Pioneers of British anarchism: Edward Carpenter

Dublin Pride is tomorrow, and for this Pride season we note the 90th anniversary of the death of Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), a man who in the most repressive of times against homosexuality in Britain was out and proud. As a small homage to one of Sheffield’s great socialist bohemians, below is a quick once-over of his life, followed by a beautiful obituary produced for Freedom.

A poet and philosopher, Carpenter was born into a wealthy household in Hove, Sussex, the son of a school governor who had made a mint on the stock market. Educated at his father’s school, the independent Brighton College, he went to university at Trinity College Cambridge, where he realised both that he was gay and that his family wealth was built on the immiseration of working people.

Initially he began a career with the Church of England as a curate, before turning against it and instead moving to first Leeds and later Sheffield to work as a lecturer. While there he was heavily involved in pushing socialism forward in the city, representing the Social Democratic Federation there in 1883 and later joining the Socialist League alongside William Morris.

In Sheffield he found both connections to working-class people and explored his sexuality through encounters with “railway-men, porters, clerks, signalmen, ironworkers”. Over time he patched together a political philosophy mixing spiritualism and socialism in a Tolstoyan manner, which infuriated many especially when he opened the doors of his co-operative farm Millthorpe to a sexually liberated group of men.

Carpenter’s openness with his homosexuality, spiritual inclinations, proto-beatnik lifestyle and strident anti-imperialism led to repeated censure from elsewhere in the movement, with George Orwell memorably excoriating him as  “the sort of eunuch type with a vegetarian smell, who go about spreading sweetness and light.” His philosophical and political writings were nevertheless among some of the most influential of his era, and Carpenter went on to become one of the founding figures of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. 

He was however a great ally to the anarchists, and quite clear about his inclinations towards anarchist-communism. He worked with Peter Kropotkin in his research on small industry and defended anarchism in the courts. Carpenter received the warmest of obituaries upon his death from his friend Bessie Ward in the Freedom Bulletin of that year, reproduced below:

With the death of Edward Carpenter there passes one of the finest spirits of the early days of the socialist movement, His work was, and, for those who care to read it, still is, a force and an inspiration. We who in our youth were influenced by his message must feel grateful that he never swerved from the goal of high attainment. Once having seen the truth, having realised the shams and ruthless brutalities of the terrible system of profit-making, Edward Carpenter devoted the rest of his life to the destruction of the Moloch called Capitalism.

His first step, after turning his back on his life of a university lecturer, was to get us close to nature as possible. Eventually he built his own cottage in a garden with a stream running at the foot. Here in his little stone house, wearing his soft tweeds, he seemed like a jewel in its proper setting. To this small home of the poet came a constant procession of admirers, Like pilgrims to a shrine, they came from all parts of the world. Those who were fortunate enough to be frequent visitors would meet travellers from the remotest and least expected corners of the globe, Men and women who had heard the “ voice singing the song of deliverance ” and were impelled to travel far in order to take him by the hand.

Though every one of Carpenter’s works is written with one object, the greater understanding and emancipation of mankind, the whole covers a wide field, Civilisation! Its Cause and Cure influenced very largely indeed the thought of the 1890s, while England’s Ideal was almost as great an intellectual force, Love’s Coming of Age,  that-beautiful and delicately written book on the relationship of the sexes, and The Intermediate Sex are two aspects of a subject which it took some considerable courage to oven admit existed in those late Victorian days. Angels’ Wings with its frank acceptance of a coming change in art standards and a belief that art would once again become a part of life itself, left its mark on the lover of beauty seeking a basis for his own standards.

But of all Carpenter’s works Towards Democracy is the most completely satisfying. In this the poet and prophet, the great lover of mankind, has poured himself. It contains all that Edward Carpenter ever was. In its pages “this man rises from his mould of dust, ranges his life and looks upon the Sun.” There are moments of pure ecstasy, prophetic pictures of the greater freedom coming to mankind, and a yearning pity for its present pain and repression.

In his teaching and in his life Carpenter was always the foe of authority and officialdom. Always. In fact, more anarchist than socialist, though he never cared to label himself. Feeling, as so many of us do, that labels restrict, he preferred to keep himself free to help all movements which made for that true liberty for which, in his. own words, “the heroes and lovers of all ages have laid down their lives; and nations like tigers have fought, knowing well that life was a mere empty blob without freedom.”

It was a dear privilege to know him. One of my most cherished memories is of weekends, after periods of sordid money-changing, spent in the little house removed just beyond the smoke and grime of Sheffield, with the man who still remains a source of inspiration to think upon. I met many choice spirits there, but none so gracious, so tender, so truly beautiful as our teacher-host,

“Do not hurry; have faith.” is one of his choicest messages. This attitude towards life gave him a quiet dignity that created a sense of rest to all who came under his spell.

He ate no animal food nor hurt any of Earth’s creatures for his clothing. He lived simply and beautifully, writing his books, lecturing on the rare occasions when he allowed himself a spell in towns, and towards the end, preparing to pass out in calm and happy trance “into that other land where the great voices sound and visions dwell.”


Pic: Carpenter (left) with his partner George Merrill in 1900