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.


Tony Pinkney said...

Hum, I notice from Nick Salmon's still indispensable 'William Morris Chronology' that there was a Communist Club in London in the late 1880s. It would be interesting to learn more about that grouping and its politics. Here's the full entry: '6 October 1887: Morris gave a speech at a meeting called to protest against the impending execution of the Chicago Anarchists. The meeting was sponsored by combined London and anarchist groups and held at the Communist Club, 49 Tottenham Street, London' (pp.187-8)

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