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
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
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 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