William Hazlitt, the British radical who was the most brilliant social and literary critic of the early 19th century, offered this assessment of moderation - in life and politics.
"A cold, calculating indifference to matters of taste is generally the effect of want of feeling; as affected moderation in politics is (nine times out of 10) a cloak for want of principle."
I have been rereading Hazlitt's essays - which are well collected in the Penguin Classics text, "The Fight and Other Writings," and well contextualized in Tom Paulin's 1998 biography, "The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt's Radical Style" - in preparation for 2003. I wanted to go into this difficult year with a reference point stronger than the murky commentary of the present; and it seemed right to turn to the man who, with the poets and reformers he celebrated, set in motion a radical rethinking of the social order that unleashed movements against slavery, colonialism, monarchy and the corruptions of class and capital.
After almost two centuries, Hazlitt remains a very relevant radical. As Britain's great dissenting parliamentarian and writer Michael Foot observed from the depths of his country's dispiriting experience of Thatcherism, "William Hazlitt (is) my guide. No would-be reader or writer, no democratic socialist could wish for a better one."
It strikes me that America has stumbled into a moment as dark and threatening as those bemoaned by Foot in the 1980s and Hazlitt in the early years of the 19th century. Reactionary conservatives have gained varying degrees of control over all three branches of the federal government - and they stand poised to expand that control in the year to come with a move to pack the Supreme Court with their ideological kin. They are busily dismantling the regulatory and programmatic functions of government and diverting available funds from the common good to an already supersized military-industrial complex. Civil liberties are under attack. The economy is slowing to a recessionary crawl. And the opposition party continues to pull its punches.
In times such as these, Hazlitt is, indeed, a necessary guide. This is so because Hazlitt rejected the easy out - which is so fashionable with today's Democratic "opposition" leaders - of offering incremental opposition to monumental wrong-headedness.
Hazlitt despised "dry abstract reasoners" who saw policy-making as a process of negotiation and compromise. He celebrated "zeal in the cause of liberty" and the relentless pursuit of "the last, best hopes of man." Hazlitt did not fear radical change; he celebrated it as a necessary balm: "So society, when out of order, which it is whenever the interests of the many are regularly and outrageously sacrificed to those of the few, must be repaired, and either a reform or a revolution cleanse its corruptions and renew its elasticity," he argued.
Hazlitt embraced reason, but he also believed in passion - something that seems to be in short supply in the camps of the current opposition. "Zeal will do more than knowledge," he wrote.
Like Byron, Shelley and the other poets he immortalized, Hazlitt recognized that it was right to reject the premise of the loyal - and bureaucratic - opposition in favor of an opposition that is capable of posing a genuine challenge to the corrupt and corrupting status quo. Reason, and passion, demanded no less.
"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be," Hazlitt wrote.
In 2003, as in 1803, the future will be defined not by those who accept the way things are, nor by those who would perfect what is. The future belongs, as Hazlitt argued, to those who abide by a radical faith in what ought to be.
John Nichols is associate editor for The Capital Times.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times