Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture, Chapter 5: Unity and Diversity: A Note on Culture and Politics
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14 min read
Politics did not, however, so much engage him as to withhold his thoughts from things of more importance.SAMUEL JOHNSON, ON GEORGE LYTTELTON
We observe nowadays that ‘culture’ attracts the attention of men of politics: not that politicians are always ‘men of culture’, but that ‘culture’ is recognised both as an instrument of policy, and as something socially desirable which it is the business of the State to promote. We not only hear, from high political quarters, that ‘cultural relations’ between nations are of great importance, but find that bureaux are founded, and officials appointed, for the express purpose of attending to these relations, which are presumed to foster international amity. The fact that culture has become, in some sense, a department of politics, should not obscure in our memory the fact that at other periods politics has been an activity pursued within a culture, and between representatives of different cultures. It is therefore not impertinent to attempt to indicate the place of politics within a culture united and divided according to the kind of unity and division which we have been considering.
We may assume, I think, that in a society so articulated the practice of politics and an active interest in public affairs would not be the business of everybody, or of everybody to the same degree and that not everybody should concern himself, except at moments of crisis, with the conduct of the nation as a whole. In a healthily regional society, public affairs would be the business of everybody, or of the great majority, only within very small social units and would be the business of a progressively smaller number of men in the larger units within which the smaller were comprehended. In a healthily stratified society, public affairs would be a responsibility not equally borne: a greater responsibility would be inherited by those who inherited special advantages, and in whom self-interest, and interest for the sake of their families (‘a stake in the country’) should cohere with public spirit. The governing elite, of the nation as a whole, would consist of those whose responsibility was inherited with their affluence and position, and whose forces were constantly increased and often led, by rising individuals of exceptional talents. But when we speak of a governing elite, we must safeguard ourselves against thinking of an elite sharply divided from the other elites of society.
The relation of the political elite — by which we mean the leading members of all the effective and recognised political groups: for the survival of a parliamentary system requires a constant dining with the Opposition — to the other elites would be put too crudely if described as communication between men of action and men of thought. It is rather a relation between men of different types of mind and different areas of thought and action. A sharp distinction between thought and action is no more tenable for the political than for the religious life, in which the contemplative must have his own activity, and the secular priest must not be wholly unpractised in meditation. There is no plane of active life on which thought is negligible, except that of the merest automatic execution of orders and there is no species of thinking which can be quite without effect upon action.
I have suggested elsewhere that a society is in danger of disintegration when there is a lack of contact between people of different areas of activity — between the political, the scientific, the artistic, the philosophical and the religious minds. This separation cannot be repaired merely by public organisation. It is not a question of assembling into committees representatives of different types of knowledge and experience, of calling in everybody to advise everybody else. The elite should be something different, something much more organically composed, than a panel of bonzes, caciques and tycoons. Men who meet only for definite serious purposes, and on official occasions, do not wholly meet. They may have some common concern very much at heart; they may, in the course of repeated contacts, come to share a vocabulary and an idiom which appear to communicate every shade of meaning necessary for their common purpose; but they will continue to retire from these encounters each to his private social world as well as to his solitary world. Everyone lias observed that the possibilities of contented silence, of a mutual liappy awareness when engaged upon a common task, or an underlying seriousness and significance in the enjoyment of a silly joke, are characteristics of any close personal intimacy; and the congeniality of any circle of friends depends upon a common social convention, a common ritual, and common pleasures of relaxation. These aids to intimacy are no less important for the communication of meaning in words, than the possession of a common subject upon which the several parties are informed. It is unfortunate for a man when his friends and his business associates arc two unrelated groups; it is also narrowing when they are one and the same group.
Such observation upon personal intimacy cannot pretend to any novelty: the only possible novelty is in calling attention to tlumi in this context. They point to the desirability of a society in which decisions of every superior activity can meet without merely talking shop or being at pains to talk each other’s shop. In order correctly to appraise a man of action we must meet him: or we must at least have known enough men of similar pursuits to be able to draw a shrewd guess about one whom we have not met. And to meet a man of thought, and to form an impression of his personality, may be of great assistance in judging his ideas. This is not wholly improper even in the field of art, though with important reservations, and though the impressions of an artist’s personality often affect opinion of his work quite irrelevantly — for every artist must have remarked, that while a small number of people dislike his work more strongly after meeting him, there are also many who are more friendly disposed towards his work if they find him a pleasant fellow. These advantages persist however they may offend the reason, and in spite of the fact that in modern societies of large numbers, it is impossible for everyone to know everyone else.
