Albert J. LaValley

Past and Present: Marx & Blake vs Carlyle & Nietzsche

The multidirectional quality which is dominant throughout Past and Present produces a constant danger of overreading or of oversimplifying it along one political party line. The book contains many elements that can be realized in varying and often contradictory direc-


tions. Although Past and Present suggests the moral reform of capitalism itself as a central line of reform, other proposals point to different goals. The application of the typology of religious experience to the process of labor, the sympathy with the poor, the deification of the laborer, the final embodiment of society as a this-worldly heaven, and even the cooperative sharing in industry (PP, 282) are elements which communist visionaries could appropriate, but the elements of socialism and fascism which the book also contains cannot be overlooked. The worship of the hero, the approval of forcible methods to attain his goals, and the use of the army as a model of government all suggest fascistic developments, while the demands for greater state control, especially of emigration and education, point to socialistic reforms. Past and Present points only vaguely and upon special occasions to specific remedial measures or programs. It does not present a system, for Carlyle’s occasional systematic bent, like Blake’s and Marx’s, is aimed to deliver man from bondage to systems. Its primary goal is a cleansing of vision, a restoration of selfhood by opening the doors of perception.

The writings of Carlyle, Blake, and Marx have similar structures and similar effects upon the reader, however much they may differ in depicting and placing their vision or denoting its application and emphasis. As Blake helped in locating the central drive of Carlyle’s book—the warfare of a host of limiting contraries and the final breakthrough into an apocalyptic vision of wholeness, the warfare of energetic contraries—Marx will help to clarify certain difficulties connected especially with the industrial, social, and economic problems of Past and Present. Just as Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy provided a quasi-philosophical illumination of themes in The French Revolution, so Marx’s early and more humanistic writings, The Economic and Philosophic


Manuscripts of 1844, [5] can offer an interesting means of assessing how far Carlyle has traveled from Blake and what peculiar problems he has encountered in that journey.

Marx’s book, like Nietzsche’s, is obviously more philosophical than its counterpart in Carlyle, but it is hardly one of the paper theorems against which Carlyle protests. Marx is basically expressing a pseudophilosophy, an inverted Hegelianism which is less essential to the real drive of his vision than helpful methodically as a tool in establishing relationships between terms. Like Carlyle (and Blake), he assails all abstractions and systems as unreal and limiting, failures to deal with reality and fact. He, like Carlyle, proclaims, “We proceed from an actual economic fact” (p. 69), and that fact is the same, though it is not given in Carlyle’s particularity. Carlyle begins with the idle workers, estranged and alienated from their work, their fellowmen, nature, and themselves, before the St. Ives Workhouse; Marx, with the condition of “estranged labor,” an economic state which is every bit as psychological as it is social. As he searches out the reasons why the worker feels outside his work, removed from the object of his work and from his own basic nature, Marx, like Carlyle, seems to be driving behind the false relationships set up between the worker and manager, the worker and his product, the manager and his money. Like Carlyle, he sees society as splitting apart in an ever-widening series of rifts, all launched by the initial dislocation of true human relationships, protests against the cash nexus, the use of labor as merely a means to success, is fascinated with the possibilities of increased production, and argues for a fairer distribution of economic wealth. Finally, again fundamentally like Carlyle, he argues for a return to

5. References subsequently in the text are to the English language edition published in Moscow in 1961.


true human relationships of spontaneity, trust, and fulfillment in work.

However “philosophic” the manuscripts may appear, there is always, as in Carlyle, the voice of the outraged revolutionary, muffled as he tries to gain some philosophical perspective, but struggling for a solution, aiming to secure release from bondage. Marx’s fascination with polarities and inversions, the overturning of categories, including his own great overturning of Hegelianism from the abstraction he felt it was to economic fact, testifies to a revolutionary impulse, a desire to shake the categories up into greater conflict and ultimately to drive behind them into fact for an apocalypse in which man is actually freed from any categories. Behind every general principle there is the outrage at horror. It is found, for instance, behind Marx’s attempt to break through the whole concept of political economy as it traditionally stands.

