Yesterday, for the first time, I listened to Charlie Chaplin’s speech from the 1940 film ‘The Great Dictator’. I must admit I found it quite moving. It’s a stirring, profound and solemn four minutes in what is otherwise a satirical comedy drama. Like most people, I only knew of Chaplin as a silent clown, but from this speech alone it’s clear to me that he was also a uniquely talented writer and speaking actor.
In the speech he expertly mimics the singular posturing and mannerisms of the man who would in a few years become the most notorious dictator of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler. But much of Chaplin’s speech is a timeless message for humanity that I’m sure would have stirred the passions of Egyptian, Greek and Roman citizens and soldiers as much as it did post-first world war and pre-Second world war Americans and Europeans in nineteen forty.
As a listened to the speech a few times I began to see how, with some edits and alterations, it could be used as a rousing rallying cry in support of the modern liberty movement. This is because it eloquently illustrates the foundations of the libertarian philosophy in human nature before making various impassioned advocations of liberty and arguments against collectivism, which are rather neatly aligned with the liberty movement. However, before it could be appropriated by the liberty movement it would need some alterations in order to make it fit because there are some parts that would be inconsistent with libertarian philosophy unless edited or removed. For example, the petition “in the name of democracy” is used twice in the speech, which is entirely understandable at a time when Europeans were being forced to choose between democracy and dictatorship and then fight to live under the lesser of two evils, but it is a plea that is not aligned with libertarianism, and in today’s world represents little more than an appeal to the virtue of the status quo; and the existing state of affairs is what is slowly destroying our standard of living and unravelling the moral fabric of society.
Early on in the speech Chaplin suggests that “greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.”
I think “power” should replace “greed” here. It’s possible Chaplin meant greed in the sense of greed for power, which if so would have the same meaning, but for the sake of clarity I think the edit is necessary. There is, however, a suggestion that Chaplin was speaking of material greed because he goes on to argue that technological progress has had a negative social impact.
“Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”
This is probably the weakest part of the speech both in terms of the strength of the arguments (if we may call them that) and their distance from the libertarian philosophy. It’s hard to know exactly what Chaplin is arguing against in this section. On the face of it he seems to be arguing that technology has made us distrustful of human sincerity and integrity; and somehow less kind – less human. Perhaps this was a prevalent view of the era, I don’t know, but I see little evidence for that argument today and quite a lot against it (one example is the way the Internet and social media has enabled people of the world to directly respond with incredible compassion and generosity to humanitarian disasters). I’m sure most, if not all, libertarians would be united in arguing that, contrary to Chaplin’s assertion, people don’t actually think enough and instead spend too much time feeling the envy, fear and hate that political orators and the media unremittingly serve up.
I was tempted to scrap this passage all together, then, but perhaps it can be rescued. Here’s a possible re-write:
“governments that promise abundance have left us in want. We spend too much time feeling the fear and envy that politicians and the media conjure up, and too little time thinking for ourselves. More than the fragmented and fleeting freedom granted to us by governments, we need to respect each other’s property rights by not giving a group of men the power to take away and then conditionally grant back some of the freedom which is ours by nature. For as long as we do that, life will be violent and eventually all will be lost.”
Here’s my version of Chaplin’s Great Dictator speech (alterations and editions in bold) adapted for the modern liberty movement:
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another.
In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Power has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. governments that promise abundance have left us in want. We spend too much time feeling the fear and envy that politicians and the media conjure up, and too little time thinking for ourselves. More than the fragmented and fleeting freedom granted to us by governments, we need to respect each other’s property rights by not giving a group of men the power to take away and then conditionally grant back some of the freedom which is ours by nature. For as long as we do that, life will be violent and eventually all will be lost.
The Internet has brought us closer together. The very nature of this inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world — millions of despairing men, women and little children — victims of statism that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say — do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of the belief in the virtue of violent authority — the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men live as they wish in defiance of government rules, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes — men who despise you — enslave you — who regiment your lives — tell you what to do — what to think or what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men — machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate — the unloved and the unnatural!
Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the 17th Chapter of St. Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” — not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then, in the name of liberty, let us use that power! Let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth the future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, sociopaths have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfill their promise; they never will. Dictators and the ruling class free themselves, but they enslave the people! Now, let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with power, governments and wars. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
Soldiers! In the name of liberty, let us all unite!
I’ve embedded the original speech below. It would be great if someone with sufficient oratory talents could record my version of the speech for the world to hear. Or even improve upon my version and record theirs. Any takers?