A Working Man’s Reply to Professor Huxley

The Nineteenth Century March 1890
J. D. Christie (Pastrycook)

[476] Watching the pages of this Review as I do most regularly, I cannot help noticing that very many of its articles are devoted to the discussion of questions and subjects which are of specially vital importance to toiling millions of what are not unusually termed the masses; yet I very rarely see any production avowedly written by one of themselves, attempting to give their views expression in print. Many speak for them, of them, and at them, with or without any special knowledge or authority, but the workers as a rule remain silent, or the next thing to it, when we take into account their vast numbers when compared with the classes. Whether this comparative silence arises through want of opportunity, owing to the monopoly of the press by the well-to-do, who of course have the power of selection in their own hands, and may object to any views but their own being ventilated, which is quite natural, or whether it arises from the diffidence which is the outcome of limited education, is not for me to say. All the same surely that silence is to be regretted when account is taken of the fact that the working-class votes now outnumber all the others combined, and consequently to a very great extent the fate of the Empire depends upon the line of thought and action which they adopt. Surely, then, direct and accurate information concerning the prevailing currents of thought and opinion amongst them is as essential in politics and sociology as a knowledge of the rocks, shoals, sand-banks, and ocean currents is in navigation, and account must be taken not only of the highest intellectual power but also of the lowest, seeing that both can use their influence on terms of equality when they arrive at the ballot box.

Now a very great authority has stated that the people of this kingdom are mostly fools. So a vast number of fools have now the power to put their folly into practice, and it comes about that the actions of even the greatest of fools demand attention from the very wisest, though it be but to know what form their folly is likely to take. Being but a humble worker myself, I do not dare to put [477] myself on a level as a thinker with such a man as Professor Huxley; still can see from the article he contributed to your last number that he does not see everything any more than his neighbours, and that there is another way of looking at the doctrine of natural rights of which the Professor knows nothing, simply because he is placed too high up in the social scale. He and his bosom friend the Duke of Argyll look down as from some high place, or even a balloon, to which they have had the good fortune to be raised, I will not say by means of gas, but luck in the one case and a mixture of luck and desert in the other. But theirs is not the best point from which to examine the foundations of a structure; they are too high-placed.

Now take Henry George's doctrine, based on ‘the natural rights of man.' The Professor cannot for the life of him see any good in it. It is based, he says, on a priori methods of reasoning, which means on falsehood and fudge. On the contrary, millions of thoughtful work men see a great deal in that doctrine, and it gives them great hopes for the future, and hope is one of the most effective safety valves or lightning conductors that society possesses at the present day. What but the want of such a safety valve brought about the French Revolution, with its Robespierre, Marat, and Reign of Terror?

Louis the Sixteenth and his nobles did not see the want of it, as they, like the Tory privileged class of to-day, were very well satisfied with the then existing order of things; but they suffered for their blindness, and out of their folly comes wisdom for us.

Surely the Professor admits that we have not arrived at perfection, seeing the amount of misery that exists in our midst. Then that misery, which is an undoubted evil, must be dealt with; its existence demonstrates some maladjustment in the social organism. Mr. George's theory seems to the minds of millions well calculated to solve the social problem, and, whether it be the cure for the evil or not, there it is, and until a better scheme is brought to light there it must remain, for even the Professor admits that there is no killing of it; or at least he says that ‘it won't die when it is killed.' (Is this an 1rish bull?) I wonder in the face of this fact that the Professor does not perceive the possibility of the killing being, to use his own adopted word, 'fudge.'

The Professor says that Mr. George's

political philosophy is identical with Rousseauism, the same a priori method, starting from highly questionable axioms which are assumed to represent truth, and asking us [Who is meant by ‘us'?] to u set the existing arrangements of society on the faith of those axioms.

These are very good phrases, yet to me they just seem to describe the position the Professor himself takes up, and are worth just as much consideration as his sneer at the money bequest some one has left to [478] forward propagandism of the natural rights of man. Were there no foundations or bequests attached to the schools and colleges where the Professor was taught? Does he desire to monopolise bequests along with the land, for his own class?

The Professor objects to the doctrine of natural right being used as a fulcrum on which to rest the lever which is to change the basis of society. Well, then, let him show us a better one, for changed it must be.

The Professor says

There are rules of action the observance of which brings about prosperity, while their neglect entails ruin, which have nothing to do with the laws of morality or with the ordinances of religion; and the wicked who follow these rules will not beg their bread, while the pious who neglect them will.

