Human Nature in Politics / Third Edition

Produced by Distributed Proofreaders Europe; Jon Ingram




Third Edition

Printed as part of Constable’s Miscellany of Original & Selected Publications in Literature



I offer my thanks to several friends who have been kind enough to read the proofs of this book, and to send me corrections and suggestions; among whom I will mention Professors John Adams and J.H. Muirhead, Dr. A. Wolf, and Messrs. W.H. Winch, Sidney Webb, L. Pearsall Smith, and A.E. Zimmern. It is, for their sake, rather more necessary than usual for me to add that some statements still remain in the text which one or more of them would have desired to see omitted or differently expressed.

I have attempted in the footnotes to indicate those writers whose books I have used. But I should like to record here my special obligation to Professor William James’s Principles of Psychology, which gave me, a good many years ago, the conscious desire to think psychologically about my work as politician and teacher.

I have been sometimes asked to recommend a list of books on the psychology of politics. I believe that at the present stage of the science, a politician will gain more from reading, in the light of his own experience, those treatises on psychology which have been written without special reference to politics, than by beginning with the literature of applied political psychology. But readers who are not politicians will find particular points dealt with in the works of the late Monsieur G. Tarde, especially L’Opinion et la Foule and Les Lois de l’Imitation and in the books quoted in the course of an interesting article on ‘Herd Instinct,’ by Mr. W. Trotter in the Sociological Review for July 1908. The political psychology of the poorer inhabitants of a great city is considered from an individual and fascinating point of view by Miss Jane Addams (of Chicago) in her Democracy and Social Ethics.



I have made hardly any changes in the book as it first appeared, beyond the correction of a few verbal slips. The important political developments which have occurred during the last eighteen months in the English Parliament, in Turkey, Persia, and India, and in Germany, have not altered my conclusions as to the psychological problems raised by modern forms of government; and it would involve an impossible and undesirable amount of rewriting to substitute ‘up-to-date’ illustrations for those which I drew from the current events of 1907 and 1908. I should desire to add to the books recommended above Mr. W. M’Dougall’s Social Psychology, with special reference to his analysis of Instinct.



30th December 1909.


This edition is, like the second edition (1910), a reprint, with a few verbal corrections, of the first edition (1908). I tried in 1908 to make two main points clear. My first point was the danger, for all human activities, but especially for the working of democracy, of the ‘intellectualist’ assumption, ‘that every human action is the result of an intellectual process, by which a man first thinks of some end which he desires, and then calculates the means by which that end can be attained’ (p. 21). My second point was the need of substituting for that assumption a conscious and systematic effort of thought. ‘The whole progress,’ I argued, ‘of human civilisation beyond its earliest stages, has been made possible by the invention of methods of thought which enable us to interpret and forecast the working of nature more successfully than we could, if we merely followed the line of least resistance in the use of our minds’ (p. 114).

In 1920 insistence on my first point is not so necessary as it was in 1908. The assumption that men are automatically guided by ‘enlightened self-interest’ has been discredited by the facts of the war and the peace, the success of an anti-parliamentary and anti-intellectualist revolution in Russia, the British election of 1918, the French election of 1919, the confusion of politics in America, the breakdown of political machinery in Central Europe, and the general unhappiness which has resulted from four years of the most intense and heroic effort that the human race has ever made. One only needs to compare the disillusioned realism of our present war and post-war pictures and poems with the nineteenth-century war pictures at Versailles and Berlin, and the war poems of Campbell, and Berenger, and Tennyson, to realise how far we now are from exaggerating human rationality.

It is my second point, which, in the world as the war has left it, is most important. There is no longer much danger that we shall assume that man always and automatically thinks of ends and calculates means. The danger is that we may be too tired or too hopeless to undertake the conscious effort by which alone we can think of ends and calculate means.

The great mechanical inventions of the nineteenth century have given us an opportunity of choosing for ourselves our way of living such as men have never had before. Up to our own time the vast majority of mankind have had enough to do to keep themselves alive, and to satisfy the blind instinct which impels them to hand on life to another generation. An effective choice has only been given to a tiny class of hereditary property owners, or a few organisers of other men’s labour. Even when, as in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, nature offered whole populations three hundred free days in the year if they would devote two months to ploughing and harvest, all but a fraction still spent themselves in unwilling toil, building tombs or palaces, or equipping armies, for a native monarch or a foreign conqueror. The monarch could choose his life, but his choice was poor enough. ‘There is,’ says Aristotle, ‘a way of living so brutish that it is only worth notice because many of those who can live any life they like make no better choice than did Sardanapalus.’

The Greek thinkers started modern civilisation, because they insisted that the trading populations of their walled cities should force themselves to think out an answer to the question, what kind of life is good. ‘The origin of the city-state,’ says Aristotle, ‘is that it enables us to live; its justification is that it enables us to live well.’

