Edward Carpenter: a pioneering open democrat

Sheila Rowbotham
22 October 2008

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), the socialist advocate of homosexual freedom and women's rights, had an extraordinary impact on the cultural and political landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His life and work may have receded from view, but his ideas have many resonances in contemporary public debate. To give just one example, his books Love's Coming of Age (1896) would help to define the parameters of "modern" companionate sexual relations. Indeed, when Carpenter has been remembered at all it is as a sexual radical -  but his interest in extending liberty was much broader (see Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, Verso, 2008).

Sheila Rowbotham is professor in the school of social sciences at Mancheter University. Her latest book is Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, October 2008)

Sheila Rowbotham is a pioneer of feminist scholarship. Her many other works include Woman's Consciousness, Man's World (Pelican 1973), Women in Movement: Feminism and Social Action (Routledge, 1993), A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States (Viking 1997) and Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (Penguin 2000/Verso, 2001)As an undergraduate and fellow at Cambridge in the late 1860s and early 1870s, Carpenter came into contact with a reforming milieu in which the extension of the franchise along with more opportunities for working-class and women's education were all being debated. However the great influence on him was Walt Whitman, whose poems Carpenter came across first in 1868. In 1874 he began a correspondence with Whitman and visited the poet in 1877 and again in 1884. From the great American visionary, Carpenter took the idea of an inner democracy suffusing all aspects of human relating. He sought unsuccessfully to take this message to the working class through a new movement for adult education: University Extension.

The currents of radicalism

The great depression of the 1870s and 1880s led thoughtful Victorians like Edward Carpenter to question the complacent consumerist values of the previous two decades. Withdrawing to a farm at Bradway, outside the great northern industrial English city of Sheffield. Carpenter poured his feelings of alienation into a prose poem called Towards Democracy (1883). This work, critical of the outer arrangements of capitalist society, was at its core driven by a longing for more direct, sensual personal relating.

Carpenter decided to live a self-sufficient lifestyle, and set up as a market-gardener in a new rural retreat: Millthorpe in the Cordwell valley. Around him, the seeds of a new political movement were sprouting: a radical group in the Liberal Party in Sheffield started to demand working-class representation, and the Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation) - a group inspired by Marxist ideas - was formed. Carpenter was swept into this early socialist movement, along with a few hundred other fervent campaigners who dreamed of the coming conflagration.

When the big bang proved slower in coming than expected, Carpenter decided - like many other radical campaigners before and since - that if a larger transformation was taking its time, it might be a good idea to focus energies in support of some smaller, local changes. In the late 1880s he busied himself in advocacy of progressive education and nude bathing, calling for an end to low- paid sweated work and agitating against environmental pollution in Sheffield.

During the 1890s, as earlier heady hopes of revolution continued to dwindle, Carpenter turned increasingly towards the creation of a new culture of personal relationships through his writings on sexuality. A period when homosexuality was both illegal and vigorously punished - as evidenced in the trials of Oscar Wilde - meant that Carpenter's space for circulating his ideas was severely restricted. However, his pioneering pamphlet Homogenic Love - printed for private circulation by the Manchester Labour Press - passed from hand to hand and exerted a subversive influence.

The atmosphere of fear can be gauged by the fact that Carpenter's publisher, Fisher Unwin, cancelled the contract for Love's Coming of Age; and that the police seized the first volume of Havelock Ellis's The Psychology of Sex on the grounds of obscenity. Carpenter, along with Bernard Shaw, defended Ellis through a Free Press Defence Committee; a detective called John Sweeney, less impressed by free speech, dismissed them as "a nice little gang of Secularists, Socialists, Anarchists and Free-Lovers". 

Also in openDemocracy on defenders of free speech and liberty of thought:

Brian Cathcart, "Joseph Rotblat's humanity" (2 September 2005)

Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional" (9 October 2006)

Neil Belton, "Mai Ghoussoub in her time" (22 February 2007)

John Jackson, "Alice Wheeldon and the attorney-general" (18 April 2007)

Tom Lodge, "Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008)

Irina Novakova, "Georgi Markov: the truth that killed" (11 September 2008)

Also - visit OurKingdom, openDemocracy's section offering comment, analysis and debate on Britain's political futureCarpenter's homosexuality inclined him towards those who were outcasts. He became a crucial figure in a series of overlapping networks of homosexual and bisexual men and lesbian women. When Carpenter was finally able to write on homosexuality and lesbianism in the 1900s, his books would help break the silence around same-sex love (see .

