Edward Carpenter: red, green and gay

This article is from the August 2009 issue of Socialism Today, the Socialist Party magazine.
Spanning more than 80 years, from the 1840s to the 1920s, Edward Carpenter was involved in the rise of mass industrial trade unions, working-class political representation and the struggle for women’s equality. He pioneered gay and lesbian rights, utopian communes and the environmental movement. MANNY THAIN reviews a recent book by Sheila Rowbotham on his life and times.
Edward Carpenter: a life of liberty and love
By Sheila Rowbotham
Published by Verso, 2008, £24.99

THE BRITAIN OF this book was the pre-eminent world power, exploiting a vast empire, undergoing great industrial change. In the second half of the 19th century, British cities exploded in size, heaving with massive working-class districts. New industrial trade unions were flexing their muscles, the nascent labour movement a motley mix of socialist, anarchist and radical groups and individuals.

The struggle was on for political representation for working-class people, breaking away from the Liberal and Tory duopoly in parliament. Parties such as the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and Social Democratic Federation were set up, followed by the Labour Party. There were campaigns against colonial exploitation, for women’s equality, public services and nationalisation. Issues such as sex education, contraception and sexuality were being raised, environmentalism and conservation, too.

Edward Carpenter was there. He was involved in some of the earliest socialist groups, actively supporting workers in struggle. He was a leading proponent of utopian communes, a pioneer of the environmental movement. He was also something of a new-ager, into paganism and Eastern transcendentalism. He campaigned for women’s equality and produced groundbreaking material on homosexuality.

Carpenter was born on 29 August 1844, the seventh of ten children. He had a comfortable and superficially conventional middle-class upbringing, his father a naval officer before entering the legal profession, his mother a daughter of a naval officer and shipbuilder. His father’s interest in philosophy, however, attracted a radical circle of friends. He was brought up in Brighton, the family having moved there from Walthamstow, east London.

After spending 1856-57 in Paris, Carpenter returned to Brighton, gradually becoming aware of his homosexuality. Against the backdrop of illegality, harsh moral codes and stultifying sexual atmosphere, this growing realisation led to feelings of confusion, alienation and self-loathing.

Society was very different from the image projected by the ruling class. Strict Victorian values may have been the official model. Delve a little deeper, however, and that image is quickly shattered. Among the ruling class, marriages were typically business/political contracts. Extra-marital affairs were common, especially by men. Gay and lesbian relationships took place behind this cover of convention. The most important thing was not to get caught, to avoid scandal which could, if it got out of hand, undermine the authority of the ruling class itself. Often, wealthy homosexual men would seek out working-class men to satisfy their sexual needs, away from their own social circle.

Up to 1861, the death penalty still technically applied for what was then called ‘sodomy’, although convictions were rare. In 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act substituted life sentences with two to ten years imprisonment for ‘indecent assault’, a wide and vague offence. Although not strenuously enforced, the existence of such harsh laws and social prejudice fomented a climate of suspicion, the threat of blackmail, and individual feelings of shame and guilt. In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, stuck onto a bill against child prostitution, explicitly made acts of ‘gross indecency’ illegal in private as well as public places. In 1898, the Vagrancy Act’s ban on ‘importuning’ was strengthened. These laws were used mainly against homosexuals.

Getting started

IN 1864, FOLLOWING one of his many trips abroad, Carpenter started studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class degree. He came into contact with the radical Scot, James Stuart, who was teaching at Cambridge and had initiated the adult education University Extension Movement.

Carpenter began covertly expressing his homosexual feelings in poems, and to a few close confidants. With written material on sexuality scarce, Carpenter looked to ancient Greece, as many others had, although its class inequality and elitism ran counter to the direction Carpenter and others were taking. An alternative, more democratic view came from the US poet, Walt Whitman. Long trips abroad fuelled Carpenter’s fascination with German and Eastern philosophies. He spoke French, Italian and German. In May 1874, he began corresponding with Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a wealthy Tamil from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) who had studied at Cambridge.

