YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 7, 2012

Christian Socialism as precursor to Orwell

Orwell’s legacy is controversial. I see his tragic vision as a continuation of the moral reformers reacting to the Chartist movement in Britain, 1839-1850.  This book essay lays out the case for “a change of heart” as opposed to structural reform. It is my contention that Orwell’s most important precursor was Thomas Carlyle, whose claim that all social relationships were subsumed under the “cash nexus” in industrial society was taken up by Marx and his followers all of whom continue to rail against “finance capital.” (The defeated Winston Smith recites this rhyme at the end of 1984: ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree /I sold you and you sold me –‘. This alleged commodification of human relationships is crucial to all modern socialist ideologies, including populism.)

In my book, I show how Kingsley’s archetypal “agitator” bears a close resemblance to Melville’s character Captain Ahab. Note especially that Benjamin Netanyahu cited the Hebrew prophets as the founders of “civilization” in his UN speech. (See last sentences in http://clarespark.com/2012/09/28/bibi-and-the-human-nature-debate/.)

[book excerpt, Hunting Captain Ahab, chapter 5 (the chapter that got me into trouble with Verso):]

The Old Testament Jewish prophet as “the agitator” was developed by the English cleric and Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley in his cautionary tale, Alton Locke tailor and poet (1850), published anonymously while Melville was composing Moby-Dick.[i] Kingsley’s book purports to be the confession of a genuine repentant radical who has died of consumption. Inspired by the “old Jewish heroes” Moses, David, and Jehu, and rejecting (conservative) Calvinism, the tailor Alton Locke was fired by the aspirations of other “working men whose craving is only for some idea which shall give equal hopes, claims, and deliverances, to all mankind alike!” (12,13). For Ishmael, the radical Enlightenment was a snare and a delusion: those who strive for truth, justice, and equality in a world purged of wickedness, but who are armed, like Ahab (or the dark angel depicted in Dürer’s Melencolia I or Rosa’s Democritus in Meditation) solely with the tools of earthly (not Right) Reason, will end their efforts in despair, wrecking the rest of humanity along with themselves. But we must not push the comparison too far. Alton Locke leaves us with ex-radicals tearfully but gladly chastened and regenerated; Moby-Dick leaves a regenerated orphan, dying into life, as Howard Vincent says, but, as Vincent does not say, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin (primitivism), a coffin lacking a keel. The coffin had breached like a whale; Ishmael was rescued by a whale/coffin without a conscience, without balance.

Alton Locke recalls his collapse into the monomania of Chartism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartism) , prepared by harsh poverty and mother’s levelling religious zeal:

Female “Chartist”

“…those old Jewish heroes did fill my heart and soul. I learnt from them lessons which I never want to unlearn…they were patriots, deliverers from that tyranny and injustice from which the child’s heart,–’child of the devil’ though you may call him,–instinctively, and, as I believe, by a divine inspiration, revolts. Moses leading his people out of Egypt; Gideon, Barak, and Samson, slaying their oppressors; David, hiding in the mountains from the tyrant, with his little band of those who had fled from the oppressions of an aristocracy of Nabals; Jehu, executing God’s vengeance on the kings–these were my heroes, my models; they mixed themselve up with the dim legends about the Reformation martyrs, Cromwell and Hampden, Sidney and Monmouth, which I had heard at my mother’s knee. Not that the perennial oppression of the masses, in all ages and countries, had yet risen on me as an awful, torturing, fixed idea. I fancied, poor fool, that tyranny was the exception, and not the rule. But it was the mere sense of abstract pity and justice which was delighted in me. I thought that these were old fairy tales, such as never need to be realized again. I learnt otherwise in later years (12, 13).”

No Melville scholar has proposed that Alton Locke might have been a source for Moby-Dick (or if not a source, then a work carrying identical baggage). However, the Illustrated London News recognized the political referent of The Whale (the title of the English edition of Moby-Dick): “the personages are so conceived as to be types of the principal different parties and classes into which the late Aggression agitation split up the community.”[ii] Kingsley’s character Crossthwaite, a Chartist who fascinates Alton (as Ahab fascinates Ishmael, as Isabel fascinates Pierre), resembles Narcissus/Ahab and his reflection or double, the Whale: “Wild grey eyes gleamed out from under huge knitted brows, and a perpendicular wall of brain, too large for his puny body.”[iii] Here is Crossthwaite’s defiant speech as proletarian Christ to his fellow tailors, meeting to discuss their response to the newly (Jewishly) imposed system of piecework. Perhaps Crossthwaite is a source (or parallel) for Ahab with the “crucifixion in his face”:

‘…Every one fancies the laws which fill his pockets to be God’s laws. But I say this. If neither government nor members of Parliament can help us, we must help ourselves. Help yourselves and Heaven will help you. Combination among ourselves is the only chance. One thing we can do–sit still.’

