In Issue 51 (March 2013) Henry Gibson examined a book that pictures a vision of socialist society and how to get there.
William Morris retains his fascination as one of the most remarkable and diversely talented people who have shaped, and been shaped by, the movement for socialism. The glimpse of a socialist society he gave us dates from 1890, but the century and more that have elapsed between him and ourselves has done little to diminish the inspiring power of that vision.
News from Nowhere sprang in large part from his dissatisfaction with the way socialism was commonly being envisaged at the time. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had been published in the US three years earlier and taken a grip on the public imagination. Its protagonist wakes up in the year 2000 in a world of planned equality where the irrationalities of capitalism are no more. Morris was all but horrified, however, at its depiction of a society that differed from contemporary capitalism primarily in being run more efficiently. Human beings in this utopia were cogs in a huge machine, albeit cogs with a fairer standard of living, with no say in running things until their retirement. What’s more, Bellamy presented this society as emerging peacefully as a natural development of capitalism’s own tendencies. In 1889 Fabian Essays in Socialism appeared in Britain, outlining the Fabian Society’s conception of socialism as a reformed version of capitalism, to be gradually introduced by sympathetic liberal politicians. This prospect of a state administered by enlightened planners, with the idea of a liberated human existence conspicuous by its absence, severely rubbed Morris up the wrong way, and he said as much around the time he was beginning his book.
Alongside these, Morris faced tension among his own comrades. He was a prominent member of the Socialist League, an openly revolutionary organisation formed five years earlier. In the meantime it had rejected on principle standing in parliamentary elections—a position Morris wholeheartedly endorsed—and then gone on to embrace anarchism more and more openly—a position Morris didn’t share. News from Nowhere was serialised in The Commonweal, the League’s paper which Morris edited, but by the time its final chapter appeared, he had been replaced by an explicitly anarchist editor. The book’s opening sentence has its events following from a discussion “Up at the League” on a post-revolutionary society, and week by week it portrayed a socialism which went against the grain of the new orthodoxy prevailing in the League. Subtitling his story ‘An Epoch of Rest’, Morris was imagining a time beyond the storm and stress of party divisions, focussing on what should be the end goal of it all. Its protagonist feels that his experiences “should be told to our comrades” as well as the general public.
The introductory chapter is conventionally told, but the narrator then shifts to the first person “since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world does”. Morris hardly bothers to hide the fact that the protagonist is himself: his name is William, and he happens to be 56 years old, as Morris was in 1890. So this new world is not presented to us objectively to be accepted as a finished article, but revealed bit by bit through Morris’s eyes, with all his incomprehension, questions, and reservations.
There are certainly things to doubt and question in what Morris puts before us. The educational system of this society, for instance, is not to have one, to just leave children and adults to acquire whatever learning they may happen to pick up along the way. The rustic paradise of it all sometimes suggests a 1950s Hollywood movie where the happy folk of Ye Olde England merrily ply their trades in the forest as a lute sounds in the background. You could certainly imagine a baffled Danny Kaye making a fool of himself as Morris’s hero does when he tries to offer strange old things called money in return for goods received, or when he fails to understand that people in their forties now look younger than people in their twenties did when harassed by the worries of capitalist society. The Commonweal’s readership would certainly have appreciated the running anti-parliamentary gag about the Palace of Westminster having been converted into a place for storing dung.
Sometimes in News from Nowhere, though, the most radical changes have the most practical feel. With no private property to own or covet, crime has become largely a thing of the past, and civilised living is taken for granted, as Hammond—a character whose main function is to explain the new society—describes:
We have been living for a hundred and fifty years, at least, more or less in our present manner, and a tradition or habit of life has been growing on us; and that habit has become a habit of acting on the whole for the best. It is easy for us to live without robbing each other. It would be possible for us to contend with and rob each other, but it would be harder for us than refraining from strife and robbery.
This habit is occasionally broken, of course, either through a breakdown in an individual’s mental health—“in which case he must be restrained until his illness or madness is cured”—or a freak rush of blood to the head. Either way, such instances are treated as “the errors of friends, not the habitual actions of persons driven into enmity against society”. The most notorious case mentioned in the book is someone who accidentally killed a man in a jealous fight over a woman they both loved. The fact that it is such a cause of comment underlines its rarity, and the remorse he has to live with is considered worse than any punishment would be.
