Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

Abbé de Lamennais (translated by W.J. Linton):

29) Modern Slavery.

London 1840

Abbé de Lamennais’ De l’esclavage moderne belongs to the few literary works that had decisive and life-long impact on Linton’s political views. Though but a pamphlet, Modern Slavery should command the attention of whoever cares to understand the struggle between Capital and Labour“, as Linton commented on this work of the influential Catholic writer in his late reminiscences, European Republicans, in1893.  Although Lamennais took a critical view of contemporary proto-socialistic movements like the Saint Simonistes, his socio-critical writings had major impact on the rise of Christian Socialism and the Roman Catholic Revival on both sides of the Channel.

Shortly after the original edition of De l’esclavage moderne had been launched in France in 1839 Linton’s translation appeared in Watson’s series of republican classics. „The translation is a fine performance for a man of Linton’s limited schooling; Modern Slavery catches Lamennais’s rhetoric and is embellished with notes explaining references to French history and politics.“ (F. B. Smith) He had been introduced to Lamennais’ writings in 1837 by Thomas Wade and „immediately found a soul-mate in the visionary abbé. Lamennais’ faith in the sacred unity of mankind, his oratory cadences and fervid apocalyptic sense matched Linton’s yearnings. (...) Linton was fired by Lamennais´s projection of sanctified communities as the end of political endeavour. Such communities would enable individuals to perfect themselves in a righteous general will (...) In this dimension, political action partook of prophecy and those engaged in it became martyr-souls. Henceforth Linton saw his duty in teaching fellow Chartists to lift their vision beyond the six points.“ (F. B. Smith) To Lamennais, equality and social unity represented the realisation of God’s will. Modern Slavery drafts a rough blueprint of a teleological conception of history as a constant progression of freedom. Although the human conditions have improved since the times of ancient systems of slavery and serfdom, the esssence of slavery, which is „the destruction of human individuality“  would still prevail and the interdependency from master to slave only have gradually changed to a new form of dependency between capitalist and proletarian. The real duty of each Chrisitian is, in the Abbé´s view, to act against „this impious rebellion against God and his law, this insolent, this criminal violation of the vital right of humanity (...). Your interest and your duty, both impel you to accomplish the holy work of social regeneration.“  The ultimate aim is „that the poor man (...) shall cease woefully to drag his hereditary chains, to be a mere machine (...).“ Lamennais’s plea for a socialist struggle of liberation and a fundamental change of society was of a much more challenging kind than the paternalistic variation of Christian socialism the likes of Carlyle or Ruskin professed. It is revealing not only to study Linton’s political writings in terms of his reading of Lamennais but also his art theoretical polemics. The diction and tone of his various tracts on xylography from the 1880s, which equal the industrial mechanized labour of the process engravers with a machine-like state of slavery, is much rather due to the Abbé’s appeal than to Ruskin’s writings.

Lamennais’ vision of the liberated social body as the realized spiritual form of God stood at the core of Linton’s communitarian philosophy, most genuinely it came to expressed in a lecture he held in 1869 in Boston: The Religion of Organization. Linton’s favourite pen name Spartacus, which he used in numerous articles in the Chartist press, also derives from his reading of De l’esclavage moderne. According to Lamennais, the duty of the modern Spartacus will not be a physical one, „to hunt with brute force an uncertain success“, but a rhetorical, intellectual one, to arm the modern slaves „with their right, with their acknowledged right; and therewith shall conquer.“ Consistently Linton’s Chartist agitation was not only targeted to the exterior forces of exploitation and oppression, but also the interior faction, who advocated physical force as a means of revolution.