‘And starve!’ said some one.

‘Yes, and starve! Better starve than sin. I say, it is a sin to give into this system. It is a sin to add our weight to the crowd of artisans who are now choking and strangling each other to death, as the prisoners did in the black hold of Calcutta. Let those who will, turn beasts of prey, and feed upon their fellows; but let us at least keep ourselves pure. It may be the law of political civilisation, the law of nature, that the rich should eat up the poor, and the poor eat up each other. Then I here rise and curse that law, that civilisation, that nature. Either I will destroy them, or they shall destroy me. As a slave, as an increased burden on my fellow-sufferers, I will not live. So help me God! I will take no work home to my house; and I call upon every one here to combine, and to sign a protest to that effect.’

‘What’s the use of that, my good Mr. Crossthwaite?’ interrupted someone querulously. ‘Don’t you know what come of the strike a few years ago, when this piecework first came in? The masters made fine promises, and never kept’em; and the men who stood out had their places filled up with poor devils who were glad enough to take the work at any price–just as ours will be. There’s no use kicking against the pricks. All the rest have come to it, and so must we. We must live somehow, and half a loaf is better than no bread; and even that half-loaf will go into other men’s mouths, if we don’t snap at it at once. Besides, we can’t force others to strike. We may strike and starve ourselves, but what’s the use of a dozen striking out of twenty thousand!’

‘Will you sign the protest, gentlemen,[iv] or not?’ asked Crossthwaite in a determined voice.

Some half-dozen said they would, if the others would.

‘And the others won’t. Well, after all, one man must take the responsibility, and I am that man. I will sign the protest by myself. I will sweep a crossing – I will turn cress-gatherer, rag-picker; I will starve piecemeal, and see my wife starve with me; but do the wrong thing I will not! The cause wants martyrs. If I must be one, I must’ (104-105, my emph.). [v]

Later, Crossthwaite becomes a professional labor organizer, an “agitator” resembling Ahab:

He scribbled, agitated; ran from London to Manchester, and Manchester to Bradford, spouting, lecturing–sowing the east wind, I am afraid, and little more. Whose fault was it? What could such a man do, with that fervid tongue, and heart, and brain of his, in such a station as his, such a time as this? Society had helped to make him an agitator. Society has had, more or less, to take the consequences of her own handiwork. For Crossthwaite did not speak without hearers. He could make the fierce, shrewd artisan nature flash out into fire–not always celestial, nor always, either, infernal. [Cf. Isabel’s face, “compounded so of hell and heaven.”] So he agitated and lived–how, I know not (187).

Chartist meeting

Compare Kingsley’s fantasy with Ishmael’s in “The First Lowering”:

But what it was that inscrutable Ahab said to that tiger-yellow crew of his–these were words best omitted here; for you live under the blessed light of the evangelical land. Only the infidel sharks in the audacious seas may give ear to such words, when with tornado brow, and eyes of red murder, and foam-glued lips, Ahab leaped after his prey (223).

Alton Locke contrasts the Chartist’s integrity with his own as a hack writer, in terms achingly reminiscent of Melville’s complaint to Hawthorne (1? June, 1851), “Dollars damn me…What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,–it will not pay.”

It was miserable work, there is no denying it–only not worse than tailoring.–To try and serve God and Mammon too; to make miserable compromises daily, between the two great incompatibilities, what was true, and what would pay; to speak my mind, in fear and trembling, by hints and halves, and quarters; to be daily hauling poor Truth just up to the top of her well, and then, frightened at my own success, let plump down again to the bottom; to sit there, trying to teach others, while my mind was in a whirl of doubt; to feed others’ intellects, while my own was hungering; to grind on in the Philistine’s mill, or occasionally make sport for them, like some weary-hearted clown grinning in a pantomime…as blind as Samson, but not, alas as strong (Alton Locke, 188-189).

