From the Foreword to E.P. Thompson’s “William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary”

First of the Month

What follows below comes from Peter Linebaugh’s Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (PM Press, 2014). First of the Month will reprint pieces from Linebaugh’s collection of essays, which has been called a “Commonist Manifesto,” throughout 2024. The following text is an excerpt from a piece of Linebaugh’s that served as the foreword to a revised edition of E.P. Thompson’s biography of William Morris. (Thompson’s book was first published in 1955 — the year before his break with the Communist Party.) 

Thompson has been in the cultural conversation lately. (His huffy back-and-forth with Lesezk Kolakowski has been invoked here.)  Thompson may have always have been too full of himself. (Like most would-be vanguardists?) His duller certainties deserve skepticism. (I’m recalling just now Thompson’s dimness about a distinguished thing dear to Stuart Hall: “‘How can you be interested in Henry James?’ Edward Thompson once admonished me, with exasperation.”[1]) Thompson’s blankness about certain aspects of “high” intellection, though, deserve more than forbearance since it seems to have allowed him to focus on The Making of the English Working Class and his other histories from below.

Linebaugh has a near familial feeling for Thompson (who was his mentor), but he doesn’t do hagiography. He interrogates Thompson’s takes on Morris without being prosecutorial. Here he gets to what  Thompson missed in Morris’s essay “Under the Elm Tree” even as Thompson saluted Morris for… 

“Interweaving the beauty of nature and the struggle of man, past, present and future, and employing the eye of the craftsman and the poet, the whole is a tour de force. And yet, so quiet and mellow is the tone that the excellence of the artist’s handiwork passes almost without notice. Certainly, in his respite from intense political activity, Morris was re-opening old veins of feeling.” Thompson is moved to ask whether Morris is losing interest in socialism? But why should acute observation of birds, fish, and flowers dull interest in social­ism? Thompson wonders whether Morris found propaganda and creativity incompatible? But why should this be a contradiction?

Thompson’s formulations are abstract: for example, “The beauty of nature and the struggle of man.” Morris is much more particular. Thompson speaks of “nature” and this is where the trouble lies. What is evoked depends on the commons. Morris stops and talks to the workers in the field about money. Thompson omits the conversations with the agricultural workers. Morris employs the ear of the socialist and historian, as well as the eye of the craftsman and poet, and it is the ear that saves the essay from becoming another pretty picture. 

Linebaugh himself has become a wonderfully conversational writer. (Though I won’t cavil if you want to call his style dialectical.) Near the end of the following essay, Linebaugh evokes a vibrant vision of working class respondents listening to Morris hold forth “on a piece of rough healthy ground” by the river Tyne. He notes the surround helped spark Morris who spoke “until the dusk fell and stars came out.” I doubt anyone minded Morris being “lectury,” given how “completely admirable a man this Victorian was—how consistent and honest to himself and others, how incapable of cruelty or jargon and, above all, how free.”[2] Those aren’t Linebaugh’s terms of endearment for Morris but I think he’d go for them. Maybe because the terms apply to him as well…

William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary was first published in 1955. At the beginning of 1956 Krushchev gave his “secret speech” denouncing Stalin but in October of that year Soviet tanks rumbled onto the streets of Budapest suppressing a revolt of the workers’ councils. Between these events Thompson and his comrade John Saville began a discussion in three issues of The Reasoner. Thompson had to make his mind up about the moralism that he’d been explor­ing through the study of Morris. He wrote in the third and last number of The Reasoner.[26] The “subordination of the moral and imaginative faculties to political and administrative authority is wrong; the elimination of moral criteria from political judgment is wrong; the fear of independent thought, the deliberate encouragement of anti-intellectual trends among the people is wrong; the mechanical personification of unconscious social forces, the belit­tling of the conscious process of intellectual and spiritual conflict, all this is wrong.”[27] He was expelled from the Party. It was a moment of personal liber­ation too. He described “a psychological structure among Communist intel­lectuals from the mid-193os to the late 1940s which left us all lacking in self­ confidence when confronted by the intrusion of ‘the Party.”‘[28]

It was not merely fortuitous that the questioning of the CPGB represented by The Reasoner and less directly by William Morris the year before, occurred as the students and workers of Hungary rose up against domination by the USSR forming as they did so councils of direct democracy. The Budapest students struck on October 23, 1956. A week earlier, on October 17, Queen Elizabeth II opened the first ever nuclear energy plant commercially providing electricity. It was at Calder Hall, Sellafield, Cumbria on the coast of the Irish Sea. Otherwise electricity in England was provided thanks to the aid of tens of thousands of coal miners who, as we have seen, had the power to install the Welfare State and might change society even further. Ever since President Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the UN in 1953, the peaceful use of nuclear energy sparked as many fanciful dreams of cheap energy without the interrup­tions of either oil politics or industrial disputes. The response in England was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament whose famous peace symbol signaled a taboo upon nuclear bombs but not nuclear energy. Although the New Left was defined by its relation to the Aldermaston marches (1958) against nuclear weapons, it was unable to organize against nuclear energy as such. The base commodity was directly linked to the war machine. Nuclear war was averted, but Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) were down the road.

