Thursday 22 February 2018

William Morris on Radio 4

Today’s broadcast on 1880s socialism, in Anne McElvoy’s BBC Radio 4 series on British Socialism from Robert Owen onwards, certainly had its moments.  Ruth Kinna came up with a nice formulation in calling socialism ‘a fulltime complete-immersion project’ for Morris; and McElvoy’s own account of the Socialist League as ‘the first flowering of what we now call identity politics’, in the form of Eleanor Marx’s embrace of ‘free love’ and women’s issues, and Edward Carpenter’s homosexuality and environmentalism, was an interesting perspective.  Her dating of the post-revolutionary present of News from Nowhere as 2021, however, struck me as rather too definitive, given the slipperiness of the timeframe in Morris’s utopia; and it was just an error to assert that Engels left the Social Democratic Federation, since he was never a member of it in the first place.

Lively and informative though this programme was, it seemed to me yet another instance that proves the case I have argued in a recent article in the William Morris Society Journal: that the word ‘communism’, which was Morris’s own preferred term for his political values, is being systematically censored out of discussion of him.  We should challenge that semantic erasure, I have suggested, because to think of Morris as a communist, of a non-Leninist kind, is to open the possibility of bringing his work into relation to that of contemporary figures like Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek and Jodi Dean, who are trying to invent a post-Leninist communist thinking for our own time.  We need to blast Morris out of the continuum of history, to use Walter Benjamin’s old phrase, in order to make him speak persuasively to our own moment.  Anne McElvoy’s treatment, respectful and learned though it was, left him firmly ensconced in the 1880s and 1890s.

Friday 9 February 2018

Anger at Morris

In his William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, E.P. Thompson gives a powerful evocation of the shock and grief of the wider socialist movement at the news of Morris’s death on 3 October 1896.  ‘Hundreds and thousands of workers, comrades known and unknown to Morris, sorrowed at the news’, he writes; and he ends his account by quoting a moving tribute from the Lancashire branch of the Social-Democratic Federation: ‘Comrade Morris is not dead there is not a Socialist living whould belive him dead for he Lives in the heart of all true men and women still and will do so to the end of time’.

However, James Leatham suggests that there was a second, and quite different, phase of socialist response to Morris’s death.  Born in 1865, Leatham had been apprenticed to a printer in Aberdeen at the age of thirteen, and met Morris on the latter’s first visit to that city in March 1888.  The following year he started his own printing house and published four Morris pamphlets from 1891 onwards; such was his ardent devotion that he named his eldest daughter May Morris Leatham!

So Leatham writes with some authority as a late-Victorian working-class socialist, and in his William Morris: Master of Many Crafts (1899) informs us, rather unsettlingly, that ‘When, shortly after Morris’s death in 1896, his will was proved, the fact that he left a large fortune to his relatives, but made no bequest to the funds of the Socialist organizations, excited much hostile comment’.  I don’t think I’ve come across that claim before.  Has it been mentioned in recent scholarship and, more importantly, has it ever been thoroughly looked into?  What exactly were the sources of the ‘hostile comment’ that Leatham is evoking here?