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Spring 2013

Eliot’s Politics in Context

book cover imageDreams of a Totalitarian Utopia: Literary Modernism and Politics,
by Leon Surette.
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.
Cloth, xv + 363 pages. $59.95.

Benjamin G. Lockerd

Some years ago at a conference a speaker mentioned in passing that Eliot had “flirted with fascism.” This comment had nothing to do with the purpose of his paper and was not supported by any evidence, but is simply something one hears in the hallowed halls of the academy, and the charge is vague enough that it does not commit the speaker to provide evidence. Whenever we hear anyone say that Eliot “flirted with fascism,” we may be sure the speaker does not know anything about it. Two books clarified Eliot’s social and political ideas some four decades ago: T. S. Eliot’s Social Criticism, by Roger Kojecky and Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age. Neither found that Eliot had flirted with fascism. After reading carefully all of Eliot’s Criterion essays and commentaries, and after corresponding with Eliot on political topics—as well as discussing them with him on several occasions in person—Kirk concluded that “From the first, he was a consistent and intelligent opponent of both Fascist and Communist ideologies: and somewhat to his own surprise, perhaps, on occasions he found himself defending the constitutional democracies of Britain and the United States.”

More recently, in his excellent 2002 book on the Criterion, Jason Harding points out that Eliot attempted to address political ideas in the journal without taking sides in the immediate political issues of the day, and that this policy meant including essays by pro-fascist and pro-communist writers. It is this attempt at disinterested discussion, Harding suggests, that opened Eliot to irresponsible charges of being some sort of proto-fascist. After analyzing Eliot’s 1928 article “The Literature of Fascism,” Harding concludes that “the article amounted to an indictment of totalitarian government.” We also have Michael North’s 1991 book on The Political Aesthetics of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, in which he states that “Eliot and Yeats were in some ways too conservative to become fascists.”

In spite of the fact that the scholars who have studied the topic seriously have all come to similar conclusions, the question of Eliot’s thoughts about totalitarian ideologies continues to fascinate and to invite misrepresentation by those who think his avowed conservatism must have been aligned with fascism. What seems to be needed is a book that addresses the question directly and comprehensively. Leon Surette’s new book does just that—and does it very well indeed. The beauty of Professor Surette’s approach is that he provides a rich context by describing and documenting the central trends in political thought in England, from before the Great War to the Cold War era.

While tracing the history of ideas in this stretch of time, Surette compares Eliot’s political ideas with those of his friends Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. The three met each other at the outset of the Great War; though Lewis and Pound later fell out, Eliot maintained lifelong friendships with both of them, in spite of Pound’s mad allegiance to Mussolini and Lewis’s crankiness. By examining the broader milieu of political ideas at that time, Surette is able to explain somewhat sympathetically how Pound and Lewis were drawn to totalitarian ideologies and Eliot was drawn to monarchy. Surette shows that even before World War I there was a broad consensus holding that democratic capitalism had failed and would soon be replaced by something else. The war and the depression of the 1930s seemed to confirm this widely held notion, so that the question was seen by many as a necessary choice of some more regimented system to replace what was dying out. The earnest debates taking place in England—and sometimes in the pages of The Criterion—were predicated on this assumption. By setting the discussion in this context, Surette gives us a much better understanding of how so many educated people could have gone so far wrong.

Surette’s approach, then, will garner some understanding for Lewis and Pound, who not only flirted with communism or Nazism or fascism but embraced the last (Lewis for a time, and Pound for the rest of his life). The book will help its readers comprehend how well-intentioned and intelligent people were attracted to these totalitarian movements, which later proved to be evil horrors. At the same time, Surette’s method has a disadvantage because it tends to leave the casual reader with the impression that Eliot’s views were quite similar to those of his friends. To include Eliot in a book entitled Dreams of a Totalitarian Utopia is inevitably to lead many who never go far beyond the title to suppose that Surette thinks Eliot had such dreams, when in fact he did not even dream of a Christian utopia. Rather, he writes at the end of The Idea of a Christian Society, “. . . we must remember that whatever reform or revolution we carry out, the result will always be a sordid travesty of what human society should be—though the world is never left wholly without glory.” Eliot was not tempted, as were his two friends (and many others), by utopian visions, certainly not by totalitarian utopian visions.

