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Dreaming of communism: News from Nowhere: An appreciation of William Morris' utopian fiction

Originally published: Culture Matters on March 31, 2018 by John Ellison (more by Culture Matters)  | (Posted Apr 10, 2018)

Opening salvo

There can be no denying that the content of News from Nowhere, the utopian romance penned by painter, poet and designer William Morris, was heavily indebted to the writings of Karl Marx. Morris was exploring these from the spring of 1882, the year before Marx died and the year of his own 48th birthday. He continued to read Marx, especially Capital, in its French edition, the first English edition being still a few years away.

In the process of ‘crossing the river of fire’ from Romantic rebellion and political radicalism to full-blown socialism, Morris joined, in January 1883, the tiny Democratic Federation, co-founding, and shifting less than two years later to, the Socialist League. Though he was reluctant to put faith in parliamentary representation as a facilitator of social revolution, his new understanding unquestionably placed him within the as yet embryonic Marxist tradition.

News from Nowhere first appeared in the form of serial publication in the Socialist League’s Commonweal between January and October in 1890, after which the Hammersmith branch (including Morris) withdrew from the League, becoming the Hammersmith Socialist Society. The first readership of Morris’s romance therefore consisted of Morris’s fellow Leaguers, including the Hammersmith members. It presents a vision or dream of a visit to a future communist society–‘complete communism’ or ‘mastery…changed into fellowship’–within Britain’s shores and at the beginning of the 22nd century. Its narrator is a very slightly anonymised William Morris.

The novella was speedily revised, though not extensively, was issued in book form in 1891, later translated into other European languages, and has been reprinted many times since. It was part of Morris’s political activity. He was putting the case for socialism through his ideas about a possible communist future, a case which he plainly wanted to be both informative and persuasive. His fantasy contained profound truths about the present and past, but was also an engaging story about people and places in a much more desirable world than that in which he lived.

A century and a quarter have passed since Morris created his utopian society. Assessments of his competence as a prophet are unnecessary. He did not assume population growth. He gave no role to cars, lorries, film, radio, telephones, television, electric lighting, computers and domestic electrical labour-saving devices, tanks, aircraft, nuclear bombs and missiles, or the massive acceleration of technological development that made all these things possible. He had no inkling of the ability of advanced capitalism to redefine itself in terms of imperial strategy and tactics, and to become still more powerful after two world wars and many smaller ones, and after the collapse of a protracted attempt in a large part of the world to establish economies resting on a foundation of public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Against this increasingly complex and catastrophic historical backcloth, today’s readers of News from Nowhere will find some features distinctly quaint, archaic and of limited relevance to hopes in our own time for a more justly organised world.

Yet Morris’s notions of how socialism might come about in Britain, from his 1890 stand-point, and set out in the central part of the novella, are plausible enough, considered then and now, for his narrative to carry force and present resonance. It forecast a powerful drive for social improvements for the majority, achieved piecemeal, followed by violent repression, including Trafalgar Square violence echoing that witnessed by Morris on Bloody Sunday in November 1887. The repression he prophesied strengthened the movement for change, which provoked more repression. Forecast too by Morris, decades before the world’s first fascist government installed itself in Italy, was an alliance between the Government and reactionary vigilante bands to which he gave the name ‘Friends of Order’. Insightfully imagined too, in the struggle to defeat capitalism, was an increasingly isolated ruling class.

Morris’s perception of the role of Parliament, and of government, was eloquently open-eyed. Parliament is defined as ‘a kind of watch-committee sitting to see that the interests of the Upper Classes took no hurt; and on the other wise a sort of blind to delude the people into supposing that they have some share in the management of their own affairs’. As for the Government, it ‘was but the machinery of tyranny…and we no longer need such machinery…’

The inequalities and wretchedness of the old are contrasted with what could replace it. Pre-revolution: ‘there was no hope; nothing but the dull jog of the mill horse under compulsion of collar and whip; but in that fighting-time that followed, all was hope’. Post-revolution: ‘the men and women who go to make up humanity are free, happy, and energetic at least, and most commonly beautiful of body also, and surrounded by beautiful things of their own fashioning.’

