Edward Carpenter


“If each man remained in organic adhesion to the general body of his fellows no serious dis-harmony could occur”

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was a philosopher, writer and poet who fought for organic libertarian socialism and against industrial capitalism.

He is further remembered as one of the early English campaigners for gay rights.

Carpenter was influenced by John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau. He belonged to Henry Salt’s Humanitarian League and to the Social Democratic Federation alongside William Morris.

He also worked with Peter Kropotkin and helped the Walsall anarchists, who were set up for prosecution on bomb-making charges in 1892 by a Special Branch agent provocateur.

victorian industryCarpenter was a forthright critic of modern industrial civilization and condemned “the artificial life, of houses and cities” (1) in which people were cut off from nature and from each other.

He wrote in ‘England’s Ideal’, first published in 1884: “The moment one comes to look into the heart of modern society one perceives how essentially unclean it is – how, after all, the pervading aim and effort of personal life, either consciously or unconsciously entertained, is to maintain ourselves at the cost of others – to live at the expense of other folk’s labor, without giving an equivalent of our own labor in return – and if this is not dishonesty I don’t know what is!” (2)

In his 1921 book Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, Carpenter declared that modern civilisation was “a kind of disease”. (3)

He identified the increase of money and private property as having destroyed the health of the “old community of life and enjoyment” (4) – the natural organic society that Ferdinand Tönnies termed Gemeinschaft.

victorian policeCarpenter wrote: “The growth of wealth, it is shown, and with it the conception of private property, brought on certain very definite new forms of social life; it destroyed the ancient system of society based upon the gens, that is, a society of equals founded upon blood-relationship, and introduced a society of classes founded upon differences of material possession; it destroyed the ancient system of mother-right and inheritance through the female line, and turned the woman into the property of the man; it brought with it private ownership of land, and so created a class of landless aliens, and a whole system of rent, mortgage, interest, etc; it introduced slavery, serfdom and wage-labor, which are only various forms of the dominance of one class over another; and to rivet these authorities it created the State and the policeman”. (5)

Under capitalist society, everyone tried to grab as much as they could for themselves. Private accumulations arose and artificial barriers of law had to be constructed in order to preserve the unequal levels of wealth. Force had to be used by the possessors in order to maintain the law-barriers against the non-possessors “and finally the formal Government arises, mainly as the expression of such force”. (6)

He added: “This is no true Democracy. Here in this ‘each for himself’ is no rule of the Demos in every man, nor anything resembling it. Here is no solidarity such as existed in the ancient tribes and primaeval society, but only disintegration and a dust-heap”. (7)

Carpenter saw a healthy society as one which was whole, pointing out that the two adjectives shared the same roots and fundamentally described the same idea.

He wrote: “The idea seems to be a positive one – a condition of the body in which it is an entirety, a unity – a central force maintaining that condition; and disease being the break-up – or break-down – of that entirety into multiplicity”. (8)

victorian gentryThe disease inflicted on the social organism by industrial society therefore represented “the break-up of its unity, its entirety, into multiplicity” (9) and the “consumption of the organism by masses of social parasites”. (10)

Carpenter added: “It is clear enough that if our social life were really vivid and healthy, such parasitic products as the idle shareholder and the aforementioned policeman would simply be impossible.

“The material on which they prey would not exist, and they would either perish or be transmuted into useful forms. It seems obvious in fact that life in any organism can only be maintained by some such processes as these – by which parasitic or infesting organisms are either thrown off or absorbed into subjection. (11)

“Accordingly we find that it has been the work of Civilisation – founded as we have seen on Property – in every way to disintegrate and corrupt man – literally to corrupt – to break up the unity of his nature”. (12)

In response to all this, Carpenter suggested that the modern person had to rediscover themself as “the free child of Nature” (13) which they had been meant to be.

nature preraphaelitesTo be true to this inner nature, a man had to cherish “his organic relation with the whole body of his fellows” (14) because it was this which held an anarchic natural society together.

When that organic order-from-below was gone, the door was opened to the alleged need for a state to come in and impose order-from-above.

Carpenter wrote: “If each man remained in organic adhesion to the general body of his fellows no serious dis-harmony could occur; but it is when this vital unity of the body politic becomes weak that it has to be preserved by artificial means, and thus it is that with the decay of the primitive and instinctive social life there springs up a form of government which is no longer the democratic expression of the life of the whole people; but a kind of outside authority and compulsion thrust upon them by a ruling class or caste”. (15)

Video link: TV report 1980s (9 mins)

edward carpenter art

1. Edward Carpenter, Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, and other essays (London: Allen & Unwin, 1921), p. 28.
2. Edward Carpenter, England’s Ideal and other papers on social subjects (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1919), pp. 3-4.
3. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 1.
4. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 30.
5. Carpenter, Civilisation, pp. 4-5.
6. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 30.
7. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 33.
8. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 12.
9. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 16.
10. Carpenter, Civilisation, pp. 2-3.
11. Carpenter, Civilisation, pp. 16-17.
12. Carpenter, Civilisation, pp. 25-26.
13. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 26.
14. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 28.
15. Carpenter, Civilisation, p. 31.




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