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D. H. Lawrence’s Critique of Modernity,
Part 2

2,881 words

Part 2 of 2

2. Industrialism, the Midlands, and Lawrence’s “Socialism”

Lawrence encountered the effects of modernity—especially the Industrial Revolution—directly in his native Midlands. He saw how if affected people, generally for the worse. Again and again he sets his stories against the backdrop of the collieries. He saw the miners become increasingly dehumanized. Working in the earth, they become cut off from it and from themselves. They lived, but they did not flourish. Lawrence’s remarks about the Industrial Revolution, capitalism, and the condition of the miners put him quite close to the thought of Marx and other socialist writers. In fact, it would not be at all unreasonable to claim Lawrence as a kind of socialist. However, as we shall see, few socialists would wish to do so!

Though The Rainbow can hardly be thought of as a novel about the Industrial Revolution, nevertheless that is its backdrop. The novel is the saga of several generations of an English family, the Brangwens, following them from the pre-industrial to the industrial age. A pastoral mood dominates throughout most of the work, and one feels a vivid sense of connection to nature and to place. Little of great significance really happens to the Brangwen family until one gets to the present day, and the story of Ursula Brangwen. Up to that point their lives are as cyclical and as repetitive as the seasons, but what we feel in reading about them is great peace, not boredom. As the narrative moves into the thick of the industrial age, it becomes populated with characters— Ursula among them—who have lost the sense of connection to the soil and to traditional culture that was the mainstay of their forebears’ existence. Ursula and her lover, Skrebensky, are lost souls, in search of some connection somewhere. Skrebensky betrays the search, and flees from Ursula. (Ursula continues it, though we must read the novel’s sequel, Women in Love, to see where it takes her.)

In his essay “Nottingham and the Mining Countryside,” Lawrence writes,

In my father’s generation, with the old wild England behind them, and the lack of education, the man was not beaten down. But in my generation, the boys I went to school with, colliers now, have all been beaten down, what with the din-din-dinning of Board Schools, books, cinemas, clergymen, the whole national and human consciousness hammering on the fact of material prosperity above all things.

How were these mean beaten down? Lawrence answers in the same essay that “the industrial problem arises from the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition.” Human concerns, in other words, are narrowed to economics.

It is unsurprising to see people concerned solely with making a living if they face starvation. But, for Lawrence, what is queer about modern Europeans—including the working classes—is that actual starvation is seldom a danger for any man, yet they behave as if it is. Indeed, he begins his lengthy philosophical essay “The Education of the People” with exactly this issue: “Curious that when the toothless old sphinx croaks ‘How are you going to get your living?’ our knees give way beneath us. . . . The fear of penury is very curious, in our age. In really poor ages men did not fear penury. They didn’t care. But we are abjectly terrified of it. Why?” Whoever has wits (and guts), Lawrence points out, doesn’t starve, nor does he care about starving. But today the only thing that seems to really move people is a threat to their safety and security. We are all, it seems, Nietzsche’s Last Man.

Lawrence’s analysis of what has “beaten down” modern working men places him close to Karl Marx. Clearly, Lawrence believes that modern workers exist in the condition Marx referred to as “wage slavery.” Under capitalism, it becomes less and less feasible to be self-sustaining or self-employed and workers must sell their labor to bosses, who pay the workers only a fraction of the profit produced by their hard work. Although workers are de jure free to leave their jobs, they are de facto enslaved because the same conditions of economic exploitation will be found on the next job, and the next. In his essay “Is England Still a Man’s Country?” Lawrence writes “The insuperable difficulty to modern man is economic bondage. Slavery!” Lawrence would probably also have found Marx’s theory of “alienation” under capitalism quite congenial. (That theory is to be found in the so-called “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” of 1844, which were not published until 1932.)  Lawrence would probably have agreed with Marx’s idea that capitalist relations of production alienate us from our “species being” by making it nearly impossible for us to realize ourselves and find fulfillment through work.

We know that Lawrence went through a period in his youth when he certainly thought of his himself as a socialist. In 1905, Lawrence met Alice Dax, a socialist and early feminist. Dax introduced him to a circle of socialist thinkers active in the Midlands, and also to her book collection, which included works by authors like John Ruskin, William Morris, and Edward Carpenter. Later, of course, Lawrence would make the acquaintance of an even more eminent group of “progressive” thinkers, including Bertrand Russell. On February 12, 1915 Lawrence wrote to Russell:

We must provide another standard than the pecuniary standard, to measure all daily life by. We must be free of the economic question. Economic life must be the means to actual life. . . . There must be a revolution in the state. . . . The land, the industries, the means of communication and the public amusements shall all be nationalized. Every man shall have his wage till the day of his death, whether he work or not, so long as he works when he is fit. Every woman shall have her wage till the day of her death, whether she works or not, so long as she works when she is fit—keeps her house or rears her children.

