Dave Widgery

Revolutionary Optimism

(October 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.102, October 1977, pp.28-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialism and the New Life: The Personal and Sexual Politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis
Sheila Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks
Pluto Press £1.80

Since writing Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, a book which will stand as a classic of polemical feminism, Sheila Rowbotham’s concerns appear to have moved away from contemporary politics, sliding backwards and sideways into the past. This book contains Sheila Rowbotham’s biography of Edward Carpenter coupled with Jeffrey Weeks’ study of Havelock Ellis. Together they examine the political and sexual revolt against late Victorian society. Rowbotham’s all too brief study aims to show Carpenter as the first gay revolutionary and a writer on sexual politics of great originality and relevance. It is a re-creation, at a startling level of intimacy, of the Sheffield Socialists in the 1880’s, to the hard grind of whose agitation, Carpenter was, for a period, utterly committed.

I know of no study quite like it for conveying the ups and downs of socialist organising, in a way which all present day activists will relish. It is socialism 100 years ago but still the familiar worries, the street meetings where no-one will listen even when the comrades form a decoy audience, the five night a week unionisation campaigns which come to nought; the silent fury at a flashy visiting orator who refuses to understand the local problems, infuriating anarchists – all heart and hot air, the uneasy mixture of fear and bravado before the big London demo and the stories afterwards, the love affairs which smoulder through Any Other Business and the bad temper and splits which come when trying to keep the socialist idea alive in hard times.

As for Carpenter himself, Sheila Rowbotham shows the emotional and political courage the first openly gay revolutionary socialist possessed and the toll it took on him. Even in these so called liberated days, the yellow press would make a field day out of Carpenter (‘Ex-priest homosexual calls for peoples power. His “friend” ex-steel worker George Merrill (32) said “Edward and I support Women’s Lib and militant trade unionism and want the troops out of Ireland. We see it all as connected.” Sheffield extremists today backed the odd couple’s call ...’). At the peak of Victorianism Carpenter was literally risking his life. George Merrill sounds an attractive and unrespectable character; when told Gethsemane was the garden where Jesus spent his last night, his response was ‘who with?’.

This book provokes the questions of if and how the ideas of Carpenter, Ellis, and their circles became part of popular socialist politics. This is an inquiry we must make of all the sexual radicals, including ourselves, for, unless the ideas extend beyond the confines of socialist and feminist circles, they choke on themselves, or merely subside into an amiable but ineffectual bohemianism. But when sexual radicalism becomes a genuine element in mass politics it adds a special authenticity and passion to the struggle. And in the process, renews, re-animates and re-inspires the originators. Like Carpenter – Sylvia Pankhurst, Wilhelm Reich and Stella Browne were all incomparably better sexual radicals and writers during the periods they were in direct contact with working class revolutionary politics. And Sheila coined the maxim herself, about the modern feminist movement, that its success depends ‘on our capacity to relate to the working class and the action of working class women in transforming women’s liberation according to their needs’.

And here Rowbotham convinces that Carpenterism had enormous impact, Carpenter’s own oratory must have been spellbinding, at a time when the movement was held together by public speakers, and his books were read and cherished at a time when the written word played a more important (and cheaper) part of socialist working class life than now. Love’s Coming of Age, easily his best book, was reprinted 11 times between its first publication in 1896 and 1919.

Carpenter, like Shelley and Blake, is one of those particularly English critics of capitalism pre-dating but affecting 20th century Marxism whom Edward Thompson has dubbed diagnosticians of alienation.

Such writers remain important sources for our socialism and directly influenced the best socialist writers of this century. Indeed one gets rather irritated with fellow Marxists who are absolute experts on Gramsci and Poulantzas but don’t bother to read Morris, Connolly or Maclean, presumably because they use the English language, notorious for its parochialism.

For does not the record attendances at Paul Foot’s recent lectures on Shelley indicate an exasperation with the young toffs of the Althusserian Revolution and the older pedants of Orthodox Trotskyism who wish to make Marxism a science in the sense that geometry is a science and about as readable into the bargain? Or are we just wandering in the sentimental and sticky swamps of Utopianism searching for a Will o’ the Wisp soul that socialism ought not to possess?

