Monday, 20 May 2019

Florence Boos at Kelmscott House

‘I’m with the people … the working class people who have been left behind economically … The elites have tried to silence my own voice … I’ll represent you, the working class of England … just another millionaire stockbroker who looks down at the working classes’.  These remarks are not, as you might have thought, quotations from the uncollected Morris lectures that Professor Florence Boos eloquently set before us at the Morris Society AGM on Saturday.  At that event the admirable socialist content of her talk made a welcome contrast with its politically anodyne first half, devoted as that was to Society business and chaired by Stephen Bradley.

No, the class-oriented quotations above are from the European election leaflet from notorious far-right activist Tommy Robinson that I found on my doormat a few days ago.  Fascism is clearly now on the move in this country in a way and to a depth that we haven’t seen for some years; and its rhetoric cunningly ventriloquises aspects of socialism’s own appeal to working-class people.  We always knew there were nasty, dangerous, far-right individuals out there.  Now, however, as Robinson’s North-West election leaflet shows, they have serious money and organisation behind them.

This alarming fact suggests that we recalibrate the purposes of the William Morris Society.  While celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Kelmscott Chaucer in 2021 is a worthy project in itself, at a time of political emergency such as our own, when the Brexit impasse is allowing the far-right to emerge again (though this is, of course, a global as well as a British trend), a society devoted to the life and work of Britain’s foremost Communist will need to be rather more politically interventionist than that.  It should surely also aim to renew left-wing and utopian thinking in the present – a task in which recovering it from the past, as Florence Boos so skilfully did, is a necessary first step.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Communism and Poetry: Writing against Capital

It looks as though the very book that we need to identify the twenty-first-century successors to William Morris’s militant narrative poem ‘The Pilgrims of Hope’ is on its way to us.  Edited by Ruth Jennision and Julian Murphet, it appears in Palgrave Macmillan’s ‘Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics’ series and will hit the bookshelves in late August this year.  The publisher’s blurb describes the collection as follows:

Communism and Poetry: Writing Against Capital addresses the relationship between an upsurge in collective political practice around the world since 2000, and the crystallization of newly engaged forms of poetry. Considering an array of perspectives―poets, poet-critics, activists and theorists―these essays shed new light on the active interface between emancipatory political thought and poetic production and explore how poetry and the new communism are creating mutually innovative forms of thought and activity, supercharging the utopian imagination. Drawing inspiration from past connections between communism and poetry, and theorizing new directions over the years ahead, the volume models a much-needed critical solidarity with creative strategies in the present conjuncture to activate movements of resistance, on the streets and in verse’.

The only problem with this admirable volume is that you need to be a bit of a capitalist yourself to afford it, since it costs a hefty £89-99 hardback.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Counter-Revolution in Venezuela

In News from Nowhere old Hammond asks William Guest: ‘how can you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in except by making people happy?’  But fortunately for his utopians, Morris does not depict his socialist England as being neighboured by a capitalist superpower which is ruthlessly determined to do everything in its power to destroy their revolution.  If there were such a superpower in News from Nowhere, it would have used every means of economic sanction and sabotage it had at its disposal to subvert the Nowherian economy.  It would also have reached out to the ‘old grumbler’ at Runnymede as its useful idiot or figurehead within Nowhere itself, and he in turn might have persuaded a few ‘obstinate Refusers’ in the Nowherian military to launch a coup in the Thames valley.

All this the United States has been and is doing in Venezuela, of course, in its bid to destroy the Bolivarian revolution through its puppet Juan Guaido; and that process has now reached a critical flashpoint.  Aldous Huxley’s utopian island Pala has an authoritarian military power on its doorstep, Colonel Dipa’s Rendang-Lobo, but Pala’s quietistic Buddhist philosophy means it takes no steps to guard itself and it is ultimately crushed by its neighbour.  Ernst Callenbach’s west-coast Ecotopia is much more aware of the danger from the United States it has broken away from; and its secret police and decentralised militia seem up to the task of defending the ecological revolution against that powerful hostile neighbour. 

How Juan Guaido’s attempted counter-revolution will play out in Venezuela itself, we cannot yet know.  Nicolas Madura is a much less charismatic leader than Hugo Chavez himself, and there are deep internal problems with the Bolivarian revolution which exacerbate the external sabotage it has been subject to; but for now the bulk of the military seems loyal to the government.  Keeping the people happy to avert counter-revolution, yes indeed – old Hammond is surely right.  But what happens when the regional superpower, with its eye on your immense oil reserves, makes even that virtually impossible?

Monday, 22 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion

In the stirring chapters of News from Nowhere devoted to ‘How the Change Came’, the British government makes ‘a desperate effort to overwhelm “the rebels,” as they were now once more called, and as indeed they called themselves’.  Are the Extinction Rebellion activists who brought some areas of London to a standstill this week ‘rebels’ in that sense?  What is the force of their name, what are the aims and means of their protest, what metaphors and narratives emotionally inspire them?

Suppose we shifted the purpose of the William Morris Society from reconstruction of the activities of the socialists of the 1880s and 1890s (to which the current issue of the Society Journal is partly devoted) to tracking the aims and activities of progressive moments today, and to eliciting the utopian ‘structures of feeling’ (Raymond Williams’s term) which underpin and inspire their commitment.

But not just tracking and elicting, but actively intervening too.  For not once, for example, did we hear the term ‘capitalism’ mentioned in David Attenborough’s splendid climate change television documentary the other night; and nor have I heard it in television and radio coverage of the Extinction Rebellion protests, though of course I’ve not caught all of that.  Without a sense of the systemic economic pressures driving us to reckless levels of over-consumption of the earth’s resources, you inevitably fall back – as Attenborough did - on smallscale individual solutions (cycle rather than drive, use less plastic, and so on).

As E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams made so clear, Morris was the great figure who brought nineteenth-century romanticism into contact with the actual working-class movement of his time, who, in response to environmental despoliation, named capitalism as the enemy and communism (exemplified in News from Nowhere) as the solution.  The William Morris Society could and should be an active force promoting that intersection of ‘rebellions’ in today’s politics too.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Hammersmith Bridge: an Opportunity

So Hammersmith Bridge is now closed to road traffic after being found to have critical faults in one of Hammersmith and Fulham council’s weekly inspections.  There is, apparently, a plan for repair, but due to the government’s austerity budget cuts Transport for London says it cannot finance the necessary work.  In which case, the bridge must stay closed to traffic indefinitely.

This situation is surely opportunity as well as crisis.  Let’s think not of repairing but replacing what William Guest in News from Nowhere refers to as that ‘ugly suspension bridge’.  The new structure won’t be Boris Johnson’s vanity ‘garden bridge’, which wasted some £43 million of taxpayers’ money in planning costs, but rather the utopian bridge that Morris himself describes: ‘of stone arches, splendidly solid, and as graceful as they were strong; high enough also to let ordinary river traffic through easily.  Over the parapet showed quaint and fanciful little buildings, which I supposed to be booths or shops, beset with painted and gilded vanes and spirelets’.  So: no to Bazalgette, yes to utopia.  And even in the non-utopian meantime, what a delight to be able to walk or cycle across Hammersmith Bridge without the noise and air pollution of all that disgusting road traffic!