Thomas Carlyle on government and England’s poor

Thomas Carlyle was an acerbic conservative social thinker, given to assuming the fundamental legitimacy of social and political hierarchies and hostile to democracy. A re-reading of Chartism (1839) shows that he also possessed a white-hot anger at England’s indifference to the conditions of the poor, and he raged against Parliament, which whistled while catastrophe loomed. In its own way there is as much anger at England’s injustice and cruelty to its working people here as is found in Engels’s more or less contemporary The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) (link). In Chartism Carlyle takes on the 1834 Poor Law Act and the draconian version of laissez-faire that these policies imposed (link), and he interprets the Charter movement as a natural and predictable response to social and political indifference to the conditions of working people. In some passages he sounds a bit like E.P. Thompson himself, in The Making of the English Working Class, when he writes about the need for dignity and justice for working people.

What is the underlying view that Carlyle seems to have in mind? It is not a call for more charity to the poor, more noblesse oblige. Rather, it is a call for a system of government that effectively confronts the pressing problem in the first decade of the nineteenth century, of the conditions of the English poor. He is scathing at the inability of Parliament to adequately formulate and assess the problem, and he is contemptuous of the solution offered in the form of new Poor Laws.

Carlyle’s conservatism emerges fully when he advances his own views of governing, which is the primary thrust of the pamphlet. Carlyle is full of ironic disdain and contempt for the irrelevance of Parliament in the first part of the nineteenth century; whereas he admires the rule of the strong man with a unified will. Carlyle’s prescription to the task of addressing the hopeless condition of the poor in England is a return to wise but absolute government.

What are all popular commotions and maddest bellowings, from Peterloo to the Place-de-Greve itself? Bellowings, inarticulate cries as of dumb creatures in rage and pain; to the ear of wisdom they are inarticulate prayers: ” Guide me, govern me! I am mad, and miserable, and cannot guide myself!” Surely of all ‘rights of man,’ this right of the ignorant man to be guided by the wiser, to be, gently or forcibly, held in the true course by him, the indisputablest. (52)

In effect Carlyle sides with Hobbes against Locke or Jefferson: the sovereign will find it in his or her interest to rule strongly but wisely, and with laws that protect the important interests of the people.

How can-do, if we will well interpret it, unites itself with shall-do among mortals; how strength acts ever as the right-arm of justice; how might and right, so frightfully discrepant at first, are ever in the long-run one and the same, — is a cheering consideration, which always in the black tempestuous vortices of this world’s history, will shine out on us, like an everlasting polar star. (39)

This view may be thought to serve as a rejoinder to the critics of Hobbes who hold that the sovereign will do no more than exploit and oppress his or her “sheep”; Carlyle argues that it is not in the interest of the sovereign to do so, and rule based solely on coercion is doomed to end in short order.

Of conquest we may say that it never yet went by brute force and compulsion; conquest of that kind does not endure. Conquest, along with power of compulsion, an essential universally in human society, must bring benefit along with it or men, of the ordinary strength of men, will fling it out. The strong man, what is he if we will consider? The wise man; the man with the gift of method, of faithfulness and valour, all of which are of the basis of wisdom; who has insight into what is what, into what will follow out of what, the eye to see and the hand to do; who is fit to administer, to direct, and guidingly command : he is the strong man. His muscles and bones are no stronger than ours but his soul stronger, his soul is wiser, clearer,— is better and nobler, for that is, has been, and ever will be the root of all clearness worthy of such name. (39)

Over the fullness of time, then, Carlyle seems to assert that might and right converge; the “strong man” who survives will be the wise man. “His soul is wiser, clearer — is better and nobler”. And Carlyle appears to believe that this is part of the “natural” order.

But what assures Carlyle that in the long run, the rulers will respect and support the dignity and wellbeing of the “lower classes”? It is the rage and violence that is produced by a widespread feeling of injustice and unfair treatment that he believes is apparent in the violence of the Chartist movement or the French Revolution. Oppressive or negligent rule leads to its own overthrow by enraged masses. For Carlyle the French Revolution was mindless terror — and a stark historical lesson to rulers. The lesson is simple: they must rule wisely, or the terror awaits them.

He also takes it as an axiom that the poor — that is, the great majority of the English population — cannot govern themselves; the demand for universal suffrage is hooted off the stage. Democracy is a ludicrous ideal for Carlyle. The inarticulate, suffering poor can demand only to be governed well by their superiors. Even more explicitly:

Democracy, we are well aware, what is called ‘ self-government’ of the multitude by the multitude, is in words the thing everywhere passionately clamoured for at present. Democracy makes rapid progress in these latter times, and ever more rapid, in a perilous accelerative ratio ; towards democracy, and that only, the progress of things is everywhere tending as to the final goal and winning-post. So think, so clamour the multitudes everywhere. (53)

But: “Democracy never yet, that we heard of, was able to accomplish much work, beyond that same cancelling of itself” (59). “Napoleon was not president of a republic Cromwell tried hard to rule in that way, but found that he could not. These, ‘the armed soldiers of democracy,’ had to chain democracy under their feet, and become despots over it before they could work out the earnest obscure purpose of democracy itself!” (54).

