Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Morris major

Snowball, who runs the excellent Adventures in Historical Materialism blog, has pointed his readers in the direction of the text of my recent guest lecture on EP Thompson, and reproduced part of it. In the comments under Snowball's post someone with the brilliant name Grim and Dim has quibbled with my characterisation of Thompson's massive 1955 biography of William Morris:

Thompson's Morris is a very fine book and should be read. However, two small reservations.

Thompson's earliest essay on Morris is in the symposium published by Arena on defending British culture under the editorship of Sam Aaronovitch in 1952. Thompson's account here very much fits into the CPGB line of defending British culture against Americans and other nasty foreigners.

The 1970s version [of the Morris biography] is not a "reprint" but a new edition which omits some of the most Stalinist formulations from the 1955 edition, but also accommmodates to the Popular Front line Thompson was pursuing in the nuclear disarmament movement.


Grim and Dim is quite right to note the important changes that William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary underwent before it was reissued in 1977. By the mid-'70s Thompson’s biography of Morris had become an accepted classic, helping revive scholarly interest in its subject. When Thompson was invited by Merlin Press to prepare a second edition of the book he chose to cut more than a hundred pages from the original, and add a long, closely argued postscript in which he refined his interpretation of Morris. Looking back on his first edition, Thompson decided that his desire to counter right-wingers who downplayed Morris’ politics had led him to assert too easily the ‘equivalence’ of ‘Morrisism and Marxism’.

In ‘Postscript: 1976’ Thompson argues that Morris did not leave Romanticism behind when he became a socialist, but instead fused that tradition with Marxism:

...the moral critique of capitalist process was pressing forward to conclusions consonant with Marx's critique, and it was Morris's particular genius to think through this transformation, effect its juncture, and seal it with action.

Morris was, then, a major thinker, worthy of more than a footnote in histories of nineteenth century culture. Morris' daring and original fusion of Marxism and Romanticism was rejected by most Marxists, and this rejection has had grave consequences:

As tendencies [within Marxism] towards determinism and positivism grew, so the tradition suffered a general theoretical closure, and the possibility of a juncture between traditions which Morris offered was denied. I should not need, in 1976, to labour the point that the ensuing lack of moral self-consciousness (and even vocabulary) led the major Marxist tradition into something worse than confusion.

Thompson believes that the ‘scientific’ utopianism of Morris’ late writing, and in particular his novel News from Nowhere, which depicted a post-revolutionary society in the then-distant future of 1952, could have been an important asset for Marxists. In Thompson’s view, the free play of the imagination that Morris practiced and demanded fills a gap in ordinary, overly rational Marxist thought, and helps prevent socialists succumbing to the siren calls of utilitarianism and economism. For Thompson, News from Nowhere is not a piece of whimsy but a sort of grand, poetic thought experiment that ‘educates desire’ and discloses ‘new values’ that can guide the movement for socialism. Ruth Kinna takes the same view in William Morris: the Art of Socialism, a book heavily influenced by Thompson:

News from Nowhere was neither intended as a model for socialism nor as an idealised picture of the historical process: it was designed to stimulate the imagination.

Thompson's reconsideration of Morris is tied up with the development of his ideas about poetry. In an obscure but important text written two years after ‘Postscript: 1976’ Thompson offers a detailed aacount of his evolving poetics. ‘Commitment and Poetry’ was written for a forum in Stand, a little literary magazine edited by the left-wing Jewish poet Jon Silkin. In 1977 and 1978 Silkin had quarreled with the politically conservative proprietors of the rival Poetry Nation Review, or PNR as it was and is more commonly known, about the relevance of politics to literary judgment. After some heated exchanges with PNR luminaries Donald Davie, CH Sisson, and Michael Schmidt, Silkin sought to broaden the debate he had begun by inviting a number of writers not connected closely with either publication to give their views on the following questions:

Is a writer the deterministic product of his environment, or, on the contrary, is he capable of deploying a (relatively) new consciousness upon his immediate society? If such a deployment is possible, does it have any effect? And if so, how is the effect manifested?

In ‘Postscript: 1976’ Thompson had seen the imaginative, utopian quality of William Morris’ best work as a corrective to the disastrous tendency of both the social democratic and Leninist lefts towards ‘positivism and utilitarianism’. In ‘Commitment and Poetry’ he imagines that poetry might be able, at least in theory, to perform a similar function. The sort of ‘committed’ poetry Thompson would like to see would not tow this or that party line, nor reject political engagement altogether, but rather situate itself ‘adjacent to public and social life’ and make itself ’a path-finder for culture’ able to ‘state relevant values’ that are ‘stubborn and palpable’. Like Morris' utopian novels, a poem could be a sort of thought experiment. Thompson believes that the failure of poets to find such values has serious consequences:

If we had better poetry we might have less bad sociology and less empty and mendacious politics. People with cleansed perception would no longer tolerate…offences against language…[and] trivialisations of values…

