E P Thompson 1951

William Morris and the Moral Issues Today

Source: Arena, Volume 2, no 8, June-July 1951. A speech at a conference organised by the National Cultural Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain in London on 29 April 1951. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Shortly after the last war, I visited the United States. In the course of my visit I stayed with a Professor of English Literature at a small New England college. He was rather over forty years old, and had failed to make any mark in the academic world. He was – he thought – at the top of a rather inferior ladder, and, while he was comfortably off, there were no real prospects of increasing either his standing or his salary. All around him he could see his friends, either in business or in the more piratical professions, ‘making good’ in a big way in the postwar boom; and no doubt it was the grotesque recrudescence of imperialist Babbit-itis which accompanied their inflated incomes which caused him one evening to reflect rather ruefully upon the chances he had missed.

‘You know where I went wrong?’, he said. ‘Just after the first war I was teaching in the Near East. Now, when I was there I noticed that there was one thing the people lacked – fresh meat. You know what I ought to have done? I ought to have gone straight back to the States – chucked up all this Shakespeare stuff – and got a few guys I knew to put up some capital. Then I could have gone back there, bought up some old warehouses for abattoirs, and put in some first-class American refrigerating equipment.’ He squared his jaw above his virile cowboy-style shirt with the decision of a JP Morgan, banged his fist on the table, and glowered through his horn-rim spectacles. ‘Boy, I could have set up a chain of slaughterhouses throughout the Holy Land! My God, I could have cleaned up!’

I did not make this story up, and the Professor was not pulling my leg. The ‘American dream’ really is as childish and as debased as this and its poison can be found in every field of American life. Those who have never been to the United States and who fool themselves (like some readers of the New Statesman) that Hollywood, the Hearst Press and the comics represent only a lunatic fringe of the American bourgeoisie, sometimes suggest that Babbit is an out-of-date joke on the 1920s: unfortunately it only foreshadows the horror of today. In the last two or three years the dream of my Professor has acquired for me a terrible significance – and has revealed itself in a more terrible actuality for the peasants of Korea and the people of a threatened world.

But perhaps this story will illustrate my first point. When we take the message of this conference back to the people, let us not be too heavy-handed about it. It is necessary for us to understand the full seriousness of the threat to our culture, and to have the facts and the figures before us. But we will not defeat this threat with facts and figures alone, and we have on our side in this fight one great resource, and that is the healthy sense of ridicule within our people. This has been shown with great effect already by the response which Unity Theatre has won with their show, Here Goes. It was shown again this morning by Peter Major, [1] when he used the weapon of satire in his attack upon the American comics. What we should remember is that, when we use this weapon, our battle is already half won. For a very long time the American, whether tourist, or business-man, or pettifogging academic, has been – and sometimes unfairly – an object for ridicule amongst our people. I do not suggest that we can laugh the American threat away: but we should keep the biting edge of British humour sharp, and turned in that direction.

My second point is related to this. Today is the time when we must at last take the moral offensive firmly into our own hands. Nothing has been more striking about this conference than the strong positive note struck in Sam Aaronovitch’s report [2] and also in the discussion. Perhaps some of us came to the conference afraid that a lot would be said about the American threat to our culture, but very little about the promise within British culture: that has certainly not been the case. I would like to refer once again to the man who, above all others, is the forerunner of this conference, and who, in his time, carried on almost single-handed the activities of the Writers’, Historians’, Artists’, Architects’ and Literature groups all in one – and who (if the stories about his command of certain plain Anglo-Saxon words are true) was the forerunner of the Linguistics group as well. William Morris was accustomed to go straight to the point in any matter he took up, and when he had occasion to write of America at the time of the hysteria accompanying the judicial murder of the Chicago Anarchists, he dealt with the American bourgeoisie’s pretence of democracy thus:

... a country with universal suffrage, no king, no House of Lords, no privilege as you fondly think; only a little standing army, chiefly used for the murder of red-skins; a democracy after your model; and with all that a society corrupt to the core, and at this moment engaged in suppressing freedom with just the same reckless brutality and blind ignorance as the Czar of all the Russias uses.

The ‘little standing army’ is now – how many million strong? But the brutality and the ignorance are the same.

