CHAPTER 7: IN PRAISE OF POLITICS
And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.
-- St. Paul
In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.
-- From W. H. Auden, In Memory of W. B. Yeats
Politics deserves much praise. Politics is a preoccupation of free men, and its existence is a test of freedom. The praise of free men is worth having, for it is the only praise which is free from either servility or condescension. Politics deserves praising as — in Aristotle's words — 'the master-science', not excusing as a necessary evil ; for it is the only 'science' or social activity which aims at the good of all other 'sciences' or activities, destroying none, cultivating all, so far as they themselves allow. Politics, then, is civilising. It rescues mankind from the morbid dilemmas in which the state is always seen as a ship threatened by a hostile environment of cruel seas, and enables us, instead, to see the state as a city settled on the firm and fertile ground of mother earth. It can offer us no guarantees against storms encroaching from the sea, but it can offer us something worth defending in times of emergency and amid threats of disaster.
Politics is conservative — it preserves the minimum benefits of established order; politics is liberal — it is compounded of particular liberties and it requires tolerance ; politics is socialist — it provides conditions for deliberate social change by which groups can come to feel that they have an equitable stake in the prosperity and survival of the community. The stress will vary with time, place, circumstance and even with the moods of men ; but all of these elements must be present in some part. Out of their dialogue, progress is possible. Politics does not just hold the fort ; it creates a thriving and polyglot community outside the castle walls.
Politics, then, is a way of ruling in divided societies without undue violence. This is to assert, historically, that there are some societies at least which contain a variety of different interests and differing moral viewpoints; and to assert, ethically, that conciliation is at least to be preferred to coercion among normal people. But let us claim more than this minimum ground. Most technologically advanced societies are divided societies, are pluralistic and not monolithic; and that peaceful rule is intrinsically better than violent rule, that political ethics are not some inferior type of ethical activity, but are a level of ethical life fully self-contained, fully justifiable. Politics is not just a necessary evil ; it is a realistic good.
Political activity is a type of moral activity ; it is free activity, and it is inventive, flexible, enjoyable and human; it can create some sense of community and yet it is not, for instance, a slave to nationalism; it does not claim to settle every problem or to make every sad heart glad, but it can help some way in nearly everything and, where it is strong, it can prevent the vast cruelties and deceits of ideological rule. If its actual methods are often rough and imperfect, the result is always preferable to autocratic or to totalitarian rule — granted one thing alone, that sufficient order is created or preserved by politics for the state to survive at all. Praise, in politics as in love, beyond the early days of idealisation, can only hearten if it paints a picture plausible enough to be lived with. It must be asked, when is politics possible at all? It is possible when there are advanced or complicated societies, societies with some diversity of technical skills and which are not dependent for their prosperity or survival on a single skill, a single crop, or a single resource. Not all societies (or people) are in this position. Some primitive societies may be so near the margin of survival, so dependent on constant toil and on the precarious success of harvests or trade in a single commodity, that they never amass any capital, hence no leisure, no margin for tolerance, and hence no possibility of political culture. Diversity of interests, which creates a speculative recognition of alternatives, may simply not exist, or if so, be a luxury endangering sheer physical survival. Advanced states in times of war or emergency revert to this condition ; if everything depends on the military, then everything is subordinated to military considerations. But, of course, a people who have known politics will be more reluctant to accept this condition on trust; they will take some chances with survival in order to preserve liberty.
Diversity of resources and interests is itself an education. Men living in such societies must appreciate, to some degree, alternative courses of action — even if just as speculative possibilities. There is then not just a technique of doing some one thing, but an abstract knowledge of how other things are done. Some division of labour exists and this, of itself, creates attempts at seeing their relationships : abstract knowledge. The Greek polls was perhaps the first circumstance in which a division of labour went together with a division of interests (or speculative alternatives) to a sufficient degree to make politics a plausible response to the problem of ruling such a society. Politics is, as it were, an interaction between the mutual dependence of the whole and some sense of independence of the parts. Obviously the small size of these cities helped to make politics possible. The idea and the habit of politics stood little chance of administrative survival in an Empire as large as Rome, when so many parts of the Empire were entirely dependent on their immediate crops and on the military power of the centre. In an Empire politics must expand from the Mother City, or perish under the burden of the struggle for sheer survival and the habits of autocratic rule which it is forced to create in the true citizens. Part of the price of the Commonwealth's remaining a British Empire would almost certainly have been autocracy in Britain itself — as France came at least so near in the attempt to keep Algeria. And the Romans did not even have the fortunate necessity of having to negotiate politically with other independent powers — the quasi-politics of international relations.
