Studies in Socialism/Speech at the Anglo-French Parliamentary Dinner

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XIV

SPEECH AT THE ANGLO-FRENCH PARLIAMENTARY DINNER[1]

 

For me too it is a great pleasure to welcome our guests this evening, and I hail with delight this latest sign, which has been preceded by many others, of the coming together of two great nations.

One hundred and twenty years ago, in the revolutionary crisis that hurried forward the movement of the modern world, they met in a long and violent conflict. But this formidable encounter did not compromise the future. England might have feared the growing and expanding Revolution. She feared that her free commerce and her legitimate influence would be imperilled by a coalition of all the European nations, united by the revolutionary Idea and the revolutionary Sword. And she feared that a violent propaganda would disturb the balance of her own constitution and would substitute the régime of crises for the strong and continuous evolution that marked her own greatness.

Hence arose a misunderstanding big with storm and peril. Experience, however, has shown that the very Revolution that quickened the free energies of all peoples, increased also the scope and the resources of the eldest of the free peoples. Experience has shown that the ardent force of the French Revolution animated without disturbing the evolution of the English nation: this nation has been able to pass without a shock from the oligarchical suffrage of Pitt to the almost universal suffrage of Gladstone; it has been able to enlarge the foundations of its public life without disturbing them.

And history itself has done away with the misunderstanding, for though difficulties may arise in the expansion of both nations across the face of the world, the day for irreparable conflicts has long since passed away. Against accidents and surprises we have now set a friendship that is growing daily in trust and good understanding. It is in the organisation of this friendship, if I may use the expression, that we are now engaged.

This friendship is not exclusive, nor is it offensive; there is nothing secret about it. It not only does not threaten any one, but it can annoy no one. The trust that exists between us involves no distrust towards others.

Human life, and international life especially, has been saturated with hate, jealousy, and deceit for so long, that even to-day, in the midst of profound European peace, there are some minds who cannot see two nations drawing closer together without speculating against whom or against what they are uniting. These people could not, I suppose, attend a wedding without asking against whom the marriage was directed. No, if the great free peoples, living under the parliamentary régime, England, Italy, and France, join hands and become friends, it is not with the idea of using the advantages of freedom to secure selfish ends. They do it to help on the great European and human alliance, by enlarging and extending national friendships. They do it to serve the cause of civilisation, of justice, and of peace, in Europe, in the Near East, and at last in the entire world!

And the workers of France and England long passionately for this great European peace, the peace of all humanity, stable, well organised, and permanent. In these quiet and smiling days I cannot forget that a few years ago, at the very height of the crisis that threatened the good relations of the two countries, delegates from the English trades-unions came to Paris and entered into a compact of brotherly friendship with the French unions at the Bourse de Travail. And they said then a wise and true thing: that we ought to build up a reserve of confidence and solidarity between the two nations in peaceful years, upon which we could draw during the trials and excitements of difficult times.

This is what we are doing to-day, gentlemen. We are devoting to the cause of peace that faculty of foresight which, until to-day, man has reserved exclusively for the service of war.

I lately found in our National Library a little anonymous work, published by Johnson, near St. Paul's Church, in 1792, in which the author cries: "The time has come when the silent majesty of misery must be heard," The majesty of suffering labour is no longer dumb: it speaks now with a million tongues, and it asks the nations not to increase the ills which crush down the workers by an added burden of mistrust and hate, by wars and the expectation of wars.

Gentlemen, you may ask how and when and in what form this longing for international concord will express itself to some purpose. I will not hazard a guess this evening. Experience has taught me that one must be prudent when one speaks on these questions before one Parliament, and reason suggests that this prudence should be doubled when speaking before two.

Moreover, if we lack modesty and patience, we need only remember that in 1790 an Englishman who (before M. Mill) represented the town of Calais—the famous Conventionnel, Thomas Paine—wrote in a book, which had a great success in France, that England, France, and the United States ought to agree to cut down their naval expenses by half, and devote the money thus economised to old-age pensions for workmen; but the memory of this plea is already distant, so distant that there is more pathos than danger in evoking it.

And if you press me to risk a prophecy on my own account, I can only answer you by a parable which seems a little strange still and obscure. I gleaned it by fragments from the legends of Merlin the magician, from the Arabian Nights, and from a book that is still unread.

Once upon a time there was an enchanted forest. It had been stripped of all verdure, it was wild and forbidding. The trees, tossed by the bitter winter wind that never ceased, struck one another with a sound as of breaking swords. When at last, after a long series of freezing nights and sunless days that seemed like nights, all living things trembled with the first call of spring, the trees became afraid of the sap that began to move within them. And the solitary and bitter spirit that had its dwelling within the hard bark of each of them said very low, with a shudder that came up from the deepest roots: "Have a care! If thou art the first to risk yielding to the wooing of the new season, if thou art the first to turn thy lance-like buds into blossoms and leaves, their delicate raiment will be torn by the rough blows of the trees that have been slower to put forth leaves and flowers."

And the proud and melancholy spirit that was shut up within the great Druidical oak spoke to its tree with peculiar insistence: "And wilt thou, too, seek to join the universal love-feast, thou whose noble branches have been broken by the storm?"

Thus, in the enchanted forest, mutual distrust drove back the sap, and prolonged the death-like winter even after the call of spring.

What happened at last? By what mysterious influence was the grim charm broken? Did some tree find the courage to act alone, like those April poplars that break into a shower of verdure and give from afar the signal for a renewal of all life? Or did a warmer and more life-giving beam start the sap moving in all the trees at once? For lo! in a single day the whole forest burst forth into a magnificent flowering of joy and peace. (Applause.)

Gentlemen, if you will allow me to fit my toast to this old allegory, and to give it before you and with you the form of an invocation to Nature, I will drink to the sunbeam that charmed the whole forest into bloom.

These admirable words were greeted by a burst of enthusiasm. Friends and opponents alike came up to congratulate the Socialist leader.

(Extract from the report of the visit of the group of English members of Parliament to Paris.)

  1. Delivered on November 26, 1903.