The Edward Carpenter Forumec4a.jpg

In Search of Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham

I can see it was an idealist socialism which denied the material reality of class and sex and obscured conflict. It was a romantic socialism which nurtured the dream but had no strategy for its implementation. It was a gullible socialism too ready to believe the capitalist state was a neutral force for welfare and that if you waited long enough the Labour Party would bring you socialism. Where from indeed? It grew complacent in old age and took office or it was forced into bizarre nooks and communes making socialism in one parish. It was fearful of power, so accepted it on the terms of the governors. Or it fled. When anything nasty came along like fascism or Stalinism it did not know how to fight them or what to do. So it died a forgotten archaism, merely the occasion for an easy joke. All those voices raised,

‘The long long night is over . .

Arise O England for the day is here'1

But the day wasn't and isn't. Carpenter would still be complaining we're being a long time about it. He and his friends may have become a little odd as the years went by. When political hopes splinter and part company the fragments appear distorted.

The rediscovery of Carpenter's socialism is nonetheless a reminder that many of our present concerns have a past. There was for example an implicit understanding among them that the kind of society they were after involved not just redistribution of wealth, or a change in the ownership of production, not even just workers' control of production but a transformation of all human relationships. They did not reduce what they wanted to economics because capitalism had forced us all into the cash nexus. They were against not only exploitation but the waste of human creative capacity which is the result of exploitation. So they were not dismissive of artistic endeavour. They wanted not only justice but beauty too. Socialism was to release the creativity and artistry in everyone. It was to heal the breach between the heart, the body and the mind.

So they did not think that economics or politics had a priority over art and culture. They were without a strategy, which makes them Utopian; and the absence of a strategy made it easier for them to be absorbed within the gradualist politics of the Labour Party. However it also meant they developed a practice which has an increasingly contemporary relevance as modern capitalism invades more and more the personal, domestic domain. They understood that political commitment is not just a matter of education or even of experience through agitation. They saw socialism as an inner transformation which meant change in the here and now. They sought this new life in the everyday, in their stress on the warmth of fellowship and comradeship, in their clothes and furnishings, in a network of associations from cycling clubs to Socialist Sunday Schools, which could sustain them through isolation, hardship and despair. Carpenter was not alone in his desire to live more simply and directly, to be more open with others and closer to natural rhythms destroyed by industry and the city. Others shared his hope that

" People should endeavour (more than they do) to express and liberate their own real and deep-rooted needs and feelings. Then in doing so they will probably liberate and aid the expression of the lives of thousands of others; and so will have the pleasure of helping without the unpleasant sense of laying anyone under an obligation."15

We are rediscovering in a faltering way some of the understandings of this broken socialist tradition. It is not nostalgia for a cosy past or an archaism which would lift their politics intact, but because the present movement of capitalist society is pressing hard on our private consciousness, forcing intimacy into politics. Slowly and laboriously I can open my eyes and peer into that intense world of long ago with recognition. Those feelings in the small of the back seem no longer exclusive and private but part of a continuing opposition to capitalism. Even though it remains unclear quite how they fit into the agenda.

 

NOTES

1. Arthur Calder-Marshall, Havelock Ellis, London 1959, p. 71.
2. Marshall, Ellis, p. 74.
3. E. P. Thompson, 'Homage to Tom Maguire' in Asa Briggs and John Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History, London, 1960.
4. Kate Salt is described in Stephen Winsten, Salt and his Circle, London, 1951.
5.The friendship is mentioned in Charles Ashbee Memoirs mss. Victoria and Albert Museum; in Charles Ashbee, Journal, and in G. Lowes Dickenson, Correspondence, Kings College, Cambridge.
6. Ed. Gilbert Beith, Edward Carpenter An Appreciation, London, 1931, p. 36.
7. Edward Carpenter, Love's Coming of Age, 12th edition 1923, p. 22. The first edition of the book appeared in 1896.
8. Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, London, 3rd edition February 1918, pp. 195-6.
9. Carpenter, Love's Coming of Age, pp. 69-85.
11. I owe these comments on Carpenter's views of homosexuality to Graeme Woolaston, 'Edward Carpenter on Homosexuality', (Gay Culture Society, London School of Economics, duplicated paper). London,1971.
12. E. M. Forster, Maurice, Terminal Note, London, Penguin Ed., 1975, p. 217.
13. Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, p. 321.
14. England Arise, in Carpenter, Chants of Labour, A Song Book of the People. 6th edition 1922, pp. 18-19. The first edition of the book appeared in 1888.
15. Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, p. 322.