In 1893, Carpenter's loyalty to anarchist friends caught (through an agent provocateur) in planning to make a bomb aimed at the Russian czar brought him into direct conflict with the state - at the time in panic mode because of the international growth of anarchists' violent direct action. Carpenter formed a broad-based defence committee which included socialists and liberals as well as anarchists and agitated for a reduction in their sentences, which lasted until their release in the late 1890s. This, along with the tragedy of Wilde's immolation, made him begin to read about prison reform. In Prisons, Police and Punishment (1905), Carpenter emphasises the class bias within the criminal-justice system, and argued for more humane conditions, and better education and training.

In 1891 Carpenter's vegetarian friend Henry Salt had established the Humanitarian League, which took as its terrain of reform civil society. Among the causes they supported were the reform of prisons, mental asylums and hospitals. They took up the issues of animal rights, cruel sports, brutal conditions in slaughterhouses, the export of live animals and vivisection. The Humanitarian League gave Carpenter a platform for extending liberty into daily life.

The early 20th century saw an upsurge in movements seeking to extend democracy. Carpenter contrived to support the conflicting wings of constitutionalists and militants in the women's-suffrage movement, backing the gains of the Independent Labour Party in elections and enthusing about syndicalist ideas of workers' control and direct action at work. His utopianism, forged in the heady days of 1880s socialism, refused the priority syndicalists placed on the workplace as the focus of transformation - though he identified with their emphasis on consciousness changing dynamically through action.

During the great war of 1914-18, Carpenter's opposition to conscription and censorship resulted in his being placed under surveillance by the intelligence services. In 1919, stirred by hopes of fundamental post-war reconstruction, he held forth in the leftwing Daily Herald on workers' control in the mines, the police and the armed forces. This was explosive stuff in a period of militant strikes, attempts to start a police trade union and mutinies among troops waiting impatiently to be demobbed.

The spaces of freedom

From the 1880s, Carpenter had tussled over the role of the state. It was evident to him that the state was needed to effect the changes he wished in society; yet his libertarianism inclined him to distrust state power. His ideal was an anarchist-communist non-governmental future. In his lectures during the 1890s he devised a combination of voluntary cooperative associations and state-backed projects of nationalisation and municipal ownership, provision and regulation. He developed these ideas in subsequent essays, articles and pamphlets, and urged the left to recognise that there were differing ways of working towards a shared goal.

He was similarly eclectic about the forms of democracy, encouraging Labour friends active in local and national electoral politics, while stressing the need for direct participatory action in daily life. One of the founders of "guild socialism", AJ Penty, saw his own approach as a development of Carpenter's writings and Carpenter himself would endorse the attempt by the guild socialists to connect representative and direct participatory democracy.

The guild-socialist project was to dissolve swiftly in the early 1920s. But the effort to combine differing types of democracy resurfaced periodically in later decades. The era of "community politics" in the 1970s, the period of "municipal socialism" (marked especially by the radical initiatives of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone) in the 1980s, and the experiments in participatory democracy at Porto Alegre (Brazil) in the 1990s - all in different ways signify the life of this current of thinking. Hilary Wainwright and Paul Ginsborg are among the thinkers who have explored the ideas embodied in such democratic experimentation; in this they are building on the much earlier work of Edward Carpenter, who did so much to enlarge the sense of democracy's scope. 

Carpenter was an inveterate networker (before the word was invented). In 1914 he helped found the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology (BSSSP), which brought together campaigners for social hygiene and eugenics with sex psychologists, early psychoanalysts and figures concerned about sexual purity. They provided respectable ballast around whom birth-controllers, advocates of sex education and a lobby for the decriminalisation of homosexuality had space to operate. Carpenter supported agitation from BSSSP members for sex education in schools and an end to the British Museum's special catalogue (which excluded books regarded as obscene or subversive to religion or the throne).

Edward Carpenter was not by any means a pure democrat. He agreed that some crimes justified punishment by whipping; he voiced anti-semitic sentiments and stereotyped ethnic groups in south Asia and Morocco. So much of this was of his time; but in so many other respects Carpenter was ahead of it. His commitment to connect the inner and outer aspects of democracy; his readiness to combine differing forms of democracy; his resolve to extend democracy into civil society, work and daily life - all possess a relevance for the early 21st century, and deserve greater recognition.

His reputation did not survive his death in 1929, despite EM Forster's loyal efforts to remember his former mentor. But it is significant that Roland Kidd - the man who (in 1934) founded the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) - the forerunner of today's organisation Liberty - was familiar with Carpenter's writings and influenced by his ideas. Indeed, EM Forster would be the NCCL's first president. The causes Edward Carpenter espoused - which might be summed up as modern liberty and the enlargement of democracy - persisted, even though his own name has been largely and undeservedly forgotten.

Sheila Rowbotham is speaking at the session on Love and Liberty at

The Convention on Modern Liberty

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