Monday, 8 June 2020

Edward Colston Toppled

As a former student of the University of Bristol, I am delighted that the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in that city was torn down and dumped in the harbour in the recent Black Lives Matters demonstration there. ‘Criminal damage’ the Tory politicians are predictably calling such direct action.  No, far from it:  the criminal damage was having the wretched thing up in the first place, thereby honouring a man who made untold profits out of untold human misery – a racist heritage of brutality and oppression which continues into our own times.

As a current student of William Morris, I recall the tearing down of the Vendôme Column on 16 May 1871 by the Paris Commune and the clearing of Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square in News from Nowhere.  These were great gestures of collective liberation, real and fictional, which set an admirable context for Colston’s demise today.  The other traces of the slave trader’s disgusting presence in my old university city – the names of streets and schools which commemorate him – now need to be cleared away too; and then – in a project rather nearer to Morris’s own heart – since it concerns his beloved Oxford University - we need to get shot of that statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes which currently graces (or rather disgraces) the front of Oriel College.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

'I Can't Breathe': In Solidarity

In the June 1885 issue of Commonweal Morris wrote: ‘we have not far to seek to find violence without justice in the present.  Do men choose a miserable life, or are they forced into it?  No one wants violence if a decent life for everyone can be obtained without it.  But it is to be feared that the natural sequence of enforced misery will be violent revolution … will that be the fault of the wretched or of the system which has made them wretched’.

His words bear forcefully upon the mass uprising that has shaken the United States over the last week, after the police murder of George Floyd on 25 May.  These protests may not actually be aiming at revolution in Morris’s sense, but they are certainly an uprising against brutal misery and oppression inflicted on the black population of the country by its deeply racialised capitalism and a white-supremacist President who is just itching to unleash the military upon his own people.  Not that you need the actual army when you have paramilitary thugs like the National Guard at your disposal.

What the world feared China might do to protestors in Hong Kong, it has, ironically, seen come to pass in the so-called Land of the Free.  Such moments of uprising, messy, confused and violent though they always will be, are also moments of political self-definition and choice: either you take a stand with the oppressed, however modest that gesture may be, or, through silence, you allow State repression to run its ugly course.  Morrisians, both individually and through such collective channels as they have access to, must surely do the former.  Otherwise, what could possibly be the point of seeing yourself as a ‘Morrisian’ in the first place!

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Cholera, Corona, New Beginnings

In his account of Morris and Burne-Jones at Oxford University, J.W. Mackail notes that in October 1854 ‘Term had been postponed for a week because of the cholera epidemic’.  I had already pointed this fact out to my own students when they were unable to return to campus at the beginning of this term; ‘The British academic system has been here before’, I noted in an online message to them.

What I hadn’t then recalled is just how much Mackail makes of that cholera epidemic a few pages earlier, how much symbolic, even proto-political force he imbues it with.  For he writes that, to young men of the time, ‘The terrible cholera autumn of 1854 seemed the climax of a period of physical and moral stagnation from which the world was awakening to something like a new birth’.  To back up this claim he quotes a sizeable stretch from Morris’s early short story ‘A Dream’, which I give here in truncated form: ‘Till late that night I ministered to the sick in that hospital; but when I went away, I walked down to the sea … I walked there pondering till a noise from over the sea made me turn and look that way; what was that coming over the sea?  Laus Deo!  The WEST WIND:  Hurrah! … I saw the great green waves rising, nodding and breaking, all coming on together; and over them from wave to wave leaped the joyous WEST WIND; and the mist and the plague clouds were sweeping back eastward in wild swirls’. 

Shelleyan promises of personal and perhaps cultural renewal, then, from the ‘pest-laden city’ the story evokes; and Mackail claims that such significances are a 'hardly concealed second meaning’ on its author’s part.  May the terrible Covid-19 Spring of 2020 prove such a symbolic turning point too, so that we ourselves awaken to a political new birth from the physical and moral stagnation of the Tory austerity of the last decade.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Morris Online under Covid-19

This week I taught my last-ever undergraduate seminars, as the conclusion of a mini-course on Thomas Hardy’s poetry, so, like Coleridge’s snake with its tail in its mouth (his image for the organicist nature of the work of art), my academic career at its close has circled back to its origins, for Hardy’s poetry and novels were a big part of our A-level training at Southend High School for Boys under the adept tutelage of Mr A.J. Webster some decades back.  The surprising feature of these seminars was, then, not their literary content, but the fact that they took place online, as part of the remote teaching that British universities are currently practising under coronavirus lockdown (and may well still be practising this coming autumn term).

