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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Demagogues

Title:     On Demagogues
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

It is still the custom in civilised countries for the politicians to call each other names. The word "serpent" has, one regrets to say, fallen out of use. But we are compensated for this in some measure by the invention of new terms of insult almost every day. It is not very long since Mr Lloyd George called Mr Steel Maitland "the cat's-meat-man of the Tory party," and Mr Steel Maitland retorted by calling Mr Lloyd George "Gehazi, the leper." And, side by side with original fancies of this kind, the old-fashioned dictionary of abuse still stands as open as the English Bible, where statesmen may arm themselves with nouns and adjectives that everybody can understand, such as "duke," "turncoat," "Jack Cade," "paid agitator," "Irish," "attorney," "despot," "nefarious" (which was almost as dead as "serpent" till Sir Edward Carson revived it), and, last but not least, "demagogue." It is only a day or two since Mr Bonar Law called Mr Lloyd George a demagogue, and one was disappointed to find that Mr Lloyd George, instead of calling Mr Bonar Law Nebuchadnezzar or Judas Iscariot in return, merely insisted that he could not be a demagogue, because a demagogue was a man who kicked away the ladder by which he had risen. This is very much as if you were to call a man "Bill Sikes," and he retorted that he could not be Bill Sikes because Bill Sikes had a wooden leg. Of course, Bill Sikes had not a wooden leg, and a demagogue is not necessarily a man who kicks away the ladder by which he has risen. A demagogue is simply a mob-leader--a man who appeals to popular passions rather than principles. He is what half the statesmen of all parties aspire to be in every democratic community. Despots obtain their mastery over the crowd by the sword: demagogues by the catchword. That is the difference between a tyranny and a democracy. It may not seem to be a change for the better to those who have a taste for the costumes and lights of the theatre. But the demagogue at least consults the mob as though it had a mind and will of its own. The very way in which he flatters it and instigates it to passion is an assertion of its freedom of choice, and, therefore, a concession to the dignity of human nature. It is like wooing as compared with marriage by capture.

Even when we have put the demagogue securely above the despot, however, we are left in considerable doubt about him. Somehow or other we do not like him. We do not trust him further than we can see him. We distrust him as Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Dickens did. We feel that the difference between a demagogue and a statesman is that the former converts human beings into a mob, while the latter exalts a mob into a company of human beings. It is the difference between a pander and a prophet. It is true that men of a conservative temper hate the pander and the prophet almost equally. Shakespeare, for instance, who was a bad politician as well as a good poet, mocks at Utopias no less than at bombast in that unhistorical picture he suggests of Jack Cade:--

CADE: There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass; and when I am king, as king I will be,----

ALL: God save your majesty!

CADE: I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me, their lord.

DICK: The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

CADE: Nay, that I mean to do.

To many of us, if you omit Cade's occasional lapses into individualism--as in his desire to be worshipped as a king--this will seem an admirable programme. It will more than hold its own in comparison with any programme that ever originated in Newcastle or Birmingham. William Morris himself might have had that vision of restoring Cheapside to green fields, and even the extremest Marconoclast could hardly go further than Cade in suggestions for a summary way with lawyers. Who is there who is not whole-heartedly with Cade for the abolition of poverty? In fact, there seems little to criticise in the man as Shakespeare drew him, except that he made his proposals for personal, not for social ends. That, I believe, is the real essence of demagogy.

To be a demagogue is not to advocate one thing rather than another. It depends on the manner, not on the matter, of one's proposals. One may reap one's own glory out of praise of the New Jerusalem no less than out of the most vulgar incitements to war and hatred. It is a temptation to which every man is subject who has ever stood on a cart above a crowd of his fellows. One feels tempted to play on them, like a child who finds itself left alone with a piano. It is worse than that. A crowd is like a sea of liquor, the fumes of which go to an orator's head and make him boast and lie and leer as he would be ashamed to see himself doing in his sober senses. He becomes, to parody Novalis on Spinoza, a mob-intoxicated man. But there is one notable difference between a decent drunkard and a demagogue. The drunkard is satisfied with getting drunk himself. The demagogue is not content till he has made the crowd drunk too. He and the mob are, as it were, mutual intoxicants, and in the result many a public meeting turns into so disgraceful an orgy that, if anything comparable to it occurred in a music-hall, the licence would be withdrawn. This is a kind of vice of which the moralists have not yet taken sufficient note. And yet there is no more execrable passion on earth than demagogue-passion on the one hand, and mob-passion on the other. Cleon will always be remembered as one of the basest Athenians who ever lived, and this is because he was the first demagogue of Imperialism--a violent animal on his hind-legs who bellowed till he woke up the blood-lust of his fellow-citizens. He was powerful only so long as he could keep that and other popular lusts active. Men, it has been said by a notable philosopher, seek after power rather than beauty; but this, I believe, is only true of demagogues and egoists of kindred sorts. The demagogue is the man who, instead of aiming at bringing the mob to his mood, feels after the mood of the mob, and, having discovered it, whips it into froth and fury. If you keep your eyes open at a public meeting--not always an easy thing to do in days when men discuss Welsh Disestablishment--you will see how the demagogue often becomes the master of a meeting that has listened coldly to intelligent and honest speeches. Like pot-boiling in art, it is perfectly easy if you know the way. The Sausage Seller who aspired to be Cleon's rival, in The Knights of Aristophanes, expounds the whole art of demagogy in his prayer:

Ye influential impudential powers
Of sauciness and jabber, slang and jaw!
Ye spirits of the market-place and street,
Where I was reared and bred--befriend me now!
Grant me a voluble utterance, and a vast
Unbounded voice, and steadfast impudence!

And, in another passage, Demosthenes initiates him into the means of obtaining power over the people:

Interlard your rhetoric with lumps
Of mawkish sweet, and greasy flattery.
Be fulsome, coarse, and bloody!

This, indeed, is what oratory is bound to degenerate into in a democracy unless it is the weapon of a conviction. It is like any other form of art which is practised, not from any burning and generous motive, but for mere love of that sense of power which gain and popularity give. Dickens, owing to a curious gap in his knowledge, made his typical Trade-Union leader, Slackbridge, in Hard Times, a demagogue of the ranting type, who began a speech:

Oh, my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh, my friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of an iron-handed and a grinding despotism! Oh, my friends and fellow-sufferers, and fellow-workmen and fellow-men!

Slackbridge, we are also told, was "an ill-made, high-shouldered man with lowering brows, and his features crushed into an habitually sour expression." That represents the attitude of many people to popular leaders. They believe that no one can advocate a reasonable future for the poor without being venomous and of an ugly appearance. They do not realise that the demagogues and agitators of to-day are chiefly men of the propertied classes and their allies, like Sir Edward Carson and Mr F.E. Smith. Sir Edward Carson's speeches in Ulster, indeed, are the most extreme instances of demagogy we have had in recent years. They are all noise and passion, roaring echoes of the mob-soul, rhetoric and not reason, thunder-storms instead of light. They are appeals to the war-spirit--the same spirit that Cleon and all the demagogues have sought to awaken. Incidentally I admit that a class-war or a sex-war may as readily produce its Carsons as a war of sectarianism. Sir Edward Carson is the awful example to all creeds and classes of how not to do it.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: On Demagogues