The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

I. Carlyle

§ 9. Chartism

Before the lectures On Heroes were published, Carlyle threw off all historical disguise and entered the arena of practical, contemporary politics. This was with the little book, originally planned as a review article, entitled Chartism (end of 1839). Carlyle had begun life as a radical of the radicals; the disturbances of the Peterloo time had made a deep impression on him in his student years, and the Corn law agitation had stirred up his sympathies with the oppressed classes. In his early London days, he was heart and soul with the reform agitation. But, by the time he came to write on chartism, his radicalism had undergone a change. He was still convinced that a root-and-branch reform was urgent; but his faith in the nostrums of political radicalism was rapidly waning. In his antagonism to what he stigmatised as the “quackery” of the radicalism of his day, he appeared almost conservative; it only meant that his radicalism had become more radical than before. “I am not a Tory,” he said in Chartism, “no, but one of the deepest though perhaps the quietest of radicals.” The only radicalism, as it now seemed to him, which would avail against the ills and cankers of the day was the hand of the just, strong man. The salvation of the working-classes was not to be attained by political enfranchisement and the dicta of political economists, but by reverting to the conditions of the middle ages, when the labourer was still a serf. The freedom of the workingman was a delusion; it meant only freedom to be sucked out in the labour market, freedom to be a greater slave than he had ever been before. Carlyle’s warfare against political economy was part and parcel of his crusade against the scientific materialism of his time. The “dismal science” eliminated the factors of religion and morality from the relation of man to man, and established that relation on a scientific “profit and loss” basis; it preached that the business of each man was to get as large a share of the world’s goods as he could, at the expense—strictly regulated by laws of contract—of his fellow-man. Carlyle believed that the path marked out by such a science was the way to perdition and national ruin.