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’.
J. W. Hulse, in Revolutionists in London, does a little better: but not much.footnote2 He has had a good idea for a book and has executed that idea unevenly. His intention was to treat the inter-relations between the ideas of five remarkable men, co-habitants of London in the 1880s and 1890s—Stepniak, Kropotkin, Morris, Shaw and Bernstein. Despite the fact that the ideas under discussion float around in a state of political weightlessness, some parts of the study are executed well. It may be because I know the subject best that I find the study of Morris to be the worst. Hulse, who knows that my book is marred by ‘intense Marxian bias’, knows a great many more things about Morris’s socialism, although his knowledge is supported more often by assertion than by argument: thus (of the Manifesto of the Socialist League), ‘it incorporates several of the Marxian arguments, but the basic tone was moderate’; of the split: ‘Morris found it necessary to make the break because Hyndman’s faction was too authoritarian, too wildly militant, and too opportunistic—in short, too Marxist.’ We are also reassured that ‘the doctrine of the class struggle was one of the Marxian ideas that was
This is a pity, since Hulse does have a correction of substance to offer to my account. He argues that Morris may have been more influenced by Kropotkin and by the communist-anarchists than has been generally allowed: in particular in his notion of federated communes, as envisaged in ‘The Society of the Future’ and in News from Nowhere. It is a fair point: the ‘withering away of the State’ was not a major preoccupation of Engels or of the Marxist circles of the 1880s, whereas it was a preoccupation shared by Morris and Kropotkin. (Morris noted in 1887 that he had ‘an Englishman’s wholesome horror of government interference and centralization which some of our friends who are built on the German pattern are not quite enough afraid of’.) Morris’s imagination may well have been stimulated more by Kropotkin and by arguments with his followers in the League than I have suggested. But Hulse damages his own argument by special pleading and thin scholarship, thickened up with anti-Marxist rancour. His conclusion offers an eclectic’s bazaar which might stand in for a dozen other contemporary academic accounts: ‘Morris’s socialism might best be described as catholic, borrowing from the Middle Ages and from Russian nihilism, as well as from Mill and from Marx.’ It might ‘best be described’ in this way if the object of the exercise is polite conversation, but not if it is accurate definition: what, one wonders, was borrowed, and how were these unlikely elements combined? ‘It serves little purpose’, Hulse concludes, ‘to insist that Morris belonged more to one branch of socialism, or communism, or anarchism, than to another.’ That may be so: the ‘claiming’ of Morris for this or that tendency has less purpose than I once supposed myself. But what, surely, may serve a purpose, if we wish to attend to Morris, is to define what Morris’s socialism was, what were its controlling ideas, values and strategies? And this can scarcely be done if we disregard his polemic against Fabianism on the one hand, and anarchism on the other. By neglecting both, and by straining the case for Kropotkin’s influence, Hulse ends up as only one more (muddled) claimant.