It was certainly a fine idea of Ruth Levitas’s to convene a Society meeting about Morris’s political lectures, and the twenty or so people who turned up on Saturday to this discussion enjoyed into the bargain a splendid rendition by Rob Hunter of the ‘Death Song’ that Morris wrote for Alfred Linnell, who was killed by police on Bloody Sunday in November 1887. That reminder of the violence that ruling classes are always prepared to unleash when seriously challenged served as a sombre backdrop to Ruth’s 12-page handout of key passages from Morris’s lectures, which ranged from the breathtakingly utopian to the hard-headedly pragmatic – his 1896 insistence that we ‘organize a real definite Socialist party’ being both at once, I suppose.
Without organisation, you don’t make much headway against a still powerful capitalism, as the Occupy movement sadly demonstrated to us. But are there any real signs of an effective Party emerging to the left of Labour in the British political spectrum? I used to feel that the Green Party might be that, but I don’t now believe it has an analysis adequate to the global economic crisis we’ve faced since 2008. The Respect Party successfully got George Galloway returned to Parliament in March 2012 and he is an important, if controversial, voice for the Left. But Respect’s aim is to occupy the space of the Labour Party before it became New Labour under Tony Blair, i.e. to be a social-democratic party aiming to curb or humanise capitalism, whereas what we want (just as Morris did in 1896) is a real party of the socialist Left aiming to replace it.
The two successor organisations to the original British Communist Party don’t seem to be making much headway, though it is certainly my own personal hope that communism is now a political term we could start using again. On the Trotsykist Left, the Socialist Workers Party is in crisis, as internal difficulties over its handling of a rape allegation have spiralled into a general challenge to its version of Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’; let’s hope that the wider membership can overcome the sclerotic Central Committee on this issue and renew the SWP’s energies. As for the independent or libertarian Left, it looks longingly at the Syriza coalition in Greece as a possible model for a new start (see Hilary Wainright’s article in Red Pepper). So our Morrisian utopian values, now as in 1896, lack a plausible political embodiment, though we can be sure that the capitalist ‘age of austerity’ will generate new forms of class consciousness that will eventually find a vehicle of their own.