His subtitle raises questions. What is a romantic? What is a revolution­ary? Is the former all ideal and imagination, while the latter is all reality and science? The English romantic movement among poets corresponded with both counter-revolution and intensity in the enclosure movement. The agrar­ian commons and the subsistence it provided were fast disappearing. Although Thompson will make this the theme of one of his most important history books, Customs in Common, he did not in the 1950s tie it to the Romantic poets. Thompson claims that Morris’s greatness is found in the “moral realism” that infused especially News from Nowhere (1890) and A Dream of John Ball (1886).

The biography belonged to the year when the nonwhite people of the world met in Bandung, Indonesia, searching for a third way that was neither capitalist nor communist. Rosa Parks took a seat at the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The French historian Alfred Sauvy coined the term “the Third World” in 1952 to reflect the reality that neither the capitalist West nor the Soviet East comprised geographically Latin America, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Oceania. His usage referred to the Third Estate, the commoners of France who, before and during the French Revolution opposed priests and nobles who composed the First and Second Estate. Sauvy wrote, “Like the third estate, the Third World is nothing, and wants to be something.” Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” that year, seeking a rhapsodic, hip liaison with people of color against “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone.” Although Thompson’s biography was a powerful contribution to the search for indig­enous radical roots in England it was also part of the global stirring of the moral capacities of humankind whose most bitter outrage perhaps was that greeting the American explosion of the H-bomb, code name Bravo, on the Bikini atoll in 1954, which poisoned the Japanese fishermen aboard the Luc Dragon and inspired Godzilla.


Comparing the Arena articles with the two biographical texts of 1955 and 1977 yields interesting results. The second one is shorter, less dogmatic, less strident, without “Stalinist pieties,” as he said. But there was more to it than that. To John Goode “The disappearance of Shelley from the book is remarkable.” The suppression and emasculation of Shelley within the teaching of literature was one of the Cold War projects. Shelley remained true to the principles proclaimed with the dawn of modern history — liberté égalité, fraternité — even after darkness descended on the day with the guillotine. Liberty, equality and fraternity had distinct and definite meanings in Ireland, Haiti, the United States, and England that were not confined to Francophilia. “The revolt of definite social forces championing definite human values in the face of definite tyranny” was not yet transmuted into the indefinite idealism of imaginative aspiration against the definite reality of nineteenth-century life. In his tremendous sonnet “England in 1819,” precise wrath is directed to every part of the political and cultural superstructure. The agent of historical change­ — the working class in England — had been defeated at Peterloo and was present in Shelley’s poetry, not in its historical reality, but only as a “Phantom.” Morris had to find this real history again, that is, the social agency of revolutionary change, from where Shelley had left it off. Morris explained, “what romance means is the capacity for a true conception of history, a power of making the past part of the present.” Morris presented a copy of Shelley’s poems to the reading room of the Socialist League.[30]

To Perry Anderson the differences between editions fall under his consideration of utopianism and strategies. Thompson wrote of “the whole problem of the subordination of the imaginative utopian faculties within the late Marxist tradition: its lack of a moral self-consciousness or even a vocabulary of desire, its inability to project any images of the future, or even its tendency to fall back in lieu of these upon the Utilitarian’s earthly paradise — the maximization of economic growth.” To this Anderson objected that the discussion of desire was obscurantist and irrational. Moreover, Anderson “described the historical conditions for Morris’s utopianism” to be his rich inheritance from his father which released him from drudgery and enabled him to acquire his cornucopia of craft skills. Yes, Morris was a creature of a bourgeois upbringing and he had money. This is true. Yet history impinges on biography in additional ways. The historical conditions for his utopian book, News from Nowhere, included the new unionism of unskilled workers, the great dock strike of 1889, and the proliferation of organizational initiatives like the Fabians, the Scottish Labour Party, and the Irish Land League.

For Anderson the first edition was informed “by a fierce polemic against reformism that is notably mitigated in the second.” He quotes from an 1886 lecture anticipating civil war. Those who believed in piece-meal change under­-estimated the structural unity of capitalism; those who believed in the reform of the system did not understand its ability to beguile its opponents while simultaneously swindling them. Morris’s opposition to meliorists, reformists, palliativists, was often expressed. Anderson is convinced that these writings comprise “the first frontal engagement with reformism in the history of Marxism.”

Morris believed that revolution, or the “great change” or “the clearing of misery,” could not be attained without armed struggle. Anderson fusses because Thompson does not assess ”his changing conceptions of the means to attack and destroy the bourgeois State.” Morris develops the scenarios of dual power (council, assembly, congregation) in the chapter in News from Nowhere called “How the Change Came.” Parliament became a dung market. But where does that power reside? To Anderson it is the state and the law, like­wise with Thompson. They neglect the economy, from the points of produc­tion to the organization of reproduction, from the base commodity to the division of labor.

