It’s hard to say exactly what this book is about. The title is taken from the Chartist movement. The book at first seems to be a discussion of the merits of Chartism, the major principles of which are (taken from Wikipedia):
- A VOTE for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
- THE BALLOT. – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
- NO PROPERTY QUALIFICATION for Members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
- PAYMENT OF MEMBERS, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.
- EQUAL CONSTITUENCIES, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
- ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
But, the book isn’t really about this movement. For Carlyle, Chartism is just another name for a phenomenon (“Reform-Bills, French Revolutions, Louis-Philippes, Chartisms, Revolts of Three Days, and what not”) that continues to re-occur. The purpose of the book is to explain the origin and motivation of these motivations and to describe a system under which they will no longer take place.
The question then becomes whether or not the working people are in such dire straits that they need to resort to revolution/rebellion/chartisms, or whether these movements are unjustifiable. Carlyle spend a chapter discussing the worthlessness of statistics as far as answering this question.
Then we get to the meat of the book, in which we get some basic laws and truths of nature. The first:
He that will not work, and save according to his means, let him go elsewhither; let him know that for him the Law has made no soft provision, but a hard and stern one; that by the Law of Nature, which the Law of England would vainly contend against in the long-run, he is doomed either to quit these habits, or miserably be extruded from this Earth, which is made on principles different from these. He that will not work according to his faculty, let him perish according to his necessity: there is no law juster than that.
Laws that recognize this are a step in the right direction, but they are only half-measures (on their own they are insufficient):
We define the harsh New Poor-Law to be withal a 'protection of the thrifty labourer against the thriftless and dissolute;' a thing inexpressibly important; a half-result, detestable, if you will, when looked upon as the whole result; yet without which the whole result is forever unattainable. Let wastefulness, idleness, drunkenness, improvidence take the fate which God has appointed them; that their opposites may also have a chance for their fate.
These movements, these chartisms are often veiled as ways for the poor to earn a “living wage or some such indefinable nonsense. For Carlyle, people do not get agitated because of poverty, the only thing that makes a man rebel/revolt is injustice. If he believes his treatment is unjust, lookout!
For, in truth, the claim of the poor labourer is something quite other than that ' Statute of the Forty- third of Elizabeth' will ever fulfill for him. Not to be supported by roundsmen systems, by never so liberal parish doles, or lodged in free and easy workhouses when distress overtakes him ; not for this, however in words he may clamour for it; not for this, but for something far different does the heart of him struggle. It is ' for justice' that he struggles; for just wages,'—not in money alone! An ever-toiling inferior, he would fain (though as yet he knows it not) find for himself a superior that should lovingly and wisely govern : is not that too the 'just wages' of his service done ? It is for a manlike place and relation, in this world where he sees himself a man, that he struggles. [emphasis mine]. At bottom may we not say, it is even for this, That guidance and government, which he cannot give himself, which in our so complex world he can no longer do without, might be afforded him ? The thing he struggles for is one which no Forty-third of Elizabeth is in any condition to furnish him, to put him on the road towards getting. Let him quit the Forty-third of Elizabeth altogether; and rejoice that the Poor-Law Amendment Act has, even by harsh methods and against his own will, forced him away from it. That was a broken reed to lean on, if there ever was one; and did but run into his lamed right- hand. Let him cast it far from him, that broken reed, and look to quite the opposite point of the heavens for help. His unlamed right-hand, with the cunning industry that lies in it, is not this defined to be 'the sceptre of our Planet' ? He that can work is a born king of something ; is in communion with Nature, is master of a thing or things, is a priest and king of Nature so far. He that can work at nothing is but a usurping king, be his trappings what they may ; he is the born slave of all things. Let a man honour his craftmanship, his can-do; and know that his rights of man have no concern at all with the Forty-third of Elizabeth.
Or, more succinctly:
It is not what a man outwardly has or wants that constitutes the happiness or misery of him. Nakedness, hunger, distress of all kinds, death itself have been cheerfully suffered, when the heart was right. It is the feeling of injustice that is insupportable to all men. . . .
Now, of course, the next question is:
What is injustice? Another name for disorder, for unveracity, unreality . . . ” and order is: “that so meum may be mine, tuum thine, and each party standing clear on his own basis, order be restored.
