JOE PEARCE REVIEWS HILAIRE BELLOC BY A.N. WILSON
FOR YEARS I have been fascinated and influenced profoundly by the writings of the Edwardian radical, Hilaire Belloc. In fact, to be specific, my interest in him dates back to the beginning of the 1980s when Andrew Brons, who was then the NF's Chairman, introduced me to Belloc's masterly Essay On The Restoration Of Property. Since then, my almost idolatrous admiration for the man who outlined Distributism so forcefully in that essay has never waned.
Hilaire Belloc portrait by Emil Otto Hoppé, vintage bromide print, 1915
Bearing in mind this admiration for Belloc, one will scarcely be surprised at the pleasure I derived from receiving A.N. Wilson's biography of Hilaire Belloc as a Christmas present. Indeed, this pleasure was heightened by the fact that I had coveted this particular biography enviously ever since I'd read reviews of it in several Sunday papers.
This, together with the fact that A.N. Wilson is one of the few modem authors for whom I have any respect, caused me to open the book and digest its contents hungrily. I was not to be disappointed because, as Christopher Booker so correctly observed in his review of the book in the Sunday Telegraph, it is "one of those outstanding biographies which have the deeper and wider resonance of a novel ... a model biography and a marvellous book."
In fact, one gets the distinct impression that A.N. Wilson has taken as much care in presenting the character of Belloc in this biography as he takes in the presentation of the characters in his novels. As such, Belloc comes to life as you leaf through the pages allowing the reader new and exciting insights into what made this larger-than-life literary figure tick.
Thus we learn that the devastation of the Belloc family home near Paris by Prussian troops during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 left an indelible stain on Belloc's character, causing him to dislike and distrust "the Prussian influence" for the rest of his life. This fact was certainly an eye-opener to me since I had always been baffled by the blatantly biased and negative attitude towards Germany which runs through many of Belloc's books.
Another facet of Belloc's persona brought out brilliantly by the biographer is his impulsiveness: "From the beginning of his journalistic career, Belloc manifested... an extraordinary inability to settle down to any kind of office routine without leaving, capriciously, for sorties in France." This impulsiveness may, at first sight, appear to bracket Belloc with the idle rich who have the time and money to saunter off at whim to foreign parts. Such an impression scarcely does him justice. He was in fact never idle and never rich. On the contrary, he was often over-worked and poor, with the latter state necessitating the former one.
A truer impression of the genuinely romantic nature of Belloc's impulsiveness, can be gauged by what he termed his 'bloody ramble' across America in the 1890s:
"He made his way first down to Philadelphia to stay with his cousins the Priestleys... The journey from east to west was enormous and expensive. Belloc's funds had almost run out when he set out for California. He made a little by gambling in saloons along his way, down the Ohio river to Cincinnati. But that method of raising cash soon ensured that Belloc became penniless. From then on, he had only his wits, and his hand and his eye, to get him the next meal, as he set out to tramp his way across the United States of America.
Much of the journey had to be accomplished on foot for lack of a railway ticket along the Denver and Rio Grande, through the deserts and threading odd and deep canyons by way of the railway embankment, seeing trains go by with people in them and sleeping out and trudging on next morning and marvelling at the rocks and the new sights and sleeping in unexpected houses and so on."
The romantic picture conjured up of a solitary Englishmen trudging across the deserts and canyons of the 'wild west' in the 1890s, sketching pictures to make money and then gambling in saloons to lose it again, is the type of adventure which western films or fiction are made of.
Yet, truth is stranger than fiction and in Belloc's case it is even more so when one realises that his 'bloody ramble' was no aimless amble but had from the start a definite and noble purpose. His goal was San Francisco where Elodie Hogan, the woman he had met in London nearly a year earlier and had fallen in love with, lived with her parents. Later, he was to marry her and she would return to live with him in Sussex.
Thus it is that A.N. Wilson paints a vivid picture of Belloc the Romantic. Nonetheless, it is to Belloc the Radical that our attention, as Nationalists, must turn.
Belloc's first sortie into politics was inspired by the London Dockers Strike in the autumn of 1889. As an idealistic nineteen-year-old, he was impressed by the socialism of the strike leaders and their supporters. Writing of this strike in The Cruise Of The Nona many years later Belloc observed that "it was before the socialist creed had been captured for the sham battle at Westminster. The leaders did desire and did think they could achieve an England in which the poor should be poor no longer."
Paradoxically, London's dockers were finally destroyed, years later, by free trade, the very same force which made them so powerful in 1889. With the demise of the docks there disappeared a special breed of the British working class which was free and independent from, and alienated by, the marxist model of an internationalist working class comprising a proletariat divorced from racial roots and national identity. Indeed, it is no coincidence that London's dockers marched on Parliament in 1968 in support of Enoch Powell's stand on immigration.
Nonetheless, although Belloc remained a radical he did not, like many of his contemporaries, become a Fabian-style socialist. The reason for this stems from the publication in 1891 of the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum. This encyclical castigated the evils of capitalism quite categorically. It assailed "the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition." It exposed the manifest injustice of "a small number of very rich men" being "able to lay upon the masses of the poor a yoke little better than slavery itself."