This seems to me rather vague. Under which head, pious or wicked, does he classify dukes, earls, professors, ministers, lawyers, soldiers? These produce next to nothing, yet they are all well housed, clothed, and fed. These people seem to have got hold of the Professor's rules. Would he kindly show how these rules can be applied, so as to secure prosperity to the aged toilers when their employer rejects their services, or to the miserable waif whose only birthright is the gutter? It is very, easy for well-fed dukes and professors to philosophise over abstract principles regarding the limit of natural rights, &c.

But set them to apply their fine rules to work out their own social salvation on, say, 20s. per week of sixty or seventy hours' hard labour, and give them a wife and four or five children to provide for out of that magnificent income. Just give them five years of this life–as a very interesting experiment, you know–-and when they are in the thick of it, give them as an aid and encouragement this very lucid extract from the Professor's own paper:

How would the Duke of Argyll or Westminster, or even the Professor himself, look under such an ordeal? They would not become most interesting psychological studies at all. Oh no, not they.

May I never make another jam puff or sausage roll if I would not give a day's wage to see the swells as they listened to such an extract. They would at once perceive the beauty and utility of philosophy, and learning, and genius combined in one compact whole (multum in parvo ). What a solace it would be to them! Does the Professor remember a certain person named 'Foulon,' [479] who, in ridicule of the starving people of Paris, remarked that they might eat grass? Does he remember the fate of that man? Yet was it worse to utter 'let them eat grass' than to give vent to the above language in discussing a life and death matter? Does the Professor forget that he is speaking of his fellow-men–his brethren, but for whose labour the upper classes, as they are called, might starve of hunger and go naked?

There is no use of his telling us about Quesnay, Dupont de Nemours, or of going back 130 years; it is of now and the future we have to think. When we have succeeded in dealing with them, then we may take a look back. If the Professor was as hard pushed for a living as the majority of workers, he, like them, would have less time on his hands to nurse his pet scientific hobbies. Working men have to do their own thinking during overtime. Yet the result will compare favourably with the outcome of the thinking which Louis the Fifteenth had to get a genius to do for him. And a fine mess the pair of them made.

I have a difficulty in finding words wherewith to thank the Professor for his remarks regarding Dr. Watts, and for his delightfully graphic tigress story: it is so natural, and deserves imitation, which is said to be the highest form of praise.

A tigress carried off a villager, just as a cat does mouse; but she doesn’t quite kill him. The brute was seen to lay down the disabled captive before her cubs, who commenced mumbling and mauling to the best of their infantile ability, while the tender mother looked on complacently; but if the man driven desperate, succeeds for a moment in driving off his tormentors, a judiciously administered grip of her strong jaws, or a cuff from her heavy and sharp-clawed paw, at once reduces the victim to a state in which they can safely resume their worrying and scratching of him.      A capitalist seizes a fellow-creature and carries him to his sweater’s den, just as a cat does a mouse; but he does not kill him at once, because that wouldn’t pay. He puts him among many other victims, all of whom he by slow degrees, through over-work and starvation combined, reduces to complete skeletons, while with the outcome of their labour he and his idle offspring thrive and grow fat. But should any of the victims, driven to despair, attempt to resist his avaricious demands, he at once applies the iron rod of supply and demand, and reduces them to immediate subjection; or, should they attempt to recover any of the just reward of their labour which has been stolen from them, they are struck down and conveyed to prison, or perhaps to their graves.

[480] Yes, Professor, you and Dr. Watts in his immortal production

have succeeded, as you say, in putting the whole matter in a nutshell oh! so nicely to suit your purpose–but neither Dr. ‘pious' doggerel' (thank you for the words). nor your own verbose gyrations will pass unchallenged at this time of day. The ruling motto now is, Test all things, and hold fast to that which is good. So your tigress won’t pass; besides the analogy is defective. Tigers don't eat each other, nor do they, as far as I know, claim private property in each other; and, oh dear, you argue further, ‘It is the nature of the tiger to prey upon man. Tigers have a natural right to a man; consequently they have a right of property in all men,' and so it's all right. Men cannot have fewer rights than tigers and other animals, so we may eat each other if we can do so with impunity. I admire the Professor's outspokenness.

Socialists are often heard declaring that the upper ten are a set of wolves and devour their fellow-men. There must be something in it after all; muzzles may soon be in demand, or we may see something of this sort:–

Again, the Professor goes on

Quite so, Professor; that is just what the workers want–an equal renouncement of freedom of action all round for the good of the whole polity, and not, as at present, a yielding up by six-sevenths of the people of their freedom to the unrestrained selfish will of the other fraction. We are coming to an understanding, only working men have not usually so extensive a vocabulary with which to hide their meaning.

