- 1 This essay is part of a research project supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technolo (...)
1The trajectory of Wyndham Lewis’s politics is not yet well understood. Indeed, there is widespread scepticism as to whether there was a trajectory at all, rather than an intrinsic and intransigent right-wing attitude which varied only in acquiring a particularly reprehensible aspect with the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. For many, the publication of Lewis’s uncritical Hitler in 1931 settles the matter: an already-present tendency climaxes in the delusions that Hitler was “a Man of Peace” (title of Part II, ch. 3) who was not serious about his announced intention to persecute the Jews. That book and those views mark an inescapable point of reference for the understanding of Lewis’s politics, and for that reason the name of Hitler appears in my title. But what of the further presence there of the French anarchist and socialist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon? His name will permit the metaphor of trajectory to function so that the model of an “intrinsic” politics can be challenged, and a distinct movement in Lewis’s politics demonstrated.
2The existence of Hitler has caused Lewis’s extensive political writings to be read with suspicion,and often with good reason; for there are writings of the 1930s as objectionable as was Hitler. But this work – notably Left Wings over Europe of 1936 – was essentially journalism, hurried polemics attacking the left from a conservative, pacifist and non-interventionist position. None of it amounts to fascism, in any sense of that word, a view I can support by pointing to the way in which Fredric Jameson, in Fables of Aggression, was unable to define Lewis as a fascist, and was forced to invent the elusive but nevertheless damaging term “protofascist” (15) in order to ensure Lewis’s political exclusion as a modernist of the right. In any case, these books of the 1930s constituted the second wave of Lewis’s political thinking. Their more substantial predecessors were The Art of Being Ruled,published in 1926,and Time and Western Man,which appeared in the following year. It was here that Lewis attempted to make his theoretical political arguments; not in Hitler or in other books of the 1930s. The dating is crucial, for his is a politics of the 1920s, a politics of that period of post-First World War reconstruction when the most responsible minds of Europe – Lewis’s among them – were attempting to understand the consequences of the First World War for philosophy, for politics, and for art. For Lewis the philosophy and the politics were new in the 1920s, but his concern with the circumstances of the production of art was not. We should recall that more than ten years before these theorizations appeared, Lewis was established as a considerable visual artist. He founded and organized the Vorticist movement in London between 1913 and 1915, creating an exciting and substantial, if rather brief, British contribution to European modernism. His own work drew upon developments in visual art in Paris, and among the Italian Futurists and German expressionists.
3Difficult books like The Art of Being Ruled are easy to misread, especially when criticism has yet to commit to Lewis the massive effort of explication worked upon the texts of Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Woolf. There have been brisk condemnations of the chapter of The Art of Being Ruled entitled “Fascism as an Alternative,” and this would again seem to settle the matter; except that there remains an extensive discussion of Marx and Proudhon in the same work that is clearly fundamental to Lewis’s politics in a way that his remarks about the early years of Mussolini’s rule in Italy are not. That discussion has been scarcely noticed, and I wish to explicate it here as a contribution to the challenge to the orthodox view that Lewis’s work was infiltrated at every level by right-wing ideas. Recent work by Paul Edwards and Andrzej Gasiorek has altered the critical and political landscape, substantially and permanently. I pointed to the importance of Proudhon to Lewis as long ago as 1976, in an article that has had no influence. The title of this conference, and the strategy of thinking it encourages, offers the opportunity for a more focused account than I could make thirty years ago. It can be said with confidence that the structure of Lewis’s politics is not “Right all the way,” and not “Right-Left-Right,” but “Left-Right-Left.” If the brief revisionist survey which follows appears to some readers to be a challenge too far to the prevailing orthodoxy, let me hint at the possibilities by quoting from the autobiography Blasting and Bombardiering, published in 1937 at about the time Lewis’s politics changed: “I am the most broadminded ‘leftwinger’ in England” (305).
4Lewis was in some meaningful sense on the Left until about 1930. During the mid-1920s he deals with ideas that open more naturally towards socialism and anarchism than they do towards the right and to fascism; some of these are discussed below. He also held a “culturalist” view by which revolutionary art and thought precedes revolutionary politics:
Before there can be political change there must have been some other more fundamental change [….] So all popular revolutions, of whatever nature, have always, before they occurred, virtually existed in the consciousness and behaviour of a minority, and often, visibly, in phalansteries and colonies [....] The merely political revolutionary is thus […] an interpreter only of a creative mind.
