History and the Imagination:
Selected Writings of A. L. Morton

Edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson

Editors’ Preface

In July 1988 the ‘Back to the Future’ conference held to celebrate Leslie Morton’s achievement and point to the continued relevance of his work attracted over 500 participants. As Eric Hobsbawrn remarked, an event of that sort on such a scale would have been unimaginable thirty years earlier; it marks the degree to which the Marxist approaches he helped to pioneer have been absorbed into historical consciousness.

But as well as being a people’s historian, A.L. Morton was also an outstanding literary critic. Not that he himself would have separated the two fields, for in his approach they were blended together as social struggle and the imaginative expression and understanding of that struggle. His lifelong commitment to the Communist Party, which he joined in 1928, likewise expressed his sense of the relation between thought and action, revolutionary discourse and revolutionary practice.

Our aim in bringing out this volume is to make available again some of Leslie’s shorter writings, now mostly out of print, which have appealed to readers whose primary interest is in culture as much as in history. After appreciations by Christopher Hill and Raphael Samuel, the core of the book is a reprint of The Matter of Britain, a collection chosen by Leslie himself and first published in 1966, which shows him examining the course of our history through the cultural tradition. The rest of the volume has been chosen by us from the wealth of his writings between the 1930s and 1980s. Space did not allow us to give a fully representative selection which would illustrate the development of his work. We have concentrated, therefore, on essays long enough to convey the full flavour and quality of his thinking and not so long as to unbalance the volume; and we have avoided as far as, possible overlapping with books still in print, such as The English Utopia and The World of the Ranters.

Much of Leslie’s most attractive and vital work was in popularising historical and literary journalism, in the innumerable feature articles and reviews he contributed to the Daily Worker, the Morning Star and other papers over most of his writing life. We have regretfully had to exclude nearly all of these, which, though masterpieces of compression, were inevitably limited by space in their exploration of new ideas. However, the pieces on Naseby and News from Nowhere (both from the Morning Star) give some idea of their quality.

Given the restrictions of space, we have chosen among pieces which have best stood the test of time, where his assessments have been confirmed by later discussion and research. Like anybody else Leslie was capable of what may now look like mistaken judgments and erroneous conclusions, but considering the great changes and upheavals which took place over his lifetime in Marxist and Communist understanding of the world, surprisingly seldom.

Among seminal articles excluded as too long are ‘Socialism in Britain’ (1963); the definitive essays on the Levellers and on William Morris written as introductions to Morton’s selections from their works; and the fascinating The Hero as Genealogist, an account of one of Leslie’s more remote and eccentric ancestors. References to some of the material omitted will be found   in the selective bibliography.

The selection from his writings before the end of the Second World War is drawn largely from the short book Language of Men (1945). Of particular interest too are the articles originally appearing in T.S. Eliot’s Criterion and F.R. Leavis’s Scrutiny. Both these editors were far removed from Marxism, yet they were willing at that point to engage in dialogue, and these pieces reveal something of the way in which that dialogue was carried on.

The material from the post-war decades has been arranged according to the date of the historical subject rather than the date of composition, as this seemed to give more sense of coherence. One article, however, which we felt fitted better into this section was the remarkable ‘French Revolutionaries and English Democrats’, first published in Labour Monthly in 1939. Readers familiar with Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class will appreciate what an astonishing anticipation the essay is of some of the essential themes of that historical classic.

The brief sketches of T.A. Jackson, Edgell Rickword and the folk-song collector A.L. Lloyd are included because each of these in different ways had an enduring influence on Leslie’s outlook and cultural approach. The two concluding pieces, from the closing years of his life, show that the clarity of his thought was in no way dimmed by the years. His review of Noreen Branson’s history of the Communist Party between 1927 and 1941 represents his assessment of the movement during the time of his own political maturation. The final item on Ireland, with its contemporary relevance and beautiful concluding quotation, is extracted from his last published writing, the pamphlet he wrote to commemorate the 1688 revolution for the ‘Our History’ series.

The handful of poems with which the book ends are taken from the slim collection he published in 1979—‘all I wish to preserve’ and all written between the two world wars or during the second. ‘If I had to write them now,’ he says there, ‘they would doubtless be very different. As it is, they may stand as a record of the past and of the young man who is at the same time myself and someone at whom I can look back with a mixture of objectivity and wonder.’

Margot Heinemann
Willie Thompson

SOURCE: Morton, A. L. (Arthur Leslie). History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A. L. Morton, edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. Editors’ Preface, pp. 7-9.

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