Surette demonstrates that these three, along with many others, joined in a critique of the poor distribution of wealth by the capitalist system. They also shared a distrust of the mass culture that was becoming dominant and felt that it discouraged real artists. They expected democracy to lead to electing demagogues or to creating secret oligarchies. Eliot thought a monarch preferable; Lewis and Pound thought a dictator would be better. Surette states sympathetically that “their motivation should not be regarded as malign, nor their analysis as completely wrong-headed. The interwar period was one in which it was very difficult to see one’s way clearly.” He shows that “fascism was not perceived in the 1920s as the face of evil—either by the man in the street, by the media, or by the leaders of democratic nations,” and adds that the great fear at the time was Bolshevism. At the same time, of course, he does not aim to completely exonerate these writers, whose naïve understanding of politics led them (at least in the case of Lewis and Pound) to support ideologies that proved to be extremely destructive.

Surette demonstrates that Eliot had distanced himself from Lewis’s political views as early as 1927. He notes that in Eliot’s essay on “The Literature of Fascism” in 1928 he renounces both communism and fascism as political systems substituting for religious belief. In the same essay, as Surette points out, Eliot even gives one or two cheers for democracy (or at least for limited democracy), saying he cannot “share enthusiastically in this vigorous repudiation of ‘democracy’” that he has heard voiced on all sides. Surette states that eventually “Eliot muted his anti-democratic views, though he never entirely abandoned them, and he avoided endorsing any of the regimes on offer.” Unlike Lewis, we are told, Eliot not only had a negative critique but a positive set of beliefs—in conservatism, Anglicanism, and royalism—which “protected Eliot from the sorts of political blunders into which Lewis and Pound fell.” After giving an extensive and rich description of Eliot’s political views, Surette concludes that “Eliot never flirted with fascism or nazism.” With a bit of luck, this will settle the matter once and for all.

Probably, however, it will not, for many commentators consider Eliot’s conservatism to be vaguely allied with fascism, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. And unfortunately Surette himself (perhaps because his book does lump Eliot with the other two) sometimes undercuts his own conclusion. For instance, at one point he writes, “Intellectuals who had abandoned liberal capitalism and rejected both socialism and communism, like Eliot, Lewis, and Pound, were ineluctably drawn toward fascism as the only remaining political alternative on offer.” This is quite true of Lewis and Pound but not, as Surette elsewhere shows, of Eliot.

At times it seems Professor Surette is at pains to find Eliot soft on fascism. For instance, he comments on Eliot’s review of a book by Joseph Wood Krutch, in which Krutch offers a critique of both communism and fascism from a liberal viewpoint. Surette notes that Eliot concentrates on communism in the review and states ominously that “his silence on Krutch’s critique of fascism is striking.” Yet Eliot does say at the beginning of the review (in a passage Surette does not quote) that Krutch “objects, in the name of reason and liberalism, to both fascism and communism. His objections are the substance of his book; and anyone who also objects to fascism and communism is prepared to read the book in a sympathetic state of mind. But the more I read of it, the more I became convinced that Mr. Krutch was an ally to be regarded with the gravest suspicion by anybody with any positive beliefs.” Thus Eliot makes clear his agenda for his review: he agrees unequivocally with Krutch that both fascism and communism are deplorable, but he will spend the review arguing that Krutch’s liberalism does not offer an adequate alternative to these collectivist ideologies because it does not contain “positive beliefs.” It is true that Eliot never again mentions fascism in the short piece, but his emphasis is on Krutch’s anti-Christian evaluation of European history, and he has stated his opposition to fascism quite unambiguously in the opening paragraph.

A similar over-interpretation is to be found in Surette’s analysis of Eliot’s 1938 Commentary on the Spanish Civil War, where Eliot complains about English liberals who were taking the side of the Communist-leaning government against the fascist Franco. These liberals, Eliot says, “find an emotional outlet in denouncing the iniquity of something called ‘fascism.’” As he often did, Eliot goes on to say that this emotional release keeps the liberals from attending to “the true evils in their own society.” Surette calls this piece a “defense of fascism/nazism,” which it clearly was not. There are, unfortunately, other passages like these, in which Professor Surette seems to want to imply that Eliot was somehow allied with the fascists or was even defending them.

Nevertheless, this book presents abundant evidence for its primary conclusion regarding Eliot, namely, that he was never a supporter of fascism. The detailed information presented by Surette is fascinating, and the book gives an extremely valuable narrative of the various political ideas at work from before World War I through the Cold War period. The wisdom of Eliot’s position on the subject of totalitarian ideologies is seen as all the more remarkable in the context of the positively pro-fascist beliefs of his two friends.  

Benjamin G. Lockerd is Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he has received the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Educator Award. He is the author of books on Edmund Spenser and T. S. Eliot, as well as articles on Eliot and on Renaissance literature. He also wrote the introduction to Russell Kirk’s book Eliot and His Age and has served as president of the T. S. Eliot Society.

Posted: April 7, 2013

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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