Arguments Within English Marxism: Utopias


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Detail from the frontispiece of News from Nowhere, 1893 Kelmscott Press edition.  

The text below is excerpted from Anderson's 1980 Arguments Within English Marxism"Edward Thompson is our finest socialist writer today — certainly in England, possibly in Europe," Anderson declares at the outset. "The claim on our critical respect and gratitude, then, is one of formidable magnitude and complexity. Some appraisal of Thompson's central ideas and concerns is, however, long overdue." With particular attention to Thompson's Poverty of Theory — the central essay of which mounts a sustained attack on the work of Louis Althusser and its promotion by Anderson and the editors who succeeded Thompson at New Left Review — that is the task that Anderson undertakes.

The book is structured by seven chapters that identify key points of disagreement in the series of debates between Thompson and Anderson (and other figures of the "new" New Left). Here Anderson probes Thompson's work on William Morris and his defense of utopianism.  


The second misconstruction for which I was responsible in 1965 was the suggestion that Thompson’s most distinctive political concerns could be reduced to the category of "moralism." I continue to think that much of the rhetoric of ’58-’61 which I taxed with the term is among the weakest part of Thompson’s writing — its increasingly desperate note a reflection of unnegotiated strains and difficulties in the New Left of the time. But in criticizing it, with whatever justice, I committed the serious mistake of failing to see the real force and originality of Thompson’s engagement with the issues of communist morality proper in his major work. The proving-ground here was William Morris. My recollection is that, strangely, this book never acquired the same centrality or currency within the New Left — at least its youngest recruits — as Williams’s Culture and Society or The Long Revolution, or even Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. Looking back, this seems incomprehensible. Probably, however, the accidents of dating and of idiom had something to do with their different fortunes. William Morris was published in 1955, two years before the existence of either The New Reasoner or Universities and Left Review, and was written in a more militant and Communist vocabulary than was to be usual in the New Left — whereas Williams’s and Hoggart’s work coincided exactly with its emergence and corresponded more closely to its language. At all events, whatever their respective receptions in 1958-1960, there is no doubt that the cadet group which remodelled NLR in 1964-1965 entirely failed to register the significance of Thompson’s first major book. This can be seen most obviously in its denial of any important Marxist past in England — a wilful way of overlooking Morris, whose genius Thompson had declared to be "peculiarly English";1 but most essentially in its insensitivity to the major claim for Morris’s greatness entered by Thompson — his "moral realism": not only the "practical moral example of his life" and the "profound moral insight of his political and artistic writings," but "the appeal to the moral consciousness as a vital agency of social change."2 This claim is convincingly substantiated by Thompson’s study. Today its qualities have probably achieved duly wide acknowledgment for the first time, with the reissue of the book in its revised edition. The Postscript with which it now ends, surveying the literature on Morris in the intervening twenty years, must be accounted one of Thompson’s most important political and theoretical statements in its own right. It reintroduces Morris directly into the quick of contemporary socialist debate by laying special stress on the nature and stature of his utopianism. In reparation for past neglect, let me make some observations on the Morris newly present — we may hope now definitively — in this revised edition.

