members of the decayed academe, to the chattering classes, the very idea of Belloc is threatening. An uncompromising defender of the Faith of a kind which has few examples today. A man for whom the Church filled every fibre of his being: her view of the universe was his own; she set the boundaries of every one of his intellectual undertakings. No, he was not a holy man, as he would have been the first to admit. He was arrogant, a know-it-all, unforgiving to his intellectual opponents (such as HG Wells, whom he took to pieces in print over his flimsy The Outline of History), a blusterer, sometimes neglectful of his friends (and yet he had so many and they loved him) - even GK Chesterton, whose very reception into the Church Belloc forgot to attend (!) - horribly neglectful of his wife and children (whose later lives showed this neglect; though again they loved him, especially his eldest child Eleanor, who looked after him in old age) and utterly careless in his business interests, causing financial embarrassment to several associates. He had many faults as do we all. But the Church has always had ‘sinners’ within her bosom and Belloc was wholly lacking in the modern disease of self- deception which causes so many men, religious or not, to rationalise their wrongdoing by denying they are doing wrong in the first place.

So what are some of the lineaments of Belloc’s thought? What makes his prodigious body of work (over 150 books and pamphlets) a unified whole, a marvellous literary heritage? Unfortunately the term ‘radical’ has come to have so many negative connotations, to be used as a term of abuse in order to marginalise thinking that deviates from what is fashionable; but we must re-appropriate it, and take it in its etymological sense of ‘going to the root’. Then we can say with accuracy that Belloc was a radical. Better, he was a radical traditionalist, someone who wanted unashamedly to go back to a traditional form of society, even if this involved a veritable uprooting of the modern industrial capitalist society to which traditionalism is utterly opposed. Of course there are various kinds of traditional society, but they are not of equal value. What Belloc saw as the best form of society was that which reached its zenith in Europe in ‘The Age of Faith’, during what is called the Middle Ages, in particular the period between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. A medievalist, then? How barbaric, how irrelevant, how out of touch! Why should we bother with Belloc at all, except to regard him as an amusing anachronism?

But it would be wrong to think of Belloc as urging us to don woollen smocks and leather belts and look for a pair of oxen (though Eric Gill and the Ditchling community in Sussex just about saw it that way in the 1920s and 1930s, inspired by Belloc, Chesterton and the Distributists, about which more presently). He never worked out a political system in sufficient detail to decide just how much of modern industrial capitalism had to be dismantled. Nor was he some sort of proto-Unabomber, urging (with pen rather than mail bomb) violent revolution against industrial society. What he wanted, first and foremost, was a revolution in ideas, to be followed by whatever changes to political organisation were necessary and practicable given the state into which society had (and has) got itself. Several fundamental principles were non-negotiable. Belloc throughout his life had a love-hate relationship with the British Establishment. He was half-French (on his father’s side) and a lifelong Francophile. He served in the French army. He spent nearly all his leisure time (if ‘leisure’ be the right word) on a “bloody ramble” throughout the Continent, especially France. Yet he was also English to the core, a poet in love with Sussex, with “the great hills of the South Country”. He thrived at Oxford and sorely missed not being appointed to a fellowship there despite a glittering academic career. He thrust himself into the London scene as journalist, essayist, editor, raconteur, bon vivant and, ultimately, politician. As Liberal MP for South Salford (1906-10) he began with high hopes for reform of the Lords and of the whole network of establishment privilege which he thought was thoroughly dependent upon plutocracy and what he came to call the ‘Money Power’. He was, however, soon disabused of any idea that parliamentarians stood for much more than feather-bedding and cronyism (So what has changed?). Indeed, he came to see the truth, that the modern party political system is a disgrace, a sham which presents the public with alleged alternatives but which, in reality, consists of an endless merry- go-round of differently labelled but ideologically similar groupings, all manipulated by the same forces of money and influence and none willing to disturb the liberal-humanist status quo. Belloc thought that the Liberals would improve the lot of the family, bring in serious land reform, free the workers from wage slavery and liberate society from its addiction to usury. He was soon disappointed and he mercilessly satirised the plus ça change nature of parliamentary politics in a brilliant series of novels such as Pongo and the Bull, in which the Duke of Battersea (formerly IZ Barnett) weaves his malevolent net of financial control so as to manipulate politicians of every party.

