Imprisoned Ideas

The Honorable Mr. Brown, British journalist, politician, and television personality, was a Mem­ber of Parliament for Labour (1929-31) and as an Independent (1942-50). This article is re­printed here by permission from The Spectator of September 19, 1947.

There are many classifications  into which men and women may be divided — as upper, middle, or lower class; rich, well-to-do, and poor; religious, skeptical, and atheist; Conservative, Liberal, La­bour; Catholic, Protestant; master and man; and so forth and so on, ad infinitum.

But, as I think, the only cate­gorization which really matters is that which divides men as between the Servants of the Spirit and the Prisoners of the Organization. That classification, which cuts right across all the other classifi­cations, is indeed the fundamental one. The idea, the inspiration, originates in the internal world, the world of the spirit. But, just as the human spirit must incar­nate in a body, so must the idea incarnate in an organization. Whether the organization be po­litical, religious, or social is im­material to my present argument. The point is that, the idea having embodied itself in organization, the organization then proceeds gradually to slay the idea which gave it birth.

We may see this process at work in many fields. Let us take one or two by way of illustration.

In the field of religion a prophet, an inspired man, will see a vision of truth. He expresses that vision as best he may in words. He will not say all he saw. For every ex­pression of truth is a limitation of it. But he will, so to speak, ex­press the sense of his vision.

What he says is only partly un­derstood by those who hear him; and when they repeat what they understand him to have meant, there will already be a consider­able departure from the original vision of the prophet. Upon what his disciples understand of the prophet’s message, an organiza­tion, a church, will be built. The half understood message will crys­talize into a creed.

Before long the principal con­cern of the church will be to sustain itself as an organization. To this end any departure from the creed must be controverted and if necessary suppressed as heresy. In a few score or few hundred years what was conceived as a ve­hicle of a new and higher truth has become a prison for the souls of men. And men are murdering each other for the love of God. The thing has become its opposite.

In the field of politics the dis­possessed dream of a social order which shall be based on righteous­ness, a system in which men shall not exploit their fellow men, in which each shall contribute ac­cording to his capacity and each shall receive according to his need. Upon this conception a political party is built. It gives battle, over the years, to the existing order of things. As with the church, it is not long before the primary concern of the party is to sustain it­self. Here, again, any departure from the political creed must be repressed. The "party line" must be kept straight and dissent kept under.

In the course of time the party achieves power. By this time it is led no longer by starry-eyed ideal­ists, but by extremely tough guys — who then proceed to use their newly acquired power to establish a stronger despotism than the one they overthrew, and to sew up all the holes in it that they themselves discovered in the old. What emerges is not freedom and social justice, but a more comprehensive and totalitarian control, used to maintain a new privileged class, which, because of the earlier ex­perience of its members, is still more ruthless than the old.

Similar illustrations could be drawn from all fields of life. But these two will suffice to demon­strate the truth with which I am here concerned. It is that, the idea having given birth to the organi­zation, the organization develops a self-interest which has no con­nection with, and becomes inimical to, the idea with which it began. Now the thing which permits this process of diversion to take place, so that the organization comes to stand for the opposite of the idea which originally inspired it, is the tendency in men and women to become Prisoners of the Organiza­tion, instead of being Servants of the Spirit.

In this tendency there are many elements. There is a sense in which you cannot run an organization without becoming its prisoner. Or­ganization has its own necessities, in the interests of which the origi­nal idea has to be somewhat quali­fied. As soon as the idea passes from the unmanifested and em­bodies itself in the actual, it be­gins to be invaded by what the poet called "the world’s slow stain." In this there need be no conscious infidelity on the part of the leaders. Better, they may well argue, that the great idea should be only partly manifested than that it should remain merely an idea in vacuo. Better half the ideal loaf than no bread at all.

Next, the wider the area to which the idea is introduced, the larger the circle of men and wom­en to whom it is propagated through the organization, the more it must be "stepped down" for propaganda purposes. The idea which gives birth to a party which wants to establish the cooperative commonwealth must be translated into practical proposals, such as the eight-hour day, the five-day week and what not, if it is to at­tract a mass backing. And so the organization becomes less the ve­hicle of the idea than a channel through which particular interests must be served.

The service of such particular interests attracts the backing of other organized bodies more in­terested in the limited objectives which the organization has now adopted than in the great idea it­self. And the pressure of such bodies is felt by the organization, with the result that the idea tends to retreat into the background in favor of less ambitious objectives. In this world the Devil walks, and it is necessary sometimes to hold a candle to the Devil.

Another element is this. Proph­ets always stand a good chance of being bumped off. This chance is increased if they come down from the hills into the market place, and still further increased if they come down unarmed. Prophets should only go unarmed into the market place if they think that their work is done, and are prepared to depart hence. Some prophets take to arms. Even where the original prophet does not, his disciples may do so. The organization which they build will almost certainly do so. The Devil must be fought with the Devil’s weapons.

This is argumentatively sound but practically disastrous. For it means that the servants of God, the disciples of the idea, tend to descend to the Devil’s level. As the organization grows, it deterio­rates. Its leaders are not the men they were.

Among the rank and file many things combine to keep them in the organization, even when they become uneasily conscious that there is a dawning, and even a yawning, gap between organiza­tion and idea. First there is the force of inertia. It is easier not to resign than to resign. Drift is easier than decision. Next there is the factor of personal humility, the tendency to assume that, difficult as the thing seems, the lead­ers, after all, probably know best. Next there is the factor of senti­ment. All of us tend to project on­to the organization of which we are members the virtues we would like it to have, and to be blind to its defects. And, finally, men are gregarious creatures and dislike falling out of the ranks away from the comrades of years.

Gradually the organization changes. As it changes, it attracts new elements which approve the change. Not because of conscious calculation, which comes much later, when the idea has been de­serted, but because organization develops its own logic, its own raison d’être, and because men tend to become the prisoners of the organization, the organization can finish up by standing for the precise opposite of the idea which called it into being.

What is the moral to be drawn from all this? One moral, it would not be wholly facetious to suggest, might be that the first rule for any organization should be a rule pro­viding for its dissolution within a limited period of time. "This or­ganization shall be dissolved not later than…." But the deeper moral is concerned with our atti­tude to organization as such. The moral is that even when we are members of an organization, our attitude to it should be one of par­tial detachment. We must be above it even while we are in it. We should join it in the knowledge that there we may have no abid­ing-place. We should be weekly tenants, not long-lease holders. We should accept no such commit­ments as would prevent our leav­ing it when circumstances make this necessary. We should reckon on being in almost perpetual re­bellion within it. Above all, we should regard all loyalties to or­ganization as tentative and pro­visional. The whole concept of "my party, right or wrong," "my union, right or wrong," "my church, right or wrong" should be utterly alien to our thinking.

We must be Servants of the Spirit, not Prisoners of the Or­ganization. We must keep in touch with the sources of life, not lose ourselves in its temporary vehicles. And whenever the demand of the spirit, the categorical imperatives of the soul, conflict with the de­mands of the organization, it is the first to which we must listen. But all this was said long ago. It is all contained in one of the leg­endary sayings of Jesus, and bears all the marks of authenticity:  

"This world is a bridge. Ye shall pass over it. But ye shall build no houses upon it."

Bivouacs. Yes! Tents. Maybe! Houses. No!