Thompson’s argument in his Postscript can be resumed as follows. The original version of his book was concerned at once to show the extraordinary originality of Morris’s moral and political imagination and to reclaim him for revolutionary Marxism. In doing so, it tacitly suggested that there was no significant contradiction or even tension between these two aims. Today, however, this presumption of innocent unity can no longer be sustained. Morris had developed a profound critique of capitalism out of his own Romantic background, before his discovery of Marx’s thought, and that critique continued to inform his socialist writing after he had learnt from Marxism — yielding a moral vision of communism that was to be critically lacking in the orthodox Marxist tradition, to its detriment. Thus "it is more important to understand him as a (transformed) Romantic than as a (conforming) Marxist."3 Indeed "his importance within the Marxist tradition may be seen, today, less in the fact of his adhesion to it than in the Marxist 'absences' or failures to meet that adhesion half-way. Morris’s 'conversion' to Marxism offered a juncture which Marxism failed to reciprocate."4 To establish these points, Thompson turns to the work of two French scholars — Paul Meier, a Communist, and Miguel Abensour, a libertarian. While conceding that Meier’s massive study William Morris—the Marxist Dreamer is "weighty" and (up to a point) "helpful," he reproaches it with assimilating Morris "curtly" within "a myth of Marxist orthodoxy," and thereby producing an end-result that is "not only repressive" but also "distancing and boring."5 Abensour’s account, by contrast, can be unequivocally welcomed. It proposes a new reading of News From Nowhere which rehabilitates its utopianism as a break from the tradition of diagrammatic model-building of future societies towards a freer heuristic reverie distinguished by "its open, speculative quality, and its detachment of the imagination from the demands of conceptual precision."This enterprise enabled Morris to enter "Utopia’s proper and new-found space: the education of desire" — the kindling of aspiration towards a better life through an "uninterrupted interrogation" of present values that is also a "criticism of all that we understand by 'politics'."7 Commending these formulations of Abensour, Thompson proceeds: "What may be involved, in 'the case of Morris,' is the whole problem of the subordination of the imaginative utopian faculties within the later Marxist tradition: its lack of a moral self-consciousness or even a vocabulary of desire, its inability to project any images of the future, or even its tendency to fall back in lieu of these upon the Utilitarian’s earthly paradise — the maximization of economic growth."8 Morris’s utopian communism, independently derived from the Romantic tradition, had a generosity and confidence of vision missing from the mainstream of historical materialism, then or later — whose very definition as a science has restricted its human range. For the goal of communism itself is "unobtainable without the prior education of desire or 'need.' And science cannot tell us what to desire or how to desire. Morris saw it as a task of Socialists (his own first task) to help people find out their wants, to encourage them to want more, to challenge them to want differently, and to envisage a society of the future in which people, freed at last of necessity, might choose between different wants."9 Thompson then moves to the decisive conclusion of his essay: "It should now be clear that there is a sense in which Morris, as a Utopian and a moralist, can never be assimilated to Marxism, not because of any contradiction of purposes, but because one may not assimilate desire to knowledge, and because the attempt to do so is to confuse two different operative principles of culture. So that I’ve phrased the problem wrongly, and Marxism requires less a re-ordering of its parts than a sense of humility before those parts of culture which it can never order."10 The closing injunction of the passage adjures Marxism to "close down one counter in its universal pharmacy, and cease dispensing potions of analysis to cure the maladies of desire."11

The seduction of this rich and meditative postscript is a powerful one. Its clauses, however, need to be discriminated from one another, for a proper assessment of its argument. The central claim that Morris’s utopianism represents a feat of moral imagination without equivalent in the work of Marx, ignored without reason by Engels, and abandoned without sequel or echo in much later Marxism, is surely right. Morris’s thought remained in this sense an isolated peak within socialist literature for at least half a century after his death. Today, too, Thompson is entirely justified in summoning historical materialism again to take full and self-critical measure of Morris’s greatness. However, his ulterior theorization of the reasons why Marxism as a whole long failed to take up the legacy of Morris cannot be so easily accepted. The former, he maintains, pertains — or at least pretends — to "knowledge," the latter to "desire." These are "two different operative principles of culture" which may not be assimilated to each other. Spelling out the distinction, he writes: "The motions of desire may be legible in the text of necessity, and may then become subject to rational explanation and criticism. But such criticism can scarcely touch these motions at their source."12 What is wrong with this account? Essentially that it substitutes an ontological for a historical explanation of the record of relations between Morris and Marxism.

