‘Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love’ reviewed by Tom Steele

Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love

Verso, London and New York, 2008. 565pp., £24.99/$39.95 hb
ISBN 9781844672950

Reviewed by Tom Steele

About the reviewer

Dr Tom Steele is Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. His books include …


Why should a journal dedicated to reviews of Marxism and philosophy be interested in a life of the British mystical socialist Edward Carpenter? Neither a Marxist nor an academic philosopher, the sandal-shod Carpenter swivelled between and around such identities. His forte seemed to be the political pamphlet, which in turn depended on the multitude of lectures he gave to university extension classes, socialist parties, cultural clubs, ethical organisations, feminist groups and all manner of progressive tendencies, which had the gumption to hire a church hall for the evening or could mount a demonstration. Many of these pamphlets were stitched together for publication by the Labour Press, which published his long Whitmanesque poem Towards Democracy in 1883 and Love’s Coming of Age in 1896, and then Swan Sonnenschein, who published Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure in 1889, Angel’s Wings in 1898 and the Intermediate Sex in 1908. Later George Allen published The Drama of Life and Death in 1912 and with Stanley Unwin subsequently as George Allen and Unwin, republished many of the earlier books in several editions.

This biography of Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham has had a long gestation, dating back to the 1970s when she wrote Socialism and the New Life (1977) with Jeffrey Weeks, when he was remembered by only a handful of ageing New Lifers and few people in the New Left or the women’s movement had heard of him. It is characteristically dense with archive material, meticulously referenced, witnessing years of grubbing about in the Carpenter Archives in Sheffield, the Alf Mattinson Collection in Leeds, major collections in Manchester and over fifty other archives in Britain and America; a true work of scholarship. Was it worth it?

For any anyone with an interest in the origins of British socialism, feminism, gay liberation, vegetarianism and ecological movements in the late-nineteenth century, Rowbotham’s biography is a joy to read, the connections between activists, writers, progressive movements and the zeitgeist proving irresistible. In some ways Carpenter exemplified that zeitgeist; he might even have invented, or at least popularised the concept, which for him meant the connection between individual thought and what he called ‘cosmic consciousness’. Fundamentally on the mystical end of philosophical idealism, Carpenter sought in many publications to grapple with the existential and universal dimensions of human consciousness. Like many in the polyphonous socialist movement of the 1880s, he took his lead from the idealist traditions of Plato, Plotinus, Eastern mysticism, Blavatskian Theosophy and Schopenhauer rather than Marx. Later, before WW1, he read Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, then being avidly promoted by Orage’s New Age and, as Rowbotham comments, ‘as up to the minute as you could get’ – though he claimed that he conceived his own form of ‘vitalism’ quite independently. Rayner Heppenstall, in 1934, claimed that Carpenter’s emphasis on inner feeling should be thought of as a spiritual complement to Marx (443), and Beatrice Webb, no less, hailed Carpenter’s The Art of Creation as the metaphysics ‘of the Socialist creed as to social relations – the Faith we Hold!’.

Indeed Carpenter did not reject Marxism but he was worried that the mechanical, historical determinism, then popularised as Marxism, ignored the role of individual moral agency in creating social change: precisely, its lack of ‘dialectics’. For the same reasons Carpenter was also sceptical of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ Darwinism, then appearing to offer an alibi for imperialism, preferring instead the more collectivist and cooperative models of animal evolution suggested by Lamarck and Kropotkin.

Carpenter also looked for other materialist explanations of consciousness and he maintained an interest in science, teaching classes in astronomy, for instance, for Cambridge University Extension. Some of his scientific interests look questionable today, however, and many of the new paths in psychology and physiology like Frederic Myers’s Human Personality and its Survival of Death (1903) and the ‘Great Sympathetic Nerve’ argument advanced in Richard Bucke’s Man’s Moral Nature (1879) seem to have been dead ends. Carpenter mixed these ideas with new work on electricity and physiology, like Oliver Lodge’s Electrons (1910) that proposed that electro-magnetic radiation indicated some interconnection between matter and spirit. Drawing also from Freud’s interpretation of dreams, he claimed that a form of emotional consciousness pre-existed cerebral or intellectual consciousness at the level of the central nervous system. This allowed humans a kind of evolved ‘race’ memory which, in mysterious ways, connected into a ‘cosmic’ totality. Not easy stuff to make sense of these days and the author’s perspiration frequently dampens the page. As Rowbotham tells us, E. M. Forster, once a devoted acolyte, seems to have offered the most considered judgment on Carpenter’s wrestling with these ideas: ‘Like most mystics he wanted to both merge in the universe and to retain his identity, and since he was neither a strong nor a wary thinker he brought forward no plausible solution of the contradiction’ (quoted, 278). The ‘diffuse spirituality’, as Rowbotham puts it, of late nineteenth dynamic psychology fanned out into, on the one side, a practical psychology that entered into clinical practice and on the other a form of psychoanalysis that located compulsive behaviour in childhood trauma. ‘Cosmic consciousness’, though, did not so much fade out as an idea but seems to have been absorbed into the new experiments in abstract art of Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter group, Mondrian and the surrealism of Duchamp and others. It also passed into the work of architectural modernism through the Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright especially. Against this highly creative current, however, cosmic consciousness entered a period of grotesque caricature in the murderous posturing of fascist dictators, who declared the mystical identity of their own consciousness and that of ‘the race’ or ‘The People’s’ will.