“Thompson’s work is haunted by political or intellectual junctures that failed to occur — historical rendez-vous that were missed, to our endur­ing loss: romantic poets and radical workers at the start of the nineteenth century, Engels and Morris at the end of it, libertarian and labor movements today”[31] The junction between Morris and Engels was made and it was via “the commons” in its European form. Engels had published an essay on “The Mark” as an appendix to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (r88o), written particu­larly for English and German comrades who did not know the history of these commoning forms of land tenure (Gehferschaften and Loosgter). The commoners practiced the jubilee and a land distribution system based on periodical assign­ments by lot. In describing the pigs, the mushrooms, the turf, the wood, the unwritten customs, the mark regulations, the berries, the heaths, the forests, lakes, ands, hunting grounds, fishing pools, he has quite forgotten his polemic against the economics professors (which is what inspired his tract) and he relished an imaginative reconstruction of a pre-commodity world, the “mark,” and its indigenous inhabitants. ‘Without the use of the mark, there can be no cattle for the small peasant; without cattle, no manure; without manure, no agriculture.” That is the living commons. In 1888 William Morris wrote A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark, which is a historical fantasy of tribes (he says “kindreds”) of northern Europe facing invasions from Rome. The Wolfings practice a simple direct democracy. They combine cattle and corn cultures. They maintain equality between the genders. The “mark” may not be the complete intellectual juncture between Engels and Morris that Anderson believed Thompson longed for! Yet it was part of the international debate about common property of the late nineteenth century which we find in Wallace on Malaysia or Cushing on the Pueblo or, indeed, Marx on the mir.[32]


The 1977 edition omits a significant part of the chapter concerning “The Last Years of the Socialist League.” If we examine this omission closely we can wend our way to a central issue to both thinkers, the relation between the actual reality of commons and the revolutionary ideal of communism. “Under the Elm Tree,” first published in Commonweal, July 6, 1889, finds Morris lying on a strip of roadside green, near a riverbank, surrounded by wild flowers and meditating upon the landscape and England.

The structure of the essay moves from contemplation of the flowers, observation of the freedom of the fish and birds, to a meditation on history and the armed defense by Alfred the Great of this particular countryside, then to conversation with the agricultural workers and their struggle, to a conclu­sion advocating socialism, abolition of the class division between rich and poor, and the abolition of the geographic division between town and country. Thompson is right to call it “wayward” inasmuch as it begins by the side of the road, the verge, where so much of the conflict takes place between commod­ity civilization with its turnpikes and “the King’s highways” and subsistence culture, the byways and lanes.

You think you know what’s coming — centuries of the pastoral have prepared us, and hundreds of cameras have filmed the vision — green lawn, ancient elms, white people in white dress, leisured innocence, and a recent scholar, Michelle Weinroth, falls for it. She observes that the Communist Party accepted this pastoral ideal: “their propagandist efforts could neither escape nor eclipse a traditional Englishness, figuratively crystallized in the sensuality of the countryside where [here she quotes “Under the Elm Tree”] ‘the fields and hedges … are as it were one huge nosegay … redolent of bean-flowers and clover and sweet hay and elder blossom.’ This fragrant bucolic place cradled the tender affections of their mainstream public and was thus a source of powerful rhetoric.”[33]I am not going to dispute whether or not the CPGB was able to escape “a traditional Englishness figuratively crystallized in the sensual­ity of the countryside,” but I shall say that there is nothing like this in Morris!

What Morris actually sees is, war. Hollywood and English Lit have not prepared us for this. There is first the heroism that he sees in Ashdown. This was the site of a battle in 671 when a young Alfred helped defeat the Danes, or Vikings, advancing up the Thames Valley. The victorious soldiers cut turf from the slope of a chalk hill in these Berkshire Downs so that the white showed through the green in the figure of a horse. Scholars date the “White Horse” to the late Iron Age, but in Morris’s day it was part of the iconogra­phy constituting the history of the Anglo-Saxon nation.[34] The Saxons were led by Alfred, “the sole man of genius who ever held an official position among the English,” admitted Morris (at least there was one!). On another occasion Alfred fled battle and took refuge in a peasant’s cottage where the woman scolded him because while she was out fetching water, he allowed the cakes to burn in the oven! His is a legend of royalty and domesticity, a fable worthy of Lao Tzu.[35]This is the history Morris loved and wrote, history from below. Thompson comments that the flooding sense of “the earth and the growth of it and the life of it” which pervaded News from Nowhere was return­ing. In the first edition he has some paragraphs describing “the most unusual piece of socialist ‘propaganda’ ever written” “with its deliberate wayward­ness, its intermingling of Socialist homily and of the leisurely lyricism of the Oxfordshire countryside!”[36] Yes, as a homily it expounds chapter six of the Book of Matthew. For those from a Christian culture, and Thompson certainly was, Morris begins by considering “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field.” The aura of this “commons” is a mix of nature and divinity.

