Given the overall pollution of the seas, the land, the atmosphere, as well as the geological layers beneath the seas, the world, considered as a chemical organization, is undergoing an inversion. Dangerous gases derived from beneath the seas are being consumed on earth and elevated into the atmosphere with dire consequences for the biological organization of the world. As Rebecca Solnit points out, it is “the world turned upside down”, although that is not what is commonly meant by the phrase, which was always egalitarian and anti-imperial. Formerly it described spiritual and political revolutions; St. Paul was accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ when he preached universally to all—Greeks, Jews, men, women—in Thessalonica (Acts 17:6) and it was the name of the tune supposedly played at Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown which achieved American independence (“all men are created equal”).
As egalitarian and anti-imperial, E.P. Thompson and William Morris were both communists, and we need communists now as never before. But what does the term mean?
As a founder of an anti-capitalist, revolutionary, working-class organization Morris had to come up with definitions suitable for a political program: “Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there would be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.” Most of the elements of this definition—that there may be several types of societies, that the prevailing society is based on the classes rich and poor, that equality is an attainable condition, that over-work and alienation of labor violate human solidarity—are derived from the struggles of the early industrial revolution as we have come to know them thanks to E.P. Thompson’s narrative, The Making of the English Working Class (1963). The only point that is distinctly that of Morris is the demand for “unwaste”. This is what makes his communism green.
We sense the green again when Morris loses his temper: “It is a shoddy age. Shoddy is king. From the statesman to the shoe- maker all is shoddy” he exclaimed to a reporter. “Then you do not admire the common sense John Bull, Mr. Morris?” “John Bull is a stupid, unpractical oaf”, Morris replied. At a calmer moment he said, “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” That hatred stems from a repugnance of all that was squalid, stupid, dull, and hateful in capitalism and it led to its repudiation root and branch. Morris’s anti-capitalism was nurtured by his study of the romantic poets and to show this is one of Thompson’s achievements.
Morris possessed “a deep love of the earth and life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind. Think of it! Was it all to end in a counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap. . . .?” The question has become more urgent, the counting houses have become skyscrapers, the cinder-heap has become mounds of coal ash, piles of tailings, poisonous slurry, vast oil spills, buried beryllium, et cetera. Morris says—think of it! Indeed, that is our order of the day. Or, more simply, towards the end of his life he provided a familiar meaning whose very modesty conceals what is most revolutionary in it, namely, the suggestion that the future is already immanently in the present: “We are living in an epoch where there is combat between commercialism, or the system of reckless waste, and communism, or the system of neighborly common sense.”
Thompson as a stalwart member of the Communist Party of Great Britain did not have the same pressure that Morris felt as a founder to devise comprehensive definitions. Thompson’s problem was the opposite. He joined a Party that had already attained victory in one country, the USSR, so that any definition was bound to include raison d’état, far from neighborly common sense. As a founder of the New Left, Thompson grafted on to the old what was new, namely, “socialist humanism”, which however has not yet taken hold. Morris had an aesthetic practice as poet and crafts worker wherein the relation between revolutionary communism and the commons found manifold expressions. For Thompson, the relation found private, familial expression, and it infused his writing as an historian and peacenik. Thompson’s lasting political achievement was in the movement against nuclear weapons.
The periods of Morris’s writings at the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century when Thompson wrote about Morris were characterized by a planetary transition in the sources of energy driving economic development, from coal to petroleum to nuclear. These changes are largely absent in the writings of Thompson as they are from the commentators on Morris. I do not wish to “reduce” the thought of either man to the material and energy basis of the societies they lived in (the reduction of the ideological superstructure to the material base was the Marxist error Thompson criticized most). Morris was a craftsman of many and several materials, Thompson was an innovative and skilled historian; both were historical materialists. If we are to restore notions of the commons to revolutionary communism then we need to understand the materiality of history.
As communists they were both opposed to the capitalist mode of production but they wrote little about it per se. Since capital requires the separation of the worker from the means of production and subsistence, and since the most important such means is land, commoning must logically be the answer to the ills of a class-riven society. Not only is the commons an answer or therapeutic cure (as it were), it was the previously existing condition, because the original expropriation was from the commons. Morris was aware of this, and so was Thompson, who expressed it differently. Thus, historically speaking, capitalism is merely the middle, an interlude one might hopefully say, between the old commons of the past and the true communism of the future. Our language reflects the change in the degradation of the meaning of “commoner” from a person with access to the earthly commons to the undistinguished, ignoble mass, with the implicit understanding that he or she had nothing to call his or her own.
This edition of William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary was published in 1977 considerably revised from the first edition of 1955 and with the addition of a fifty-page postscript. The first edition itself was the result of many years of work. We have three dates in the evolution of Thompson’s Morris, 1951, 1955, and 1977. Actually, the relationship begins earlier.
In January 1944 Frank wrote Edward, two brothers now two soldiers in armies defeating fascism, about News from Nowhere as an example of “the most passionate possible idealism”. “Until we are conscious shapers of our own destiny there can be no balanced coherent goodness or beauty.” When the troops returned they were determined to shape their own destiny. News from Nowhere helped shape the outlook of Jack Dash, a London docker, and fierce rank-and-file leader of the dockers—port-wide, nation-wide, and world-wide—whose strike of 1947 was the beginning of post-war industrial turmoil.