Political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labour by not considering the direct relationship between the worker (labour) and production. It is true that labour produces for the rich wonderful things—but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces—but for the worker hovels. It produces beauty—but for the worker deformity. (p. 71)

Thus, Marx’s work is as determined as Carlyle’s by prophetic denunciation of the limited man, the man reduced to an animal, whether through poverty or wealth. Marx’s poor are as bewildered as Carlyle’s enchanted men at the workhouse, and his wealthy are determined only by success, wealth, and cash—the accumulation of Chactaw Indian heads, as Carlyle would say. Like Carlyle too, Marx sees the arena of struggle as both individual and social, but even more than Carlyle he stresses


the social: man’s alienation from himself, society, and nature proceeds from his alienation from his work. Through a skillful manipulation of his terms, Marx never loses sight of the peculiarly individual nature of this problem, its deeply disturbing emotional implications, what it really feels like to be alienated. By locating the evil in private property itself, he carries his accusations much further than Carlyle; his state of transcendence offers a similar breakthrough of great extremity, the abolition of private property through communism and the overturning of the foundations of political economy itself. But at this stage Marx’s utopia, like Carlyle’s, is not yet reified: communism is an ultimate social goal, but it is primarily a psychological situation of restored selfhood, joy and spontaneity in work, love and trust in human relationships. In this early variety of communism, Marx proposes a return to nature, a restoration of man to his real roots, and the development of the total man. He envisions labor as primarily an aesthetic activity, with man as the artist working up inorganic nature, as he puts it, and giving it his imprint in order to form (as in Blake and Carlyle) the city of man and art. “Labour and man as the subject are the point of departure as well as the result of the movement” (p. 103); “What is to be avoided above all is the re-establishing of ‘Society’ as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual” (p. 105).

Marx clarifies and deepens a belief implicit in Carlyle: that the individual process manifests the social process and vice versa. His philosophical terms for relationships enable him to develop a sense of dynamics, of charges of meaning going from pole to pole, from individual to individual, and from individual to society—or, correspondingly, the failure of these charges, an atomizing or isolating of individuals from one another and of individuals from themselves and society, Carlyle’s


negative process. He is thus able to superimpose several levels of significance upon one another and to observe their mutual interaction: communism is naturalism is humanism; the individual is society; economics is aesthetic activity; and even history, so long a history of repression, can be truly a part of nature once it is returned to its roots. Blake achieves much the same density by means of his giant mythical forms and through the figure of Albion, fallen England and fallen man, and Carlyle attains a similar depth through the interplay of giant social forces and individual types.

More than Blake and Carlyle, Marx provides a sense of evolution at once a historical, economic, and social process and a dynamic movement of the mind, a psychological development. Within each individual the historical process is recapitulated. Marx’s philosophical approach demonstrates that once the primary relationship of worker to his work and the manager was perverted, the whole growth of man as a species and individual was stunted. The present condition, as in both Blake and Carlyle, is the result of a fall from some primal truth and it covers the sweep of history, but it recurs whether one is aware of it or not in each individual.

Like Blake and Carlyle, Marx aims, through an understanding of the “key to the return,” i.e. man’s relation to man, for the restoration of total man. Man will be restored to himself “as a social (i.e. human) being—a return become conscious, and accomplished within the entire wealth of previous development” (p. 102). Marx’s language here obviously derives from Hegel, but it is more psychological, aesthetic, and even industrial than metaphysical. He shows much the same fascination with industry and accelerated production as Carlyle does; through an increase in goods and with work that is spontaneous and self-fulfilling, both the self and the city of labor can expand. What has been accomplished


“through industry, even though in an estranged form, is true anthropological nature” and hence not to be denied but aufgeheben, assimilated. This is the same as Carlyle’s view of English labor as the silent, enduring reality beneath sham; Marx too can both condemn Plugson of Undershot and praise him and urge him onward.