Carpenter linked up with Stuart and started lecturing in Leeds as part of the University Extension Movement in the autumn of 1874. Leeds was a rapidly expanding town based on wool, textiles, printing and engineering, with wealthy merchant and financial sectors. It was a culture shock to the cosseted Carpenter. Rather than the working class, however, the movement mainly attracted the wives and daughters of the rich. By 1876/77, Carpenter’s lecturing shifted to Nottingham and Hull, his initial enthusiasm waning because of the small numbers of working-class students able to stay the course. He then went on to Sheffield, an environmental catastrophe choked with soot, smog, untreated sewage and acid dust.

From 1879, Carpenter came under the political influence of John Harrison Riley, who had been a supporter of the Chartist Bronterre O’Brien, had been in the First International with Karl Marx, and had met Whitman. Riley edited The Socialist, the paper of the Christian socialists. Riley went on to the US but his connections helped establish the socialist movement in Bristol. The Sheffield Socialist Society was set up in 1885.

Following the death of his father in April 1882, Carpenter inherited £6,000, a considerable sum securing financial independence. In the spring of 1883, he bought three fields at Millthorpe in the Cordwell Valley, moving in with the Fearneshough family with the aim of setting up an ideal settlement based on a frugal life working the land: “We will show in ourselves that the simplest life is as good as any, that we are not ashamed of it – and we will so adorn it that the rich and idle shall enviously leave their sofas and gilded saloons and come and join hands with us in it”. (From a lecture in 1883)

Needless to say, that did not happen. Although such initiatives did attract a following, they could never offer a systemic alternative to capitalism. It was to take up the weaknesses of the various utopian projects and ideologies, and to point out the need for a root-and-branch socialist transformation of society, that Friedrich Engels wrote Socialism Utopian and Scientific in 1880.

Workers’ struggle and state repression

IN 1883, CARPENTER read England for All (1881) by Henry Hyndman. Carpenter was struck by the clarity of the economic analysis – lifted entirely from Marx with no acknowledgment. Hyndman set up the Democratic Federation, then the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which was involved in a wide range of activity, from direct action, local campaigns to parliamentary representation. Carpenter donated £300 to its paper, Justice.

When Carpenter returned from a trip to the US and Canada in 1884, a split had taken place in SDF in London, involving William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Carpenter, typically, did not take sides. The split-off won out in London but not in Britain as a whole, setting up the Socialist League, with Commonweal as its journal. Meanwhile, in October 1883, the Fellowship of the New Life included Isabella Ford and Havelock Ellis. In January 1884, George Bernard Shaw set up the Fabian Society. Carpenter was also involved with the Working Men’s Radical Association in Sheffield, a split from the Liberals in November 1885 over oppression in Ireland, which campaigned to put up independent labour candidates in elections.

The 1880s were marked with a series of workers’ struggles, especially against rising unemployment. On 13 November 1887 – Bloody Sunday – a massive demonstration in Trafalgar Square against Tory-Liberal Unionist repression in Ireland was attacked by armed forces. Three protesters were killed, countless injured. Carpenter was hit with a police baton.

It was a harsh lesson in the nature of the state, posing important questions for the workers’ movement. This was reflected internationally. When Carpenter attended the International Socialist Congress in Paris, 1889, debate raged on whether socialists should stand in elections and call for legal reforms. Capitalism had not been consolidated into the global system there is today. Some thought it could be overthrown relatively easily – it just needed a bit of a push. They tended to reject involvement in any aspect of the capitalist system, even when advantageous to the workers’ movement. Vladimir Lenin would later characterise their ultra-left approach as an ‘infantile disorder’ which the revolutionary movement would have to grow out of.

A movement for socialist change is a serious endeavour and any party claiming that as its goal has to be rooted in the working class, which has the necessary potential social cohesion and economic power to carry through such a task. It must earn the respect and support of the workers by proving the overall correctness of its analysis and organisation, and its ability to pursue policies and tactics in the interests of the working class as a whole.

