Edward Carpenter was an English socialist, poet, philosopher and early gay rights activist. He is perhaps best known for his advocacy of sexual freedom for all people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Carpenter was born in 1844 into a comfortable middle-class family in London and attended Brighton College. He showed enough academic potential to earn a place at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity Hall, where he developed an interest in socialism – via the work of the Christian socialist theologian F. D. Maurice – and a growing awareness of his sexuality.
His path through academia led him to accept a fellowship at Trinity Hall, a position that required Carpenter to be ordained and adopt a clerical life at St. Edward’s Church, Cambridge. It was a comfortable lifestyle, but Carpenter grew increasingly dissatisfied and, inspired by his discovery of Walt Whitman’s poetry, which stirred a profound change in him, he left the clerical fellowship to “go and make my life with the mass of the people and the manual workers”.
Carpenter was repelled by the academic establishment and struck by a deep affinity with the plight of the working class. He felt strongly that his work should strive to affect social transformation.
After several years lecturing in Northern communities as part of the University Extension Movement (which was formed by academics who wished to widen access to education in deprived communities), Carpenter inherited a significant sum from his father and bought a 7-acre smallholding at Millthorpe, in the countryside near Sheffield.
He built a large country house on the land and established Millthorpe as a home for friends and lovers to live a simple life together. Over time this notion of a “simple life” became central to Carpenter’s philosophy, which preached the benefits of a communal back-to-the-land lifestyle.
Life at MIllthorpe embraced manual work on the land, sandal-making and vegetarianism, but Carpenter also found time to write. One of his most famous works, Towards Democracy, was published in 1883, the same year he arrived at Millthorpe. The book expressed Carpenter’s ideas about “spiritual democracy” in the form of a long poem.
Along with Whitman, Towards Democracy was influenced by the 700-verse Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, and Carpenter became increasingly interested in Hindu thought in the year that followed. In 1890 he even travelled to Sri Lanka and India to spend time with the Hindu teacher called Gnani. He went on to incorporate aspects of eastern spiritualism into his socialist thinking.
Gay rights advocate
Carpenter’s ideas about sexuality began to develop during his time at Millthorpe. After decades of repression, he became increasingly comfortable expressing his attraction to men and lived in an openly gay relationship with George Merrill – a working-class man who grew up in the slums of Sheffield – for almost 40 years, until Merrill’s death in 1928. Their relationship was the inspiration for E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice, which depicts a cross-class gay relationship. Tellingly, Maurice, written by Forster between 1913 and 1914, was first published posthumously in 1971.
Carpenter’s newfound confidence was such that he began to write on the subject of homosexuality. Homogenic Love, a privately published pamphlet that was set to be included in a collection, Love’s Coming-of-Age, until Oscar Wilde’s indecency trials forced a rethink. The Intermediate Sex followed in 1908 and remains a courageous and thoughtful contemplation of homosexuality and gender fluidity.
At a time when homosexuality was largely considered taboo, Carpenter spoke out against discrimination and advocated for equal rights. His work helped to lay the foundation for the modern gay rights movement.
Carpenter believed that everyone should be free to love whoever they want, regardless of gender. His lucid writing and passionate advocacy undoubtedly helped to challenge negative stereotypes and open people’s minds to the idea of love between two people of the same sex. Sadly, Carpenter’s book was a long way from reflecting mainstream attitudes at the time of its publication.
In his early writings, Carpenter advocated for a form of socialism based on principles of Christianity and democracy. However, over time Carpenter’s views evolved and he began to promote a more radical form of socialism that would lead to the abolition of private property and the state.
In his 1889 treatise on socialism, Civilization: Its Cause and Cure, Carpenter argued that the root cause of societal ills is the economic system itself. He believed that capitalism breeds greed and selfishness, leading to war, poverty and injustice. Only by transitioning to a socialist system, in which the means of production are owned by the people, might humanity hope to achieve true equality and prosperity. Ultimately, while he was affiliated with the Labour movement, Carpenter’s politics were more naturally aligned with anarchism than the economic principles that came to define the Labour Party.
In retrospect, Carpenter’s brand of utopian socialism seems impressively progressive, but by the 1930s it was increasingly out of sync with the British Labour movement and easily mocked. In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell pours scorn on “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer and sex maniac” in the Labour Party. It’s more than likely that he had Edward Carpenter in mind.
It’s easy to see why Orwell might have regarded Carpenter’s ‘spiritual socialism’ as remote and faintly laughable but it’s increasingly difficult to dismiss his concerns as crankish given that much of what he espoused anticipated the increasingly empowered green and animal rights politics of today. Carpenter argued that humans needed to relearn their place in the natural world, and that our treatment of animals was cruel and counterproductive. He also sounded a warning about the damaging impact of industrialisation on both human societies and the natural environment. More than a century later, some might say that it’s hard to argue.