Leslie Morton was a Communist of the old school, one of a small but remarkable band of middle- and upper-middle-class Bohemians who joined the party in the 1920s and became Communists for life.
He was, according to the editor of his Festschrift, ‘a model Communist intellectual’—‘incapable of mystification’, sharing his knowledge and ‘active’ in day-to-day party work (in 1940 he was briefly a full-time organiser). Orthodox in one sphere, he was a free spirit in another, enjoying a lifelong association with A.S. Neill’s anarchist school at Summerhill (his wife Vivien was for a time a housemother there and Leslie himself an occasional master). In another domain entirely—that of avant-garde writing he was one of Mr Eliot’s young men on the Criterion.
For a man who, by conventional standards, was an extremist, Morton seemed surprisingly at peace not only with himself but also with the world. Tall, stooping and gentle, he was temperamentally averse to in-fighting. Historically his enthusiasms were antinomian, focusing on rebels and their causes.
But he was by no means deaf to voices from the other side. His splendid essay on the Brontës (‘Genius on the Border’) has a vertiginous sense of gentility on the slide, and shows an unexpected sympathy for High Toryism. ‘The Matter of Britain’, a study of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur—chivalry as cloak for knightly despair—is no less finely honed to the pathos of feudal decadence.
For all his love of the past, Morton was a reluctant, or at any rate an accidental historian who in his younger days would rather have been a poet. He joined the Communist Party not as a Cambridge student but as a freelance writer, supporting himself as a second-hand bookseller in Finsbury Park; he remained a writer in harness to the end of his days. ‘They never had much money: whenever he had it, he used it to write.’ He carried his writerly preoccupations into history, and his best work in history is literary criticism of a high order.
He cleaves to original texts, with little or no reference to secondary authorities, which is one reason why his books (with the exception of A People’s History) scarcely date. He is alive to the cadences of thought—what he calls, in a pioneering essay on the seventeenth-century pamphleteers, ‘the Leveller style’. Textual analysis—or what today might be called deconstruction—is the cornerstone of his work, and he uses it not only to decode individual writings but also to recover subterranean lineages. It is the method which produced one of his most original contributions to scholarship, The Everlasting Gospel, a study of the antinomian (especially Muggletonian) sources of Blake’s prophetic books.
In the preface to one of his poems, written in the 1930s, Morton speaks of himself as ‘half of the country, half of the town, and always uncertain’; the competing loyalties this set up is a major theme in his verse. But the pull of the country proved stronger and it was to be the very groundwork of his history. Preparing the materials for his People’s History in 1937, and making a solitary walking tour to gather local colour, he made his pilgrimage not to the mill-towns of Lancashire and the West Riding, nor yet to the mining valleys of South Wales, but rather—like William Morris and Thomas Hardy before him—to the magical stones of Avebury and the tracks of the Icknield Way—the archaeological starting-point of his book.
To complete the history, he abandoned London, where he had been suffering writer’s block, and returned to the family’s farm in Suffolk (his father, though a Conservative, ‘read every chapter as it was completed, and afforded much encouragement’). East Anglian by birth and origin, he was to make Suffolk his home for the rest of his days, and his seventeenth-century work, while never ‘local’ history, drew gratefully on local sources. Plough and pasture rather than shuttle and cage were the imaginative focus of his vision; the ‘common people’ of his narratives were not an industrial proletariat, nor yet—as in Cole and Postgate’s well-known history of that name—town-dwellers, but first and foremost a folk.
Enclosure rather than the industrial revolution was the central drama in his account of the rise of capitalism, and the English Civil War, rather than Labour’s ‘glorious march’, the grand climacteric of class struggle—the time when the two-camp division of English society was most perfectly, and most movingly, realised.
Morton was an early follower of William Morris—‘the greatest of English socialists’ he wrote of him in 1934—and later edited two collections of his writings. Like Morris he practised his own version of Simple Life-ism, biking everywhere and making do with minimal means. By force of necessity as well as choice (he was always hard up), he lived in some sort as an exile from the modern world. His home was a twelfth-century chapel, bought in 1950 with the help of a small annuity. It was famous among visiting comrades for its cold. Like William Morris at the Red House, he found nothing he could bear to put in it. ‘For a long time Leslie refused to let the place be desecrated by such modern inventions as a . . . water heater, refrigerator or telephone.’
The house was still remarkably comfortless when I visited it last winter, with only a slow-burning fire in the grate—and a spread of Women’s Institute cakes—to offset the January cold. One entered through a low Norman arch and found oneself entombed in wall upon wall of floor-to-ceiling books, his constant companions and—together with the Thomason Tracts at the British Museum—the substantial basis of his life’s work. ‘The library’ was always the centrepiece in an old-time Communist home, for engineers and miners no less than schoolteachers and writers, but I have never seen a home in which the living inhabitants were so utterly dwarfed by books.