Carpenter’s written texts, then, should be read less as serious contributions to philosophy than as guides to action, for he was first and foremost an activist and it is as the inspiration for myriad progressive causes that he has made a lasting impact. Many of the campaigns he helped pioneer, such as women’s equality, gay rights, the humane treatment of animals, respect for the planet and its resources, cooperative relations of production and consumption and his critique of technological instrumentalism are as pertinent now as they were a century ago. Although his Morrisian love of craftwork and simple fresh-air living remains a minority pursuit (largely for the better off), it still offers a necessary check on excessive materialism and the overconsumption of unwanted goods. His notion of an evolving spiritual consciousness seems also, Rowbotham claims, to have worked its way into progressive schooling via Herbert Read’s theories of art education (Read could easily have heard Carpenter lecture on ‘Beauty in Modern Life’ at Leeds Arts Club). Elements of Carpenter’s mysticism and homoeroticism pervade the works of Forster and Isherwood; Forster’s Maurice was written as direct response his meeting with the sage, while his heroic wartime broadcasts on the theme of ‘only connect’ and his injunction to betray one’s country before one’s friend is pure Carpenter. Carpenter’s human-centred critique of technology and urban living passed into the work of Lewis Mumford via Patrick Geddes, a fellow New Lifer, while his ruralism influenced Rolf Gardiner and led to the establishment of the Soil Association – and so to George Monbiot?

Rowbotham traces Carpenter’s influence to the first Gay Rights campaign in the USA led by Harry Hay. Hay had spotted The Intermediate Sex in a San Francsico bookshop and was immediately intrigued by its linking of socialism with male comradeship. He conceived the ‘Radical Faeries’ as an alternative gay identity in the early 1970s and through his ideology of a ‘Third Sex’, directly addressed Carpenter’s utopian dilemma of how to found and nurture an alternative culture within contemporary alienated capitalist relations. Without the militant campaign for homosexual rights then engendered, one of the significant achievements of contemporary Western civilisation, the social and legal acceptance of same sex relationships, might well have been long-delayed. Not all socialists thought Carpenter was a good thing of course, George Orwell dumping him into the category of ‘pious sodomite’ as opposed to his own (Etonian, no doubt) image of proletarian masculinity.

Nevertheless, there is what Rowbotham calls a ‘startling modernity’ about Carpenter’s campaigning that could claim to pre-empt an everyday life more tolerant of sexual difference, more sensitive to the ecological effects of technology, suspicious of religious dogmatism and theological absolutes, and less comfortable with claims of ‘natural’ Western superiority. Curiously, it may even be that David Cameron’s conservative vision of a ‘Big Society’ is little more than an atrophied version the ‘Larger Socialism’ promoted by Carpenter. Suspicious of the centralising state being pursued by the Fabians, Carpenter wanted not just an end to material inequality – although that was paramount but, of course, no part of Cameron’s agenda – but new forms of association, aesthetics and harmony with nature which should be seen as ‘sacred and beautiful’ with loving companionship and mutual helpfulness. In 1910 in ‘A Thought for May-Day’ for the Labour Leader, Carpenter wanted socialism to: ‘clear our skies and purify our streams, and secure for us great tracts of public land in which the life of the people may develop. It must teach us to sing once more at our work, and to rejoice in it’ (quoted, 315). No doubt for both Orwell and Cameron, this would be seen as sentimental gush of the worst kind, but the desire to make the world an equal, wholesome and happy place must surely be at the heart of all progressive politics.

This book is not just about Carpenter’s dreams but also about his days too, often densely detailed with a cast of characters drawn from all parts of the progressive spectrum of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Much of it is about his relationships with his male companions George Merrill and George Hukin in their cottage at Millthorpe near Sheffield, where, despite campaigns against them by local clerics, they lived their sexual lives more or less openly. It took some courage to be ‘the only gay(s) in the village’ at a time when Oscar Wilde was facing very public prosecution, and moreover to promote the idea that this was not only not deviant behaviour but the beginning of a change in human nature – ‘Urnings’ for the future. Carpenter also had many close friends among the emergent feminist movement, chief among them the South African, Olive Schreiner, and Isabella Ford from Leeds, a founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) as well as the Independent Labour Party (ILP). As Rowbotham points out, his approach to feminism was not always consistent; while celebrating the robust, independent types thrown up by the struggle for women’s rights, he still had a liking for the wholesome mother and commander of the household. What he could not stand, however, was the meek, subordinate ‘wifey’, who meekly accepted her husband’s domination. More regrettably, he also shared in the absent minded anti-Semitism of the period, blaming ‘the Jew’ for England’s pursuit of the Boer War. Is it enough simply to say, as Rowbotham does, that ‘The Jews Carpenter attacked were rhetorical categories rather than individual Jewish people towards who he was perfectly friendly’ (304)? Almost certainly not, but very creditably, Rowbotham adds that the Irish socialist, James Connolly, robustly attacked such anti-Semitism. So why was Carpenter not sensitive to it? Where was his ‘cosmic consciousness’ when it was most needed?

Carpenter was at the heart of the erupting socialist movements in Britain at the turn of the last century when so much was in the melting pot and before they solidified into opposing camps. Looking back on the 1890s Alfred Orage characterised its socialism as ‘a cult with affiliations now quite disowned – with theosophy, arts and crafts, vegetarianism, the “simple life”, and almost, one might say, with the musical glasses’. Orage, of course, swam with the current but that was before the Bolshevik Revolution had made it a much more serious business. Rowbotham concludes, however, that although his mode of writing is now archaic, Carpenter left a vital legacy: his awkward questions about intermediacy, personal relations and power, subjective experience and knowledge, the treatment of animals and the natural world and above all the ‘inner spirit’ as a source of transformation, are as relevant now as ever. Now that the mechanical historical determinism that passed for one kind of Marxism seems properly buried, some elements of Carpenter’s thought and activism might reinvigorate a Marxism of agency. We have Rowbotham to thank for bringing them and him back to life, for a new age.

2 September 2010

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