This can be seen very clearly if we stop to examine for a moment the key term in it. The pivot of Thompson’s reinterpretation in the Postscript is the notion of "desire." It is left quite undefined in the text. But the authority for its use is signalled without ambiguity: Abensour. What does the latter intend by it? All we are given is as follows. For Abensour, the role of utopian thought is "to teach desire to desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way."13 What way? What does it mean to "teach desire to desire"? The cloudy tautology should be adequate warning. What has insinuated itself in Thompson’s blameless text here is a fashionable philosophy of Parisian irrationalism. The catchword of Desire has, in fact, been one of the slogans of the subjectivist Schwärmerei that followed disillusionment with the social revolt of 1968 — celebrated in such writings as Jean-Paul Dollé’s Désir et Révolution and Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipe, the expression of a dejected post-lapsarian anarchism. Intellectually, the category operates as a licence for the exercise of any fantasy freed from the responsibility of cognitive controls. A passage from Abensour cited by Thompson exalts "the desire to make a breakthrough, to risk an adventure, or an experience, in the fullest sense of the word, which allows one to glimpse, to see or even to think what a theoretical text could never, by its very nature, allow us to think, enclosed as it is within the limits of a clear and observable meaning"14 — a candid invitation to obscurantism. Politically, the notion of desire here can lead with the greatest facility to hoary superstition and reaction. Thus Abensour himself has recently ushered forward a volume in which his co-thinkers Clastres and Lefort propound the view that the origin of the State in primitive societies lies in the masochistic "desire" to be dominated of the oppressed classes themselves.15 Such elucubrations are light-years away from Thompson. But their possibility is inscribed in the metaphysical vacancy of the term itself — which can legitimate the desire for death and destruction, just as much as the desire for life and liberty, as its origins in Nietzsche make plain. Neither Marxism nor socialism have anything to gain from traffic with it, unless it is given what in this irrationalism it is so expressly constructed to refuse — a clear and observable meaning.

Thompson does not furnish one in his Postscript. Unaware of the background of his borrowing, he doubtless saw no pressing reason to do so, and need not be unduly faulted for it. However, it cannot be denied that he also takes over the opposition between desire and knowledge typical of this vogue and seeks to construe the reception of Morris through it. In doing so, he concedes that "the motions of desire may be legible in the text of necessity, and may then become subject to rational explanation and criticism" — yet immediately goes on: "But such criticism can scarcely touch these motions at their source." It is not entirely clear what this phrase means, but taken literally it is certainly untenable: are we to say that the sources of cruelty, for example, are beyond criticism? A contradictory and more satisfactory address to the same question can be found in earlier remarks, where he writes: "The 'education of desire' is not beyond the criticism of sense and of feeling, although the procedures of criticism must be closer to those of creative literature than those of political theory. There are disciplined and undisciplined ways of 'dreaming', but the discipline is of the imagination and not of science. It remains to be shown that Morris’s utopian thought survives this criticism, as well as the criticism of ninety rather sombre years. I have not changed my view that it does."16 The best way of responding to this is to take up the challenge and see whether rational explanation cannot touch some of the sources of Morris’s utopianism, and rational criticism indicate some of its limits, in ways not already available in Thompson’s magisterial study.

