Bourgeois ideology in nineteenth-century England confronted a severe problem. footnote1 Its withered roots in the sparse soil of utilitarianism seriously limited its ability to produce a richly symbolic, potently affective set of mythologies capable of permeating the texture of lived experience and so of performing the functions of an ideology in the fullest sense. Permanently crippled in phenomenological capacity, it needed to have constant resort to the Romantic humanist heritage—to that nebulous, elusive amalgam of Burkean conservatism and German idealism, forged by the later Coleridge and transmitted to Carlyle, Disraeli, Arnold and Ruskin, which offered an idealist critique of bourgeois social relations coupled with a consecration of the rights of capital. Part of the specific complexity of English nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology, founded on a complex conjuncture of bourgeois and aristocratic classes within the hegemonic bloc, lies in this contradictory unity of ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ elements, whereby an impoverished empiricist liberalism exploits the symbolically fertile, metaphysically coercive resources of Romantic humanism, with its nostalgic, reactionary, quasi-feudal social models, to stabilize and ratify bourgeois property relations. The ‘Culture and Society’ tradition is the literary record of this ideological conjuncture; footnote2 John Stuart Mill, mechanistically harnessing Coleridge to Bentham in the late eighteen thirties, provides one of its more palpable instances. footnote3

Antonio Gramsci has commented on this ideological formation in nineteenth-century England. ‘There is a very extensive category of organic intellectuals—those, that is, who come into existence on the same industrial terrain as the economic group—but in the higher sphere we find that the old land-owning class preserves its position of virtual monopoly. It loses its economic supremacy but maintains for a long time a politico-intellectual supremacy and is assimilated as “traditional intellectuals” and as directive (dirigente) group by the new group in power. The old land-owning aristocracy is joined to the industrialists by a kind of suture which is precisely that which in other countries unites the traditional intellectuals with the new dominant classes.’ footnote4

That assimilation of ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectuals is the key to the historic significance in Victorian England of Matthew Arnold. The thrust of Arnold’s social criticism, partly concealed by his best-known work Culture and Anarchy, is to convert a sectarian, internally divided and visionless industrial bourgeoisie pragmatically sunk in its own material interests into a cohesive, truly hegemonic class, capable of elaborating in the ideological sphere the predominance it has come to hold in history. To achieve this goal the bourgeoisie must be inserted into the organic footnote5 totality of ‘Culture’, that spiritual Absolute which subsumes one-sided class interests into transcendental unity. More specifically, it must appropriate the civilized aesthetic heritage of the aristocracy in order to equip itself with a world view capable of incorporating the proletariat. ‘The middle classes, remaining as they are now, with their narrow, harsh, unintelligent and unattractive spirit and culture, will almost certainly fail to mould or assimilate the masses below them.’ footnote6 For Arnold, the aristocracy is losing political hegemony but its historical successor, the bourgeoisie, is disastrously unprepared ideologically to assume it; as a Government Inspector of Schools and the son of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, his insistence is accordingly on the historical necessity for the bourgeoisie to attain to ‘higher’, more unified forms by enshrining itself in national culture and educational institutions.

Idealist and historicist though Arnold’s conception of ideological hegemony is, his relation of ‘organic’ cultural modes to the drive to consolidate a corporate social formation in which the bourgeoisie can install itself as a ‘national’ class has a significance for Victorian and modern literature which it is the purpose of this article to examine. Arnold’s work belongs to a significant mutation in nineteenth-century liberalism: as Victorian capitalism is driven to transcend its earlier, nakedly competitive phase of primitive accumulation and organize itself into more corporate forms, footnote7 a transformation of the classical liberalism which finds a late formulation in Mill’s On Liberty (1859) proves increasingly essential. In this process, ‘organic’ bourgeois ideology (in Gramsci’s sense) has more intensive resort to the social and aesthetic organicism of the Romantic humanist tradition, finding in aesthetic production models of totality and affectivity relevant to its ideological demands. During the period of Arnold’s social criticism, the initially poetic notion of ‘organic form’ becomes increasingly extended to the dominant literary mode of the time, fiction. footnote8 A serious aesthetics of fiction consequently develops, to discover its major ideologue at the end of the century in Henry James. This article will survey in skeletal and schematic form some relations between a sector of the major literature of the last century and the ideological formations in which it is set, taking the concepts of ‘organic form’ and ‘organicism’ as one crucial nexus between history and literary production.

