CS Lewis Was a Red

Red Tory, that is.  The famous author and religious writer, C. S. Lewis, is revered by right-wing conservatives as a saint, their trophy intellectual, but ironically, he was not “conservative,” not in their way.  He was not right wing.  He was a “Red Tory”, a political type unfamiliar in the U.S.  Almost everything he says about capitalism is negative.  Given his rather liberal views on divorce, birth control, and homosexuality, he was not a recognizable “social conservative”.  Above all, he rejected right-wing political and economic ideology.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis bluntly states that “a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist.”

OK, Lewis was certifiably conservative in terms of religion. But not exactly.  He was a middle-of-the-road Anglican—he was not “conservative” in the current sense meaning “Evangelical” or fundamentalist—treating the Bible as “literal” or as magical (“inerrant”).  He emphatically was not a “literalist”; he was not an “Evangelical”.  He was committed to science: he had no problem with evolution.  Like other scholars, he recognized the creation narrative in Genesis as a folk tale.  He condemned looking for “signs” portending the “end of the world.”  He satirized revivalist religion in The Last Battle.  He proudly called himself a humanist. He openly admired Paganism (a word he capitalizes in The Problem of Pain and elsewhere).  He insisted that “If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong”, a notion not typical of evangelical (“one way”) Christianity, or even orthodoxy.  Lewis’s religion is not as orthodox as people think, but let’s look at what is certifiably non-conservative in what he had to say.

Lewis was not “conservative” in the American political sense: he was notan advocate for the “free market system.”  A Red Tory is “conservative” in the old sense: thus Lewis believed in community and mutual obligation, in tradition, in democracy, in diversity and tolerance.  Lewis believed in the common good and in “universal justice”; he believed that we must look after one another.  He was anything but a cheerleader for capitalism.  His references to capitalism (competition, profit, the accumulation of wealth, marketing, inequality, self-interest) are critical, often hostile.

He did not believe that Christianity was the same as capitalism.  He did not believe that Christianity had anything to do with material success.  (Lewis gave away the money he made from religion—unlike many famous preachers and authors.)  He did not hobnob with the powerful.  He hated British imperialism.  He did not glorify “the family”—he never talks about ”family values.” His theological “master” was the definitely not orthodox George Macdonald (another Red Tory).  He was surprised that the United States did not have a “socialist” English-style National Health Service, which he treated as common sense.  On more than one occasion—and in print—he called for greater economic equality.  Churchill, in the reactionary 1950s, wanted to award him a “CBE”—Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.  Lewis turned it down, because he did not want to be associated with “anti-leftist propaganda.”  It is this “Red Tory” side of Lewis that needs to be recognized—his “progressive,” almost anarchist, side. As Margaret Hannay observes, “He was a far more complex person than his popular reputation would indicate.”  We have to look at the neglected parts of Lewis, such as his sociology, his analysis of power relations, especially in the form of what the feminist Marilyn French calls “power-over” relations—relationships where one person controls another person. Lewis was obsessed with the evil of power-over relationships.

His attitude toward science is also revealing. Lewiswas familiar with developments in a number of sciences.  He was a fan of science fiction—his love of the leftist H. G. Wells is familiar (as also of Edith Nesbit, the friend of Marx’s daughter).  He read “pulp” Science Fiction magazines.  He knew them well enough to judge which was best: Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Indeed its editor asked him to contribute, a request the editor doubtless often made to Oxbridge medievalists.  Lewis read Fantasy and Science Fiction—and wrote for it.  In an “informal conversation” in SF Horizons, he shows his expertise.  But unlike many English professors, Lewis also read science, for example classics such as Arthur Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World and James Jeans’s The Mysterious Universe. He knows these works (by major astrophysicists) well enough to cite them, especially Eddington (in A Preface to Paradise Lost—also in Studies in Words).  Contemporary physics fascinated Lewis.  As early as 1942 he is citing the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, and, in 1943, de Broglie.  His interest in science was not confined to physics, either: thus he recommends the animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz—Lewis quotes Lorenz in almost his last book, The Four Loves.

With Aldous Huxley, his close contemporary, Lewis was one of the first writers to grapple with modern physics.  “The physical sciences propose for our belief much that cannot be imagined,” he writes.  Reality is not what it looks like: “we are now being forced to the conclusion that we know nothing about [material reality] save its mathematics”.  Lewis writes in one of his last publications, “One’s ordinary self is, then, a mere façade.  There’s a huge area out of sight behind it,” “And if one listens to the physicists, . . . the same is true of all the things around us.  These tables and chairs, this magazine, the trees, clouds and mountains are façades.  Poke . . . into them and you find the unimaginable structure of the atom.”