Thus diversity of resources and interests is itself the education which is necessary for politics. There is no a priori level of education — even literacy or any such test — which can be laid down as necessary for politics. The level of education will be relative to the level of technological development. The unique modern problem arises when advanced, Western industrial technology is suddenly introduced into a hitherto colonial or underdeveloped area. Then there will almost inevitably be a time lag, at least, between a country's ability to handle these particular skills itself, and its ability to develop or recognise a speculative sense, even, of the alternative uses to which these skills and this capital can be put. The simultaneous introduction of Western ideas, including that of free politics itself, may help ; this is also a resource and a skill. But politics has to strive against an initial sense that the introduction of scientific and industrial technology is one unified and overwhelming good. Industrialism becomes at first a comprehensive slogan. The fact of new machines is confused with the doctrine of 'technology' : that technology solves everything and that all problems are technological. Perhaps only time can show that not merely are real choices of policy called for at every stage of industrialisation, but that new and real differences of interests are created.
Here is, of course, the great hope of many that freedom will grow even in the Soviet Union, even in China. The complexity of industrial society, it is argued, will force genuine negotiation first between the party and the managers, and then with the scientists and perhaps even the skilled workers. At least the managers and the scientists, it is argued, because of their function cannot be prevented from meeting together, from developing corporate interests divergent from those of the party and the party ideology. This is a reasonable hope, but it is only a hope. Certain conditions of the modern age work against it. There is the power of bureaucracy. One of the great conditions for, and achievements of, the process of state consolidation and centralisation in the whole modern period has been the growth of centralised, skilled bureaucracies. The idea of a rational bureaucracy, of skill, merit and consistency, is essential to all modern states. Like democracy, as we have seen, bureaucracy is a force that strengthens any state — political, autocratic and totalitarian alike. The bureaucracy, like the priesthood of Mediaeval Christendom, can become more than an intermediary between the scientists, the managers, the workers and the seat of power; it can become a conservative power on its own acting in the name of whoever controls the state at the time when these great changes begin. This ambivalent factor of bureaucracy, necessary to all states, strengthening free and unfree alike, has then to be seen in the context of a second obstacle to the hope that industrialisation by itself creates freedom.
There is also, as part of industrialisation, as we have been at sad pains to insist, a genuine revulsion from, hatred of and theoretical attack upon, politics. Politics itself is attacked for dividing communities, for being inefficient, for being inconclusive and — with a completely false but powerful idea of science — for being anti-scientific. Political thinking is replaced by ideological thinking. The force of abstract ideas is not to be ignored — though it is the academic fashion of today to do so. So if we ask when is political rule possible, we must also add — far from formally — that it is possible only when at least some powerful forces in a society want it and value it. And it follows that politics is not possible when most people do not want it. The element of will is not independent of circumstances, but it may often and has often weighed the scales one way or the other. Certainly, there is little doubt at the moment which of the two great fruits of Western civilisation — politics and technology — is in greater demand in the nonWestern world. If Western history demonstrates that they did emerge together, this is no guarantee that in their migration they will always be received together.
Skilled manpower is itself a crucial factor for the possibility of politics in underdeveloped areas. The demand on educational resources, on the very small skilled talent available at all, for scientists, doctors and engineers, may make the vocation of politics seem either an unjustifiable luxury, or else seem a refuge for not merely the second-rate, who anyway are the bulk of steady representative figures in free societies, but for the utterly third-rate. In this dilemma it is worth noticing that the lawyer often holds a key position. In Nigeria, for instance, and in most of the present and former British colonial dependencies, the profession of law is highly esteemed and sought after. It was almost the only avenue of social advance for the educated, and the most likely springboard for politics. The supply of lawyers is already greater than the demand, at the moment, for strictly legal work. This can mean that political values are kept alive — when politics becomes the arena of the talented underemployed. But, of course, it can also mean that if political opposition has been silenced out of principles or alleged necessity, the supply of skill for a despotic bureaucracy is ensured. Hope and fear spring, once again, from precisely the same factors.  The decision depends, once again — in large part at least, on a conscious affection for politics or disaffection from it.