Unjustice for Carlyle is disorder and lies. All the chartisms of the world stem from these sources (disorder and lies). Just to drive the point home:
Disorder, insane by the nature of it, is the hatefullest of things to man, who lives by sanity and order, so injustice is the worst evil, some call it the only evil, in this world.”
Other conditions are necessary for chartisms/rebellions. Carlyle pays particular attention to might (i.e. force). “But indeed the rights of man, as has been not unaptly remarked, are little worth ascertaining in comparison to the mights of man,—to what portion of his rights he has any chance of being able to make good!“
For Carlyle rights are complicated and two-pronged:
All men are justified in demanding and searching for their rights; moreover, justified or not, they will do it: by Chartisms, Radicalisms, French Revolutions, or whatsoever methods they have. Rights surely are right: on the other hand, this other saying is most true, 'Use every man according to his rights, and who shall escape whipping!' These two things, we say, are both true; and both are essential to make up the whole truth. All good men know always and feel, each for himself, that the one is not less true than the other; and act accordingly. The contradiction is of the surface only; as in opposite sides of the same fact: universal in this dualism of a life we have. Between these two extremes, Society and all human things must fluctuatingly adjust themselves the best they can.
If people are demanding these rights, then they must be governed:
in brief, a government of the under classes by the upper on a principle of Let alone is no longer possible in England in these days. This is the one inference inclusive of all. For there can be no acting or doing of any kind, till it be, recognised that there is a thing to be done; the thing once recognised, doing in a thousand shapes becomes possible. The Working Classes cannot any longer go on without government; without being actually guided and governed; England cannot subsist in peace till, by some means or other, some guidance and government for them is found.
If order will solve our problems, where does order come from? According to Carlyle the universe has provisioned with all we need to achieve order:
Surely of all 'rights of man,' this right of the ignorant man to be guided by the wiser, to be, gently or forcibly, held in the true course by him, is the indisputablest. Nature herself ordains it from the first; Society struggles towards perfection by enforcing and accomplishing it more and more. If Freedom have any meaning, it means enjoyment of this right, wherein all other rights are enjoyed. It is a sacred right and duty, on both sides; and the summary of all social duties whatsoever between the two.
Democracy doesn’t work, it is not orderly. What is orderly is government by the ablest:
In Rome and Athens, as elsewhere, if we look practically, we shall find that it was not by loud voting and debating of many, but by wise insight and ordering of a few that the work was done. So is it ever, so will it ever be. . . . Democracy, take it where you will in our Europe, is found but as a regulated method of rebellion and abrogation; it abrogates the old arrangement of things; and leaves, as we say, zero and vacuity for the institution of a new arrangement.“
I have written a bunch on anti-elitism and Carlyle helps clarify the points I’ve been trying to make. Elitism is great, when the elites are great and they will be great when they are chosen appropriately and given responsibility for their actions:
A corporation of the Best, of the Bravest. To this joyfully, with heart-loyalty, do men pay the half of their substance, to equip and decorate their Best, to lodge them in palaces, set them high over all. For it is of the nature of men, in every time, to honour and love their Best; to know no limits in honouring them. Whatsoever Aristocracy is still a corporation of the Best, is safe from all peril, and the land it rules is a safe and blessed land. Whatsoever Aristocracy does not even attempt to be that, but only to wear the clothes of that, is not safe ; neither is the land it rules in safe I For this now is our sad lot, that we must find a real Aristocracy, that an apparent Aristocracy, how plausible soever, has become inadequate for us. One way or other, the world will absolutely need to be governed; if not by this class of men, then by that. [my emphasis]. One can predict, without gift of prophecy, that the era of routine is nearly ended. Wisdom and faculty alone, faithful, valiant, ever-zealous, not pleasant but painful, continual effort, will suffice. Cost what it may, by one means or another, the toiling multitudes of this perplexed, over-crowded Europe, must and will find governors. 'Laissez-faire, Leave them to do ?' The thing they will do, if so left, is too frightful to think of! It has been done once, in sight of the whole earth, in these generations : can it need to be done a second time ?“
This orderly type of government would get us as close to utopia as possible:
Intellect, insight, is the discernment of order in disorder; it is the discovery of the will of Nature, of God's will; the beginning of the capability to walk according to that. With perfect intellect, were such possible without perfect morality, the world would be perfect; its efforts unerringly correct, its results continually successful, its condition faultless.