Lewis was familiar with contemporary developments in literature and philosophy—he read deeply in Henri Bergson, the innovative philosopher of time.  He groused about the “Moderns”—but he was himself “a Modern.”  His prose style is Modernist, almost Minimalist.  He liked E. M. Forster, admired Joseph Conrad, and appreciated Herman Hesse.  “Kafka is a magnificent writer,” he says.  He read Golding’s novels, including Lord of the Flies; he liked Graham Greene.  The influential critic Lord David Cecil was quite wrong in saying that Lewis’s “taste [stopped] about 1890.”  Lewis read—and defended—Science Fiction when academia sneered.  He admired Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, read Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, corresponded with Arthur C. Clarke, praised Ray Bradbury, and, in a published dialogue, discussed science fiction with Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss.  Again, Lewis does not fit the familiar “conservative” image of him.

What really made Lewis uncontemporary was that he had zero sympathy with right-wing ideology, especially in the 1930s when it was all over the place, especially at Oxford.  The fascism of Roy Campbell, who fought for Franco in Spain, repelled Lewis. Later, he detested the “conservative” Evelyn Waugh; he said that reading Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was like wearing a hair shirt, with its aristocracy fetish.  But Lewis admires writers he does not agree with, such as Jean-Paul Sartre.  He read Aldous Huxley; he admired George Orwell (Orwell wrote a surprisingly favourable review of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength).

Lewis was unusual in his respect for childhood. His sympathy with children conflicted with the cult of authority so widespread in the 1920s-1930s.  Children’s literature had an importance for him that it has not had in academic circles until recently; academics regarded it with contempt (as they regarded him with contempt for writing it).  But Lewis found this genre profound and meaningful.  Practically the first thing he cites in The Problem of Pain is The Wind in the Willows. Few Oxford academics would expound Milton by citing Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Tale of Beatrix Potter.

As a poet, Lewis is close, stylistically, to his contemporaries, especially Graves, Spender, Muir—classic Modernists—even T. S. Eliot.  Despite Lewis’s conflicts with Eliot, the Anglo-Catholic highbrow, he quotes Eliot’s Dry Salvages in 1942 (it was published in 1941).  Lewis did not share the English snob’s disdain of American literature.  He read all of Robinson Jeffers; he loved Hawthorne. He admired the iconoclastic Emily Dickinson.  He read Robert Frost and Stephen Vincent Benet.  He even wrote to Robert Penn Warren to praise his work.  There is rodomontade in Lewis’s complaints about Modernism—it’s what his friend Leo Baker called his “confident eccentricity”. But he has more in common not just with Modernism but with liberal theology than has been recognized.  Hence Lewis’s debt to the heretic William Blake, the poet-prophet that Owen Barfield called St. George.  Lewis liked Thomas Merton (later a New Age favourite) and one of the dangerous Catholics.

Lewis was simply not right-wing.  In outlook, he was close to George Orwell and George Grant and far from “conservatives” in the Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson mould or born-agains such as George W. Bush or Brahmins of the William F. Buckley species. His attitude toward nationalism is especially revealing; he opposed the “fanatical Nationalist who tells me to throw away my antiquated scruples about universal justice and benevolence and adopt a system in which nothing but the wealth and power of my own country matters.”  “Universal justice and benevolence” are basic liberal values.  Lewis consigns two of England’s hero-sized nationalist monarchs—Henry V and Henry VIII—to Hell. Again, he refused the CBE that Churchill offered because he didn’t want his work seen as “anti-leftist propaganda”.

Lewis’s political and economic views were are hardly right-wing.  Far from being a reactionary social conservative, Lewis had strong radical impulses.  Let’s be clear: Lewis was not some crypto-leftist, and he did say some pretty stupid things, too, but Left elements need attention, for example his love for the great English Marxist, William Morris.  Notice how often the theme of social revolution turns up in Lewis’s books for children.  The horror of absolute command over others—tyranny—power-over relationships—meets us at once in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: a police state, complete with secret police, arbitrary detention, terror raids, death squads, informers, propaganda, and cynical self-interest.