“It opens with the conventional summer scene of the poet” Thompson says, and quotes,

Midsummer in the country-here you may walk between the fields and hedges that are as it were one huge nosegay for you redolent of bean­ flowers and clover and sweet hay and elder-blossom…The river down yonder… barred across here and there with the pearly white-flowered water-weeds, every yard of its banks a treasure of delicate  design, mead­owsweet and dewberry, and comfrey and bed-straw.

Next, the scene is placed within the lengthening perspective of man’s history: “the country people of the day did verily fight for the peace and love­liness of this very country where I lie, and coming back from their victory scored the image of the White Horse as a token of their valour, and, who knows? Perhaps as an example for their descendants to follow.” This last thought is the key to both Morris and Thompson. It is not one of teleolog­ical determinism but of exemplary suggestion. Thompson continues with Morris picturing the socialist future, of “friends working for friends on land which [is] theirs,” when “if … a new Ashdown had to be fought (against capi­talist robbers this time) the new White Horse would look down on the home of men as wise as the starlings, in their equality, and so perhaps as happy.” Interweaving the beauty of nature and the struggle of man, past, present and future, and employing the eye of the craftsman and the poet, the whole is a tour de force. And yet, so quiet and mellow is the tone that the excellence of the artist’s handiwork passes almost without notice. Certainly, in his respite from intense political activity, Morris was re-opening old veins of feeling.”[37] Thompson is moved to ask whether Morris is losing interest in socialism? But why should acute observation of birds, fish, and flowers dull interest in social­ ism? Thompson wonders whether Morris found propaganda and creativity incompatible? But why should this be a contradiction?

Thompson’s formulations are abstract: for example, “The beauty of nature and the struggle of man.” Morris is much more particular. Thompson speaks of “nature” and this is where the trouble lies. What is evoked depends on the commons. Morris stops and talks to the workers in the field about money. Thompson’s omits the conversations with the agricultural workers. Morris employs the ear of the socialist and historian, as well as the eye of the craftsman and poet, and it is the ear that saves the essay from becoming another pretty picture. It is neither conventional nor a scene.

The transition in the essay from the birds and fish to human beings was via a four-footed creature, a shambling and ungainly cart-horse, and he saw other animals, male and female, two-footed, ungraceful, unbeautiful, and thirsty! Could they be the same creature as those depicted in the Sistine Chapel and the Parthenon frieze? Beauty and these labourers are contrasted, and beauty is associated with gods or heroes. Could they be the same creature? He starts the conversation, “Mr So-and-so (the farmer) is late in sending his men into the hayfield.” Yes, the older men and the women bred in the village are past working, and the young men want more wages. They learn, one at a time, that, yes, they can refuse 9s a week. However, ‘they find no farmer willing to pay 10s. Such is the fatuity of the phrase “free wage labour.” These are the stories of “unsupported strikes.”

Morris laments the ugliness of exploitation and the squalor of the land­scape which is artificialized in the most groveling commercialism. The agri­cultural system of landlord, farmer, laborer produces parsimony and dull­ness, just as the excitement of intellectual life in the city produces the slum. The essay moves from impressionistic natural observation through working­ class oral testimony to an exposition of the systemic structure of capitalism in both town and country. In a mere four and a half pages, Morris creates power­ful effects alluding to the deepest well-springs of his culture — the harvest, Christianity, animal life, classical and Renaissance artistic ideals — all this while lying on the side of the road!


The strike for “the dockers’ tanner” closing the imperial Port of London occurred one month after the essay was published. If it reverberated on the other side of the world in Australia, surely it did so up the river in Hammersmith. Indeed Morris returned to the place (the upper Thames valley) and the occasion (the hay harvest) to provide the concluding chapters to News from Nowhere which appeared in Commonweal from January to October 1890 while the memory under the elm tree of the farm laborers was still fresh. But now, men and women are equal, money, prisons, formal education, the state are no more. The countryside is no longer polluted. Men, women, children gather in colorful tents “with their holiday mood on, so to say,” for the haysel, or hay harvest, up the river Thames, with description of elms, blackbirds, cuckoo, clover, the gleaming riverbank, the wild roses. And a scene preceding the haymaker’s feast of returning home and seduction: “She led me to the door, murmuring little above her breath as she did so, ‘The earth and the growth of it and the life of it! If I could but say or show how I love it!”‘ Morris has imag­ined past and future as one — equality, love, a feast — at one of the most ancient human activities. It is the opposite to the dull squalor of “Under the Elm Tree.”

Internationally; harvesting was being mechanized. In fact, it was the strike by the iron molders who made the mechanical reaper in Chicago that set in train the well-known events of the Haymarket bombing, the kangaroo trials,· and the state murders the protesting of which was the occasion of “Bloody Sunday” at Trafalgar Square. Morris was not enamored by machines. One of the characters in News from Nowhere says that “only slaves and slave-holders could live solely by setting machines going.”

Clara broke in here, flushing a little as she spoke: ‘Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living? — a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — ‘nature,’ as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind as another. It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them.”

