Latter-Day Pamphlets, Edited by Thomas Carlyle-No. I, The Present Time, No. II, Model Prisons

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written April 1850


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 10, p. 301-310;
Written: London, in March and April, 1850;
First published: Neue Rheinische Zeitung Politisch-ökonomische RevueNo. 4, April, 1850.

Thomas Carlyle is the only English writer on whom German literature has exercised a direct and particularly significant influence. Courtesy at the very least demands that a German should not let his writings pass without notice.

The latest publication by Guizot (No. 2 of the N. Rh. Z.) has shown us that the intellectual powers of the bourgeoisie are in a process of decline. In the present two pamphlets by Carlyle we witness the decline of literary genius in historical struggles which have reached a point of crisis and against which it attempts to assert its unrecognised, direct, prophetic inspirations.

To Thomas Carlyle belongs the credit of having taken the literary field against the bourgeoisie at a time when its views, tastes and ideas held the whole of official English literature totally in thrall, and in a manner which is at times even revolutionary. For example, in his history of the French Revolution, in his apology for Cromwell, in the pamphlet on Chartism and in Past and Present. But in all these writings the critique of the present is closely bound up with a strangely unhistorical apotheosis of the Middle Ages, which is a frequent characteristic of other English revolutionaries too, for instance Cobbett and a section of the Chartists. Whilst he at least admires in the past the classical periods of a specific stage of society, the present drives him to despair and he shudders at the thought of the future. Where he recognises the revolution, or indeed apotheosises it, in his eyes it becomes concentrated in a single individual, a Cromwell or a Danton. He pays them the same hero-worship that he preached in his Lectures on Heroes and Hero-Worship as the only refuge from a present pregnant with despair, as a new religion.

Carlyle's style is at one with his ideas. It is a direct violent reaction against the modern bourgeois English Pecksniffery, whose enervated affectedness, circumspect verbosity and vague, sentimentally moral tediousness has spread from the original inventors, the educated Cockneys, to the whole of English literature. In comparison, Carlyle treated the English language as though it were completely raw material which he had to cast utterly afresh. Obsolete expressions and words were sought out again and new ones invented, in the German manner and especially in the manner of Jean Paul. The new style was often in bad taste and hugely pretentious, but frequently brilliant and always original. In this respect too the Latter-Day Pamphlets represent a remarkable step backwards.

It is, incidentally, characteristic that out of the whole of German literature the mind that had the greatest influence on Carlyle was not Hegel but the literary apothecary Jean Paul.

In the cult of genius, which Carlyle shares with Strauss, the genius has got lost in the present pamphlets. The cult remains.

The Present Time begins with the statement that the present is the child of the past and the parent of the future, but quite apart from that is a new era.

The first manifestation of this new era is a reforming Pope. Gospel in hand, Plus IX set out to promulgate from the Vatican “the Law of Veracity” to Christendom.

“More than three hundred years ago, the throne of St. Peter received peremptory judicial notice [...] authentic order, registered in Heaven's chancery and since legible in the hearts of all brave men, to take itself away, – to begone, and let us have no more to do with it and its delusions and impious deliriums; – and it has been sitting every day since [...] at its own peril [...], and will have to pay exact damages yet for every day it has so sat. Law of veracity? What this Popedom had to do by the law of veracity, was to give up its own foul galvanic life, an offence to gods and men; honestly to die; and get itself buried! Far from this was the thing the poor Pope undertook [...]; – and yet on the whole it was essentially this too. Reforming Pope! [...] Turgot and Necker were nothing to this. God is great; and when a scandal is to end, brings some devoted man to take charge of it in hope, not in despair!” (P. 3.)

With his manifestos of reform the Pope had aroused questions,

“mothers of the whirlwinds, conflagrations, earthquakes.... Questions which all official men wished, and mostly hoped, to postpone till Doomsday. Doomsday itself had come; that was the terrible truth.” (P. 4.)

The law of veracity was proclaimed. The Sicilians

“were the first people that set about applying this new [...] rule sanctioned by the holy Father; [...] We do not by the law of veracity belong to Naples and these Neapolitan Officials; we will, by favour of Heaven and the Pope, be free of these."

Hence the Sicilian Revolution.

The French people, which considers itself as a kind of “Messiah people,” as “the chosen soldiers of liberty,” feared that the poor, despised Sicilians might take this trade” out of their hands – February Revolution. [Pp. 4-5.]

