A. L. Morton—Portrait of a Marxist Historian

Maurice Cornforth

This book of historical and literary essays has been prepared by colleagues, friends and admirers of Arthur Leslie Morton, Communist and Marxist historian, who celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in the summer of 1978. Every colleague of A. L. Morton is a friend, and every friend of his an admirer. Some of those who have written here are associates from the pioneering times of the thirties, some are younger and have followed up since then. There is no British Marxist today, young or old, who does not owe a debt to Leslie Morton’s work. For it was he who compiled that brilliant survey of the history of the British people from pre-Roman times to the present which provides a synthesis of background information for any Marxist study of social, economic and ideological developments in this country—A People’s History of England. It was a contribution to British Marxism of a unique and immensely useful kind, whether in the ease, clarity and readability of its style, or in the sheer scope of its content combined with the thoroughness and penetration of its analysis.

Leslie Morton comes from farming stock. He was born at Stanchils Farm, Hengrave, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, on American Independence Day, 4 July 1903. His father, Arthur Spence Morton, a Yorkshireman, had rented the farm a year previously, after his marriage to Mary Hannah Lampray. He was in a true sense a ‘working’ farmer—there was no job on the farm of which he was not master down to the last detail. Leslie was the elder of two sons; his brother, Max, later took over the farming business (on another farm by that time) when their father retired and Leslie himself disclaimed any ambitions to take on the management. Max Morton, like Leslie Morton, was to become an active member of the Communist Party. A sister, Kathleen, came between the two boys.

Leslie went to school at nine years of age, at the King Edward


VI Grammar School at Bury St Edmunds. Prior to that he had been under the tuition of a series of governesses—of whom his memories are not favourable. Released from their care, he cycled daily the four miles to Bury St Edmunds and then back again. He remained at the Grammar School until he was fifteen—at which age he was packed off to a minor public school, Eastbourne College. This establishment he liked even less than the governesses.

In 1921 he entered Cambridge University, an undergraduate at Peterhouse. Here for his first two years he took Part One of the History Tripos, and in his third year what was then called ‘Part A’, English. His left-wing political activities began when he joined the University Labour Club—along with two others who afterwards became prominent Communists, Allen Hutt and Ivor Montagu.

At that time, the immediate post-war years of the early twenties, intellectuals who felt concern about society and politics had to stand up and be counted as to whether they were for or against the Russian Revolution, for or against the strike demands, particularly of railwaymen and miners, and for or against taking industries into national ownership and starting up measures to relieve poverty and unemployment, and for a more equal distribution of wealth. Leslie found himself in the Labour Club among those who were ‘for’—a very small minority in the University. At the same time, left-wing ideas were then associated and mixed up with protests against social conventions, respectabilities and inhibitions which the war (though as a farmer’s son at Bury St Edmunds it had largely passed Leslie by) had done much to bring to a head, and which for free-thinking intellectuals were enshrined in new literary and artistic movements. In the twenties, the situation among the intellectual left, at Cambridge in particular, was different from, though the progenitor of, that which developed among the later generations of the thirties, after the great economic slump had set in and, still more, after the rise of fascism in Europe. For earnest discussion the left students of the thirties began to substitute direct action—student demonstrations and the like. The literary movements which had counted for so much seemed beside the point, if not outright reactionary.

It was, then, in the left intellectual climate of the twenties that Leslie began to take an interest in politics at Cambridge. With


many there was always a distinct element of anti-parental revolt in all this. But such was not the case with Leslie, whose father, though conservative in his views, was far from being a rigid Tory. He recalls particularly his father once telling him that during Lloyd George’s campaign against the House of Lords in 1910 he had looked up the history of that institution in J. R. Green’s Short History and come to the conclusion that there was little to be said in its favour.

