Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling; drawing by David Levine

Books on Kipling these days are usually elegant apologia. No one bothers to refute the imperialist assertion—regarded by Kipling as an axiom—that the life of action, of ruling, of imposing political will upon hordes of natives is not so much a noble calling as an inexorable law of nature. Kipling’s imperialism is taken for granted, and his text is then—very properly—combed for all the qualifications and modifications he made of imperialism and for his dire warnings against the folly of hubris. So in this collection of essays which Mr. Gross has edited, Philip Mason points out how ambivalent Kipling was toward the Indian Civil Service; Robert Conquest remarks how Kipling combined romanticism in his verse with colloquial matter-of-fact language; and Eric Stokes reminds us that Kipling’s hatred of white men who exploited natives surpassed his contempt for the inability of the natives to govern themselves.

Kipling was, of course, a curious mixture. In the best essay of the lot, Janet Adam Smith compares what his school days at Westward Ho! were really like with what he turned them into when he wrote Stalky & Co. So much of what he might have been expected to loathe he praised, and the mild aesthetical friend of the family who was his headmaster he transformed into a tremendous swisher and thwacker. Had in fact his own transformation begun there? How did the literary non-games-playing rebel among schoolboys, nurtured in pre-Raphaelite circles, end his last term writing a poem entitled “Ave Imperatrix“? People continue to be puzzled about what he thought.

The puzzlement is not all that surprising. The earliest defenders who attempted to rehabilitate Kipling, like T. S. Eliot in his defense of Kipling’s poetry in 1941, spent much of their time making excuses, and a great many critics remained unconvinced. Lionel Trilling, for instance, lamented that although Toryism is a great tradition honored by Dr. Johnson, Burke, and Walter Scott, “Kipling had none of the mind of the few great Tories.” For years the best-known essay on Kipling, which combined denunciation and praise, was that by Edmund Wilson, who explained how the young writer of such dazzling talent became the repulsive champion of authoritative upper-middle-class rule. According to Wilson, only with the death of his son in the world war that discredited British imperialism and all that Kipling believed in did he rediscover his vocation as an artist and write those compassionate stories—“The Kipling that Nobody Read.”

Unfortunately Wilson’s thesis falls to pieces if you examine the dates of Kipling’s best stories and verse. Those in which he exults in the triumphs of revenge and hatred, and in the impotence and folly of good intentions, are not confined to one period of his life. At all periods they are matched by those that accept the fact that many men are weak, can be over-tried, and need to be healed. Even the most recent criticism, though it is no longer so obsessed with Kipling’s imperialism, still spends time, more so than with any other writer of comparable merit, in shadow-boxing against charges made against a writer who can be so wounding to modern sensibilities. If the heartlessness of the other great short story writer of those times, Guy de Maupassant, disgusts critics, Kipling makes them angry.

Why is this so? Among all the explanations advanced, I think there are two still often forgotten.*

Kipling was a die-hard in politics. He was not a Tory or a right-winger, he was so far to the right by the end of his life that he can almost be said to have had no politics. Anarchists and die-hards in this one respect are alike. Both reject as despicable and immoral any of the stratagems, accommodations, and deals which politics must inevitably be about. The anarchist regards the root of these evils to be government itself: the final obscenity is the claim of any man to rule another, to issue commands to him, or even to persuade him to act in a way contrary to his desires. The notion that each of us has to accept that some of his desires or nonvoluntary actions have to be curbed by the apparatus of the state is violently rejected.

In direct contrast, the die-hard believes that government, and government alone, preserves the decencies of society. His ideal is a society ruled by wise, just, and severe administrators: wise, because their long experience of governing gives them the knowledge of how to deal with the unexpected and the rebellious, who by definition are those who have not got such experience and are either misguided idealists or villains; just, because they know a villain from a trustworthy man and can reconcile as far as it is possible in this world the aspirations of the subjects they rule with the harsh impersonal forces of history constraining them; severe, because…well, because severity is in accordance with the laws of nature.