However, Rerum Novarum is quite as fiercely anti-socialist as it is anti-capitalist. The basis of society was, it insisted, the family: and the encyclical views "the stable and permanent possession" of property as the essential ingredient of human freedom.
The danger of capitalist society was not, as socialists supposed, that of ownership. It was that too few people owned too much. Socialism sought to deprive individuals of the power of ownership by absorbing all property into the arms of the State. Rerum Novarum sought, rather, a fairer distribution of property, a society in which no one was too poor to own their own home and their own little bit of land.
Above all, this encyclical laid the foundations for the political and social ideology which were at the root of Belloc's political thought for the rest of his life; an ideology which he was later to label with the name Distributism.
Belloc went to Oxford in January 1893 and it was in the Oxford Union, that nursery of famous politicians and statesmen, that he first entered the political arena. He made his maiden speech there in his first term. From the first, Belloc stood out as one of the most remarkable speakers that the Oxford Union had ever known.
Frequent references in the undergraduate magazine Isis pay tribute to Belloc's forceful eloquence: "A consistent view of almost every subject, based on intelligent and broad principles; an elaboration of forcible and easily comprehended argument; an appropriateness of phraseology adorned by an appositeness of analogy and delivered with an irresistible vehemence of utterance - each of these Mr Belloc has in greater abundance than any other member of the Society."
Belloc's oratorical prowess meant that his reputation in the Union went from strength to strength. At the end of 1894 he was elected its President.
From the earliest days Belloc was a controversial figure, and A.N. Wilson reports that he "discoursed of the Jewish Peril... with indescribable gusto and vehemence". His biographer acknowledges that these views are generally considered "unattractive" nowadays. However, Belloc's views are placed in perspective by a comparison with similar attitudes at the time which made Belloc's discourses on the Jewish question seem positively tame and timid.
For example, Raymond Asquith (son of H.H. Asquith, the future Prime Minister) was acknowledged as one of the most brilliant of a whole generation of undergraduates coming up to the University during the 1890s. Commenting on the failure of his friends to get Fellowships, Asquith concluded that "there is no fighting the Jews; they ought to institute some form of Varsity competition for which the prize would be a slice of York ham... then perhaps we poor Gentiles should have a chance..."
"these extracts from Raymond Asquith's letters" writes A.N. Wilson on page 82, "to make the point that Belloc was not alone either in his failure to get a Fellowship at All Souls' or in his fondness for strong talk about the Jews."
The controversial nature of Belloc's beliefs surfaced again at the turn of the twentieth century when he emerged as an outspoken and resolute opponent of the Boer War. His views, on the whole, were unpopular. Fabian socialists like Wells and Shaw were in favour of the war, forming a strange and unholy alliance with their erstwhile opponents on the reactionary right.
Belloc, however, saw the war as a blatant attack by commercial imperialism on small private landowners. As such, he supported the small Boer farmers against the Imperial aggressors.
The war was being fought, as he never tired of saying, in order to preserve the commercial interests of international speculators and investors in the mines of the Transvaal. The essence of the Pro-Boer argument was that the Boers had farmed the land in South Africa and husbanded it. Consequently, they should be allowed their autonomy rather than be forced, or bought, out by financial speculators from Europe.
Belloc, never one to beat about the bush, pointed out that a high proportion of those 'Europeans' who stood to gain by mining the gold and the diamonds in Boer farming country happened to be Jews. Belloc's preoccupation with politics at this time, in the view of A.N. Wilson, led to the devaluation, of his considerable literary achievements:
"Had he chosen to devote himself wholly to letters during that decade, his reputation would, perhaps, be more solid today. For there can be no question at all that Belloc was one of the finest prose-writers of the century; one of the most distinctive minor poets and the most accomplished practitioners of 'light' or 'comic' verse.
He is out of fashion, out of print, in most cases out of mind, not because of the quality of his literary output, but, very largely, because of the nature of his political and religious beliefs ... Being in the right is not infrequently the unforgivable sin in politics... At no stage did he have any noticeable sympathy with parliamentary institutions. This angered people.
He also regarded the 'party system' as humbug, and said so. He saw increasingly little difference between the Front Benches of the Conservative and Liberal Parties; and he said so. As for the House of Lords, he was a keen abolitionist, not slow to point out the elevation to peerages of those who had made generous donations to party funds".
This appraisal of Belloc's literary genius is a fitting tribute, not least because it comes from one of today's finest novelists. However, it is to Belloc the Radical rather than Belloc the Writer to which Britain must turn in her hour of need. His lucid analysis of the political problems confronting our Nation are even more relevant today than they were when they were written in the first quarter of the century.
In books like The Servile State, The Restoration Of Property, The Jews, The Party System and Usury he demolished the prevailing economic and social myths which are still believed religiously to this day.
To these who believe in the religions of capitalism and socialism Belloc is viewed as a heretic. As such, his books are ignored and largely out of print. For this reason A. N. Wilson's biography of Belloc serves as an invaluable introduction to this Radical Romantic.