In our time, we read too many new books, or are oppressed by the thought of the new books which we are neglecting to read we read many books, because we cannot know enough people; we cannot know everybody whom it would be to our benefit to know, because there are too many of them. Consequently, if we have the skill to put words together and the fortune to get them printed, we communicate by writing more books. It is often those writers whom we are lucky enough to know, whose books we can ignore; and the better we know them personally, the less need we may feel to read what they write. We are encumbered not only with too many new books: we are further embarrassed by too many periodicals, reports and privately circulated memoranda. In the endeavour to keep up with the most intelligent of these publications we may sacrifice the three permanent reasons for reading: the acquisition of wisdom, the enjoyment of art, and the pleasure of entertainment. Meanwhile, the professional politician has too much to do to have leisure for serious reading, even on politics. He has far too little time for exchange of ideas and information with men of distinction in other walks of life. In a society of smaller size (a society, therefore, which was less feverishly busy) there might be more conversation and fewer books; and we should not find the tendency — of which this essay provides one example — for those who have acquired some reputation, to write books outside the subject on which they have made that reputation.
It is unlikely, in all the mass of letterpress that the profoundest find most original works will reach the eye or command the attention of a large public, or even of a good number of the readers who are qualified to appreciate them. The ideas which flatter a current tendency or emotional attitude will go farthest and some others will be distorted to fit in with what is already accepted. The residuum in the public mind is hardly likely to be a distillation of the best and wisest: it is more likely to represent the common prejudices of the majority of editors and reviewers. In this way are formed the idees recues— more precisely the mots recus — which, because of their emotional influence upon that part of the public which is influenced by printed matter, have to be taken into account by the professional politician, and treated with respect in his public utterances. It is unnecessary, for the simultaneous reception of these ‘ideas’, that they should be consistent among themselves; and, however they contradict each other, the practical politician must handle them with as much deference as if they were the constructions of informed sagacity, the intuitions of genius, or the accumulated wisdom of ages. He has not, as a rule, inhaled any fragrance they may have had when they were fresh; he only noses them when they have already begun to stink.
In a society so graded as to have several levels of culture, and several levels of power and authority, the politician might at least be restrained, in his use of language, by his respect for the judgment, and fear of the ridicule, of a smaller and mores critical public, among which was maintained some standard of prose style. If it were also a decentralised society, a society in which local cultures continued to flourish, and in which the majority of problems were local problems on which local populations could form an opinion from their own experience and from conversation with their neighbours, political utterances might also tend to manifest greater clarity and be susceptible of fewer variations of interpretation. A local speech on a local issue is likely to he more intelligible than one addressed to a whole nation, and we observe that the greatest muster of ambiguities and obscure generalities is usually to be found in speeches which are addressed to the whole world.
It is always desirable that a part of the education of those persons who are either born into, or qualified by their abilities to enter, the superior political grades of society, should be instruction in history, and that a part of the study of history should be the history of political theory. The advantage of the study of Greek history and Greek political theory, as a preliminary to the study of other history and other theory, is its manageability, it has to do with a small area, with men rather than masses, and with the human passions of individuals rather than with those vast impersonal forces which in our modern society are a necessary convenience of thought, and the study of which tends to obscure the study of human beings. The reader of Greek philosophy, moreover, is unlikely to be over-sanguine about the effects of political theory for he will observe that the study of political forms appears to have arisen out of the failure of political systems and that neither Plato nor Aristotle was much concerned with prediction, or very optimistic about the future.