George Eliot’s literary career from her translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (1846) to Daniel Deronda (1876) is almost exactly coterminous with the period of Victorian prosperity which follows the severe depression and fierce class struggles of the eighteen thirties and forties. During this period productive output increased spectacularly, Britain’s volume of world trade grew rapidly, and money-wages probably rose by at least a third between 1850 and 1870. A familiar political consequence of this prosperity was a partial though marked incorporation of the working class. From the mid-century onwards, until the resurgence of proletarian militancy in the depressed eighties, corporatism becomes a prominent characteristic of wide areas of the working-class movement. Having defeated the first wave of working-class militancy, the industrial bourgeoisie had begun by 1850 to consolidate its victory. Sections of the working class advanced economically, only to become at each stage politically incorporated. On the eve of the second Reform Bill, R. H. Hutton argued in Essays in Reform (1867) that the trade unions had taught the workers the value of co-operation, sacrifice and solidarity, and that this principle might be usefully integrated into society as a whole. Through the unions, the working class had come to appreciate the value of true government and a ‘distrust of mere scattered energies’. This ‘class-patriotism’ must at all costs be channelled to national account; the spirit of trade unionism must be grafted ‘into the richer growth of our national politics’.

The ideological matrix of George Eliot’s fiction is determined by the increasingly corporate character of Victorian capitalism and its political apparatus. Eliot’s work attempts to resolve a structural conflict between two forms of mid-Victorian bourgeois ideology—between a still buoyant though progressively muted Romantic individualism preoccupied with the untrammelled evolution of the ‘free spirit’, and certain ‘higher’ corporate ideological modes whose object is to isolate the immutable social laws to which that individualism, if it is to avoid social disruption and ethical anarchy, must self-sacrificially conform. Those ‘higher’ ideological forms are for Eliot Feuerbachian humanism and scientific rationalism—a conjuncture which in principle complements the imperatives of Romantic individualism, since both disclose historically progressive laws with which the exploratory individual may imaginatively unite. Scientific rationalism, in judiciously curbing the disruptively egoistic tendencies of Benthamite hedonism, also obstructs Romantic self-expression. Yet conversely Feuerbachian humanism protects those Romantic values against an aggressively undiluted rationalism, and by rooting them in the human collectivity defends them equally from an unbridled individualism. The Religion of Humanity, more effectively than the laboriously abstract, obsessively systemic symbology of Comtism, imbues scientific law with Romantic humanist spirit, discovering that law inscribed in the passions and pieties of men; it can thus offer itself as a totalizing doctrine without detriment to an imaginative empathy with empirical experience. By virtue of this ideological conjuncture, the Romantic individualist may submit to the social totality without sacrificing personal self-fulfilment.

In principle, that is; in practice, a potentially tragic collision between ‘corporate’ and ‘individualist’ ideologies is consistently defused and repressed by the forms of Eliot’s fiction. As the daughter of a farm-agent, the social locus of corporate value for Eliot is rural society; it is here, most obviously in Adam Bede and Silas Marner, that the cluster of traditionalist practices and organic affiliations imputed to the English provincial countryside is ‘selected’ by the national ideology as socially paradigmatic, at a point where that ideology demands precisely such images of social incorporation. Rural society in Adam Bede, as John Goode has commented, footnote9 is chosen as a literary subject not for its remote idiosyncratic charm but as a simplificatory model of the whole social formation, whose uniformly determining laws may be focused there in purer, more diagrammatic form. But if the framing, externalizing literary forms of Adam Bede and Silas Marner (pastoral, myth, moral fable) permit such transparency, they also mystify the historical contradictions at the core of Eliot’s fiction by projecting them into ideologically resolvable form. The social organicism of Adam Bede, with his stiff-necked moralism and pragmatic petty-bourgeois politics, is forbidden from entering into significant deadlock with any ‘authentic’ liberal individualism, since that individualism figures in the novel only in the debased, trivialized form of a hedonist egoism (the anarchic sexual appetite of Arthur Donnithorne and Hetty Sorrel) which the stable moulds of rural life can displace without notable self-disruption. The class violence of Arthur’s seduction of Hetty is reduced to an ethical issue; and the upshot of that ethical drama is to liberalize Adam’s moral intransigence to the point where he can advance into more flexibly individualized consciousness without damage to his mythological status as organic type, an admirable amalgam of naturalized culture and cultivated nature.