Edward Thompson replies: I did not ‘attack’ Willard Wolfe’s book, but cited it in passing as an example of the facility and confusion to be found in references to William Morris’s political thought in ‘reputable’ academic circles. I could no doubt have found elsewhere a dozen examples equally banal. Professor Wolfe does indeed make each of the judgements that I cite. On p. 132, note 48, he writes: ‘Morris’s Socialist lectures of the 1880s advocated a form of Radical-individualist utopianism that was very similar to Shaw’s.’ I am glad to note that he can now see that this judgement is ‘obviously inapplicable’. Since he agrees that he wrote the two other judgements I cannot see why he should find my citation of them to be ‘hopelessly distorted’. It is true that Wolfe offers at other points in his book other—and contradictory—judgements. On p. 12 he writes of Morris’s ‘intensely conservative, neo-romantic emphasis on community’, and on p. 13 of his ‘essentially conservative social idealism’, although on p. 90, note 68, he describes Morris as a
With so many varied judgements to choose between, it is altogether understandable that Wolfe should have forgotten some of those which he had written. It is less easily understood that he should press into print to accuse me of a ‘tissue of misrepresentations’, ‘outright fabrications’, ‘fabricated “quotations”’, etc. One must be uncommonly secure in one’s own self-opinion to have recourse to such language in meeting criticism.
There is one point of substance here: the ‘Religion of Socialism’. When Morris says that socialism is to him ‘a matter of religion’, this passes into the mind of Wolfe (and others) as ‘a matter of the Christian religion’. But there have been (and are) other religions. It is not easy to construe William Morris, a robust agnostic with a hearty appetite for pagan mythology, into the context of Christian socialism. When Morris spoke of the ‘Religion of Socialism’ he meant, exactly, that this ‘religion’ would displace Christianity and other religions. The only explicit ‘theological’ statement I can recall from Morris’s last fifteen years is a brush-off to an enquiring correspondent: ‘I must decline to argue theological points: I don’t understand them: if there be a God, he, or it, is a very different thing from what religionists imagine.’ (To Robert Thompson, 20 June 1884, Letters, p. 201.) In 1890 he wrote in Commonweal: ‘When this beggarly period has been supplanted by one in which Socialism is realized, will not the system of morality, the theory of life, be all-embracing, and can it be other than the Socialist theory? Where then will be the Christian ethic?—absorbed in Socialism.’ (See my Morris, 1977 edition, p. 710.) By the ‘Religion of Socialism’ (see ibid. p. 714), Morris was indicating the high morale and sacrifice requisite among the pioneers, the inculcation of new values of community, the shared utopian inspiration. In the 1880s, many other Marxists and Secularists spoke of the religion of socialism in the same way, among them Eleanor Marx. I hope that Stephen Yeo will soon publish the admirable essay which he has written on exactly this theme. I was at pains to argue, in both editions of my book, against the stereotype to be found in both anti-Marxist and Marxist form which proposes that this ‘religious’ impulse was in necessary contradiction with revolutionary theory.
I am sorry if Willard Wolfe feels that I have handled him roughly. His book is a modest contribution in the history of ideas academic mode; that is, it ‘throws some new light’ on the half-baked ideas of the early Fabians. On occasion it also throws darkness (as with Morris) or the ghostly light of his own imagination: the happiest example of the latter is when he tells us (p. 145, note 83) that George Bernard Shaw, as a result of six months employment in 1881 negotiating way-leaves in London for the Edison Telephone Co., gained ‘firsthand knowledge of working-class life . . . almost unique among contemporary Socialist intellectuals’, and that this ‘enabled Shaw to anticipate by some two decades Lenin’s discovery that the proletariat was inherently non-revolutionary’. Well.