Monday 24 February 2014

Farewell Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

In the wake of the death of cultural theorist Stuart Hall on the 10th of this month, a tweet from the William Morris Gallery pointed us to his remarks on Morris in his account of the ‘Life and Times of the First New Left’. Hall wrote: ‘The notion of a “socialist propaganda of ideas” was, of course, borrowed directly and explicitly from William Morris and the relationships forged in the Socialist League between intellectuals, struggling to make themselves what Gramsci called ‘organic’, and the working class. We had all read and been inspired by the ‘Making Socialists’ chapter of Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Indeed, the first editorial of New Left Review was framed at either end by a quote from Morris’s Commonweal article of July 1885: “The Labour movement is not in its insurrectionary phase.” I added: “we are in our missionary phase”.’

It has been moving to see how much grief the loss of Stuart Hall has unleashed on the Left and beyond, comparable only to that occasioned by Raymond Williams’s death twenty-five years earlier. I didn’t know Hall personally, though I listened to his spell-binding oratory at various events in the 1980s and was an avid reader of Marxism Today, with its analyses of Thatcherism and ‘New Times’. But reading the statement of Hall’s debt to Morris under the immediate impact of his passing, I wonder if it isn’t now time to run the traffic the other way, as it were.

Instead of Stuart Hall being indebted to Morris, as in the mid-1950s, the William Morris Society of 2013 might open itself to the themes and projects of Stuart Hall. It might then think of itself as an explicitly leftwing outfit with a mission to intervene in the cultural, political and economic debates of the present (rather than retreating to safe historicist work on the nineteenth century). For starters, what about a London lecture course on ‘The Theory and Practice of Contemporary Utopia’, as an early twenty-first-century equivalent of Edward Aveling’s 1885 Socialist League lectures on Marx’s Capital? Such a metamorphosis of the Morris Society would be a small but useful compensation for the loss of a truly great figure on the Left.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Capitalism and Climate Chaos

When this winter’s severe flooding was confined to the Somerset levels, we could feel that it was at a safe distance, in an already vulnerable part of the country, so that it had no further implications for the rest of us. But now that flooding has come to the Thames valley and elsewhere, we are beginning to think again. Indeed, ‘winter’ in my first sentence is palpably the wrong word; there has been no recognisably wintry weather for the last three months or so, just the unending rain and the ever-rising floods. Winter-without-winter: if that’s not climate chaos, it’s hard to know what would be.

But what are those ‘further implications’? Whose narrative is going to win out as we seek to interpret this national disaster? The first step – as all the green groups and spokespeople and even the occasional mainstream politician like Ed Miliband are telling us – is that this is manmade climate change in action, that these are the dire practical consequences (arriving very much earlier than we had ever dreamed) of throwing unthinkable amounts of carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere. Hopefully, that key first insight will get through. We probably need a much sharper terminology in these matters: of corporate ‘climate criminals’ who – like war criminals – will one day face justice for their irresponsible actions.

But what drives all this relentless carbon dioxide emission in the first place? Here comes the second interpretative step, which no mainstream and very few Green politicians will ever take. With its ruthless desire for the maximisation of private profits and its imperative of unending ‘economic growth’ on a finite planet, capitalism as a globalised economic system disrupts our climate and other eco-systems, with the disastrous consequences we are now living through. We must ‘name the system’, as that 1960s political slogan so aptly put it; but we must be able to name the alternative too, and here William Morris, with his own deep attachment to the Thames valley, is a precious resource. For until we are clear that it is for a Morrisian green communism that we are fighting, capitalism will continue to dominate the terms of economic debate and climate chaos can only deepen.

Monday 3 February 2014

Ellen in and out of Nowhere

‘Just who is Ellen ... ?’ asks Patrick Parrinder impatiently, even angrily, in his fine 1991 essay on News from Nowhere (thus confirming her claim that she troubles men’s minds). Plenty of critics have tried to answer that question. Here are a few of their colourful suggestions.

‘A forecast of the next age’ (Middlebro, 1970); ‘we should not take Ellen to be Morris’ (Goode, 1971); ‘the anti-Janey’ (Lindsay, 1975); ‘Guest’s girl-friend’ (Parrinder, 1976); ‘echoes of course of Helen’ (Sharratt, 1980); ‘a multi-dimensional figure’ (Silver, 1982); ‘just stepped out of a painting by Burne-Jones’ (Holzman, 1983); ‘really Guest’s double’ (Sypher, 1984); ‘in a complex sense his daughter’ (Spear, 1984); ‘The Helen of the new world ... anticipates Santayana ... a Christ-figure’ (Boos, 1990); ‘an isolated Cassandra’ (Talbot, 1990); ‘bewitching Helen, destroyer of cities’ (Buzard, 1990); ‘Ellen’s symbolic significance of a further temporal dimension’ (Mineo, 1992); ‘dream combination of Pre-Raphaelite angel and Socialist New Woman’ (MacCarthy, 1994); Ellen-in-sunlight’ (Buzard, 1997); ‘Ellen-Diotima’ (Abensour, 1999); ‘Nowhere’s reassertion of the Gothic spirit’ (Kinna, 2000); ‘the model for a kind of dynamic immobility’ (Beaumont, 2004); ‘an element of May [Morris] in the character of Ellen’ (Cherry, 2007); ‘Ellen-as-world, or world-as-Ellen’ (Plotz, 2007); ‘Guest’s Beatrice, so to speak’ (Boos, 2010); Ursula Le Guin’s Shevek in Morris’s text (Pinkney, 2011); ‘the sublime’ (Pinkney, 2012). Ellen even has a Morrisian family, it would seem, since ’Birdalone is younger sister to the vibrant Ellen’ (Meier, 1972/78).

Let me add one or two more ideas. Ellen is a Lady of Shalott who breaks out of the enclosure of the Runnymede cottage to follow her Lancelot up the Thames, or a Medea-figure rowing up river to prepare her secret spells of power. Like her fellow-Nowherians, the critics compulsively fall ‘to making stories of [Ellen] to themselves’ (ch.XXVIII), and we can’t expect such story-telling about News from Nowhere’s most vivid character to end any time soon.