The die-hard distrusts all politicians. His ideal is the administrator, the prefect or district officer. To him politics is a nonexistent subject. Whate’er is best administered is best. Thus, no less than the anarchist, the die-hard rejects the notion that external forces, such as foreign powers, or internal conflicts of interests between classes and groups create situations which cannot be resolved by the right measures. He differs from the anarchist in believing that these measures are to be found not in debating general ideas for the improvement of society, which he rejects as illusions imposed by interfering busybodies and know-alls upon a gullible public, but in taking certain administrative decisions that would be accepted as just by all men of good will were it not for the pusillanimity and special pleading of politicians and special interest groups. It is the administrator-ruler’s job to curb these people and damp down their public influence.

Kipling did not inherit these opinions from his cultivated parents, still less from his teachers at school. His headmaster Cormell Price was a radical. In the past he had organized with William Morris and Burne-Jones a meeting of working men in London to protest against Disraeli’s policy of intervention in the Turkish-Russian war, and noted with pride that the meeting had “quite refused to cheer the Empress Brown.” The other master at the school to influence him, the prototype for King in Stalky & Co., was a fiery liberal and a pacifist. Boys, however, react more often than not against the views of their teachers even if they admire them, and it was of course India, or more precisely the Anglo-Indian club in Lahore, that stamped its political principles upon Kipling.

As a very young man he had been hissed in that club: not for anything that he had done but because the proprietors of the newspaper on which he worked were held to have let down the English community by withdrawing their opposition to the detested Ilbert bill, which deprived them of their legal privilege to be tried by European judges in special courts, making it possible for an Indian to sit in judgment upon a white man. In the eyes of the Anglo-Indians this was a characteristic “political” intervention engineered by Liberal politicians in England and weakly accepted by a viceroy and his court—men who had their eyes on decorations and preferment.

Such was the judgment of the Platonic guardians of the Indian civil service and army. These were the first people on whom Kipling exercised his uncanny gift of getting inside and identifying with others. His heroes in life were the men who got things done, the men whom the politicians maltreated, let down, exploited, and yet on whom they depended. Orde and Tallantyre, governing provinces with death in the shape of cholera ever at their elbows, deprived of the opportunity to marry when young, and, when married, deprived of their wives in the cruel hot season and of their children sent back to school in England; young subalterns or gray-haired captains, who had to improvise and lead their drink-sodden privates into actions in which they were invariably outnumbered; ship’s captains and engineers, who ran their show—these were the rulers of the world. And the elected MPs, the super-bureaucrats, the staff officers, the cabinet ministers, who gathered together in a conspiracy against the professionals, were objects of contempt, and interlopers in the realm of decision taking.

Any man who knew his craft and did it well had Kipling’s sympathy. He would have sympathized with the horror of Abhorson, the executioner in Measure for Measure, at being asked to take Pompey, the pimp, as his assistant: “Fie upon him; he will discredit our mystery.”

It went without saying that after the Boer War, the proconsul, Milner, was Kipling’s man, and that he put the blame for British humiliations upon the politicians’ neglect of the army, upon upper-class frivolity (“The flannelled fool at the wicket and the muddied oaf in the goal”), and upon middle-class failure to see in the Empire Britain’s true mission. After the war his cousin, Stanley Baldwin, was too far to the left for him, and he shared the prejudices of George V without his sovereign’s sense of responsibility. All Conservative ministers either were tainted with the disaster of the casualties of the First World War or had betrayed the cause of Empire and discipline. As for the Labour Party and the trade union movement, what were they but England’s Bandar-log, the monkeys who chattered and did nothing?

Many—indeed most—creative writers dislike, misunderstand, and often reject the value system of politics. Their political prejudices, their deadly insights emerge through the text, but these apprehensions are in a strict sense irrelevant to their vision of life. Most of them recoil from a world which is the counterculture to their own conception of what is valuable and significant. But Kipling is not among the majority. Few artists have ever cared more fiercely than he did about the prestige and power of their own country, few have been so concerned with the process, ramifications, and character of government. If Kipling did not accept any of the conventions of politics, what conception had he formed of the way the world of affairs worked? How did he reconcile the conflicting sets of values in his writing which perplex his critics?


