A Note on G.K. CHESTERTON, and the question of his alleged FASCISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a great Christian writer of the first part of the twentieth century. Author of the Father Brown detective stories, numerous important works of literary criticism (Chaucer, Browning, Dickens, etc.) and Christian apologetics - both Anglican (Orthodoxy) and, after 1922, Roman Catholic (The Everlasting Man, The Thing), he was also the intellectual leader of a practical intellectual movement anchored in Catholic social teaching and known as Distributism. This movement opposed both socialism and monopolistic capitalism in the name of individual liberty and social solidarity, and inspired many subsequent thinkers to try to find a “third way” and a “new economics” more in harmony with what would today be called human and natural ecology. He was one of the great Christian humanists, and a major influence on both his own and subsequent generations (T.S. Eliot, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis). There is currently a worldwide revival of interest in his work and ideas, nourished by a number of important new biographies and studies.
Nevertheless, when Chesterton’s name is mentioned, allegations that he was anti-semitic and a fascist sympathizer tend to crop up, and these are important to examine, not least because they prevent many people from looking more closely at his writings. I am not an historian, but, as an admirer of some aspects of Chesterton’s thought, I await the publication of detailed studies with considerable interest. For the time being, the picture as far as I can tell is this.
The question of Fascism
like many Catholics and conservatives, including Winston Churchill and
most of the aristocracy, had a certain admiration for Mussolini in the
1920s. The Italian leader was seen as a relatively benign dictator of the
type often seen in Latin countries, and as someone who had saved
In his 1934 book The Resurrection of Rome, where he describes an audience with Mussolini, Chesterton puts his finger on the main weakness of Fascism, which is that it always appeals to Authority to bring order back into the State, without first bringing (moral) order back into the Mind. Fascist “order” is therefore merely the imposition of force.
As far as Hitler is concerned, Chesterton was one of the first British writers to raise concern about the rise of Nazism, and had long been almost a lone voice opposing the proto-Nazi eugenics movement, which was supported in Britain before the war by many politicians of both Left and Right (Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils was published in 1922). Allegations that Chesterton was a fascist are sometimes traceable to a confusion between him and the similarly named A.K. Chesterton, or fostered by a failure to distinguish his views from those of his brother Cecil (who died in the First World War) and his friend Hilaire Belloc.
The question of anti-semitism
They are also complicated by the question of G.K. Chesterton’s alleged anti-semitism. Unfortunately it cannot be denied that during the time of his editorship of G.K.’s Weekly, the newspaper published several anti-semitic pieces. The degree to which Chesterton read and approved these is not known, but mitigating factors may include his notorious absent-mindedness and carelessness over detail, and the effects of several periods of serious illness.
As Kevin L. Morris wrote in his booklet G.K. Chesterton (CTS, 1994), Chesterton’s prejudice was largely political in nature, bound up with his opposition to plutocracy and the political sleaze of his day, in which several prominent Jewish figures were implicated: “far from being a racist, he ridiculed racism, had Jewish friends, admired individual Jews, valued the Jewish faith, wanted the Jews to have the dignity of a Jewish nation-state, and, with the rise of Nazi Germany, denounced the persecution of the Jews.”
In the biography Gilbert (Jonathan Cape, 1989, pp. 209-11), Michael Coren noted Chesterton’s profound literary and personal friendship with the Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, his cordial meetings with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, and the important statement by the Wiener Library (London’s archive on anti-semitism and Holocaust history) that Chesterton was never seriously anti-semitic:
“‘The difference between social and philosophical anti-Semitism is something which is not fully understood...With Chesterton we’ve never thought of a man who was seriously anti-Semitic on either count. He was a man who played along, and for that he must pay a price… He was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.”
Chesterton did believe in the existence of a “Jewish
problem”, though never in any violent or repressive solution to it. The
problem, he thought, was due to the very unique character of the Jewish
people, chosen by God for a special destiny and forced to live in exile
“Today, although I still think that there is a Jewish
problem, and that what I understand by the expression ‘the Jewish Spirit’
is a spirit foreign in Western countries, I am appalled by the Hitlerite
Chesterton had a profound and insightful mind (the historian of philosophy, Etienne Gilson, claimed that “Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed”), but he was an artist as well as a writer, and as an artist he was something of a caricaturist. In writing, he relied often on simplification and the literary equivalent of caricature to construct his infamous paradoxes. This is what partly creates the impression that he was susceptible to prejudice and ideology. Another factor is our tendency to read him outside his historical and cultural context, which we are encouraged to do by the fact that many of his writings do transcend their time and seem uncannily applicable to the present (such as this relatively trivial example that I like from 1926: “The modern world is a crowd of very rapid racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic.”). But his remarks about Jews, or Muslims, or Australians, or Chinamen, cannot be read in the same way. They are very much of their time, and they should not deter us from reading one of the towering figures of the twentieth century.
is the G.K. Chesterton Fellow at St Benet’s Hall,