Before the war, there were in London and New York, and Berlin, thousands of rich men and women as free to choose their way of life as was Sardanapalus, and as dissatisfied with their own choice. Many of the sons and daughters of the owners of railways and coal mines and rubber plantations were ‘fed up’ with motoring or bridge, or even with the hunting and fishing which meant a frank resumption of palaeolithic life without the spur of palaeolithic hunger. But my own work brought me into contact with an unprivileged class, whose degree of freedom was the special product of modern industrial civilisation, and on whose use of their freedom the future of civilisation may depend. A clever young mechanic, at the age when the Wanderjahre of the medieval craftsman used to begin, would come home after tending a ‘speeded up’ machine from 8 A.M., with an hour’s interval, till 5 P.M. At 6 P.M. he had finished his tea in the crowded living-room of his mother’s house, and was ‘free’ to do what he liked. That evening, perhaps, his whole being tingled with half-conscious desires for love, and adventure, and knowledge, and achievement. On another day he might have gone to a billiard match at his club, or have hung round the corner for a girl who smiled at him as he left the factory, or might have sat on his bed and ground at a chapter of Marx or Hobson. But this evening he saw his life as a whole. The way of living that had been implied in the religious lessons at school seemed strangely irrelevant; but still he felt humble, and kind, and anxious for guidance. Should he aim at marriage, and if so should he have children at once or at all? If he did not marry, could he avoid self-contempt and disease? Should he face the life of a socialist organiser, with its strain and uncertainty, and the continual possibility of disillusionment? Should he fill up every evening with technical classes, and postpone his ideals until he had become rich? And if he became rich what should he do with his money? Meanwhile, there was the urgent impulse to walk and think; but where should he walk to, and with whom?

The young schoolmistress, in her bed-sitting-room a few streets off, was in no better case. She and a friend sat late last night, agreeing that the life they were living was no real life at all; but what was the alternative? Had the ‘home duties’ to which her High Church sister devoted herself with devastating self-sacrifice any more meaning? Ought she, with her eyes open, and without much hope of spontaneous love, to enter into the childless ‘modern’ marriage which alone seemed possible for her? Ought she to spend herself in a reckless campaign for the suffrage? Meanwhile, she had had her tea, her eyes were too tired to read, and what on earth should she do till bedtime?

Such moments of clear self-questioning were of course rare, but the nerve-fretting problems always existed. Industrial civilisation had given the growing and working generation a certain amount of leisure, and education enough to conceive of a choice in the use of that leisure; but had offered them no guidance in making their choice.

We are faced, as I write, with the hideous danger that fighting may blaze up again throughout the whole Eurasian continent, and that the young men and girls of Europe may have no more choice in the way they spend their time than they had from 1914 to 1918 or the serfs of Pharaoh had in ancient Egypt. But if that immediate danger is avoided, I dream that in Europe and in America a conscious and systematic discussion by the young thinkers of our time of the conditions of a good life for an unprivileged population may be one of the results of the new vision of human nature and human possibilities which modern science and modern industry have forced upon us.

Within each nation, industrial organisation may cease to be a confused and wasteful struggle of interests, if it is consciously related to a chosen way of life for which it offers to every worker the material means. International relations may cease to consist of a constant plotting of evil by each nation for its neighbours, if ever the youth of all nations know that French, and British, and Germans, and Russians, and Chinese, and Americans, are taking a conscious part in the great adventure of discovering ways of living open to all, and which all can believe to be good.


August 1920.


(Introduction, page 1)

The study of politics is now in an unsatisfactory position. Throughout Europe and America, representative democracy is generally accepted as the best form of government; but those who have had most experience of its actual working are often disappointed and apprehensive. Democracy has not been extended to non-European races, and during the last few years many democratic movements have failed.

This dissatisfaction has led to much study of political institutions; but little attention has been recently given in works on politics to the facts of human nature. Political science in the past was mainly based, on conceptions of human nature, but the discredit of the dogmatic political writers of the early nineteenth century has made modern students of politics over-anxious to avoid anything which recalls their methods. That advance therefore of psychology which has transformed pedagogy and criminology has left politics largely unchanged.

The neglect of the study of human nature is likely, however, to prove only a temporary phase of political thought, and there are already signs that it, is coming to an end.

(PART I.—Chapter I.—Impulse and Instinct in Politics, page 21)

Any examination of human nature in politics must begin with an attempt to overcome that ‘intellectualism’ which results both from the traditions of political science and from the mental habits of ordinary men.

Political impulses are not mere intellectual inferences from calculations of means and ends; but tendencies prior to, though modified by, the thought and experience of individual human beings. This may be seen if we watch the action in politics of such impulses as personal affection, fear, ridicule, the desire of property, etc.

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