Thompson does not cite precedents for his argument, but the poetics of ‘Poetry and Commitment’ is surely influenced by the cultural and literary critique of English society developed by the Romantics and extended by William Morris and others. As Raymond Williams pointed out in his classic study Culture and Society, this tradition frequently charges writers and artists with the task of forging and promulgating not only cultural but political alternatives to the status quo it criticises. Shelley was in earnest when he called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. When he fused the Romantic tradition with Marxism, Morris did not forget the lofty conception of the poet and artist beloved of Shelley and other Romantic luminaries like Blake. First published by instalment in the left-wing journal The Commonweal, News from Nowhere is both a literary and an urgently political work. When he wrote his most famous line, Shelley was not imagining some sort of caste of poet-kings performing the function Plato had once imagined for philosopher-kings. He believed that poets could and should influence politics in a deeper and more subtle sense, by forging and expressing new values worthy of a new world. (Unfortunately, Shelley was as vague as Thompson would be when it came to explaining what these new values were, and how they would be turned into political action.)

‘Poetry and Commitment’ has no truck with those who would judge a poet’s political import by the political stances expressed in his or her work. Thompson uses Yeats as an example of a poet with ‘pitifully bad’ political ‘opinions’ who nonetheless wrote poetry marked by a ‘compassion’ that can never be considered reactionary. In Thompson’s view, there was a disjunction between the opinions Yeats ‘tried on’ and ‘the values that impelled his choice’.

By making a distinction between immediate political ‘opinions’, on the one hand, and ‘values’ that are anterior to these opinions, on the other, Thompson is able to insist upon the relevance of politics to poetry without succumbing to the didactic ‘socialist realism’ he had learned to hate in the Communist Party.

I don't think that the changes that Thompson's study of Morris underwent in the seventies vitiate the point my lecture made about the unconventionality of the original 1955 version of the book. The fact is that in the late '40s and early '50s Thompson did feel besieged by both the culture bureaucrats in the Communist Party, who insisted that the arts should be mere expressions of the party line, and the determinedly 'Natopolitan' intellectuals gathering around journals like Encounter and presses like Faber and Faber.

Thompson's adventures in the Morris archives were, in one sense, a response to the political impasse of the early Cold War, an attempt to find space to think in the past and in the work of a great precursor. The Morris biography was at once a flight from reality and the presentation of an alternative vision of reality. In this sense, it had some of the same qualities as Morris' utopian fictions. In his 1976 postscript to the book and in 'Poetry and Commitment', Thompson develops rather than revises the ideas in his 1955 text.

Grim and Dim refers to Thompson's 1952 text 'The Murder of William Morris' for the Communist Party magazine Arena, and suggests that there is a yawning gap between this text and the 1977 edition of the Morris biography. We have to be careful when we interpret the 1952 text, because it is the summary of a talk which Thompson gave at a Communist Party day school on culture. We do not know whether Thompson himself prepared the summary, but we do know that Thompson often complained that the Communist Party's publications doctored the texts he gave them by editing them heavily.

Even if we set aside these caveats, it is by no means clear that 'The Murder of William Morris' endorses the Cold War Communist Party's line on culture. The anti-Americanism and British cultural nationalism which are part and parcel of the text have their origins in the Popular Front policy which the party adopted in the middle of the thirties. Desperate to win intellectuals to its ranks, the party had promoted itself as the guardian of the best achievements of British culture against the philistinism of the local political establishment and the fascism that menaced culture on the European continent. From the mid-'30s until the aftermath of World War Two, the Communist Party had a generally relaxed attitude to artistic and literary matters, an attitude which was reflected in the eclectic and successful journal Our Time, which was edited by Edgell Rickword, a modernist poet and critic who had made a name for himself as the editor of the influential Calendar of Modern Letters and as author of the first English-language book about Arthur Rimbaud.

As the Cold War began, though, the party's leaders began to insist that all forms of art were straightforward expressions of the class struggle, and that a firm line must be drawn between party artists and 'bourgeois' artists. The new policy was named Zhdanovism, in honour of Stalin's sometime commissar for culture Andrei Zhdanov; Thompson has described its effects in his party:

In retrospect it can be seen that the shadows of the Cold War were closing in, the radical ‘populist’ euphoria of 1944 was collapsing…That time produced one of the sharpest mental frosts I can remember on the Left. Vitalities shrivelled up and books lost their leaves…the stream of ’apostates’ was so full that all of us were apt to recoil, willfully and unthinkingly, from the brink of any heresy for fear of toppling into the flood.

And we had become habituated to the formal rituals of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ - in origin an admirable democratic process, but one which had become perverted into a ritual in which the criticism came always from the Party’s senior spokesmen on cultural matters…and the self-criticism was intoned by congregated intellectuals in response.