The first point to be made is that although the new Postscript lays such central emphasis on the utopian vision of Morris, neither it nor the book itself really asks what were the historical conditions of this particular utopianism — what made it possible? Yet when an achievement is as rare as Morris’s in this respect proved to be, it is surely of especial interest to inquire into the circumstances that enabled it. Why was it so unlike any of the numerous utopias before it? Why was it followed by so few utopias of any sort after it? Part of the answer to the first question, of course, lies in the juncture of Romanticism and Marxism in Morris’s thought, which Thompson’s study in general traces so admirably. But this intellectual fusion occurred in the development of a thinker with a material life-situation of an unusual sort. Many socialist theorists of the 19th century came from well-off families — some of them ruined or reduced by subsequent vicissitudes (Saint-Simon, Fourier), others rising in prosperity in later life (Owen, Engels). None, however, enjoyed quite the position of Morris. Exact assessments of his father’s fortune are lacking. But on MacKail’s evidence, he may have been among the 250 richest men in England.17 At the age of 21, his son inherited an income of about £20,000 a year in current values. Beyond this, of course, the Morris Firm was to become a highly successful enterprise in its own right: at his death Morris left a personal estate, setting aside real property, worth about one million pounds at today’s prices.18 It seems likely that this wealth was one material substratum of the sensuous ease and freedom of Morris’s capacity to visualize the lineaments of a society of abundance beyond capitalism. Morris himself was moral realist enough to be aware of the possibility of this connection. In The Society of the Future, he wrote: "I daresay that you will find some of my visions strange enough. One reason which will make some of you think them strange is a sad and shameful one. I have always belonged to the well-to-do classes and was born into luxury, so that necessarily I ask much more of the future than many of you do."19 Few major socialists have been more exempt from the deforming pressures of scarcity in their own lives and imaginations. The contrast with Marx is striking. In itself, of course, mere prosperity prompted nothing. It was its combination with Morris’s other and incomparably greater fortune that was significant for the shape of Morris’s utopianism. For Morris was also a practising artist of the highest gifts, for whom ordinary work was daily creation. Professionally, he was thus delivered from drudgery too. The contrast with Engels, also if more modestly well-off, is equally striking. Moreover, the major fields of Morris’s practice were plastic arts, which are themselves distinctive within the forms of aesthetic composition for eluding the division between mental and manual labour. Yet at the same time, he was also a poet and a writer. Thus one might say that in his figurations of the future, Morris was able to draw on unique resources in his present, which brought him tangibly nearer to the conditions he imagined than any of his communist contemporaries: secure wealth, creative work, polymathic skills. These were some of the material roots of the moral range of his dreams, at once in their liberty and their limits. For if we look at the Utopia of News from Nowhere itself — his fullest representation of a communist society — these formative conditions are everywhere active principles of its design.

In his Postscript Thompson remarks, as we have seen, that Utopian thought "is not beyond the criticism of sense and feeling, although the procedures must be closer to those of creative literature than those of political theory."20 This prescription, in many ways an attractive one, recalls a tendency in The Poverty of Theory to link "values" with "feelings" as against "ideas." Marx, it will be remembered, was there censured for an undue rationalism, insensitive to that "half of culture" which "may be described as affective and moral consciousness."21 Now if the general emphasis of Thompson’s corrective can well be accepted, his formulations of it subtly err in the opposite direction. For values are not only sentiments, they are also beliefs. Moral awareness is not to be simply elided with affective sensation: it is always a matter of intellectual conviction as well. Without principles, passions have no ethical bearing. Values normally and necessarily rest on a delicate equilibrium of "ideas" and "feelings." Any unilateral extrapolation of them from one sphere or the other risks deformation of their nature. The practical results can be seen in such emblematic contrasts as the famous quarrel between Russell and Lawrence: a brittle and over-cerebral rationalism at loggerheads with a thickened and truculent instinctualism. The relevance of these reflections to Thompson’s treatment of Morris is this. The depreciation of "political theory" as a valid guide to criticism of utopian thought, and laudatory description of the latter as a refusal of its "knowledge," seem to permit too causal an attitude towards precise evaluation of News from Nowhere.