[Clare:] Kingsley must drop the truth he has laboriously dredged up, lest he become an agitator, a monomaniac diagnosed as the prisoner of a fixed-idea, as the carrier of a fatal disease (the doomed revolution). And yet, with Ishmael, Kingsley fears the “tornado brow” of his own raging disappointment, flying into “a whirl of doubt” when he chooses Mammon over God. Resubmerging poor Truth has turned him into an exhausted Pierrot. Like the repentant Wandering Jew, the compromised intellectual is cursed to pace and tarry sleeplessly until the Second Coming, to preach that slavery is freedom, ignorance is bliss, that universalist notions such as political freedom, equality before the law, and the amelioration of suffering are ploys dreamed up by demagogues to manufacture “difference” within the Volk.[i] The richer Truth that roots the torn-up Kingsley and Melville is the appetizing menu of the monarchist, railing against republics breeding furious, leveling and regicidal mobs.[ii]

What about these retreats into “pragmatism”? I have made a case for a masqued Melville arguing for vast structural transformations while hiding behind the narrator, but even if I am wrong, the Tory relapses could be products of depression leading to the temporary ascendancy of a conservative program of individual moral reform, resignation to permanent earthly bewilderment and the retraction of Isabel’s lawless wandering. Alton Locke understood his error but too late to avert an untimely death from consumption.[iii] “Fool that I was! It was within, rather than without, that I needed [structural] reform” (110). Likewise, the other fanatical genius, Crossthwaite, is brought out of the Charter and into Christ by an upper-class radical, Eleanor, “her figure dilating, and her eyes flashing, like an inspired prophetess”:

‘…Denounce the effete idol of property qualification, not because it happens to strengthen class interests against you, but because as your mystic dream reminded you, and therefore, as you knew long ago, there is no real rank, no real power, but worth; and worth consists not in property, but in the grace of God. Claim, if you will, annual parliaments, as a means of enforcing the responsibility of Christian rulers to the Christian community, of which they are to be, not the lords, but the ministers–the servants of all. But claim these, and all else for which you long, not from man, but from God, the King of men. And therefore, before you attempt to obtain them, make yourselves worthy of them–perhaps by that process you will find some of them have become less needful. At all events, do not ask, do not hope, that He will give them to you, before you are able to profit by them. Believe that He has kept them from you hitherto, because they would have been curses, and not blessings. Oh! look back, look back, at the history of English Radicalism for the last half century, and judge by your own deeds, your own words; were you fit for those privileges which you so frantically demanded? Do not answer me, that those who had them were equally unfit; but thank God, if the case be indeed so, that your incapacity was not added to theirs, to make confusion worse confounded! Learn a new lesson. Believe at last that you are in Christ, and become new creatures….’

Crossthwaite had kept his face fast buried in his hands; now he looked up with brimming eyes–

‘I see it–I see it all now. Oh, my God! my God! What infidels we have been!’ (362, 364-365).

I have reviewed a persistent trope: Tories attributed Jewish characteristics to the Puritan rebels after the English Civil War, while reserving all civic virtue and balance to themselves, the moderate men. English Tories applied the same discourse to America after the American Revolution; they denounced the ex-colonists as hypocrites, preaching godliness and equality while abusing non-whites and Nature. Happy Columbus Day weekend.

George Orwell passport photo


[i]               24. [Charles Kingsley], Alton Locke Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography, ed. Elizabeth A. Cripps (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983). Cf. Mary Wollestonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe, 1794, 4: “Locke, following the track of these bold thinkers [English emigrants to America], recommended in a more methodical manner religious toleration, and analyzed the principles of civil liberty: for in his definition of liberty we find the elements of The Declaration of the Rights of Man, which, in spite of the fatal errours of ignorance, and the perverse obstinacy of selfishness, is now converting sublime theories into practical truths.”

[ii]               25. 1 Nov. 1851, reprinted in Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, eds., Moby-Dick as Doubloon: Essays and Extracts (1851-1970) (New York: Norton, 1970), 18.

[iii]              26. Cf. Lavater’s caption to his sketch of the Prophet-type, “After Raphael”: “Prophetic seriousness and apparent inexorableness/ The Eyes penetrating and immoveable, the Eyebrows choleric, the Nose firm & commanding, the Forehead hard and always forbidding, the Hair characteristic.”Physiognomical Sketches by Lavater, engraved from the original drawings by John Luffman (London, 1802), 46.

[iv]              27. I.e., no aristocrat would submit to such slavery.

[v]               28. The villain is Schechem Isaacs; Schechem was the name of George Walker’s benevolent Jew in Theodore Cyphon, 1796. With respect to Crossthwaite’s martyrdom, compare Mary Glendinning’s speech (quoted above), fearing that Pierre will darken himself as a “hope forlorn,” i.e., as a figure of the political/moral vanguard, sacrificing himself to a good cause.