On 15 November 1890, Morris split with the anarchists, just as state repression against them was growing. Heavy sentences of five to ten years were meted out. Drawing an important analogy with today’s ‘war on terror’, Rowbotham says that the anarchists were seen as “murderous foreign bombers slipping from country to country to spread havoc and destruction, and the anti-immigrant lobby were able to conflate anarchism with foreign refugees”.

There was a thirst for ideas. Carpenter’s pamphlet on landowners, Our Parish and Our Duke, which argued that rent should go to a common fund for roads, the care of old people and higher wages, sold 20,000 copies. It was also a time of increased environmental concern. The Public Health Act (1875) gave local authorities the power to act on industrial pollution, but little changed. Carpenter impresses in his research, including factory visits and other hands-on investigations.

Rising union power

NEW INDUSTRIAL UNIONS were on the rise. The Gas Workers and General Labourers Union had immense potential power and, in August 1889, London gas workers, led by Will Thorne, won the eight-hour day. That was followed by a London docks strike. In the autumn, a strike of gas workers in Bristol was linked, through Socialist League action, with a strike of women cotton workers prompting Miriam Daniell to write a pamphlet on why equality between the sexes must be the hallmark of new unionism.

However, there were deep divisions within new unionism. Prematurely, anarchists wanted to form what they called ‘revolutionary unions’. But the workers’ movement was still a patchwork of trends and organisations, reflecting the stage of economic development at that time. In Sheffield, for example, small craft societies represented grinders, forgers, hardeners, cutters, etc, separately. These were really extensions of the guilds of feudal times, inadequate for the huge mass production workplaces being created. Instead of rejecting the old organisations immediately, the tendency was for the craft societies to merge over time into larger trade unions. It would take the best part of a decade before unions (let alone revolutionary ones) established a firm base in Sheffield’s large steelworks. The anarchists were trying to leap ahead of what was objectively possible.

New groups were sprouting continually. The founding conference of the ILP was held in 1893 as a broader socialist formation, involving many trade unionists. Tom Mann, a leading union organiser and socialist, became national secretary. Carpenter was a semi-detached sympathiser. He backed action by rail workers and miners. He spoke at meetings with dockers’ leader, Ben Tillett. He backed a progressive alliance that saw Sidney Webb and Fred Henderson elected onto London county council. Later, in the 1906 election, the Labour Representation Committee would win 29 seats in parliament, adopting the name, Labour Party, on 15 February.

Love and discrimination

CARPENTER BEGAN A love affair with George Hukin in 1886. Hukin was a razor-grinder and organiser of the Sheffield Socialist Society. They maintained a close relationship which survived, not without some difficulties, George’s later marriage. They set up the Commonwealth Café in February 1887 which, for a few years, was a bustling venue for political meetings and activity. Socialists such as Morris, Ellis and Annie Besant, and anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin and Charlotte Wilson regularly packed halls with 500 to 1,000 people. Links were made with groups in Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol.

In 1891, Carpenter met George Merrill, a 26-year-old working-class man, down-to-earth and confident of his homosexuality. He had been brought up in the slums of Sheffield in a family of eleven, his father an alcoholic, his mother running the household. Merrill had drifted from job to job since the age of 13. On his travels he would regularly get picked up by aristocratic men. Merrill would move to Millthorpe in February 1898, and remained with Carpenter until he died.

In 1893/4 Carpenter wrote four influential pamphlets: Women and Her Place in a Free Society; and on Marriage, Sex-love, and Homogenic Love. He had difficulty getting the fourth title published so circulated it privately. He used historical examples from Greece and Persia to show cultural relativity, and drew on the psychological profiles he had been compiling.

In Homogenic Love, Carpenter movingly expresses the alienation felt by gays and lesbians – recognisable today, even though far-reaching legal rights have been won in many countries: “It is difficult for outsiders not personally experienced in the matter to realise the great strain and tension of nerves under which those persons grow up from boyhood to manhood – or from girl to womanhood – who find their deepest and strongest instincts under the ban of the society around them, who before they clearly understand the drift of their own natures discover that they are somehow cut off from the sympathy and understanding of those nearest to them, and who know that they can never give expression to their tenderest yearnings of affection without exposing themselves to the possible charge of actions stigmatised as odious crimes”.