Closely related to this decision is what some writers mean by praising 'political ethics' or 'constitutional ethics' as a condition of free societies : simply that people must agree to, or accept, the solution of social problems by political and legal means. Problems can always be attacked by autocratic means. There was a time, as we have seen, when liberals had a profound distrust of party and faction. James Madison argued in the great Tenth Paper of The Federalist (one of the masterpieces of political literature) that factions were, indeed, selfish and divisive. But he argued that they were inevitable (he said 'natural') and could be eliminated (which they could be) only at the cost of eliminating liberty; they could and should be restrained, but not destroyed. Indeed, as the state has grown larger and more complex, we go beyond this and say that such organised factions — better still, parties as things which are capable of forming responsible governments — are essential to free politics in the modern state. They should pursue their 'selfish' ends, for they are devices, whatever their doctrines or lack of doctrine, by which an electorate may hold a government responsible for its actions; and they are gauges by which a government may learn what it can safely and properly do. But they must be forced to pursue their aims in a way which does not endanger public order and their aims should be limited, if they are to be worthy of support by free men, to things which can be done without destroying politics. However convinced men are of the Tightness of their party, they must compromise its claims to the needs of some electoral and legal framework, at least so far that the only way of removing it from power does not have to become revolution. Political compromises are the price that has to be paid for liberty. Let us not delude ourselves that we are not paying a price; but let us summon reasons to think that it is normally worth paying.
Political power is power in the subjunctive mood. Policy must be like a hypothesis in science. Its advocates will commit themselves to its truth, but only in a manner in which they can conceive of and accept its possible refutation. Politics, like science, must be praised for being open-minded, both inventive and sceptical. One is not acting politically if one pursues as part of a policy devices intended to ensure for certain that it can never be overthrown. This condition embraces both the wellmeaning but futile attempts of constitution makers to put something permanently above politics (though it may be part of politics to make the gesture), and the autocratic attempt to forbid or destroy opposition. The true activity of scientists, not the myth of 'scientism', should give some comfort — if only by analogy — to politicians. When anything is deemed to be fixedly true by virtue of the authority who pronounces it, this thing can be neither politics nor science. Everything has to be put to the test of experience — though some men are better at framing hypotheses or policies than others. If all boats are burnt, if assertions are made categorically, as in a totalitarian party, then the pace of the advance can only be intensified and made desperate. Politics is to be praised, like science, for always retaining a line of retreat.
For independent positions in society to survive there must be some institutional framework. And this framework can be thought of as guaranteeing these independencies. There is a long tradition of Western political thought which sees the essence of freedom as the cultivation of constitutional guarantees. The laws or customs which define the framework of government and representation must be put on some different footing to ordinary customs or acts of legislation. There must be, it is said, some fundamental law, something entrenched against the momentary caprice of government or electorate — something at least made more difficult to change than ordinary laws. Some writers, then, properly aware of the difficulties and dangers of calling free regimes 'democratic', call them 'constitutional-democracies' and speak of 'constitutionalism' as the key to free politics. This view deserves praise — but a qualified praise.
Let us simply realise that this is desirable but impossible to ensure. Some political societies survive without such a strengthening of their foundations. Constitutionalism is itself a doctrine of politics. Like any doctrine of politics it says that something is the case and that something should be. It says that political government is limited government : that governments cannot do everything we or they may want. This is true. But it also says that we should guarantee that they should not try — and this is impossible. There are no guarantees in politics. Guarantees may have to be offered as part of politics. But while guarantees stop short of giving independence to a former sub-group or dependency, they remain themselves things subject to change, negotiation, and, even in the most rigid-seeming written Constitution, interpretation. Constitutionalism is vitally important to politics. It is one of the great themes of Western thought and a fruitful concept in that it leads us always to see abstract ideas as needing institutional expression, and to see existing institutions as existing for some purpose. But the praise of politics as constitutionalism needs to be realistic; it needs to be seen that it is the belief itself in fundamental or constitutional law which gives this law force. No law can survive the withering of the belief. No law can survive the growth of new needs and demands ; if the fundamental law is not in fact flexible, it can hinder more than help free politics. Constitutions are themselves political devices. They may be viewed as self-sufficient truths in the short run ; but in the long run it is political activity itself which gives — and changes — the meaning of any constitution. When we praise a constitution we are doing no more than praise a particular abridgement of a particular politics at a particular time. If the abridgement was a skilful one and circumstances are kind, it may last into a long middle period and help to give stability to a state. But, in the long run, though the words are the same and formal amendments to it may be few, the meaning of it will be different. Even the old Anglo-American Whigs, the arch-constitution-makers, used to say that no constitution was better than the character of the men who work it.