When reading News from Nowhere, one is quickly conscious that a major strength is its full but delicate personal flavour. Its excursions into central London and up the Thames are all in Morris home territory. Its intense preoccupations – with design and craftsmanship, with beauty – are those of Morris. In the descriptions of women in the new world, the word ‘pretty’ appears repeatedly, and women themselves have roles in life and work not always very distant from those of the 19th century or today. Yet Morris was firmly in favour of the equality of rights for both sexes, the novella has women matching men in skilled building work, and his advanced views about crime and punishment, love, sex and marriage could not have impressed those steeped in approved Victorian attitudes.

A utopian fiction can start with characters born in the future, or can require characters in present time to be carried by some sort of transportation, such as a dream, into the future, to find a society and way of living far more attractive. In the collision with the new, the defects of the old can be mercilessly exposed. In News from Nowhere, Morris’s old world narrator wakes up bemused more than two hundred years later. The nightmare flaws of capitalism, the violent history which ended it, and the new world’s arrangements, are in due course explained by an elderly historian in a protracted day-time tutorial conversation, during which the forward movement of the story and the interaction of the characters are paused.

Dystopias in fiction – visions of a future far worse than the present – are easier to conceive and more likely to be promoted by the wielders of wealth and power in our present world, as a form of horrific entertainment and as a salutary reminder that things could be worse than they are. In the case of Orwell’s 1948-published 1984, it was prepared as a sinister caricature of Soviet socialism – a warning as well as of a portrait of the world of warring states with atomic weapons. Today the latter, cautionary, aspect may grow for readers at the expense of the former.

Morris’s dream at a glance

News from Nowhere begins with the return to bed of the narrator (i.e. Morris) in his west London home, after a discussion, ending with sharp exchanges, of what a ‘fully-developed new society’ might look like, with fellow socialists. These are described as a group of six persons, including the narrator, who states that the six present expressed the views of six ‘sections’’ of the party, the majority anarchism-inclined, but all bearing independent political opinions. His own perception of ‘fully-developed’ socialism, on short reflection, involves ‘days of peace and rest, and cleanness and smiling goodwill’.

| Morris | MR Online's Home In HammersmithMorris’s home was Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, close to the northern shore of the Thames. The house in which his narrator wakes – or begins his dream – is a replacement building on the same site, now called a ‘’Guest House’. It carries an inscription inside, a dedication to the memory of ‘the Hammersmith Socialists’ lecture room.

The narrator metaphorically ‘walks through the doorway’ into the future. He soon takes the convenient name of ‘William Guest’, and embarks on a series of pleasurable educational journeys, depicting himself in an amused, self-deprecatory light, and often using archaic phrases (such as ‘on our behoof’, ‘I bethought me’, ‘quoth he’, ‘kinsman’). He meets and talks with a succession of people. He begins with a short Thames boat-ride with a waterman, Dick, who accompanies him on and off throughout his stay in the future.

Then comes a walk through Hammersmith itself, and a longer stroll into the centre of London. The environmental changes he witnesses are breath-taking. London is much countrified. After that comes the longest excursion, a rowing boat ride up the Thames, eventually reaching Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s own sixteenth-century stone farmhouse Oxfordshire retreat, though the house, like Morris, is not named.

During this last journey, he meets and promptly falls in love with a young woman – much younger than Guest/Morris – intelligent and having ‘a strange wild beauty’ – seemingly a model of a woman open to a free and equal love relationship. Here the dream may become self-indulgently romantic for a man whose wife Jane – the celebrated subject of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and also possessing ‘a strange wild beauty’ – is said to have long ceased to love him. Subtlety of characterisation in the story is not attempted, and some may complain of too much expression of unalloyed delight in living in the new society.