The kind of political theory which has arisen in quite modern times is less concerned with human nature, which it is inclined to treat as something which can always be re-fashioned to fit whatever political form is regarded as most desirable. Its real data are impersonal forces which may have originated in the conflict and combination of human wills but have come to supersede them. As a part of academic discipline for the young, it suffers from several drawbacks. It tends, of course, to form minds which will be set to think only in terms of impersonal and inhuman forces, and thereby to de-humanise its students. Being occupied with humanity only in the mass, it tends to separate itself from ethics being occupied only with that recent period of history during which humanity can most easily be shown to have been ruled by impersonal forces, it reduces the proper study of mankind to the last two or three hundred years of man. It too often inculcates a belief in a future inflexibly determined and at the same time in a future which we are wholly free to shape as we like. Modern political thought, inextricably involved with economics and with sociology preempts to itself the position of queen of the sciences. For the exact and experimental sciences are judged according to their utility, and are valued in so far as they produce results either for making life more comfortable and less laborious, or for making it more precarious and ending it more quickly. Culture itself is regarded either as a negligible by-product which can be left to itself, or as a department of life to be organised in accordance with the particular scheme favour. I am thinking not only of the more dogmatic and totalitarian philosophies of the present day, but of assumptions which colour thinking in every country and tend to be shared by the most opposed parties.
An important document in the history of the political direction of culture will be Leon Trotsky’s essay, Literature and Revolution, of which an English translation appeared in 1925. The conviction, which seems to be deeply implanted in the Muscovite mind, that it is the role of Mother Russia to contribute not merely ideas and political forms, but a total way of life for the rest of the world, has gone far to make us all more politically culture-conscious. But there have been other causes than the Russian Revolution for this consciousness. The researches and the theories of anthropologists have played their part, and have led us to study the relations of imperial powers and subject peoples with new attention. Governments are more aware of the necessity of taking account of cultural differences and to the degree to which colonial administration is controlled from the imperial centre, these differences become of increasing importance. One people in isolation is not aware of having a ‘culture’ at all. And the differences between the several European nations in the past were not wide enough to make their peoples see their cultures as different to the point of conflict and incompatibility culture-consciousness as a means of uniting a nation against other nations was first exploited by the late rulers of Germany. Today, we have become culture-conscious in a way which nourishes nazism, communism and nationalism all at once in a way which emphasises separation without helping us to overcome it. At this point a few remarks on the cultural effects of empire (in the most comprehensive sense) may not be amiss.
The early British rulers of India were content to rule; some of them, through long residence and continuous absence from Britain, assimilated themselves to the mentality of the people they governed. A later type of rulers, explicitly and increasingly the servants of Whitehall, and serving only for a limited period (after which they returned to their native country, either to retirement or to some other activity) aimed rather to bring to India the benefits of western civilisation. They did not intend to uproot, or to impose, a total ‘culture’: but the superiority of western political and social organisation, of English education, of English justice, of western ‘enlightenment’ and science seemed to them so self-evident that the desire to do good would alone have been a sufficient motive for introducing these things. The Briton, unconscious of the importance of religion in the formation of his own culture, could hardly be expected to recognise its importance in the preservation of another. In the piece-meal imposition of a foreign culture — an imposition in which force plays only a small part: the appeal to ambition, and the temptation to which the native is exposed, to admire the wrong things in western civilisation, and for the wrong reasons, are much more decisive — the motives of arrogance and generosity are always inextricably mixed there is at the same time an assertion of superiority and a desire to communicate the way of life upon which that assumed superiority is based so that the native acquires a taste for western ways, a jealous admiration of material power, and a resentment against his tutors. The partial success of westernisation, of which some members of an Eastern society are quick to seize the apparent advantages, has tended to make the Oriental more discontented with his own civilisation and more resentful of that which has caused this discontent; has made him more conscious of differences, at the same time that it has obliterated some of these differences; and has broken up the native culture on its highest level, without penetrating the mass. And we are left with the melancholy reflection that the cause of this disintegration is not corruption, brutality or maladministration: such ills have played but a small part, and no ruling nation has had less to be ashamed of than Britain in these particulars; corruption, brutality and maladministration were too prevalent in India before the British arrived, for commission of them to disturb the fabric of Indian life. The cause lies in the fact that there can be no permanent compromise between the extremes of an external rule which is content to keep order and leave the social structure unaltered, and a complete cultural assimilation. The failure to arrive at the latter is a religious failure.
