Friday, 23 March 2012

History of the William Morris Society 2005-2055

Looking backward as I am in 2055 on 100 years of William Morris Society activity, I am very conscious of following in the footsteps of Martin Crick’s excellent history of its first 50 years. However, since Morris was a Marxist and for him the agents of history were collective rather than individual, I have avoided Crick’s focus on characters and discussed groups and movements instead.

With the emergence of the William Morris Gallery in the wake of the 2012 Olympics as the major Morris museum and study centre in the country, the Society had to develop new ideas for its own Hammersmith base. It therefore in 2020 took back the upstairs Coach House flat for its own usage and reconstituted the whole space as a Utopian Studies Centre (appropriately enough, since Morris had written News from Nowhere in Kelmscott House in 1890). The Society’s brief was now to be about the future, not the Victorian past; a few members resigned in protest, but many new ones were recruited, and by 2025 Society numbers were up to the 2000 mark which had last been achieved in the 1996 Morris centenary.

Simultaneously, Morris Society Cultural Theory Groups had been set up in Oxford in 2015 and Manchester in 2022, welcomely broadening activity beyond London itself; their brief was to engage intellectual and theoretical developments across a range of academic fields (architecture, aesthetics, economics, literary theory, Marxism, philosophy) from a distinctively Morrisian perspective. A new electronic Society journal was set up in 2020 to publish such work, at last giving us a strong presence on the contemporary international academic scene. Under capitalist globalisation and in a digitalised communications medium, many key Morrisian values were thought through all over again.

Meantime, in the wider cultural and political sphere, disgust with the militant neo-liberalism of the Thatcher, Blair and Cameron-Clegg years led to a gradual revival of Left activities. Particularly significant for the Society was the early twenty-first-century reinvention of the ‘idea of Communism’ by figures like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek (building on the ecological idea of ‘the commons’), which led not only to a new focus on Morris’s own Communism, but also to a reactivation of that later connection between Communism and Morris which had been responsible for founding the Morris Society in the first place (see Crick, pp.23-4).

By 2030, therefore, many Society members were themselves part of the New Communist Movement, though the Green-ecological strand in the membership remained very active too. The Society’s focus therefore became increasingly campaigning and political in ways that Morris would surely have approved, a development which led it into occasional disputes with the Charity Commissioners (again, some loss of protesting elderly members, but much new recruitment). And when the Green Party-Real Labour coalition government came to power in 2042, many Society figures were called upon to act as government advisers in their spheres of expertise. Thus the Society at last became a force for socialism in public policy. By a happy coincidence this was also the year in which the Occupy Party finally displaced the Democratic Party in the United States as the progressive alternative to the Republicans.

So, although we have not yet had our full-blooded UK revolution (which Morris over-optimistically dated to 1952-54), we can surely say, in retrospect, that the period 2005-2055 was a good second half-century for the Society and Morrisian values. Onward and upward towards 2105.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

How to Take Morris Forwards

I’ve just finished Martin Crick’s History of the William Morris Society 1955-2005, a wonderfully researched volume which makes an always instructive and at times quite gripping read. Since it’s surely the fullest account of Society activities up to 2005 that we’re ever going to get, it might be worth highlighting his conclusions at the end of the book.

1. Despite the Society’s announced intention to explore the contemporary relevance of Morris, “it is in this area that I would suggest the Society has been least successful”. Apart from certain issues of the Journal and one or two Kelmscott lectures, Crick writes, “one searches in vain for attempts to assess Morris’s work or thought in relation to contemporary concerns” (p.220), although he does then concede that there have been events addressing issues such as work or the environment from a Morrisian perspective.

2. “There has been little discussion of his political legacy ... surveys of the membership have suggested that there is considerable interest in his political activities and their relevance to the present day ... one might suggest that if the Society wants to expand its membership it should pay more attention to contemporary debates and Morris’s relevance to them” (p.221).

3. “Links with Further and Higher Education are practically non-existent...” (p.222).

So there you are: Martin Crick’s words, not mine. It may be that the Morris Society has remedied these lacunae - the contemporary, politics, post-18 education - since 2005 or it may be that these are valuable recommendations to which it now needs to give due weight.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Uses of Error

Does every essay published on News from Nowhere at some point or other fall into provable error and misreading? I suspect so. Take Krishan Kumar’s splendid 1994 article on ‘A Pilgrimage of Hope: William Morris’s Journey to Utopia’. Kumar is a well-respected scholar and even at one point in his essay berates ‘culpable casualness on the part of [Morris’s] readers’. Yet he himself tells us of ‘William Guest’s despair at being shut out from the feast at the old house’, which is wrong because the feast takes place in Kelmscott church, not manor; and informs us that Ellen ‘makes everything good and everyone happy’, when Ellen in fact announces that she has ‘often troubled men’s minds disastrously’.

I wager that we could pluck such basic errors out of every News from Nowhere analysis ever published; and this is not just a case of careful scholars occasionally nodding on the job. For we should surely regard such mistakes as Freudian parapraxes, as expressing authorial desire; they are misrememberings and embryonic reconstructions of the text. Kumar would like the final utopian feast to take place in the manor, given all the genial stories we have about Morris’s own hospitality there; and he would like Ellen to be a benign fairy godmother in the tale, rather than the challenging figure she actually is.

At such moments of ‘error’, then, critics are beginning to write their own versions of News from Nowhere. Nothing wrong with that: I just think it would be better if they did it frankly and overtly, rather than in this circuitous manner.