Teaching about the nature of capitalism comes during the visit to central London, when Guest is told what he already knows, such as:

The appetite of the World-Market grew with what it fed on: the countries within the ring of ‘civilisation’ (that is, organized misery) were glutted with the abortions of the market, and force and fraud were used unsparingly to ‘open up’ countries outside that pale.

Now, on the other hand,

the whole system of rival and contending nations…has disappeared, along with the inequality betwixt man and man in society

Morris’s vision of the future is candidly self-revelatory. In precise manner it repeatedly reflects his own intense devotion to the making of beautiful things and buildings, and is characteristically nostalgic about the medieval world, when craftsmanship and the individual were better valued than in the more vicious, greedy, factory-dominated, nineteenth century. Stepping subjectively into the narrator’s shoes, as well as studying his progress objectively from the wings, must be one positive reader approach, consciously adopted or not.

The dream expanded

Initially not comprehending that he has somehow travelled far into the future, William Guest – often addressed as ‘guest’ during the narrative, and treated hospitably as ‘a guest’ – looks about him. Local industrial works have gone, the river Thames has clear running water (where salmon now swim). It is soon evident that Guest’s built-up, industrialised London has vanished and that the countryside has moved in.

His first acquaintance, the boatman, Dick, is well-spoken, is dressed ‘in dark blue cloth, simple enough, but of fine web’ (reminiscent of 14th century garb), with a leather belt around his waist ending in a clasp ‘of damascene steel beautifully wrought’. He has ‘a peculiarly pleasant and friendly look about his eyes’.

During a first boat ride, Guest is startled by the sight of the sort of stone-arched bridge, free of soot and topped with tiny buildings, which otherwise he might only see in an illuminated manuscript. He sees elsewhere small, ordinary dwelling houses which strike him as ‘comfortable, and as if they were, so to say, alive and sympathetic with the life of the dwellers in them’. Embarrassment follows when he turns to pay Dick for his services with Victorian coinage. Dick laughs ‘loud and merrily, as if the idea of being paid for his work was a very funny joke.’ (Much later the expression ‘to make money’ is considered a ‘queer phrase’.) Dick volunteers that he likes ‘working in gold and fine metals’, and that he was responsible for the steel buckle on his belt.

Another young man, Dick’s friend, is summoned with the help of ‘a little silver bugle-horn’, and this person also has a ‘happy and friendly expression’, and wears, for good measure, a belt ‘of filigree silver-work’. This young man is a weaver – though claims not to be a very good one – and indulges in ‘machine printing and composing’, and mathematics too. He is also writing a book about ‘the peaceable and private history’ of the end of the nineteenth century. Craftsmanship in this communist society, it becomes plain, is favoured ahead of more purely intellectual pursuits.

Guest struggles to get to grips with the fact than in this society cash money has ceased to have a social function. He finds the ‘Guest House’, in which he woke, to have ‘satisfactory architecture’, and features, high above the windows, ‘a frieze of figure subjects in baked clay’. Three young women are ‘flitting to and fro’. These too are ‘kind and happy-looking in expression of face’, and unlike the situation of many women in Morris’s own time, are not ‘upholstered like arm-chairs’. They have – a modern reader may cavil at Morris’s flexible designations of gender roles – more responsibility for catering and serving than have the men.

The new world makes people of both sexes younger in appearance and able to live much longer than in Guest’s 19th century world. He, aged fifty-six (the same age as Morris in 1890), looks eighty, whereas a pretty young woman, who to him looks no older than twenty is actually past forty. The new society makes the characters of Dick and of those in his social network resemble each other in this world of delight in work and self-development.

Work, for the people met, seems to be more about volunteering than a result of society’s insistence, and there is no shortage of volunteers, as work is inherently beneficial to the volunteer.

Unaccompanied by more explanation, a throwaway reference is made to Guest about ‘the country before the fighting began’, and then another man is introduced – an ‘exceedingly handsome man’, ‘whose surcoat was embroidered most copiously as well as elegantly’. He proves to be a dustman, known familiarly as ‘Boffin’ after the character of like occupation in Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend.

