The Journal of William Morris Studies has published “William Blake, William Morris and the British New Left” in its most recent issue (vol. 23, no. 4). In the annals of English art and literature, William Blake and William Morris stand in sharp relief as figures of promethean energy: poets, artists, engravers, and utopian visionaries. In the 1950s they became vital resources for the British New Left as it confronted the twin specters of western capitalism and eastern communism. New Leftists, having broken ranks with Stalinist orthodoxy, turned to Blake and Morris for fresh models of cultural and political engagement. They served as standard bearers for the concept of ‘socialist humanism,’ put by forward by activist historian E.P. Thompson in the pages of the New Reasoner as a post-1956 vision of Marxism that drew on Marx’s early philosophical writings on alienationa nd estrangement. For Thompson – whose long career was bookended by studies of Morris and Blake, respectively – both figures proved a necessary complement to Marx by expressing what he called “the great aspirations at the source of the Romantic Revolt.” Their work provided a brief, tantalizing glimpse of what a romantic poetic married to radical politics might conjure – not just a culture of critique, but a visionary “city of art” (Blake’s Jerusalem and Morris’s Nowhere) to which all citizens would contribute as co-creators and collaborators.
© John P. Murphy