Over the past two decades, my study of William Morris has come to be recognized as a ‘quarry’ of information, although in one or two instances it appears that it was a suspect quarry, to be worked surreptitiously for doctoral advancement.footnote＊ One ought not to object to this: a quarry should release materials into the general fabric of scholarship. But what if my book was not a quarry but a construction meriting attention in its own right? And what if the stones lifted from it end up by adding only to the featureless sprawl of academic suburbia? At least the question may be put. But one must be careful as to how the question is put. Several of my successors, in volumes appearing from the most reputable academic presses, are in agreement that the question can be put in only one way: my scholarship is vitiated by Marxist dogmatism. A work ‘of intelligent and exhaustive scholarship’, in one generous account, ‘but it is marred by the author’s intense Marxian bias’. Morris’s activities ‘are examined through the prism of the class struggle and the result is a somewhat distorted view of Morris’s ideas’. Another finds my book ‘flawed’ by its misguided attempt to present its object as
I had thought that the book was something rather different. It is, in a central respect, an argument about the Romantic tradition and its transformation by Morris. (It is of interest that I and Raymond Williams, whose important Culture and Society appeared three years after my book, should have been, unknown to each other, working upon different aspects of the Romantic critique of utilitarianism.) But, leaving this aside, one has to ask whether it may not be the political commitment of Morris, and not of Marx, which has given offence to these authors? In which case my own offence has been chiefly that of showing an intense Morrisian bias? The question is difficult: it is true that in 1955 I allowed some hectoring political moralisms, as well as a few Stalinist pieties, to intrude upon the text. I had then a somewhat reverent notion of Marxism as a received orthodoxy, and my pages included some passages of polemic whose vulgarity no doubt makes contemporary scholars wince. The book was published at the height of the Cold War. Intellectual McCarthyism was not confined to the United States, although few in the subsequent generations understand its discreet British modes of operation. Marxist sympathies were so disreputable that they could find little expression outside of Communist publications; and the vulgarity of my own polemic can only be understood against the all-pervasive and well-furnished vulgarities of the anti-Marxist orthodoxies of that time.
The climate can be illustrated by the welcome afforded my book in the non-socialist press. This welcome was mainly a silence, broken by the review in the Times Literary Supplement, headed ‘Morris and Marxism’. The reviewer reported that my book was ‘heavily biased by Marxism’ and ‘splenetic in tone’; the ‘remarkable feat’ of its author is that ‘he manages to sustain a mood of ill-temper through a volume of 900 pages’. My citations from Morris’s political writings ‘show how fluffy were Morris’s socialist views’, and the book as a whole ‘merely serves to emphasize aspects of Morris which are better left forgotten’. It is clear that it was Morris, and not Thompson, nor even Marx, who must be pushed back into the silence of disrepute.
All this was (in those days) predictable. So far from dismaying one, it was a tonic to one’s fighting-blood: in a sense, even one’s self-righteous sectarian errors were confirmed within the circular field of antagonism to such official lampoons and silences. In all this, the book became typed, by enemies and even by some friends, as offering only one finding: the Morris 5 Marx equation. And yet the book, while perhaps offering too tidy an account of that relation, by no means contented itself with showing Morris ending his life in an orthodox Marxist terminus. The point was, rather, that Morris was an original socialist
But this line of argument is an uneasy one, since it focuses attention on my own intellectual evolution (and apologetics) and distracts attention from our proper concern: William Morris and his political thought. And we should return to the question already proposed: have some recent writers used the criticism of my book to mask their ulterior dislike of Morris, so that for Thompson’s ‘intense Marxian bias’ we ought really to read ‘Morris’s uncompromising commitment to revolutionary socialism’? For if I had really falsified my account of Morris’s positions, one would suppose that these critics would go on to correct my account, in informed and accurate ways. But I do not find that this has been done. Thus Willard Wolfe,footnote1 who affirms that my attempt to present Morris as a Marxist is ‘misguided’, offers no close examination of Morris’s socialist writings, and presents, in succession, the following judgements on Morris’s socialism: 1. his lectures of the 1880s ‘advocated a form of Radical-individualist utopianism that was very similar to Shaw’s’ 2. his socialism was ‘ethical-aesthetic’; and 3. Morris ‘must be classed among the Christian Socialist recruits’ to the sdf since his socialism was ‘essentially religious in character’ and was ‘grounded on an essentially Christian ideal of brotherhood’. This may be good enough for Yale University Press, but it would have been rejected by the Editor of Commonweal: what it seems to argue is that Morris’s socialism was really very nice, and never rude, although it leaves unresolved the question as to how ‘Radical-individualist utopianism’ was reconciled with the ‘Christian ideal of brotherhood’.