Among the traducers of Morris’ memory, the name of one American ‘scholar’ must be given a prominent place – a certain Mr Lloyd Eric Grey, whose book William Morris: A Prophet of England’s New Order has been recently acclaimed in Britain, despite the fact that it is both ignorant and thoroughly dishonest. One of the lies which this book seeks to perpetuate is that William Morris became generally ‘disillusioned’ in revolutionary socialism towards the end of his life. It may therefore be apposite for several reasons to quote from the last article written by Morris, for the May Day issue of Justice in 1896, a few months before his death:

... there are some who will say: ‘Yes, indeed, the capitalist system can come to no good end, death in a dustbin is its doom, but will not its end be at least speedy without any help of ours?’ My friends, I fear not. The capitalist classes are doubtless alarmed at the spread of socialism all over the civilised world. They have at least an instinct of danger; but with that instinct comes the other one of self-defence. Look how the whole capitalist world is stretching out long arms towards the barbarous world and grabbing and clutching in eager competition at countries whose inhabitants don’t want them; nay, in many cases, would rather die in battle, like the valiant men they are, than have them...

And what is all this for? For the spread of abstract ideas of civilisation? For pure benevolence, for the honour and glory of conquest? Not at all. It is for the opening of fresh markets to take in all the fresh profit-producing wealth which is growing greater and greater every day; in other words, to make fresh opportunities for waste; the waste of our labour and our lives.

And as I say this is an irresistible instinct on the part of the capitalists, an impulse like hunger, and I believe that it can only be met by another hunger, the hunger for freedom and fair play for all, both people and peoples. Anything less than that the capitalist power will brush aside. But that they cannot; for what will it mean? The most important part of their machinery, the ‘hands’ becoming men, and saying: ‘Now at last we will it; we will produce no more for profit but for use, for happiness, for life.’

These words of William Morris have all the force of prophesy for us today. Never has there been a time in the history of the world when the real moral issues before man have been clearer. Perhaps the issues are so clear and so big that we sometimes fail to grasp them. We are offered Life or Death. On the one hand, the spreading stain of corruption and defeat in culture and human endeavour, on the other the liberation of the creative energies of whole peoples. On the one hand the burnt earth and steaming seas of a devastated planet, and on the other the flowering of wastes deserted by man for many hundreds of years. This is the only choice before man. The defenders of American capitalism have nothing whatsoever to offer to the people, but more work, and more poverty, and at the end of it, Death in a desperate and indiscriminate war. Beneath all the nice quibbles about means and ends, all the clever things which Orwell or Koestler or Eliot or their American counterparts have to say, will be found the same facts: napalm, the Hell Bomb, and the butchers of Syngman Rhee.

But here we must note a curious fact. It is at this very moment, when the American capitalists and their British apologists are threatening the very fundamentals of society, that they have gained, in this country, the initiative in the field of morality. It is under cover of talk of ‘moral values’, ‘freedom and democracy’, ‘the western way of life’, and so forth, that preparations are pressed forward for the next war. You need only turn on the BBC for five minutes to get a bellyful. And (since the old lie that socialism ‘can’t work’ was shattered for good when the Red Army routed the Nazis at Stalingrad) it is under cover of the same talk about ‘human rights’ and so on that they try to turn the minds of the people of Britain and America against the Soviet Union, China and the new democracies. And yet, in the face of this, we remain strangely silent. Why is this?

I think there are two reasons. The first is in the very enormity of the lie. It is the Big Lie technique of Goebbels over again. The Lie is so monstrous that we cannot be troubled with it, we turn our backs on it, and divert the argument on to more practical questions.

The second is in the history of our labour movement. Few peoples can have been blessed with so many politicians who have buttered their careers with ‘idealistic’ phrases – the MacDonalds, Snowdens, Morrisons, and the rest who have kept the people occupied with stargazing into the ‘moral’ firmament while they themselves have climbed into comfortable positions. This has led, within our movement, to a definite suspicion of any moral argument as such, a strong inhibition against appealing to the healthy moral feelings of the people.

But this inhibition, this refusal to go on to the offensive on moral questions, is simply to cut off our nose to spite someone else’s face. Our morality is not one based on abstract ‘principles’ of freedom, justice and love, which remain unchanged in every circumstance, or, rather, can be used to justify any and every policy that is thought expedient. Our morality is based on one principle only – man, his real suffering and his real happiness. No matter how often they say ‘freedom’ we say that the burning of Korean villages with jellied petrol bombs is a vile and inhuman practice. No matter if the BBC drones on about ‘Western democracy’ night after night it still will not alter our sympathy for the trade unionists imprisoned and shot in Spain or Greece, or our knowledge that the instigators and propagandists of a new world war are setting themselves against all the canons of elementary human fellow feeling by which the common people of every land have learnt to live.

