Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE leading literary critic of the Victorian age foreshadowed the most brilliant political reporting of modern times in a letter to the editor of the National Review, dated October 12, 1856. In this letter Matthew Arnold concluded: "It was only a day or two ago that I read the article on Shelley in the last number; that article and one or two others (in which I imagine that I trace the same hand) seem to me to be of the very first quality, showing not talent only, but a concern for the simple truth which is rare in English literature as it is in English politics and English religion -- whatever zeal, vanity and ability may be exhibited by the performers in each of these three spheres."
The hand -- and the fresh eye -- that Arnold had shrewdly noted were Walter Bagehot's. In that day Shelley was seldom approached save in a mood of adulation or abuse, but the essay which Arnold had read was curiously cool. Its author was concerned to describe the nature of a real though very unusual man; and he made clear at the outset how he intended to proceed. The method was a practical one. Though as yet we have no accurate details of Shelley's life, said Bagehot, "we know something -- we know enough to check our inferences from his writings." It was this straightforward report on the evidence which won Matthew Arnold's accolade: "the simple truth."
Besides the essay on Shelley, three other articles by Bagehot appeared in the National Review that year -- one on Gibbon, one on Macaulay and one on Sir Robert Peel. They belonged to no literary school. Indeed, they were almost aggressively unliterary; the author was downright impatient with Macaulay, for example, because of his love of books. The essays were full of wit and high spirits. Gibbon, remarked Bagehot, did not know the difference between himself and the Roman Empire and "narrated his progressions from London to Buriton and from Buriton to London in the same majestic periods that record the fall of states and empires;" and since Gibbon's autobiography, though fascinating, gave but a vague idea of its subject, he added drily, he would attempt a description of the historian "in plainer though less splendid English."
For all the unheroic tone, Bagehot was ambitious to make his mark in the world. His approach was the journalist's. The way to win the favor of posterity, he had noted, was "to give vivid essential pictures of the life before you; to leave a fresh glowing delineation of the scene to which you were born, of the society to which you have peculiar access." Bagehot was delighted by the ways of the world, "the whole inevitable conditions of real life," and by the men, the women, the laws, the institutions -- above all, by the systems of government -- which he saw in it. And this young banker (he was then struggling to learn bookkeeping in Stuckey's Banking Company at Langport, Somersetshire) was looking at them with his own eyes.
The remarkable fact was that Sir Robert Peel's world was a new one. The bases of British wealth were no longer anchored on the land, but in the bricks of smoking chimneys. A new class was coming to power. Peel, "the business gentleman" and the constitutional statesman, the man of common opinions and uncommon abilities, Prime Minister after the Reform Act of 1832, the son of a Lancashire factory owner, was the herald of a new dynasty. Though the nobility and the gentry continued to set the tone of English social life, and though the House of Commons was still the stronghold of the landed proprietor, a broader conception of government by public opinion was in the air and political arrangements in Britain were changing.
The essay on Peel was packed with politics, but it was not until nine years later that Bagehot, by that time editor of The Economist, began to publish the series of magazine articles on the British political system which, republished under the title "The English Constitution," reversed the accepted thought of the time on the subject and became a classic almost overnight. Woodrow Wilson read it as an undergraduate at Princeton and was decisively influenced by it. As he later said, Bagehot offered an account of the actual workings of parliamentary government "so lucid, so witty, so complete . . . that it made itself instantly and once for all a part of every man's thinking in that matter."
Bagehot said that the British system was the opposite of what everyone assumed. The assumption, hallowed by the authority of Montesquieu, Locke and Blackstone, was that the essential feature of parliamentary government was the separation of powers. It was thought that British freedom was a result of a balanced system of co-equal estates in which the monarchical element (the Crown), the aristocratic element (the House of Lords) and the democratic element (the House of Commons) checked one another. In particular, this "literary theory" of the Constitution (as Bagehot scornfully called it) held that the executive branch was separate from and was checked and balanced by the legislative branch. Bagehot looked at the evidence and submitted a new report. The "secret" of the British Government, he said, was the "close union, the nearly complete fusion, of the executive and legislative powers." The Cabinet was the buckle which joined them. The primary function of the House of Commons was not to legislate, but to choose a committee which was responsible to it and which was in reality the executive. And he pointed out that the founders of the American Constitution had erred in their analysis of the British system, misled by the reactionary but transient power of the Crown under George III, and that in their effort to bulwark in their new government what they thought was a weakness of the British system and a possible source of tyranny -- the domination of the legislative branch by the executive -- they had in fact failed to perceive the secret strength of the British Constitution and its demonstration that executive efficiency is compatible with freedom.