Certainly, at any given time a settled legal order is necessary for freedom and politics. Law is necessary in any society at all complex and people should be able to find out what it is fairly precisely and to use it fairly cheaply. (Litigation, not politics, is the necessary evil of free states.) The autocrat was, indeed, an arbitrary ruler — making laws without any process of consultation or litigation. And the totalitarian leader thinks of law as policy: people are judged not for specific breaches of the law, but for not living up to the general ideals of the regime. Certainly politics should be praised in procedures. Since the business of politics is the conciliation of differing interests, justice must not merely be done, but be seen to be done. This is what many mean by the phrase 'the rule of law'. The framework for conciliation will be a complexity of procedures, frustrating to both parties, but ensuring that decisions are not made until all significant objections and grievances have been heard. Procedure is not an end in itself. It enables something to be done, but only after the strength behind the objections has been assessed. Procedures help to stop both governments and litigants from making claims which they cannot enforce. Procedures, legal or Parliamentary, if given some temporary independent power themselves, tiresome, obstructive, and pettifogging though they may be, at least force great acts of innovation to explain themselves publicly, at least leave doors open for their amendment if the government has misjudged the power of the forces opposed to it. More praise, then, for politics as procedure than for politics as constitutional law, since, while there is no doubt that procedures are necessary for politics, there is also no doubt that every particular procedure is limited to time and place. Mr. Justice Frankfurter once asked the interesting question whether one would rather have American substantive law and Russian procedures or Russian substantive law and American procedures. Every good essay should be pardoned one enigma.
Some common views about constitutions are more helpful if restated in political terms. Some claims for necessary legal elements in political order need seeing, by just a shift of perspective, as themselves parts of political order, or as possible but not exclusive, types of political order. Consider the view that free government depends upon legally instituted checks and balances and the division of powers. People at times have felt extremely certain about this.
Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Ninth Paper of The Federalist :
The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments ; the introduction of legislative balances and checks ; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behaviour ; the representation of the people in the legislative by deputies of their own election : these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.
But these are not principles. They are already the summary of an existing political practice in which power was divided, indeed to an extraordinary degree ; and in which legislative checks and balances already existed in most of the separate Colonial or Provincial Assemblies as the procedural products of a long struggle between the Royal Governors and the Assemblies, indeed between factions in the Assemblies themselves. The American Federal Constitution was an invention intended to summarise and synthesise an existing division of powers into a Federal Union which had itself only the minimum power necessary to ensure common survival. (Federalism has been a practical response to divided power more than a way of dividing it as a matter of principle.) And in America these divisions had been astonishingly political in nature. They were predominantly the separate interest of thirteen existing fully political units. Only through these political units could 'national' and sectional economic and social differences express themselves.
This is not to say, however else our praise would be faint and local, that Hamilton's principles (even if not strict principles) had relevance only to American Colonial conditions. As we have argued, there already exist in certain advanced societies divisions of power, group interests with independent strength from the state itself — independent at least in the sense that the central state is not willing to risk destroying them, but is conscious that it must conciliate them. It is these divisions which make the Constitution necessary ; they are not created by it. The constitutional principle of the division of powers only affirms the reasons for which politics arises at all, and attempts to make them secure amid the need for strong government to maintain both internal and external safety. The constitutional principle of checks and balances only affirms the need for organised participants in politics to remember that their will is not the only will. Even when this will does seem to be in fact the only will, typically in the first generation of some colonial liberation, it affirms the need for this unified majority to set obstacles against itself developing illusions of infallibility and permanence. In the constitutions of many of the American states there was, indeed, the praiseworthy spectacle of a unified majority willing to bind itself against itself. The binding can never be permanent, but it can set up sufficient obstacles for second thoughts to follow any initial impetus for great innovations.
So the relativity to time and place of all constitution making does not mean that we are driven back merely to the maintenance of order as the only clear criterion of good government. Mere order is not enough to satisfy men as they are. Politics will fail if it cannot maintain order, as at the end of the French Fourth Republic ; but it is a counsel of despair to think that all that can be hoped for is public order and 'merciful and just rulers'. We live in a democratic age whether we like it or not. And if none of the devices for limiting power and for subjecting governments to control, even when they extend their control of the economy vastly, are permanent or sure, yet we have learned more about such devices, even about constitution making, than the tired or despairing conservative will usually allow. Politics, again we insist, is a lively, inventive thing as well as being conservative. We can use it for good and deliberate ends.
