Wyndham Lewis’s “The Art of Being Ruled” and Elite Theory

In 1926 the British artist-author Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) published The Art of Being Ruled. This treatise of social and political issues was an unusual book in a number of respects. It argued that democracy was not the crowning achievement of Western civilisation but rather a means of suppressing the true wants and needs of the populace. Contrary to liberal intellectuals and supporters of socialism, Lewis argued that mankind in West neither wanted or benefited from democracy. It made no concessions to Lewis’s social milieu, which was predominantly Fabian and Marxist in outlook. A reprint of a selection of Lewis’s prose includes lengthy passages from The Art of Being Ruled, therefore a summary of its arguments is timely.

Lewis, Sorel and reactionary thought

During the early 1900s, Lewis was living in Paris and took an interest in politics as well as the arts. By 1906, Lewis knew of the writing of political theorist and advocate of syndicalism, Georges Sorel – “the key to all contemporary political thought”.[i] Sorel was translated by another Man of 1914, T.E. Hulme, who shared Lewis’s reactionary outlook. Sorel, a late convert to Leninism, may seem a curious hero for Lewis, unless we realise the overlap – or ambiguous adjacency – of Sorel’s traditional and reactionary views. Sorel admired Marxist analyses but conceded, “[Marx] did not understand that the feeling for socialism (as he conceived it) was extremely artificial.”[ii] Socialism is something that is imposed from above, not yearned for from below.

What attracted Lewis was precisely the anti-Modern, illiberal confinement that syndicalism imposed. “[…] the more you specialize people, the more power you can obtain over them, the more helpless and in consequence the more obedient they are. To shut people up in a water-tight, syndicalized, occupational unit is like shutting them up on an island.”[iii] Freedom from specialisation is to bar a working man from community; it robs him of purpose and solidarity. “The chief thing to remember in such a discussion is that no one wants to be ‘free’ in that sense.”[iv]

In his own book, Lewis took as his starting point Sorel, Spengler and Nietzsche. He first discounted the idea that social change is necessarily progress. He then critiqued democracy as a device not of liberation but of containment. “Bound up with the idea of progress in the democratic conception of social unification. It is this idea of unification inseparable from ‘democracy’ that Sorel, the syndicalist, is principally concerned to attack and if possible destroy. Democracy has for its principal object (both according to the revolutionary school to which Sorel belonged, and equally according to Leninism) the disappearance of the class feeling. The idea is to mix all the citizens of a given society into one whole, in which the most intelligent would automatically ‘better themselves’ and rise, by their talents, into the higher ranks. Such social climbing would be of the essence of this democratic society.”[v]

The delusion of democracy

Lewis identifies the functions of democracy as the undermining caste legitimacy and class stability, noting the mechanism of social climbing, analogous to the phenomenon that Pareto had previously described as “circulation of elites”. “For this up and down, this higher and lower, this betterment of ‘progress’ and democratic snobbery, with its necessary unification into a whole, suppressing of differences and substituting for them an arbitrary sale of values, with the salon at the top […]”[vi] Lewis states that syndicalism – considered a branch of Marxist class theory – implicitly accepts an anti-democratic principle of resistance to class mobility in favour of class solidarity for the advancement of that class or tradesman/artisan group.

There is a critique of the mass man – “crushed by debt and threatened with every form of danger, without and within”[vii] – being bombarded by mass media, closely followed by a discussion of education. The main functions of state education are to keep man placid and to direct his trust towards democratic institutions. “His support for everything that he has been taught to support can be practically guaranteed. Hence, of course, the vote of the free citizen is a farce: education and suggestion, the imposition of the will of the ruler through press and other publicity channels, cancelling it. So ‘democratic’ government is far more effective than subjugation by physical conquest. […] So what we call conventionally the capitalist state is as truly an educationalist state.”[viii]

Lewis writes of class privilege substituting race privilege in terms of social status. As he would later write on this matter, Lewis was not a biological essentialist but rather a cultural essentialist and in a time before modern mass migration, he could – with the explicit exception of the USA – equate ethnicity of people with the societies of particular countries. He presents the idea of the English and Scots warring within decades should their public education values diverge and if old enmities were stirred by belligerent elites. He renames What the Public Wants to What the Puppets Want. Class division is as natural as division between species. What is unnatural is the claim by the aristocrats that there is no class division, something that the middle classes and the working man know to be the case.  

Lewis disagreed with Communism but he found the nakedly direct actions of the USSR elites refreshing. In a section entitled “The misuse of intellect”, Lewis describes how Soviet authorities curb the misuses of science and art as entertainment or diversion. By restricting the fields of science and art, the elite reinstate their essential qualities as mystery or craft. “They have taken in this respect the wisest and sanest step where both art and science are concerned, in curtailing the impossible freedom of art, and discouraging the people from gaping incessantly for new and disturbing novelties of science.”[ix] The freedom (real or apparent) afforded people in the Nineteenth Century was anomalous and unnatural. He suggests great books should be reserved for great people. “[A great book] should only be placed in the hands of those who are in a position to understand it. The people who read such books, after all, should be the rulers.”[x] It is worth noting that Lewis was opposed to abstraction in art, despite being the British artist who came close to pure abstraction in the 1910s.  