In Blakean terms that would have offended the more puritan Carlyle, but which I have already pointed out were implicit in his idea of fact, Marx argues for a “sensuous appropriation for and by man of the human essence,” though not “in the sense of direct, one-sided gratification—merely in the sense of possessing or having” (p. 106). The end of society is to produce the full individual: “the rich man profoundly endowed with all the senses” (p. 109). And this is a progressive vision, wherein nature and history will be at one: “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present” (p. 108); “Need or enjoyment” will lose “their egotistical nature, and nature . . . its mere utility by use becoming human use” (p. 107). Instead of relationships of estrangement, need, use, and the cash nexus, the aesthetic relationships of trust, love, and humanity are used to present activity that is spontaneous, energetic, independent, and self-generating.

All of these points are helpful not only in charting the direction of Past and Present as prophecy and apocalypse, but also in discovering the confusions that impede Carlyle’s central direction. In their apocalyptic insistence on getting behind conventions and systems of political economy, Carlyle’s protests against all theories and theorists, radicals or Tories, conservatives or utilitarians aim in the same direction as Marx’s. Moreover, his unrelenting appeals to fact, God’s law, nature, the eternal core of the universe, and the like, which often


make him appear a mere Puritan prophet, are perhaps less platitudinous than they seem; they may harbor a similar drive to get beyond systems and capitalistic history as ordinarily understood. Their traditional tone may not be merely regressive but may imply a futuristic impulse, a desire to restore man to nature beyond history and systems, a nature that is at once original and progressive. If Carlyle’s goals are not so apocalyptic as Marx’s analyses, they at least express the yearning for an apocalypse.

Marx also shows that the ideas of the restored man, the universe as a garden and as laboring activity, arise from the vision of labor as man’s essential nature rather than from any religious reform that Carlyle may wish to inculcate. Carlyle, however, as we have noted, is ambivalent in his view of labor: he is often content to see it in the Christian and Calvinistic view of struggle, pain, duty, and anguish in a post-lapsarian world. He frequently pushes it back to the Garden of Eden, but usually only after Adam and Eve have fallen. This more stoic approach, with its Christian conventions, often yields to the fascination with labor as self-fulfilling activity, the sheer excitement of industrial progress, of the full and complete vision. By this point in his career, Carlyle’s distrust of the imagination and art is more severe than that of the early Marx, however, and he is even more reluctant to admit the aesthetic character of his picture of restored humanity. As the social chaos worsens around him, art seems, in his Puritan view, to be a superfluity, a luxury, even an immorality.

Carlyle’s apocalyptic drive is also hindered by his view of the feudal order of nature as the primal truth from which man has fallen. Marx goes beyond the limits of Carlyle’s vision, which favors feudalism because it suggests a realm of order and nature, the Middle Ages because Gurth knew to whom he belonged even if he


was only a serf, and his own peasant childhood for the security of place it provided in nature and society. Often Carlyle thinks only in these terms, seeking more cunning methods of binding as if he were attempting to bring feudalism over in its totality into the industrial age. His demand for a new aristocracy and his metaphorical plea for a drill sergeant to establish order both have feudal attitudes as their source and consequently clash against the main drive of Past and Present.

Connected with this idea of binding and aristocracy is another notion, the most reactionary idea of the book: Carlyle’s opposition to democracy and to extending the franchise. Even this has a positive as well as a negative side, however, as in Nietzsche, for both thinkers—and Marx would probably agree too—see democracy as an extension of the present chaos, a lowering of society, one more paper theorem, and, worst of all, an intensification of the present atomism of man and his social isolation from his fellowman. Carlyle and Nietzsche both fear the death of aristocracy, the self-fulfilled individual, the noblest man. But behind their hero worship there is a strong negative, even a pathological streak, which intensifies in the later writings of each. For both, the opposition to democracy and the gradual worship of the strong and mighty hero is, I believe, a deliberate desire to affront society at its most basic level. Neither Nietzsche nor Carlyle could be heroic in the sense he conceived, so their glorification of past ages and heroes and of the past of a race functioned as a compensation, an acting out of roles unavailable to them or to society. As society swirled in more turmoil, gradually being lowered by democracy as they saw it, both Carlyle and Nietzsche augmented their ideas of heroism so that they became more shocking and cruel. The added strength of their heroes and their chosen race or periods of history gave the writers an increased sense of power which they, un-


heeded by society, felt they would have lacked otherwise.

