A Note on the Art of Political Conversion
Some day a wonderful book will be written on the art of persuasion, a new sophistic. One may suppose that psychology will ultimately become as complete a science as geometry and mechanics are now. It will be possible then to predict the effect of an argument on a man’s mind as surely as one can now predict the eclipse of the moon. On the basis of this developed science will be built an infallible set of rules for converting a man to any opinion you like. The mechanism of mind will be as bare as that of a typewriter. You will press the right levers, and the result you want will follow inevitably. The lover will sigh no more, but will consult the manual and succeed—unless the lady be similarly armed. So dangerous will the art be that the knowledge of it must be confined to a special caste, like Plato’s guards, disciplined and trained not to make any malicious use of their power. Or more probably the then prevailing form of government will seize it and make a monopoly of it as they now do of armed force, and used it for their perpetual preservation.
Pending the arrival of this political canvasser’s millennium, one can sketch out the beginnings of the thing. Materials for the art already exist: Schopenhauer’s “Art of Controversy,” Pascal’s “Pensées,” the manuals which the credulous Protestant imagines that the Jesuits are brought up on, and, more recently, James’s “Will to Believe,” and “L’Arte di Persuadere” of the brilliant Italian pragmatist Pezzolini, who would bring all philosophy to the service of such a sophistic.
All these are founded on a recognition of the basic fact of the absolute impotence of a mere idea to produce any change in belief. All conviction, and so necessarily conversion, is based on the motor and emotional aspects of the mind. No intellectual conception has any moving force unless it be hinged on to an emotion or an instinct. In every man’s mind there exist certain fixed instincts and prejudices, certain centers of emotion, tendencies to react to certain words. The expression “center” is not merely metaphorical. In all probability there does exist a corresponding organization of the neurones in the brain. These are the parts of a man’s mind which lead to conviction expressed in action, ballotwise or otherwise. You have got to get hold of these to produce any change. If you can’t do this, then the idea is “dead,” it has no motive power, the most logical presentation will have no effect. There must be in any successful propaganda, then, an element more important than good argument. A good case is the last, not the first part of a successful conversion. In practice men have always known this. Practice remains constant throughout the ages; it is not reserved for any particular century to “discover” anything new about the ways of the human. With theory, however, it is very different. That may be wrong continually, and may, at a definite moment, be put right. In this case it certainly is so. For a long time reason was given a too predominant place in psychology, and to it all other faculties were subordinated. Gradually, during the last 50 years in philosophy, instinct and emotion have asserted their rightful place, until at the present time the reaction has gone so far that the intellect is regarded merely as a subtle and useful servant of the will, and of man’s generally irrational vital instincts. Bergson, Le Roy, Croce, Eucken, Simmel are all anti-intellectualists.
The particular effect of this change of view which concerns me here is that of the difference it makes to the theory of politics. Formerly the prevailing conception was something of this kind—you perfected the mechanism of democracy until each man’s carefully thought-out opinion had its effect. You then, on any particular measure, set out on a campaign of careful argument. Each side stated their reasons to the best of their ability, the elector heard both sides, and recorded his vote accordingly. All this, of course, sounds very fantastical now in the light of what actually does happen at a General Election. But the Bentham-Mill School honestly regarded it as a possible idea. We all recognize this now as fantastical, but what must be substituted for it as a true account of the psychology of the matter? This kind of inquiry would have to go into two parts — an account of the process by which the mass of the electors are converted, and the quite different process in the minds of the intellectuals, The first has been done very completely and amusing by Gustave Le Bon in “Psychology of the Crowd,” and in Graham Wallas’s “Human Nature in Politics.” They recognize quite clearly that the process of conversion here is anything but intellectual.
They show the modern politician frankly and cynically recognizing this, setting out deliberately to hypnotize the elector, as the owners of patent medicines hypnotize the buyers. They don’t argue; they deliberately reiterate a short phrase, such as “Pears’ Soap” or “Pea Food,” until it gets into the mind of the victim, by a process of suggestion definitely not intellectual. But no one has yet given any connected theory of the more interesting part of the subject—the conversion of the “intellectual,” of the leisured middle-class wobbler. Wallas himself somehow leaves you with a suspicion in your mind that he does still think that the “intellectual” is in the position which Mill, in the age of naive belief in reason, imagined him to be—that of weighing arguments, and then calmly deciding a question on its merits. Now, nothing could be grater nonsense. No one can escape from the law of mental nature I have referred to. We are all subject to it. We may be under the delusion that we are deciding a question from purely rational motives, but we never are. Even the detached analyst of the phenomena is himself subject to the law. Conversion is always emotional and non-rational.
Now this does seem to me to be a point of practical importance if it helps us to convert this class. For though the type may not be numerous, it does have, in the end, a big influence in politics. Not very obviously or directly, for in no country do the intellectuals appear to lead less than in ours; but ultimately and by devious ways their views soak down and color the whole mass. The first step is to recognize the fundamental identity of the two processes of conversion — that en masse, and that of the intellectuals; in this respect that mere logical presentment is of very little use. As the modern electioneer sets out on a cynical recognition of the fact to convert the mass, so he should just as directly try to capture the smaller class.
