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Lee Cheek

To challenge the prevailing social and political orthodoxies of one’s time and place often encourages recrimination and eventual neglect. Such has been the fate of William Hurrell Mallock (1849-1923), a seminal thinker of the late Victorian period and a figure who is deserving of greater popular and scholarly attention. Mallock’s increasing concern for the diminishing influence of personal restraint and ethical discrimination was at odds with Western society’s ennobling of plebiscitary democracy and state control of the means of production. For Mallock, a steady concentration of political and economic power in national governments, increasing social and regional hostilities resulting from the quest for control, and the debasement of democratic rule, were ominous signs of the future that awaited the West.

Mallock: His Life and Times

Born into a privileged family at Cheriton Bishop in Devonshire, Mallock was the oldest child of the Reverend William and Margaret Mallock. Both sides of Mallock’s family possessed personages of great influence and intellect, and most of his immediate family were members of the agrarian gentry who were Tories in politics and ultra-High Anglicans as churchmen. In his Memoirs of Life and Literature, written in 1920, Mallock gives the only account of his upbringing, contained within a larger study of the social and political world he had inherited.[1] In almost every regard, Mallock accepted and affirmed the aristocratic view of social and political life, and this influence would permeate all of his writings.

Mallock’s education began at home, under the private tutelage of the Reverend W. B. Philpot, a student of Matthew Arnold and a close friend of Tennyson. While under Philpot’s pedagogical care, Mallock began to question his teacher’s bent towards radicalism and innovation, themes the young student would continue to critique for the remainder of his life. In 1869, following in his father’s footsteps, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself as a writer of some ability. From most accounts, he was not an accomplished student, preferring to write verse and occasionally meet with prominent literary figures, including Swinburne and Browning. Indeed, his writing was his salvation, and his diligent work bore fruit: in 1871, at Oxford, he won the Newdigate Prize for a poem he composed on the Isthmus of Suez.

During this period, Mallock began to create a series of outlines that would eventually become his most famous work, The New Republic, which, upon publication in 1877, brought great acclaim to the young writer.[2] A satirical novel, The New Republic was Mallock’s first attempt to expunge the “disease” of liberalism and religious skepticism from civil discourse.[3] The publication of The New Republic provided Mallock with a literary reputation as a critic, and this work would remain his most popular novel, although many more novels would follow. The emphases of The New Republic, especially the problem of faith and the nature of truth, would form the first part of Mallock’s literary corpus. He would spend the second part of his career as a man of letters addressing the prevailing social and political issues of his age, and The Limits of Pure Democracy serves as his last major—and most important—political critique.[4]

Mallock continued to write for various publications, composing a wide variety of works, including poetry, novels, theological works, and political treatises. He was a prolific author who produced over forty books and as many articles during his long career. As a result of his commentaries and the ardent nature of his own beliefs, Mallock also had many detractors, including George Bernard Shaw, J. A. Hobson, and T. H. Huxley. As he advanced in years, the appeal of Roman Catholicism for Mallock became profound, but he never became a convert. He died on April 2, 1923, in Wincanton, Somerset.

Mallock on Human Nature and the Modern Predicament

Over time, Mallock became apprehensive about what he perceived to be the decadence of modernity. The very nature of social and political life was being transformed by the perversion of democratic and socialist thought. Mallock feared the tradition that he had inherited was being replaced by a radically different view of human nature that included new, malleable institutional entailments as well. In describing the human predicament in this fashion, Mallock affirmed the Hebraic-Christian conception of human nature, viewing humanity as divided between the higher and lower ethical possibilities, and in need of personal and societal restraint as protection against the impulse of the moment. Mallock’s theory of human nature also rejected social contractarian typologies devoted to promoting humankind’s inert strength and virtue or ability to survive amidst isolation. Mallock contended that humankind’s primary obligations lie in his community and an aristocratic ordering of society. Self-discipline and love of neighbor begin with the individual, and spread to the community, and then to society as a whole. In other words, human nature serves to define the limitations of society and politics for Mallock on one hand, while on the other it presupposes and defends the necessity of a properly constituted community for securing the moral and ethical results concomitant to society’s perpetuation.

Mallock’s view of society and politics affirmed humanity’s situation between the earthly and the transcendent. The implicit role of the transcendent undergirds all of his writing, although his writings do not attempt to affirm a particular Christian worldview. If the fundamental religious tenets of Christianity were accepted, namely, immortality and the necessary vitality of belief, human freedom could be nourished and defended.[5]

Continuing to approach the fundamental questions of the human condition, Mallock undertook a comprehensive and demanding process of examination. Against the prevailing attitudes of most defenders of tradition during this period, Mallock refused to rely upon tradition alone; the practicality of everyday life for Mallock often coincided with the need for contemplation and reflection. Mallock assumed an empirical approach to politics, amassing data of various types, and basing his critiques upon the evidence collected. Amidst a long life, Mallock acknowledged the need for a serious study of the great principles of politics and the moral life. Mallock was a lifelong defender of tradition, claiming that he “unconsciously assumed in effect, if not in so many words, that any revolt or protest against the established order was indeed an impertinence, but was otherwise of not great importance.”[6]