Carlyle’s ideas reveal a strong conservative streak—and often a prelude to a fascistic one—but frequently he quite frankly labels his conservatism as such, though he clearly sees its conflict with the intensity of his appeal to reform. Even after the primacy of labor and activity as a self-transforming principle has been granted, however, some of the conservative ideas have the possibility of breakthrough implicit in them. “Liberty requires new definitions” is conceived as a protest against extending the franchise, but it is also a yearning for some really original definition of liberty, one that will free man from the atomism of democracy itself. Similarly, the organizing of the masses by the drill sergeant is often not an actual suggestion (as it will become in the Latter-Day Pamphlets, a sad reversal from the days of Schiller, where the drill sergeant of the Stuttgart school impeded Schiller’s organic growth and rooted it out), but merely a metaphor designed to point toward the glittering possibility of transforming the world by work. Carlyle’s armies are meant not for killing, but for fighting against stupidity and chaos and for shivering mountains asunder. “Not as a bewildered bewildering mob; but as a firm regimented mass, with real captains over them, will these men march any more” (PP, 275). The intoxication with the power of work and its possibilities for transforming the earth and man is every bit as strong as the implied militarism in containing the chaos of a fragmented society. All of these statements probably have an origin that is quite complex; a variety of motivations, both reactionary and progressive, lies behind them. Carlyle yearns for a stable order, fears social chaos, and must call for a new compulsion to prevent the nether madness of the self from raging uncontrollably: “Leave me not to walk over precipices” (PP, 213)


He also responds to the biblical desire to force the judgment day, to unvest the forces of God, to rout the forces of destruction once and for all, to marshall the masses for Armageddon, all of which the drill sergeant will hasten. And, finally, he is positively fascinated with the energies of man released through new labor. But always, despite his faith in the power of the individual, he distrusts the individual and his imaginative freedom.

It is this distrust of the aesthetic activity of his own writing and vision, of the art that he despises but by which he lives, that drives Carlyle into extremes and confusion. He obliterates his own prophetic role and mission from the book because it would presumably court an intrusion upon the role of God. But, paradoxically, he himself appears far more godlike, presumptuous, and egotistic than either Blake or Marx. Blake, more aware than Carlyle of the pitfalls of egotism, pride, and solipsism that awaited the visionary in his lonely working out of his vision, knew the temptation to play the Urizenic deity he was seeking to rout but in the Orc cycle and Jerusalem exposed these pitfalls and temptations and overcame them. Carlyle—almost like the figure in Blake’s “A Poison Tree”—suppresses them and thus his hidden arrogance strikes us all the more fully.

At bottom, Carlyle is not certain whether his book is an artifact or a social program, visionary literature or self-help manual. His distrust of art, imagination, and aesthetic fulfillment leads him to advocate for its existence as a social tract in his attempts at the end to ground his utopia in real fact, with its beginning in real contemporary figures, to reify what was metaphorical in either the present or the future rather than primarily within the individual, to establish real captains of industry, and to project his vision into real time and outward upon society rather than within the individual.


Yet the basis of Past and Present calls for inner crisis and breakthrough and founds the new society on a positive self-transforming vision of labor in an industrial society.

A similar confusion pervades the book’s most radical suggestions. Taken literally, they, like Nietzsche’s statements about the need for war in Zarathustra, are horrifyingly fascistic, and Carlyle’s literalization of such notions whenever he opts for the actual realization of this vision, without the mediation of the aesthetic vision as prior, makes them seem filled with the lust for power. I shall cite only two of the most remarkable instances of this wobbling between metaphor and fact. From his picture of the soldier whom he finds as the one enduring thing from the centuries past, presumably a legacy from Cromwell’s days, Carlyle concludes that he must be the most real. In its suggestions of “whatever is, is right” and “might makes right” and “the strongest will prevail and is right,” the picture is frightening: “But he of the red coat, I say, is a success and no failure! He will veritably, if he gets orders, draw out a long sword and kill me. No mistake there. He is a fact and not a shadow” (PP, 261). But soon the soldier is purged of his horror as he is absorbed into the new laboring society and is converted into a metaphor for the warfare of contraries, the building of Jerusalem. Even though the literal meaning is clouded and disappears, a sense of its power and fact continues into the vision.

