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

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 will 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 material," 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, Marx'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.

All students of public policy, par­ticularly policy toward the poor, the "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor," will profit from the chapters on the poor law and on what Himmelfarb rightly calls "the politicization of the poor" in her book. In her penetrating chapter on Chartism she illuminates the "paradox" of that movement: its failure in reception of its specific demands, and therefore its seeming bankruptcy, but its long-run success in generating "a self- consciousness among a large part of the working classes, a sense of common cause." The People's Charter, Himmel­farb concludes, proposed to bring the poor into history." This was as far as they could get from the lowly 'natural' status to which Malthus had relegated them." The poor law had effectively mobilized the working poor into some degree of collective consciousness, and the early generation of radicals in England had helped equally by "restor­ing laborers and paupers alike to a single society of the poor."

There are fascinating glimpses not only of the lives of the principals in the book but also of the kinds of folk they wrote and orated about. We are brought too into touch, often delightfully, with the popular culture of the age. Most of us are familiar enough with the attacks by many artists and intellectuals on the machine—William Blake's "Dark Satanic Mills." But it is nice to be reminded that even among poets there could be verses written, to appear on a tombstone in the cloister of Ely Cathedral, in which not only the railroad itself was accepted as apt metaphor for ascent to heaven, but also its three classes, first, second, and third, were taken over for the celestial journey: "All you who would to Glory ride/ Must come to Christ, in him abide/ In First and Second,/ and Third Class, Repentance, Faith, and Holiness…Come then poor Sinners, now's the time/ At any Station on the line."

It was in the second part of the age dealt with in The Idea of Poverty that the language of social class began to flourish. Until industrialism began to spread, and with it the language of assault and defense of the machine, class had simply a generic reference to kind and category. But lower class, middle class, and upper class were widely used by the middle of the 19th century. More and more, the traditional unities of family, parish, and village were subordinated in writing to the nomenclature of class. And, as is usually the case, public policy and plan­ning followed rhetoric. So does it in large measure to this day.

It is one of the delights of this book that the author goes to the fiction of the age. Almost all levels of society in England read voraciously. Their own in­terests in the poor around them were gratified by the interests not only of the greater novelists of the day, such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, but of the literally dozens of best-selling writers whose names have long since disappeared from lists. Dickens was in­deed popular, but not as popular, as Him­melfarb notes, as such forgotten wor­thies as Ainsworth, Reynolds, and J.F. Smith.

Not by any means were the poor always sentimentalized. One Ernest Jones, popular among poor as well as middle-class readers, wrote of workers more brutal to wives and children in their homes than were factory owners to them. In successive chapters on "the Newgate poor," "the Gothic poor," and "the Dickensian poor" Himmelfarb lights up, as has no one else to my per­sonal knowledge, the degree to which the poor, including the most repulsive, whether by ingrained villainy or the dreadful squalor and moral degradation of their lives, captivated the sense and sensibility of the vast reading public.

Dickens's place was of course unique. We read of a Nonconformist minister who told his flock: "There have been at work among us three great social agen­cies: the London City Mission, the novels of Mr. Dickens, and the cholera." And Daniel Webster probably didn't exag­gerate when, during Dickens's visit to America in 1842, he declaimed that Dickens had done more to "ameliorate the conditions of the English poor than all the statesmen Great Britain had sent to Parliament."

This is a book bountiful in fact, insight, and above all perspective. Rarely if ever has the Industrial Revolution been more interestingly presented through the windows of learning and imagination. That Gertrude Himmelfarb should be the one to acquaint us with the riches of understanding to be found in the literature of the age seems entirely proper, given the stylistic grace and evocativeness of her own writing.

Robert Nisbet is Albert Schweitzer Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent books are Twilight of Authority, History of the Idea of Progress, and Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary.