Edward Carpenter: socialist & LGBT+ rights pioneer 1844-1929

He also championed feminism, animal rights & environmentalism

London, UK – 1 September 2020


By Peter Tatchell

Edward Carpenter was a truly prophetic gay English author, poet, philosopher and humanitarian – a remarkable, trail-blazing nineteenth century thinker, with a huge breadth of ideas, from which we can still learn today.

Arguably the true pioneer of the LGBT+ rights movement in England, and a gay political theorist of worldwide significance, he lived openly and defiantly with his long-time partner George Merrill from the 1890s onwards. This was incredibly brave, given that homosexuality was a crime in those days, punishable by up to life imprisonment.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Carpenter wrote some the earliest essays and pamphlets advocating homosexual law reform, such as Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1894). He followed this up with a further volume that set out the case for the naturalness and acceptance of same-sex love – his ground-breaking 1908 book, The Intermediate Sex.

In a bid to challenge homophobic prejudice and ignorance, he did, however, somewhat over-romanticise LGBT+ people and espoused the now-discredited idea that we are a third sex that combines the best of male and female. He proposed that this mix of masculine and feminine gave LGBTs unique insights and a capacity to help lead humanity to a more enlightened and humane state of being.

He also spoke out enthusiastically for women’s rights; notably in his 1896 book, Love’s Coming of Age, which asserted that a just society must include the sexual and economic freedom of women.

Unlike many others, he understood the connection between sexism and heterosexism, although without using those more modern words. He viewed the struggles for women’s rights and LGBT+ rights as being closely intertwined, in that they both challenge straight male supremacy and chauvinism. This understanding was later resurrected by LGBT+ activists in the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s and the direct action LGBT+ group OutRage! in the 1990s.

Decades ahead of his time on many social issues, Carpenter advocated green socialism, women’s suffrage, contraception, curbs on pollution, sex education in schools, pacifism, animal rights, recycling, prison reform, worker’s control, self-sufficiency, vegetarianism, homosexual equality, naturism and free love.

Several of his books anticipated the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the later green and animal liberation movements.

His socialism was libertarian, decentralised, self-governing, cooperative and environmentalist, with a strong streak of anarchism, individualism and non-religious spiritualism. He argued that socialism was as much about the way we live our personal lives as about changing the economic, political, social and cultural systems.

We need to transform our hearts and minds before we can overturn the iniquities of capitalism, he suggested. Otherwise, he warned, we might end up replacing one tyranny and ugliness with another, which is, sadly, the way many socialist and communist revolutions have ended up.

Echoing the left-wing arts and crafts movement, which was often derided by the Marxists of the Social Democratic Federation, Carpenter’s vision of socialism included a cultural renaissance to promote access to the arts for everyone, not just the rich. He saw things of beauty as a way to uplift the human spirit.

Initially a member of the Social Democratic Federation (a forerunner of the Communist Party of Great Britain), he had disagreements with the SDF’s advocacy of revolutionary violence and its dismissal of ethical socialism. This prompted Carpenter to leave the SDF in 1884 and help found the Socialist League, where he worked closely with Eleanor Marx, William Morris and Edward Aveling.

In 1893, he joined with Kier Hardie, George Bernard Shaw and Ben Tillett to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the more radical forerunner of today’s Labour Party. He stuck with the left, despite the homophobic asides of some left-wingers, including Frederick Engels.

He struck up friendships with other influential figures such as Walt Whitman, E.M. Forster, Isadora Duncan, Emma Goldman Annie Besant, Havelock Ellis, Mahatma Gandhi and John Ruskin – and was highly regarded by them.

I recall meeting Fenner Brockway, the legendary ILP leader (1888-1988), when he was 95 years old. He spoke in support of my parliamentary candidature at a packed public meeting during the Bermondsey by-election in 1983. Fenner knew Carpenter personally and enthused about his trail-blazing ideas; praising him as one of the greatest thinkers of the last 100 years. True or not, Carpenter was undoubtedly a fount of progressive ideas across a vast range of issues and was decades ahead of his time. Bravo!

  • Recommended reading: Edward Carpenter – A life of liberty and love. By Sheila Rowbotham. Published by Verso Books