In particular, Carlyle writes again and again that the underclass cannot rationally articulate its needs or make a rational plan for progress. For Carlyle, the underclasses are incapable of subtle or nuanced analysis of the causes of their condition, or of possible reforms that realistically could address their condition.

Dingy dumb millions, grimed with dust and sweat, with darkness, rage and sorrow, stood round these men, saying, or struggling as they could to say : ” Behold, our lot is unfair ; our life is not whole but sick; we cannot live under injustice; go ye and get us justice !” For whether the poor operative clamoured for Time-bill, Factory-bill, Corn-bill, for or against whatever bill, this was what he meant. (91-92)

Moreover, they live in a world that is naturally stratified between superior and inferior:

Recognised or not recognised, a man has his superiors, a regular hierarchy above him; extending up, degree above degree; to Heaven itself and God the Maker, who made His world not for anarchy but for rule and order ! (94)

His view of the radical leaders who claim to speak for the underclasses is equally severe: they are cynical opportunists.

There is a class of revolutionists named Girondins, whose fate in history is remarkable enough ! Men who rebel, and urge the Lower Classes to rebel, ought to have other than Formulas to go upon. Men who discern in the misery of the toiling complaining millions not misery, but only a raw-material which can be wrought upon, and traded in, for one’s own poor hidebound theories and egoisms ; to whom millions of living fellow-creatures, with beating hearts in their bosoms, beating, suffering, hoping, are ‘ masses,’ mere ‘explosive masses for blowing down Bastilles with,’ for voting at hustings for us: such men are of the questionable species ! (93)

And as for the issue of the day, the Charter — the Charter is nonsense, simply an enraged bellow of pain and a demand for relief. The Chartist movement is one of violence, burning, and murder. Carlyle rejects entirely the idea that the underclasses might formulate their own diagnosis of the ills of their society, or a plan for addressing those ills.

Neither is the history of Chartism mysterious in these times ; especially if that of Radicalism be looked at. All along, for the last five-and-twenty years, it was curious to note how the internal discontent of England struggled to find vent for itself through any orifice : the poor patient, all sick from centre to surface, complains now of this member, now of that ;— corn-laws, currency-laws, free-trade, protection, want of free-trade : the poor patient tossing from side to side, seeking a sound side to lie on, finds none. This Doctor says, it is the liver ; that other, it is the lungs, the head, the heart, defective transpiration in the skin. A thoroughgoing Doctor of eminence said, it was rotten boroughs; the want of extended suffrage to destroy rotten boroughs. From of old, the English patient himself had a continually recurring notion that this was it. The English people are used to suffrage ; it is their panacea for all that goes wrong with them ; they have a fixed-idea of suffrage. (90)

Moreover, rebellion is always wrong, because:

No man is justified in resisting by word or deed the Authority he lives under, for a light cause, be such Authority what it may. Obedience, little as many may consider that side of the matter, is the primary duty of man. No man but is bound indefeasibly, with all force of obligation, to obey. (93-94)

With an intriguing sleight of hand, Carlyle maintains that democracy and laissez-faire are one and the same; both amount to a “do-nothing” approach to government. Democracy cannot rule wisely, as the principle of “laissez-faire” cannot guide social and economic life.

So who should rule in England? Carlyle makes his preferences clear; and it is a preference for the feudal past, where feudal lords governed their bonded workers and farmers. It is the aristocracy that must take up the responsibility of governing — the aristocracy must lead and govern.

Yet we do say that the old Aristocracy were the governors of the Lower Classes, the guides of the Lower Classes ; and even, at bottom, that they existed as an Aristocracy because they were found adequate for that. Not by Charity-Balls and Soup-Kitchens; not so; far otherwise! But it was their happiness that, in struggling for their own objects, they had to govern the Lower Classes, even in this sense of governing. For, in one word. Cash Payment had not then grown to be the universal sole nexus of man to man ; it was something other than money that the high then expected from the low, and could not live without getting from the low. (58)

This is the passage where the “cash nexus” phrase originates. And the passage appears to express one of Carlyle’s fundamental beliefs — that a harmonious society depends upon strands of loyalty, trust, and commitment between unequals — not simply impersonal economic relationships.

We might say that the political theory expressed in Chartism amounts to only a handful of assertions:

  1. The poor are suffering enormously under current conditions in England. They are both severely impoverished and treated unfairly.
  2. The poor are naturally inferior to the aristocracy and are incapable of rational political thought.
  3. The current system of government (Parliament) is incapable of perceiving the crisis, let alone addressing it with intelligent policies.
  4. England is in crisis because of these facts.
  5. Only authoritarian, unified government by a natural aristocracy will have the insight and wisdom to remedy England’s crisis.

It is interesting to recall that Engels, and later Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, would agree with premises 1, 3, and 4, but disagree fundamentally with 2 and 5. It is also interesting to observe that Carlyle’s conservatism (authoritarianism, really) became a branch-line in the coming century of conflict over “the social question”, with social democrats and revolutionary socialists defining the main contenders for a program of progress. And Carlyle’s political views do not line up with other forms of conservatism in the twentieth century very closely either — whether fascist ideology or the persistence of English laissez-faire conservatism grounded in pre-Keynesian political economy. Carlyle was sui generis.

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