The Soldier is perhaps one of the most difficult things to realize; but Governments, had they not realized him, could not have existed: accordingly he is here. O Heavens, if we saw an army ninety-thousand strong, maintained and fully equipt, in continual real action and battle against Human Starvation, against Chaos, Necessity, Stupidity, and


our real “natural enemies,” what a business were it! (PP, 263)

Similarly, in a confusing description of the battlefield the idea of the soldier and the fight slide from metaphor to literal realization and back to metaphor again.

Man is created to fight; he is perhaps best of all definable as a born soldier; his life “a battle and a march,"” under the right General. It is forever indispensable for a man to fight: now with Necessity, with Barrenness, Scarcity . . . —now also with the hallucinations of his poor fellow Men. . . . All fighting . . . is the dusty conflict of strengths . . . —of Mights which do in the long-run, and forever will in this just Universe in the long-run mean Rights . . . . So will and must God’s justice and this only . . . ultimately prosper in all controversies and enterprises and battles whatsoever . . . . Blessed divine Influence, traceable even in the horror of Battlefields and garments rolled in blood: how it ennobles even the Battlefield; and, in place of a Chactaw Massacre, makes it a Field of Honour! A Battlefield too is great. Considered well, it is a kind of Quintessence of Labour; Labour distilled into its utmost concentration; the significance of years of it compressed into an hour. (PP, 190-91)

Internal and external battles are blended here, and the battle against the delusions of one’s fellowmen, Carlyle’s literary battle, is equated to a real war. Any image of self-perfection through the strife of contraries is muted in favor of a purely aggressive and militaristic will to power that claims to be the voice of God.

The final section of the book, however, clearly gains its power not by assertions of militaristic might but by the transformed voice of the prophet, especially in the


pressures it brings to the confrontation of the conflicting forces of society and the sense it conveys that in this apocalypse it has come into full vision. Yet Carlyle seems just as self-consciously absent as ever; the prophet has not grown with his book because he has been in possession of the unchanging truth from the beginning. The transformations are projected as the result of changes in other men and institutions, yet it seems impossible to deny that the completion of the book is an aesthetic one, the result of Carlyle’s earlier contemplation and analysis of the various conflicting forces. The work’s aesthetic quality is nowhere so heightened as in the last section, where, with great symbolic density, all of the earlier phrases, catchwords, slogans, symbols, parables, and images recur in a pell-mell fashion and are absorbed by the final vision of society, transformed, and resolved. Nowhere does the book—or, for that matter, any of Carlyle’s writings—so strongly point to its own personal linguistic world, the work of Carlyle’s own personal vision. If one opened the book first to these pages, its very words would be a mystery. Here the book itself may be said to affirm its strong internal drive as an artifact, but Carlyle tugs against that drive by reifying his metaphors and insistently looking to a very real future which he wishes he could hasten.

Both Blake and Marx seem to avoid this problem by keeping inner and outer planes in constant mutual interaction. Marx, who deals more carefully with social problems, works in such a manner that the sense of social conflicts he shares with Carlyle can be seen as constantly internalized as well as externalized. By guarding against the sheer objectification of those conflicts and the horrors of war and social dissolution they entail, he wards off a gap between vision and reality and a corresponding psychological gap, a potential for schizophrenia in the prophet. Nietzsche ultimately succumbs to


that gap, and Carlyle felt a predilection toward it. Nietzsche, with Blake, fights off the inhumanity of the prophet battling under the banner of a Urizenic deity, certainly the major temptation throughout Past and Present, by his trust in man, his humanity, his claims for man’s independence and self-divinity, and his belief in man’s ultimate power for remaking himself and society in perpetuum. Carlyle, more fearful of disorder, ultimately sanctions far more disorder by his irrational invocation of force and power in God’s name; the self-transforming quality of labor then becomes a savage struggle against enemies, ultimately the pure pursuit of power alone in a demonic and hostile universe that refuses to go the way its prophet charts.

