Rediscovering A Neglected Classic

We can thank the excellent A Common Reader book catalogue (www.commonreader.com) for giving Evelyn Waugh's Robbery Under Law its first American publication in roughly 60 years. Published now by the catalogue's Akadine Press, it is, like all Waugh's oeuvre, skillfully written. It is also easily the most political of Waugh's books, for among other things it is a critique of socialism, an affirmation of the free market, and shows a preference for monarchy over democracy.

With regard to the last, Waugh says that elections, "even in countries of homogenous race, widespread education, and a tradition of public service are a capricious guide; in Latin America they have always been farcical. There are, in various parts of the world, various means of securing election; the candidate may buy votes in the old English way of ready money down, in the new English way of promises to pay from the public funds when elected; he may evict opponents from their cottages or shoot them up with machine-guns in the streets of Cicero; the Mexicans, for the most part, prefer to leave the voting papers uncounted and draw from the lists made up at the party headquarters." Monarchy at least provides for a rational process of succession.

Robbery Under Law covers much of the same ground as Graham Greene's The Lawless Roads. Both authors were Catholics who in the late 1930s went to Mexico to observe firsthand the violent anti-Catholic persecutions there. (Indeed, Catholicism was officially illegal; Church property was seized; religious orders were forcibly closed; and practicing priests were subject to execution.)

Greene's book is memorably atmospheric. Waugh's Robbery Under Law is a much more straightforward economic, political, social, cultural, historical, and religious polemic. It is not only very well — and entertainingly — done, but it casts a light on a country that most Americans, despite our proximity to Mexico, know virtually nothing about; and most of what we do "know" is wrong.

I used Waugh and Greene both for my own discussion of Mexico in Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History. And while I'll take Greene for style, I warm to Waugh because we share many of the same convictions and prejudices. Robbery Under Law is also highly quotable.

Here's Waugh on the Mexican character: "Mexican popular heroes are drawn in another shape — squat, swarthy, passionate, intolerant, vain men who when cornered shoot their way to freedom and take to the mountains, who will steal and promise and give lavishly, sell anything and repudiate the bargain, murder their friends and buy off their enemies, nurse a grudge and forget a kindness, sometimes grossly sacrilegious, sometimes heroically pious, Aztec and Castillian inextricably confounded."

Waugh's book is subtitled The Mexican Object-Lesson, and its relevance for some readers will be less historical or literary than it will be the enduring political lessons Waugh draws from Mexico. One of these is that Mexican history illustrates the degrading and destructive effect on a civilization of Leftwing ideas — especially as these Leftwing ideas manifest themselves as materialist and opposed to religion. Eighteenth century Mexico, Waugh argues, was a more educated and civilized country than the early United States. But once it became independent of Spain (in 1821), political movements of the Left progressively destroyed Mexico's Catholic civilization. Waugh concludes: "Altruism does not flourish long without religion. The rulers of Mexico have almost all started by denying the primary hypothesis of just government." Indeed, Waugh asserts, Mexico became "a country where there are no conservatives."

And this leads Waugh to the pronouncement of a sort of political creed: "A conservative is not merely an obstructionist…, a brake on frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do…. Civilization… is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all…. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity…. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace…. There is nothing, except ourselves, to stop our own countries becoming like Mexico. That is the moral, for us, of her decay."

Robbery Under Law was written on the eve of the Second World War. But its metaphorical call to arms — of the necessity of conservatives enrolled on the side of civilization against the forces of barbarism within our own societies — resonates beyond even the hecatombs of World War II.

It is a book that is very well to have back at hand. Kudos to the Akadine Press.

February 5, 2002

H. W. Crocker III is the author of the newly published Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History (Random House). His prize-winning novel, The Old Limey, will be reissued in paperback this March.

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