“As if by sympathetic subterranean electricities, all Europe exploded, boundless, uncontrollable; and we had the year 1848, one of the most singular, disastrous, amazing, and on the whole humiliating years the European world ever saw.... Kings everywhere, and reigning persons, stared in sudden horror, the voice of the whole world bellowing in their ear, 'Begone, ye imbecile hypocrites, histrios not heroes! Off with you, off!-and, what was peculiar and heard of in this year for the first time, the Kings all made haste to go, as if exclaiming, 'We are poor histrios, we sure enough; – do you need heroes! Don't kill us; we couldn't help it!' – Not one of them turned round, and stood upon his Kingship, as upon a right he could afford to die for, or to risk his skin upon.... That, I repeat, is the alarming peculiarity at present. Democracy, on this new occasion, finds all Kings conscious that they are but Playactors. [...] They fled precipitately, some of them with what we may call an exquisite ignominy, – in terror of the treadmill or worse. And everywhere the people, or the populace, take their own government upon themselves; and open 'kinglessness',” what we call anarchy, – how happy if it be anarchy plus a street-constable!-is everywhere the order of the day. Such was the history, from Baltic to Mediterranean, in Italy, France, Russia, Austria, from end to end of Europe, in those March days of 1848. [...] And so, then, there remained no King in Europe; no King except the Public Haranguer, haranguing on barrelhead, in leading article; or assembling with his like in the National Parliament. And for about four months all France, and to a great degree all Europe, rough-ridden by every species of delirium [...] was a weltering mob, presided over by M. de Lamartine at the Hotel-de-Ville [....] A sorrowful spectacle to men of reflection, during the time he lasted, that poor M. de Lamartine; with nothing in him but melodious wind and soft sowder [....] Sad enough: the most eloquent latest impersonation of Chaos-come-again; able to talk for itself, and declare persuasively that it is Cosmos! However, you have but to wait a little, in such cases; all balloons [...] must give up their gas in the pressure of things, and are collapsed in a repulsively flabby manner before long.” (Pp. 6-8.)

Who was it that kindled this universal revolution, the fuel for which was of course at hand?

“Students, young men of letters, advocates. newspaper writers, hot inexperienced enthusiasts, or fierce and justly bankrupt desperadoes [...]. Never till now did young men, and almost children, take such a command in human affairs. A changed time since the word Senior (Seigneur, or Elder) was first devised to signify lord or superior; – as in all languages of men we find it.... Looking more closely [...] you will find that the old has ceased to be venerable, and has begun to be contemptible; a foolish boy still, a boy without the graces, generosities and opulent strength of young boys [...]. This mad state of matters will of course before long allay itself, as it has everywhere begun to do; the ordinary necessities of men's daily existence cannot comport with it, and these; whatever else is cast aside, will go their way. Some remounting [...] of the old machine, under new colours and altered forms, will probably ensue soon in most countries: the old histrionic Kings will be admitted back under conditions, under Constitutions, with national Parliaments, or the like fashionable adjuncts; and everywhere the old daily life will try to begin again. But there is now no hope that such arrangements can be permanent [...]. In such baleful oscillation, afloat as amid raging bottomless eddies and conflicting sea-currents, not steadfast as on fixed foundations, must European Society continue swaying; now disastrously tumbling, then painfully adjusting itself, at ever shorter intervals, – till once the new rock-basis does come to light, and the weltering deluges of mutiny, and of need to mutiny, abate again!” (Pp. 8-10.)

So much for history, which even in this form offers the old world little comfort. Now for the moral.

“For universal Democracy, whatever we may think of it, is the inevitable fact of the days in which we live.” (P. 10.)

What is democracy? It must have a meaning, or it would not exist. It is all a matter, then, of finding the true meaning of democracy. If we succeed in this, we can deal with it; if not, we are lost. The February Revolution was “a universal Bankruptcy of Imposture; that may be the brief definition of it.” (P, 14.) Counterfeit and falsities, “shams,” “delusions,” “phantasms,” instead of real relationships and things, names that have lost all meaning, in a word, lying instead of truth has held sway in modern times. Individual and social divorce from these falsities and phantoms, that is the task of reform, and the necessity of putting an end to all sham and deceit is not to be gainsaid.