All this is now familiar. There can scarcely have been a book on parliamentary government published in the last 75 years which has not taken "The English Constitution" either explicitly or by implication as a major point of reference; and though, in the United States at any rate, Bagehot has been chiefly the property of specialists, the relevancy to our present problems of the questions to which he addressed himself has brought his ideas, if not his name, on the front pages and into the editorials of daily papers.
Bagehot, designedly writing "for the world at large and for coming times," did not only ask: How does government work under the British Constitution? He likewise asked: What makes elective government possible -- or, as he put it, what are the "prerequisites" for successful Cabinet government and for representative government in general? A headline question today. He described the prerequisites of elective government in various ways. They were "mutual confidence of the electors," a "calm" national mind, and "rationality" -- by which he meant not so much the power to reason as the ability to listen to the point of view of other people. These qualities stemmed from two simplor preconditions. Elective government, he said, demands an educated people and a people "comfortable" economically. So far as Britain was concerned, he elaborated his answer with qualifications which today seem odd. Since it seemed to him unlikely that the "lower orders" of Britain would, in the discernible future, either be educated or be in comfortable circumstances, Cabinet government would be possible only so long as they remained "deferential." Bagehot saw nearly everything save the possibility of democracy in his own land.
That there should be a blind spot somewhere in this keen eye is scarcely cause for astonishment, and its presence adds interest to the aspect of Bagehot's writing which will remain uncatalogued. The provocative question which his work raises for our time is not so much the change that has taken place in the British system since he wrote, as the nature of the mind that was able to produce the first revealing analysis of the nature of the British system of government. This flair for the fresh approach was evident in nearly everything that Bagehot wrote and -- we are told -- in his conversation as well. His "Lombard Street," an analysis of banking reserves, scored a success comparable to that of "The English Constitution;" its findings were equally to the point, though its subject matter was less grand. And his "Physics and Politics," a search for social laws stimulated by Darwin's recently published "Origin of Species," seemed to many of the best minds among his contemporaries to break new trails. Nearly 40 years after Bagehot's death, James Bryce, not a man given to uncritical enthusiasms, remembered him as "the most interesting man in London to meet." Bagehot, he said, had the power of making a "new cut" in things.
What makes a fresh eye? These men who possess it -- whether an artist noting a shadow in a corner of a room or a political scientist analyzing the governmental machinery of an empire -- who report so accurately that the thing described becomes new in our sight, eternally puzzle us. The achievement seems so simple and is so rare. So many writers have consciously striven to duplicate Bagehot's feat of political observation -- Wilson, for example, who came closer than most with his "Congressional Government," written under the spell of Bagehot's great work. And what would we not give today for so fresh an eye as Bagehot's, preoccupied as we are with politics, yet aware as we are of the need for the new cut?
Those who are destined for the great active rôles in politics seem equally likely to come from places far outside the favored society of their time, or from the center of it. The great reporters, however, as a rule are men who almost, but not quite, "belong." They are sufficiently discontented to take up an issue, but do not identify themselves with it emotionally. In short, they observe affairs with a critical eye, but, in the main, are content to observe.
Bagehot was wonderfully favored by circumstances of birth and early life for the work of political analysis which he was to perform. He was born outside the ruling class in England, but near enough to see in. He was born into the rising governing class. His father came of a family which at one time appears to have held a position among the gentry, though Thomas Bagehot describes himself modestly and somewhat wistfully as educated only sufficiently for "my station." He was a well-to-do businessman -- the managing director of the Stuckey bank, the largest private bank of issue in England. Walter Bagehot's mother, a Stuckey, was the niece of the founder of the firm. Bagehot was in direct line of succession for a place of power in the expanding financial world. And it was natural enough that, after he had gone to work in the Somersetshire bank, and had published papers on economic subjects, he should come into the orbit of one of the most influential members of the new class, James Wilson, who had founded The Economist in 1843 to propagate the new gospel of free trade. Wilson, a self-made man, was a power in London -- once Financial Secretary of the Treasury and later Financial Member of the Council of India. Bagehot married his daughter.