This is in fact a serious inquiry, which Thompson explores with much passion in his new postscript to his William Morris biography and which Rowbotham and Weeks hint at more gently in their obvious conviction that the Socialism of the New Life had qualities which got squeezed out of later socialisms.

Is this ‘Larger Socialism’ a load of old romantic and reformist tosh, as Engels certainly thought and the New Left Review have influentially argued? Or is a Marxism which is disdainful of these older socialists finally dismissive of itself (and probably, at bottom, Stalinist in its conception of working-class revolution and political philosophy). To decide this we must be more critical, less entranced, and more comprehensive about what was genuinely new and groundbreaking about the socialist revival of the 1880s especially in its relation to trade unionism’s growth and what was the last gasp of a purely ethical idiom deeply entwined with radical Nonconformism.

Here Sheila and Jeff are, perhaps necessarily, vague and tentative and introduce too much material and too many personalities to see the political wood from the trees.

One suspects that the New Life Socialism has two enormous strengths and one equally glaring weakness. In its favour is its concern to make social and cultural life part of the making of socialism itself. In our time, when late capitalism has sawn through so many self-organised working class clubs and social set-ups and instead drenches us with a compulsory plastic culture as nourishing as instant cabbage water, we need this stress too. And its not just the cultural bait on the rusty hook of ‘real politics’

Rock against Racism at the Roundhouse or the punk-reggae on the road to Wigan Casino are musical expressions of unity against racism and the energy and frustration of the modern unemployed movement. They are politics in their own right.

The New Life is also about making socialists, not just recruiting them. Its about a bit of practising what you preach, about revolutionaries having a different set of moral and personal values. Now obviously this can be carried to silly extremes. But its certainly true that reformists, because of their politics, don’t even bother to live in harmony with their aspirations: those Labour ministers who use private doctors, or trade union full timers who live in posh suburbs or the senior steward who bullies his wife and patronises the younger workers.

But we need to be firm against this book being used as yet another stick against national party organisation, systematic work in the unions, active initiative taking. Closely read Rowbotham’s study shows the need for just that. The Sheffield Socialist Society had none of Marx’s understanding of how the fight over the price of labour, the very oppression of work itself, created conditions for collective struggle which revolutionaries could take to the limit and in the process show the class its own potential power. When the Derbyshire colliers rose, when the Eight Hours Day campaign caught on, when the employers fought, and largely succeeded, in wresting back the inroad made by the unions’ of the unskilled, Carpenter’s little world of Millthorpe was irrelevant. Carpenter himself was on a mediation course in Ceylon:

O’er Ceylon’s Isle the spicy breezes
Blow soft, while torpid Britain freezes.
Gay Bard of Brotherhood is’t fair?
We shivering here, you basking there

wrote an old Sheffield comrade, surprisingly good-humouredly. For it is not the mysticism or the religiosity of the self-absorption of the individualism present in the New Life Socialism (or what’s left of contemporary Libertarianism) one especially objects to but that all derive from a conception of capitalism as a hierarchy which one must oppose willy-nilly, rather than a mode of production which gives a certain class the potential to lead the emancipation of us all. It’s in this area the only biases in an otherwise scrupulous book creep in. The introduction is inaccurately disparaging about the parties of the Second International (‘Engels’ work was treated not as the starting point but as the last word’). Bebel was the Bible (if anyone) in the American, German and less well-known Austrian socialist women’s movement, where sexual radicalism went beyond the economic struggles of women workers. And it is a real sleight of hand to suddenly pop up with Tom Maguire, the raffish photographer, union organiser and poet who was at the centre of the union battles in Leeds, as ‘the embodiment’ of Carpenter’s socialism. He was quite a different political kettle of fish to the sensitifs of Millthrope.

Finally the Socialism of the New Life is pungent still but undefinable. More an approach to politics, Sheila suggest, of a sense of revolutionary optimism. It is that twinkle in the eye of revolutionary socialism which distinguishes it from the glassiness of reformist socialism’s stare.


Last updated on 19.10.2006