Terry Eagleton has pointed out that “coulter” (the cutting blade immedi­ately in front of the plough share) shares a cognate with “culture.”[38] There is a strong relationship between subsistence food production, or cultivation, and other forms of human creativity; and this relationship is reflected semantically in such words as agriculture (ager = field), horticulture (hortus = garden), and viticulture (vitis = vine), and that in all of these cases culture is an activity rather than a thing.

The revival of the socialist movement in the UK during the 1880s was initiated by discussions of land. The Land and Labour League (which Marx had praised) demanded land nationalization and the settlement of the unemployed on unused land. Alfred Russel Wallace published his Land Nationalization in 1882. The Irish Land League led the tenantry in the land wars of 1879-82. (boycott, “outrages”) under the slogan “the land for the people” and encouraged a revival of communal custom and the Brehon law. The expropriated crofters of the Scottish Highlands provided the energy of the Scottish Land and Labour League. In a different kind of land struggle, the Labour Emancipation League of the East End of London (1883) led the fight for public places of speech and propaganda which led to the struggles to assemble at Trafalgar Square of 1886 and 1887. In fact on “Bloody Sunday” November 13, 1887, Morris lectured on “The Society of the Future” anticipating the extinction both of asceticism and luxury. He noted “the common people have forgotten what a field or a flower is like.”[39] Easy to do, we hasten to add, when the places where they might flourish become forbidden behind enclosing boundaries of fence or hedge.

So Morris was unequivocal about land. “The Communist asserts in the first place that the resources of nature, mainly the land and those other things which can only be used for the reproduction of wealth and which are the effect of social work, should not be owned in severalty, but by the whole community for the benefit of the whole.” Again, with a choice of words whose etymology sums up the transition from nature to capital, “The resources of nature, there­fore, and the wealth used for the production of further wealth, the plant and stock in short, should be communized [emphasis added].” Here stock equals inventory and plant equals factory. To Morris, “communism” was a verb; it signified conscious human activity; at a social level in a cooperative spirit to attain human equality. To communize is to convert the reified products of the land, the live stock, the cattle herds, the kine of the pastoral economy or the grasses, the grains, and botanical plants of the agricultural, once again into means of attaining practical equality, rather than the ancient means of class division. “The communization of the means of industry would speedily be followed by the communization of its product.”


I don’t know why Thompson excluded “Under the Elm Tree” from his second edition. Was it because it was too close to his own childhood experiences? He referred to these once. While living with him I broke off the tedium of desk-work to lend a hand to a neighboring farmer harvesting hay in a field adjoining Wick Episcopi. Unused to such labor, I did not last long. Thompson heard about it, and I prepared myself for some ribbing. Instead, he smiled, and I seem to recall him referring to something similar in his own youth. Or, perhaps, war was still fresh in his mind, a “new Ashdown … against capitalist robbers,” and his own battle losses. Thompson and Morris kept Jesus stories well below the surface of their writing, yet the sufficiency of the natural commons as described in the Book of Matthew, chapter six (“behold the birds of the air,” “consider the lilies of the field”) depend on living in righteousness: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Thompson and Morris were walkers, not outdoorsmen as Americans understand as a sport, but as habit, a restorative. To Americans, the flower is the sign of the wild, as in, for example, “Sunflower Sutra,” Allen Ginsberg’s contrast with industrial petro-waste. Similarly, it may take on anti-imperial connotations. In 1965 Ginsberg coined “flower power,” as an expression of anti-war nonviolence. By 1967 hippies, or “flower children,” wrapped army induction centers in daisy chains. “The cry of ‘Flower Power’ echoes through the land,” said Abbie Hoffman. “We shall not wilt.”

But if you look at the flowers not as wild, or scenery, or symbol but as resources, you find uses for them which could be significant to laborers on 9s. a week. Richard Mabey, in the great compendium of late twentieth-century popular knowledge, Flora Britannica organized by Common Ground, notes that despite the Puritan’s suppression of sport and village festivals which generally accompanied the enclosure movement, plants remain essential to the rituals and mystical gestures of the seasons — holly at the solstice, kisses under mistletoe, red poppies for the war dead, et cetera. Inherently sexual, the spirit of vegeta­tion, precedes commerce. Mabey suggests that the grass roots of vernacular relationships with nature should be taken every bit as seriously as the folklore of less developed areas. They “may yet be the best bridge across the gulfs between science and subjective feelings, and between ourselves and other species.” Wild flowers belong to an ecology and can no more be understood in isolation than can land, factories, workshops, or mines be understood in isolation from the subjectivity of human uses and desires or the objectivity of the social division of labor. We can list the flowers Morris names in his essay with some of their uses.

Bean-flowers — many escape the garden and are naturalized in wastes and rubbish tips.                                                         .

Clover — children learn that the white flower can be pulled and sucked for a bead of honey and that the four leaf, or five-leaf clover brings luck.

Elder — roots so easily and grows so quickly that in the era of enclo­sures it was called “an immediate fence.” When its freshly-opened umbels are fried in butter you have elder-flower fritters. Malodorous and works as a charm against warts, vermin, and the Devil.

