Spanning more than 80 years, from the 1840s to the 1920s, Edward Carpenter was involved in the rise of mass industrial trade unions, working-class political representation and the struggle for women’s equality. He pioneered gay and lesbian rights, utopian communes and the environmental movement. MANNY THAIN reviews a recent book by Sheila Rowbotham on his life and times.
Edward Carpenter: a life of liberty and love
By Sheila Rowbotham
Published by Verso, 2008, £24.99
THE BRITAIN OF this book was the pre-eminent world power, exploiting a vast empire, undergoing great industrial change. In the second half of the 19th century, British cities exploded in size, heaving with massive working-class districts. New industrial trade unions were flexing their muscles, the nascent labour movement a motley mix of socialist, anarchist and radical groups and individuals.
The struggle was on for political representation for working-class people, breaking away from the Liberal and Tory duopoly in parliament. Parties such as the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and Social Democratic Federation were set up, followed by the Labour Party. There were campaigns against colonial exploitation, for women’s equality, public services and nationalisation. Issues such as sex education, contraception and sexuality were being raised, environmentalism and conservation, too.
Edward Carpenter was there. He was involved in some of the earliest socialist groups, actively supporting workers in struggle. He was a leading proponent of utopian communes, a pioneer of the environmental movement. He was also something of a new-ager, into paganism and Eastern transcendentalism. He campaigned for women’s equality and produced groundbreaking material on homosexuality.