A bridge worth crossing


News From Nowhere and Other Writings
By William Morris
Edited by Clive Williams
Penguin. 430 pp., $12.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Dave Riley

William Morris was an extraordinary man. Today, a year short of the centenary of his death, perhaps a reassessment of his many contributions to the decorative arts, literature and socialism is needed by a movement that is caught between the twin poles of lifestyle and politics.

The first problem is identifying who he was. Morris is not a familiar figure in this country outside the local craft community. Today he is best known as a designer and craftsperson. He achieved major success in at least 13 fields of decorative design, including stained glass, ceramics, painted and stencilled decoration, embroidery, carpets, illuminated manuscripts, typography and book design.

Morris is credited with inspiring the modern garden city and arts and crafts movements, the landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll, the modernist architect Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus, the Weimar school of art in Germany), the functional trend in Swedish domestic design, and the town planner Lewis Mumford.

It was as a poet and translator of Icelandic sagas that Morris was more widely known in late 19th century Britain. While his verse is seldom enjoyed nowadays, it was a major influence on that of the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats.

Given these credentials, Morris could attain an honoured place in the late 19th century aesthetic movement known as the Pre-Raphaelites — to which Oscar Wilde also subscribed. The fact that Morris was born rich enabled him to pursue his interests without fear of penury as well as to invest in a series of successful company ventures designed to produce and market handcrafted wares.

But Morris' major impulse was a yearning for the medieval past. Addicted to the romances of Sir Walter Scott, his pattern-designs and social outlook were forged in the image he fostered of social relations of the Middle Ages. Like many trends in the modern environment movement, Morris' heart was pre-capitalist and more at home in an imagined rural idyll than among the soot, smoke and profiteering of industrial Britain.

Given these impulses, he was a genuine and early convert to the green side of politics. His plea in an article on "How a Factory Might Be", that "our factory must make no sordid litter, befoul no water, nor poison the air with smoke" might well come from within the modern green movement today. As founder in 1877 of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, his activities seem remarkably contemporary.

So Morris as forebear and thinker remains relevant today. But he offers more than passive nostalgia for days long gone. William Morris in his mid-40s became an active revolutionary socialist.

Morris thereafter often abandoned his loom for the street as a member and leader of the British Socialist League. As agitator and propagandist, he shifted from a preoccupation with a medieval past to translating what a future socialist society might be like.

Like so much of Morris' writing, stories like News From Nowhere hark back to the rural society of the Middle Ages: "England was once a country of clearings amongst the woods and forests", the narrator who wakes up out of a dream to find himself in the 21st century is told. "It then became a country of huge and foul workshops ... it is now a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt." This is thanks to a great urban clearance and tree-planting program in 1955 which followed on the heels of the revolution.

Such ready greening slots in with contemporary ideals. But unlike many environment activists today, Morris had no illusions in the parliamentary road to a transcendent ecology. While he managed to defeat the parliamentarians in the Socialist League, he pushed it into the hands of the anarchists. After a small group of anarchists captured the league's executive, Morris withdrew his own Hammersmith branch from the league in 1890 and reconstituted it as the Hammersmith Socialist Society. The manifesto of this new society rejected both parliamentary socialism — which he dismissed as "gas and water socialism" — and anarchism.

Morris' battles within the small British socialist sects were to prove mere historical footnotes, but his commitment to spreading the principles of socialism promoted an active lecture and publications program that tried to outline the possibilities of an alternative society.

Frederick Engels was perhaps a little too harsh in dismissing Morris as a "sentimental socialist". Perhaps "medieval" is a better word to describe his socialism. But its greater failing — regardless of Morris' familiarity with the works of Marx — was that it shared an all too ready utopian vision of the future without confronting the means by which it could be achieved.

We cannot hold it against Morris for preferring filigree to red flags or a hammer and sickle, nor judge him too harshly for the purity of pristine detail in his vision of the future. Utopianism does sometimes bear fruit, and Morris' contribution to Marxism lies not only in his recognition of the importance of the natural world to the program of socialism, but also in his understanding of the contribution of fruitful labour to human happiness. Morris elevated work to the level of art so that both could be redefined as necessary components of the pleasures of life.

It is here that Morris sustains his political relevance and deserves to be read once again. While some in the rich portion of the globe continue to be impressed with the possibilities of a fulfilling lifestyle under capitalism, the work of William Morris serves as a warning. Turning our back on the social world in favour of a subscription to Grass Roots, the dream of permaculture backyards and the pleasures of home handicrafts may appeal as ethical and satisfying, but as a means towards addressing the real and collective blight that warps our lives, it is a miserable failure.

Between the personal and intimate greening we are urged to pursue and the essential revolutionary tasks that challenge us, the writings of William Morris can serve as a bridge worth crossing. Fortunately, the ready availability of this new edition of some of his writings makes such a personal journey that much easier to undertake.

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