There must be two quite different methods of attack, for what attracts the one repels the other. Great words empty of sense, promises of Elysium a few years ahead, have been, and always must be, the means by which the mass can be stirred, but they leave the few very cold. In this case, sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander, for the only resemblance is the fact of appetite. Now, here seems to me to be the weakens of the Unionists. They emphatically do not provide any sauce for the gander. They practice the other art well enough, the art which Graham Wallas analyzes — that of manipulating the popular mind by advertisement and other means. But the smaller one they neglect, for no one can seriously think that Mr. Garvin is fit food for the adult intelligence. I have in mind a particular minor variety of this class: the undergraduate who, arriving in London, joins the Fabian Society. Now there is nothing inevitable in this. He may imagine that an intellectual process landed him there. Nothing of the kind. The Fabian Society provides him with the kind of stuff to fit in with his complex prejudices, and the Conservatives do not. He is merely a Socialist faute de mieux. The emotions involved are fairly simple—an insatiable desire for “theories,” the vague idea to be “advanced,” and the rest of it. There is no reason in the nature of things why the other side should not cater for this. In France, Action Française has made it rather bête démodée to be a Socialist. The really latest and advanced thing is to be a Neo-Royalist. They serve their victim with the right kind of sauce. So successful has this been that Jaurès recently warned his followers against the cleverness of the bourgeoisie.
To get back, however, to the main position. I take the view for the time being that we are not concerned with truth, but with success. I am considering the problem that should present itself to the acute party entrepreneur—did such a mythical person exist—how can this particular type of people be converted? Here is the type; how can it be caught? They must be converted exactly as everyone else is—by hitching on your propaganda to one of their centers of prejudice and emotion. But the difficulty comes in the analysis and discovery of these centers. They must be there, but they are complex and elusive, and sometimes unknown even to the subject himself. Here is where the difference comes in between this and the other sophistic. The problem in the case of the laborer is not so much to find these centers as to get hold of them before the other man does and to stick to them. Some day, I surmise, all this analysis will be done for us in a neat little manual.
But meanwhile, I can give data for the future compiler of such a book by analyzing one of these typical complexes, which I found embedded in my own head and influencing my politics without my knowing it. I probed my mind and got rid of it as I might of a tumor, but the operation was a violent one.
It came about from watching my own change of mind on the subject of Colonial Preference. I was, I suppose the typical wobbler, for while politically inclined to be a Protectionist, yet, as a pupil of Professor Marshall’s, theory pulled me in the opposite direction. Now, amid the whirlwind of that campaign of argument, I noticed that two apparently disconnected and irrelevant things stuck in my head had a direct influence on my judgment, whilst the “drums and tramplings” of a thousand statistics passed over me without leaving a trace. The one was a cartoon in Punch—Mr. Chamberlain landing at Dover and being passed quickly by the Customs officer: “There is no bother here, sir; this is a free country.” The other was an argument most constantly used at the time, I imagine, by Sir Edward Grey, and recently revived by a supposedly Conservative paper which does most of its thinking in its heels. “To attempt,” he said, “to bind the Empire together by tariffs would be [a] dangerously artificial thing; it would violently disturb its ‘natural growth.’ It was in opposition to the constant method which has made us a successful Colonial power. Let other nations fail through trying to do things too directly.” This had a powerful effect on me, and I imagine must have had on a great many other people; for this reason: that whereas we all of us had a great many emotions and nerve-paths grouped round the idea of Empire, these were by this argument bound up with Free Trade. It seemed to bring Preference in conflict with a deeply seated and organized set of prejudices grouped round the word “free” and “natural,” for the moving force of the cartoon and Grey’s argument were the same. This may look like an intellectual decision, but it isn’t. I could not, at the time, have formulated it as definitely as I do now. It was then just a kind of vague sentiment which, in the intervals of argument, pulled one in a certain way. This was so because, as I have maintained, conviction is in the end an emotional process. The arguments on each side were so numerous that each one inhibited the slight effect the other might have had, and in the resulting stalemate it was just odd little groups of emotions and prejudices, like the one indicated, that decided one.