It was this disgust with parliament and its intrigues that led Belloc not to stand for re-election in 1910 and to turn his back on mainstream politics. Instead he did something far more important. For the next few years he and Cecil Chesterton (GK’s brother) created the model for Private Eye and all the other magazines like it - The Eye Witness. In it they brutally exposed the farce of modern politics and in 1911 they published The Party System, which anyone should read who wants to understand why voting for mainstream political parties is utterly futile and why the whole system is rotten to the core. On this principle - that modern party politics are irreformably corrupt - Belloc never wavered. But this did not cause him to turn his back on the establishment as such. Although, especially in his early career, he was an admirer of the French Revolution (see his biography Danton (1899)), whose principles he saw as a corrective to a decadent establishment plutocracy, in time he saw how such a standpoint was irreconcilable with his Catholicism. He came to admire and respect the House of Lords, at least to the extent that it represented the landed gentry and saw in it a conservative bulwark against creeping socialism in economics and liberalism in public morals. He always loved England and the English, and knew well that to be English was not always to be a cosy Anglican or a non-conformist. The England of the Middle Ages was a strong monarchy, theocratic to the bone, tied not to capital but to land, deeply conservative and proud as a nation. This, for Belloc, was the true England, although many would argue that England’s (as opposed to Britain’s) zenith was during Elizabeth I’s Protestant Renaissance! As in politics, so in economics, where Belloc’s fundamental principle was that the modern capitalist economy was every bit as godless and oppressive as socialism. (Here he was obviously following what he considered to be the prescient and profound social teaching of the popes, especially Leo XIII and Pius XI). He believed that in contemporary society it had to be replaced, root and branch, with a new type of socio-economic organism based on what is called Distributism: “Ownership of shares in small amounts, a very wide distribution of the interest upon National and Municipal debt, free men owning and farming their own land or holding it on low customary leases, artisans working with their tools in their own shops...” In short, a wide distribution of assets and debts was at the heart of the economic plan of Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. Distributism was loudly proclaimed in GK’s Weekly and The Weekly Review of the 1930s and 1940s and classically restated in Belloc’s masterly The Servile State (1912). The Distributists were not urging some sort of socialist insurrection, as they were far from being either socialists or violent revolutionaries. What they wanted was a revolution in men’s hearts followed by practical activity - a ‘return to the land’ (as many did), the setting up of co-operatives, the modern revival of the medieval guild system, citizens weaning themselves from the drip-feed of the banks, a return to traditional arts and crafts and a shunning of mass production technology. Shades of Morris, of Ruskin, to be sure, but in Belloc’s eyes wholly religious, anti-collectivist and anti- individualist, pro-family, village, small community, region. Distributism has yet to be taken seriously by economists, but if (or perhaps when) the present system collapses under the weight of its own crushing debt, then Distributism may be reassessed - but it would by then be too late. Would that mainstream economists could see past their differential equations and get to work on modelling a modern, viable Distributist society!

One of the problems with Distributism, however, is that it has utopian elements to it, wishing man to be something more noble and selfless than reality regularly finds him to be. Modern capitalism and the economic theories which seek to describe its mechanisms are the present day reality. It is difficult to see how a return to pure Bellocian Distributism could be effected in the absence of total social disintegration.

So Belloc despised what he called the ‘Money Power’, which he mocked mercilessly, and which he saw as draining the lifeblood from English society (and American, and French, and many more). But who or what is the Money Power, exactly? Make no mistake: Belloc, and many others, perceived it as being Jewish in origin. Any attempt to play down this central aspect of Belloc’s thought is dishonest and distorting. So Belloc was a Jew-hater, then, and we can dismiss everything he wrote and move on, not giving him another thought? No, we cannot, unless we are willing so to characterise a large part of English society up to 1945. We forget how sensitive the Jewish question has become since the Second World War and how, before the War, it was, quite simply, unremarkable to speak as Belloc did about the Jews. So let us put aside any historical double standards at once. More importantly, though, let us note that Hilaire Belloc was not an anti-Semite. He did not despise Jews as Jews, he did not consider them racially inferior (on the contrary), he did not shun personal contact with them, he did not advocate violence against them. What he did do was to speak frankly about them and thereby not treat them with kid gloves or embarrassed deference. Jews had a disproportionately high presence in the worlds of finance and Big Business? Well, Belloc argued, it’s a fact, so say it! Why pretend it is not true? Whatever Belloc was, he was not a hypocrite, he loved rant but not cant, he ‘called a spade a spade’. And many people agreed with him, on all sides. Consider for example the famous article by Winston Churchill in the Illustrated Sunday Herald for 8th Febuary, 1920, in which he embraced point for point the theory of a global Jewish conspiracy as outlined in that notorious document (almost certainly a forgery) emanating from Tsarist Russia, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Belloc was indeed, as a Catholic, opposed to Jewish economic and political influence; he was hostile to what he regarded as Jewish social and cultural influence, which he came to see as one of the driving forces behind French Revolutionary secular humanism or more generally Enlightenment godlessness. He maintained that Jewish influence over public affairs was inversely proportional to that of the Church and that the values of modern Judaism and the Enlightenment were in direct opposition to those of the Roman Catholic Church. He felt this to be the case and he said so. Does this make him an anti-Semite? I do not think so. The reader is urged to read Belloc’s study The Jews (1922) and to make up his own mind. (See also the judicious discussion by AN Wilson in his fine biography of Belloc (Hamish Hamilton, 1984).)

