In the wake of the death of cultural theorist Stuart Hall on the 10th of this month, a tweet from the William Morris Gallery pointed us to his remarks on Morris in his account of the ‘Life and Times of the First New Left’. Hall wrote: ‘The notion of a “socialist propaganda of ideas” was, of course, borrowed directly and explicitly from William Morris and the relationships forged in the Socialist League between intellectuals, struggling to make themselves what Gramsci called ‘organic’, and the working class. We had all read and been inspired by the ‘Making Socialists’ chapter of Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Indeed, the first editorial of New Left Review was framed at either end by a quote from Morris’s Commonweal article of July 1885: “The Labour movement is not in its insurrectionary phase.” I added: “we are in our missionary phase”.’
It has been moving to see how much grief the loss of Stuart Hall has unleashed on the Left and beyond, comparable only to that occasioned by Raymond Williams’s death twenty-five years earlier. I didn’t know Hall personally, though I listened to his spell-binding oratory at various events in the 1980s and was an avid reader of Marxism Today, with its analyses of Thatcherism and ‘New Times’. But reading the statement of Hall’s debt to Morris under the immediate impact of his passing, I wonder if it isn’t now time to run the traffic the other way, as it were.
Instead of Stuart Hall being indebted to Morris, as in the mid-1950s, the William Morris Society of 2013 might open itself to the themes and projects of Stuart Hall. It might then think of itself as an explicitly leftwing outfit with a mission to intervene in the cultural, political and economic debates of the present (rather than retreating to safe historicist work on the nineteenth century). For starters, what about a London lecture course on ‘The Theory and Practice of Contemporary Utopia’, as an early twenty-first-century equivalent of Edward Aveling’s 1885 Socialist League lectures on Marx’s Capital? Such a metamorphosis of the Morris Society would be a small but useful compensation for the loss of a truly great figure on the Left.