Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

Thomas Carlyle:

37) Past and Present and Chartism.

New York, 1847

The first American Edition of both tracts

The edition combines two of Carlyle’s most influential essays as American first editions. Chartism, first published in 1840, attacks reinless laissez-faire capitalism, this “disorganic Manchester”, which “afflicts us with its Chartisms.” He asks for questioning the bitter discontent of the labourers, which has “grown fierce and mad.” The working class, in his view, needed “real guidance”. He felt “the wish and the prayer of all human hearts” for true leadership, a Platonic goverment of the wisest and the bravest, which would be capable to soar above the turmoils of democracy and to provide the workingman with conditions under which he can “honour his craftsmanship,” and to protect him against the “huge demon of mechanism.” If their affairs would remain unregulated, “these Twenty-four million labouring men (...) will burn ricks and mills; reduce us, themselves and the world into ashes and ruin.”

The succeeding tract Past and Present, first published in 1843, is, in cultural respects, of even major significance. It inspired Marx and Engels and not only served as a blueprint for John Ruskin’s theories, but, moreover, as an ideological framework for the aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites´ and the Arts & Crafts movements. Seer Carlyle here positions himself as the Anti-Benthamite by contrasting the unguided condition of contemporary politics with its mechanistic gospel of “enlightened selfishness” with the inspired organism of a hierarchical medieval past. In haunting images he describes “the hell in England” with workers condemned to poverty and starvation and forced to produce “cheap and nasty products.” Instead he advocates for a new organic conception of work: “Labour must become a seeing rational giant, with a soul in the body of him, and take his place on he throne of things,” meaning that “the Organisation of labour must be taken out of the hands of absurd windy persons and put into the hands of wise, laborious, modest and valiant men (...) for there is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness in work.“

The extremely influential Scottish historian and polemicist can be considered as the most ambivalent figure in British radical culture. Accordingly, Linton felt compelled to dedicate a whole section of his autobiography to a discussion of Carlyle’s worth. Carlyle’s main point of departure had been the feudal socio-political views, which his master Goethe had developed in his late works. With his writings, Carlyle had infused a new authoritarian tone and a pseudo-religious emphasis into the conceptions of early socialism; moreover, he had contributed much to the final bifurcation of the radical tradition into socialist and liberal fractions, which irreconcilably confronted each other. As in the case of his disciple Ruskin, Carlyle’s variation of a chivalrous socialism always remained committed to his Tory heritage with an emphasis on social hierarchy. In the late 1840s, his increasing anti-democratic agitation mixed with committed racism made his views more and more intolerable, especially for his former followers in the Republican camp.

Although Carlyle used to look down disdainfully on Linton as an “extremely windy creature, of the Louis Blanc, George Sand, etc., species" (Letter to Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of the Irish Nation), the despised preserved a special predilection for this bad-tempered sage’s writing all his life. Linton critized Carlyle’s main historiographic work on the French Revolution repeatetly holding it to be polemic and unreliable. On the other hand, his heroic views of the Puritan Revolution were substantially inspired by Carlyle’s commented edition of Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches (1845). Even after Carlyle had disqualified himself in Republican circles with his stern conservatism, he remained to Linton the central moral institution in England, and he sent him each number of his English Republic. The adressed “would sometimes acknowledge the copies of the Republic with a not unfriendly characteristic growl, which did not disconcert but rather amused me from a man so averse to windiness, so ready to preach the worthlessness of words. Why waste my energy in useless speech? – was the one burden of his remonstrances, and he would not have cared had I pleaded the influence of his example.” (Memories) In Linton’s eyes, Carlyle had succeeded where he himself had bitterly failed –  in his effort to address the young generation with his journal and to stir it up in order to found a national Republican party comparable to Mazzini´s Young Italy and Young Germany movements. Unfortunately the party which sprouted from the seeds sown by Carlyle went into a very different direction of social Toryism, one that wished itself back to medieval feudalism.

“On Carlyle’s Worth: Untrustworthy as historian or as a judge of men, the man who can find no more descriptive epithet for Robespierre than sea-green, or for Marat than dog-leech, and who could defend Governor Eyre’s Jamaica Massacre, and (quoting his own words, incorrect as regards Mazzini) ‘utterly unacquainted with the true relation of things in this world,’ I still regard admiringly the author of Sartor Resartus, of Past and Present, and of Hero-Worship: books which did immense good, coming at a time in which they were expressly wanted, stirring young souls with higher aims than were deducible from socialistic materialisms, or from the Manchester morality of a generation of Whig utilitarians. Very great, I take it, was the service done by Carlyle's earlier books to the young men of that day, giving to them an ennobling gospel, for which England may well hold the Sage of Chelsea in continued reverence. He led the young aristocracy to a clearer perception of the condition of the country and to some recognition of their duties as an aristocracy.  He was really the founder of the Disraelitish Young England party, a party I would not discredit, though it was not the young England I hoped to see.” (Memories)