Thompson’s treatment of Meier’s work is symptomatic here. His argument that Meier on occasion exaggerates the degree of direct correspondence and derivation between themes in Morris and propositions in Marx or Engels is in itself perfectly fair. Meier does indeed tend to overstate the philological connection between the two bodies of thought. But this is only one, and far from the most important, feature of his long work. When Thompson proceeds to assert that Meier "curtly assimilates Morris within a myth of Marxist orthodoxy," he goes seriously astray. For one thing, a study of some 600 pages can scarcely — whatever else it may be deemed — be called "curt." In point of fact, Meier’s major enterprise, a meticulous and sensitive critical reading of News from Nowhere, is hardly registered by Thompson at all. Yet it compares impressively with his own remarks on News from Nowhere, a work which is allocated just six pages out of 800 in William Morris—from Romantic to Revolutionary, rather less space than that given to such verse romances as The Defence of Guinevere: treatment that might well be termed cursory. Nor is this a mere quantitative quibble. The few paragraphs Thompson devotes to News from Nowhere do not contain any real critical probing of it at all. They content themselves with suggesting that if "one thing is lacking," namely "an eager intellectual life" in its vision of the future, Morris himself "knew life would not be exactly like this in any real society."22 By contrast, Meier examines with the greatest delicacy and detail every narrative episode and thematic element in News from Nowhere, in a remarkable feat of sustained intelligence and interpretation. The results, far from being "boring and distancing" as Thompson would let his readers believe, are fascinating and illuminating. They do not amount to a crude annexation of Morris to Marxism, but rather to a persuasive sounding of the differences as well as the central congruities between the two. Pointing out that News from Nowhere is the first utopia to be written that possesses both a real geography — England, the Thames Valley — and a retrospective history — going back to the "great change" of power in 1952-1954, Meier shows the care with which Morris constructed his image of the future along lines in keeping with the Marxist theory of the transition to a classless society in two stages — socialism ("from each according to their abilities") and communism ("to each according to their needs"). The material abundance of the world William Guest traverses is founded on the facilities of an advanced technology that has abolished all industrial drudgery, leaving only creative work to be performed. State, law and money have withered away, together with social divisions and national boundaries. The division between town and country has largely disappeared. Spontaneous self-regulation by a common morality has replaced every form of administrative coercion. A joyful emancipation and equality form the very texture of social relationships. So far, Morris’s Utopia appears to approximate closely to the scenarios of Marx or Engels. But at the same time, a whole series of features distinguish it from views that could either factually or hypothetically be ascribed to the founders of historical materialism themselves. Meier scrupulously notes these, with an admirable tact and respect. In the aureate atmosphere of Morris’s future, where "all work done with pleasure and worthy of praise produces art,"23 there is a general revival of craft labour in every area of social life. Technology and energy exist, but are confined off-stage to repetitive or disagreeable tasks. Economically, the forces of production have ceased to advance. Culturally, science has become a marginal pursuit, yielding no new major discoveries or inventions. Education has been dismantled, leaving children to learn from life rather than schools or books. Knowledge of or interest in the past has widely dwindled. Literary forms have contracted: the novel is vanishing. Politics, too, have disappeared — small motes are enough to deal with sporadic local issues. Marriage is no longer a legal contract, but the position of women is semi-domestic: their roles, freely chosen, are predominantly housework and motherhood. Population, on the other hand, is incongruously stable. Travel, despite the absence of frontiers, appears minimal. The 22nd century is an "epoch of repose."

Now it would be possible to compare, point by point, the assumptions and attitudes implicit in this series of projections with pronouncements by Marx or Engels. This would not be a barren or uninteresting exercise. Certain conclusions would emerge of some salience. Raymond Williams has recently criticized Morris’s utopianism for attaching "the notion of social simplicity" to communism — arguing that in fact "the break towards socialism can only be towards an unimaginably greater complexity."24 This fundamental observation — as "theoretical" as one could wish — applies in good measure to Marx and Engels, and for that matter Lenin, too. The evaporation of politics in a classless society, for example, is a premise common to all four thinkers inherited from Saint-Simon — whose illusory axiom that the "government of men" would one day be entirely replaced by the "administration of things" was to have harmful consequences of a very material sort in Bolshevik practice after the October Revolution. But there is no doubt that the impulse towards simplification went much further in Morris than it would have done in Marx or Engels. News from Nowhere describes a society in which the division of labour has been surmounted by regression behind the range of potential occupations in capitalist society rather than beyond them, and even then only for one sex. In fact, the discrimination of women is less than it might seem at first sight, since men too are predominantly assigned manual roles in a world which celebrates an essentially similar physical dexterity in homes, on the roads or in the fields. Unseen, machinery and technology effortlessly support this universe. This combination, a collective transvaluation of Morris’s personal life-situation, would have been unthinkable for Marx. Not merely because he would have been unlikely to pass over so lightly the problems of economic allocation even amidst abundance, but also because by vocation and conviction alike he would have accorded a far higher place to intellectual labour in any communist society of the future. Morris’s vision is effectively an inversion of the present — manual labour, now the last species of social exertion, becomes the first, while mental, which today occupies first rank, will be tomorrow demoted to the last: hence the summary dispatch of science, education, fiction, history or other intellectual pursuits. For Marx, on the contrary, "knowledge" was itself a fundamental and illimitable human "desire." Science, far from being sequestered in a few excentric rural retreats, would pervade all economic life, providing the normal framework of everyday production. Manual and mental labour would exchange and coalesce at progressively higher levels of integration, in rhythm with moving forces of production. Creative work would not necessarily be carefree pleasure. Marx had another, less sensuous paradigm than handicrafts in mind when he thought of unalienated labour. Rebuking Fourier for the notion that such work would be like "play," which he scorned as the dream of "a naive shopgirl," he wrote: "Really free work, such as composing, is at the same time the most grimly serious, the most intense exertion."25 The image of the artist here is closer to that of Beethoven or Flaubert than — say — Blake or Chaucer, admired by Morris. Since Marx ventured little on the subject of women, it is difficult to know how he would have envisaged their position in communism, but it is possible that he would not have diverged very greatly from Morris’s version of it. Engels, on the other hand, had much more decided views on the liberation of women, and would never have countenanced a redomesticated future for them, any more than Lenin. All these differences are well worth reflection. Not all of them are exclusive oppositions. There is no reason to think, for example, that the practice of art could ever be reduced to a single existential standard, across or even within its different forms — Morris’s theory of its springs, deriving from Ruskin, is plainly too narrow: a much greater variety of aesthetic production, encompassing and surpassing both Morris’s and Marx’s ideals, seems a more credible horizon for an emancipated society.