Leslie’s career at Cambridge was fairly uneventful. On going down, he got a job as a teacher (not of any particular subject but of any subject required) at Steyning Grammar School in Sussex. A colleague there was Charlie Easton, who later was in charge of the Communist Party bookshop in Sheffield. Here, too, Leslie was in touch with a local poet, Victor Neuburg—who had an influence on the development of his ideas at that time. Neuburg was then running a little private printing press. Later, he was in charge of the ‘poetry corner’ of the Sunday Referee— and when, later, Leslie was unemployed in London he sometimes lent him a hand. He recalls that Neuburg had a vast pile of submitted manuscripts, including poems by Dylan Thomas, who said that he was dying and implored that they be published soon.

In 1926, as Leslie expresses it, ‘the school had a shock’. For most of the staff declared themselves in favour of the General Strike and put theory into practice by consorting with the local railwaymen. The School Governors were far from pleased—and this led to Leslie’s being out of work a year later. He was first advised to look for another job, and then his job was declared redundant.

In this emergency he took refuge with his parents, who had by then moved to Ipswich. And here he happened to see an advertisement in the New Statesman and Nation from A. S. Neill, who wanted a teacher at his progressive school, Summerhill, at Leiston near the Suffolk coast. Leslie applied and, living so near, was the first interviewed and got the job. Thus began a long though intermittent association with Summerhill. This private school was run on very ‘free’ principles—expounded by Neill in numerous books. That it was so successful was due not only to the principles, but to the personality of Neill. To a casual visitor (such as the author of this sketch, who later went there several times to see Leslie and others) it at first presented a scene of chaos; but one soon realised that under the system of pupils’


‘self-government’, with Neill as a kind of non-elected President, everything was in good order. Many of Neill’s pupils attained distinction in various walks of life.

Leslie taught at Summerhill for one year, during which he married his first wife, Bronwen Jones, a fellow-teacher who had been with Neill for some time—Neill had begun in Austria, and Bronwen Jones had helped him establish Summerhill in England. Bronwen already had a son at that time (now a professor of Mathematics and Computer Science). At the end of the year she and Leslie moved to London, where they lived a rather unsettled existence. ‘We bummed around,’ as Leslie now describes it. At one time Bronwen worked for Arcos (the Soviet trade organisation, earlier the victim of the notorious ‘Arcos Raid’), and Leslie kept a second-hand bookshop near Finsbury Park.

The chief point of the move to London emerges in the fact that Leslie immediately joined the Communist Party—something which it was then hardly possible to do in Leiston, a very small town centred around an agricultural machinery factory in the depths of the countryside. His first Party card was issued on 1 January 1929—he had in fact joined shortly before but, for administrative reasons, waited until the New Year to get a membership card. He had been a regular reader of the Sunday Worker from its start in 1925, and was a regular reader of the Daily Worker from its first issue.

He joined the Communist Party ‘local’ in Islington—those were the days when Branches were called ‘Locals’, divided into ‘Cells’ and organised by the LPC (Local Party Committee) under the rather august DPC (District Party Committee). At that time, indeed, everything went by initials—for example, the LPC would seek guidance from the DPC on tactics in the LAI and WIR (League Against Imperialism and Workers’ International Relief) and, of course, in the NUWM (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement). The Local met in Bride Street, off Liverpool Road, in what Leslie now describes as ‘a shed, hovel or slum’. The CP has made considerable progress since then.

In 1934 Leslie was taken onto the staff of the Daily Worker. He began by being made the Proprietor—a job of some risk, since the Proprietor was then the one who went to prison in event of trouble. This nearly happened to Leslie when William Joyce


(later ‘Lord Haw Haw’) brought a case against the paper for incitement to violence in connection with Mosley’s fascist rally in Hyde Park. Leslie recollects William Gallacher telling him as he went into Court, ‘Ye’re not to let yoursel’ to be bound over.’ However, the Worker won the case, and Leslie was one of the few early proprietors not to land up in gaol. Besides being out on a limb as Proprietor, Leslie worked as a reporter, subeditor, feature writer and, on occasion, as layout man and on helping to put the paper ‘to bed’. The editor was then William Rust, in association with J. R. Campbell. Later, R. Palme Dutt and Idris Cox took their place (there were then always virtually a pair of editors, like the Roman Consuls or Spartan Kings). The editorial office was in Tabernacle Street, near Bunhill Fields, City Road, and the printing plant nearby in Worship Street. Little boys were busily employed rushing to and fro with copy and proofs. Among others on the staff were Allen Hutt and Walter Holmes and, slightly later, Claud Cockburn (Frank Pitcairn) and Ralph Fox. Of all the old Daily Worker staff, Leslie himself is now one of the very few survivors.

