The opportunity of Liberalism has come at last, an overwhelming opportunity. The age of militarism has rushed to its inevitable and yet surprising climax. The great soldier empire, made for war, which has dominated Europe for forty years has pulled itself up by the roots and flung itself into the struggle for which it was made. Whether it win or lose, it will never put itself back again. All Europe, following that lead, is a-field for war. The good harvests stand neglected, the factories are idle, a thin, uncertain trickle of paper money replaces the chinking flow of commerce; whichever betide, defeat or deadlock, the capitalist military civilisation uproots itself and ends. The war may burn itself out more quickly than those who regard its immensity think, but the war itself is the mere smash of the thing. The reality is the uprooting, the incurable dislocation.
Trying to map and measure that dislocation is rather like one’s first effort to think in sun’s distances. 61It is to transfer one’s mind to a new and overwhelming scale. Never did any time carry so swift a burthen of change as this time. It is manifest that in a year or so the world of men is going to alter more than it has altered in the last century and a half, more indeed than it ever altered before these last centuries since history began. Think of the mere geographical dislocation. There is scarcely a country in Europe that will not emerge from this struggle with entirely fresh frontiers, sovereign powers will vanish from the map, new sovereign powers will come. In the disorders that are upon us and of which this war itself is the mere preliminary phase in uniform, inevitably there must be social reconstruction. Who can doubt it? Who can doubt the break-up of confidence and usage that is in progress? Plainly you can see famine coming—in France, in Germany, in Russia. Does anyone suppose that those sham efficient Germans have fully worked out the care and feeding of the madly distended hosts they have hurled at France? Does anyone dream that they have reckoned for a check and halt? Does anyone imagine their sanitary arrangements are perfect? There will be pestilence. And can one believe that whatever feats of financial fiction we contrive, their financial crash can be staved off, and that the bankers of Hamburg and Frankfort are likely to be shovelling gold next January in a still methodical 62world? The German State machine has probably already done all that it was ever made to do. It stands now exhausted amidst the turmoil of its consequences. Its mobilization arrangements are said to have been astonishingly complete. Ten million men for and against have been got into the field—with ammunition. Prussian Germany has carried out its arrangements and committed the business to Gott. German foresight has exhausted itself. If Gott fail Germany, I do not believe that Germany has the remotest idea what to do next. For the most part those millions will never get home any more. They will certainly never get back to their work again, because it will have disappeared.
When I think of European statecraft presently trying to put all these things back again I am reminded of a story of a friend whose neighbour tried to cut his throat and then repented. He came round to her with a towel about his neck making peculiar noises. It was a distressing but illuminating experience for her. She was a plucky and resourceful woman, and she did her best. “There was such a lot of it,” she said. “I hadn’t an idea things were packed so tight in us.”
It is characteristic of such times as this—that much in the world, and, more particularly, much in the minds of men, much that has seemed as invincible as the mountains and as deeply rooted as the sea, magically loses its solidity, fades, changes, 63vanishes. When one looked at the map of Europe a month ago most of the lines of its frontiers seemed almost as stable as the coastlines. Now they waver under one’s eyes. When one thought of the heritage of the Crown Prince of Germany, it seemed as fixed as a constellation, and now in a little while it may be worth as little as a bloody rag in the trenches of Liège. In little things as in great, one is suddenly confronted by undreamt-of instabilities. The Reform Club, which has been a cheerful and refreshing trickle of gold to me for years, now yields me reluctantly for my cheque two inartistic pound notes. My other club has ceased the kindly custom of cashing cheques altogether. One is glad that poor Bagehot did not live to see this day. Each day now I marvel to wake and find I have still a banker.... And I perceive too, that if presently my banker dissolved into the rest of this dissolving world—a thing I should have thought an unendurable calamity a month ago—I shall laugh and go on.... Ideas that have ruled life as though they were divine truths are being chased and slaughtered in the streets. The rights of property, for example, the sturdy virtues of individualism, all toleration for the rewards of abstinence, vanished last week suddenly amidst the execrations of mankind upon a hurrying motor-car loaded with packages of sugar and flour. They bolted, leaving Socialism and Collectivism in possession. 64The State takes over flour mills and the food supply, not merely for military purposes, but for the general welfare of the community. The State controls the railways with a sudden complete disregard of shareholders. There is not even a letter to the Times to object. If the State sees fit to keep its hold upon these things for good, or loosens its hold only to improve its grip, I question if there is very much left in the minds of men, even after the mere preliminary sweeping of the last two weeks, to dispute possession. Society as we knew it a year ago has indeed already broken up; it has lost all real cohesion; only the absence of any attraction elsewhere keeps us bunched together. We keep our relative positions because there is nowhither to stampede. Dazed, astonished people fill the streets; and we talk of the national calm. The more intelligent men thrown out of their jobs make for the recruiting offices, because they have nothing else to do; we talk of the magnificent response to Lord Kitchener’s appeal. Everybody is offering services. Everybody is looking for someone to tell him what to do. It is not organisation; it is the first phase of dissolution.