So Morris doesn’t claim that the revolution will abolish unrequited love, but he does show it having established relationships between the sexes which are based on free will and equality. Partnerships are formed, broken and reformed casually enough, as people desire themselves: “families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases”. There is no need for courts to sanction or dissolve such relations, and importantly, “there is no code of public opinion which takes the place of such courts, and which might be as tyrannical and unreasonable as they were”. People still hold opinions, right or wrong, on the affairs of others, but there is no unbending standard of moral rectitude imposed on them.
Unfortunately, News from Nowhere doesn’t anticipate an end to the sexual division of labour. Domestic work and child rearing still fall to the lot of women, albeit free from economic degradation. The visitor is asked: “don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a clever woman to manage a house skilfully, and to do it so that all the house-mates about her look pleased, and are grateful to her?” The idea that women be freed of the burden of parenting is described as a “strange piece of baseless folly”, and instead woman is “respected as a child-bearer and rearer of children”. It is good to hear that such important work is recognised as such, but there is nothing approaching an explanation of why it should still be woman’s work. Could men not be equally willing and able to run a house, equally willing and able to bring up children if not actually give birth to them? Could this society not be making provision for such work to be done more collectively, as and when women and men wanted that? While ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to the liberation of women, Morris failed to go all the way with it, and as a result this is one aspect of his book which has dated very badly.
On the other hand, the actual portrayal of female characters does go beyond this. They are not in fact contented housewives or mothers, but quite emancipated women, and they exercise an attraction for the central character which he isn’t shy about expressing. Morris must have thought likewise: living in a less than happy marriage himself, his longing for someone like Ellen, the free spirit in love with life and nature who appears in the latter half of the book, is evident.
Love of nature shines through the whole of News from Nowhere, “love of the very skin and surface of the earth… a nature bettered and not worsened by contact with mankind”. The visitor is constantly shocked to see that districts he knew as polluted slums are now clean and pleasant places for people to live. London has shrunk, and people now live in smaller communities. Following the revolution people flocked from the cities to populate the countryside, “so that the difference between town and country grew less and less” with the “world of the country vivified by the thought and briskness of town-bred folk”. This rational relationship of humanity to the rest of the natural world reverses the old way of seeing things, and again it is a woman who points it out:
Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature’, as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another. It was natural to people thinking in this way that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them.
The key to the whole transformation is work, which is of course the key to human life at any time or place. As Hammond explains, socialism couldn’t exist without radically reshaping human labour:
What is the object of Revolution? Surely to make people happy. Revolution having brought its foredoomed change about, how can you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in except by making people happy?… And happiness without happy daily work is impossible.
Work has become pleasurable, something people enjoy doing and take pride in. Artistic creation has become the norm: “the production of what used to be called art… has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces”. There is no pretence that such a state of affairs came about overnight, but now it is established, there is no contradiction between the satisfaction of need and the need for satisfaction: “as we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them”, says Hammond, even sacrificing technical efficiency whenever it robs work of its joy. The basic principle, he explains, is “the freedom for every man to do what he can do best, joined to the knowledge of what productions of labour we really wanted”.
This is expanded upon in two passages that Morris added to News from Nowhere between its serialisation in The Commonweal and its publication as a book in 1891. One deals with the impression that work in this society is “a mere part of a summer holiday” by showing a gang repairing a road. While this is difficult and necessary work, they deprive fulfilment from it, with the physical exertion making a welcome change to the more sedentary occupations they would engage in at other times. A new chapter focusses on “The Obstinate Refusers”, a group of artists, led by a sculptress, who prefer to renovate an old house than to go haymaking with everyone else. There is something of a general bemusement at their desire to do their own thing, but nothing like hostility, suggesting that individual inspiration has a secure place in a society of mutual solidarity. The secret of it all, Morris’s character concludes, is that people “had at last learned to accept life itself as a pleasure, and the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, and the preparation for them, as work fit for the best of the race”.
The administration of this society is not a matter for a specialised class: “the whole people is our parliament” is how Hammond puts it. He explains that each local community has regular meetings where anyone can propose to do something new or different. If they get some support, the proposal is put off to the next meeting while people discuss arguments for and against. At that meeting a vote is taken.