“Yet strange to many a man it may seem; and to many a solid Englishman, wholesomely digesting his pudding among what are called the cultivated classes, it seems strange exceedingly; a mad ignorant notion, quite heterodox, and big with mere ruin. He has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial, – what you in your iconoclast humour call shams, – all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting-on without them. Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams!” (P. 15.)

Now will democracy accomplish this necessary reform, this liberation from shams?

“Democracy, when it is organised by means of universal suffrage will itself accomplish the salutary universal change from Delusive to Real, from false to true, and make a new blessed world by and by!” (P. 17.)

Carlyle denies this. Indeed, he sees in general in democracy and in universal suffrage only a contagion of all nations by the superstitious English belief in the infallibility of parliamentary government. The crew of the ship that had lost its course round Cape Horn and, instead of keeping watch on wind and weather and using the sextant, voted on the course to be set, declaring the decision of the majority to be infallible – that is the universal suffrage that lays claim to steering the state. As for every individual, so for society it is just a matter of discovering the true regulations of the Universe, the everlasting laws of nature relative to the task in hand at each moment, and acting accordingly. Whoever reveals these eternal laws to us, him shall we follow, “were it the Russian Autocrat or Chartist Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury or Grand Lama.” But how do we discover these eternal, divine precepts! At all events universal suffrage, which gives each man a ballot paper and counts heads, is the worst method of doing so. The Universe is of a very exclusive nature and has ever disclosed its secrets but to a few elect, a small minority of wise and noble-minded alone. That is why no nation was ever able to exist on the basis of democracy. The creeks and Romans! We all know today that theirs were no democracies, that slavery was the basis of their states. It is quite superfluous to speak of the various French Republics. And the Model Republic of North America? It cannot yet even be said of the Americans that they form a nation or a state. The American population lives without a government; what is there constituted is anarchy plus a street-constable. What makes this condition possible is the great area of yet unbroken land and the respect brought over from England for the constable's baton. As the population grows, that too comes to an end.

“What great human soul, what great thought, what great noble thing that one could worship,or loyally admire, has America yet produced!” (P. 25.)

It has doubled its population every twenty years – voilia tout.

On this side of the Atlantic and on that, democracy is thus for ever impossible. The Universe itself is a monarchy and hierarchy. No nation in which the divine everlasting duty of directing and controlling the ignorant is not entrusted to the Noblest, with his select series of Nobler Ones, has the Kingdom of God, or corresponds to the eternal laws of nature.

Now we are also apprised of the secret, the origin and the necessity of modern democracy. It consists simply in the fact that the sham-noble has been raised up and consecrated by tradition or newly invented delusions.

And who is to discover the true precious stone with all its setting of smaller human jewels and pearls? Certainly not universal suffrage, for only the noble can discern the noble. And so Carlyle affirms that England still possesses many such nobles and “kings,” and on p. 38 he summons them to him.

We see the “noble” Carlyle proceed from a thoroughly pantheistic mode of thinking. The whole process of history is determined not by the development of the living masses themselves, naturally dependent on specific but in turn historically created changing conditions, it is determined by an eternal law of nature, unalterable for all time, from which it departs today and to which it returns tomorrow, and on the correct apprehension of which everything depends. This correct apprehension of the eternal law of nature is the eternal truth, everything else is false. With this mode of thinking, the real class conflicts, for all their variety at various periods, are completely resolved into the one great and eternal conflict, between those who have fathomed the eternal law of nature and act in keeping with it, the wise and the noble, and those who misunderstand it, distort it and work against it, the fools and the rogues. The historically produced distinction between classes thus becomes a natural distinction which itself must be acknowledged and revered as a part of the eternal law of nature, by bowing to nature's noble and wise: the cult of genius. The whole conception of the process of historical development is reduced to the shallow triviality of the lore of the Illuminati and the Freemasons of the previous century, to the simple morality we find in the Magic Flute and to an infinitely depraved and trivialised form of Saint-Simonism. And there of course we have the old question of who then should in fact rule, which is discussed at great length and with self-important shallowness and is finally answered to the effect that the noble, wise and knowledgeable should rule, which leads quite naturally to the conclusion that there would have to be a large amount, a very large amount of governing, and there could never be too much governing, for after all governing is the constant revelation and assertion of the law of nature vis-à-vis the masses. But how are the noble and the wise to be discovered? They are not revealed by any celestial miracle; they have to be looked for. And here the historical class distinctions which have been made into purely natural distinctions once more rear their heads. The noble man is noble because he is wise and knowledgeable. He will therefore have to be sought among the classes which have the monopoly of education – among the privileged classes, and it will be the same classes who will have to seek him out in their midst and to judge his claims to the rank of a noble and wise man. In so doing the privileged classes automatically become, if not precisely the noble and wise class, at least the “articulate” class; the oppressed classes are of course the “silent, inarticulate” and class rule is thereby sanctioned anew. All this highly indignant bluster turns out to be a thinly disguised acceptance of existing class rule whose sole grumble and complaint is that the bourgeoisie does not assign a position at the top of society to its unrecognised geniuses, and for highly practical reasons does not accede to the starry-eyed drivellings of these gentlemen. Carlyle incidentally provides us with striking examples of the way in which here too pompous cant becomes its opposite and the noble, knowledgeable and wise man is transformed in practice into a base, ignorant and foolish man.

