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BOOK REVIEW / Signposts to the brave new world: The hidden Huxley: Contempt and Compassion for the Masses - David Bradshaw: Faber, pounds 17.50

AS THE historian Eric Hobsbawm likes to point out, the capitalist system had a sticky time of things in the first half of the 20th century. Faced with two world wars, a global slump, an apparently successful anti-capitalist revolution and the rise of anti-democratic dictatorships at the continent's very core, it is hardly surprising that thoughtful European intellectuals were attracted to alternatives that now seem embarrassing or unthinkable.

One such was Aldous Huxley, whom David Bradshaw seeks to rescue from his own self- image as an 'amused, Pyrrhonic aesthete' (this description appeared in Huxley's foreword to Brave New World, and served to keep that novel firmly within the English tradition of sceptical dystopia). Bradshaw argues that in fact Huxley was an engaged political thinker, whose interwar writings chart a progression from aristocratic distaste for mass society, via a 1930 trip to the unemployment wasteland of the north of England, to a 'more humanitarian, even 'socialist' philosphy, and a heartfelt concern for ordinary men and women'.

The progression is easy to satirise, partly because it was not untypical (as Brave New World precedes Nineteen Eighty-Four by 16 years, so Huxley's Damascan road to County Durham predates Orwell's to Wigan Pier by seven), and partly because of the alarm bells which predictably ring. Not surprisingly for the times, there are tinges of anti-Semitism as well as a robust advocacy of selective eugenics: even after the pit-stop tour, Huxley writes of the need to protect the cultured elite from the 99.5 per cent of the population that is irredeemably 'stupid and philistine'.

But the overall impression is of a man trying seriously to think his way through questions that we now see as muddily intractible towards solutions that many now (and for that reason) regard as laughably discredited. Thus Huxley never doubts the importance of state intervention; and he is also caught up in the general awe of industrial processes - generally plodding, the prose takes flight when he describes his impression of synthesising ammonia in the ICI factory at Billingham.

What appears to change is not so much Huxley's opinions as his sources. He begins by reading H L Mencken and Vilfredo Pareto, and applies their bilious elitism to the perceived emergence of mass society in the 1920s; later, he grows used to observing the real world, and relating it - if sometimes archly and sentimentally - to the great issues of his time. Thus the first essay berates the current condition of family life on evidence as apparently flimsy as that employed for similar purposes today ('our dread of being tyrannously unfair to our children,' Huxley writes in 1930, 'has rationalised itself in the curious educational doctrine . . . that the whole purpose of education is to guarantee to every child the possibility of complete 'self-expression' '). Later still, Huxley visits training camps for the unemployed in the New Forest, and sees in them a possible model for 'a kind of university of common life' where men and women might 'study and experiment with the art of living in all its aspects'. All of which might seem risibly romantic - and indeed Utopian - until he moves on to describe experiments in cooperative working which have uncanny echoes in the most up-to-date thinking about flattened structures and team management.

As a book, Bradshaw's anthology is not entirely satisfactory. The introduction does not distinguish in its quotations between pieces which appear in the text and those that don't (tantalisingly, there is reference to Huxley's report of a Blackshirt rally which is not reprinted). The first two chapters are descriptive of Huxley's intellectual relationship with H L Mencken and H G Wells; the rest consists of reprints of articles and talks which might be helped by similar contextualisation.

In fact, such a contextualisation is amply provided by David Bradshaw in his excellent introduction to Flamingo's centenary edition of Brave New World (pounds 5.99). In it, he reminds us that the postwar (and by then Californian) Huxley continued to keep his finger on the pulse of very different times. Symbolically, the great anti-charismatic died on 22 November 1963, never learning of the other death that occurred in Dallas that same afternoon. It is perhaps more significant that a man whose interwar writings place him within the English tradition of cynical iconoclasm ended up (via his hallucinogenic writings in The Doors of Perception and elsewhere) providing names for rock bands and appearing on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.