[i] The distinguished German Professor Hans Ulrich-Wehler addressed the UCLA History Department Mar. 19, 1997, on the evolution of German nationalism since 1800. Self-described as a pragmatic advocate of Gesellschaft, he suggested that a regional nationalism (The European Union) would be an improvement on the older nationalism that seemed susceptible to right-wing radicalism during periods of crisis. When I asked why he did not prefer international solidarity grounded in science and universalist ethics [the radical Enlightenment vision] rather than a new bloc, he responded “Universalism creates difference.”

[ii]               30. Cf. Georg Brandes, Revolution and Reaction in Nineteenth-Century French Literature (N.Y.: Russell and Russell, 1960), 58-59: “Human reason had risen and freed itself with athletic strength. Everything that existed had to justify its existence. Where men heretofore had prayed for a miracle they now investigated into causes. Never before in history had there been such doubt, such labour, such inquiry, such illumination… For the time being the emancipatory movement was checked. It began once more to be inexpedient not to profess faith in revealed religion… The majority of the men without private means who had prepared themselves for government appointments, and could not overcome their irresistible desire to eat every day, were entirely reliable supporters of the re-establishment of the church. No one over twenty-five years of age will be surprised by the number of supporters orthodoxy gained from the moment when it advanced from being an absurdity to being a means of subsistence. To such converts add the great party of the timorous, all those who live in fear of the Red Republic, and in whose eyes religion was, first and foremost, a safeguard against it. It was among these that the army of the principle of authority obtained most recruits. From a religious body the church suddenly turned into a political party.”

[iii]              31. Alton Locke predicts his imminent demise: “No,–I shall never see the land [the New World]. I felt it all along. Weaker and weaker, day by day, with bleeding lungs and failing limbs, I have travelled the ocean-paths. The iron has entered too deeply into my soul…” Alton Locke, 388.


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6 Comments »

  1. […] “Money” and heartlessness were ever associated with a fictional un-Christian animal called “the Jews.” Some major social theorists blamed “the Protestant spirit” for capitalism (e.g. Max Weber, C. Wright Mills), Protestantism being tinged with Hebraism and a particular love for the Old Testament. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/10/07/christian-socialism-as-precursor-to-orwell/.) […]

    Pingback by Standing up to bullying social democrats | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 5, 2014 @ 6:28 pm | Reply

  2. I often wondered about the intellectual connections between the populists, like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and the Marxists. It doesn’t surprise me that Christian populism and Marxist (atheist) socialism should find points of harmony, including fear and loathing of the commodification of labor. Indeed, Marxists would often use patriotic and religious sentiment to sell their ideals of family, community and land as in the Popular Front motto “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.”

    Your quote from “Nineteen Eighty-Four” pointed out an interesting satirical perversion. “Under the spreading chestnut tree” is the opening line from Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith,” a popular poem taught to children. In Longfellow’s version, the smithy’s labor is an allegory for “the flaming forge of life [where] Our fortunes must be wrought.” In Orwell’s version, one’s labor — Longfellow’s self-defined life — is merely a thing to be sold, or rather, betrayed, like the life of Jesus for a small bag of gold.

    On the surface, Orwell is characterizing communist kangaroo justice, but in referencing Longfellow’s poem, he is also addressing self-determination and the pastoral, pre-industrial age. Could he be saying that, as he does more explicitly elsewhere, that the industrial revolution leads, inevitably, to crushing the human spirit? Orwell was a pessimist throughout, and the fact that he was renouncing his status as a socialist true believer did nothing to negate his hatred of money, machines, and the ideal of the successful self-made man.

    He was a Luddite, fearful of change and the trappings of modernity, suspicious of the monied few, and longing for an idealized Golden Country. One would imagine that he would fit in quite well with today’s anti-technologists such as Ted Kaczynski and anarcho-primitivists. Indeed, he wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four” on the small pastoral Scottish Isle of Jura, far from war-torn London. According to a Guardian article, he lived a spartan existence:

    “Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cosy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.”
    — Robert McCrum, The Observer, Saturday 9 May 2009

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell

    Comment by StereoRealist — February 12, 2014 @ 12:28 am | Reply

  3. I simply wished to thank you very much again. I am not sure the things I might have handled without the type of smart ideas shown by you about my area of interest. It actually was a real fearsome difficulty for me, however , seeing a new professional form you managed that made me to cry with joy. Now i am thankful for your advice and as well , expect you comprehend what a powerful job you were undertaking training the rest all through a blog. Most likely you’ve never encountered all of us.

    Comment by canada goose sverige — October 18, 2012 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  4. […] http://clarespark.com/2012/10/07/christian-socialism-as-precursor-to-orwell/ Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Comments (1) […]

    Pingback by Updated index to Melville blogs « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 10, 2012 @ 11:10 pm | Reply


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