I am not writing prophecies now, and I am not “displaying imagination.” I am just running as hard as I can by the side of the marching facts, and pointing to them. Institutions and conventions crumble about us, and release to unprecedented 65power the two sorts of rebel that ordinary times suppress, will and ideas.
The character of the new age that must come out of the catastrophes of this epoch will be no mechanical consequence of inanimate forces. Will and ideas will take a larger part in this swirl-ahead than they have even taken in any previous collapse. No doubt the mass of mankind will still pour along the channels of chance, but the desire for a new world of a definite character will be a force, and if it is multitudinously unanimous enough, it may even be a guiding force, in shaping the new time. The common man and base men are scared to docility. Rulers, pomposities, obstructives are suddenly apologetic, helpful, asking for help. This is a time of incalculable plasticity. For the men who know what they want, the moment has come. It is the supreme opportunity, the test or condemnation of constructive liberal thought in the world.
Now what does Liberalism mean to do? It has always been alleged against Liberalism that it is carpingly critical, disorganised, dispersed, impracticable, fractious, readier to “resign” and “rebel” than help. That is the common excuse of all modern autocracies, bureaucracies, and dogmatisms. Are they right? Is Liberal thought in this world-crisis going to present the spectacle of a swarm of little wrangling men swept before the mindless besom of brute accident, or shall we be able in this 66vast collapse or re-birth of the world, to produce and express ideas that will rule? Has it all been talk? Or has it been planning? Is the new world, in fact, to be shaped by the philosophers or by the Huns?
First, as to peace. Do Liberals realise that now is the time to plan the confederation and collective disarmament of Europe, now is the time to re-draw the map of Europe so that there may be no more rankling sores or unsatisfied national ambitions? Are the Liberals as a body going to cry “Peace! Peace!” and leave the questions alone, or are they going to take hold of them? If Liberalism throughout the world develops no plan of a pacified world until the diplomatists get to work, it will be too late. Peace may come to Europe this winter as swiftly and disastrously as the war.
And next, as to social reconstruction. Do Liberals realise that the individualist capitalist system is helpless now? It may be picked up unresistingly. It is stunned. A new economic order may be improvised and probably will in some manner be improvised in the next two or three years. What are the intentions of Liberalism? What will be the contribution of Liberalism? One poor Liberal, I perceive, is possessed, to the exclusion of every other consideration, by the idea that we were not legally bound to fight for Belgium. A pretty point, but a petty one. Liberalism is something 67greater than unfavourable comment on the deeds of active men. Let us set about defining our intentions. Let us borrow a little from the rash vigour of the types that have contrived this disaster. Let us make a truce of our finer feelings and control our dissentient passions. Let us re-draw the map of Europe boldly, as we mean it to be re-drawn, and let us re-plan society as we mean it to be reconstructed. Let us get to work while there is still a little time left to us. Or while our futile fine intelligences are busy, each with its particular exquisitely-felt point, the Northcliffes and the diplomatists, the Welt-Politik whisperers, and the financiers, and militarists, the armaments interests, and the Cossack Tsar, terrified by the inevitable red dawn of leaderless social democracy, by the beginning of the stupendous stampede that will follow this great jar and displacement, will surely contrive some monstrous blundering settlement, and the latter state of this world will be worse than the former.
Now is the opportunity to do fundamental things that will otherwise not get done for hundreds of years. If Liberals throughout the world—and in this matter the Liberalism of America is a stupendous possibility—will insist upon a World conference at the end of this conflict, if they refuse all partial settlements and merely European solutions, they may re-draw every frontier they choose, they 68may reduce a thousand chafing conflicts of race and language and government to a minimum, and set up a Peace League that will control the globe. The world will be ripe for it. And the world will be ripe, too, for the banishment of the private industry in armaments and all the vast corruption that entails from the earth for ever. It is possible now to make an end to Kruppism. It may never be possible again. Henceforth let us say weapons must be made by the State, and only by the State; there must be no more private profit in blood. That is the second great possibility for Liberalism, linked to the first. And, thirdly, we may turn our present social necessities to the most enduring social reorganization; with an absolute minimum of effort now, we may help to set going methods and machinery that will put the feeding and housing of the population and the administration of the land out of the reach of private greed and selfishness for ever.