How Not To Do It


Cover of Bezbozhnik u stanka, 1930

by G.K. Chesterton

There are two recognised ways of arguing with a Communist; and they are both wrong. There is also a third way which is right but which is not recognised. Now I have a notion that, for one reason or another, a considerable part of our time will be taken up soon by arguing with Communists. And I should like to sketch very roughly this notion of mine about the right way to do it. Curiously enough, the two commonest ways of contradicting Communism also contradict each other. The first consists of convicting the Bolshevist of all vices. The second, curiously enough, consists of convicting him of all the virtues. It actually consists of pitting all our vices against his virtues; or his supposed virtues.

This is very much the more dangerous and even suicidal trick of the two; but its nature needs a little explanation. The first common or conventional method is at least simple enough. The Capitalist says to the Communist, “You shall not enter my house, for I know you would burnt it down; you shall not speak to my family, for I know you would blow them up; you are a common thief and murderer and I am a highly respectable and moral person; and not as this Russian.” Now I do not like talking like that to a Bolshevist; because I should not like talking like that to a burglar. It is Pharisaical; and the Pharisee is a more ancient enemy of the Christian than the Marxian.

But I rather prefer it to the other method, which I find extremely common, among those who profess to defend property or individualism against the Marxian heresy. It really consists of telling the Communist that he is an idealist, or, in other words, that he must be wrong because he has ideals. In this second case, the Capitalist says to the Communist, “You believe in a lot of nonsense about the brotherhood of men; but I tell you, as a practical man, that every man wants to get as much as he can for himself, and will beat his own brother in business if he can. Every man must obey his acquisitive instinct.” (I read these very words recently in an attack on the Bolshevist theory.) “You cannot keep things humming and hustling without private enterprise; and you cannot produce private enterprise unless you bribe or reward it with the glittering prizes of private property.” People use these arguments against Communism, as if they were the only arguments against Communism; and then they are surprised that a number of more generous and spirited young people become Communists.

They do not seem to see that, to such young people, the Capitalist in question only seems to be saying, “I am a greedy old scoundrel, and I forbid you to be anything else.”

Now the true, full and final argument against Communism is that private property is much more important than private enterprise. A pickpocket represents private enterprise, but we should hardly say that he supports private property. Private property is not a bribe that exists for the sake of private enterprise. On the contrary, private enterprise is only a tool or weapon, that may sometimes be useful to preserve private property. And it is necessary to preserve private property; simply because the other name of it is liberty. On the one hand, it is not merely a conventional respectability; on the contrary, it is only the man with some property and privacy who can live his own life freely. On the other hand, it is not a mere licence to trade, still less a mere licence to cheat; on the contrary, the whole point of property is that in that alone can be naturally nourished the sentiment of honour. It would need some space to expound it here and might take some time to expound it to the Communist. But the Communist would listen at least longer than he would to a man merely boasting of self-righteousness or a man merely boasting of avarice.

Essay first published in 1935

About the Author:

G.K. Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) was an English writer, poet and critic.