I am a socialist by inheritance. My mother, whose social origins were obscure, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the politically turbulent 1930s. My father was born in 1917 in Dublin's 'Little Jerusalem', to parents recently arrived from Latvia and Lithuania. The family moved from Dublin to Glasgow and then to London's East End. My father Morry and his brothers Max and Sol, radicalised by their experiences of unemployment, poverty, bad housing and anti-semitism in three cities, joined the Communist Party. By the time my parents married in 1941, both aged 24, my father had survived participation in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and incarceration in San Pedro jail. My mother left the Party in the 1960s, but my father remained a member till its dissolution in 1991. So too did Max, veteran of Cable Street, and for many years a communist councillor in Stepney. Indeed, Max, aged 95, is still campaigning for the rights of pensioners, tenants and ordinary people, whatever their origins, seeking to make a decent life for themselves. In recent years, notably in Vanessa Engle's 2007 television documentary Lefties, others of my generation have been encouraged to disparage their parents' politics and the conditions of their own childhood. Despite disagreements with (and within) my extended family, I value beyond measure the ethical commitment to a better world and to social and economic equality that was taken for granted in my childhood milieu.
That inheritance included an early awareness of William Morris. I grew up in Hammersmith in the 1950s. Childhood walks by the river took us past Kelmscott House on Upper Mall, where my parents would point out that it had been William Morris's house and that he was a great socialist. Before I knew what that meant, I understood that Morris was on our side against the dark. When I was seventeen, my mother gave me a copy of Morris's utopian novel News from Nowhere. I was drawn to its imaginative reach and its capacity to project an image of Hammersmith and London transformed. The revelatory character of Morris's writing lay in its demonstration of the interdependence of economic and social relations and their embeddedness in place, space and natural environment. Forty-five years later, I have read much more of Morris and much else besides, and neither the key elements of Morris's socialism nor his mode of thought have lost their relevance. All the core elements of Morris's socialism are as or more pressing than they were when he was writing: substantive equality; what counts as wealth; the nature of work and its implications for the kinds of people we are able to be; the protection of the environment; the importance of art and culture. Part of my argument here is that the principles of an ethical socialism for the twenty-first century can be seen to be already present in William Morris's critique of capitalism.
Morris was a towering figure in his own time. When he died in 1896, Robert Blatchford wrote in The Clarion: 'I cannot help thinking that it does not matter what goes into the Clarion this week, because William Morris is dead. And what socialist will care for any other news this week beyond that one sad fact? ... William Morris was our best man: and he is dead ... He was our best man. We cannot spare him: we cannot replace him'. Morris remained a major influence on socialists throughout the twentieth century: politicians including Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Tony Benn all claimed him as inspiration. Yet the nature of his socialism has been a constant source of contention. Some have tried to claim him as a distinctively English, non-revolutionary, 'ethical' socialist, while others emphasised his affinity to Marx. But all attempts to assimilate Morris miss the distinctive and original character of his thought. Morris was an extraordinarily astute critic of capitalist society and the deep damage it does to human beings, their social relations and their natural and built environments. …