Politics should be praised for doing what it can do, but also praised for not attempting what it cannot do. Politics can provide the conditions under which many non-political activities may flourish, but it cannot guarantee that they will then flourish. 'One cannot make men good', said Walter Bagehot, 'by Act of Parliament.' No state has the capacity to ensure that men are happy; but all states have the capacity to ensure that men are unhappy. The attempts to politicise everything is the destruction of politics. When everything is seen as relevant to politics, then politics has in fact become totalitarian. The totalitarian may try to turn all art to propaganda, but he cannot then guarantee that there will be art as distinct from propaganda — indeed by his concern to destroy or enslave the abstract speculation of the philosopher or the creativity of the artist, activities apparently quite irrelevant to mere political power, he demonstrates that these irrelevancies are necessary to free life and free society. The totalitarian, like the autocrat, may try to make use of religion until he is powerful enough to destroy it, but he is driven to degrade men in order to try to prove that there is no soul which need not fear the body's harm. To ensure that there be politics at all, there must be some things at least which are irrelevant to politics. One of the great irrelevancies to the total-politician is simply human love:
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
— the poet rightly asks. The girl, of course, may happen to be involved in politics — Yeats had his Maud Gonne and Zhivago his Larissa — but the value of the involvement between the poet and the girl is not political. Yeats called this poem 'Politics' and headed it with a remark of Thomas Mann's: 'In our time the destiny of man presents itself in political terms.' Would Mann, one wonders, have disagreed with this splendidly contemptuous criticism, or would Yeats have made it, were either sure that the other was using politics in the narrow sense which we have striven to show is its best sense, and not as standing for all forms of power and authority? If man has a destiny, politics is obviously incompetent to legislate about it ; but it can keep him alive and free to seek it. If artistic activity is an end in itself, then it is the denial of politics to start laying down laws about art. No wonder poets and writers have constantly explored the theme of the clash between political values and art and love. The independence of art and love, it is some comfort to think, are not merely the sure signs of a free society, but have a deep influence in making men think freedom worth while amid the temptations there are to surrender ourselves to the sense of certainty offered by an ideology. Politics does not need to defend itself against the anarchy and irresponsibility of the artist and the lover ; it does not need even to claim that it is necessary for everyone to be involved in and to support politics. (It can withstand a lot of apathy; indeed when the normally apathetic person suddenly becomes greatly interested in political questions, it is often a sign of danger.) But if the politician, too, has a little proper pride in his vocation, he can at least ask such critics whether they are not sometimes confusing state power in general with political rule in particular, or, more subtly, are not accusing political regimes of being purely democratic — democracy, again, as the belief that because men are equal in some things, they are equal in all. It is this belief against which the very existence of the philosopher, the artist and the lover is a unique testimony.
Even in true politics, however, there is no guarantee that there will not, in some unhappy circumstances, be a clash between the public interest and private conscience. Indeed the paradigm-case of political philosophy, the point at which this new thing began, was Plato's picture of the trial of Socrates as just such an event. Plato, of course, leaves us in no doubt that love of wisdom — philo-sophia — should be put before love of country ; and he was condemning a particular democratic regime. But — the mark of the great artist — he could not help but give us enough of the other side of the case to show that Socrates really could be thought a danger to the state, by corrupting the most able youth of the city with a technique of self-doubt at a time when the city was struggling in war for very survival, and needed every ounce of military ability and civic patriotism available. Certainly Plato's Socrates himself saw no way out of the dilemma but death. He could not promise, as an inspired philosopher, to hold his tongue for the duration of the hostilities. Nothing can guarantee us against genuine tragedy— that moral virtues can lead to disaster in certain circumstances — except belief in an ideology which abolishes tragedy by making every sacrifice a pragmatic calculation towards gaining future benefits for the collective cause.