There begins an escorted tour around Hammersmith, where homes are more often of timber and plaster – again drawing from the medieval era – than of brick. Not seeing ‘poor people, Guest asks about them, but his question is taken to be about those who are ‘poorly’: the condition of poverty is long gone.

Taking an escorted walk around London, Guest sees Westminster Abbey in the distance, and is told that its interior ‘beauty’ – a frequent word – is no longer tarnished by ‘the beastly monuments to fools and knaves, which once blocked it up’.

Then the Houses of Parliament rise up, now used both as a market ‘and a storage place for manure’, later referred to as the ‘Dung market’.

During this excursion, Guest is told that formal systematised education for children is not provided, and that book-learning is not a high priority. The emphasis is more on training in practical tasks – cooking, carpentry, thatching. He is told that when children

see most people about them engaged in genuinely amusing work, like house-building and street-paving, and gardening, and the like, that is what they want to be doing, so I don’t think we need fear having too many book-learned men.

The lengthy discussion with the elderly historian – a major spokesperson for the author – takes place close to the British Museum, which still retains its collections of antiquities and books. This centenarian, is still mobile and alert. Besides describing how ‘the great change’ took place, he speaks about the relationships between the sexes. Divorce is no longer complicated by property disputes, and so divorce courts are redundant. Children, he says, benefit from the new life, while couples do not have to stay together for ever. There are people who believe, he goes on, ‘that a child born from the natural and healthy love between a man and a woman, even if that be transient, is likely to turn out better in all ways, and especially in bodily beauty, than the birth of the respectable commercial marriage bed, or of the dull despair of the drudge of that system’.

The parliament for this new society, Guest learns, is ‘the whole people’ and property-related causes of crime have gone – while remaining causes do not require the apparatus of criminal law. Appropriate acknowledgement and atonement for wrongs done is sufficient. Rejection in love can be a sad example of a continuing occasional motive for violence. Love and friendship are given enormous importance, while art could be described as ‘work-pleasure’.

The travellers are told about a murderous recent fight between a young woman’s lover and his rejected rival, in which the latter, the attacker, is killed in self-defence. The killer, however justified, is conscience-stricken, even excessively so, and his suicide is feared. A sense of social responsibility is everywhere.

The last third of the story is taken up with Guest’s rowing boat journey from Hammersmith to the upper reaches of the Thames in Oxfordshire. He is taken by Dick and Clara, formerly married, and now reunited happily without complaint from Dick after Clara has lovingly returned, from a year’s relationship – distressing Dick – with another man. They spend time, at first at Hampton Court, and then at the village of Runnymede, meeting Ellen, the twenty-year-old woman ‘of strange and almost wild beauty’, with whom Guest is speedily infatuated, and who takes a keen interest in him. Hampton Court is no longer the location of ‘the dwellings of the lesser fry of Court flunkies’. Upriver they go, and Windsor Castle is revealed as no longer belonging to ‘parliamentary commercial sham kings’, but a place where ‘a great many people’ now live. It is noticeable, as they move upstream, that the river environment is no longer being spoilt by the cutting down of trees, destroying the banks.

The railways are no more, while the machinery of the locks on the river remains simple. Guest is told: ‘You see…this is not an age of inventions. The last epoch did all that for us, and we are now content to use such of its inventions as we find handy, and leaving those alone which we don’t want.’ Art works have been increasingly preferred to machines. Despite this, mysteriously mechanised boats – ‘Force-barges’ – are employed, while the days of the gamekeeper are over.

The upstream journey continues, and leads to observation of the building and decoration of a house, where the most able mason is a woman. She is concerned with carving low-relief figures and flowers, and is addicted to her task, while another woman, apparently less wedded to continuous work, is available to act as a model for figure-carving when required.

A little later, inside the uninhabited and unnamed Kelmscott Manor, the warm and tactile Ellen spontaneously and eagerly affirms her love of ‘the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things with it, and all that grows out of it’, including the old house itself.