In 1934, too, Leslie had an opportunity to renew old associations with East Anglia. He went as Daily Worker correspondent on the Norwich and Norfolk contingent of the 1934 Hunger March. Though a grim business of the fight against semi-starvation, it gave those on the Norwich contingent, as Leslie puts it, ‘the time of our lives’. For one thing, it was music all the way—and it was on this march that Leslie began to know the many East Anglian folk songs (‘Bungay Roger’ and many others) with which he was afterwards often to entertain his acquaintance (later, he helped with a BBC recording of some of the more polite of these songs). Besides, to encourage them on the march there was a comrade with a mouth-organ—who kept them in step as far as Ilford, but there was taken to hospital with a swollen face. The doctors could not make out what was the matter with him until they learned of his zestful employment (he made a quick recovery after a brief rest). On his first appearance on the streets of Norwich, before going to the March Preparations Committee at the Keir Hardie Hall (the ILP headquarters), Leslie was spotted by a suspicious character who hastened to the ILP with the news that ‘16 King Street’ had sent ‘an agent from London to take over the March’. In a back room at the Keir Hardie Hall Leslie was faced with this


accusation, and had to explain that he was only the Daily Worker correspondent. It was then voted that he could accompany the March but should have no vote at the March Council. As it turned out—and this can be no surprise to those who know him—he was constantly consulted all the way. It was not, however, his first experience of a march of the unemployed; earlier, he had gone on a march to lobby the TUC at Brighton.

Leslie’s work on the Daily Worker ended in 1937. This was partly due to his growing desire to write about history and literature on a scale that could not be catered for in the columns of a small newspaper, partly to his having been set to work at fund-raising—‘at which’, as he correctly says, ‘I am no good.’ In 1934 he and his first wife, Bronwen, had parted—their son, Nicholas, accompanying her. And Leslie now settled down with his second and present wife, Vivien, the younger of the two daughters of the famous Communist speaker and writer T. A. (Tommy) Jackson. They found a place to live in Kentish Town, and here Leslie started work on the People’s History of England.

By that time he had found that he had ‘some talent for explaining things in a simple way’. Already, besides a few items on historical subjects in the Daily Worker (in which, as he says, it was very hard to find space), and one on A. E. Housman’s poems (which some of the comrades considered ‘unsuitable’), he had written a few articles for the Criterion and other slightly highbrow journals. T. S. Eliot, then editor of the Criterion, had been ‘kind and encouraging’. He also wrote a piece on ‘Communism and Morality’ for the collection Christianity and the Social Revolution, edited by John Lewis and published by Victor Gollancz. This last proved important, since it established contact with Gollancz, who was to publish A People’s History as a Left Book Club choice in 1938.

It was in this period, and also earlier, when he was teaching and afterwards ‘bumming around’ London, on occasion yearning for country scenes, that Leslie wrote a good deal of poetry—some of which was published in various journals, and a collection of which was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1977. In his poetry, that same limpid style of expression was developed which afterwards was to make his books so easily understood and so persuasive, applied to the expression of personal thoughts and aspirations which did not and could not


find outlet in the rough and tumble of day-to-day party work and left-wing journalism.

Finding himself at sufficient leisure in Kentish Town, Leslie embarked on writing the People’s History. He decided to do it for the good and simple reason that there was no history of England written from a Marxist point of view, and he thought that such a history would be helpful.