5That was written in the conclusion to “The Diabolical Principle,” published in Lewis’s own journal The Enemy at the beginning of 1929 (Vol. 3, 74-5).The rightward turn occurred not long afterwards, during a visit to Germany in November 1930, two months after elections which had given the Nazi party over six million votes. Reflections on Hitler appeared as magazine articles in Time and Tide in January and February 1931, and as a book in March. This was the first book on Hitler published anywhere, and the dustjacket was adorned with Lewis’s own design, which featured several swastikas. That book was translated into German and published in Berlin in 1932. It was pulped in or just after 1933, for reasons that are unclear, though it seems likely that what displeased British readers was not enough to please Goebbels. Lewis remained politically on the right until 1937. During that time he attacked Communism and communists, was sympathetic to the Nationalist rebels in Spain, and allowed his pacifism and fear of another European war to permit a tolerance of Hitler that it is kind to call “radical appeasement.” Lewis’s polemics at this time were often directed against other intellectuals, particularly those on the Left, and gave rise to his phrase “Left wings,” as in the “bad” polemic of 1936 already mentioned, Left Wings over Europe. In early 1937 he published an article in the British Union Quarterly, the relaunched journal of Mosley’s fascists, entitled “‘Left Wings’ and the C3 Mind.” (The term “C3” derives from the armed forces’ lowest category of physical fitness.) In August of 1937 Lewis and his wife visited Berlin; they left quickly, Mrs Lewis later said, “because we found it very uncomfortable, or Wyndham did at least” (O’Keeffe, Some sort of genius, 371). Visible German militarism, and a visit to the ghetto in Warsaw, initiated the change in Lewis’s politics; in 1938 Kristallnacht (November 9-10) confirmed it.
6Towards the end of 1938 Lewis wrote a book about the Jews that is the most powerful philosemitic statement made by any modernist writer – or indeed any writer – at this time. In December 1939 he published The Hitler Cult, which attempted both a revision and a renunciation of his 1930s views.He began a novel exploring the roots of fascism in Europe, and when The Vulgar Streak was published in 1941, George Orwell praised its understanding of class in Britain. In private Lewis described himself as a communist, though we must have some doubts as to what he thought that meant. He spent the war years in the United States and Canada, and supported Roosevelt’s New Deal. He revised his view that the only good politics is one that offers the best conditions for the production of art, recognizing that he had been more concerned for the interests of his own tribe – that of the artist – than for the “le genre humain.” During the 1940s he explored ideas of internationalism, and asked whether the federal structure of the United States might not be a model for a federated global structure. He gave us the non-divisive concept of the “global village” – that was Lewis’s idea, skilfully promoted by his friend Marshall McLuhan. His last works of fiction, the two concluding volumes of The Human Age, entitled Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta, are deeply self-critical; they show how an intellectual can be seduced by power.
7The Art of Being Ruled (1926) was part of the critical but essentially optimistic reconstructive impulse in Europe at that time. Marx and Proudhon, those forceful monsters of the nineteenth century, are leading figures in the discussion. A fragment of a letter by Proudhon in the present writer’s collection indicates the assurance with which the French anarchist conducted discussion: “[C]’est que vous ne savez pas,et que je crois savoir [….] Oui, cher ami, je crois savoir; que ce doit mon titre à votre inviolable amitié.” Lewis’s emphatic prose, like Proudhon’s, makes a claim to know; but to know what is the difficult question, because Lewis’s “what” keeps changing. Renouncing his 1930s views in The Hitler Cult, he makes what seems a clear statement of position: “Though favouring always Proudhon rather than Marx, as a political thinker, some species of authoritarian control, it seemed to me, some ‘planning’ from a creative centre, were imposed upon us” (21). This structural opposition between Marxian centralization and Proudhonian decentralization is the key to Lewis’s politics, and this sentence sounds like his je crois savoir. But we should be cautious, because in the 1920s Lewis had understood the authoritarian impulse in both Marxism and Fascism to be the best way of getting things done and making the world safe for the production of art. In 1939 he makes “planning” sound innocuous, rather like the postwar Labour government setting up the National Health Service. The 1939 statement turns out to be a revision, sensitive to the demands of its time, but not so sensitive as to exclude the term “authoritarian.”
8Nevertheless we can begin to read Lewis’s politics out of the Marx-Proudhon distinction. Lewis is interested by the later Proudhon, so while he is aware that in 1846 Proudhon famously asserted that property is theft, he begins from the later Idée générale de la Révolution au XIX siècle of 1851, and the Du principe fédératif of 1863. In The Art of Being Ruled there is a lengthy discussion of the relation between Proudhon and Rousseau, beginning from Proudhon’s furious attack in the Idée générale. Proudhon objected to the social contract because it was isolating, an agreement between man and man that precluded government and would leave the poor or the weak in a subaltern position (Art of Being Ruled 296). Proudhon, according to Lewis, identified the isolating tendency in Rousseau because he was himself associational, believing in organization on “highly socialized, ‘free’, utopian lines” (298). This applies also to Lewis, for whom relationship was a crucial structure, in both his art and his writing.
9After setting Proudhon against Rousseau, Lewis next sets him against Marx. “All the best french revolutionary thought,” Lewis writes, “is nearer to Proudhon than to anybody else. It is antagonistic by nature to Marx, and it has not the nihilistic and metaphysical character of the russian [sic]” (300). Proudhon, he says, “stands, philosophically, for the small man…whereas Marx stands for the great urban state machine, and is against the small man” (300). Lewis’s knowledge of Proudhon is close:
In 1851 Proudhon described himself as “a theorist of anarchy.” In 1862 he became what he described as a “federalist.” That is to say, he abandoned his position of intransigeance with regard to authority. Anarchy is the affirmation of liberty and the negation of authority, he would tell us; whereas federation was the balancing of the two (301).
10Let me quote the relevant passage from Du principe fédératif, where authority and liberty are set against each other and are resolved in “federation:”
L’Autorité suppose invinciblement une Liberté qui la reconnaît ou la nie; la liberté, a son tour, dans le sens politique du mot, suppose également une autorité qui traite avec elle, la refrène ou la tolère. Supprimez l’une des deux, l’autre n’a plus de sens: l’autorité, sans une liberté qui discute, résiste ou se soumet, est un vain mot; la liberté, sans une autorité qui lui fasse contre-poids, est un non-sens. (47)
11There is always liberty, and always authority, and out of their interaction arises political activity. So it is that the statement from The Hitler Cult, quoted earlier, becomes more comprehensible when understood as the outcome of a creative balance between linked but opposed forces. Lewis understood Marx to provide authority, and Proudhon liberty.
12It follows from this that we must review our sense that the political theorizations of male Anglo-American modernism were uniformly conservative. Lewis’s version of Proudhon was present in British modernism in the 1920s, but whether it was a presence is another matter: The Art of Being Ruled is a difficult text that was not “received” in its own time, and was further obscured by Hitler. If Lewis had not written Hitler we should have been able to see the earlier book more clearly; indeed, today we should not allow the existence of the Hitler book, dismaying and compromising as it is, to prevent us from identifying the radical possibilities in Lewis’s political thought.
13Lewis read another work by Proudhon, his anti-feminist tract La Pornocratie. Lewis is often thought to be anti-feminist, and I want to show briefly how Proudhon’s book affected him.The latter’s reply to feminist writers of his time is a compendium of bristling arguments against the liberty of women. Proudhon is obsessed by the idea of prostitution – hence the title, “rule by harlots” – but “la pornocratie” stands for any kind of libertarian thought or behavior (139). For a woman even to think of emancipation is to be impure (69). The husband who takes his wife and daughter to the theatre is encouraging prostitution: “plus ou moins fauteur de prostitution” (86). And the husband has the right of life or death over his wife: “Cas ou le mari peut tuer sa femme, selon la justice paternelle: 1º adultère; 2º impudicité; 3º trahison; 4º ivrognerie et débauche; 5º dilapidation [embezzlement] et vol; 6º insoumission obstineé, impérieuse, méprisante” (203). Lewis noticed this passage, describing it as Roman and “despotic” in Proudhon (Art of Being Ruled 177). Lewis saw that, outside politics, Proudhon was distinctly non-revolutionary. He was also contradictory. Proudhon was an absolute defender of the family; but Lewis points out that in the Idée générale Proudhon had argued that for socialists to take the family as a model for the wider society would lead to dictatorship.
14Lewis himself reacts strongly against La Pornocratie. He writes: “Feminism is a movement directed to the destruction of the family, which is a good thing” (172). He contradicts Proudhon’s claims to be against the crimes against women – “incest, abortion, rape, prostitution” – by remarking that “Proudhon was talking of crimes against women too much from the man’s standpoint.” Lewis favours contraception: “a great brood of children is not every woman’s affair.” Abortion or prostitution are in Lewis’s view “signs and instruments for freedom.” Proudhon was a “utopian despot” (173). I give this summary of Lewis’s complex and unexpected response to Proudhon’s anti-feminism in order to show, first, that Lewis himself was not the anti-feminist he is often represented to be; and second, to encourage a recognition that these libertarian ideas were present in British modernism in the 1920s, and that we should adjust our interpretation of it accordingly.