But the really important conclusion to be drawn from News from Nowhere does not lie at the level of any of these individual comparisons, often inequitable as Morris committed himself so boldly where Marx or Engels were so reticent. It touches the contours of Morris’s Utopia as a whole. For what his projection of the future generally involves is a consistent repression of the history of capitalism. Morris’s rejection of the previous four hundred years of European civilization was, in fact, virtually absolute.26 This is the common meaning of all the particular limitations of News from Nowhere. Culturally, he accepted little after the mediaeval period. The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment he disliked equally: the art or science they produced signified little or nothing to him. The radicalism of this perspective sets him apart even within the Romantic tradition he shared, whose real revulsion was from the Industrial Revolution. The majority of the early Romantics were by no means uniformly hostile to the pre-industrial epochs of early modern history: it was they, indeed, who universalized Shakespeare and introduced the 19th century cult of the Renaissance. In some ways, the very intransigence of Morris’s retrospection brought him closer to socialism — in particular his movement beyond a conventional mediaevalism to an ideal anchorage prior to the advent of feudal society itself, in the clan equality of Viking Iceland, an enthusiasm he shared with Engels. But in other ways, it set systematic limits to the type of communism he could imagine. Technology, science, schools, novels, history, travel, feminism were each of them products of an entire cycle of bourgeois civilization eradicated from his range of sympathy. Hence the kind of censorship under which they fall — a marginalization or suppression — in News from Nowhere.

We can now see why Thompson’s suggestion that Morris’s "independent derivation of Communism out of the logic of the Romantic tradition" 27 yielded a moral-political Utopianism in some sense beyond the reach of Marxism, is wrong. For historical materialism at its strongest has always been defined by its supersession of the antithesis between Romanticism and Utilitarianism which News from Nowhere, for all its splendour, reiterates. The immediate prompting for its composition, as is well known, was the recent success of Bellamy’s Looking Backward — a crassly neo-Benthamite utopia of mechanized industrial regimentation. Furiously rejecting this "cockney paradise" as he called it, Morris produced a kind of craftsman’s paradise. There can be no comparison between the political or literary quality of the two. But the tourniquet of their opposition is a very old one. Marx wrote in the Grundrisse: "It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to an original fullness as it is to believe that with this present emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and the romantic viewpoint and therefore the latter will accompany it as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end."28 This sense of the dialectical complementarity of Utilitarianism and Romanticism is what distinguishes classical Marxism from the many attempts by socialists at one time or another to construct an opposition to capitalism from either standpoint: denunciation of its irrationality or inhumanity alone. For each is capable of either progressive or reactionary "derivations" — Mill or Zola can be set against Carlyle or Barres, just as much as Shelley or Ruskin can be set against Ure or Spencer.29 There is no one "logic" of either tradition, each of which has proved capable of a rainbow of political metamorphoses. The duty of socialists today is not to pit one against the other yet again, but to set both intellectually in their changing historical settings and to prepare practically the conditions for the long-awaited blessing of their mutual end.

