Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 32.

The Tower of Babel.

A glorious people vibrated again

The lightning of the nations; Liberty

From heart to heart, from tower to tower, o’er France,

Scattering contagious fire into the sky,

Gleamed. My soul spurned the chains of its dismay;

And in the rapid plumes of song

Clothed itself sublime and strong.

Sublime and strong? Alas! not so. An outcast, heartless, faithless, and embittered, I went forth from my prison. — But yet Louis Philippe had fallen! And as I whirled back to Babylon and want, discontent and discord, my heart was light, my breath came thick and fierce. — The incubus of France had fallen! and from land to land, like the Beacon-fire which leaped from peak to peak proclaiming Troy’s downfall, passed on the glare of burning idols, the crash of falling anarchies. Was I mad, sinful? Both — and yet neither. Was I mad and sinful, if on my return to my old haunts, amid the grasp of loving hands and the caresses of those who called me in their honest flattery a martyr and a hero — what things, as Carlyle says, men will fall down and worship in their extreme need! — was I mad and sinful, if daring hopes arose, and desperate words were spoken, and wild eyes read in wild eyes the thoughts they dare not utter? “Liberty has risen from the dead, and we too will be free!”

Yes, mad and sinful; therefore are we as we are. Yet God has forgiven us — perhaps so have those men whose forgiveness is alone worth having.

Liberty? And is that word a dream, a lie, the watchword only of rebellious fiends, as bigots say even now? Our forefathers spoke not so —

The shadow of her coming fell

On Saxon Alfred’s olive-tinctured brow.

Had not freedom, progressive, expanding, descending, been the glory and the strength of England? Were Magna Charta and the Habeas Corpus Act, Hampden’s resistance to ship-money, and the calm, righteous might of 1688 — were they all futilities and fallacies? Ever downwards, for seven hundred years, welling from the heaven-watered mountain peaks of wisdom, had spread the stream of liberty. The nobles had gained their charter from John; the middle classes from William of Orange: was not the time at hand, when from a queen, more gentle, charitable, upright, spotless, than had ever sat on the throne of England, the working masses in their turn should gain their Charter?

If it was given, the gift was hers: if it was demanded to the uttermost, the demand would be made, not on her, but on those into whose hands her power had passed, the avowed representatives neither of the Crown nor of the people, but of the very commercial class which was devouring us.

Such was our dream. Insane and wicked were the passions which accompanied it; insane and wicked were the means we chose; and God in his mercy to us, rather than to Mammon, triumphant in his iniquity, fattening his heart even now for a spiritual day of slaughter more fearful than any physical slaughter which we in our folly had prepared for him — God frustrated them.

We confess our sins. Shall the Chartist alone be excluded from the promise, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”?

And yet, were there no excuses for us? I do not say for myself — and yet three years of prison might be some excuse for a soured and harshened spirit — but I will not avail myself of the excuse; for there were men, stancher Chartists than ever I had been — men who had suffered not only imprisonment, but loss of health and loss of fortune; men whose influence with the workmen was far wider than my own, and whose temptations were therefore all the greater, who manfully and righteously kept themselves aloof from all those frantic schemes, and now reap their reward, in being acknowledged as the true leaders of the artizans, while the mere preachers of sedition are scattered to the winds.

But were there no excuses for the mass? Was there no excuse in the spirit with which the English upper classes regarded the continental revolutions? No excuse in the undisguised dislike, fear, contempt, which they expressed for that very sacred name of Liberty, which had been for ages the pride of England and her laws —

The old laws of England, they

Whose reverend heads with age are grey —

Children of a wiser day —

And whose solemn voice must be

Thine own echo, Liberty!

for which, according to the latest improvements, is now substituted a bureaucracy of despotic commissions? Shame upon those who sneered at the very name of her to whom they owed the wealth they idolize! who cry down liberty because God has given it to them in such priceless abundance, boundless as the sunshine and the air of heaven, that they are become unconscious of it as of the elements by which they live! Woe to those who despise the gift of God! Woe to those who have turned His grace into a cloak for tyranny; who, like the Jews of old, have trampled under foot His covenant at the very moment that they were asserting their exclusive right to it, and denying his all-embracing love!