Like many historians (only more so), Morton was on comfortable terms with the past. His texts were household familiars and his best work emerged from prolonged meditation on their meaning. He had the imaginative sympathy to make sense of the most quirky historical character. He took their mysticism (if not their religion) seriously, and indeed in his account of their visionary imagining came close to projecting his own.
At the same time, a critical intelligence—Communism’s famous ‘realism’, but seldom applied to the historical terrain—inhibited him from glamorising. His portraits, even the portraits of his heroes, are typically anti-heroic; like his friend Christopher Hill, he is alive to the play of self-illusion and the gulf between intentionality and effect. Relaxed in face even of those he admires he does not fail to share his doubts with readers.
‘A true hero, though perhaps not a very attractive one,’ he writes of the seventeenth-century religious firebrand, Lodowick Muggleton; and of convert Laurence Clarkson, the archetypal ‘seeker’ to whom he devoted a moving chapter of The World of the Ranters, ‘there was always an element of bombast and self-glorification in him, even when he was most sincere.’
As a reasoner, he is uneasy with the posturings of John Lilburne, the ‘Freeborn John’ of radical historiography. His sympathies are engaged rather by the ‘still . . . soft voice’ of William Walwyn, the Leveller leader (in his account of him) whom the Grandees really feared—‘this quiet, well-read man in whom the mystic and the sceptic seemed to merge, a man who ‘shunned publicity’ and who argued from ‘reason’ rather than ‘precedent’.
In an age of rhetoric and hyperbole, when men engaged in the fiercest controversy, and claimed attention by trying to shout louder than their neighbours, there was one man who followed exactly the opposite course. He sought and secured attention by lowering his voice so that only the most careful and attentive reader could catch it.
Here, as elsewhere in Morton’s work, one can see the ways in which history served as an enchanted space in which to celebrate the qualities which were inhibited or repressed in the present. In one aspect it was a kind of playground of the Communist unconscious, a place where libertarian impulses could free themselves of their disciplinarian integument. It is a supreme, though representative, irony that this most dedicated of party loyalists should have made his life’s work the championing of free spirits against the persecuting orthodoxies of their time.
History was a release from the thraldom of the present. It allowed the Communist historian, tracing the progress of leveling and democratic opinions, to make those identifications with the ‘common people’ which, in a politics dominated by Conservatives or right-wing Labour leaders, was cruelly denied in the present; to take up arms (if only vicariously) in the case of liberty; to see the mighty, as in 1649, toppled from their thrones. Solidarity with the Levellers—‘farmers, tradesmen and artisans’ as Morton designates them, speaking of those in his native East Anglia—or with ‘mechanick preachers’ preaching naked Christ in the marketplace—was altogether less problematical than negotiating with the local Labour caucus, or pressing leaflets on the heedless crowd.
The historical detour was not Morton’s alone. His People’s History of England grew out of the ‘common sense’ of British Communism in the epoch of the Popular Front. It had indeed been suggested by Morton’s fellow journalist (and fellow historian) at the Daily Worker, Allen Hutt, and it was in line with those ‘March of History’ pageants which the Communist Party was organising as part of its street demonstrations against fascism.
Like A Handbook of Freedom (1939), the work of his friends Edgell Rickword the poet and Jack Lindsay the writer, or for that matter the literary essays of his father-in-law, the printer-historian T.A. Jackson, it was an attempt to domesticate British Communism and discover its native roots. Originating in a directive of the Comintern, and the change of line in 1935—from the politics of revolution to that of the ‘broad democratic alliance’—it took on a life of its own, feeding on ‘Little Englandism’ and cultural nationalism and drawing on older traditions of religious and political dissent.
It was taken up in the 1940s by a new and brilliant generation of Marxist historians—among them Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson, who worked closely with Leslie in the Communist Party Historians Group—and it has therefore some claim to being the progenitor of today’s flourishing schools of ‘history from below’. Morton’s almost Tory sense of lineage—his treatment of the past as a living present and his fascination with real or imagined predecessors (like other British Marxists he was convinced that Overton, the seventeenth-century pamphleteer, was a proto-Communist) has also become, in recent times, a typical theme of radical and alternative history.
Morton’s other major preoccupation—his sustained engagement with radical mysticism—has proved more uncomfortable to follow and his 1952 book on the subject, The English Utopia—a surprising book to issue from a Communist press—remains unsurpassed. But the ‘mechanick preachers’ of nineteenth-century Britain are beginning to attract the attention of a new generation of socialist historians, while feminist historians are showing a new alertness to the para-religious elements in feminist thought.
Here, as elsewhere, Mortons work may turn out to be interesting, not so much for what it reflects or follows, as for what it anticipates.
SOURCE: Samuel, Raphael. A Rebel and His Lineage, in History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A. L. Morton, edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), pp. 19-24.
and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton
edited by Maurice Cornforth
Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys
Marx and Marxism Web Guide
Life in Society, Conventional and Unconventional, & Related Topics:
A Bibliography in Progress
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