15In his dismaying contribution to the relaunched British Union Quarterly in 1937, Lewis does not align himself directly with Mosley’s fascists, but the language he uses to keep his distance is significant. He addresses his audience as “you:”
You as a Fascist stand for the small trader against the chain-store; for the peasant against the usurer; for the nation, great or small, against the super-state; for personal business against Big Business; for the craftsman against the Machine; for the creator against the middleman; for all that prospers by individual effort and creative toil, against all that prospers in the abstract air of High Finance or of the theoretic ballyhoo of Internationalism. (22)
16This is decentralist Proudhon, peculiarly distorted to accommodate, but not wholly to endorse, Oswald Mosley’s party. Lewis selects not the federalist Proudhon, but the supporter of rural enterprise, Proudhon the petty-bourgeois, as Marx called him. There are hints of Social Credit theory here, but essentially this is a one-sided revision of the earlier Proudhon-Marx relationship, one where Proudhon, as decentralizer, is sharply devalued to serve the apparent demands of the moment. Lewis (mis)conceives that moment to belong to Mosley. This account of Fascism is itself a serious misrecognition, showing that Lewis had not yet understood that the forces at work in Germany and Italy – to which the British movement was an appendage – were intrinsically and necessarily large-scale, authoritarian and centralizing. The “Bibliography” to this number of the British Union Quarterly shows why Lewis should have been asked to write for Mosley’s “theoretical” journal. Hitler is described in these terms: “Written long before the Nazi Revolution, this is still about the best study of the man and the movement” (125). Left Wings over Europe is also cited. It is apparent that for the Union movement’s theorists, notably A. Raven Thomson, who edited the journal and reviewed Lewis’s books, Lewis was part of the history of fascist ideas in Britain.
17In 1939 a striking change occurs: Lewis publishes his philosemitic book, The Jews: Are They Human? The title would have been readily understood at the time as an allusion to a recent book by the Dutch author Gustaf Renier entitled The English: Are They Human? All contemporary reviewers understood the allusion, and Lewis’s title caused no offence. The book received a favourable review in the Jewish Chronicle entitled “Justice for the Jew,” which ended with an extensive quotation making Lewis’s philosemitic position clear:
“We must make up for the doings of the so-called ‘Christians’ of yesterday – who degraded the Jew, and then mocked at him for being degraded. We must give all people of Jewish race a new deal among us. Let us for Heaven’s sake make an end of this silly nightmare once and for all, and turn our backs upon this dark chapter of our history.” (18; Edwards 479)
18Within the space of two years Lewis exchanged the approbation of the British Union of Fascists for the approval of the Jewish Chronicle. It is a remarkable alteration of political position, for which Lewis has received insufficient credit. The publication of this book, and indeed of this particular review, marks Lewis’s definitive turn from right to left. It was followed by The Hitler Cult, also 1939, in which he retracts his views on Hitler and moves, in Edwards’s words, “from a position of pragmatic nationalism […] to a position of internationalism” (479).
19Lewis spent the war years in North America. After his return to London in 1945 he continued to explore the same questions of centralization and decentralization as before, but now with reference to the United States. In 1948 he reviewed a new edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, identifying the Frenchman’s anti-democratic arguments, and showing how his opposition, whether to “democracy à l’état pur” (127) or to parliamentary democracy with all its faults, implied or expressed a preference for aristocracy and indeed for the ancien régime (129). “Everywhere he is inveighing against ‘the evil that extreme centralization may produce,’”(123) Lewis says, quoting twice De Tocqueville’s remark that “The sight of such uniformity saddens and chills me” (129, 136) because it leads to the diminution of the community: “‘it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people’” (128). Lewis concedes that he had thought similarly during the 1920s, finding existing democracy “hopelessly structureless” and liable to suppress the first-rate in favour of the second-rate “in everything” (131). Now he listens less sympathetically to De Tocqueville:
Even in that question of such primary importance, centralization, namely, I agree with him that ideally it would be better if power could be decentralized. The shift, in my case, is from the ideal to the empirical. And this shift takes me towards government: not because I love it, but for practical reasons. (131)
20So the great question is resolved not on principle, but lazily, for no better reason than that government exists and daily life must be organized. Yet Lewis insists still upon decentralization as the preferable – that is, ideal – political position, a preference that he could sustain only by a theoretical commitment to anarchism.