A People’s History of England is not a book of original research. The task Leslie set himself was, rather, to recount the known facts without embroidery, and explain their ‘inner connections’—a job Marx had proposed in Capital, although Leslie has always been too modest to quote it. Indeed, he did not so much attempt to unearth these connections, as something buried deep to be dug out only by the tools of special research, as to make them manifest in the historical events as he recorded them. It is in this that the remarkable lucidity of the work resides. It contains a profound exercise in Marxist theory, but without any paraphernalia of abstract theoretical generalisation.

Before beginning to write, Leslie went on a solitary walking tour for several weeks, along the ancient Icknield Way, in winter, to gather local colour and think things out. Then he rather quickly wrote the opening chapters—whereupon he found himself ‘stuck’ and unable to write any more. The trouble, he decided, was living in London. The city no longer suited him, and there were too many distractions—particularly, demands of local party work. So he packed up a trunkful of books and other bare necessities of life and went to stay with his brother Max in the country. Their father had in the interim bought a large, mainly arable, farm—Paine’s Manor, at Pentlow, a tiny straggling village on the Essex-Suffolk border, seven or eight miles from Sudbury in Suffolk. Max was now the farmer-in-chief, with the old man in part-time residence to give advice and help. So here Leslie enjoyed a spell of rural seclusion until the history was complete to the First World War. He had previously gained much stimulus from talks with his father-in-law, Tommy Jackson. And now his father, the Conservative farmer (retired), read every chapter as it was completed, and afforded much encouragement.

The book was finished at the end of 1937, and published by the Left Book Club in mid-1938. So it was written in a period of


less than twelve months, including time spent on a walking tour, getting stuck at the start, and moving from London into the country—an amazing achievement of concentrated work by any standards. Leslie had, of course, been thinking about it for some time before he began it. This, he says, has always been his natural method of work. He spends a long time in cogitation, writing nothing, and then writes what he has to write very quickly.

A People’s History of England has been more or less continuously in print, following the original Left Book Club edition, ever since its publication was taken on by Lawrence and Wishart immediately after the war, in 1945. That edition was reprinted in 1946. Then, following discussions in the Communist Party from which the Party’s History Group was to emerge, a number of revisions were introduced into a new edition in 1948. This was reprinted three times in hardback, following which the paperback edition was issued in 1965—it has since been four times reprinted. All this makes twelve printings to date of the UK edition, with a total sale exceeding a hundred thousand copies. Additionally, there have been editions in the United States, and a total of thirteen translations.

The People’s History finished, Leslie with Vivien moved back to Leiston, where they rented a cottage on Leiston Common. They have lived in Suffolk ever since. Vivien taught at Summerhill and Leslie, though not on the staff, helped with the school and regularly gave lessons there. They used to take their meals at Summerhill.

By that time there was a flourishing branch of the Communist Party at Leiston, headed by the artist and illustrator Paxton Chadwick and his wife, Lee (who then also taught at Summerhill). The Chadwicks lived in a more modern residence on Leiston Common. The Communist activities at Leiston centred round the production of a duplicated monthly paper, the Leiston Leader, which was bought by nearly half the inhabitants. It specialised in reporting the doings of the Urban District Council, with cartoons drawn by Chadwick depicting the local Tories—everyone except the Tory councillors loved this. Paxton Chadwick was elected to the Council. After the war, Lee was elected to the East Suffolk County Council; and Paxton Chadwick, by virtue of seniority, became the UDC chairman.


The people of Leiston were both surprised and pleased to have a Communist Councillor at the head of the UDC.

Thus Leslie was once again up to his eyes in local party work. Besides activities in Leiston, he became a member of the Eastern Counties District Party Committee—which was centred at that period in Cambridge (the District Organiser was the writer of this record). Later, the centre was moved to Norwich, and back to Cambridge when the war began. The District was subsequently divided into two, but before then had covered a huge area from Lowestoft to Peterborough and King’s Lynn to Welwyn Garden City. In 1940 Leslie was appointed the full-time organiser. He had a room he could use at a comrade’s flat in Cambridge, and also the use of the Party’s car, a diminutive Morris which he drove erratically though purposively.

