‘T E Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism’ reviewed by Tom Steele

T E Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism

Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York, 2017. 275pp., £28.99 pb
ISBN 9781350028432

Reviewed by Tom Steele

About the reviewer

Dr Tom Steele is Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. His books include …


This book is a signal contribution to an increasingly well-informed debate on the emergence of artistic, literary and political modernism in Britain. It joins the growing body of scholarship that focuses on the literary and political journal, The New Age, under its editor A R Orage. Its specific subject, Thomas Ernest Hulme, is perhaps less known than he should be, largely because of his early death in the World War One which limited his published output but also because of a perhaps undeserved reputation as an ideological precursor to British Fascism. Mead tries to rescue him from this and portrays him most vividly in his debates with Orage in the pages of The New Age in which Orage’s more socialist and humanitarian trajectory may have pulled him away from his worse instincts. He was celebrated as an inspiration for the Vorticist movement in art led by Percy Wyndham Lewis and of the poetic movement of Imagism led by Ezra Pound. His death was seen a tragic foreshortening of his promise. T S Eliot, in a 1924 commentary in his journal, Criterion , hailed him as a ‘forerunner of the twentieth century mind’ (quoted 229).

Like Orage, ten years his senior, Hulme was one of those radical ‘north-country’ provincial intellectuals who exploded onto literary life in London in the first decade of the twentieth century with a mission to overthrow what they saw as the smug complacency of a liberal elite. His articles on modern art in The New Age in the years leading up to World War One were like so many jabs in the kidneys of an ageing culture. Something of a pugilist as well as being an accomplished philosopher, Hulme felt the best way to deal with another of Orage’s contributors, the egregious Nietzschean philosopher, Antonio Ludovici, who was without doubt a fascist avant la lettre, was with ‘a little personal violence’ and had the sculptor Gaudier Brzeska make him a set of brass knuckles.

Hulme’s philosophical interests tried to unite both aesthetics and politics and he developed what he called a ‘Tory philosophy’ from his study of contemporary French philosophy and politics, in a trajectory as Mead ably shows running from Henri Bergson’s intuitionist epistemology of the élan vital, through Georges Sorel’s insurrectionary syndicalism and theory of the galvanising myth to André Maurras and the extreme right-wing Catholic authoritarianism of the Action Française. Hulme was working in one of those curious periodic eruptions in modern British culture when translations and interpretations of current Gallic thinking appear to derail the Anglo-Saxon intellectual establishment. The anti-intellectualism of Bergson, seen as refutation of the positivist rationalism of Utilitarianism, and especially the Webbite Fabian version then stifling the Labour Party, even had currency with French post-modern intellectuals like Gilles Deleuze half a century later. Maurras for Hulme (and also T S Eliot) was seen as a political antidote to the ‘Romanticism’ of human perfectibility dating back to Rousseau and the French Revolution and his advocacy of hard-edged ‘classicism’ was pursued as the necessary correction to humanity which could be made just half-decent by a regular diet of discipline. Hulme adopted the Catholic doctrine of man’s ‘Fall’ – also favoured to an extent by Orage – as against what they saw as the ‘feminising’ progressivism of the liberal establishment. When Virginia Woolf later wrote in her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924) ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’ the implicit reference was not just to the shock of Fry’s recent Post-Impressionism exhibition but the savaging her circle’s attitudes was getting from the lower-class denizens of The New Age. Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) also caught the moment when the lower orders had begun, menacingly, to show their collective teeth.

Hulme was born in the village of Endon in the Staffordshire moorlands near Leek in 1883 and died aged 34 in a Flanders’ ditch in 1917. In his youth he thought of himself as a socialist but his Cambridge undergraduate career was cut short by rowdyism and impropriety. To an extent he absorbed the popular Nietzscheanism of Shaw and Orage but his imagination was first caught by Henri Bergson’s theory of the élan vital. Bergson held that creativity began with the chaos of impressions glimpsed at the level of the subconscious and then were fixed by the art into an image that somehow captured the essence of meaning. The idea of abstracting ‘the image’ then came to define Hulme’s approach to art and poetry where the artist and poet had to catch this fleeting moment and visually hold it fast. It was to be ‘hard-edged’, though he demurred when Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists took this to metallic extremes, commenting that there could be no a priori rules to govern the moment of this abstraction. In this he was closer to Bergson who was on the fringe of the growing occultist movement – his sister Mina was married to a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Macgregor Mathers and she tried to involve him more deeply. Interestingly, the Scots had cottoned on to him early and Bergson gave the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University in 1913-14 on ‘The Problem of Personality’ but Hulme had heard him in Paris before this. Like his friend the American philosopher, William James, Bergson advanced theories of epistemological pragmatism and political pluralism, which in Mead’s view rescues Hulme, who adopted them, from charges of authoritarianism and enabled him to advance a more subtle critique of Nietzscheans like Ludovici who took Nietzsche as literally advocating brute force. In this critique, Hulme also seems to have followed Orage’s lead. The subconscious or unconscious was also filling other pages of The New Age, where Orage had published some of the first non-specialist translations of and commentaries on Freud in the British press.

