THE FREE PRESS
LONDON: GEORGE ALLEN & UNWIN LTD.
RUSKIN HOUSE 40 MUSEUM STREET W.C 1
First published in 1918
(All rights reserved)
October 14, 1917.
My Dear Orage,
I dedicate this little essay to you not only because "The New Age" (which is your paper) published it in its original form, but much more because you were, I think, the pioneer, in its modern form at any rate, of the Free Press in this country. I well remember the days when one used to write to "The New Age" simply because one knew it to be the only paper in which the truth with regard to our corrupt politics, or indeed with regard to any powerful evil, could be told. That is now some years ago; but even to-day there is only one other paper in London of which this is true, and that is the "New Witness." Your paper and that at present edited by Mr. Gilbert Chesterton are the fullest examples of the Free Press we have.
It is significant, I think, that these two papers differ entirely in the philosophies which underlie their conduct and in the social ends at which they aim. In other words, they differ entirely in religion which is the ultimate spring of all political action. There is perhaps no single problem of any importance in private or in public morals which the one would not attempt to solve in a fashion different from, and usually antagonistic to, the other. Yet we discover these two papers with their limited circulation, their lack of advertisement subsidy, their restriction to a comparatively small circle, possessing a power which is not only increasing but has long been quite out of proportion to their numerical status.
Things happen because of words printed in "The New Age" and the "New Witness." That is less and less true of what I have called the official press. The phenomenon is worth analysing. Its intellectual interest alone will arrest the attention of any future historian. Here is a force numerically quite small, lacking the one great obvious power of our time (which is the power to bribe), rigidly boycotted—so much so that it is hardly known outside the circle of its immediate adherents and quite unknown abroad. Yet this force is doing work—is creating—at a moment when almost everything else is marking time; and the work it is doing grows more and more apparent.
The reason is, of course, the principle which was a commonplace with antiquity, though it was almost forgotten in the last modern generation, that truth has a power of its own. Mere indignation against organized falsehood, mere revolt against it, is creative.
It is the thesis of this little essay, as you will see, that the Free Press will succeed in its main object which is the making of the truth known.
There was a moment, I confess, when I would not have written so hopefully.
Some years ago, especially after I had founded the "Eye-Witness," I was, in the tedium of the effort, half convinced that success could not be obtained. It is a mood which accompanies exile. To produce that mood is the very object of the boycott to which the Free Press is subjected.
But I have lived, in the last five years, to see that this mood was false. It is now clear that steady work in the exposure of what is evil, whatever forces are brought to bear against that exposure, bears fruit. That is the reason I have written the few pages printed here: To convince men that even to-day one can do something in the way of political reform, and that even to-day there is room for something of free speech.
I say at the close of these pages that I do not believe the new spirit we have produced will lead to any system of self-government, economic or political. I think the decay has gone too far for that. In this I may be wrong; it is but an opinion with regard to the future. On the other matter I have experience and immediate example before me, and I am certain that the battle for free political discussion is now won. Mere knowledge of our public evils, economic and political, will henceforward spread; and though we must suffer the external consequences of so prolonged a regime of lying, the lies are now known to be lies. True expression, though it should bear no immediate and practical fruit, is at least now guaranteed a measure of freedom, and the coming evils which the State must still endure will at least not be endured in silence. Therefore it was worth while fighting.
The Free Press
I propose to discuss in what follows the evil of the great modern Capitalist Press, its function in vitiating and misinforming opinion and in putting power into ignoble hands; its correction by the formation of small independent organs, and the probably increasing effect of these last.
About two hundred years ago a number of things began to appear in Europe which were the fruit of the Renaissance and of the Reformation combined: Two warring twins.
These things appeared first of all in England, because England was the only province of Europe wherein the old Latin tradition ran side by side with the novel effects of protestantism. But for England the great schism and heresy of the sixteenth century, already dissolving to-day, would long ago have died. It would have been confined for some few generations to those outer Northern parts of the Continent which had never really digested but had only received in some mechanical fashion the strong meat of Rome. It would have ceased with, or shortly after, the Thirty Years War.
It was the defection of the English Crown, the immense booty rapidly obtained by a few adventurers, like the Cecils and Russells, and a still smaller number of old families, like the Howards, which put England, with all its profound traditions and with all its organic inheritance of the great European thing, upon the side of the Northern Germanies. It was inevitable, therefore, that in England the fruits should first appear, for here only was there deep soil.
That fruit upon which our modern observation has been most fixed was Capitalism.
Capitalism proceeded from England and from the English Reformation; but it was not fully alive until the early eighteenth century. In the nineteenth it matured.
Another cognate fruit was what to-day we call Finance, that is, the domination of the State by private Capitalists who, taking advantage of the necessities of the State, fix an increasing mortgage upon the State and work perpetually for fluidity, anonymity, and irresponsibility in their arrangements. It was in England, again, that this began and vigorously began with what I think was the first true "National Debt"; a product contemporary in its origins with industrial Capitalism.
Another was that curious and certainly ephemeral vagary of the human mind which has appeared before now in human history, which is called