If the division is a close one, the question is again put off for further discussion; if the division is a wide one, the minority are asked if they will yield to the more general opinion, which they often, nay, most commonly do. If they refuse, the question is debated a third time, when, if the minority has not perceptibly grown, they always give way; though I believe there is some half-forgotten rule by which they might still carry it on further; but I say, what always happens is that they are convinced, not perhaps that their view is the wrong one, but that they cannot persuade or force the community to adopt it.
If the vote is still close, the rule is that “the question must lapse, and the majority, if so narrow, has to submit to sitting down under the status quo”, although in practice, the minority usually yields by this point.
This amounts to democracy in practice. In individual affairs people can do as they wish, and in social affairs “the majority must have their way” at the end of the day. This ran directly counter to an individualist type of anarchism then becoming stronger in the Socialist League, which maintained that no one could ever submit to the will of another without being a slave. Morris’s character puts this point of view to Hammond, “that every man should be quite independent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”, but the very notion only causes them both to burst out laughing. Hammond states that the only alternative to consensus-based majority rule would be some kind of a privileged class making decisions and having them enforced, whereas no one “needs an elaborate system of government, with its army, navy and police, to force him to give way to the will of the majority of his equals”.
Morris challenges his anarchist colleagues in “How The Change Came”, a chapter twice as long as any other in the book. The overthrow of the old system is related here by Hammond, who is another alter ego of the author’s: “in truth his face… seemed strangely familiar to me; as if I had seen it before—in a looking-glass it might be”. The revolutionary narrative Morris puts in his mouth is no sudden thunderclap brought about by the bombs and bullets of underground agitators, but a process of political change working itself upwards in plain sight, emerging historically out of the ruins of the society it brought down, with the revolution located over sixty years after News from Nowhere appeared.
The idea of a society of freedom and equality had emerged in the nineteenth century, but the power of the ruling class was so great “that some of those more enlightened men who were then called Socialists… shrunk from what seemed to them the barren task of preaching the realisation of a happy dream… had no faith in it”. So they believed “in their impatience and despair” that the system could be modified by something “which was known at the time as State Socialism” so that the working class “might have their slavery somewhat ameliorated”. Some improvements were brought about, but “that instinct which produced the passion for freedom and equality” persisted among the workers, and remained unsatisfied.
The trade union movement had often fallen victim to corrupt leaders, we are told, but did succeed in winning improvements from employers and the state, and expanding the organisation of the workers. An economic crisis led to it demanding workers’ control over the economy, which was met by military repression. The response was a general strike, the workers boycotting the capitalist class while busily arranging distribution of goods for themselves.
now that the times called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot; and a new network of workmen’s associations grew up very speedily, whose avowed single object was the tiding over of the ship of the community into a simple condition of Communism; and as they practically undertook also the management of the ordinary labour-war, they soon became the mouthpiece and intermediary of the whole of the working classes…
Arresting their leaders proved pointless, “For they depended not on a carefully arranged centre… but on a huge mass of people in thorough sympathy with the movement”. All the while, the ideas and activity of socialists had been making themselves felt throughout the working class. Although most of the rank and file soldiers came over to the workers’ side, unofficial capitalist militias fought on, and capitalism was only beaten after a couple of years of bitter civil war. The workers were victorious because “the very conflict itself… developed the necessary talent amongst them”, experience which proved invaluable in laying the foundations of the new society.
Morris wrote when the world had little experience of actual workers’ revolution, beyond the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the outline he sketches coincides to such an extent with revolutionary situations since. The general strike, the spread of grassroots workers’ councils, the dissemination of socialist ideas among the working class, the army splitting along class lines, the tough challenges of definitive class struggle themselves equipping people to take over society: it comes close to a checklist of how revolutions happen, of what factors need to be present for them to win.
It wasn’t long after the final chapter appeared in The Commonweal that Morris left the Socialist League, having concluded that it had outlived its usefulness in spreading sane socialist politics. The main thing was to convince people on the ground that socialism was necessary and possible, he wrote in his parting shot: “When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice.” In News from Nowhere Hammond looks back to Morris’s time, which is still very much our own time too: “knowledge, discontent, treachery, disappointment, ruin, misery, despair—those who worked for the change because they could see further than other people went through all these phases of suffering”. William wakes up in the end, of course, but far from cursing it all as only an idle dream, he wants others to see it so that it can become a vision. He remembers Ellen’s last look and the message it conveyed:
Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.