The answer is curious but not surprising. Kipling was a sociologist manqué. His mind was not only quite unlike that of any other English writer but unlike the minds of practically all other Englishmen of his time. He is in fact the analogue in England to the Durkheimians in France.

Admirers of H. Stuart Hughes’s classic Consciousness and Society will remember that, in his account of the transformation at the turn of the century of men’s conception of the nature of society and the relation of the individual to it, not a single English name occurs in the chapter headings. The positivist theory of society which was rooted in Hobbes and Locke was so immensely powerful that in England continental Idealism was virtually ignored. Indeed at the very time when Hegelianism was making at last, in the Eighties and Nineties, an anemic impression in British universities, a new generation of social thinkers was beginning to appear on the continent who not only dismissed positivism in its newer form of social Darwinism but criticized Hegel and Marx for their romantic notions of social causation.

Durkheim, Croce, Pareto, Freud, and, above all, Max Weber produced fresh analyses of society and of the personality. To these men there are no analogues in Britain. It s anthropologists, such as Frazer, remained positivists. Sociology was identified with Herbert Spencer—and boredom. Only secondary social observers such as Henry Maine or Fitzjames Stephen departed from the orthodox British tradition. But they had something in common with Kipling: both had served in India.

India posed a question which more than any other obsessed Durkheim. How is society possible? What holds it together? Englishmen, living in a country which had not known civil war for over two centuries and which alone in Europe seemed secure against revolution or economic disaster, never considered this question. But Kipling did. As a very young man he entered a society, Anglo-Indian, which had faced extinction during the Mutiny thirty years before. For Kipling the very existence of society is a problem, and the picture he painted of India is that of a society spiritually on the edge of a precipice.

The hostility of the climate, the deadliness of disease, the impossibility of love, and the disillusion of marriage when everyone knew everyone else’s income to the last rupee, and when heat in the plains or boredom in the hills bred adultery and extinguished the illusions which love requires. These disintegrating forces were all the more sinister, because if a man ever stopped to consider whether English justice should be imposed upon a country where witnesses were bought and where the norms of the myriad cultures in the subcontinent—the blood-feuds of the Border or the rites of the Hindus—ran counter to the rulers’ culture and law, he would cease to believe in the value of his existence.

When Kipling asked himself what stopped such a civilization from going over the edge, he got the same answer as Durkheim: religion, law, custom, convention, morality. Society creates these controls: men break them at their peril. That is why they invent a further control—public opinion. “All laws weaken in a small and hidden community where there is no public opinion,” wrote Kipling in one of his early short stories, and many of them brutally show how the eccentric, the shirker, or the conceited are tarred and feathered if they break the trivial rules of the community. In India religion was one of these controls. Unlike the positivists, Kipling did not ponder whether religion was “true.” It was a social fact, and his own distaste for Church Christianity in no way altered his conviction that religion was a necessity: through it men expressed new aspirations and found comfort for their anguish. The setting of many of his later stories is the masonic lodge, and his continual return to the theme of healing and the need for ritual show what a thoroughgoing functionalist he was.

Conformity to the rules of society is essential. If conformity is not enforced, the individual wobbles like a bolt which is gripped too loosely. But conformity needs to be mitigated. Social rules must not be imposed too tightly upon the individual. What is his refuge? Kipling answered: the “in-group.” The most important in-group is the family: the family alone gives the individual the safety he needs to relax and display emotion. In any other place, in any other group or in society at large, to display emotion would be far too dangerous. Indeed school, the second group, is the place where he learns to hide his feelings. Emotion is a social danger because it turns men into mobs, and mobs run amok, breaking the controls which hold society together.