Meadowsweet — contained an ingredient used as a remedy for chills and rheumatism which was isolated in 1899 as acetylsalicylic acid and which the pharmaceutical company Bayer called aspirin after its botanical name, Spiraea ulmaria.

Dewberry — a common bramble in hedge banks, a fleshy indehis­cent fruit, succulent in jams and pies. Berrying going back thousands of years one of the universal acts of foraging to survive through industrialization.

Comfrey — found near streams and damp roadsides played a part in the sympathetic medicine of the doctrine of signatures as a poultice for bruises as it contains allantoin, which heals connective tissue. In Yorkshire coal miners applied it to their knees after a day of crawl­ing underground.

Thompson admired the country crafts, the wheelwright’s shop, pig-keep­ing, and the songs. He wrote a foreword to one of Roy Palmer’s collection of folk ballads; he wrote a foreword to George Sturt’s beautiful work of social history, The Wheelwright’s Shop (1923, 1992), which was recommended to him in 1939 as a school boy as an introduction to “the organic community.” Sturt was a writerly kind of craftsman, and a socialist contributor to Morris’s Commonweal. Sturt was a listener and observer who found philosophy at “the point of production” which yielded up its insights only after hands-on attention. Thompson also wrote an introduction to the second edition of M.K. Ashby’s memoire of her father, ]oseph Ashby of Tysoe, 1859-1919: A Study of English Village Life (1974). If Sturt was the Wittgenstein of the village, Miss Ashby was its Wollstonecraft. Although Tysoe was a post-enclosure village, the struggle for allotments is described with precise artistry and emotional subtlety. It ceased to be “a sound co-operative village of freemen, free to get a living, free to say yea and nay in their own affairs.” The hedge became sanctified; “it carved up the hills and valleys absurdly” pushing out the hawthorn “one of the loveli­est of smaller trees.”[40] The children could no longer roam, threading by balk and headland, from one village to another, instead they were carted off to the cotton factory. The poor become pauperized, the paupers become degraded, forced to creep and cringe, taking to drink and “foolishness of outlook.”

The young Joseph Ashby learned that “under the wide acreage of grass and corn and woods which he saw daily, there was a ghostly, ancient tessellated pavement made of the events and thoughts and associations of other times.” The intertwining of history and morality occurred from the bottom up. Joseph searches “new forms of communal land-holding relevant to the English coun­tryside.” Thompson calls it a vestigial communal democracy, and compares it to the “participatory democracy” which we in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) named. This relationship between knowledge of the flowers and freedom to roam in recently enclosed land was often exercised by Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), the socialist, gay liberationist, and reformer was trained from childhood to observe the wild flowers of the Sussex Downs — red clover, pink centaury, dwarf-broom, and yellow lotus. And wherever he went from the Alps to the Himalayas he looked for them.[41] Thompson’s powerful concep­tual contribution to the discussion of food and land was made in 1972 with his article on the “moral economy.” It put food, not profit, as the agrarian prior0ity. It is not a great distance of thought to go from “moral realism” to “moral economy.” The concept, like the practice, arose “from below.”

Edward loved wild flowers. Walking with him in Worcestershire or Wales he’d stop and talk about them as they appeared on the path. I lived upstairs in 1972-73 at Wick Episcopi, which had a grand staircase at the end of the flag­ stoned hall on the ground floor. At the time Reg, the paperhanger, was exactly aligning a Morris print on its walls leaving his ladder, his glue pots, and paper rolls strewn about. Here I saw Edward slowly mounting the stairs brooding with papers in his hand or steadily carrying a vase of flowers to an upstairs room, passing as he did so the emerging Morris design.

His father and brother, Frank, wrote one another about them, these soldiers, the father from Mesopotamia in the Great War, the brother from Syria and Persia during the Anti-Fascist War. It was a distinct aesthetic that was a signal across the world to one another in the midst of war. This was part of the patrimony of this family of writers, scholars, and soldiers. Wild flowers were one of the links between father and sons.

Edward’s father was chaplain to Indian and Leicestershire forces to the catastrophe of the Mesopotamian campaign of 1916. He did not want to fight (“I feel ashamed about the war”), so he did hospital duty and kept a diary. “The poppies were a larger sort than those in the wheat fields, and of a very glorious crimson. In among the grasses were yellow coltsfoot; among the pebbles were sowthistle, mignonette, pink bindweed, and great patches of storksbill. Many noted the beauty of those flowers, a scene so un-Mesopotamian in its brightness.” Melancholically he wrote, “among us were those who would not drink of this wine again till they drank it new in their Father’s Kingdom.”[42] His is a sacred and a nationalist view. Dorothy Thompson wrote me, “I think wild flowers were one of Edward’s close links with his much-loved father. Edward senior used to take him on flower walks in Oxfordshire.”