But meantime, too, he had begun to think out the plan of his next book, The English Utopia, three chapters of which he wrote at Leiston by the time he was called up into the army in 1941.

Leslie’s army career, if such it may be termed, was in the Royal Artillery, where he rose to the rank of Lance-Bombardier. He served entirely in England where, having been trained at Blandford, Dorset, he was mostly employed on navvying and construction work in the isle of Sheppey.

An eye was continuously kept on him by Security—despite which he continued to send fairly regular contributions to the Leiston Leader. In one of these he argued for the Second Front and made some disparaging remarks about the then Minister of War. For this he was hauled up in 1944, confronted with the offending copy of the Leiston Leader, and told ‘You’ll hear more of this.’ Two months later he was put under open arrest and sent to Court Martial—where, after prolonged study of King’s Regulations and legalistic argument, he was acquitted on the grounds that the Minister of War was only a civilian whose activities army personnel might deprecate with impunity.

Afterwards, he put in for transfer to the Education Corps, for which he was recommended in view of his qualifications. The interviewing Board found a record of the Court Martial in his file, which the officer in charge indignantly waved in the air, exclaiming ‘Disgraceful! This man was acquitted and the charge should not have been kept on record!’ However, although


recommended for educational work, Leslie was still navvying when demobilised.

While in the army, he wrote at odd moments of leisure studies in literature and history from which his book of essays, Language of Men, emerged—published by the Cobbett Press (a subsidiary of Lawrence and Wishart) in 1946. He also wrote some contributions to British Ally, the journal published by the British Embassy in Moscow.

Out of the army, Leslie returned to Leiston and resumed his activities there. In the first local election after the war he was elected, with other Communist Party candidates, to the Urban District Council—after which he became very heavily involved in local affairs. He also resumed the lending of a helping hand to Neill at Summerhill, and for several years wrote very little apart from items for the Leiston Leader.

Meanwhile, the project of The English Utopia, begun before his call-up and perforce abandoned, was working away at the back of his mind. And in 1950 he and Vivien uprooted themselves from Leiston and moved to Clare, in the Stour Valley in Suffolk, not far from Max Morton’s farm at Pentlow. A small legacy had equipped him to buy a modest house ‑ and this he found in the Old Chapel, at Clare. It is an ideal workplace for a historian—a small twelfth-century chapel which, after the Reformation, had been converted into a dwelling. The roof is tiled at the front and thatched at the back, and an old Norman arch provides the back door. For a long time Leslie refused to let the place be desecrated by such modern inventions as a kitchen water-heater, refrigerator or telephone—though he did have a bathroom built on.

Here, then, in 1952, as became usual with him after periods of gestation, he completed The English Utopia—that superb study of utopian ideas in England, starting from ‘the Land of Cokaygne’, and of their contrast with the ‘anti-utopias’ produced in our own time by prophets of doom.

Save for the interruption of wartime, Leslie remained a member of the East Anglia District Committee of the Communist Party (since 1941 centred in Ipswich) until he retired from it in 1974, then aged seventy-one. Year in year out he has taken on frequent speaking engagements in East Anglia, and played a leading part in Marxist educational work in the Party.


Many day-schools have been held, and the custom has continued up to now, at the Old Chapel at Clare, in the garden on fine Sundays in summertime. Besides this, he was elected by the Party’s National Congress for a period to the national ‘Appeals Committee’ (a committee which, more impartially and benevolently than enemies would represent it, inquires into matters of party discipline). He was the British Communist Party’s representative at the international conference on the history of the First International held in Berlin in 1964, and at another on the Paris Commune in Prague in 1970.

Leslie Morton has from its inception been a leading and very active member of the Communist Party’s History Group—the subject of a separate essay in this volume, by E. J. Hobsbawm. He is still its chairman. And for years he has been a regular reviewer of books, mostly on history or literature, in the Daily Worker and, latterly, the Morning Star. He gave a one-term course of history lectures in 1967 at the University of Bratislava, in Czechoslovakia; and keeps up close contacts with historians and others at the University of Rostock in the German Democratic Republic (now the Wilhelm Pieck University at Rostock), where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1975.

