Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Friend of Engels

It is good that we have Members of Parliament participating in debates about the contemporary cultural relevance of Ruskin and Morris: Caroline Lucas for the Greens on Morris, Tristram Hunt (pictured) for Labour on Ruskin here at Lancaster the other day. His lively talk on ‘Ruskin, Engels and the City’ explored the thinking of both men about the city’s spatial dynamics under capitalism, and the shapes of its possible regeneration beyond that exploitative economic system.

During Hunt’s talk I occasionally found my mind drifting off to E.P. Thompson’s provocative 1976 description of Morris as ‘the friend of Engels’ (p.818). As a way of emphasising Morris’s intellectual and political importance, that is certainly an effective slogan; but how accurate is it? After all, I can’t quite imagine William and Friedrich having a quiet, matey afternoon together fishing for pike and perch at Kelmscott. They certainly had close consultations as Morris and his allies planned their break from the SDF in late 1884, and during these the two men discovered their shared love for old Norse literature, which might have become the basis of a genuine friendship. But Engels’s later dismissive phrases about Morris – ‘settled sentimental socialist’ – quickly come to mind at this point.

This is not just a scholarly issue, but also, I think, a problem of form, of mode of writing – and perhaps more an opportunity than a problem. Academic expository prose has probably reached its limits here, and we might now be able to learn more about the Engels-Morris relationship by dramatising it, by writing a play based on and heuristically exploring those tense months as the project for the Socialist League took shape. After all, at a socialist entertainment on 21 November 1884 Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, themselves key participants in the SDF break-up, acted in a play based on their own colourful lives, so we do have some warrant for this approach from the period itself. Any creative writing volunteers out there?

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