Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hassan Mahamdallie - Crossing The River Of Fire: The Socialism Of William Morris

One of the central arguments of Hassan Mahamdallie's introduction to the life and politics of William Morris, is that all to often he is reduced to an artist, a poet, or simply a lover of nice things. Even when Morris' politics are considered, they are described as a strange mix of abstract socialism with a hoped for return to some sort of medieval utopia. This no doubt lies behind Tony Blair's declaration that William Morris had been a "inspiration" while he was a student. Morris' socialism isn't seen as being challenging today, indeed it can be used to give a red veneer to those who want to be on the right, but need to look left.

Hassan Mahamdallie smashes this nonsense. For him, William Morris was a dedicated revolutionist who spent his life fighting for a better world and dreaming of a time when the workers would seize power. In perhaps his most famous work, News from Nowhere, one of Morris' characters describes the social change that lead to the creation of the future socialist society. "Did the change... come peacefully?" he is asked;

"Peacefully?"..."What peace was there amongst those poor confused wretches of the 19th century? It was war from beginning to end: bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it."

Mahamdallie traces William Morris' development as a political activist and Marxist. From his earliest days in the radical movements, his disillusionment with the parliamentary activity he saw around him and the formation of the Socialist League that Morris remained loyal to for most of his life. Morris spent much of his life touring the country, lecturing, speaking and inspiring workers. News from Nowhere was apparently written on the train to and from meetings. He published huge numbers of articles in the League's newspaper Commonweal, even when the newspaper was no longer representative of Morris' own socialist ideas.

One of the best parts of this short book is the section where the author looks at Morris' environmental outlook. Many have argued that Marx and his followers have shown little interest in this subject, but as John Bellamy Foster writes, William Morris' ecology is very much "in the spirit of Marx". Morris understood that people's "alienation from the earth" was the "ultimate foundation/pre-condition for capitalism".

It's for this reason that the sections of his writings that mention the natural world - especially News from Nowhere - are so important - the belief that socialism wouldn't simply be an economic change, but would involve a fundamental change in human relationships with the natural world.

Morris wasn't without fault. Many of his errors and in particular his sectarianism towards parliamentary struggles and the Leagues refusal to be involved in many of the mass industrial struggles stem from the weaknesses of the earliest socialist movements in Britain. But Mahamdallie points out that rather than Morris stepping back from revolution towards the end of his life, his Marxist understanding was developing and growing.

Unfortunately it was too late for Morris to be part of those later struggles that shaped the early part of the 20th Century. His death in 1893 was the occasion for outpourings of grief from the working class movement. But already his socialism was being denigrated and denied in the obituaries. The simpler and easier story of Morris the Middle Class wallpaper designer was being written. Hassan Mahamdallie's book rescues the far greater and more inspiring story of the all-round socialist who wanted to see beauty and art for everyone, in a society that was free of oppression and exploitation.

Related Reviews

Behrman -  Shostakovich: Socialism, Stalin & Symphonies

No comments: