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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Irreconcilable Individual

A Wyndham Lewis essay once sent Hemingway on a mad rampage through a Paris bookstore. He had that effect on a lot of people.

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In The Art of Being Ruled (1926), Percy Wyndham Lewis takes aim at the dominant progressivist dogma of his time. “Everything will conspire to bully or hypnotize you into a best of all possible worlds attitude,” he writes. “You will have to be a very irreconcilable individual not to find yourself on this much too-obviously ‘winning side.’” 

Anyone familiar with the life and work of Lewis immediately recognizes him as the “irreconcilable individual” who was rarely on the winning side of anything. Yet Lewis’s polemical defense of this uncompromising liberal stance is a necessary corrective to contemporary voices on the left and the right who blame liberalism for the ravages of statism and capitalism. 

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Lewis played many roles in his life. Born in 1882 on a yacht moored in the harbor of Amherst, Nova Scotia, to an English mother and an American father, he seemed destined for the life of a rootless cosmopolitan. In his autobiography Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), Lewis describes himself as “a novelist, painter, sculptor, philosopher, draughtsman, critic, politician, journalist, essayist, pamphleteer, all rolled into one, like one of those portmanteau men of the Italian Renaissance.” 

He won fame as a painter in the styles of Vorticism (which he originated) and Cubism in the London art scene just before the onset of World War I. As his friend Marshall McLuhan observed, the exaggerated geometric forms that characterize these versions of avant garde art embody multiple vantage points. In McLuhan’s words, paradox itself “is a form of cubism in which you look at the same situation simultaneously from different directions.”

Lewis’s political writings convey this paradox. In Count Your Dead: They Are Alive! (1937), Lewis declares that he is “on the side of the pluralists,” those rare human beings who embrace multiple perspectives:

I am a “nationalist” because I am a pluralist, rather than a pluralist because I am a “nationalist.” I do not admire that fatalism which accepts the conditions imposed upon men by the technique of industry (their invention). I am upon the side of “The American Dream”—or “The English Dream,” or “The German Dream”—as against the dream of the Internationalist. Everything of value in life, as I see it, would be destroyed in the process, were a stereotyped control of human life to be enforced. 

Lewis was convinced that true pluralism in politics is achievable only when nation-states are allowed to maintain their sovereignty, free of the “dream of the Internationalist” who seeks to destroy this political autonomy through the imposition of monopoly capital and collectivism on a global scale. He doubted that this pluralism would survive these forces which were ascendant in the twentieth century. What McLuhan later called the “global village” was already hinted at in Lewis’s America and Cosmic Man (1948). The idea of plural sovereignty, he writes, is a “little farcical” in an age when “the earth has become one big village, with telephones laid on from one end to the other.”

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Unfortunately, Lewis’s praise for “the German Dream” among his admirable examples reflected his disastrously naïve assumption that Hitler was just a rough version of a traditional nationalist. In Count Your Dead, he calls Hitler “the Huey Long of Europe,” who does not want his country to be absorbed into the Anglo-Soviet imperium. In his book Hitler (1931), Lewis gushes: “Perhaps the German People are today nearer to true democracy, who knows, than any European nation has ever been at all.” It was a grotesque misjudgment that Lewis lived to regret. His second book on Hitler, The Hitler Cult and How It Will End (1939) is a repudiation of Nazism, and Lewis admits in Rude Assignment (1950) that his first book on Hitler was written “before he came to power and revealed what a lunatic he was.” His erstwhile praise of Hitler forever stained Lewis’s image. 

Critics from the left have usually suspected Lewis of harboring one totalitarian prejudice or another. George Orwell accused him of sympathizing with Stalin “to balance his previous books in praise of Hitler.” (Lewis relished the fact that Orwell himself was later accused of being a fascist.) The American literary critic Fredric Jameson wrote a book on Lewis that serves as a vindication of his worst fears of being misunderstood. In Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, The Modernist as Fascist (1979), Jameson associates Lewis with “protofascism,” an ideology that voiced the anxieties of the petty bourgeoisie in the early 20th century, particularly “the terror of déclassement and of proletarianization.” Protofascism represents the hopeless status of the petty bourgeoisie, “which can itself be displaced when, with the consolidation of the fascist state, effective power passes into the hands of big business.”

Lewis predicted that he would be accused of every variety of political extremism, and not simply because at one time he showed some sympathy for the right of nation-states, even fascist ones, to conduct their own affairs. In Count Your Dead, he already notes that fascism is being conflated with the “old ‘individualist’ notion of the Sovereign State.” Given his disdain for capitalism, Lewis also suspected that he would one day have a “niche in the Bolshevist Pantheon, as a great enemy of the Middle-class Idea.”

Yet Lewis was neither a fascist nor a communist. As Russell Kirk astutely observed, Lewis was a 19th century liberal who “detested all restraints upon individuality,” especially those justified in the name of that “Utopian sham” called Progress. Unlike the many friends and foes of liberalism who associate it with progressivism, Lewis saw an irreconcilable conflict between the liberal tradition and the “best of all possible worlds” promised by the defenders of capitalism and socialism.

True liberalism, as Lewis contends in his essay “De Tocqueville and Democracy” (1946), teaches that “there should be a number of minor centers of power, which would all function as checks upon each other and upon the central power.” America at her best embodies this pluralism. The republic, he further argues in America and Cosmic Man, enjoys a “beautiful polarity” between the High Toryism of Alexander Hamilton and the “Rousseauist democracy” of Thomas Jefferson. What Lewis most admires about America is the liberty of the individual or “cosmic man” to begin again in America’s “rootless Elysium,” free of the identitarian ties that bound together the citizens of European nation-states. He writes: 

No American worth his salt should go looking around for a root… For is not that tantamount to giving up the most conspicuous advantage of being American, which is surely to have turned one’s back on race, caste, and all that pertains to the rooted State? 

As a lover of paradox, Lewis is not oblivious to the violence and conformity that often accompanied the practice of freedom. “The Republic,” he writes, “has run smoothly along: chopping down trees, killing Indians, and building up larger and larger factories, taller and taller houses. The ‘wild land’ of the interior gradually became covered with cities—all much the same. There is, in fact, so little complication that you can concentrate upon the economic and political birth and development of this titanic state-organism.” Despite these cavils, Lewis confesses that he feels “most at home” in America because “no one really belongs there any more than I do.” 

Even before the onset of the Great Depression, Lewis anticipated the rise of a new regime that would extinguish the liberal ethos in America and Europe. The mass mobilization of men and materiel during World War I, the horrors of which Lewis witnessed up close as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, was the “revolution” that would facilitate the rise of the illiberal centralized state. As he predicts in The Art of Being Ruled, “In ten years a state will have been built in which at last no trace of European ‘liberalism,’ or its accompanying democratic ‘liberty,’ exists.”

Was the rise of the illiberal state the inevitable result of mass democracy, as aristocratic voices on the right often claim? Lewis scorned this simpleminded determinism. In his essay on Tocqueville, he chides these critics of democracy for attacking the wrong target:

We should find that we had been convicting it (democracy) for crimes committed by the greed and cynicism of monopoly-capital, or else simply for a state of affairs for which the machine-age is responsible, much more than any political doctrine. The Many have been debauched, all that is worst in them exploited: or mere mass-production is the culprit. 

The messianic desire of the “Presbyterian priest” Woodrow Wilson to push America into the role of global policeman was hardly a reflection of the popular will. “The general run of people in the States are quite unassuming, and quite modest about their destiny,” he writes in America and Cosmic Man. Unfortunately, the wealthy elites that governed America were becoming dangerously immodest in their aims and actions.

One fateful result of World War I was the forging of an unholy alliance between the big state and big business. Like most revolutions, this new alliance of capital and statism was imposed from the top. As he remarks at the beginning of The Art of Being Ruled, “It is only the wealthy, intelligent, or educated who are revolutionary or combative.” Revolutions on the right and the left demonstrate this pattern. In his chapter “Super-Freedom of the Revolutionary Rich,” he notes how “a small privileged class is playing at revolution, and aping a ‘proletarian’ freedom that the proletariat has not yet reached the conception of.” 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the “archetype of the democratic autocrat,” was Lewis’s favorite example of the rich revolutionary who destroyed liberalism in the name of liberalism. In Count Your Dead, he writes, “The great statesmen who drew up the American Constitution were pluralists. President Roosevelt is the opposite. He is an outstanding monist. He wishes to concentrate political power at Washington, the capital city and the seat of government; just as the League of Nations wishes to establish sovereignty over Europe at Geneva.” Although Lewis admired FDR’s wielding of power, he never abandoned his animus towards the president. 

