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.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Modernism's Rainbow

With the rainbow emerging as a symbol of hope in the coronavirus darkness – the children at the nursery opposite my house have painted a big one on a sheet of cardboard and hung it from their gate – we might recall modernism’s own rainbow, as articulated in the great utopian vision which Ursula Brangwen has in the closing paragraphs of D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow (1915).  Here it is:  

'And then, in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill.  And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself.  In one place it gleamed fiercely, and, her heart anguished with hope, she sought the shadow of the iris where the bow should be.  Steadily the colour gathered, mysteriously, from nowhere, it took presence upon itself, there was a faint, vast rainbow.  The arc bended and strengthened itself till it arched indomitable, making great architecture of light and colour and the space of heaven, its pedestals luminous in the corruption of the low houses on the low hill, its arch the top of heaven. 

And the rainbow stood on the earth.  She knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world's corruption were living still, that the rainbow was arched in their blood and would quiver to life in their spirit, that they would cast off their horny covering of disintegration, that new, clean bodies would issue to a new germination, to a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven.  She saw in the rainbow the earth's new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitted to the over-arching heaven'.

So may we, like Ursula, catch glimpses of a juster society emerging from the current crisis.