This epithet began life in early spring, 1908, when A. R. Orage, as the new solo editor of the “new”New Age, chose to publish a series of divergent opinions on socialist policies. He probably wished to demonstrate that the paper was more than an organ of established socialist (i. e., Fabian) organizations.
What has become known as the “Chesterbelloc” controversy commenced with Hilaire Belloc’s “Thoughts on Modern Thought” (02.06: 108), which pointed out a dangerous authoritarianism in some of the policies of the Fabian socialists. In the next issue (02.10: 189) for 4 January 1908, G. K. Chesterton contributed an essay, “Why I am Not a Socialist.” This probably was designed to counter Arnold Bennett’s earlier “Why I am a Socialist”(02.05: 90) as well as to adumbrate Belloc’s views in the earlier piece.
In the next issue, for 11 January, H. G. Wells contributed an article, “About Chesterton and Belloc ”(02.11:209). A three-way debate was launched, and in the issue for 15 February 1908 (02:309), George Bernard Shaw attacked both Chesterton and Belloc in an essay that instantly became a classic for its fabulous if somewhat nasty parody. GBS described a mythical four-legged beast/prophet that had appeared to save civilization from the dangers of liberal collectivism: G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953).
Shaw called this beast the Chesterbelloc — implying that the fat hindquarters represented an overweight Chesterton and the pointy-nosed front portion a long-nosed, supercilious and judgmental, if skinny, Belloc. This term stuck to the two writers ever after, as they labored to convince England of the psychological and moral dangers of big government, technology, and science — the brave new world of state social control.
Chesterton’s and Belloc’s memorable friendship had begun in 1900. With the assist of this episode, their literary partnership blossomed into a lifetime journalistic assault upon the ills of the 20th century. Both prolific authors, they produced hundreds of books dealing with this panoply of issues. Belloc’s groundbreaking book The Servile State (1912) has been called the seminal book in warning of the dangers of totalitarianism.
Generally, the interpretation has been that the Chesterbelloc represented a common set of opinions shared by the two men. However, according to James Corrin, that was not, apparently, GBS’s original intent. Rather, ““Chesterbellocisms,” in Shaw’s use of the term[,] were opinions dictated by Belloc which Chesterton expressed without having discovered them for himself” (Corrin 27). Shaw created this unnatural beast to represent the mistaken union of the two men, suggests Corrin.
Scholars suggest that GBS probably never understood GKC. Shaw considered GKC the more brilliant of the Chesterbellocian duo, but implied that, in the debate at hand, Belloc was taking the lead in their thinking and in fact leading GKC astray. Indeed, Chesterton’s official biographer, Maisie Ward, has confirmed that GKC probably took most of his ideas from Belloc. Nonetheless, Ward judges GKC the better thinker of the two, even while Belloc may have been the more systematic philosopher. Although little love was lost between GBS and Belloc, GKC and GBS remained lifelong friends.
As one scholar has pointed out, Shaw and the Chesterbelloc asked the same question of society: what to do about all these poor people? Their answers were different, but they were engaged in the same issues. The Chesterbelloc’s critique of collectivism tore gaping holes in Fabian philosophy and many people were drawn away from Fabianism because of it. The debate also helped Chesterton and Belloc clarify their arguments for the movement that soon was called Distributism.
Works Cited and Consulted
- Corrin, Jay P. G. K. Chesterton & Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity. Athens/London: Ohio U Press, 1981.
- Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw, Vol.2: 1898-1918: The Pursuit of Power. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989.
- Martin, Wallace. The New Age Under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1967.
- Sullivan, Andrew, ed. British Literary Magazines, Vol.3: The Victorian and Edwardian Age, 1837-1913. Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 1984.
- Ward, Maisie. Gilbert Keith Chesterton. London and New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943.