Carpenter believed that homophobia originated in the form of society. He drew the conclusion that changes to sexual attitudes required fundamental changes to the system: “With the rise of the new society, which is already outlining itself within the structure of the old, many of the difficulties and bugbears, that at present stand in the way of a more healthy relation between the sexes, will of themselves disappear”.

Discrimination on the grounds of sexuality and gender is deeply ingrained in capitalist society. It has, in fact, been a feature of all class society from the slave-based systems of the past. For male rulers to be certain of their lineage and pass on their wealth and status to their sons, they had to know who their sons were. That required rigorous control of women’s sexuality, the root of women’s oppression.

Although there are differences in the way it manifests itself, the imposition of strict gender roles to maintain control over women is also the basis of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. In an equal, classless society Carpenter’s ‘difficulties and bugbears’ would disappear. For that to happen, the capitalist system, ruled by a minority class, needs to be replaced with a socialist system, initially organised by the majority working class.

The Wilde trial

CARPENTER’S TIMING COULD not have been worse, however. In the spring of 1895, Oscar Wilde was in court following his ill-advised libel action against the Marquis of Queensbury. Predictably, the case focused on Wilde’s energetic social life and morality. On 25 May he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Carpenter supported Wilde publicly while thinking privately that he had been foolish. The experience broke Wilde, who went into self-imposed exile after he was released in 1897. He died three years later.

The left had problems dealing with it. The ILP’s Labour Leader wrote of the “filthy abomination” of the idle rich, implying that homosexuality was a symptom of a degenerate bourgeois system. The SDF’s Justice conceded that Wilde’s “vice” was not unique to the rich or artistic types. It said that homosexuality was an “addiction” which could be stopped by “careful teaching of the physical basis of morality”. Carpenter tried to engage in rational discussion, which earned him the support of some in the left press, especially women and younger socialists.

The atmosphere was better in some European countries. Homogenic Love was translated into German in 1895 and appeared in the French journal, La Société Nouvelle. In Germany, the SPD leader, Eduard Bernstein, defended Wilde, arguing that moral attitudes were historical phenomena and that homosexuality had existed in many cultures.

An increasing amount of research was being conducted into sexuality, throwing up numerous theories. The German Scientific Humanitarian Committee, led by Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the leaders in the field, held that homosexuality was congenital. Carpenter thought that humanity was evolving towards a future in which everyone would possess masculine and feminine elements, a kind of androgynous/bisexual ideal, what he called the ‘intermediate sex’. This was also reflected in Radclyffe Hall’s famous The Well of Loneliness, published and banned in 1929. It was an extension of Karl Ulrichs’ idea of the existence of a third sex, which he called Urnings, who were neither male nor female.

Carpenter’s writings on sex and marriage connected with many radical women. He called for better house construction, public bakeries and laundries, and a healthy approach to food and furniture. He demanded easier divorce, and the reduction of the role of the state in personal matters, except where the protection of children was concerned. He said that husbands should help with housework.

What is socialism?

BY 1909 CARPENTER started calling his approach, The Larger Socialism, to encompass human relationships, the environment and art. As a result, music, theatre, workshops, healthy and attractive venues, childcare, etc, were introduced as important parts of the movement. Rowbotham makes this point several times. But it is a false contrast. The basis of socialism is a democratic plan of production – based on public ownership and the nationalisation of key sectors of the economy – where the wealth of society goes back into the system, leading to a massive expansion of social and public services. Sharing out work and cutting the waste and duplication inherent in a profit-based, competitive system would drastically cut working hours, freeing up time for people to participate in running society and for all kinds of cultural activity. That would have profound effects on society, including human relationships. Any definition of socialism which perceives of it solely as a utilitarian economic arrangement offers a soulless distortion of a system with the power to truly emancipate humanity and care for the world’s resources.