But Bagehot was shaped by factors which prevented him from identifying himself wholly with this world, humming with business and politics, in which doors were so readily opened to him. He was his father's only child; his mother, by a previous marriage, had had three sons, two of whom had died and the third of whom was born feeble-minded. His parents were enormously ambitious in his behalf. Walter Bagehot was gifted with a good mind, and he was made to understand that mind was the vehicle which would carry him to the heights of honor and power. It was sound Victorian doctrine, though the heavy doses of it, such as Bagehot received from early boyhood, could have complex results. Bagehot's home life was happy, but at school he was an outsider, suffering kicks and pummeling (seemingly with fatalistic equanimity) for his refusal to participate in schoolyard games and his intense determination to win supremacy in academic competition. And at the University of London (where much talk of science and of the new "scientific attitude" was in the air) he tormented himself with his striving for honors. He gained them, but he became best known for the ironical "Hear! Hear!" with which he would deflate the enthusiastic assertions of his fellows in argument. That was his line. He was something of a prodigy and no little of a solitary -- a youth of the type which he described so well in later essays: Hartley Coleridge, Shelley, the younger Pitt. But in Walter Bagehot this pleasure, and even arrogance, in the consciousness of mental power took the form of an odd Philistinism. Then, and always, he liked to develop the paradox that the dullness of the English people was their political virtue; and he favored the intellectuals with his sharpest jibes. The ideal life, he said, was that of the "enjoying" English gentleman.
But there was more to Bagehot's detachment than the mere reaction from a valuable, if excessive, youthful intellectualism. Perhaps the single sharpest influence in his life was his relationship with his stimulating and unfortunate mother. She was subject to periodic fits of insanity. Bagehot never permitted himself to be far from her, and his devotion was unflagging to the time of her death, only seven years before his own. The relationship seems to have been the most important one in life for them both. There is no doubt that this tragic responsibility affected Bagehot's character and point of view, and that it set him apart from the "normal" world at the same time that it heightened his determination to win power in it. Perhaps one reason that sustained objectivity is unusual in any field is that, in the last analysis, no man really chooses to be objective. Detachment is isolation -- usually a product of necessity, not an act of choice.
Precisely to what degree it was so with Bagehot we can only surmise.[i] It is clear that he wanted to be more than an observer in political life, and four times he attempted to enter Parliament. On three of these occasions he obtained the Liberal Party nomination and stood as candidate; each time he was defeated. The contrast with his great American disciple, Woodrow Wilson, is striking here. Wilson seems to have tried to model his career on Bagehot's during the Princeton period, when an active part in politics seemed closed to him and he wanted to convince himself that the rôle of critic and publicist was the right one for him. He made heavy weather of it. Then the road opened to political life. Three times he offered himself at the polls as a candidate for public office and with spectacular success: once he was elected Governor of the State of New Jersey and twice President of the United States. In his crucial decisions, he acted from his heart's need -- and thus he spoke for all. Bagehot simply worked it out with his brain.
If Bagehot's fresh eye was the product of a trained intellect, shaped by circumstances which gave him uncommon objectivity and unusual opportunities for obtaining first-hand information, one more factor should be noted in an attempt to account even summarily for the triumph of political observation of his mature years. There is, of course, a detachment of indifference; no man is so sure of his impartiality on an issue as the man who has never thought about it. But political intelligence begins with an interest in politics. When he had left the University of London, Bagehot studied and abandoned law, wrote essays on literary figures, very serious essays on religion (like a good intellectual of his age), and meanwhile took the job in the Stuckey bank. He was to maintain his connection with the bank all his life, later becoming vice-chairman. He proclaimed that "business is really more agreeable than pleasure," and, once he was past bookkeeping, he plainly enjoyed it. But like every ambitious and promising young Englishman, he was the beneficiary of a greater tradition -- the aristocratic British tradition of interest in and respect for politics.