Since for him everything depends on strong government, he turns upon the cry for liberation and emancipation with extreme indignation:

“Let us all be free of one another [...]. Free without bond or connexion except that of cash payment; fair day's wages for the fair day's work; determined by voluntary contract, and law of supply and demand: this is thought to be the true solution of all difficulties and injustices that have occurred between man and man. To rectify the relation that exists between two men, is there no method, then, but that of ending it!” (P. 29.)

This complete dissolution of all bonds, all relationships between men naturally reaches its climax in anarchy, the law of lawlessness, the condition in which the bond of bonds, the government, is completely cut to pieces. And this is what people in England and on the Continent alike are striving towards, yes, even in “staid Germany."

Carlyle blusters on like this for several pages, lumping together Red Republic, fraternité, Louis Blanc, etc., in a most disconcerting way with free trade, the abolition of the duty on corn, etc. (Cf pp. 29-42.) The destruction of the remnants of feudalism which are still preserved by tradition, the reduction of the state to what is unavoidably necessary and absolutely cheapest, the complete realisation of free competition by the bourgeoisie, are thus mixed up together and identified by Carlyle with the elimination of these same bourgeois relations, with the abolition of the conflict between capital and wage labour, with the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat. Brilliant return to the “Night of the Absolute” in which all cats are grey! Deep knowledge of the “knowledgeable man” who does not know the first thing about what is happening around him! Strange perspicacity which believes that with the abolition of feudalism or free competition, all relations between men are abolished! Unfathomable fathoming of the “eternal law of nature,” seriously believing that no more children will be born from the moment that the parents cease to go to the Mairie first to “bind” themselves in matrimony!

After this edifying example of a wisdom amounting to unmitigated ignorance, Carlyle goes on to demonstrate to us how high-principled nobility of character at once turns into undisguised baseness as soon as it descends from its heaven of sententious verbiage to the world of real relations.

“In all European countries, especially in England, one class of Captains and commanders of men, recognisabie as the beginning of a new, real and not imaginary Aristocracy, has already in some measure developed itself: the Captains of Industry; – happily the class who above all [...] are wanted in this time. [...] And surely, on the other hand, there is no lack of men needing to be commanded: the sad class of brother-men whom we have described as 'Hodge's emancipated horses', reduced to roving famine, this too has in all countries developed itself and, in fatal geometrical progression, is ever more developing itself, with a rapidity which alarms everyone. On this ground [...] it may be truly said, the Organisation of Labour [...] is the universal vital Problem of the world.” (Pp. 42, 43.)

Carlyle having thus vented all his virtuous fury time and time again in the first forty pages against selfishness, free competition, the abolition of the feudal bonds between man and man, supply and demand, laissez-faire, cotton-spinning, cash payment, etc., etc., we now suddenly find that the main exponents of all these shams, the industrial bourgeoisie, are not merely counted among the celebrated heroes and geniuses but even comprise the most indispensable part of these heroes, that the trump card in all his attacks on bourgeois relations and ideas is the apotheosis of bourgeois individuals. It appears yet odder that Carlyle, having discovered the commanders and the commanded of labour, in other words, a certain organisation of labour, nevertheless declares this organisation to be a great problem requiring solution. But one should not be deceived. It is not a question of the organisation of those workers who have been regimented. but of the organisation of those who are unregimented and captainless, and this Carlyle has reserved for himself. At the end of his pamphlet we suddenly see him in the role of the British Prime Minister in partibus, summoning together the three million Irish and other beggars, the able-bodied lackalls, nomadic or stationary, and the general assembly of British paupers, outside the workhouse and inside the workhouse, and “haranguing” them in a speech in which he first repeats to the lackalls everything that he has previously confided to the reader and then addresses the select company as follows:

“Vagrant Lackalls and Good-for-nothings, foolish most of you, criminal many of you, miserable all; the sight of you fills me with astonishment and despair. [...] Here are some three millions of you[...]: so many of you fallen sheer over into the abysses of open Beggary; and,fearful to think, every new unit that falls is loading so much more the chain that drags the others over. On the edge of the precipice hang uncounted millions; increasing, I am told, at the rate of 1,200 a-day [...] falling, falling one after the other; and the chain is getting ever heavier I...] and who at last will stand! What to do with you?... The others that still stand have their own difficulties, I can tell you!-But you, by imperfect energy and redundant appetite, by doing too little work and drinking too much beer, you [...] have proved that you cannot do it! [...] Know that, whoever may be 'sons of freedom', you for your part are not and cannot be such. Not 'free' you, ... you palpably are fallen captive ... you are of the nature of slaves, or if you prefer the word, of nomadic [...] and vagabond servants that can find no master.... Not as glorious unfortunate sons of freedom, but as recognised captives, as unfortunate fallen brothers requiring that I should command them, and if need were, control and compel them, can there henceforth be a relation between us.... Before Heaven and Earth, and God the Maker of us all, I declare it is a scandal to see such a life kept in you, by the sweat and heart's blood of your brothers; and that, if we cannot mend it, death were preferable!... Enlist in my Irish, my Scotch and English 'Regiments of the New Era'... ye poor wandering banditti; obey, work, suffer, abstain, as all of us have had to do.... Industrial Colonels, Workmasters, Taskmasters, Life-commanders, equitable as Rhadamanthus and inflexible as he: such [...] you do need; and such, you being once put under law as soldiers are, will be discoverable for you.... To each of you I will then say: Here is work for you; strike into it with manlike, soldierlike obedience and heartiness, according to the methods I here dictate, – wages follow for you without difficulty.... Refuse, shirk the heavy labour, disobey the rules, – I will admonish and endeavour to incite you; if in vain, I will flog you; if still in vain, I will at last shoot you.” (Pp. 46-55.)

The “New Era,” in which genius rules, is thus distinguished from the old era principally by the fact that the whip imagines it possesses genius. The genius Carlyle is distinguished from just any prison.

Cerberus or poor-law beadle by his virtuous indignation and the moral consciousness of flaying the paupers only in order to raise them to his level. We here observe the high-principled genius in his world-redeeming anger fantastically justifying and exaggerating the infamies of the bourgeoisie. If the English bourgeoisie equated paupers with criminals in order to create a deterrent to pauperism and brought into being the Poor Law of 1834, Carlyle accuses the paupers of high treason because pauperism generates pauperism. Just as previously the ruling class that had arisen in the course of history, the industrial bourgeoisie, was privy to genius simply by virtue of ruling, so now any oppressed class, the more deeply it is oppressed, the more is it excluded from genius and the more is it exposed to the raging fury of our unrecognised reformer. So it is here with the paupers.” But his morally noble wrath reaches its highest peak with regard to those who are absolutely vile and ignoble, the “scoundrels,” i.e. criminals. He treats of these in the pamphlet on Model Prisons.

This pamphlet is distinguished from the first only by a fury much greater, yet all the cheaper for being directed against those officially expelled from established society, against people behind bars; a fury which sheds even that little shame which the ordinary bourgeois still for decency's sake display. Just as in the first pamphlet Carlyle erects a complete hierarchy of Nobles and seeks out the Noblest of the Noble, so here he arranges an equally complete hierarchy of scoundrels and villains and exerts himself in hunting down the worst of the bad, the supreme scoundrel in England, for the exquisite pleasure of hanging him. Assuming he were to catch him and hang him; then another will be our Worst and must be hanged in turn, and then another again, until the turn of the Noble and then the More Noble is reached and finally no one is left but Carlyle, the Noblest, who as persecutor of scoundrels is at once the murderer of the Noble and has murdered what is noble even in the scoundrels; the Noblest of the Noble, who is suddenly transformed into the Vilest of Scoundrels and as such must hang himself. With that, all questions concerning government, state, the organisation of labour, and the hierarchy of the Noble would be resolved and the eternal law of nature realised at last.