Lewis’s suspicions of so-called conservatives in a revolutionary era left him forever unwilling to join their cause. The current crop of millionaire and billionaire populists promising to drain the swamp in D.C. may well have reminded him of the “Bolsho-Tories” in early 20th century Britain who claimed to sympathize with the working class even as they strengthened the power of the “Money Trust.” As Lewis writes in Time and Western Man (1927): 

To-day everybody without any exception is revolutionary. Some know they are, and some do not; that is the only difference. Some, indeed very many people, actually believe that they are Tories, for instance. They really imagine that…So they stay locked in a close embrace with the dullest form of Revolution, convinced all the time that they are defending the great and hoary traditions of their race.

Why do the democratic masses lap up this propaganda so readily? What he describes as the “capitalo-revolutionary society” in The Art of Being Ruled has succeeded in infantilizing the masses through “the hypnotism of cinema, wireless, and press.” Besides pointing to the power of mass media, Lewis almost sounds like Marx when he declares in The Art of Being Ruled that the “ideas of a people are always the ideas of the class in power.” If this class could “get inside a person’s mind and change his very personality,” there would be no effective resistance to its power.

One idea that was particularly useful to the ruling classes of his era, in Lewis’s judgment, was the belief in the inevitability of revolutionary change. It was “the dream of the money lender” to convince Americans and Europeans alike to succumb “fatalistically” to his power. For this reason, Lewis doubted that Marxism could ever overthrow and replace capitalism, given their shared belief that history was inevitably moving in a progressive direction. Both capitalist and communist agree that the “elimination of the small individualist trader” is the “price men pay for ‘progress.’” It is little wonder that Lewis had no respect for a progressive, who seemed content with “being pushed” along by forces not of his making. 

The last thing that rich progressives want, Lewis explains in Count Your Dead, is a citizenry that refuses to be pushed along. The presence of a “competitive instinct” that challenges the “crushing uniformity” required by mass industry must disappear. Banks achieve this result by condemning millions of citizens to eke out a living within a state of “insane legalized usury,” all in the name of freedom. As he writes in Count Your Dead, “I am no Fascist. But I love Freedom. Also I hate Usury.”

The evil genius of this tyrannical system is to erase any sense of individual responsibility. Lewis has a ready response to the haunting question, “Who can we shoot?” that John Steinbeck poses in The Grapes of Wrath. As Lewis explains in Count Your Dead, before the “fairyland of Credit” had been built, there was the “laughably corrupt small-town lending shop” where at least Americans “knew who was robbing them, and could still put a bullet in them, at a pinch.” Individuals, not the irreversible forces of change, make history: they are responsible for what they do.

Unfortunately, prominent voices on the right are just as slavishly wedded to historical fatalism as their enemies on the left. In The Art of Being Ruled, Lewis faults Nietzsche for misrepresenting Christianity as a religion that inevitably inspired all slave moralities. Nietzsche confuses Christianity’s admirable “aggressiveness towards authority” with a slavish mindset. This attitude has nothing to do with modern slave-moralities such as progressivism, which encourages a belief in “the joys of slavery and submission” to History’s inexorable march.

Lewis saves some of his most withering fire for Oswald Spengler who, in Decline of the West (1918), famously predicted the inevitable demise of western civilization. In Time and Western Man, he chides the German philosopher for adopting a cyclical account of history that encourages passivity in the face of change. Spengler’s “see-saw” theory of historical change leaves no room for the freedom to resist a so-called fate. Rejecting Spengler’s reduction of culture to the status of a biological organism unable to withstand the cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death, Lewis retorts: “Had men never sought to alter things no historical, cyclic changes could ever have been got going, to start with: for you cannot have a period or a ‘culture,’ even, without un peu de bonne volonté.”

In the final analysis, it is left to the artist, Lewis contends, to preserve the ethos of the individual from the false temptation of fatalism. Not all artists escape this temptation. In his essay “The Dumb Ox: A Study of Ernest Hemingway” (1934), Lewis blames Hemingway for going along with the same thoughtless determinism that he spied in Spengler. Although war, sports, and adventure fascinate Hemingway, he shows no interest in “the things that cause war, or the people who profit by it, or in the ultimate human destinies involved in it.” Most tellingly, Hemingway exists “in the multitudinous ranks of those to whom things happen—terrible things of course, and of course stoically borne.” When Hemingway read this essay at Sylvia Beach’s famous English language bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris, he flew into a rage and went on a rampage throughout the store.

As Lewis emphasizes in Men Without Art (1934), a “civilized” artist tries to help people resist the temptation of being “well-adjusted” human beings who may as well be automatons. Consistent with his uncompromising individualism, he would be the first to highlight the paradox that surrender to fate is still an expression of freedom. 

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