Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

It is mainly a battle of phrases, in which few pause to examine what their opponents or they themselves
mean by the epithets they employ. In the sense in which the individualist uses the term socialist, there are

hardly any socialists, and in the sense in which the socialist uses the term individualist, there are

practically no individualists. In reality we are all both individualists and socialists. It is a question of

degree and not of dogma; and most people are at heart agreed that some economic socialism is required

in order to promote a certain amount of moral and intellectual individualism. The defect of so-called

economic individualism is that it reduces the mass of workers to one dead level of common poverty, in

which wages, instead of increasing like capital, barely keep pace with the rise of rent and prices, in which

men occupy dwellings all alike in the same mean streets, pursuing the same routine of labour and same

trivial round of relaxation, and in which there seems no possibility of securing for the individual

adequate opportunities for that development of his individuality by which alone he can render his best

service to the community.

That service is the common end and object towards which men of all parties in English history have
striven through the growth of conscious and collective action. A communist has maintained that we are

all communists because we have developed a common army, a common navy, and a common national

government, in place of the individualistic forces and jurisdictions of feudal barons. We have, indeed,

nationalized these things and many others as well, including the crown, the church, the administration of

justice, education, highways and byways, posts and telegraphs, woods and forests. Even the House of

Lords has been constrained to abandon its independence by a process akin to that medieval peine

forte et dure
, by which the obstinate individualist was, when accused, compelled to surrender his
ancient immunity and submit to the common law; and this common control, which came into being as the

nation emerged out of its diverse elements in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and slowly gathered

force as it realized its strength under the Tudors, has attained fresh momentum in the latest ages as the

state step by step extended to all sorts and conditions of men a share in the exercise of its power.

This is the real English conquest, and it forms the chief content of English history. It is part of the
triumph of man over the forces of nature and over himself, and the two have gone hand in hand. An

English state could hardly exist before men had made roads, but it could no more exist until they had

achieved that great victory of civilized government by which a minority agrees for the sake of peace to

submit to the greater number. Steam and railways and telegraphs have placed further powers in the hands

of men; they have conquered the land and the sea and the air; and medical science has built up their

physique and paved the way for empire in tropical climes. But while he has conquered nature, man has

also conquered himself. He has tamed his combative instincts; he has reduced civil strife to political

combats, restrained national conflicts by treaties of arbitration, and subdued private wars to judicial

proceedings; it is only in partially civilized countries that gentlemen cannot rule their temper or bend

their honour to the base arbitrament of justice. He looks before and after, and forgoes the gratification of

the present to insure against the accidents of the future, though the extent to which the community as a

whole can follow the example of individuals in this respect remains at the moment a test of its

self-control and sense of collective responsibility.

Whether this growth of power in the individual and in the state is a good or an evil thing depends on the
conscience of those who wield it. The power of the over-mighty subject has generally been a tyranny;

and all power is distrusted by old-fashioned Liberals and philosophic Anarchists, because they have a

traditional suspicion that it will fall into hostile or unscrupulous hands. But the forces of evil cannot be

overcome by laissez faire, and power is an indispensable weapon of progress. A powerless state

means a helpless community; and anarchy is the worst of all forms of tyranny, because it is irresponsible,

 

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