One of the great disappointments of modern liberalism, made possible by democracy, was the need and the ability to introduce military conscription, first in time of war, and then even in times of the mere threat of war. Conscription taught liberals a sad lesson in the primacy of survival over personal liberties. But how great and praiseworthy was the fact that even in the Second World War, even in genuinely total war, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent the United States, solemnly made provision for conscientious objection to military service. Let one be as critical of the bizarre concept of 'conscience' which arose in the tribunals as one likes. Let one be as Machiavellian as one can and call it a mere gesture, something which would never have been tolerated if the numbers involved, or the example, had proved in the least bit a hindrance to the war effort. But the gesture was a gesture towards the kind of life which a political regime thought it was trying to preserve. If someone's sense of self-identity was so deeply bound up with feeling it impossible to kill a fellow human being, then that sense of self-identity had to be respected. Perhaps pacifism as a social force did not matter very much. And a pacifist was just as useful — as some of them sadly realised — replacing an agricultural labourer for service in the infantry as he would have been serving himself — probably more so. But it is the mark of political regimes that they do not, as ideological regimes do, condemn even ineffective opposition out of sheer arrogant principle. It is the mark of freedom that, even if ideas may have to be prevented from achieving institutional and powerful form, the ideas themselves are not forbidden and hunted down. We cannot always get what we want, but if we lose the ability to think of wanting other things beside what we are given, then the game is lost for ever.
Political activity is important not because there are no absolute ideals or things worth doing for themselves, but because, in ordinary human judgement, there are many of these things. Political morality does not contradict any belief in ideal conduct; it merely sets a stage on which people can, if they wish, argue such truths without degrading those truths into instruments of governmental coercion. If the truth 'will set you free' and if the service of some ideal is held to be 'perfect freedom', let this be so, so long as the advocates are prevented from involving others in the fraudulent freedom of coerced obedience. The view that the belief in absolute ideals (or what Professor K. R. Popper has called 'essentialism') is in itself dangerous to political freedom, is itself intolerant, not a humanistic view of society, but a gelded view, something so over-civilised and logically dogmatic as to deprive many of any feeling that anything, let alone free institutions, is worth while. Freedom and liberty are not ends in themselves, neither as methods nor as substitute moralities; they are part of politics and politics is simply not concerned, as politics, with absolute ends. It need neither affirm nor deny. And when sceptics or true believers are in fact acting politically, it should teach us to take with a grain of salt the 'purely practical' or 'the purely ideal' construction which they put on their own involvement. Political morality is simply that level of moral life (if there are other levels) which pursues a logic of consequences in the world as it is. To act morally in politics is to consider the results of one's actions.
Lincoln once set out to define the position of the new Republican Party on the slavery question. He said (in a speech of October 15th, 1858):
The real issue in this controversy — the one pressing upon every mind — is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. . . . The Republican Party . . . look upon it as being a moral, social and political wrong, and while they contemplate it as such, they nevertheless have due regard for its actual existence among us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the constitutional obligations thrown about it. ... I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced, and ought not to be with us. And if there be a man amongst us who is so impatient of it as a wrong as to disregard its actual presence among us and the difficulty of getting rid of it suddenly in a satisfactory way, and to disregard the constitutional obligations thrown about it, that man is misplaced if he is on our platform. We disclaim sympathy with him in practical action. '
This is true political morality — indeed political greatness. If anyone is not willing to walk this kind of path he might be happier to realise that he has in fact abandoned politics. He may abandon them for the lead of the benevolent autocrat who will promise the end of slavery tomorrow, or he may simply do nothing because he is not willing to muddy his conscience with such 'terrible compromises' or equivocation. As regards the greatness of a man who can sharpen the issue so clearly, I admit that there is always an alternative interpretation of such words — hypocrisy. Someone may just be offering excuses for not doing something which he does not believe in anyway. This is a matter of judgement — and perhaps the motive does not matter if the right public actions follow, except to the man's own soul and to his biographer. 'Hypocrisy', said Swift, 'is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.' What matters in politics is what men actually do — 'sincerity' is no excuse for acting unpolitically, and insincerity may be channelled by politics into good results. Even hypocrisy, to a very, very small degree, keeps alive something of the idea of virtue. Certainly on an issue such as slavery, some people must keep a pure moral vision alive, but such visions, perhaps held only by 'saints', fanatics, reformers, intellectuals, will be partially fulfilled only when there is an attempt to realise them in terms of public policy. There is little doubt in Lincoln's case that he did truly believe that slavery was a 'moral, social and political wrong'. But it is rare good fortune for the leader of a state himself to combine absolute ethics and the ethics of responsibility. And these are things only to be reconciled through time.