At the end of the war Our Time was selling 18,000 copies an issue, but demobilisation of the armed forces and the beginning of the Cold War made its blend of short stories, poems, and left-wing opinion pieces less viable. By the middle of 1947 sales had halved. Emile Burns, the Communist Party’s geriatric commissar for culture, presided over a meeting where Rickword and his co-editor Randall Swingler were ritually denounced; in response, the two old hands resigned their positions. Thompson was a supporter of the purge of Edgell Rickword from Our Time, but his involvement in the affair seems to have been the product of his ill-considered opposition to modernism, rather than his support for socialist realism. In a 1979 tribute to Rickword, Thompson remembered the gathering that destroyed Our Time, and apologised for his part in it:

I attended a disgraceful meeting, at which Emile Burns scolded Rickword and Swingler for their political, cultural, and financial sins and omissions…It was a shameful episode and I shared in the shame, for, however ‘youthful’ I was, I had allowed myself to be made use of as part of the team of uncultured yobbos and musclemen under the command of the elderly Burns. Thompson seems to have learnt his lesson well before 1979. The year after the Our Time meeting, Jack Lindsay was attacked at a party conference on culture for his unorthodox views on art and his advocacy of Marx’s 1844 manuscripts. Lindsay remembers that Thompson, who had arrived at the conference ‘travel-worn, having just returned from Yugoslavia’, was his sole supporter.

Whatever their merits, then, the anti-Americanism and British cultural nationalism which are features of 'The Murder of William Morris' are more likely to be the products of the Popular Front politics he learned in the '30s and '40s than of the Zhdanovism that Thompson despised.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like Thompson was substituing poets for the working class...an unworkable fancy.

10:20 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

anonymous - so the working class don't have among their ranks any poets or artists? (And singers and musicians (pop and other) - for example - are rightly called artists). We are talking art and craft (culture and the artifacts of production) in a very wide sense. Thompson was an imaginative thinker.

(And think of places such as South America where people of all kinds especially "the People" love poetry - and see Art as great where we split these things up and degrade diminish poets as whispering and muttering nutcases on the sidelines...)

Your comment is nonsense in view of what Thompson, Lindsay (via Morris and indeed Marx would have probably have agreed ) were saying.

Thompson - from what I gather was influenced not only by his poetics (and politics) but by the whole movement of Romanticism which is very complex - Morris (post-Romantic, part Pre-Raphaelite) - was kind of proto-Socialist and was indeed also a practising communist in some ways - his drive at least was Utopian...

These ideas Maps is putting across (with great depth, hard work, and acumen) are complex and subtle; involving the energising effect of the TOTAL culture: and you give this short, pathetic, and inane quip as a response. You seem not to have really read what Maps is saying here...

8:52 pm  
Blogger Snowball said...

Maps - another fascinating post - cheers.

Two quick clarifications for the record - 'Grim and Dim' is Ian Birchall, who I think takes the pseudomym 'Grim and Dim' because Oliver Kamm (or some other famous pro-war 'left') once described him as such. Ian, as anyone who knows him or his work will know, is anything but either 'grim or dim'.

Secondly, I think it is important to remember how 'anti-Americanism' became deeply soaked into the CP during the early Cold War period - and some of this simply must have rubbed off onto EPT. While I have not studied Thompson's 'Murder of Morris' or the collection by Aaronovich Birchall mentions, I did once look at a pamphlet against American bases in East Anglia from the early 1950s by AL Morton and published by Ipswich CP entitled 'Get Out!', and it was incredibly vulgar anti-Americanism and blatant British nationalism.

If the author of 'A People's History of England', moulded in the Popular Front could fall into anti-Americanism during this period then surely it is possible EPT did so as well?

8:36 pm  
Blogger packey said...

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3:34 pm  
Anonymous Grim and Dim said...

I don't disagree substantially with this, and since Maps is far more familiar with the texts than I am I'm not in a position to get into an extended argument. Just two brief points in defence of my original comments.

1) One of the aspects of 1950s CPGB cultural politics was a strong anti-Americanism which made its advocates extremely hostile to American popular culture - movies, comics and above all rock'n roll. A study of the early issues of NLR will reveal that the NLR team, including Thompson, inherited this same negative attitude. There is no evidence that Thompson ever understood what rock'n roll was all about. So although the emerging new left and rock'n roll were more or less contemporaneous, they existed with very little interaction - except in the skulls of individuals like myself. That seems to me unfortunate because when left politics and rock'n roll did come together in Rock Against Racism in 1978 the results were very positive.

2) In the late 70s and early 80s Thompson was very active in CND. There is no doubt that his role was extremely positive, inspiring many people to activism. But he did develop the notion of "exterminism", the logic of which was to argue that the Bomb was not a class question - which of course had implications for the strategy to be adopted by CND. I think some of the themes in the second edition of William Morris can be linked to this. Of course Thompson was absolutely right to stress that there is a moral component in Marxism. The danger was to slide into a position that the bomb was a moral issue separate from class struggle. In 1981 I wrote a long polemic in Socialist Worker against Thompson on this point. If I live long enough I'll put it on a website one day.

7:13 am  

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