Carpenter became an international figure between 1900-14, his influence spreading throughout Europe, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the US. Forty thousand copies of his Love’s Coming of Age were sold in Germany. He was consulted on setting up model communities in Japan where there was an anarchist-inspired movement against rapid industrialisation. On his 70th birthday, 297 of his wide variety of contacts from around the world signed a greeting to him.

A few weeks before, on 4 August, Britain had declared war on Germany. Carpenter prevaricated. Even in August 1915 he said it was too early to take a clear position! He was, however, totally opposed to conscription which, effectively, put him in the anti-war camp. With war comes repression, and in 1916 the police raided offices of the ILP, the Women’s Labour League, and many other left-wing groups, as well as radical bookshops.

In March 1917, Carpenter celebrated Russia’s February revolution. It was contagious. In June, Labour Party leader, Ramsay MacDonald, called for workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets) in Britain at a conference in Leeds. Carpenter welcomed Bolshevik Russia’s declaration that it was pulling out of the war. For reasons beyond his control, he did not sign the declaration of the National Hands Off Russia Committee opposing military intervention against the new workers’ state. He made amends by issuing a public statement supporting its aims, and a letter to the Daily Herald, which had a circulation of 300,000.

The revolution changed everything. Workers were inspired by the example of their class taking control. Prevaricating leaders were put under immense pressure to take action to defend and emulate Russia. The ruling class was petrified at the possibility of revolution spreading. It was a factor in passing the Representation of the People’s Act in February 1918 which extended the right to vote to men over the age of 21 and women over 30.

Carpenter wrote Towards Industrial Freedom on the power of global capitalism and war, the relationship between modern industry and craft and local industries. His individualist outlook, however, meant that he always came up against the state. Carpenter called for the public ownership of transport, mines and other industry, shorter hours, the regulation of child labour and land reclamation schemes. Projects such as these require some kind of state organisation. Carpenter did not see the need for a democratically organised workers’ state. In such a system, elected representatives would receive the average worker’s wage, and be subject to immediate recall by those they represent, should that be necessary. Workers’ councils at local, regional, national and international levels would develop a plan of production which took account of society’s needs.


CARPENTER WAS SUFFERING the onset of dementia. Despite failing health, he kept up his visits to friends around the country. He was still active politically, receiving guests, speaking at meetings and writing articles whenever possible. His last book, Light from the East (1927), was a collection of letters from Arunachalam, taking him back to his early interest in Asia. He continued to be sexually active with a number of men, while maintaining his long-term relationship with Merrill. In January 1928, Merrill died. Carpenter was overcome with grief. On 22 June he went into a coma and died five days later.

Carpenter’s influence faded in the 1930s. After all, his politics were impressionistic and confused. Rowbotham draws attention to the areas where he did leave a legacy: on the environment, organic farming, human rights, prison reform and animal welfare, for example. Above all, his work on homosexuality was pioneering, the odd theory notwithstanding. Harry Hay, a US Communist Party member who set up the Mattachine Society in the late 1940s to campaign on homosexual civil rights, was influenced by Carpenter. He later embraced the more radical gay liberation movement which burst onto the scene after the Stonewall riots of 1969. Trevor Thomas, born in 1907 in a South Wales mining village, who met Carpenter, was later involved in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality of the early 1970s.

Rowbotham also says that Carpenter would have been dismayed at the continued rule of capital, the extent of pollution and the crisis of global warming. But, surely, that is the point? Carpenter did not link his vision of a ‘larger socialism’ with the far-sighted programme of his contemporaries: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. We cannot control what we do not own. In order to live in a world where human beings can be truly free, we have to fundamentally transform the way society is organised.

One of the achievements of Sheila Rowbotham’s well-researched book is that it graphically illustrates a crucial time in the development of the capitalist system and Britain’s working class. She brings to life the dizzying array of competing ideologies and frenetic activity as the working class struggled to develop an independent class consciousness. It is a fascinating look at the life and times of a fascinating man and era.