By Noel Halifax
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Edward Carpenter – A Life of Liberty and Love

This article is over 13 years, 6 months old
Sheila Rowbotham, Verso, £25
Issue 330

Edward Carpenter’s active political life spans the 1880s through to the 1920s and during that time he knew and influenced almost everyone on the radical left and beyond.

He was the ultimate polymath and radical, writing on all aspects of society, and can be said to have invented or refigured for the 20th century what we now would call lifestyle politics. He wrote about gay love (“the dear love of comrades”) at a time when the term homosexual was being defined and during the great moral panic and homophobic persecution of the late 19th century.

He was for independence for India when few were, and always opposed state persecution of unpopular minorities; he was also for prison reforms, and so the list goes on. At the same time he was anti-Semitic, equating Jewishness with finance capital and initially supported Britain in the First World War.

He was a socialist and a friend of everyone from William Morris, Bernard Shaw, E M Forster, Ramsay MacDonald and beyond. On most issues and questions he was on the left – arguing for women’s rights, supporting workers’ struggles, for socialism as a new way of living and loving, for workers’ control of industry, against pollution, against the destruction of natural resources, for fresh air and walking. He also produced a continuous stream of pamphlets, prose poems, talks and tours.

He seemed tireless and at a time of Victorian and Edwardian conformity broke almost every rule they had. He openly lived with a working class man (he was from the middle class). He argued for and practised non-monogamy and loving relationships as opposed to the property contract known as marriage. He was a vegetarian, believed in nude sunbathing, and advocated the wearing of sandals and a simple lifestyle.

Carpenter had been influenced by the Late Romantics, particularly Walt Whitman. He saw socialism as a total revolution of society at a time when socialism was being defined between the reformists of the Independent Labour Party and the then emerging Labour Party, and the revolutionaries of the communist and anarchist movements. He related to both sides. He also managed to avoid persecution himself, becoming over time a “seer” or that very British thing “a national treasure”, a radical Stephen Fry who appeals to everyone.

He was, however, hated by George Orwell and was the likely target of his attack on the sandal wearing woolly headed “sodomites” of the English bohemian lefts.

He is therefore a fascinating subject for a biography and this book follows on from a much shorter one by Sheila Rowbotham written in the 1970s. It is a detailed and well researched book, written in an easy style. It is informative and a good addition to our knowledge of him and the period.

But, and I do have a “but” with this book, because Carpenter knew so many people and influenced so many more, the book can read like a great list of names which, depending on your knowledge, you may or may not appreciate. It concentrates on people rather than ideas, so the ideas that Carpenter had on a range of things are skated over, the debates and arguments not gone into.

All his views are given equal weight with minor things receiving as much attention as major epoch-changing events. The 1880s and 1890s were a time of rebirth for the left in Britain with the formation of the Second International and the new unions. These are mentioned in passing, as they affected Edward Carpenter’s topics for his talks, but never fully explored. The defining moment of the period was 1914 and the outbreak of war. It split the socialist movement. On this split Carpenter was a muddled thinker and on the wrong side, though he changed as the war progressed. How then did he come to this conclusion? On this the book outlines the arguments only in a very limited way that are not developed or explained. Instead Rowbotham concentrates on his relationships with the people concerned.

Carpenter was “never a joiner”. He always managed to be friends with all sides in arguments. He was, however, a great populariser of ideas. His pamphlets had a huge working class readership. His ideas and writings fed into the socialist movement, and the movement for sexual liberation in Britain and in continental Europe. That movement fed into the Third International and is the reason for its progressive sexual policies in the revolutionary period after 1917. It is a fascinating period and Carpenter is an endearing, if sometimes irritating, writer and thinker. For all my criticism I did enjoy reading this book and I think most people reading this review would also enjoy it.

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