Thursday 25 October 2018

The Poet of Comrades: Walt Whitman in the 1880s

What would it mean to have a poet of socialism for our time?  I suppose there was a moment in the 1980s, with the publication of V and the ensuing controversy around the film version of it, when it felt as though Tony Harrison would occupy that position.  Yet that marvellous poem, though it does so much – rewriting Thomas Gray’s Elegy, anatomising contemporary northern working-class culture, evoking the Miners’ Strike and excoriating Thatcherism – in the end lacks a positive vision of socialism.  For all its transgressive sociological and linguistic explorations, it seems ultimately to retreat into the epiphanic time of domestic sexual love and the unthinkable, non-human perspectives of geological transformation.  Collective action is the missing term between the two.

For the early British socialist movement, however, as Kirsten Harris’s fine talk yesterday at the Working Class Movement Museum in Manchester showed, there was indeed such a poet, though he was American rather than British, and certainly never declared himself a socialist.  Whitman’s work was pervasive in the buoyant early days of the movement: published both in newspaper columns and complete editions, set to music by Edward Carpenter, read out aloud in Labour Church services, recommended in socialist reading lists.  For the ethical socialists of the north in particular, socialism needed the spiritual foundations that Whitman’s evolutionary optimism was seen to provide, though his own key political term was ‘democracy’, which could of course have a range of meanings.  A discourse of youth, health, physical vigour, manual labour and same-sex comradeship found abundant resources in Whitman’s verse, which was as exuberantly revolutionary in form and rhythm as it was in content.

That 1880s sense that socialism must forge a new culture as well as conduct its usual economic and political arguments and activism remains crucial, though the poetic optimism we need, after the political calamities of the twentieth century, will be an altogether steelier and more nuanced one than Whitman’s own.  What an adequate political poetry for our own moment might look like, what kind of Jamesonian ‘cognitive mapping’ it might be expected to do, in both form and content, is an inquiry which the William Morris Society, with the ‘Chants for Socialists’ and ‘Pilgrims of Hope’ among its own resources, should be peculiarly well-equipped to explore.

Monday 15 October 2018

Police Spies Exposed

Today’s Guardian newspaper gives us the perfect topic for a new exhibition at the William Morris Museum in Kelmscott House or at the Morris Gallery in Walthamstow: undercover police penetration of leftwing and other progressive groups.  Drawing on findings by the Undercover Research Group, the Guardian reports that the Socialist Workers Party was infiltrated ‘almost continuously between 1970 and 2007’, and that ‘Undercover officers spied on 22 leftwing groups, 10 environmental groups, nine anti-racist campaigns and nine anarchist groups, according to the database.  They also spied on campaigns against apartheid, the arms trade, nuclear weapons and the monarchy, as well as trade unions. Among those spied on were 16 campaigns run by families or their supporters seeking justice over alleged police misconduct’.  These fake activists tricked women into sexual relationships and – in a still more revolting detail – sometimes used the identities of dead babies to generate their own cover.  In contrast, only three far-right groups were infiltrated, a fact which tells you all you need to know about the political leanings of the British police force.

Morris faced similar problems during his own activist career in the Socialist League. In January 1888 he wrote a forceful piece for Commonweal entitled ‘Police Spies Exposed’, in which he argued that ‘police-spying … has become a recognized department of governmental work … it is really an international political secret police that is maintained and worked from Berlin’.  He then gives a list of thirteen names of these agents, including ‘those employed in London’.  How you make an effective public exhibition out of this topic and material, I’m not sure; but then, that’s not my speciality.  I’m sure Morris volunteers at the Museum or Gallery could very effectively do so if they put their mind to it, so I commend this issue to them. 

We would surely be very na├»ve if we thought police penetration of left and progressive groups had stopped with the disbanding of the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit.   No doubt it continues, in suitably updated forms.   Imagine if the William Morris Society itself became a sufficiently effective socialist organisation for the British police to think it worth infiltrating.  Now there is a consummation devoutly to be wished!    

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Morris's Death Day

The fact that today is William Morris’s deathday reminds me of that strange gambit in Morris biography whereby you try your hand at predicting what he might have gone on to do if he had not died at the relatively early age of sixty-two.  Here is his best recent biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, having a go at this in 1996: ‘It is tempting to consider what Morris would have turned his hand to had he lived a few years longer.  Metalwork is the prime candidate’.  But this mode of speculation begins a good deal earlier than that. In a letter to John Quinn of 16 October 1912 May Morris informs him of her father’s interest in Persian literature and continues: ‘If life were longer, I am sure he would have burrowed deep in eastern material – I mean out of the way things – he knew much of the usual Eastern “classics”’.  

I recently discovered, rather to my surprise, that I have contributed to this guessing game myself, in my William Morris in Oxford (2007); for on p.153 of that book I remark that ‘had Morris lived longer’ we might have seen a new, ‘third’ relationship opening up between him and Oxford University, in which cultural co-production might have superseded the passive receptivity of his undergraduate years (first relationship) and the transformative militancy of his middle-aged activist phase in the city (second relationship).  No doubt there are other hypotheses already out there in the Morris scholarship, and it seems unlikely that there will be an end to such post-1896 thought-experiments!