In May 1942 Frank Thompson describes the wild roses, hawthorn, and garden freesia, honeysuckle of Nablus and Jenin. During the desert campaign Frank Thompson saw the goosewort, stitchwott, groundsel and ground ivy. He describes the Libyan desert’s flowers — “dwarf toadflax, purple stock, small marigolds, red and yellow ranunculus, and even small blue irises.” We see him in Cairo going around to florists looking for the name of morning-glories in French, Greek, or Arabic. When in the spring he expressed homesickness, he thinks of blackthorn which more than any other flower symbolizes “the pecu­liar loveliness of the English spring.” In January 1944 Frank writes Edward, “the English countryside is still the only one that really moves me.”

Frank Thompson was among the first to land on Sicily in 1943. He and his comrades were under heavy mortar fire. “I could see that all the men were badly shaken. With a vague feeling that it was up to me to rally morale, I said the first thing that came into my head. ‘Blackberries, by Jove! How delicious! It’s years since I had a meal of blackberries!’ I picked a few. The men stared at me a little oddly and then picked some themselves   The wadi almost reeked with thyme and mint and the nearby lemon-groves.”[43] Fragrance, appe­tite, picking: these stave off traumatic reactions under fire.

In one of his last letters Frank wrote, “the question of building a new communal ethic is one of the most important that we have to elaborate. My own list of priorities is as follows.

  1. People and everything to do with people, their habits, their loves and hates, their arts and languages. Everything of importance revolves around people.
  2. Animals and flowers. These bring me a constant undercurrent of joy. Just now I’m reveling in plum blossom and young lambs and the first leaves on the briar roses. One doesn’t need any more than these. These are enough for a hundred life-times.”[44]

Lives were at stake. Parenting, brotherhood, sanity, health, communal ethics: these were some of the values triggered by encounters with non­-commodified botanical species, not to mention the pleasures of recognition, the delight in color, or the tokens of love. Morris helps us to see this and to see it in Thompson. On the other hand, Thompson helps us to understand the expropriation, the loss, and the contest for such a world. The building of a new communal ethic required the sensibility aroused by the vestiges preserved from the expropriation of the commons.

Morris was active in Anti-Scrape, or the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, also the Commons Preservation Society, and the National Footpaths Preservation Society. Morris was a street fighter, he was muscular, and admired traditional soldierly virtues such as courage, fortitude, solidar­ity, dynamic stoicism. He presents thriving organic systems, extensive living thickness, powerful tangles of hedgerow or meadow array, floral and vegetal motifs, chunky clusters of hawthorn blossom. Morris was fascinated by illu­minated representations of wodehouses, or wild men, in costumes of green like “vegetable man.” The wodehouse was naked, a satyr, faun, ivy-covered man, or savage. Morris was interested in the deep “past characterized by communal tribal living.” His design work structured around issues in 1870s that in the next decade will be articulated in class terms. The tree of life in Sigurd the Volsung (1876) is symbol of connectedness of all life, and the ritual of the earth-yoke cutting away the greensward represents this integration.[45]

Morris’s coffin was borne in an open hay-cart “festooned with willow­ boughs, alder, and bulrushes.”[44] The church itself was decorated with ears of oats and barley, pumpkins, carrots, and sheaves of corn. “For three miles or more, the road lay through the country he had loved so well and described so often, between hedges glorious with the berries and russet leaves of the guelder rose, hips and haws and dark elder berries.”[47] Thompson lived in the English midlands for some years, Wick Episcopi, and here was a large tulip tree with wild cyclamen round its base. The original plants had come from Palestine before the war. “Edward’s coffin had a large pile of them on it.”

John Gerard wrote in his Herbal (1597), which Morris studied as a child­ — “it is reported to me by men of good credit, that cyclamen or sow-bread groweth upon the mountains of Wales; on the hills of Lincolnshire and in Somerset-Shire. Being beaten and made up into trochisches, or little flat cakes, it is reputed to be a good amorous medicine to make one love, if it be inwardly taken.” More than aesthetics, more than pastoral nationalism, more than the Christian sacred, knowledge of wild flowers helped the expression of emotion and the renewal of subjectivity.


I have been arguing in this introduction that both Thompson and Morris possessed strong attachments to what I can only call “the commons.” The waste or the margins or the roadside was a rough-and-ready commons which nourished Morris’s roots and designs and dyes and which helped inspire Thompson by releasing him from the Stalinist and utilitarian grip of the CPGB without falling as an apostate into the septic system of the CIA and its fragrant out-houses in academia. For Morris this showed itself aesthetically, for Thompson it usually found private expression. These attachments were restorative. Earlier in quoting Jack Lindsay’s poem, “not english?” I referred to a contradiction. How is it possible that the earth can be at once beauti­ful and a source of exploitation? It is this which both Morris and Thompson sought to resolve for one or the other must cease. G.D.H. Cole concluded that Morris “helps to keep the cause sweet” but this is to forget the cinder-heap.[48]

When the anarchists ejected Morris from the editorial control of Commonweal at the meeting May 1890 we learn that ”As the room thickened with tobacco smoke and revolutionary bluster, he busied his hands with flower­ patterns and lettering on his agenda paper, in the end flinging himself back in his chair growling, “Mr. Chairman, can’t we get on with the business. I want my TEA!”[49] The next issue contained another installment of News from Nowhere. I don’t know whether that agenda paper has survived among the archives of Morrisiana, or the flower patterns he drew on it. What is clear is that his urge to make floral designs was never far away, even in such times of maximum sectarian stress. Thompson did not doodle in this way, but he had immense admiration for the floral observations which the Spitalfields weavers revealed in their patterns.