Lewisabhorred mixing religion with politics.  “Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst”.  His language is blunt.  “Theocracy is the worst of all governments”:  nobody should, he wrote “be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous . . . . The inquisitor … mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven [and] will torment us [because] his better impulses appear to him as temptations.”  “His better impulses appear to him as temptations”: a profound insight into the psychology of tyranny.  “A sincere inquisitor or a sincere witch-finder can hardly do his chosen work with mildness”.  The fanatic is obsessed with his own belief—”wholesome doubt” becomes sin.

“Wholesome doubt” is a primary virtue in Lewis, whereas, to many self-described Christians, doubt is sin.  What Lewis calls “doubt” is our ability to see things from an unfamiliar point of view. It is a defining virtue for Lewis: openness and tolerance.  In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis states that if you are unable “to make room for an alien thought,” the result is “absurdities . . . to which even a strong mind may be put when hagridden by a premiss which it will never allow itself to reconsider”.

In a last interview, he said: “I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such.  We would only transport to them . . . our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism.  I can’t bear to think of it”.  How many middle-class men, born in the 1890s and living in the heart of the British Empire would say such things?  Lewis was not among those who defend the British Empire because of supposed benefits to the “natives”.  Lewis was much more liberal in his views about race, class, and empire than many English people to this day.

In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston, the imperialist/scientist/conquistador, views the “natives” of Mars exactly as his prototypes did in the British Empire.  “You don’t understand how to deal with natives,” he says.  “One sign of yielding and they’ll be at our throats.  The only thing is to intimidate them,” he says to his partner in crime, and boasts about his lethal weaponry.  Then he waves “a brightly coloured necklace of beads,” to dazzle the “natives”. Lewis was a historian as well as novelist: he knew about the actual record of imperialism.  His revulsion at imperialism extends to Christianity: “Our habit of talking as if England’s motive for acquiring an empire . . . had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world”:

If there were no broken treaties with Redskins, no extermination of the Tasmanians, no gas-chambers and no Belsen, no Amritsar, Black and Tans or Apartheid, the pomposity of [imperialism] would be roaring farce. . . . If ever the book . . . is written it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery.  Large areas of “the World” will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past.  Why should they?  We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.

”Service of Moloch”—strong words.  Moloch is the ferocious fascist of Paradise Lost, the god of child-sacrifice in the Hebrew scriptures.  Lewis’s extensive list of imperial atrocities references “Apartheid” and “Black and Tans.” Lewis was Irish; his dear friend Paddy Moore, whose mother he lived with after Paddy was killed in World War I, was Irish.  Lewis knew all about English prejudice against the Irish.  And remember: right-wing support of Apartheid was taken for granted; Reagan and Thatcher supported it to the end, 1989.  Lewis (d.1963) would have none of it.

Lewis openly called his beliefs “liberal” and “humanist”.  He wasnota socialist, but he expressed sympathy for the socialist hauled up before the McCarthy hearings, which he did not approve of.  He stated explicitly that greater economic democracy was needed. His much touted book, Mere Christianity, has surprising things to say about capitalism.  “Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest. . . . three great civilisations had agreed . . . in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life”—capitalism.  In a Christian society “There will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them”.  “A Christian society would be what we now call Leftist”.

We don’t see much of Narnian economics, but we get glimpses: Uncle Andrew’s ambition as entrepreneur in The Magician’s Nephew, for example.  After squandering an inheritance and sponging off his sister—and doing no work, of course—Uncle Andrew now, having “discovered” Narnia, like Columbus “discovering” America, plans to produce military and industrial equipment there for nothing, then sell it back in England “at full prices.”  He knows a good deal when he sees one.  Or take The Last Battle: the Calormene invasion is a colonial-imperial project basically the same as Uncle Andrew’s enterprise.  The empire is doing what empires do—it is seizing a weaker country in order to extract its resources (resources that include slaves in The Last Battle), and this imperial appropriation, in the form of clear-cut logging of the primeval Narnian forest, is the first thing we see of the imperial invasion in The Last Battle.

Most revealing is the Lone Islands episode in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  The economic foundation of the Lone Islands is slavery: something the Voyagers promptly abolish, despite impassioned protests from the local élite that there is no alternative—the economy will collapse without it!—an industry that sustains vital economic spin-offs, such as piracy and kidnapping.

For Lewis, there isan alternative, but it is not a right-wing alternative.