Since Marx ultimately abandoned his own interests in the transformation of the self in favor of pure economic reform, it may seem that Blake alone escaped these problems of the relation of the reborn self to the reborn society. But this does not seem to be the case either, since for most of us, Blake remains a private mythology, Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom notwithstanding. That mythology may convey a strong sense of the imagination’s ability to unfetter man from a hostile universe, and its picture of man as his own tormentor may be convincing, but it is ultimately weak in its handling of those external and hostile pressures of the real world that present such multiple difficulties to the unifying power of the imagination and to the integrity of the self. Carlyle’s move toward a prophecy that embodies closer social analysis seems to me to be the correct one; it represents the need for the prophet, whether his inner vision is fulfilled as Blake’s is or his own transformations are undefined as Carlyle’s are, to come into contact with all the very real social, economic, and political forces, in all their complexity and multiplicity, that mold our contemporary society. Blake may make godlike radicals


of his readers, but he may leave them far more solipsistic than he was. Carlyle and Marx at least offer ways of bringing this vision to society itself, and their failure to solve this difficult problem of the relationship of the inner man to the outer, of inner harmony to public complexity and possible public harmony, is not their responsibility; their work is still going on, and most of us find ourselves involved in some form of compromise that is not a yielding but a quiet and careful quest. Carlyle will ultimately turn toward what I regard as a more realistic assessment of the role of selfhood in the modern world, but not until he has explored the futility of the heroic strain, indeed not until he has played it out fully. For the moment, he is split, finding the fulfillment of vision in either the past of his heroes or in an objectified future. He is taking a long look at the abyss of the present and raging against it.

SOURCE: LaValley, Albert J. Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern: Studies in Carlyle’s Prophetic Literature and Its Relation to Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, and Others (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), Part 2: London—Varieties of Social Prophecy, Chapter 4: Past and Present: Apocalypse and Full Vision, pp. 183-235, this excerpt pp. 220-235.

Note: I chose this title for this excerpt based on the conclusions I drew from it. To proceed from the most favorable to unfavorable based on what is presented here, it would be Marx —> Blake —> Nietzsche —> Carlyle. This might be reordered, e.g. reversing the last two, depending on whether one prioritizes engagement with society vs retreat into the self or projection of self onto society effacing the distinction. Carlyle’s 1843 Past and Present can be seen as an historical ideological turning point, when the amalgamated crisis of world view (religion vs naturalism) and industrial society yields a contradictory mix of tendencies which could proceed in the direction of socialism or fascism. It is at this moment when Engels selectively engages Carlyle. See the links below to Engels and also:

Demetz, Peter. Marx, Engels, and the Poets: Origins of Marxist Literary Criticism, revised and enlarged by the author and translated by Jeffrey L. Sammons (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), Chapter 2: Economics and Intellect: Thomas Carlyle, pp. 34-46. (German original, 1959.)

Here we see LaValley’s sensitive attention to detail and thematic and point-by-point comparison. What he loses in overall systematic formulation of the world views of these four figures and their ultimate schematization he gains in the respects demonstrated in this chapter. He bases his view of Marx’s development on the faulty supposition that Marx’s thought gravitates from ‘pseudophilosophy’ to economism (also losing his concern for the individual), missing the full dimension of what Marx’s inverted Hegelianism was all about. Marx would not have been opposed to democracy (depending on how it is conceived) as Nietzsche and Carlyle. LaValley recognizes, though, that “Neither Nietzsche nor Carlyle could be heroic” and that their domination-glorifying posture served as a ‘compensation’. Neither Blake nor Marx succumb to egotism. Whatever erroneous judgments or waffling can be found here, LaValley’s portrayal of this crucial ideological moment is invaluable.

— RD, 2 February 2019

Engels (& Borges) on Carlyle

Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”

On Bentham and Coleridge (Excerpts) by John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill & the Dualities: Bentham & Coleridge
— Commentary by Ralph Dumain

Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography

William Blake Study Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


The Condition of England: A Review of Past and Present, by Thomas Carlyle, London, 1843
by Frederick Engels

The Condition of England: I: The Eighteenth Century
by Frederick Engels

Review: Latter-Day Pamphlets, Edited by Thomas Carlyle—No. I, The Present Time, No. II, Model Prisons
by Karl Marx & Frederick Engels

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