The tale ends soon afterwards, with Guest involuntarily and sorrowfully retreating from his dream back into the Victorian world.

Final thoughts

Long before his industrious study of Marx’s Capital, Morris had, influenced by the works of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, developed a hatred of industrial capitalism, its ugliness and its injustices. For him all was ‘sordid, aimless, ugly confusion’. But his Romantic revolt was pushed further. Reading Capital persuaded him of the truth of Marx’s view that human history had been, and was being, crucially directed by class struggles, and that socialism followed by communism were necessary outcomes. In the Manifesto of the Socialist League that Morris wrote in 1885, he quoted the Communist Manifesto. He acknowledged, in an 1884 lecture, the debt he owed to Marx:

with a ready sympathy that I read the full explanation of the change and its tendencies in the writings of a man, I will say a great man, whom, I suppose, I ought not to name in this company, and who cleared my mind on several points (also unmentionable here) relating to this subject of labour and its products…

Morris’s vision of the future was also inevitably and proudly informed by his previous studies and life experiences, and by his love of beauty in artistic creation. He was not impressed by the vision of a regimented future society espoused by the American Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward, which Morris had reviewed in 1889. Here working life was soulless, and workers had to submit to a combination of bureaucratic control and the demands of advanced mechanization, with leisure time the only relief and goal. At one level News from Nowhere is a gentle and determined alternative to Bellamy’s bleak picture.

| Looking Backward | MR OnlineEdward Thompson’s magnificent account of Morris’s life and work declares: ‘Morris was a Marxist and a Utopian, but we must not allow either a hyphen or a sense of contradiction to enter between the two terms.’

Morris’s ideal world, then, is without poverty or much machinery. It has a preindustrial, medieval flavour, the people are happy and enthusiastic, retain their youth and health longer, and dress simply but colourfully. They work because they wish to work, and high quality craftsmanship is prized.  The narrative breathes with the passionate convictions of its author, draws the reader deep inside and encourages thinking not only about the world Morris lived in and wished for as a replacement, but about the world we have and the different world we might wish for.

Marx had been dead for seven years when this utopian romance first saw the light of day. Certainly it should not be held out to inspection today as a realistic or complete image of what a communist society, if achieved, might look like, given the easy dismissal, for the most part, of the advantages of technological development. The libertarian world conjured up by Morris was also rather parochial, not reaching much further in practice than London and westwards into Oxfordshire. A profound humanism prevails, but everyone featured seems to be white and heterosexual, and what was happening on the rest of the planet while advances took place in England is left hazy, as is how decisions are made in this ‘parliament of the whole people’.  Spontaneously produced, highly idiosyncratic, it remains a remarkable sketch by a man deeply committed to a socialist future who was both of, and ahead of, his time.

In a postscript to the 1977 edition of his life of Morris, Edward Thompson accepted that it was not Morris’s intention to offer a systematic description of the future society. He went on:

Exactly for this reason he drew upon his Romantic inheritance of dream and of fantasy, accentuated further by the distancing of an archaic vocabulary…And what distinguishes this enterprise is, exactly, its open, speculative, quality, and its detachment of the imagination from the demands of conceptual precision…

What is important, he elaborates further

is the challenge to the imagination to become immersed in the same open exploration. And in such an adventure two things happen: our habitual values (the ‘common sense’ of bourgeois society) are thrown into disarray. And we enter into Utopia’s proper and newfound space: the education of desire…to open a way to aspiration…Morris’s Utopianism, when it succeeds, liberates desire to an uninterrupted interrogation of our values and also to its own self-interrogation.

If reading a dystopian novel about the future can today feed pessimism about what may lie ahead for us, reading News from Nowhere, signifying that in the future a better life is possible, can build optimism, and, with optimism, more determination to achieve it.  Thanks and respect in profusion are due to William Morris, as they are to his mentor, Karl Marx, born two hundred years ago on May 5, 1818.


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