Then, and only then, shall we be able to begin living.

Throughout his career, Lawrence would again and again toy with the sort of thing he proposes here: a political solution to the problem of modernity. Ultimately, as we shall see, he came to completely reject the final assertion quoted above: that only when the right political action has been taken can we “begin living.” Ultimately, Lawrence realized that politics is not the answer; that the hope lies in the very personal quest of private individuals. (But more on this later.)

Lawrence’s “socialism” was always of the utopian variety, never the “scientific” sort advanced by Marxists. In so far as there are affinities with Marx’s thought, they are affinities—as I have already pointed out—with the early, “humanistic” Marx, not the Marx of Das Kapital. In addition, Lawrence eventually came to combine socialist ideas with a form of elitism, and an emphasis on ties to blood and soil. This, as many others have pointed out, puts him closer to fascism and national socialism than to Marx or to the left-wing progressives of Alice Dax’s circle. (However, Lawrence’s occasional flashes of Luddism and his vigorous critique of modern science distance him from both the Communists and the Nazis.)

Lawrence agrees with the Marxists in deploring the perniciousness of class warfare under capitalism. However, he rejects the Marxist (and, for that matter, national socialist) ideal of the “classless society.” For Lawrence, the problem with modern, industrial civilization is not that it has classes, but that the classes have lost the ability to relate to each other in a healthy way. In “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” he writes, “Class-hate and class-consciousness are only a sign that the old togetherness, the old blood-warmth has collapsed, and every man is really aware of himself in apartness. Then we have these hostile groupings of men for the sake of opposition, strife. Civil strife becomes a necessary condition of self-assertion.” For Lawrence, true community depends upon shared blood ties, shared history, and closeness to the soil. In traditional, aristocratic societies relations between the classes were never so bad as they are under capitalism, for all individuals felt a kinship for one another based on an intuition of ethnic and cultural ties. But in the modern period, our awareness of these ties has been destroyed by what Lawrence calls in the same essay “individualism,” by which he means something like “atomization.” People have lost the common tie to the earth; they have forgotten their history and their folk culture. They exist in a state of apartness and mutual distrust. Industrialization and wage slavery have exacerbated this condition, pitting the new classes of bosses and workers, bourgeoisie and proletariat, against each other. The irresponsible exploitation of the earth, and of human beings, by business is only possible because these ties have been broken. This breakdown was furthered by industrialization and capitalism, but the deeper cause is what we have seen Lawrence denouncing as “idealism”: the tendency to live according to mental conceptions, ideals, and grand designs, rather than according to our “natural” and intuitive blood-consciousness, and blood-warmth.

In a late essay, “Men Must Work and Women as Well,” Lawrence writes,

Now we see the trend of our civilization, in terms of human feeing and human relation. It is, and there is no denying it, towards a greater and greater abstraction from the physical, towards a further and further physical separateness between men and women, and between individual and individual. . . . Recoil, recoil, recoil. Revulsion, revulsion, revulsion. Repulsion, repulsion, repulsion. This is the rhythm that underlies our social activity, everywhere, with regard to physical existence.

Lawrence rejects the ideal of the classless society, but he also rejects class division as it has been hitherto established in history. And he rejects traditional, hereditary aristocracy in favor of a quasi-Nietzschean “aristocracy of the spirit.” However, like much else in his social thought, Lawrence leaves it completely vague how such an aristocracy could be established and maintained. He certainly objects to the plight of the proletarians, but unlike the Marxists he does not romanticize them. In fact, Lawrence argues that in modern society virtually everyone has become “proletarian,” or proletarianized. In John Thomas and Lady Jane (the second of three versions of the novel that would become Lady Chatterley’s Lover) Connie Chatterley hears the following from the musician Archie Blood:

The proletariat is a state of mind, it’s not really a class at all. You’re proletarian when you are cold like a crab, greedy like a crab, lustful with the rickety egoism of a crab, and shambling like a crab. The people in this house are all proletarian. The Duchess of Toadstool is an arch proletarian. . . . The proletarian haves against the proletarian have-nots will destroy the human world entirely.

In other words, capitalism has turned us all into people whose lives revolve around work and money, through which we hope to gain greater security and greater buying power. When not working, we engage in various forms of mindless indulgence. It is the sort of life which (via the character of “Walter Morel”) he depicts his father living in Sons and Lovers: a day spent in the pit, followed by an evening getting drunk and stumbling home.

