"Chartism" and the Rhetoric of Partisanship (Chapter 4)

initial C arlyle's attempt to find a place for Chartism in the political reviews reveals the extent to which he conceived his discussion of the condition of England in terms of the analyses and solutions offered by the dominant political parties. He still hoped to awaken the Tories to their duty, but by publishing on his own he was free to write an essay "equally astonishing to Girondin Radicals, Donothing Aristocrat Conservatives, and Unbelieving Dilettante Whigs" (CL, 11:218; see 226, 10:104, 111, 117). Although the style of Chartism is distinctively Carlylean, Carlyle confined himself to the discourse of Parliament and the political reviews, the discourse of political economy rather than the ethical discourse of quasi-religious belief. Of course, Carlyle wanted to reshape and extend the boundaries of political discourse as well as to reshape the parties. If he had wanted to make the radicals mystics, he wanted to make the Tories radical (since the parties themselves were unstable at this period, undergoing major transformation, this aim was not as unrealistic as it may first appear). He was happy to find that the first notices of Chartism, in the Whig Morning Chronicle and the Tory Spectator, recognized his new Toryism, what the radical Tait's Edinburgh Review called "radical Toryism" (CL, 12:3-4; Seigel, 165) . From the beginning, Carlyle intended to attack the utilitarian principles embodied in reform legislation like the Poor Law of 1834, and Chartism continues an argument with Mill on this question that began in their correspondence concerning it. When Carlyle informed Mill that his essay would criticize the New Poor Law, Mill had defended the law by citing the improved condition of the working class.6 Carlyle replied that under present circumstances "it is a bitter mockery to talk of 'improvement"' (CL, 10: 15). Carlyle saw this as a key issue in the radical position, claiming, a year later, that Mill had refused to publish his essay unless he "would come to the conclusion that their situation was gradually improving!" (CL, 11: 117; see 12: 11). In Chartism, Carlyle adapted his reply to Mill to attack the "cruel mockery" of the principles underlying radical reform legislation (CME, 4:142). [95/96]

Yet although it attacks the utilitarians, Chartism employs the utilitarian mode of argument. For example, Carlyle argued that the condition of the working class was growing worse, rather than improving, because a growing labour pool and the displacement of labour by machinery were steadily reducing the value of labour and ruining living conditions (CME, 4:140). Instead of questioning the validity of classical economics, this argument uses one of its basic principles — the effect of the supply of labour on wages — to attack the arguments of the radicals. Similarly, Carlyle criticized the New Poor Law not because it dehumanized poor relief (he approved of several of the radicals' innovations, including centralized administration and the principle of encouraging work), but because it erroneously assumed that work was available for all able-bodied individuals, once again an issue of supply and demand. Although he did occasionally set aside the plain style of rational argument and made affective appeals to the reader, he used these appeals only to heighten his argument, not to undermine utilitarian discourse (e.g., CME, 4:141-42).

The rhetorical strategy of Chartism is most limiting when it comes to articulating solutions. While it effectively attacks laissez-faire, it is much less successful in envisioning the new social order. Indeed, because the critique of utilitarianism, which was implicit rather than explicit, overwhelms the discussion of the need for authority, reviewers tended to miss it. Focusing instead on Carlyle's more specific proposals for a national system of education to improve the condition of the working class and a national program for emigration to reduce the size of the labour pool, they were quick to criticize his solutions as vague, impractical, even unoriginal.' On the last count, at least, they were justified; both programs had been debated in Parliament for years. Carlyle's support for these programs-which he regarded as ways in which the government could assert its authority-demonstrates the extent to which the arguments of Chartism were dictated by the parameters of parliamentary debate. (When Carlyle repeated these proposals in Past and Present, he was to stress that they were only examples of what an authoritative government might attempt to do, not solutions in themselves.) His attraction to the old aristocracy, the existing Tory party, raises the same questions. He was not unaware that, as Lady Sydney Morgan pointed out, the same Tory aristocracy that had just a few months earlier staged the absurd Eglinton tournament [96/97] hardly seemed likely to be converted to radicalism (29). Chartism itself concludes with the complaint that instead of providing the leadership England needed, the aristocracy was busy preserving game (CL, 4:204).

Carlyle did not achieve a vision of the recovery of authority in Chartism because he confined himself to a discourse that he considered part of the problem. Chartism, like The French Revolution, criticizes the endless speech-making of parliaments, but rather than providing an alternative to parliamentary discourse it reinforces the terms of the parliamentary debate (see CME, 4: 16 8; CL, 11: 43). Furthermore, Carlyle only gets as far as "gird[ing]" himself "up for actual doing"; his discourse neither acts on the English people nor shows them how to act (CME, 4:190; see P. Rosenberg, 138). Like the discourse of the Girondins and radicals, the discourse of Chartism is effective in undermining the status quo but does not enable one to envision a new social order. No wonder that the Monthly Chronicle found Carlyle's "creed ... without hope — his labour without progression" (107).

Contents last modified 2001; reformatted 2006 & 2015