 Mallock as Critic

Mallock was a defender of aristocratic political, social, and economic theory and practice. Mallock endorsed a properly-constituted notion of popular rule, but the excesses of modern democratic thought were of great concern to him. The limitations of vague language pervaded most discussions about politics and economics, and Mallock feared such a lack of precision would undermine the political and economic order.[7] Without considering the diversity within the community itself, most theories of democracy assessed overall electoral outcome as the only indicator of preference, Mallock argued. Simple majorities were based upon electoral whims—Whitman’s “divine average”—a radical majoritarian understanding of participation that eschews all considerations besides the act of voting itself.[8] Such a concept of popular government requires a unitary vision of politics and the state, and Mallock believed J. J. Rousseau and Abraham Lincoln—especially—Lincoln’s “barren platitudes” found in his public addresses—were the most dangerous examples of such thinking.[9] Mass or “pure” democracy “reduces the units of influence [people] to their lowest common denomination.”[10] In addition, Mallock rejected the argument made by advocates of pure or plebiscitarian democracy, that the apparatus of voting can resolve all conflict, even profound crises where no consensus of opinion exists. Mallock believed the “mechanical” limits of pure democracy were always present, and that simplification of voting procedures or enlarging the franchise did not lead to salutary ends. To truly understand the stronger interests or combinations of interests, and to assume this to be the sense of the community, the aristocratic element within the political order must be integrated with the regime.[11] Resulting from its simplicity and facility of construction, pure democracy possessed a troubling propensity for reporting cumulative electoral outcomes without regard for the natural divisions of authority.

The leveling influence of pure democracy in politics and industry presumes that humankind can participate in governing and decision-making en masse, at every available opportunity, and with the necessary leverage to undertake any possible action. Mallock’s fundamental criticism of such an understanding of democracy suggests that attaining a true majority under any circumstances is illusory at best, a “phantom objective,” and utopian at worst.[12] The simple majority can only function effectively in a political world devoid of geographical and economic divisions and without competing claims upon authority. In fact, Mallock argued that this pure democracy could not sustain authentic popular rule, and was incompatible with a comprehensive appreciation of the concept. Secondly, if popular rule is predicated upon providing the citizenry with an expedient option to initiate whatever they desire, then popular rule itself must no longer be claimed as the primary achievement of modern political life. Individual and communal assertion and preference, after all, are often prominently associated with other political systems, especially modern authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that discourage true popular rule in any concrete form while professing to represent the actual sentiments of an oftentimes amorphous populace. As the twenty-first century commences, Mallock’s insights provide a guide for understanding and responding to the crisis of a postmodern internationalism in politics and economics that promotes a vulgarized model of popular rule and corporate decision-making that merely consists of the collection of individual wills and sentiments without regard to the substantial and historical limitations of humankind.

Mallock further argued that the electoral and participatory attributes of genuine popular rule suffer as the result of pure democracy’s tendency to identify the majority as whomever votes in a particular election while disregarding the range of responses necessary to adequately canvass the citizenry. Moreover, the leveling theories of political socialism associated with Karl Marx, the Webbs, and George Bernard Shaw, only denigrated the genius of enduring, aristocratic influence on the body politic, weakening the infrastructure in terms of its ability to govern. [13] Finally, Mallock noted, if the spirit of restraint that is so essential to the English constitutional and political tradition suffers a devaluation, the future prospects for the regime are diminished.

Restraint—societal and personal—encourages a tenor of resiliency within the political and economic order by imposing some limitations upon a temporally elected majority’s ability to assert sovereign authority. Imbued with societal and personal restraint, this type of government and political economy also guards against the impulse of the moment controlling its decision-making, while developing political and economic institutions that mirror those qualities premised upon restraint. It is precisely the inculcation of these habits into social, political, and economic structures that exemplified Mallock’s worldview.

Enduring Lessons

In his many works, especially the Limits of Pure Democracy, Mallock successfully developed a science of conservatism based upon an affirmation of personal restraint, aristocratic rule, and market economics.[14] He attracted a wide array of critics and supporters from diverse perspectives. The epigones of his detractors remain consistent in their criticisms.[15] The defenders of Mallock’s work have also recently experienced a resurgence of scholarly activity, which proves the continuing relevance of his perceptive insights for contemporary situations.[16]

For Mallock, pure democracy was a practical and theoretical impossibility. To resolve the dilemmas facing the West, he urged systematic research and the rejection of simplistic responses, such as the “crude puerilities” proposed by Marx and others.[17] Published in the assumed heyday of plebiscitarian democracy in 1918, at the end of World War I, combined with Britain’s approval of the Representation Act that enfranchised women, it is possible to dismiss the profound insights offered by Mallock in The Limits of Pure Democracy. But to neglect Mallock’s vital rearticulation of popular rule, and his stress on the need for ethical-political restraint in all its modes, is to also diminish the prospect of recovering a humane social order in an age of increased social fragmentation. To the end, Mallock remained hopeful for a regeneration of the spirit and character of authentic democratic life.

