Rich Insight About the Poor
The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age
By Gertrude Himmelfarb New York: Alfred A. Knopf 595 pp. $25.00
Reviewed by Robert Nisbet
It is difficult to imagine a more highly qualified historian for the subject of such an important book as The Idea of Poverty. On Jeremy Bentham, Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Malthus, and others in 19th-century English thought, Gertrude Himmelfarb has shown herself as the finest of living students of this fertile age, certainly with respect to social and political ideas, and, remembering her book on Charles Darwin, to other ideas as well. This handsome work comes with both the rich substance and the graceful, evocative style we have come to expect from the author.
Style, using the word in its large sense, is helpful in enhancing the reader's grasp of substance; for, as the author notes, the idea of poverty is, for all its magnitude in Victorian writing, an often elusive, chameleonic idea. It is a hybrid, composed of the currents of social history on the one hand and intellectual history on the other. "If the social historian finds the 'idea' in the title obtrusive...the intellectual historian may object to an 'idea' that is vague and amorphous, more often implicit than explicit-not at all the respectable kind of idea he is accustomed to."
But all intrinsic difficulties in such an enterprise recognized, it suffices to say that Professor Himmelfarb brings it off with authority and dash. The period dealt with is roughly 1750-1850 (in a sequel, the author promises to address herself to the century following). The important characters include Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill among economists, all of the leading figures in the agitation leading up to and in the drafting of legislation for the poor, the prominent observers of the poor such as the remarkable Henry Mayhew, and, for good measure, the novelists and artists who took the lives of the poor for subject matter.
Few themes can illustrate as well as poverty the great difference between the 18th and 19th centuries. In the former century, poverty, although recognized in passing, took a back seat to riches as a major issue requiring social and historical analysis. Turgot, the Physiocrats (in whose economic doctrine nature and natural order are the source of all riches), Adam Smith, Voltaire, even Rousseau, made riches—the wealth of nations and of the groups within—the prime subject of inquiry. The French economist Turgot and Adam Smith saw the supreme problem to be that of creating a context of law and policy within which all could theoretically rise to affluence. Economic liberty was the key—liberty from church as well as state. With liberty in hand, a nation could reach levels of wealth unknown in all previous history. In their concentration upon the spread of riches, Smith and his disciples were forerunners to supply-siders of the present age.
This changed greatly in the 19th century. Beginning with Malthus’s fateful Essay on Population, published in 1798, the whole English horizon darkened. For the first time, poverty became more than just one of the many ills that progress had not, or not yet, taken care of. It became the whole backdrop for the consideration of progress, liberty, social justice, and other perspectives that had lighted up the intellectual world in the 18th century.
More and more, as we go through the century dealt with in The Idea of Poverty, we find poverty considered as the point of departure. For Thomas Carlyle, Mill, and a whole wave of social reformers and policymakers inspired by their ideas, poverty had ceased to be a scandal in the presence of riches; now riches were a scandal in the face of poverty. Increasingly the several types of poverty, ranging from that found in the worst slums of London all the way to what we today call relative deprivation, were the footings on which one built the edifice of social theory, Marx being the prize example here. But even Mill, that consummate philosopher of freedom, confessed that if it were a choice between liberty, with no alternative to the poverty afflicting the England of his day, and communism, with its loss of freedom, he would take the latter. And it was Mill who rhapsodized over the stationary state, one liberated from the torments of economic growth.
Adam Smith begins Professor Himmelfarb’s procession of the leading thinkers in England concerned with the rich and the poor. As might be expected, she reveals nicely the nuances and ambiguities that make it far more difficult to categorize this superlative mind than his common affinity with the free market alone would suggest. We observe that Smith preceded Marx in recognizing the alienation produced, not by capitalism or free enterprise for Smith, but by industrialism, and more specifically by division of labor, the aspect that would so depress Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. But we also perceive that in Smith this morbidity is not blown up into a whole philosophy of work. It is a pathology that w ill in the long run be terminated by the spread of capitalist initiative. “ For Smith political economy was not an end in itself but a means to an end, that end being the wealth and wellbeing, moral and m aterial/’ of the masses.
Jeremy Bentham is given acid portrait in a chapter “ An Odd Lot of Disciples,” and I am once again fortified in my long belief that Bentham was a monster, one in whose mind the forces of pure reason, absolute logic, and relentless deduction ran rampant over all of what Edmund Burke had called “ the inns and resting places” of the human spirit. In Bentham, rationalism becomes a devouring machine. Once turned loose in his hands, this machine ground into pulp family, neighborhood, religion, voluntary association, parliament, the jury system, the universities, and just about everything that more normal minds associate with civilization.
It was Adam Smith and his perspective of progress that Malthus was really reacting to in his Essay—Smith far more than the relatively minor William Godwin and his utopia. This we learn from Gertrude Himmelfarb, and her point is repeatedly proven, not merely in analysis of Smith’s and Malthus’s ideas but in the surrounding contexts of the age. Belief in progress, social and biological, was a cardinal part of the Victorian mind. Malthus demonstrated in the first edition of the Essay that such progress was made forever impossible by the terrible scourge of population growth—occasionally checked, but only by famine and disease. And this demonstration made Malthus the ape beneath the Victorian skin.
A great deal of thought, M arx’s included, went into efforts to repulse the Malthusian demon. There are many who argue to this moment that that demon has not yet been routed, all talk of rising standards of living to the contrary. As Himmelfarb stresses, Malthus became rather appalled himself by the demon he had created in the first edition. In successive editions he did his best to amplify suggestions that a rising morality would take care of the existing, deadly relation between procreation and abysmal poverty. But Malthus,“ even while delivering those (glad) tidings, was unable to throw off the ‘melancholy’ induced by the law of population.”
It is in part the dread preoccupation aroused by Malthus that accounts for the plethora of beliefs in the essential decay and rottenness of the social structure of the Victorian age. Those who have summarized the 19th century in England as the “age of good hope” have not looked deeply. The themes found in Thomas Love Peacock’s novels (forerunners to Aldous Huxley’s early works), the dour meditations on “mechanism” by Carlyle, the doubts of private enterprise in Mill, the widespread fear that in the railroads and machine-driven factories man had finally met his master, and that ultimate dirge, The City of Dreadful Night by James Thompson—all of these betoken a certain pathology of the human spirit in Victorian times that we neglected for a long time. Himmelfarb quite rightly sees this spiritual malaise in England as one of the prime causes of the obsession with poverty. What better and more dramatic demonstration of the evils resident in “ progress” than the kinds of moral degradation and spiritual horror that 19th-century writers Henry Mayhew and later Charles Booth could so quickly unfold in their works on the poor.