Then you ask–

[481] Let us look at this for a moment. Does it mean that a minority who have by hook or by crook got the power into their hands to oppress and rob their weaker neighbours (as in Ireland at present) are quite entitled to use bâtons, bayonets, bullets, and battering rams to keep the power to rob from slipping from their hands?

I say no, most emphatically No. Then what need workers care for invasion? Has their native land not been taken from them as it is? What have they to fight for? Let the thieves in possession fight the invaders; then the honest inhabitants may very possibly come to their own again. The nationalising of the land would give the masses something to fight or even die for, would make genuine patriots of them–at present they have to pay their fellow-worms for liberty even to bury their dead.

There is only one more delusion, ‘quo the Professor,' which is out of many worth my attention at present. That is the extraordinary notion that the logical consequence of the natural right of all men to any given thing is the sharing of the right of property in that thing equally among all claimants. Let us suppose two boys, John and Peter. I take an apple out of my pocket, and I say, ‘This apple is entirely yours, John,' and to Peter, ‘It is also entirely yours. Each of you have a right to it all.' Now common sense plus appetite would say, ‘Divide it;' but I say, ‘No, nor you must not fight for it, for if the conqueror took it there would be a breach of principle; so neither can get the apple.' Now what has this silly 'fudge' to do with the land question? There is no analogy. Apples are perishable and are renewed every year out of the land; but the land is limited and practically lasts for ever. We creatures spring from the earth, draw our subsistence from it; then after a brief span we return to it. We belong to the land in a greater degree than it belongs to us. It is permanent; we are only temporary; we cannot escape or separate ourselves from the land, and nature gives no man a better claim on the land than his neighbour. All such claims are man-made, and therefore temporary, himself, and no one can monopolise the land without depriving his fellow of his right to live and labour for himself as nature arranged.

Then again we are told ‘that a man has but a small right of property even in himself. Most of him belongs to his mother;' and I presume by the same line or method of reasoning be and his mother belong to his mother's mother and to her mother's mother, if such a person could possibly be alive. ‘Fudge' again! Any little spark of logic in all this stuff goes for nationalisation, as does also the next statement, which is that man belongs to the State. Of course he does, along with the land; but the State must be understood to mean the whole nation, not a few privileged monopolists.

[482] Again, ‘man cannot make flints, iron, or coal.' Of course not, for there they are all ready-made; but let us look at this.

A man takes up a piece of flint and throws it at a pigeon and knocks it down; another man picks up the flint and does the very same thing, and a third also follows suit: three men get a pigeon each through using one stone, and the stone might be so used for generations–and generations, nature sending a fresh supply of men and pigeons, they being perishable. But one of the men claims property in the flint, and only allows the others to throw it on condition that they give him two out of every three pigeons they knock down. Here you have an illustration of the origin of land monopoly. Observe the monopolist, or rather the grabber, does not even require to throw the stone, yet gets fourfold return. That may suit him very well but it is against nature, who gave no one a prior or better claim than another, and even possession (which is said to be nine parts of the law of man) ceases at death.

Shakespeare makes one of his characters compare the empire to the human body, with its various parts working for the common good, to show how silly it is for inferior persons to complain against their superiors. This is a very popular illustration with the aristocrats, and many of them think or pretend to think (perhaps by a priori methods) it final and complete, forgetting that the belly, the only part they can be said to represent, does for the being about the hardest work of all, while they do nothing but absorb substance, for no practical end so far as the common weal is concerned–nay, they cause many useful members to be starved and so disabled. .

Again, a beehive is used to show that drones are allowable, but drones are essential to the continuance of the race of bees, and as soon as they have fulfilled their mission they are killed off; and did anyone ever hear of a few of the bees claiming proprietary rights in all the flowers, and without gathering any honey themselves compelling those bees who did gather honey to pay them tribute for permission to gather honey from the flowers? Suppose we took a lesson from the bees and killed off all the useless drones? I rather think it would put an end to emigration and knock the Malthusian theory out of shape.

With regard to the hasty Englishman who stole the man's watch at Rome, well, we have too many of his kind, but not among the working classes: they don’t steal; they earn.

As for the lamentable twaddle about the 550,000,000 of China men and Hindoostanees, by the time they understand land nationalisation sufficiently well to think of coming over here, they will have sense enough to apply the principle at home.

In conclusion I must give expression to my belief that Professor [483] Huxley has got out of his groove in taking up politics, which can neither be measured, nor weighed, nor boxed in at any particular time and made an end of. Political principles are growths moulded by their environments, ever changing and advancing as men's minds change and advance towards a knowledge of the truth. For man and politics there is no stopping by the way; ever onward and upward, in spite of all that Professor Huxley, who seems to have fallen heir to Mrs. Partington's broom, will be able to do to prevent it.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University