Essentially, the aim of communism is to do precisely what capitalism has already accomplished in a much more sinister way: to make everyone proletarian. The communists just sought to erase the distinction between the proletarian haves and have-nots. And this brings us back to Heidegger. One of Heidegger’s more notorious claims was that capitalist and communist societies were “metaphysically identical.” In Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger states, “Europe lies in the pincers between Russia and America, which are metaphysically the same, namely in regard to their world-character and their relation to the spirit.” Both are fundamentally materialist in their orientation: in both social systems human concerns do not rise, and are not supposed to rise, above the level of material comfort and security. Both deny the higher needs of the human spirit: communism explicitly, capitalism implicitly (and far more insidiously). In his essay “Democracy” Lawrence speaks of how in modern, democratic societies the “Average Man” is exalted above all: “Please keep out all Spiritual and Mystical needs. They have nothing to do with the average.”

Early in life, Lawrence had half-idealized the “working men” (or the miners, at least) as more in touch with their chthonic, primal feelings. Lawrence came to realize that this was an illusion. In “Democracy” he asserts that the working men are “even more grossly abstracted” from the physical. But why? Here we encounter an aspect of Lawrence’s socialism that situates him far away from Marx, but close to William Morris and the socialists of the “arts and crafts movement.” The working man is abstracted from the physical because he has been beaten down by ugliness.

Now though perhaps nobody knew it, it was ugliness which really betrayed the spirit of man, in the nineteenth century. The great crime which the moneyed classes and promoters of industry committed in the palmy Victorian days was the condemning of the workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationship between workers and employers. The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread.

How does one square this thesis about the debilitating effects of ugliness with Lawrence’s claim that it is “idealism” that is the culprit here, “beating down” the working man and everyone else? The two claims are not mutually exclusive. Ugliness is a consequence of idealism: where the Ideal is all important, “aesthetic concerns” will be denigrated. This was very obviously a feature of communist societies such as the Soviet Union, where Lenin explicitly declared such concerns “momentary interests.” Westerners living in capitalist societies were always quick to point out the ugly, utilitarian quality of Soviet life—while being generally blind to it in their own countries. The typical American capitalist attitude is that unless something makes a profit it is valueless. What good is beauty, poetry, or good food—unless they can be sold on a mass scale? Since human life cannot be entirely free of these things, capitalism finds an indirect way of justifying them. The sight of beauty “relaxes” us. Reading poetry “lowers the heart rate.” Good food is a “reward for a hard day’s work.” In short, the fine and noble is not beautiful and useless at all—because it can make better, healthier, longer-lived workers of us! But the claim that the fine and noble could have any intrinsic value apart from its relation to work simply doesn’t get a hearing.

American education reflects this prejudice and students follow along like good proletarians in training, objecting to “useless” classes on literature, history, and art. All of this may make it seem like the capitalist attitude is not idealistic at all but cynically “practical.” This is not the case, however, for the ugliness and barrenness of life under capitalism is seen as part of the march of Progress. Like a disciple of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Lawrence suggests that beauty is the key to solving the “industrial problem”:

If they had made big, substantial houses, in apartments of five or six rooms, and with handsome entrances. If above all, they had encouraged song and dancing—for the miners still sang and danced—and provided handsome space for these. If only they had encouraged some form of beauty in dress, some form of beauty in interior life—furniture, decoration. If they had given prizes for the handsomest chair or table, the loveliest scarf, the most charming room that men or women could make! If only they had done this, there would never have been an industrial problem. The industrial problem arises from the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition.

In the essay “Red Trousers” he playfully suggests that “If a dozen men would stroll down the Strand and Piccadilly tomorrow, wearing tight scarlet trousers fitting the leg, gay little orange-brown jackets and bright green hats, then the revolution against dullness which we need so much would have begun.”

Of course, such suggestions may seem highly romantic, and unrealistic, but there is nevertheless a great deal that is right about them. The essays from which the above two quotes were taken were written in the period 1928–1930. They reflect the fact that Lawrence never entirely gave up on his early “utopian socialist” sentiments. He simply became a good deal wiser about the prospects for translating them into reality. His early naïveté is perfectly reflected in the finale of The Rainbow, in which Ursula Brangwen looks down upon the ugliness of the mining countryside, only to see a rainbow rising above it: “She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.” The First World War destroyed Lawrence’s naïve hopes that the modern world might be cleansed and redeemed, at least through some kind of social reform. His next novel, Women in Love, would be a complete repudiation of the optimism with which The Rainbow ends. My next essay will be devoted to an analysis of Women in Love as anti-modern novel.

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