The tradition pulled Bagehot's mind as a magnet draws a knife. In his writings, the import of such a phrase as "the great Whig families" echoes the suggestion of all desirable things -- the enjoyment of the countryside, the exhilaration of sports, the companionship of congenial men and beautiful women, wit, learning, wealth and power. All were epitomized by "politics." It was a worldly tradition; there was an honored place in it even for man's weakness, as Fox -- that "grand, kind, human creature" (in Professor Trevelyan's splendid words) -- was honored for his defects as for his virtues. The book "The English Constitution," no less than the actual arrangements which provided Bagehot with the material for his famous analysis, was created by the men of many generations for whom political thought and political activity were the breath of life. The British aristocracy, unlike the aristocracies of most European nations, was never "a caste apart;" and it took the British people to school, politically, over a period of centuries.
It is worth remembering how deeply we ourselves, no less than Bagehot, are in debt to this tradition, and what its implications are for our own time. Representative government is not, as sometimes suggested, a system devised in the mid-nineteenth century to fit the needs of a special class and a particular economic situation. The Victorian issue was not whether representative government should be established, but to what degree it should be extended, now that the English nation was patently no longer the upper class only. As a long-practised system of representation had enabled the king to govern with privileged commoners, it likewise enabled aristocracy to govern with a new class. And the tradition of a shaping of interests, through a system of representation, made possible democracy: in the rock-bottom definition, government by all the people, as contrasted with government by one "élite" or another. And thus it made revolution unnecessary.
The term "democracy" has become clouded in infinite confusion, since both capitalistic and Socialistic economic systems now identify their objectives by this word. That they should use much the same set of terms even in describing their ideals in detail -- maximum development of industry and agriculture, maximum distribution of products, and hence maximum opportunities for the development of individuals -- is, surely, one reason for believing that the two can get along together. But, in the light of a Second World War, fought to repel the claim of one part to rule the whole, the earliest and plainest definition of democracy has acquired a luster that it once seemed to have lost. And the traditional coupling of democracy with representative government gains corresponding relevancy. Representative democracy and its primary machinery -- free universal suffrage -- has, in point of fact, proven to be the one method of government by which conflicting interests can be shaped without warfare. And if, as seems possible, the atomic bomb has destroyed accepted conceptions of national power -- it certainly has made the prospect of a trial by arms uninviting even to the greatest nation -- the instrument of democratic representative government seems especially useful in the international sphere, to say the least. This practical instrument of government which the Anglo-Saxon people evolved still seems to point the line of the advance for the future. Recalling Bagehot's "prerequisites" for successful elective government we may, however, as we push for the goal, guard ourselves against expectations of making it in one jump.
Government by all the people was, indeed, an advanced idea in Walter Bagehot's day; and, as we have noted, he himself had little sympathy for it, not from hostility toward the masses of the people but from skepticism about them. He addressed to them the worst term of reproach in his vocabulary -- "incurious." The warmhearted John Morley, to whose Fortnightly he contributed, relates that "I often ventured to say to him, 'You have only one defect; you do not feel the inherent power and glory of the principle of Liberty.'" One can imagine that Bagehot smiled good-humoredly. By temperament and by profession, Bagehot was averse to capital-letter enthusiasm for any cause; his special job was to take apart the enthusiasms of others, not to compound them. Of course Morley was right; it was a defect, and it has diminished Bagehot's reputation. If politics is the art of the possible, in its greatest figures -- a Wilson or a Masaryk, for example -- it becomes the art of extending the limits of the possible. Bagehot lacked this greatness. But by the same token, though he could not feel the charm of a vaster Liberty, he could report with exceeding acuteness on the nature of the liberty that he saw. And though he did little directly to bring representative democracy into existence, few men have told us as much as he about how to make it work.
To make it work, he said in a word, examine it; and begin, not with the examination of the machinery, but with the analysis of men. Here is his description of the ideal intelligence, seen in the guise of a constitutional monarch -- a constitutional monarch of his own devising, such as surely has never lived on earth, but who certainly would be the ideal citizen of any democracy:
Perhaps such powers as these are what a wise man would most seek to exercise and least fear to possess. To wish to be a despot, "to hunger after tyranny," as the Greek phrase had it, marks in our day an uncultivated mind. A person who so wishes cannot have weighed what Butler calls the "doubtfulness things are involved in." To be sure you are right to impose your will, or to wish to impose it, with violence upon others; to see your own ideas vividly and fixedly, and to be tormented till you can apply them in life and practice; not to like to hear the opinions of others, to be unable to sit down and weigh the truth they have -- are but crude states of intellect in our present civilization. We know at least that facts are many; that progress is complicated; that burning ideas (such as young men have) are mostly false and always incomplete. The notion of a far-seeing and despotic statesman, who can lay down plans for ages yet unborn, is a fancy generated by the pride of the human intellect, to which facts give no support. The plans of Charlemagne died with him; those of Richelieu were mistaken, those of Napoleon gigantesque and frantic. But a wise and great constitutional monarch attempts no such vanities. His career is not in the air: he labors in the world of sober fact; he deals with schemes which can be effected, schemes which are desirable, schemes which are worth the cost. He says to the ministry his people send to him, to ministry after ministry, "I think so and so: do you see if there is anything in it. I have put down my reasons in a certain memorandum, which I will give you. Probably it does not exhaust the subject, but it will suggest materials for your consideration." . . . A sagacious and original constitutional monarch might go to his grave in peace if any man could: he would know that his best laws were in harmony with his age; that they suited the people who were to work them, the people who were to be benefited by them. And he would have passed a happy life: he would have passed a life in which he could always get his arguments heard; in which he could always make those who had the responsibility of action think of them before they acted; in which he could know that the schemes which he had set at work in the world were not the casual accidents of an individual idiosyncrasy, which are mostly much wrong, but the likeliest of all things to be right -- the ideas of one very intelligent man at last accepted and acted on by the ordinary intelligent many.
Balfour, in a later commentary, was amused at Bagehot's fantasy in imagining himself king. But there would be less blood and tears if all who dreamed of power dreamed so wisely.
Bagehot died suddenly, in 1877, at the age of 51. We are the losers that he stopped work so soon, for as a writer he was only approaching the summit of his skill. His opportunities for firsthand observation of events at the center of London's political world were steadily mounting; and his critical instinct, so innately a part of his whole being, would never have deserted him. He had driven himself cruelly -- as practising banker and as editor of The Economist, for which he wrote two leading articles weekly; and his output of longer essays and of books was constant. He was occupied with a major book on political economy when he died; he was full of plans for further work. His last published magazine article -- "Lord Althorp and the Reform Act of 1832" -- was one of his best. His journalistic training had perhaps given him a tendency to repeat his "points;" yet in the exposition of complicated ideas, that has its necessary place -- and Bagehot's exposition was masterful. In his mature work he dropped the mannerisms of earlier days -- the balanced adjectives, the series of semicolons, the long and sometimes unsuccessful animadversions. His thesis, political or economic, would develop with wonderful ease and clarity. His ability to give even the most complex material an air of narrative, and his trick of interposing snatches of dialogue, made him one of those of whom it is just to say that his work "reads like a novel."
Paradoxically, though he closed his eyes to the significance of the largest theme of his time, he is preëminently of our day. There are those who set the goal, and those who take the reckoning which tells if a given course is being kept. Political intelligence is not an abstract quality, and its elements vary, no doubt, as the concrete problems on which it must be exercised vary. But may we not say that, in the light of our given problem of the shaping of interests among nations, political intelligence is the exercise of the critical spirit? Bagehot's method was the method of reason; even in this matter of democracy, which troubled him so much and to which he returned again and again in papers of his final years, he never departed from the method of reasoned analysis. He called the English people too "unintelligent" and "incurious" to enjoy the full franchise. That education, leisure and comfort might be extended to all were solutions which seemed not to occur to him. Yet what gentle adjectives these are indeed, by the standards of unreason to which the enemies of democracy of recent years have accustomed us! Bagehot's method of conducting political controversies, in short, left the door open for a revised estimate in the event of error in judgment. Surely that is not the least of its virtues.
[i] The official biography, the "Life of Walter Bagehot" (London, Longmans, Green, 1914), written by Bagehot's sister-in-law, Mrs. Russell Barrington, is uncritical and in some respects tantalizingly incomplete. Professor William Irvine's more recently published "Walter Bagehot" (New York, Longmans, Green, 1939), however, contains valuable excerpts from unpublished letters.