To point to the damage that has been done to native cultures in the process of imperial expansion is by no means an indictment of empire itself, as the advocates of imperial dissolution are only too apt to infer. Indeed, it is often these same anti-imperialists who, being liberals, are the most complacent believers in the superiority of Western civilisation, and at one and the same time blind to the benefits conferred by imperial government and to the injury done by the destruction of native culture. According to such enthusiasts, we do well to intrude ourselves upon another civilisation, equip the members of it with our mechanical contrivances, our systems of government, education, law, medicine and finance, inspire them with a contempt for their own customs and with an enlightened attitude towards religious superstition — and then leave them to stew in the broth which we have brewed for them.
It is noticeable that the most vehement criticism, or abuse, of British imperialism often comes from representatives of societies which practise a different form of imperialism — that is to say, of expansion which brings material benefits and extends the influence of culture. America has tended to impose its way of life chiefly in the course of doing business, and creating a taste for its commodities. Even the humblest material artefact, which is the product and the symbol of a particular civilisation, is an emissary of the culture out of which it comes: to particularise only by mentioning that influential and inflammable article the celluloid film; and thus American economic expansion may be also, in its way, the cause of disintegration of cultures which it touches.
The newest type of imperialism, that of Russia, is probably the most ingenious, and the best calculated to flourish according to the temper of the present age. The Russian Empire appears to be sedulous to avoid the weaknesses of the empires which have preceded it: it is at the same time more ruthless and more careful of the vanity of subject peoples. The official doctrine is one of complete racial equality — an appearance easier for Russia to preserve in Asia, because of the oriental cast of the Russian mind and because of the backwardness of Russian development according to western standards. Attempts appear to be made to introduce the similitude of local self-government and autonomy and the aim, I suspect, is to give the several local republics and client states the illusion of a kind of independence, while the real power is exercised from Moscow. The illusion must sometimes fade, when a local republic is suddenly and ignominiously reduced to the status of a kind of province or crown colony but it is maintained— and this is what is most interesting from our point of view — by a careful fostering of local ‘culture’, culture in the reduced sense of the word, as everything that is picturesque, harmless and separable from politics, such as language and literature, local arts and customs. But as Soviet Russia must maintain the subordination of culture to political theory, the success of her imperialism seems likely to lead to a sense of superiority on the part of that one of her peoples in which her political theory has been formed so that we might expect, so long as the Russian Empire holds together, to find the increasing assertion of one dominant Muscovite culture, with subordinate races surviving, not as peoples each with its own cultural pattern, but as inferior castes. However that may be, the Russians have been the first modern people to practise the political direction of culture consciously, and to attack at every point the culture of any people whom they wish to dominate. The more highly developed is any alien culture, the more thorough the attempts to extirpate it by elimination of those elements in the subject population in which that culture is most conscious.
The dangers arising from ‘culture-consciousness’ in the West are at present of a different kind. Our motives, in attempting to do something about our culture, are not yet consciously political. They arise from the consciousness that our culture is not in very good health and from the feeling that we must take steps to improve its condition. This consciousness has transformed the problem of education, by either identifying culture with education, or turning education as the one instrument for improving our culture. As for the intervention of the State, or of some quasi-political body subventioned by the State, in assistance of the sciences, we can see only too well the need, under conditions, for such support. A body like the British government by constantly sending representatives of the arts and abroad, and inviting foreign representatives to this country, is in our time invaluable — but we must not come to accept as permanent or normal and healthy the conditions which make such direction necessary. We are prepared to believe that there will, under any conditions, be useful work for the British Council to perform but we should not like to be assured that never again will it be possible for the intellectual elite of all countries to travel as private citizens and make each other’s acquaintance without the approval and support of some official organisation. Some important activities, it is likely enough, will never again be possible without official backing of some kind. The progress of the experimental sciences now requires vast and expensive equipment and the practice of the arts has no longer, on any large scale, the benefit of private patronage. Some safeguard may be provided, against increasing centralisation of control and politicisation of the arts and sciences, by encouraging local initiative and responsibility; and, as far as possible, separating the central source of funds from control over their use. We should do well also, to refer to the subsidised and artificially stimulated activities each by its name: let us do what is necessary for painting and sculpture, or architecture, or the theatre, or music, or one or another science or department of intellectual exercise, speaking of each by its name, and restraining ourselves from using the word ‘culture’ as a comprehensive term. For thus we slip into the assumption that culture can be planned. Culture can never be wholly conscious — there is always more to it than we are conscious of, and it cannot be planned because it is also the unconscious background of all our planning.