Sunday, 22 March 2009

William Morris, Communist

George Bernard Shaw forcefully reminds us that ‘Morris, when he had to define himself politically, called himself a Communist … He knew that the essential term, etymologically, historically, and artistically, was Communist; and it was the only word he was comfortable with’ (William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, vol 2, p.ix).

We can assume, therefore, that Morris would have been deeply committed to Slavoj Zizek’s recent conference ‘On the Idea of Communism’. This three-day event at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London (March 13th-15th) attracted a huge audience of over 900 people, who listened to such luminaries of the Left as Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Toni Negri, Jean-Luc Nancy and Terry Eagleton discussing the viability of the concept and politics of Communism for our times. In the midst of a global capitalist economic crisis, the conference attracted great press interest and had an immensely timely feel to it.

At the same time, however, the BBC’s Saturday evening series on ‘The Lost World of Communism’ has been vividly reminding us of the history of the actually (well, formerly) existing Communist states of the East. Yesterday’s programme, on Czechoslovakia, gave a potent feel of how genuinely liberatory in some respects, but also how brutal and oppressive in others, and also just how plain dour and humourless, such regimes could be. To re-boot the idea of Communism after all that will certainly take some doing!

Morris, then, was a Communist, as Shaw reminds us, and to be committed to his work is also to take an interest in the fate of the ideal of Communism today. But you’d never guess as much from 'News from Anywhere', the official blog of the William Morris Society, which rarely lets a whiff of even 1880s socialism contaminate its focus on Pre-Raphaelitism, the Book Arts, Aestheticism and Decadence, Tennyson, Victorian Art in general, and so on. One can understand Morris being de-politicised by his enemies; but if his friends – indeed, his most devoted contemporary supporters – are doing this too, then he and his legacy to us are truly in trouble.

7 comments:

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linda said...

Thank you for speaking up about Morris as Communist --his communism should not be airbrushed out of existence -- am with you 100% on this.

linda said...

...and have just noticed that Morris says in Commonweal '..genuine socialism -- or let us call it communism, since all socialists ... know they are aiming at that'.

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