That is the point. The people already know this: but we are slow to learn it. We have allowed ourselves to be argued on to the defensive. Too often we find ourselves arguing defensively as to whether or not (for example) Petkov was really organising a military coup or Cardinal Mindszenty was a black-marketeer, and in the intricacies and details we forget to take the argument forward to the simple issues which the people already understand. The profound revulsion in this country against that evil man, MacArthur, and the universal relief at his dismissal, is surely an example of the living moral health of our people.

If we are to resist this threat to our culture and to our lives, it is high time that we rid ourselves of the last traces of an apologetic, defensive attitude, and of the historical inhibitions which have kept us from speaking out.

The older members of our movement – men like Willie Gallacher and SO Davies – always carry this strong moral conviction with them, and there is much that we can learn here from the pioneers of our movement. Recalling the effect upon him of William Morris’ writings in his youth, Harry Pollitt writes in Serving My Time:

There is not half enough of this type of propaganda today. We have all become so hard and practical that we are ashamed of painting the vision splendid – of showing glimpses of the promised land. It is missing from our speeches, our press and our pamphlets, and if one dares to talk about the ‘gleam’, one is in danger of being accused of sentimentalism. Yet I am convinced it was this kind of verbal inspiration that gave birth to the indestructible urge which helped the pioneers of the movement to keep fight, fight, fighting for freedom, when it was by no means as easy as it is today.

When we take the message of this conference back to the people, let us keep the positive note in the foreground. For goodness sake, don’t let us fall victims to gloom and defeatism ourselves and appal our audiences with only a catalogue of American penetrations. And don’t let any of our opponents be given a chance to sneer that the Communists and their friends have found one more thing to be against. Let it be understood that we raise these issues because we care about our culture. Let us prove this by paying even more attention to our own history and cultural achievements, and by bringing our almost forgotten revolutionary traditions once again before the people. Let us be more aggressive in our answers to the hypocrisy of napalm-democracy. Let us always remember that it will be useless to try to resist the American threat if we can only replace it with a vacuum: and that, while we may win some local gains of a negative kind, the only lasting victories will be where – whether in scholarship, or dance-tunes, or philosophy – the American substitute is driven out by a development of the living British tradition.

Above all, let us bring back the question of socialism before the British people. Until 1945 great sections of the British people had a fairly clear idea of the great changes in their lives which socialism would bring. But in the last few years the Labour leaders have by their timid practice and hypocritical professions so debased the word, that now the Tory and American propagandists can caricature it by the names of ‘controls’ and ‘bureaucracy’ and so on. In place of the great proletarian values revealed in class-solidarity and militancy, we now have, even among sections of our working-class movement, the values of private living growing up – the private fears and neuroses, the self-interest and timid individualism fostered by pulp magazines and Hollywood films. We have to build that vision of socialism over again – not only the understanding of socialism as it already exists over one quarter of the earth, but also the vision of socialism as it will and must come in Britain. And – since this is a cultural conference – perhaps it may be an especial responsibility of ours to help people to understand the great changes which will take place in their lives, in the sciences and the arts and in human relationships, within socialism. Once again I will quote William Morris, who, when he was once criticising those ‘one-sided socialists’ who ignore such changes as these, wrote:

I hold that we need not be afraid of scaring our audiences with too brilliant pictures of the future of society, nor think ourselves unpractical and utopian for telling them the bare truth, that in destroying monopoly we shall destroy our present civilisation... If you tell your audiences that you are going to change so little that they will scarcely feel the change, whether you scare anyone or not, you will certainly not interest those who have nothing to hope for in the present society, and whom the hope of a change has attracted towards socialism... And certainly the socialists who are always preaching to people that socialism is an economic change pure and simple, are very apt to repel those who want to learn for the sake of those who do not.

In one of his first socialist lectures, William Morris said: ‘It is to stir you up not to be contented with a little that I am here tonight.’ That is the job we have to do. If we wish to save people from the spreading taint of death, then we must win them for life. We do not wait for a new kind of person to appear until after socialism has been won, any more than we wait for Marxism to arise within a communist society. We must change people now, for that is the essence of all our cultural work. And in this work, all the forces of health within society are on our side: all those who, in whatever way, desire a richer life, all those who have warmer ambitions for Britain than those of tedious insolvency and rearmament, all those, indeed, who desire any life at all, can be won to our side if we take to them the message of life against that of the slaughter-house culture.


1. Sic – Peter Mauger, ‘Children’s Reading’, Arena, Volume 2, no 8, June-July 1951 – MIA.

2. Sam Aaronovitch, ‘The American Threat to British Culture’, Arena, Volume 2, no 8, June-July 1951 – MIA.