Neither Progressive nor Reactionary: Reassessing the Cultural Politics of The New Age
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Neither Progressive nor Reactionary:
Reassessing the Cultural Politics of The New Age

The New Age, particularly just before and in the early part of the first world war, was the left-wing paper, which everybody who was anybody read.

—Margaret Cole, 1959 letter to The New Statesman

It was, on the whole, not a Socialist but a reactionary paper . . . So reactionary, that most of its contributors were Medievalists—or of that Christian Secularisti, such as Shaw. They lived in the past, to which they were frightened back by threatening chaos. They wished to put the clock back, as Chesterton once said, but they had not the Chesterton courage to confess it.

—Oscar Levy, from his unpublished Autobiography

Few modernist-era periodicals have been the source of more misunderstanding and conflicting commentary than A. R. Orage's The New Age (1907-1922). While it is widely recognized that this weekly magazine played an important role in the development of British modernism and the history of radical politics in the early twentieth century, there has been and remains to this day little agreement as to its exact ideological or cultural identity. Consider, for example, the two statements that open this essay, both by individuals who were for many years closely associated with the publication. For Margaret Cole, a longtime member of the Fabian Society and the feminist wife of political theorist G. D. H. Cole, whose book National Guilds: An Inquiry into the Wage System and the Way Out (1914) is the best known statement of the guild socialist political philosophy, The [End Page 86] New Age was the preeminent left-wing magazine of its era. For Oscar Levy, the fiercely antidemocratic and proudly reactionary editor of the first complete English-language edition of Friedrich Nietzsche's Collected Works (1909-1913), The New Age was an altogether different sort of periodical. Far from being progressive, left-leaning, or socialist, as Cole claimed, it was in his view a conservative publication, one that looked nostalgically to the past for a sense of political stability and cultural order absent from Great Britain during the turbulent first decades of the twentieth century.

Although it might reasonably be supposed that scholars today would have reached some consensus as to which of these accounts was more accurate—or at the very least offered some credible way of reconciling their discrepancies—little has changed in the intervening fifty years. While the Modernist Journals Project has dramatically and invaluably improved access to The New Age in the past decade through its online edition of the magazine, prompting a renascence of scholarly interest in this heretofore understudied periodical, most critics still defend one or the other of the above interpretations. Robert Scholes and Ann Ardis, for example, tend to emphasize, as Cole did, the magazine's progressive characteristics. In his "General Introduction to The New Age" on the Modernist Journals Project website, Scholes repeatedly characterizes the periodical as socialist and speaks eloquently of Orage's concern for "social progress," "social justice," and "improving the human condition." For him, the magazine, despite being a place where "anarchism and authoritarianism rubbed shoulders," was for most of its existence firmly "on the left," and it is primarily for this reason that Scholes laments the magazine's eventual embrace, during its last years of publication, of the economic theories of Major C. H. Douglas, whose views on social credit, he claims, had "a decisive and disastrous effect on Ezra Pound—and, to some extent, Orage himself." 1 Ardis similarly stresses the leftist character of the publication. Although she recognizes that Orage made room for all kinds of writing, including what she regards as the elitist contributions of Pound, T. E. Hulme, and other now canonical high modernists, she insists that The New Age was principally committed to promoting guild socialism and examining contemporary literature and art from "left-of-center political perspectives" throughout most of its history. Indeed, despite being richly aware that the magazine addressed a "socially diverse readership" and featured "opposing points of view in its pages," Ardis believes that a spirit of radical democracy and "working-class educationalism" governed The New Age, leading a majority of contributors [End...