Any charge of anti-Semitism needs to be considered in the context of Belloc’s outspoken opposition to the excesses of Hitler’s regime. In 1936, Belloc produced a heavily revised second edition of The Jews, condemning the Nazi persecution of Germany’s Jews. So far did Belloc go in his opposition to Hitlerism that his friend GK Chesterton wrote at this time: “I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.”

One of the problems with Jewish conspiracy or ‘world power’ theories though is that they are, almost by definition, non-provable. Such thinking can on one level be regarded as ‘magical’ or ‘mystical’ and as such not requiring absolute and irrefutable proof to back it up. In short, Belloc’s position with regard to the Jews was typical of his overall neo-medieval religiosity.

This sketch has concentrated on Belloc’s view of society and politics. While it gives you an idea of where Belloc is ‘coming from’, to use a vulgar phrase, it barely scratches the surface. Nothing has been said about his brilliant poetry, especially his comic verse (e.g., the famous Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), for which alone he would have a lasting reputation). His novels have hardly been touched on, nor his essays (many of which are masterpieces - see, for instance, On Nothing (1908), On Everything (1909), On Anything (1910), On Something (1910)). Nothing has been said about his most famous book The Path to Rome (1902) which has, along with the works of GK Chesterton, perhaps brought more people into the Roman Catholic Church than any other this century. Again, the reader is asked to consult the bibliography at the end of the classic biography by Robert Speaight (Hollis and Carter, 1957) where he can behold the protean corpus of Belloc’s work.

In all respects Hilaire Belloc was larger than life. In a room full of glittering personalities - and he knew, at least, and was on intimate terms with, at most, nearly all those who graced English society between the wars - he would command the attention of all, with his preternatural eloquence, his vast general knowledge, his wit, his vivacity. He was one of those men of whom it can truly be said - he lived. How may of us today live, in between our wage slavery, our television addiction, our junk food, our sports worship? Yet Belloc, as a spiritual man, knew from the moment that he began learning his catechism that he would die, that the glories of this world must pass. In even his funniest poetry the tinge of sadness never vanishes. He lost his beloved wife Elodie after eighteen years of marriage, many of his closest friends in the Great War and, as he grew older, his circle of intimates diminished. He knew that in this vale of tears there can never be that true peace, which Christians call “the peace of God which passeth all understanding”. Belloc never had interior peace. Instead of trying to cultivate it, he rambled, he roamed, he wined, he dined, he never sat still. He tried to lose himself in others. But he always knew that he could not, and as he grew older he retreated more into himself, not simply because of his growing disgust with modern society, but because he knew that separation from this world is all the more painful the greater is one’s attachment to it. You cannot read one sentence of his, no matter from what period of his career, without seeing that he really knew this all along.

But he fought the good fight nevertheless, against corruption, degeneracy, unbridled capitalism, socialist collectivism, plutocracy, and everything that conspired to oppress traditional family life, small- scale economy, religion and public morals. Does this make him a reactionary relic of a bygone age? When you look at the decadence around you, it is hard to see how you could dismiss Hilaire Belloc. AN Wilson, in his superb biography, repeatedly refers to Belloc’s uncannily accurate prophecies about the future shape of society. If anything, he is more relevant to-day then he ever was. Every single one of this standard-bearer’s works should be back in print, and I believe that you should consult as many of them as you can lay your hands on.

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