For many of his French critics however, Bergson was tainted with Romanticism and an over optimistic view of the human spirit. Following this critique, Hulme was drawn to both the politics of myth of Georges Sorel, whose work he translated and as we have seen to the Catholic nationalism of André Maurras and the Action Française. Sorel held that belief in a dominant idea or myth galvanised groups into action to create radical social change. His theory of the myth of the General Strike as the decisive moment of proletarian revolution took hold of the emergent syndicalist movement of the pre-World War One years (and to an extent the emergent shop stewards movement in Britain and later was held almost sacred by Trotskyism). Sorel’s reliance on transcendental authority however chimed in with Maurras’s Action Française – itself a reaction to the Masonic anticlericalism of the Third Republic Radical government. Maurras features as the third of Ernst Nolte’s Three Faces of Fascism (1963) and was for Zeev Sternhell, in The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989), a defining figure of the anti-Semitic authoritarian nationalism following the Dreyfus affair. The Action Française’s goon squads that broke up trade union and socialist meetings were a bloody forerunner of Mussolini’s in Italy. The doctrine of political violence seemed to be legitimated by Sorel’s Reflexions sur la Violence (1908) translated in short order by Hulme. Maurras was also attractive to T S Eliot in these years, who would have joined the Roman Catholic Church had not Maurras been excommunicated because his nationalist absolutism was incompatible with papal authority.

Hulme too seems to have had his doubts and in turn became drawn into the politics of Guild Socialism that Orage, Hobson and later G D H Cole were increasingly elaborating in The New Age. Orage had originally begun to see Guild Socialism as form of radical pluralist antistatism in his discussions with the York architect, Arthur Penty, in the Leeds Arts Club, the iconoclastic society they and Holbrook Jackson had formed in 1903. Orage saw the industrial guilds, which leased from the state, as way of taking formerly capitalist industry and services into public hands but denying the bureaucratic state the right to exercise control over production. Hulme also approved of Orage’s insistence that wage labour should be abolished in favour of a ‘national dividend’ paid to all regardless of employment (something like the ‘citizens’ wage’ currently being canvased on the left). Hulme, Mead argues, was not the authoritarian he is habitually cast as but a kind of democrat. He believed in the individual’s equal status and in the ennobling fight for democracy, as exemplified by the Parliamentarians in the British Civil War of the seventeenth century, though this might have been a later position. Both Orage and Hulme saw Guild Socialism as the political companion to their modernist aesthetics since both politics and aesthetics promoted the vitality of the exemplary individual but situated within a determinate order of society. It is not easy to see this as conventionally democratic position since it relies on both a craft and spiritual hierarchy.

On the question of art, Meade holds that Hulme’s articles on Modern Art in The New Age were seminal moments in art history. Hulme was indebted to Fry’s 1910 exhibition of ‘Post Impressionism’ a term he introduced to name the new movement. But this, as Mead shows, rapidly turned to hostility towards what he saw as Bloomsbury’s dilution of Cezanne’s austere aesthetic in favour of a ‘romantic primitivism’ unable to move into a hard modern abstraction (155). Bloomsbury was chocolate boxy, sentimental and pretty, which was not the point at all. Modern art was a signal of radical new sensibilities which reduced the messiness to stylised form and restored a robust vitality to the individual as against the sociological abstraction of positivist Fabianism. In this Hulme and Orage concurred with the vigorous individualism of the journal The Egoist, founded by Orage’s formidable Yorkshire compatriot, Dora Marsden, then being courted avidly by Ezra Pound. They differed however, in their assertion that such individualism could only bear fruit through the collective acceptance of a transcendent ethical order.

The pages of The New Age became sites of intensive debate over the new art in which Hulme, Sickert, Ludovici and the Camden Town Group for example would all but come to blows over the work of Wyndham, Lewis, Epstein and Bomberg. Art mattered enough to shed blood over, if necessary. As a consequence perhaps, Hulme’s position seems to have modified in favour of a complete form of abstract art which although it should not lose its foothold in representation should nevertheless cut its umbilical cord to it. Mead notes that Richard Cork, probably rightly, thought Hulme was being self-contradictory (165).

Mead’s invaluable intervention here is in fact to demonstrate just how contradictory the so-called modernist movement was, both progressive and reactionary at the same time, pointing to a socialism of individual fulfilment but also hardly excluding a transcendent authoritarianism. Both Orage and Hulme saw this transcendent authority as ‘religious’ rather than political, although Orage, less pessimistic than Hulme, saw a kind of redemption in this. Constantly badgered by Pound to offer his support to Mussolini in the early 1930s, Orage angrily refused, complaining that fascism had corrupted his guild ideal into a corporatism of unfreedom. The hard-edged modernism advocated by Hulme, gave way to something more folksy in Britain as Bloomsbury’s metropolitan aesthetic and liberal-conservatism regained its composure. That most English of Americans, T S Eliot, a subtle survivor of these ideological wars, elegantly consecrated it further in his Four Quartets, whose concluding part, Little Gidding, was first published in Orage’s second journal, The New English Weekly in 1942, some eight years after Orage’s death. But who knows where Hulme might not have gone had he survived his early death in the trenches. Mead’s patient scrutiny of these debates offers a great deal of welcome clarification.

4 November 2017

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.