21Lewis’s most significant postwar political book is America and Cosmic Man, completed by January 1946, but not published until mid-1948 (O’Keeffe 511), which argues that “the global society of the future has actually started already on the North American continent” (America and Cosmic Man 218). This society has two main attributes: it is cosmopolitan and it is gregarious. Lewis had much enjoyed his experience of American social informality during his time in the country, and the introduction of this concept – made more substantial by being redefined as “this profound feeling of identity with other men, no doubt religious in origin” (218) – permits a cultural discussion to take place alongside the political one (itself reintroducing a characteristic strategy of analysis). At this point however, Lewis turns to discuss democracy alone, to show that it is “by no means a simple thing, presenting many contradictions” (219). An originary feature of American democracy lies in its connexions with Proudhonian anarchism.
22This assertion is likely to cause surprise, but Lewis’s definition is carefully made, and relies upon being wholly theoretical. It also has limits, as we shall see. Lewis’s argument is by no means free from digression, but goes as follows:
The réclame of democracy in the U.S.A. has been largely drawn from anarchic passions. It is undoubtedly in the theory of philosophic Anarchy, of which Proudhon was the father, that American libertarianism finds its most consummate expression. The full-blooded anarchist’s conception of the State is one without a government. (220)
23Lewis then diverges into a metaphoric account of an anarchist driving a car, now on one side of the road, now on the other; such a person is “today” a “political problem-child;” this is an inconsistency because the argument began (and will continue) as an historical one. Anarchists and Communists, Lewis then reminds us, are “irreconcilable” enemies. Perhaps he is reminding himself, too, of the political antithesis explored in The Art of Being Ruled. The argument returns to the history of political theory with the assertion that Jefferson stood for the principle of “the less government the better” (221; italics in original), and that therefore “Jeffersonian democracy contains much more that is anarchical than democratic, in the stricter sense” (221). This distinction shows Lewis to be aware of a fundamental anarchist objection to democracy: when an individual votes for a candidate, that individual gives up the opportunity for self-representation, and thereby alienates an assured place in the polity to another. In that sense anarchism is more perfect than democracy. Next, Lewis reasserts his initial proposition concerning the USA, democracy and anarchy, but as we read it we should observe that the context has been altered and complicated by the (apparently) diversionary remarks about car-drivers and Communists: “Consequently, in the very centre of the main body of American tradition is a principle that, under analysis, would prove to be anarchical.” If “would” is tentative, the idea is not an impossible one. (The values of opponents of the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s – notably the SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society – undoubtedly drew upon an impulse already present in American political thought and action; the International Workers of the World – the IWW or “Wobblies” – with their slogan “one big union,” belong in the same tradition, as does the work of Noam Chomsky, who distinguishes between the actions of US leaders and the wishes of ordinary Americans. The concept of decentralism, and the Proudhonian mutualism that derives from it, remains important today as one contre-poids – or counterweight – to globalization.) Lewis’s next sentence shows that he is fully aware of the limits to what he is proposing: “And full anarchy is the political philosophy of Paradise, not of human society.” This is the same argument for the “ideal” of decentralization already encountered in Lewis’s discussion of de Tocqueville, but it is both more tempting here (“Paradise”), and more vigorously rejected for being unrealistic. Yet Lewis cannot let go of the idea entirely, for it returns in the very next sentence in his characterization of something that elsewhere he freely admits does not yet exist, the future political organization of the globe, which is already in 1948 “one big village” (21): “But theoretically it might quite well be the philosophy of the cosmic society of the future—or some democratic regime, with a generous admixture of anarchy” (221). That sentence shows Lewis again attempting to think theoretically, whilst at the same time recognizing that “pure” anarchism would be impossible in any actual political structure. Lewis’s discussion here conclusively demonstrates that anarchism, in the theoretical form proposed in Proudhon’s later works, was a permanent presence in his political thought from the 1920s to the 1940s.
24Lewis could be prescient, as when he writes that “In a very few years it will be possible to destroy in the course of a morning an organized society that has taken many centuries to create” (231) – I write during the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 – but we should not expect definitive resolutions from him. His mind simply did not work in that way, a characteristic that accounts for his political blunders as much as for what is valuable in his thinking. What Lewis offers, indeed, is irresolutions. His left-right-left progress through the twentieth century was an exploration of possibilities, not a direction decisively taken. The confusion of his thought lies in the frequent mismatches between theory and political reality. The impossible political places he visited but withdrew from should alert his readers to the fact that he was trying out ideas, not defining a political position. Lewis’s politics are offered by him in such a way as to ask for a response. His permanent interest in fundamental forms of structure and control – that is, centralization and decentralization – were derived from a sustained interest in anarchist theory. For a secularism and humanism originating in a critique of modernity we do not turn to Lewis’s colleagues Pound and Eliot, or even to Joyce and Woolf; it is to Lewis’s stumbling, divergent but enlightened progress that we should respond.