Engels on Carlyle’s Reactionary Romanticism

— Yesterday, or Today?

The aristocracy – and nowadays that also includes the middle classes – has exhausted itself; such ideas as it had, have been worked out and utilised to their ultimate logical limit, and its rule is approaching its end with giant strides. The Constitution is its work, and the immediate consequence of this work was that it entangled its creators in a mesh of institutions in which any free intellectual movement has been made impossible. The rule of public prejudice is everywhere the first consequence of so-called free political institutions, and in England, the politically freest country in Europe, this rule is stronger than anywhere else – except for North America, where public prejudice is legally acknowledged as a power in the state by lynch law. The Englishman crawls before public prejudice, he immolates himself to it daily – and the more liberal he is, the more humbly does he grovel in the dust before his idol. Public prejudice in “educated society” is however either of Tory or of Whig persuasion, or at best radical – and even that no longer has quite the odour of propriety. If you should go amongst educated Englishmen and say that you are Chartists or democrats – the balance of your mind will be doubted and your company fled. Or declare you do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and you are done for; if moreover you confess that you are atheists, the next day people will pretend not to know you. And when the independent Englishman for once – and this happens rarely enough – really begins to think and shakes off the fetters of prejudice he has absorbed with his mother’s milk, even then he has not the courage to speak out his convictions openly, even then he feigns an opinion before society that is at least tolerated, and is quite content if occasionally he can discuss his views with some like-minded person in private.


As I have said, we too are concerned with combating the lack of principle, the inner emptiness, the spiritual deadness, the untruthfulness of the age; we are waging a war to the death against all these things, just as Carlyle is, and there is a much greater probability that we shall succeed than that he will, because we know what we want. We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance, and this whole process of giving back is no more than simply the awakening of self-consciousness. We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and superhuman, and thereby get rid of untruthfulness, for the root of all untruth and Lying is the pretension of the human and the natural to be superhuman and supernatural. For that reason we have once and for all declared war on religion and religious ideas and care little whether we are called atheists or anything else. If however Carlyle’s pantheistic definition of atheism were correct, it is not we but our Christian opponents who would be the true atheists. We have no intention of attacking the “eternal inner Facts of the universe", on the contrary, we have for the first time truly substantiated them by proving their perpetuity and rescuing them from the omnipotent arbitrariness of an inherently selfcontradictory God. We have no intention of pronouncing “the world, man and his life a lie"; on the contrary, our Christian opponents are guilty of this act of immorality when they make the world and man dependent on the grace of a God who in reality was only created from the reflected image of man in the crude hyle of his own undeveloped consciousness. We have no intention whatever of doubting or despising the “revelation of history", for history is all and everything to us and we hold it more highly than any other previous philosophical trend, more highly than Hegel even, who after all used it only as a case against which to test his logical problem.

It is the other side that scorns history and disregards the development of mankind; it is the Christians again who, by putting forward a separate “History of the Kingdom of God” deny that real history has any inner substantiality and claim that this substantiality belongs exclusively to their otherworldly, abstract and, what is more, fictitious history; who, by asserting that the culmination of the human species is their Christ, make history attain an imaginary goal, interrupt it in midcourse and are now obliged, if only for the sake of consistency, to declare the following eighteen hundred years to be totally nonsensical and utterly meaningless. We lay claim to the meaning of history; but we see in history not the revelation of “God” but of man and only of man. We have no need, in order to see the splendour of the human character, in order to recognise the development of the human species through history, its irresistible progress, its evercertain victory over the unreason of the individual, its overcoming of all that is apparently supernatural, its hard but successful struggle against nature until the final achievement of free, human self-consciousness, the discernment of the unity of man and nature, and the independent creation – voluntarily and by its own effort – of a new world based on purely human and moral social relationships – in order to recognise all that in its greatness, we have no need first to summon up the abstraction of a “God” and to attribute to it everything beautiful, great, sublime and truly human; we do not need to follow this roundabout path, we do not need first to imprint the stamp of the “divine” on what is truly human, in order to be sure of its greatness and splendour. On the contrary, the “more divine", in other words, the more inhuman, something is, the less we shall be able to admire it. Only the human origin of the content of all religions still preserves for them here and there some claim to respect; only the consciousness that even the wildest superstition nevertheless has within it at bottom the eternal determinants of human nature, in however dislocated and distorted a form, only this awareness saves the history of religion, and particularly of the Middle Ages, from total rejection and eternal oblivion, which would otherwise certainly be the fate of these “godly” histories. The more “godly” they are, the more inhuman, the more bestial, and the “godly” Middle Ages did indeed produce the culmination of human bestiality, serfdom, jus primae noctis, etc. The godlessness of our age, of which Carlyle so much complains, is precisely its saturation with God. From this it also becomes clear why, above, I gave man as the solution to the riddle of the Sphinx. The question has previously always been: what is God? and German philosophy has answered the question in this sense: God is man. Man has only to understand himself, to take himself as the measure of all aspects of life, to judge according to his being, to organise the world in a truly human manner according to the demands of his own nature, and he will have solved the riddle of our time. Not in otherworldly, nonexistent regions, not beyond time and space, not with a “God” immanent in or opposed to the world, is the truth to be found, but much nearer, in man’s own breast. Man’s own substance is far more splendid and sublime than the imaginary substance of any conceivable “God,” who is after all only the more or less indistinct and distorted image of man himself. So when Carlyle follows Ben Jonson in saying, man has lost his soul and is only now beginning to notice the want of it, the right formulation would be: in religion man has lost his own substance, has alienated his humanity, and now that religion, through the progress of history, has begun to totter, he notices his emptiness and instability. But there is no other salvation for him, he cannot regain his humanity, his substance, other than by thoroughly overcoming all religious ideas and returning firmly and honestly, not to “God", but to himself.