In 1896 he designed the last of his wallpapers called “Compton.” It is a sinuous, swirling, several layered, combination of flower blossoms, leaves, and stems in an energetic and mysterious interplay of light and dark. A red tulip blossom is the largest shape, and it is accompanied by three different pink blossoms against a background of. willow leaves in deepening shades of green. There is an impression of both brilliance and depth, like spattered sunlight through the tall trees upon the forest floor. I do not think that the colors (red, pink, green) were intended as political allegory though in light of Morris’s subsequent influences on the revolutionary; reformist, and envi­ronmental movements it is tempting to see them that way. “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau towards the end of his life.[50]

Weinroth quotes part of Marx to the effect that society offers consolatory “imaginary flowers.” This is the “false consciousness.” To give up illusions is to give up the conditions that require illusions. She might have continued the quotation, “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or conso­lation but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”[51]

William Morris gave a lecture on communism in 1893 — towards the end of his life at the Hammersmith Socialist Society. He started, “If our ideas of a new Society are anything more than a dream, these three qualities must animate the due effective majority of the working people; and then, I say; the thing will be done.” The three qualities wanting to attain practical equality were the “intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel.”

The strength of Thompson’s biography is that it takes you right into the political developments of Morris’s life as an activist. Therefore, it must go to the working dass, and hence to the mode of production. Thompson may not have written about the material changes of social life at the time he was writing, but he was assuredly aware of them at the time Morris was living. “What was the hinge that Labour depended upon at present?” Morris asked. “Coal-mining,” he answered.

The Glasgow branch of the Socialist League in 1887 declared, “When the Miners resolve to demand an advance, let it be understood that, should it not be conceded, every riveter would lay down his hammer, every joiner his plane, every mason his trowel. Let it be known that every railway guard, porter, signalman, and driver folded his arms; that every baker refused to make his dough, every cook refused to make dinner, and every maid refused to wait at table.”

Miners and socialists spoke from the same platform on Glasgow green in 1887. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, attended socialist meetings. In Scotland Morris spoke on a cinder-tip at night to a crowd which gave him good heart (“the thing is taking hold”) before traveling to Newcastle, arriving April IO, where he marched six miles to meeting-field to address thousands of men and women from the surrounding pit villages. “They worked hard day in, day out, without any hope whatever. Their work was to work to live, in order that they might live to wqrk. (Hear, hear, and ‘Shame’.) That was not the life of men. That was the life of machines.” “They must rebel or be slaves.”[52]

If there was to be a general strike, he warned, they must expect “that the
masters of society would attack them violently, he meant with hot shot, cold steel, and the rest of it. It was not that the master could attack them by them­selves It was only the masters with a certain instrument, and what was that instrument? A part of the working classes themselves.” He saw half a dozen policemen in the crowd and began to tease them to the crowd’s delight for the bright buttons, white gloves, red livery of their uniforms. “When these instru­ments, the soldiers and the sailors, came against them and saw that they were in earnest, and saw that they were many — they all knew the sufferings of the workers — what would happen? They would not dare obey their masters.” He wished them not to stop at shorter hours or more wages. “He wished that the men might have a life of refinement and education and all those things which made what some people called a gentleman, but what he called a man.” At this the crowd burst into cheers.[53]

Morris went on to catch the Newcastle train to take him to Ryton Willows, a recreation ground by the river Tyne. This was “a piece of rough heathy ground… under the bank by which the railway runs: it is a pretty place and the evening was lovely.” It was Easter and there were lots of folks on the swings, playing cricket, “dancing & the like.” Morris thought it was “a queer place for a serious Socialist meeting” but he felt “lectury” and spoke until the dusk fell and the stars came out. The people stood and listened, and “when we were done gave three cheers for the Socialists.” The green, the heath, a meeting­ field, a riverbank by the railway: these were places to assemble or to play, the common places of that time during the era of coal.

Ann Arbor

Linebaugh’s Foreword to E.P. Thompson’s “William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary” was republished in Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (2014, PM Press).


Editor’s Intro:

1 First readers may be struck by how Hall’s anecdote flips the late Eugene Goodheart’s story of his Grad School encounter with a censorious Jamesian who cautioned him against reading Dreiser.

2 Robert Hughes wrote those terms in praise of Morris.

Footnotes for the excerpt from Linebaugh’s essay to be scanned soon… Categories Culturewatch, World

High/Low Paris at the Dawn of the 20th C. (“New Acquisitions” at the Met)

Two Histories of Germany: Frank Trentmann’s “Out of the Darkness, the Germans, 1942-2022” and Katja Hoyer’s “Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany”

Back to E.P. Thompson’s homepage