Books by Dr. Cheek and those related to the topic of this essay are available in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. A portion of this essay appeared originally in the Salisbury Review, Volume 25, Number 2 (Winter 2007), and is included in this essay with permission. W. H. Mallock, Memoirs of Life and Literature (New York and London: Harper and eBrothers, 1920). For studies of Mallock’s early life, see Douglas P. Brown’s “The Formation of the Thought of a Young English Conservative: W. H. Mallock and the Contest for Cultural and Socio-Economic Authority, 1849-1884 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Missouri, 2004); Russell R. Gartner, “William Hurrell Mallock: An Intellectual Biography” (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1979); Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1995); William O. Reichert, “The Conservative Mind of William Hurrell Mallock” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1956); and J. N. Peters, “William Hurrell Mallock,” in H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 36 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 337-338.

2. W. H. Mallock, The New Republic: Culture, Faith, and Philosophy in a English Country House, intro. John Lucas (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1975).

3. Memoirs, Ibid., p. 89.

4. Mallock’s other seminal work of political analysis is his A Critical Examination of Socialism (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1907); reprint, Transaction Books, 1989).

5. See Gartner, Ibid., pp. 70-71.

6. Memoirs, Ibid., 251-251.

7. W. H. Mallock, The Limits of Pure Democracy (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2007), p. 1 [hereafter cited as Limits].

8. Limits, Ibid., pp. 10-11.

9. Limits, Ibid., p. 7.

10. Limits, Ibid., p. 10.

11. Limits, Ibid., p. 59.

12. Limits, Ibid., p. 72.

13. Limits, Ibid, p. 108.

14. Limits, Ibid., p. 286-287.

15. For a thoughtful example of the recent reawakening of interest in the debates between Mallock and those he criticized, with special attention to Henry George, see Roy Douglas, “Mallock and the ‘Most Elaborate Answer,’” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Volume 62, Number 5 (November 2003), pp. 117-136. Mallock was also interpreted on occasion as complementing social and political causes that may not have been in accord with his own views. The efforts of Alan Ian Percy, the eighth Duke of Northumberland, in republishing an abridged version of The Limits of Democracy after Mallock’s death (Democracy [Chapman and Hall, 1924]), should be viewed in this light.

16. See Brown, Ibid., and J. N. Peters, “Anti-Socialism in British Politics, 1900-1922 (D.Phil. dissertation, University of Oxford, 2002). In terms of Mallock’s more sustained criticism of plebiscitarian democracy, see Claes G. Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life: A Philosophy of Politics and Community, Second Edition, Expanded (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990); Ryn, The New Jacobinism: Can Democracy Survive? (Washington, D.C.: National Humanities Institute, 1991); Ryn, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003); and H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Calhoun and Popular Rule (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2001 and 2004).

17. Limits, Ibid., p. 179.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Professor Cheek, many thanks for this thoroughgoing piece! I recall seeing an autographed letter of Mallock's framed in Dr. Kirk's library: I wonder from where he got it. But otherwise Mallock was unknown to me until now.

    Did Mallock attribute economic efficiency and wealth to this decline of restraint? Put otherwise, did he see the economic limitations of agrarian life as in any way essential to the preservation of old values? Many thanks again.

  2. In the seventies I spoke with Russel Kirk about Mallock. In the early fities Kirk planned to write about Mallock. He placed an advertisement in one of the London papers-I would guess The Times. In response he was sent a box filled with burnt fragments of papers. It seems that Mallock's papers had been destroyed by someone who perhaps had thought better of their action and who had gathered up what remained. According to Kirk the fragments were too few to make any serious study possible. Perhaps the letter framed on Kirk's wall was the ony complete one that remained. It is an odd story. Kirk wrote about Mallock in "The Conservative Mind"

  3. as a reader of “The New Republic” I am aware of a variety of character types that Mallock finds disturbing. as a reader of his critique of socialism I recognize a clear thinking analyst and summarist . what is missing amidst all his brilliant criticism is a statement of his core, the center from which he spins. perhaps he was unwilling to expose that to the general public for he had little hope to find positive criticism there. but in his “Religion as a Credible Doctrine” he offered remarkable consolation for those whose beliefs are bound to be ruthlessly criticized without first being respected. he knew what should not be exposed to inadequate criticism.

  4. Likely because I am a Yankee, but I cannot really celebrate aristocracy. The notion cannot be limited to simply electoral politics, but rather extends to any number of civic and even economic goods. Some have, and some by definition are shut out. Morally, the embrace of aristocracy carries with it different valuations of persons: some more worthy, others less. Couple this moral viewpoint with self interest and one stands at the lip of caste, as an earlier form of southern aristocracy had it in the days of Jim Crow.

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