Monday, 1 October 2012

William Morris Communist: 2

I am a great admirer of David Leopold’s edition of News from Nowhere for the Oxford World's Classics series. It’s a handy and reasonably priced volume, the Introduction is a superb account of Morris’s thought as whole as well as of News from Nowhere in particular, and the notes at the end are full and helpful. None the less, reading David’s Introduction through again, I have a significant reservation about it this time round: for it does not once use the words ‘communism’ or ‘communist’ to describe Morris’s politics, either in his utopia or more generally.

Why should this matter? First, and philologically, because News from Nowhere does use these terms a fair number of times, so an Introduction as good as this should offer at least some account of them. William Guest finds himself amidst ‘the present rest and happiness of complete Communism’ (ch.XXVII). Enlightened men in the late-Victorian period, old Hammond tells us, concluded that ‘the only reasonable condition of Society was that of pure Communism (such as you now see around you)’ (ch.XVII). Narrating the revolution, he then speaks of ‘the spread of communistic theories ... a simple condition of Communism ... the Communism which now loomed ... a system of life founded on equality and Communism’ (ch.XVII). Chapter XV is headed ‘On the Lack of Incentive to Labour in a Communist Society’, and as Hammond describes the operation of local democracy in Nowhere he asks Guest ironically, ‘a terrible tyranny our Communism, is it not?’ (ch.XIV).

Second, and politically, because after the long twentieth-century experience of what did indeed prove to be ‘terrible tyrannies’ in the name of Communism, some key figures on the Left such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are now asking whether it might not be time to use the term ‘communism’ again, as the basis of a new emancipatory politics for the twenty-first century. On these two grounds, then, of Morris’s own usage and our contemporary politics, I hope that any future edition of David Leopold’s News from Nowhere might tackle this term and topic.


Tony Pinkney said...

Just this minute heard the news of the death of another important British Communist Eric Hobsbawm, whose life and work does indeed pose all those difficult twentieth-century questions about Communism that I note in this post. For a good obituary, see

David Leopold said...

Tony says some nice things and some critical things about my edition of News From Nowhere. It is tempting to say that I agree with the former and disagree with the latter, but that wouldn’t be quite true. Not least, I have some sympathy with the more critical remarks. However, here I will push back a little with some ‘mitigating’ comments.

i) It is sometimes important to bear in mind the distinction between word and concept. And it is worth recognising that I do talk about Morris’s understanding of communism in my ‘Introduction’ even if I do not use the word in this context. It is made very clear, for example, that Morris’s ‘socialism’ is premised on common ownership.

ii) I did use the word ‘communism’ in my ‘Introduction’, but I reserved it for the orthodox capital ‘C’ Communism of the twentieth century. For example when I referred to ‘British Communist authors’ such as Robin Page Arnot and E.P. Thompson. At the time, I think I thought this clear division in usage facilitated clarity in a context where word limits were a serious constraint.

iii) Relatedly, I tended in the ‘Introduction’ to talk of Morris’s ‘socialism’ rather than his ‘communism’. The relationship between these two words and concepts is complex, but it is perhaps worth noting that there are some texts where the term ‘socialism’ is used predominately by Morris himself as a label for the views he shares (for example in Socialism From the Root Up coauthored with Bax).

iv) I am less certain than some about the ease with which the word ‘Communism’ might be rehabilitated, freed from its twentieth-century associations. I wonder whether it might not be one of those cases that Morris himself recognized where (in the well-known words of John Ball): ‘I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.’

v) I would love to have time to do some detailed work on Morris’s social and political thought. There is a space for a serious book on this topic, and it would certainly have much more to say about his concept of communism. It might even interrogate the word ‘communism’ a bit more!

Tony Pinkney said...

Many thanks for the detailed and very thoughtful comment, David. Further debate about issues of socialism and communism in (and beyond) Morris would indeed be fruitful. I see that Ruth Levitas is organising a WM Society event on his political thinking on Saturday 16 February 2013 - perhaps that would be an occasion? I feel that Morris's pre-Leninist communism could be a useful resource for attempts to invent a post-Leninist communism today, and that the difficult term 'communist' is anyway useful in problematising too easy assimilations of Morris to contemporary Green politics.

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