Ten years after The Art of Being Ruled was published, Lewis wrote, “Ninety per cent of men long at all times for a leader. They are on the look-out, whether they know it or not, for someone who will take all responsibility off their shoulders and tell them what to do.”[xi] For Lewis, the burden of choice for the average man with many concerns, was onerous and one which he would happily pass up, should the cost not be onerous. By extension, the cost demands of having to choose between political platforms of parties and then having the responsibility for being culpable through complicity with the results of endorsing a ruling party’s programme, are also unwelcome. In order to reach these conclusions, Lewis does not have to assume here that democracy actually functions as it is supposed to.

Lewis sees the promulgators of freedom are modern-day aristocrats, who have their own motives. “What is happening in reality in the West is that a small privileged class is playing at revolution, and aping a ‘proletarian’ freedom that the proletariat has not yet reached the conception of. The rich are always the first ‘revolutionaries’. They also mix up together the instincts, opportunities, and desires of the ruler and the ruled. They have the apple and eat it plan in full operation in their behaviour. It is they who have evolved the secondary, heterodox, quite impracticable notion of ‘liberty’ […] This type of freedom, synonymous with irresponsibility, and yet impregnated with privilege as well, is a very strange growth indeed. It will be found on examination to be the most utopian type of all.”[xii]

Later, there is a cutting disparagement of the notion of individuals being encouraged to “express their personality”. “Generally speaking, it can be said that people wish to escape from themselves (this by no means excluding the crudest selfishness). When people are encouraged, as happens in a democratic society, to believe that they wish ‘to express their personality’, the question at once arises as to what their personality is. For the most part, if investigated, it would be rapidly found that they had none. So what would it be that they would eventually ‘express’? and why have they been asked to express it? If they were subsequently watched in the act of ‘expressing’ their personality, it would be found that it was somebody else’s personality they were expressing. If a hundred of them were observed ‘expressing their personality’ all together and at the same time, it would be found that they all ‘expressed’ this inalienable, mysterious ‘personality’ in the same way. In short, it would be patent at once that they had only one personality between them to ‘express’ – some ‘expressing’ it with a little more virtuosity, some a little less. It would be a group personality they were ‘expressing’ – a pattern imposed on them by means of education and the hypnotism of cinema, wireless and press. Each one would, however, be firmly persuaded that it was ‘his own’ personality that he was ‘expressing’: just as when he voted he would be persuaded that it was the vote of a free man that was being cast, replete with the independence and free-will which was the birthright of a member of a truly democratic community.”[xiii]

People wish to be automata”

When we today are encouraged to express our personality, we are given a set range of options to choose from. It is a matter of selecting our favourite musical artist, mass-market (or arthouse) film, holiday destination or tattoo. The acceptable options are not rejection of materialist comforts or allegiance to the causes of holy war, racial purity or nationalistic superiority. Merely thinking such things is essentially criminal and saying the beliefs aloud is actually criminal. Lewis is describing a culture of conformity and expression through consumption which has come to pass. To Orwell, such social transgression was described in 1984 as “thoughtcrime”. “Lewis anticipated Orwell’s concept of “Doublethink” when he stated [in 1936]: “I mean independence in the real sense – not in the Alice in Wonderland sense of contemporary political jargon – where ‘Peace’ means War, ‘Neutrality’ means Intervention, and ‘Independence’ means Economic Servitude.””[xiv] Lewis is describing the modern type of the real-life NPC (non-player character in a video game), who has no interior monologue and repeats information from the mass media. Asking such a person to express his personality is little more than running a programme in order to check the output is as expected. It is a test or inspection, not any expression of individuality.  

“For in the mass[,] people wish to be automata: they wish to be conventional: they hate you teaching them or forcing them into ‘freedom’: they wish to be obedient, hard-working machines, as near dead as possible – as near dead (feelingless and thoughtless) as they can get, without actually dying.”[xv] Lewis detects in people a desire to be numb, to escape oneself, coupled with a strong sense of purpose and place. He dissects the modern state’s drive to dismantle the family, most particularly in the socialist state. He describes the state as becoming the breadwinner. Lewis is critical of feminism and female influence and foresees the rise of welfare state in a feminist era. “Since the great masses of the people are not likely to be in a position to prolong the family arrangement based on an individual ‘home’ (marriage and the family circle to which the European is accustomed), it will be abolished. That is the economic fact at the bottom of ‘feminism’.”[xvi]  

With mankind on the threshold of world government, what powers would authorities need and exercise? “People no doubt could be persuaded that they did not see the sun and moon […]” Consider how that applies to academia, mass media and social media of today and the way that impossibilities are advanced as unarguable truths.

The Art of Being Ruled is a remarkable book – remarkably prescient and remarkably brave. This reprinted edited version will make the ideas known to more. Let us hope that a press decides to issue an unedited republication. For now, alongside extracts of Lewis’s other social and philosophical writings, this version is a fascinating addition to any library of counter-liberal thought.

Wyndham Lewis, E.W.F. Tomlin (ed.), Volume 3: An Anthology of His Prose, Routledge Library Editions, 1969/2021, hardback, 397pp + ix, mono illus., £80, ISBN 978 1 03 211914 4

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

[i] Prose, p. 122

[ii] Sorel, quoted Prose, p. 124

[iii] Prose, p. 153

[iv] Prose, p. 153

[v] Prose, p. 98

[vi] Prose, p. 99

[vii] Prose, p. 107

[viii] Prose, p. 108

[ix] Prose, p. 115

[x] Prose, p. 114

[xi] Quoted from Left Wings over Europe (1936), 296p Meyers

[xii] Prose, p. 136

[xiii] Prose, pp. 150-1

[xiv] Prose, p. 296

[xv] Prose, p. 153

[xvi] Prose, p. 185