The only people who can be permitted to allow their emotions full rein are those, such as gypsies, who have no roots in organized society. Kipling’s distrust of emotion was incidentally echoed by Malinowski when he observed that precisely because primitive peoples recognize that no magic or ritual can bring the dead back to life, it is all the more necessary for the safety of the tribe to ritualize the grief of the bereaved.

Then, armored against the world, man enters the third small group, that of his profession or craft. This group also protects its inmates against other predators, but it, too, reinforces social controls by teaching the self-discipline which is needed to master a craft. The mastery of a craft gives a man insight into the way the world works by purging his mind of fantasies and illusions and conceit. This in-group teaches him his place—and not to get out of step. Kipling’s own love of the “crafty,” his fatal knowingness, his buttonholing the reader, his love of being on the inside emerge through his aphorisms and display of proverbial wisdom, and through the gift he had of drawing out of a man in a few hours’ conversation the technique of his craft.

How then were the conflicting cultures in India, or for that matter throughout the world, kept in kilter? Was it purely by force, by the nations that had the largest armies and navies? Certainly force was the key that opened and closed the padlock: to fail to acknowledge this was the worst of all liberal fallacies. But Kipling acknowledged that force too had to be socialized, and from this acknowledgment came his conception of the law. One culture was superior to another only in so far as it was militarily more powerful: in other respects there was nothing to choose between them. Indeed, as a matter of observable fact, men of different cultures recognized that there were certain elementary rules of conduct—the keeping of promises, loyalty to friends, respect for parents, bravery, and so on—which enabled the British soldier to recognize that Gunga Din was a better man than he. Nevertheless, although the Law was always there as a standard by which men were judged—and to which Kipling often ostentatiously appealed—he made it clear how limited it was in application. Like the International Court at the Hague, it had no power over conflicting cultures and interests.

It was a sentimental error, also, to imagine that the gap between different cultures can be bridged by love. Love too is subject to social controls and is institutionalized by marriage. In “Without Benefit of Clergy” Kipling wrote with sympathy of the liaison between an Englishman and an Indian woman; but the death of wife and child and the destruction of the house which they inhabit symbolizes the impossibility of fusing the two cultures by love.

Kipling expressed this Durkheimian sociology in nearly all his stories, but the Stalky series (on the morality of the in-group), the Jungle Books (on the Law), and Puck of Pook’s Hill and Kim (on the dynamics and relations of different cultures) are the most explicit. What is so odd, and makes him unique among writers, is how explicit a social theory it is. None of his characters is like the human beings created by other contemporary writers, a free agent whose triumph or doom depends on his success or failure in withstanding the buffets of fate or on the strength or weakness of his own nature. Kipling’s characters are conceived as highly socialized individuals whose freedom is predetermined by their social situation.

He is as fanatical a didactician as those Durkheimians who were determined to secularize French education and establish patriotism in the young through pedagogy. Society, for Kipling as for them, predates man: and to it he owes everything; it gives him his religion, his morality, and everything else that makes life worth living. Yet Kipling is always concerned with the distinction between appearance and reality. What appear to be the conventions and morality of society are not in fact the reality. What most decent people liked to imagine were the rare gifts of the Victorian English public school system—prefects, games playing, fair play, the cadet corps, the inculcation of patriotism, respect for rules, obedience to authority, and the paternal authority of housemasters—he mocked mercilessly.

The reality of school life and what boys get from it is quite different, Kipling asserts. Good form is not the epitome of right conduct; preaching precepts is fatal to understanding the way the world works. That comes through watching and following the example of one’s elders. No society is tolerable unless it has vitality—and vitality comes from those who, like Stalky, enjoy tweaking the nose of authority, or from scoundrels who upset the plans of the prigs, or from subalterns who score off the colonel. In fact Kipling, although politics was meaningless to him, made certain neat additions to conservative theory in his time—the most telling being the notion that conservatism need not rest upon rule by an aristocracy of birth. It should rest on an aristocracy of talent, of technocrats, of men with know-how.