Morris remained with Thompson his whole life. He told an American interviewer, “[after the war] I was teaching as much literature as history. I thought, how do I, first of all, raise with an adult class, many of them in the labor movement—discuss with them the significance of literature to their lives? And I started reading Morris. I was seized by Morris. I thought, why is this man thought to be an old fuddy-duddy? He is right in with us still.” Thompson concluded that Morris was “the first creative artist of major stature in the history of the world to take his stand, consciously and without the shadow of a compromise with the revolutionary working class.” “The Morris/Marx argument has worked inside me ever since. When, in 1956, my disagreements with orthodox Marxism became fully articulate, I fell back on modes of perception which I’d learned in those years of close company with Morris, and I found, perhaps, the will to go on arguing from the pressure of Morris behind me.” And perhaps it was a way of keeping faith with the passionate idealism of his brother. Thompson did not drop Morris’s unequivocal assertion of allegiance to “the revolutionary working class” from his 1977 edition. Thompson himself elaborated on it in his history if not in his current politics, for both , ‘revolution’ and ‘working class’ had been perversely distorted in Cold War discourse.
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary was first published in 1955. At the beginning of 1956 Krushchev gave his “secret speech” denouncing Stalin but in October of that year Soviet tanks rumbled onto the streets of Budapest suppressing a revolt of the workers’ councils. Between these events Thompson and his comrade John Saville began a discussion in three issues of The Reasoner. Thompson had to make his mind up about the moralism that he’d been exploring through the study of Morris. He wrote in the third and last number of The Reasoner. The “subordination of the moral and imaginative faculties to political and administrative authority is wrong; the elimination of moral criteria from political judgment is wrong; the fear of independent thought, the deliberate encouragement of anti-intellectual trends among the people is wrong; the mechanical personification of unconscious social forces, the belittling of the conscious process of intellectual and spiritual conflict, all this is wrong.” He was expelled from the Party. It was a moment of personal liberation too. He described “a psychological structure among Communist intellectuals from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s which left us all lacking in self-confidence when confronted by the intrusion of ‘the Party.’”
It was not merely fortuitous that the questioning of the CPGB represented by The Reasoner and less directly by his biography of William Morris the year before, occurred as the students and workers of Hungary rose up against domination by the USSR forming as they did so councils of direct democracy.
The Budapest students struck on 23 October 1956. A week earlier, on 17 October, Queen Elizabeth II opened the first ever nuclear energy plant commercially providing electricity. It was at Calder Hall, Sellafield, Cumbria on the coast of the Irish Sea. Otherwise electricity in England was provided thanks to the aid of tens of thousands of coal miners who had the power to install the Welfare State and might change society even further. Ever since President Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the UN in 1953, the peaceful use of nuclear energy sparked as many fanciful dreams of cheap energy without the interruptions of either oil politics or industrial disputes. The response in England was the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament whose famous peace symbol signaled a taboo upon nuclear bombs but not nuclear energy. Although the New Left was defined by its relation to the Aldermaston marches (1958) against nuclear weapons, it was unable to organize against nuclear energy as such. The base commodity was directly linked to the war machine. Nuclear war was averted, but Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) were down the road.
His subtitle raises questions. What is a romantic? What is a revolutionary? Is the former all ideal and imagination, while the latter is all reality and science? The English romantic movement among poets corresponded with both counter-revolution and intensity in the enclosure movement. The agrarian commons and the subsistence it provided were fast disappearing. Although Thompson will make this the theme of one of his most important history books, Customs in Common, he did not in the 1950s tie it to the Romantic poets. Thompson claims that Morris’s greatness is found in the “moral realism” that infused especially News from Nowhere (1890) and A Dream of John Ball (1886).
William Morris gave a lecture on communism in 1893 towards the end of his life at the Hammersmith Socialist Society. He stated, “If our ideas of a new Society are anything more than a dream, these three qualities must animate the due effective majority of the working people; and then, I say, the thing will be done.” The three qualities wanting to attain practical equality were the “intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel.”
The strength of Thompson’s biography is that it takes you right into the political developments of Morris’s life as an activist. Therefore, it must go to the working class, and hence to the mode of production. Thompson may not have written about the material changes of social life at the time he was writing, but he was assuredly aware of them at the time Morris was living. “What was the hinge that Labor depended upon at present?” Morris asked. “Coal-mining,” he answered.
The biography belonged to the year when the non-white people of the world met in Bandung, Indonesia, searching for a third way that was neither capitalist nor communist. Rosa Parks took a seat at the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The French historian Alfred Sauvy coined the term “the Third World” in 1952 to reflect the reality that neither the capitalist West nor the Soviet East comprised geographically Latin America, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Oceana. His usage referred to the Third Estate, the commoners of France who, before and during the French Revolution opposed priests and nobles who composed the First and Second Estate. Sauvy wrote, “Like the third estate, the Third World is nothing, and wants to be something.” Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” that year, seeking a rhapsodic, hip liaison with people of color against “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone.” Although Thompson’s biography was a powerful contribution to the search for indigenous radical roots in England it was also part of the global stirring of the moral capacities of humankind whose most bitter outrage perhaps was that greeting the American explosion of the H-bomb, code name Bravo, on the Bikini atoll in 1954, which poisoned the Japanese fishermenaboard the “Lucky Dragon” and inspired Godzilla.
This essay is adapted from the forward to William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary by EP Thompson (Spectre).
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org