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Sir Ernest Benn seeks to avoid transatlantic misunderstanding

Sir Ernest Benn’s The State The Enemy was first published in 1953, in other words exactly half a century ago. Chapter 1, also entitled “The State The Enemy” begins with a justification for this title:

To the Individualist the State is the Enemy. Herbert Spencer put the whole matter into five words in the title of his book The Man Versus The State. Talk of the people, the country, or the nation stirs the emotions, but the word State has a hard steely ruthless suggestion, and the notion of a State with a soul or a heart does not occur because it cannot exist.

But Benn was aware that this word “State” might suggest different things, and different emotions to potential American readers. So he concluded his first chapter thus:

I am not unhopeful that these arguments may be of interest, and indeed use, to those in America who are concerned at the growth of governmental power and influence – and I must therefore justify my use of the word State to signify the evil which it is my aim to describe and mitigate. This book could be named The Bureaucracy, but that would only put the blame upon the hirelings who have undertaken for a price to do the will of an evil spirit which resides above them.

From a purely British point of view I conclude that the word State signifies more correctly the troubles with which I am concerned; but to the American reader still jealous of the rights and privileges of each of the forty-eight States my meaning may be obscured by the label I put on to it. Had I used the title Whitehall the Enemy the American sympathiser with my view could easily read “Washington” for “Whitehall.” I hope, however, that my use of the word State will not deter my American cousins, who look to the forty-eight separate self-governing States as instruments for restraining the Super-State at Washington, from examining arguments which apply to them as much as to us in Britain.

For some Americans, in other words, the “State” is a friend. But such Americans shouldn’t be put off from reading The State The Enemy.

And the same applies to reading Samizdata, no matter what they may sometimes read here.

11 comments to Sir Ernest Benn seeks to avoid transatlantic misunderstanding

  • Andy

    Fear not the use of the word “state” and “enemy” in the same breath, for here in the People’s Republic of California, the “state” is indeed the enemy.

  • Katherine

    Amen to that Andy.

  • asm

    I think his fears were ungrounded. When you write about “The State” in a political book, every American that reads it knows what you mean. The type that might be confused, wouldn’t be reading political books.

  • Guy Herbert

    Ernest Benn also published Lord Hewart’s great polemic against delegated legislation The New Despotism (1929). Pity that his relations Tony and now Hillary have done so much more for the cause of Whitehall than he was able to do against it.

  • Andrew Duffin

    I take it then, that there is no connection between Sir Ernest Benn and The Rt. Hon. Tony Wedgwood Benn?

  • Andy Wood

    …The Rt. Hon. Tony Wedgwood Benn…

    Surely you mean the 2nd Viscount Stansgate?

  • Guy Herbert

    Ernest Benn was Tony Benn’s uncle.

  • Blimey! Benn and Benn were uncle/nephew?

    Now there’s a nugget.

    Was Ernest also a Winchester boy, by any chance?

  • Guy Herbert

    Westminster, mark. The entire family went to Westminster (possibly that includes the girls in the current generation, but I’m guessing there.)

    Piers, the philosopher, is definitely liberty-leaning, though his speciality is medical ethics, and it would be unkind to pigeon-hole him politically.

  • Aha, Westminster?

    I wonder if Tony had a stressful time there.

  • Sigmund Knag

    There is another interesting title by Ernest Benn: His memoirs, published in 1949, bore the title “Happier Days.”