Time and again the authors of these essays wag a finger and tell us that the liberal critics who denigrated Kipling are wrong and that this artist, far from being extinguished in the gloom of the postimperialist period, has never been more incandescent. They testify to his splendid gift of writing a new unbuttoned prose, his staggeringly direct art of versification, and his technique of constructing a short story which testified to his own delight in craftsmanship. Nirad Chaudhuri confirms that Indian intellectuals shrug their shoulders when Kipling snaps that they will always be incapable of ruling; they remember his marvelous descriptions of the Grand Trunk Road and of that great country’s hills and plains and mountains. They remember that he absorbed their religions through his pores and understood Indian spirituality without falling into the tourist error of thinking that Indians are by nature spiritual. E. M. Forster greatly admired Kim; and Indians, I have noticed, prefer it as a foreigner’s evocation of their civilization to A Passage to India.

Yet something is undeniably wrong. It is not Kipling’s views but the way he expresses them. Indeed he preaches them and in so doing contradicts one of his most insistent messages. It is not merely that he is knowing or that he cannot keep clever, trivial ideas in their place—those fashionable ideas of the Nineties, ghosts, thought transference, transmigration of souls, exchange of dreams. It is not even that he is a schoolmaster let loose on his readers—they were after all used to being taught by Chesterton, Wells, Shaw, and that maestro of cafe society Somerset Maugham. The fault lies in his uncompromising Durkheimianism.

For morality is not simply a social process. Social processes and relationships are not the sole determinants of an individual’s behavior. Nor do the alleviating and healing processes which mitigate the lot of man—laughter, vitality, and love—exist independently of the human beings who experience them any more than society really exists personified in as corporeal an existence as the human beings who make it up. Judging him in his own terms as an instinctive sociologist, we realize that Kipling has forgotten an essential part of the individual theory of roles: he has forgotten that one of the reasons why men are racked with insoluble moral conflicts is that they are forced to play many parts simultaneously. To Kipling man is a creature born to only one role. He is a technocrat or he is a lame duck, or for one reason or another, a no-gooder or an enemy.

Wrong, maddening, and lacking a dimension, Kipling still remains a formidable challenge. He calls us to understand and sympathize with a group of people who are usually profoundly unsympathetic to writers. He asks us to understand the man who achieves. One must not put it higher than that. He is as suspicious of worldly success as most artists are and deeply distrustful of leaders in activities that are fluid and ambivalent, such as politics or finance. He would not have been much moved by the problems that afflict the souls (if they have souls) of the boffins and civil servants in the world of C. P. Snow. He describes with devices of some complexity the perplexities of simple straightforward men. What has occurred, of course, since Kipling lived is that the proconsul, the regimental officer, the engineer, the man who runs things and gets things done, has become Organization Man. As such he is more trapped by impersonal social forces, more absorbed in power struggles within and outside the organization, and at the same time less able to stand on his own feet and work things toward a “correct” solution through craftiness.

But as the years pass, every writer’s world withers away. Nor is Kipling the only powerful writer whose theory of the nature of things turns out to be fake or inadequate. What is so odd is that the demon within him which made him write did so in a way that contradicted what he held most dear. He thought preaching counter-productive; it made him preach. He held up as an ideal the silent virile man of action who had little use for clever fellows whose cleverness was another name for conceit and brag; and he himself fled publicity, acted modestly, and craved solitude. But once the pen was in his hands a cocky, clever, self-opinionated, pushing character took over.

Max Beerbohm, who loathed him, got on to this in a cartoon which depicts Kipling in old age sitting in robes with a laureate’s wreath on his brow and looking with distaste at the approaching figure of the young Kipling in a topee, who is vulgarly exclaiming, “I say! Have you heard the latest about Mrs. Hauksbee?” The game of picking holes in Kipling is endless. It is much more to the point to recollect, when turning these pages brimming over with that genuine vitality which asserts his eminence, Chekhov’s aphorism: “How pleasant it is to respect people! When I see books I am not concerned with how authors loved or played cards. I see only their marvelous works.”

This Issue

March 8, 1973