So much for the inward, religious aspect of Carlyle’s standpoint. It serves as a point of departure for the assessment of the outward, politico-social aspect; Carlyle has still enough religion to remain in a state of unfreedom; pantheism still recognises something higher than man himself. Hence his longing for a “true aristocracy,” for “heroes”; as if these heroes could at best be more than men. If he had understood man as man in all his infinite complexity, he would not have conceived the idea of once more dividing mankind into two lots, sheep and goats, rulers and ruled, aristocrats and the rabble, lords and dolts, he would have seen the proper social function of talent not in ruling by force but in acting as a stimulant and taking the lead. The role of talent is to convince the masses of the truth of its ideas, and it will then have no need further to worry about their application, which will follow entirely of its own accord. Mankind is surely not passing through democracy to arrive back eventually at the point of departure.” What Carlyle says about democracy, incidentally, leaves little to be desired, if we discount what we have just been referring to, his lack of clarity about the goal, the purpose of modern democracy. Democracy, true enough, is only a transitional stage, though not towards a new, improved aristocracy, but towards real human freedom; just as the irreligiousness of the age will eventually lead to complete emancipation from everything that is religious, superhuman and supernatural, and not to its restoration.


SOURCE: Engels, Frederick. The Condition of England: A Review of Past and Present, by Thomas Carlyle, London, 1843 (January 1844), Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844. In: Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, 1970), pp. 444-468.


Borges on Carlyle

While one detractor of Emerson denigrated Emerson as an 'American Carlyle' manqué, Borges deems them total opposites. His admiration for Emerson is boundless. Carlyle was a rigid Calvinist malgre lui. Russell and Chesterton back up Borges' political assessment:

More important than Carlyle's religion is his political theory. His contemporaries did not understand it, but it can now be summed up in a single household word: Nazism.


SOURCE: "Prologue: Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men (1949)," in Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger; translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), pp. 413-418.


Supplementary Notes by Ralph Dumain

Note, inter alia, Engels' remarks on pantheism, the social character of British philosophy and its relation to the German. (It would be interesting to pursue variant politics of pantheism. In Germany alone I would begin with Heine's curious take on pantheism in Religion and Philosophy in Germany.) Engels' critique of Carlyle's aristocratic Romantic anti-capitalism is of key historical importance. Carlyle is remarkably observant of the realities of capitalist "progress", but from a mistaken metaphysical, moralistic and aristocratic perspective. Engels accepts Carlyle's empirical observations but directly attacks Carlyle's mysticism and all notions of the superhuman. On the contrary, for Engels "Man's own substance is far more splendid and sublime then the imaginary substance of any conceivable 'God'. . ." Engels also defends democracy, limited and transitory as it is, against Carlyle's anti-democratic perspective. In other words, to hell with irrationalism, pantheism, vitalism, and all the alternative mysticisms.

The following article marshals Engels' critique:

Landa, Ishay. "Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion," Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 18, no. 4, 2005, pp. 461-499.

Note also:

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.

A cursory glance reveals a minute inspection of Carlyle's attitude, motives, and character and comparison to the other figures mentioned, with the perspective that Carlyle really was a reactionary who never matured.

Disaffected artists and intellectuals tend to be sensitive to which way the wind is blowing, regardless of their specific social ties, and the 19th century is already replete with examples of sensibilities and premonitions of developing trends. There is no unique starting point, but the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment and modernity beginning in the late 18th century reveals this development in embryonic form. It is interesting to watch these Romantic tendencies unfold with the historical developments of the 19th century. Engels on Carlyle helps to illuminate forces already in play. In philosophy, the birth of Dilthey's hermeneutics and Lebensphilosophie exemplifies the widening split in the bourgeois mind. Already in 1851 Melville takes in all of these ideological contradictions in Moby Dick. Andy Blunden sees 1841 as the turning point in philosophy. Nietzsche can be seen to mark a later turning point in the history of ideas. Several authors see 1848 as the decisive sociopolitical turning point influencing whatever is to happen in the realm of ideas— Georg Lukács, C.L.R. James, J.W. Burrow (The Crisis of Reason, the logical prequel to H. Stuart Hughes' Consciousness and Society), Obviously, Carlyle predates corporatism by more than a half century. Still, it is important to research the pre-history of fascism in the perceived crisis of democracy and industrial society.

©2006 Ralph Dumain


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