Wednesday 13 June 2018

William Morris in Preston

Listening to the audience responding to Terry Eagleton’s talk at the Hay Festival the other day reminded me how often, in local press coverage of Morris’s own socialist lecturing tours, we get excellently detailed reports of the queries and challenges his audiences put to him.  One memorable example of this is the article ‘Conference with a Socialist’ in the Preston Guardian for 25 October 1884, reporting on Morris’s talk in that city on ‘A Socialist’s View of Art and Labour’, which was chaired by the Unitarian minister William Sharman.  The lecture, according to the reporter, was ‘mostly read from a voluminous roll of manuscript’, and ‘There was a good attendance’, though disappointingly he doesn’t give an actual figure.

Morris’s lecture is effectively summarised, and then the fun begins.  The first question came from a Mr Greenhalgh: ‘a query with regard to the Socialists on the Continent: Were they not a political body trying to subvert society in its present form?’  Various speakers challenged what Mr Geo. Bancroft describes as ‘the Lecturer’s laudatory descriptions of the artisans of the Middle Ages’; and ‘Another person wanted to know what plans were to be taken to make “all folk of one web”’, i.e. economically equal despite their varying capacities.  Mr Newsham asked about the means of social transformation proposed by the Democratic Federation: ‘What modus operandi must they adopt to bring about change without serious trouble and anxiety?’  One local gentleman seemed to have a bee in his bonnet about working-class intemperance: ‘Did he [Morris] not think there would be less destitution in England if the 136 millions spent in drink annually was spent on what he called art’.  And ‘the concluding question was as to whether the working classes had derived benefits from the improvements of machinery’.

It seems that all the questions were asked in one block, and Morris must have been making notes furiously, since he then answered them all in what amounts to a second speech.  It might be interesting to pursue my Eagleton/Morris comparison a little further, and to compare the typical questions addressed to Morris across the whole range of his political lectures, not just the 1884 Preston talk, with those ten standard criticisms of Marx and Marxism which Eagleton ventriloquises, and then powerfully answers, in his 2011 volume Why Marx Was Right.   

Sunday 3 June 2018

Terry Eagleton at the Hay Festival

Consummate showman that he is at the lectern, Terry Eagleton played his large audience beautifully in the Tata Tent at Hay on Friday morning.  A sequence of fine Eagletonian quips and gags softened the crowd up for his eloquent defence of Marx and Marxism against popular misconceptions and for an introduction to the concepts of tragedy and sacrifice as they feature in Terry’s own recent work. Marx was aligned with Oscar Wilde as a spokesperson for a socialism of leisure, as opposed to William Morris’s vision of a socialism of creative labour – a contrast which, to my mind, is more to Morris’s credit than that of the other two.

Dai Smith was to have chaired the talk, but was prevented from doing so by illness, so Terry ran his own question-and-answer session.  The first questioner leapt to his feet and delivered a kneejerk condemnation of Communist regimes as ‘bloody dictatorships’, but subsequent questions were more on Eagleton’s side, sympathetic to the powerful critique of capitalism he had outlined, though with reservations here and there, naturally.  I had a real sense that the Hay festival, for all its slick professionalism, lavish corporate funding and media domination, might have shifted significantly to the left, or at least to a more left-liberal position.

A question about immediate political tactics in the UK of 2018 came up, as did such topics as Brexit; and my wife Makiko Minow and I found ourselves disagreeing afterwards as to what degree a predominantly theoretical discourse such as Terry’s in the Tata Tent should or should not be ‘cashable’ in practical-political terms – she feeling that it needn’t be, and I more anxious that it should, though I’m not sure I see exactly how.  I do feel, though, that for William Morris, whom Terry had praised for his detailed account of the transition to communism in News from Nowhere, the question of the party is a crucial one.  This might not run quite as far as Trotsky’s slogan ‘my party right or wrong’, but none the less Morris’s gargantuan efforts on behalf of the Socialist League show how committed he was to forging a genuinely transformative political agency.  The pressing question for us – whether Corbyn’s Labour Party can be such a force – remains an open one.  I shall just have to get myself to local meetings and September’s Annual Conference in Liverpool and make my own decision about that.