Imagination and Radicals

Grant Allen

[Chapter XIX from the book, Post-Prandial Philosophy, published 1894 in London by Chatto & Windus]

Conservatism, I believe, is mainly due to want of imagination. In saying this, I do not for a moment mean to deny the other and equally obvious truth that Conservatism, in the lump, is a euphemism for selfishness. But the two ideas have much in common. Selfish people are apt to be unimaginative: unimaginative people are apt to be selfish. Clearly to realise the condition of the unfortunate is the beginning of philanthropy. Clearly to realise the rights of others is the beginning of justice. "Put yourself in his place" strikes the keynote of ethics. Stupid people can only see their own side of a question: they cannot even imagine any other side possible. So, as a rule, stupid people are Conservative. They cling to what they have; they dread revision, redistribution, justice. Also, if a man has imagination he is likely to be Radical, even though selfish; while if he has no imagination he is likely to be Conservative, even though otherwise good and kind-hearted. Some men are Conservative from defects of heart, while some are Conservative from defects of head. Conversely, most imaginative people are Radical; for even a bad man may sometimes uphold the side of right because he has intelligence enough to understand that things might be better managed in the future for all than they are in the present. But when I say that Conservatism is mainly due to want of imagination, I mean more than that. Most people are wholly unable to conceive in their own minds any state of things very different from the one they have been born and brought up in. The picturing power is lacking. They can conceive the past, it is true, more or less vaguely—because they have always heard things once were so, and because the past is generally realisable still by the light of the relics it has bequeathed to the present. But they can't at all conceive the future.

Imagination fails them. Innumerable difficulties crop up for them in the way of every proposed improvement. Before there was any County Council for London, such people thought municipal government for the metropolis an insoluble problem. Now that Home Rule quivers trembling in the balance, they think it would pass the wit of man to devise in the future a federal league for the component elements of the United Kingdom; in spite of the fact that the wit of man has already devised one for the States of the Union, for the Provinces of the Dominion, for the component Cantons of the Swiss Republic. To the unimaginative mind difficulties everywhere seem almost insuperable. It shrinks before trifles. "Impossible!" said Napoleon. "There is no such word in my dictionary!" He had been trained in the school of the French Revolution—which was not carried out by unimaginative pettifoggers.

To people without imagination any change you propose seems at once impracticable. They are ready to bring up endless objections to the mode of working it. There would be this difficulty in the way, and that difficulty, and the other one. You would think, to hear them talk, the world as it stands was absolutely perfect, and moved without a hitch in all its bearings. They don't see that every existing institution just bristles with difficulties—and that the difficulties are met or got over somehow. Often enough while they swallow the camel of existing abuses they strain at some gnat which they fancy they see flying in at the window of Utopia or of the Millennium. "If your reform were carried," they say in effect, "we should, doubtless, get rid of such and such flagrant evils; but the streets in November would be just as muddy as ever, and slight inconvenience might be caused in certain improbable contingencies to the duke or the cotton-spinner, the squire or the mine-owner." They omit to note that much graver inconvenience is caused at present to the millions who are shut out from the fields and the sunshine, who are sweated all day for a miserable wage, or who are forced to pay fancy prices for fuel to gratify the rapacity of a handful of coal-grabbers.

Lack of imagination makes people fail to see the evils that are; makes them fail to realise the good that might be.

I often fancy to myself what such people would say if land had always been communal property, and some one now proposed to hand it over absolutely to the dukes, the squires, the game-preservers, and the coal-owners. "'Tis impossible," they would exclaim; "the thing wouldn't be workable. Why, a single landlord might own half Westminster! A single landlord might own all Sutherlandshire! The hypothetical Duke of Westminster might put bars to the streets; he might impede locomotion; he might refuse to let certain people to whom he objected take up their residence in any part of his territory; he might prevent them from following their own trades or professions; he might even descend to such petty tyranny as tabooing brass plates on the doors of houses. And what would you do then? The thing isn't possible. The Duke of Sutherland, again, might shut up all Sutherlandshire; might turn whole vast tracts into grouse-moor or deer-forest; might prevent harmless tourists from walking up the mountains. And surely free Britons would never submit to that. The bare idea is ridiculous. The squire of a rural parish might turn out the Dissenters; might refuse to let land for the erection of chapels; might behave like a petty King Augustus of Scilly. Indeed, there would be nothing to prevent an American alien from buying up square miles of purple heather in Scotland, and shutting the inhabitants of these British Isles out of their own inheritance. Sites might be refused for needful public purposes; fancy prices might be asked for pure cupidity. Speculators would job land for the sake of unearned increment; towns would have to grow as landlords willed, irrespective of the wants or convenience of the community. Theoretically, I don't even see that Lord Rothschild mightn't buy up the whole area of Middlesex, and turn London into a Golden House of Nero. Your scheme can't be worked. The anomalies are too obvious."

They are indeed. Yet I doubt whether the unimaginative would quite have foreseen them: the things they foresee are less real and possible. But they urge against every reform such objections as I have parodied; and they urge them about matters of far less vital importance. The existing system exists; they know its abuses, its checks and its counter-checks. The system of the future does not yet exist; and they can't imagine how its far slighter difficulties could ever be smoothed over. They are not the least staggered by the appalling reality of the Duke of Westminster or the Duke of Sutherland; not the least staggered by the sinister power of a conspiracy of coal-owners to paralyse a great nation with the horrors of a fuel famine. But they are staggered by their bogey that State ownership of land might give rise to a certain amount of jobbery and corruption on the part of officials. They think it better that the dukes and the squires should get all the rent than that the State should get most of it, with the possibility of a percentage being corruptly embezzled by the functionaries who manage it. This shows want of imagination. It is as though one should say to one's clerk, "All your income shall be paid in future to the Duke of Westminster, and not to yourself, for his sole use and benefit; because we, your employers, are afraid that if we give you your salary in person, you may let some of it be stolen from you or badly invested." How transparently absurd! We want our income ourselves, to spend as we please. We would rather risk losing one per cent. of it in bad investments than let all be swallowed up by the dukes and the landlords.

It is the same throughout. Want of imagination makes people exaggerate the difficulties and dangers of every new scheme, because they can't picture constructively to themselves the details of its working. Men with great picturing power, like Shelley or Robespierre, are always very advanced Radicals, and potentially revolutionists. The difficulty they see is not the difficulty of making the thing work, but the difficulty of convincing less clear-headed people of its desirability and practicability. A great many Conservatives, who are Conservative from selfishness, would be Radicals if only they could feel for themselves that even their own petty interests and pleasures are not really menaced. The squires and the dukes can't realise how much happier even they would be in a free, a beautiful, and a well-organised community. Imaginative minds can picture a world where everything is so ordered that life comes as a constant æsthetic delight to everybody. They know that that world could be realised to-morrow—if only all others could picture it to themselves as vividly as they do. But they also know that it can only be attained in the end by long ages of struggle, and by slow evolution of the essentially imaginative ethical faculty. For right action depends most of all, in the last resort, upon a graphic conception of the feelings of others.