Now this is only a prejudice—why should one have a definite distrust of any constructive scheme, and think that leaving it to nature was so much better and so much more in the English tradition? Looking at it from an a priori standpoint, it seems probable that a definite policy directed towards a certain end will gain that end. Examples are all around us to prove it—that of German unity in particular. There was no leaving it to nature there. Yet, in spite of its absurdity from a reasonable point of view, this idea of what is “natural” and “free” remained a fixed obsession. It was too deep-seated to be moved by any argument, and had all the characteristics of one of those complex prejudices which I said must be analyzed as preliminary to the art of conversion. It has all kinds of ramifications, and affects opinion in many directions, on conscription, for example, and a score of other matters. It can be traced back from its origin in the disputes of rival schools of medieval physicians scholastically inclined. Berthelot has analyzed the influence of these medical doctrines on politics. It can be seen particularly well in Quesnay, at the same time a doctor and an economist, from whom Adam Smith borrowed the theory of free exchange. It can be followed through Adam Smith, Coleridge, and Burke to the formation of the political theory of laissez-faire which dominated the 19th century. This theory of politics — and, of course, it is this which produced the personal prejudice which influenced me — may be considered as a kind of Hippocratic theory of political medicine whose principal precept in the treatment of the social “body” is that on no account must the “natural” remedial force of nature be interfered with.
Now, once I had got the theory out fairly and squarely before me, had seen its origin and history, its influence over me had gone. It was powerful before because I really didn’t know that it existed. The thing that most interested me was how it got so firmly fixed in my mind-center without my knowing it; and here comes really the only practical part of this paper. In my own case, the prejudice, I ma certain, had been formed in this way—the histories I had been brought up on, while never stating this view as a theory, had yet so stated all events in our Colonial history as to convey it by suggestion. Always the English were shown as succeeding as by some vague natural genius for colonization or something of that kind. Never by a consistent constructive effect. The people who did make definite plans, like the French under Colbert, and later the Germans, were always represented as failing. Now, this was the reason that the idea was so embedded in one. If it had been presented definitely as a theory, it would have been destroyed by argument. It became an instinct because it was suggested to one in this much more indirect and subtle way.
It took me years to get rid of the effects of this. For when an idea is put into your head in this indirect way, you are never conscious of its existence. It just silently colors all your views. Born with blue spectacles, you would think the world was blue, and never be conscious of the existence of the distorting glass. Ideas insinuated like this become in the end a kind of mental category; the naïve person never recognizes them as subjective, but thinks they lie in the facts themselves. Here, then, is my practical point. This kind of thing is dangerous. One is handicapped, as far as clear-thinking about politics goes, by being educated in Whig histories. It takes strenuous efforts to get rid of the pernicious notion implanted in one by Macaulay, say. My remedy would be this—prevention. I should adopt for secondary schools what was recently proposed as a solution of the religious difficulty in primary ones. Let there be so many hours set apart for history each week, and let each political party be allowed to send in their own historian. The first step towards this must be the writing o a definitely Tory history. The Whigs have too long had it their own way in this sphere. I can give a definite example of a recent successful accomplishment of this kind of thing in Charles Maurras’s history of the French Monarchy, which is converting scores of young Republicans.
After all, there is nothing ridiculous in the idea itself. It only appears so because it is a logical, definite application in a small scale of a process which is taken as a matter of course in greater ones. All national histories are partisan, and designed to give us a good conceit of ourselves. We recognize that even while we laugh at the American school-books and the Belgian accounts of the Waterloo campaign. But we are not familiar with the same process in small affairs inside the nation. But it is coming rapidly. I can mention Howell Evans’s history of Wales, recommended recently by the Welsh Education Council, which ends up with a panegyric of the late Budget. Or take Mrs. Richard Green’s history of Ireland, now being sold at half-price to all secondary schools of a Nationalist character. It is definitely written to convince the Irishman that his country was not civilized by the English conquest, but had itself, in earlier times, the most cultured civilization in Europe. It is done by a careful selection and manipulation of old manuscripts. It goes flat against the known facts, for the poet Spenser described them as naked barbarians. But what does that matter? It fulfills its intention. Anyone who still has a lingering dislike of this frankly partisan type of history is under the influence of an opposite ideal. He would prefer an impartial record of facts. But this ideal standard by which he condemns the party history does not exist. True, there has been a school of scholars who definitely took it as their ideal — the modern Cambridge historians. But I remember the late Dr. Emil Reich telling me that the greatest triumph of his life took place in a room at Cambridge, when, after an argument on this very subject, he was able to take down from the bookshelves a well-known Jesuit history of the Elizabethan persecutions which contained nothing but facts, no biased comment or theory, but which, at the same time, produces an extreme anti-Protestant effect. According to his own account, this entirely silenced them.
No, the whole thing is impossible. No history can be a faithful mirror. If it were, it would be as long and as dull as life itself. It must be a selection, and, being a selection, must inevitably be biased. Personally, I don’t regard this as a disagreeable necessity; I like the idea. After all, who would care an atom about the past were it not a reservoir of illustrations to back up his own social theories and prejudices? For purposes of political argument, I myself specialize in the history of the 4th century, for no casual opponent knows enough to contradict me. If I rashly illustrated them from the French Revolution, everyone can remember enough facts to back the opposite view.
Originally published in the Commentator, Feb. 22, 1911; March 1, 1911; March 8, 1911.
T.E. Hulme (1883-1917) was an English poet and critic whose books include Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Artand Notes on Language and Style.