The politician must always ask for time. The hypocrite and the enemy of reform uses time as an excuse for inaction — literally the 'time-server' or the slave to time: he whose vision is entirely limited to the immediate. But 'eternity', said the poet Blake, 'is in love with the products of time'. 'Eternal values' cannot be treated as immediate values; but time in itself is nothing but a tedious incident on the way to death unless in it and through it we strive to achieve — what the Greeks looked for in the public life — 'immortal actions', ever memorable reforms, monuments to the belief that civilisation can advance. In 1955 the United States Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in all American schools supported by public funds was unconstitutional. It enjoined the responsible authorities to integrate, not immediately — which would have been impossible, without the use of force incredible to imagine in a free society— but with 'deliberate speed'. This was an act not merely of great moral (and presumably legal) significance, but of political wisdom. The law is now known. That is as far as a Court or a moralist can go. But it will be an act of political cowardice if the Federal executive cannot now constantly nudge the unreconstructed time-servers to implement the law. Time by itself solves nothing ; but time is needed to attempt anything politically.
Now let us continue to praise Lincoln as a great politician on even harder grounds, which may scare away still more fairweather friends of politics — or men who would do good if it did not mean walking, like Bunyan's Pilgrim, through both Vanity Fair and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. In the middle of the hardest time of the American Civil War, Horace Greeley, a militant abolitionist, challenged Lincoln to commit himself to immediate emancipation as a matter of principle. Lincoln replied :
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it ; and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it ; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union ... I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free.
Lincoln put preservation of the Union — the political order itself — above everything else, not because he did not care for Negro suffering and exclusion; he did — but because only if there was a Union again, a common political order again between North and South, could any of these problems be tackled. Suppose I will risk the case of politics on even more unhappy grounds than Lincoln actually had to face — that a man in his position could have felt confident of winning the war and preserving the Union only by promising not to use his emergency powers as Commander-in-Chief to emancipate the slaves. Would this have been justified? I think the hard answer is obviously — yes. The first responsibility of a leader is to preserve the state for the benefit of those to follow. Suppose such a leader had privately believed that after his making such a promise the legislature would, immediately after the war, overrule him. This is no deceit ; he could not have been held responsible for their actions — or if so, it would have been an agony for the private conscience faced with the primacy of public responsibility. Suppose even the darkest situation of all, that he had privately believed that once his promise was made and once his war-time powers were gone, the legislature would not emancipate the slaves. The personal agony of such a position as this cannot be evaded, and it would be hard to blame a man who would abandon politics in such a situation in the sense of resigning from office. But even then such a man as Lincoln would-probably not have abandoned power, for the true political statesman knows that while there is political power at all, while there is a representative assembly, nothing is really certain, no single aspect of policy is not negotiable somehow, realisable in however small a part in the flexibility and management of a free assembly.
The example of Lincoln is not too bad a one on which to rest this case for politics — however much pietistic myths have obscured the grosser human tale of political action. He offended beyond reason many responsible men of his day by rarely being willing to talk seriously in private, by his infuriating retreats into badinage and the telling of old jokes. His dignity was a very variable quality. He seems to have been an indifferent administrator, disorderly, inconsistent and even slothful; his relations with Congress were often inept and usually bad. But, for all that, he is as great an example of a mere politician as can be found. If this claim actually sounds more odd to American than to English ears, it is because American-English, or rather American liberalism, has debased the word 'politician'. True, he preserved the State as a statesman; but he sought to do it, even at the height of the emergency, politically. (It is not helpful to inflate, as is done in American vernacular, every small but honest politician into a 'statesman'). Lincoln, before his death, made it quite clear that he would oppose Congress if they sought to treat the South as a conquered territory without constitutional rights. The task, he said, was that of 'doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these States and the Union'; he scorned 'deciding, or even considering' whether these States had ever been out of the Union; he ironically suggested, almost parodying his own best style, that 'each for ever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it'. Politics, as we have seen, is indeed a matter of 'practical relations', not of deduction from higher principles.
Lincoln had little dignity, but he had enough authority and he did not have pride. Pride is an easy vice for any whose business must be in the public eye. But a true politician cannot afford it. The politician lives in a world of publicity, calumny, distortion, and insult. He is often looked down upon by polite society as being a mere 'fixer' and an 'opportunist' (though it is puzzling why this last word always has a bad meaning) ; and he is mocked by intellectuals for rarely having ideas of his own :
a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man
— which is the whole of an easy poem by Mr. E. E. Cummins. And, indeed, the politician, beneath his necessary flexibility, will rarely be a man of less than normal pliability and ambitions. He will provoke such cheap mockery from spectators. But he will not take these things to heart. The successful politician will learn how to swallow insults. The successful politician keeps in mind the English nursery proverb :
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me.