Undeterred by these other activities, Leslie has continued steadily to produce books following the publication of The English Utopia in 1952. They have mostly followed one another at about two-yearly intervals.

In the fifties the Communist Party History Group proposed the preparation of a short history of the British Labour Movement up to the end of the First World War—the eve of the foundation of the Communist Party. This job was undertaken jointly by Leslie Morton and the late George Tate, Leslie writing the history from the late eighteenth century to the Chartist period, and George Tate carrying on from there. Several years were devoted to this task, and the book—The British Labour Movement, 1770-1920—was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1956.

Leslie then turned his attention to an earlier period, to the formation and history of the numerous left-wing religious-political sects which had sprung up at the time of the English Revolution and had survived in odd corners of plebeian society and, despite persecution, for a century afterwards. The best


known of these sects were the Ranters, but there were many other varieties—all violently opposed to the established order of society and its politics and morals, all engaging in very unconventional behaviour (nudism and ‘free love’ was a common variant), all looking forward to the New Jerusalem’, and mostly believing themselves the sole elect of God. Leslie considered that the works of William Blake, at the eve of and during the industrial revolution in England, and especially his ‘prophetic writings’, showed the influence on the poet of surviving and submerged remnants of these sects. His initial study of them, and of their influence on Blake, was published in 1958 in a short book, The Everlasting Gospel.

This work tied up with his interest as a Suffolk man in local history. He had become associated with the Suffolk institute of Archaeology, and he and Vivien were both stalwarts of the Workers’ Educational Association at Clare—he has for long been its local chairman. He found evidence of the activities of the radical sects of the seventeenth century in Suffolk, and contributed two articles on them to the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute. He continued research into this line of country for some years, whence emerged a bigger book, The World of the Ranters, in 1970.

Leslie was (and still is) engaged in a variety of special studies in particular episodes and personalities in English history and literature, and in the course of time began to turn out a series of essays. Enough had accumulated by 1966 to be published together by Lawrence and Wishart under the title The Matter of Britain. This book contains studies as various as the Arthurian Cycle (whence derives the traditional expression ‘The Matter of Britain’) and the development of feudal society, Shakespeare’s historical outlook, the Levellers, the Bronté sisters, John Ruskin and E. M. Forster. The Everlasting Gospel (by then out of print) was republished as one of the items. Meantime, in 1963, he had written, also, for Lawrence and Wishart, a short paperback, Socialism in Britain.

His remaining work to date has been concerned with editing four collections of writings by English revolutionaries—first, The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen, in 1962; then, in 1968 and 1973, two volumes of William Morris—the first containing A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere, together with Morris’s narrative poem about the Paris Commune, The Pilgrims of Hope, the second


a selection from the political writings of William Morris; finally (that is, finally to the date of this present record), Freedom in Arms, a collection of Leveller writings. For each of these books he contributed an introduction of singular lucidity, breadth and conciseness.

His latest published work was the Collected Poems (1977)—songs, but not yet, one suspects, those of the swan.

Leslie Morton stands out, throughout his career as writer and as Party worker, as a model type of Communist intellectual. When he started to write as a committed Marxist, there were very few ‘intellectuals’ in the British Communist Party. Now there are many; and British Marxism has won a lasting and ever more influential place in national life, and an international reputation. Leslie is one of those, and perhaps more than he realised a chief one of those, who have contributed to this outcome, singularly untrammelled by whatever political and ideological stereotypes might have been from time to time in currency. Whether on the staff of the Daily Worker, writing for and distributing the Leiston Leader, serving as an Urban District Councillor, a member of the District Party Committee, or as lecturer and writer, he has always been a Party worker, down to earth whether in political agitation or in writing on history and literature—working with people and for people, and writing for people in a way to be understood, to encourage and to teach.

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. “A. L. Morton—Portrait of a Marxist Historian,” in Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton, edited by Maurice Cornforth (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), pp. 7-19.


Our History Digital Archive (Socialist History Society:

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