And were there no excuses, too, in the very arguments which nineteen-twentieths of the public press used to deter us from following the example of the Continent? If there had been one word of sympathy with the deep wrongs of France, Germany, Italy, Hungary — one attempt to discriminate the righteous and God-inspired desire of freedom, from man’s furious and self-willed perversion of it, we would have listened to them. But, instead, what was the first, last, cardinal, crowning argument? —“The cost of sedition!” “Revolutions interfered with trade!” and therefore they were damnable! Interfere with the food and labour of the millions? The millions would take the responsibility of that upon themselves. If the party of order cares so much for the millions, why had they left them what they are? No: it was with the profits of the few that revolutions interfered; with the Divine right, not so much of kings, but of money-making. They hampered Mammon, the very fiend who is devouring the masses. The one end and aim of existence was, the maintenance of order — of peace and room to make money in. And therefore Louis’ spies might make France one great inquisition-hell; German princelets might sell their country piecemeal to French or Russian! the Hungarian constitution, almost the counterpart of our own, might be sacrificed at the will of an idiot or villain; Papal misgovernment might continue to render Rome a worse den of thieves than even Papal superstition could have made it without the addition of tyranny; but Order must be maintained, for how else could the few make money out of the labour of the many? These were their own arguments. Whether they were likely to conciliate the workman to the powers that be, by informing him that those powers were avowedly the priests of the very system which was crushing him, let the reader judge.

The maintenance of order — of the order of disorder — that was to be the new God before whom the working classes were to bow in spell-bound awe; an idol more despicable and empty than even that old divine right of tyrants, newly applied by some well-meaning but illogical personages, not merely as of old to hereditary sovereigns, but to Louis Philippes, usurers, upstarts — why not hereafter to demagogues? Blindfold and desperate bigots! who would actually thus, in the imbecility of terror, deify that very right of the physically strongest and cunningest, which, if anything, is antichrist itself. That argument against sedition, the workmen heard; and, recollecting 1688, went on their way, such as it was, unheeding.

One word more, even at the risk of offending many whom I should be very sorry to offend, and I leave this hateful discussion. Let it ever be remembered that the working classes considered themselves deceived, cajoled, by the passers of the Reform Bill; that they cherished — whether rightly or wrongly it is now too late to ask — a deep-rooted grudge against those who had, as they thought, made their hopes and passions a stepping-stone towards their own selfish ends. They were told to support the Reform Bill, not only on account of its intrinsic righteousness — which God forbid that I should deny — but because it was the first of a glorious line of steps towards their enfranchisement; and now the very men who told them this, talked peremptorily of “finality,” showed themselves the most dogged and careless of conservatives, and pooh-poohed away every attempt at further enlargement of the suffrage. They were told to support it as the remedy for their own social miseries; and behold those miseries were year by year becoming deeper, more wide-spread, more hopeless; their entreaties for help and mercy, in 1842, and at other times, had been lazily laid by unanswered; and almost the only practical efforts for their deliverance had been made by a Tory nobleman, the honoured and beloved Lord Ashley. They found that they had, in helping to pass the Reform Bill, only helped to give power to the two very classes who crushed them — the great labour kings, and the small shopkeepers; that they had blindly armed their oppressors with the additional weapon of an ever-increasing political majority. They had been told, too (let that never be forgotten), that in order to carry the Reform Bill, sedition itself was lawful; they had seen the master-manufacturers themselves give the signal for the plug-riots by stopping their mills. Their vanity, ferocity, sense of latent and fettered power, pride of numbers, and physical strength, had been nattered and pampered by those who now only talked of grape-shot and bayonets. They had heard the Reform Bill carried by the threats of men of rank and power, that “Manchester should march upon London.” Were their masters, then, to have a monopoly in sedition, as in everything else? What had been fair in order to compel the Reform Bill, must surely be fairer still to compel the fulfilment of Reform Bill pledges? And so, imitating the example of those whom they fancied had first used and then deserted them, they, in their madness, concocted a rebellion, not primarily against the laws and constitution of their land, but against Mammon — against that accursed system of competition, slavery of labour, absorption of the small capitalists by the large ones, and of the workman by all, which is, and was, and ever will be, their internecine foe. Silly and sanguinary enough were their schemes, God knows! and bootless enough had they succeeded; for nothing nourishes in the revolutionary atmosphere but that lowest embodiment of Mammon, “the black pool of Agio,” and its money-gamblers. But the battle remains still to be fought; the struggle is internecine; only no more with weapons of flesh and blood, but with a mightier weapon — with that association which is the true bane of Mammon — the embodiment of brotherhood and love.

We should have known that before the tenth of April? Most true, reader — but wrath is blindness. You too surely have read more wisdom than you have practised yet; seeing that you have your Bible, and perhaps, too, Mill’s “Political Economy.” Have you perused therein the priceless Chapter “On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes”? If not, let me give you the reference — vol. ii, p. 315, of the Second Edition. Read it, thou self-satisfied Mammon, and perpend; for it is both a prophecy and a doom!

 

But, the reader may ask, how did you, with your experience of the reason, honesty, moderation, to be expected of mobs, join in a plan which, if it had succeeded, must have let loose on those “who had” in London, the whole flood of those “who had not”?

The reader shall hear. My story may be instructive, as a type of the feelings of thousands beside me.