He does not store up memories of insults and nor does he, when in power, take opposition personally, making a matter of principle or of Use majeste of every ungenerous suspicion hurled upon him. A politician, like any of us, may not be above such pettiness; but he has no need for it, so he must not show it. The temptation is great, however. It is now an offence in Ghana's criminal code, punishable by up to three years in prison, to defame or insult President Nkrumah. This law is a sad monument to a man who showed such zest and ability for politics when in opposition himself. It is sad to think that this tender soul may not even have enjoyed such politics. Lincoln once remarked, with pragmatic humility: 'A man has not the time to spend half his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him'. He told one of his generals: T wish you to do nothing merely for revenge, but that what you may do shall be solely done with reference to the security of the future'. The politician has no more use for pride than Falstaff had for honour. And if when suddenly dismissed from favour, he then invokes pride and asks for employment and honour, he is just kicking against the terms of his trade which he, like any of us, had ample opportunity to study. Politics as a vocation is a most precarious thing, so we should not grudge the politician any of the incidental rewards he can pick up. But we must always beware that he does not grow bored or frustrated with 'mere politics' — that all this need for compromise stops him from doing what is obviously best for the nation. The price of politics is eternal involvement in politics ourselves.
The political leader, as we have seen, may have to take risks with liberty to preserve the nation. He may have to invoke 'sovereignty' and, at this point, the leader who cannot lead is not worth having. But he will lead so that politics can survive. Lincoln wrote to General Hooker: T have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you command. Only those generals who gain military successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship'. Free politics is a risky business, though not so risky as dictatorship. And 'free polities', as I have sought to show, is really a pleonasm — either word will do. If a politician has pride, it must be, as Aristotle distinguished, a 'proper pride' — in his skill at his concilatory vocation, not hubris, the attempt to be more than a man, which commonly makes a man less than a man.
Conciliation is better than violence — but it is not always possible; diversity is better than unity — but it does not always exist. But both are always desirable. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that there are two great enemies of politics: indifference to human suffering and the passionate quest for certainty in matters which are essentially political. Indifference to human suffering discredits free regimes which are unable, or which fear, to extend the habits and possibility of freedom from the few to the many. The quest for certainty scorns the political virtues — of prudence, of conciliation, of compromise, of variety, of adaptability, of liveliness — in favour of some pseudo-science of government, some absolute-sounding ethic, or some ideology, some world-picture in terms of either race or economics. Perhaps it is curious, or simply unnatural, that men who can live with dignity and honour in the face of such endemic uncertainties as death, always so close in the normal possibilities of accident and disease ; as love, its precariousness and its fading, its dependence on the will and whims of others, yet can go mad for certainty in government — a certainty which is the death of politics and freedom. A free government is one which makes decisions politically, not ideologically.
There is no end to the praises that can be sung of politics. In politics, not in economics, is found the creative dialectic of opposites : for politics is a bold prudence, a diverse unity, an armed conciliation, a natural artifice, a creative compromise and a serious game on which free civilisation depends; it is a reforming conserver, a sceptical believer and a pluralistic moralist ; it has a lively sobriety, a complex simplicity, an untidy elegance, a rough civility and an everlasting immediacy; it' is conflict become discussion; and it sets us a humane task on a human scale. And there is no end to the dangers that it faces: there are so many reasons that sound so plausible for rejecting the responsibility and uncertainty of freedom. All that we have tried to do is to show why political activity is best seen as only one form of power relationship and political rule as only one form of government; and then to advance some arguments to show why the political solution to the problem of government is normally to be preferred to others. The only end to such an incomplete essay of defence and praise is to repeat drily what it is we have been describing.
Aristotle repeated his definition in almost the same words as we quoted at the beginning: 'The object which Socrates assumes as his premiss is . . . "that the greatest possible unity of the whole polls is the supreme good". Yet it is obvious that & polls which goes on and on, and becomes more and more of a unit, will eventually cease to be a polls at all. Apolls by its nature is some sort of aggregation. If it becomes more of a unit, it will first become a household instead of a polls, and then an individual instead of a household. ... It follows that, even if we could, we ought not to achieve this object: it would be the destruction of the polls.'
1. Perhaps it is not merely pride which has made several 'national leaders' recently cancel the scholarships of students studying abroad, who are reported, amid the heady freedom of London or New York, to have expressed even slight doubt that their leader has all the virtues of, shall we say, Mohammed and Lenin combined. Such men depend on the skills and the support of such boys. One knows the cost and the risk, but such boys may be in a stronger position than they think — if they are in earnest with their scepticism.