Many other intellectual and political projects have moved their own operations online in a wholesale fashion during the Covid-19 crisis.  My wife’s Lacanian psychoanalysis seminar, which had required her to take crack-of-dawn trains from Lancaster to London once a month, now holds its meetings via Zoom; and in fact is having more meetings rather than less in its enthusiasm for the new online medium.  Moreover, the geographical range of participants has increased, allowing people in other countries who could never have made it to London for a Saturday morning start to participate.  

Meantime, in the field of Morris studies, Ingrid Hansen has done an excellent job of organising ‘Morris Out Loud’, a reading-out of the entirety of News from Nowhere via Zoom on Monday evenings from 6.30pm.  But I’m not aware of anything much other than this by way of new Morrisian online offerings.  Yet it should surely have been possible for the William Morris Society, like my wife’s London Lacan group, to have broadcast the speaker meetings it has cancelled over the last couple of months through online forums instead – Microsoft Teams if not Zoom, or no doubt any of a good number of others I don’t know about.  And it too might have increased its audience by so doing.  

There was talk at last year’s Society AGM about the need ‘to increase our digital output’, though at that point it was Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that were mostly on the agenda.  But the coronavirus situation, which could now go on for a very long time indeed, makes it all the more urgent that that digital push is taken into new directions and the Society’s speaker programme got going again by online means.

Monday, 27 April 2020

In Praise of Communism

The global coronavirus crisis is leading to a resurgence of the crudest Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric, with the Tory MP Tom Tugendhat in this country being a particularly ardent practitioner.  The Chinese ‘Communist dictatorship’ then becomes the source of every aspect of the global pandemic: from the invention of the virus in a Wuhan laboratory in some conspiracy theories, through the intimidation and silencing of Doctor Li Wenliang who tried to alert China to the emerging health crisis, to the faking of mortality figures and subsequent fake news campaigns.  There may well be some truth in some of these claims; but taken collectively they add up to a new Cold War racist anti-Communism. 

At which point, Morrisians must surely stand up for communism, if not for China.  It was our hero’s preferred term for his political vision, and, as I have suggested before in this blog, aligning the pre-Leninist communism of Morris with the post-Leninist communism of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Jodi Dean is a compelling political task for us.  Coronavirus is not, as many politicians have asserted, indiscriminate: it may infect an occasional Boris Johnson, but it hits the poor hardest, since in crowded homes and work-places they cannot social distance, their jobs are lost first in any economic lockdown, and they may not have health cover or insurance.  A contemporary communism must speak out against the grotesque economic and health inequalities we are now witnessing so starkly all around us.

On the more scholarly and historical front, we are seeing some interesting work on the semantics of ‘communism’ in Morris’s texts.  Owen Holland’s splendid William Morris’s Utopianism: Propaganda, Politics and Prefiguration (2017) argues that ‘Morris’s intervention into the pastoral tradition can be construed as an attempt to shift the articulation of the communist idea in the direction of social revolution … [his] utopian text attempted to reorient the meaning of the word “communism” around a definition tied to the primacy of the political, as against the then-dominant identifications with utopian-communitarianism’ (pps.107, 118).  Holland grasps the centrality of the term ‘communism’ for Morris, and shrewdly maps its vagaries, as if it were an Empsonian ‘complex word’.

In thinking about the global future we want after Covid-19, the green-communism of Morris needs to be on the agenda again.  We can’t just be calling for the resumption of ‘business as normal’, in that over-used current phrase.  Capitalism-as-normal is generating appalling social divisions into the 1% and the 99%, and destroying our planet’s biological systems into the bargain (and it is more likely that process, rather than a Chinese laboratory, that gives us Covid-19 and the earlier pandemics of our century).  Far from allowing a reversion to Cold War anti-Communism, we should rework the vision and practice of communism to meet the challenges ahead. 

I would like to see the Morris Societies of the UK, the USA and Canada commit themselves to such a task on their websites: not just to plan tactics of immediate survival and reorganisation (important though these are), but to project some serious utopian thinking and mobilising for the years ahead.  Having handed in my notice to Lancaster University, I am now counting down the months to the moment when I can devote myself fulltime to that work.