It was the night after I had returned from D——; sitting in Crossthwaite’s little room, I had heard with mingled anxiety and delight the plans of my friends. They were about to present a monster petition in favour of the Charter; to accompany it en masse to the door of the House of Commons; and if it was refused admittance — why, then, ulterior measures were the only hope. “And they will refuse it,” said Crossthwaite; “they’re going, I hear, to revive some old law or other, that forbids processions within such and such a distance of the House of Commons. Let them forbid! To carry arms, to go in public procession, to present petitions openly, instead of having them made a humbug of by being laid on the table unopened by some careless member — they’re our rights, and we’ll have them. There’s no use mincing the matter: it’s just like the old fable of the farmer and his wheat — if we want it reaped, we must reap it ourselves. Public opinion, and the pressure from without, are the only things which have carried any measure in England for the last twenty years. Neither Whigs nor Tories deny it: the governed govern their governors — that’s the ‘ordre du jour’ just now — and we’ll have our turn at it! We’ll give those House of Commons oligarchs — those tools of the squires and shopkeepers — we’ll give them a taste of pleasure from without, as shall make the bar of the house crack again. And then to be under arms, day and night, till the Charter’s granted.”

“And if it is refused?”

“Fight! that’s the word, and no other. There’s no other hope. No Charter — No social reforms! We must give them ourselves, for no one else will. Look there, and judge for yourself!”

He pulled a letter out from among his papers, and threw it across to me.

“What’s this?”

“That came while you were in gaol. There don’t want many words about it. We sent up a memorial to government about the army and police clothing. We told ’em how it was the lowest, most tyrannous, most ill-paid of all the branches of slop-making; how men took to it only when they were starved out of everything else. We entreated them to have mercy on us — entreated them to interfere between the merciless contractors and the poor wretches on whose flesh and blood contractors, sweaters, and colonels, were all fattening: and there’s the answer we got. Look at it; read it! Again and again I’ve been minded to placard it on the walls, that all the world might see the might and the mercies of the government. Read it! ‘Sorry to say that it is utterly out of the power of her Majesty’s —— s to interfere — as the question of wages rests entirely between the contractor and the workmen.’”

“He lies!” I said. “If it did, the workmen might put a pistol to the contractor’s head, and say —‘You shall not tempt the poor, needy, greedy, starving workers to their own destruction, and the destruction of their class; you shall not offer these murderous, poisonous prices. If we saw you offering our neighbour a glass of laudanum, we would stop you at all risks — and we will stop you now.’ No! no! John, the question don’t lie between workman and contractor, but between workman and contractor-plus-grape-and-bayonets!”

“Look again. There’s worse comes after that. ‘If government did interfere, it would not benefit the workman, as his rate of wages depends entirely on the amount of competition between the workmen themselves.’ Yes, my dear children, you must eat each other; we are far too fond parents to interfere with so delightful an amusement! Curse them — sleek, hard-hearted, impotent do-nothings! They confess themselves powerless against competition — powerless against the very devil that is destroying us, faster and faster every year! They can’t help us on a single point. They can’t check population; and if they could, they can’t get rid of the population which exists. They daren’t give us a comprehensive emigration scheme. They daren’t lift a finger to prevent gluts in the labour market. They daren’t interfere between slave and slave, between slave and tyrant. They are cowards, and like cowards they shall fall!”

“Ay — like cowards they shall fall!” I answered; and from that moment I was a rebel and a conspirator.

“And will the country join us?”

“The cities will; never mind the country. They are too weak to resist their own tyrants — and they are too weak to resist us. The country’s always drivelling in the background. A country-party’s sure to be a party of imbecile bigots. Nobody minds them.”

I laughed. “It always was so, John. When Christianity first spread, it was in the cities — till a pagan, a villager, got to mean a heathen for ever and ever.”

“And so it was in the French revolution; when Popery had died out of all the rest of France, the priests and the aristocrats still found their dupes in the remote provinces.”

“The sign of a dying system that, to be sure. Woe to Toryism and the Church of England, and everything else, when it gets to boasting that its stronghold is still the hearts of the agricultural poor. It is the cities, John, the cities, where the light dawns first — where man meets man, and spirit quickens spirit, and intercourse breeds knowledge, and knowledge sympathy, and sympathy enthusiasm, combination, power irresistible; while the agriculturists remain ignorant, selfish, weak, because they are isolated from each other. Let the country go. The towns shall win the Charter for England! And then for social reform, sanitary reform, ædile reform, cheap food, interchange of free labour, liberty, equality, and brotherhood for ever!”

Such was our Babel-tower, whose top should reach to heaven. To understand the allurement of that dream, you must have lain, like us, for years in darkness and the pit. You must have struggled for bread, for lodging, for cleanliness, for water, for education — all that makes life worth living for — and found them becoming, year by year, more hopelessly impossible, if not to yourself, yet still to the millions less gifted than yourself; you must have sat in darkness and the shadow of death, till you are ready to welcome any ray of light, even though it should be the glare of a volcano.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44