Marx was able to envisage such an eventual terminus because he had the majestic legacy of Hegel behind him. It was from within the categories and procedures of classical German philosophy that he could pose the possibility, not merely of a bond between, but of a synthesis beyond either of two chief cultural antagonists of his own day. This sense is lacking in the paired English thinkers to whom Thompson has above all turned for a native revolutionary inheritance — Blake and Morris: each of whom had an acute feel for dialectical opposition, but much less for surpassal or synthesis. On the other hand, the very Hegelian background that was formative of Marx was also one that precisely inhibited — even tabooed — long-term speculation about the future: The Philosophy of History closes irrevocably in the plenitude of the present. It is not surprising that Marx or Engels never sought to explore the shape of a communist society. Such efforts went against the grain of their whole outlook, fortified further in its aversion to utopias by the socialism they had encountered in their youth. The field they left open was entered, to his great honour and our great debt, by William Morris. None of the valid criticisms that can and must be made of News from Nowhere detract from the daring of his enterprise. The work of the founders of historical materialism has no equal to it, and in that sense Thompson is entirely right to insist on the autonomy of the value of Morris’s Utopianism. Where he is wrong is in suggesting that this Utopianism is also beyond the jurisdiction of Marxist theory or materialist knowledge. In fact, as we have seen, the immense parenthesis at the centre of Morris’s dream of the future, that folds away half a millenium of human development, is eminently subject to a properly Marxist criticism. Morris himself, in his modesty, would have been the last to claim immunity from it in his own time. "Up at the League," begins News from Nowhere, "there had been a brisk conversational discussion as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution" — "six persons present and consequently six sections of the party represented":30 the journey into the imagination that follows is, from the outset, the conjecture of just one of them.

What was the subsequent fortune of Morris’s Utopianism? Thompson presents it as one of implacable neglect by "a Marxism which could not reciprocate or live without disdain alongside Morris." The actual history has been somewhat more complex than this, as can be seen from the fact that it was a sequence of Communists — Page Arnot in the 30s, Thompson in the 50s, Meier in the 70s — who have been primarily responsible for recovering Morris as a revolutionary thinker and reinstating his work in a common socialist culture. The lapse of centrality which these terms imply was a real one. But its explanation is to be found less in the moral deficiencies of Marxism than in the intellectual form and historical timing of Morris’s work. News from Nowhere and its companion essays were written after the advent of Marx, and in the light of his theory, although they did not coincide with it; and before the expansion of the Second International or the victory of the Russian Revolution. The very insignificance of socialism as a political force in England, at a time when no mass labour movement existed to pose urgent day-to-day problems of mobilization, encouraged a tendency to futurism, of which Morris was the greatest but not the only exponent. The growth of organized working-class parties before the First World War everywhere saw a decline of this meditative tradition, as immediate tactical issues increasingly came to the fore. A decade later, the outbreak of the October Revolution transformed the whole landscape of socialist thought. From now on, the construction of a communist society was no longer a matter of speculative theory, but of experimental practice — or so it seemed, as the doctrines of Socialism in One Country, in contravention of classical Marxism, were proclaimed and generally accepted. The deep longing for another human order which had found expression in the in the utopias of the 19th century was now fastened to the — often scarcely less imaginary — society in the USSR. The new Soviet State was real enough, of course. But its reality was quite different from anything that could have furnished material for a genuine utopia in the West: the sombre process of primitive socialist accumulation, amidst barbarity and shortage, a ruthless labour discipline and countless casualities. The break-neck drive towards industrialization, which in the end saved Russia and Europe from Nazism, was presented as if it were a rapture of social harmony and felicity. Utilitarian in its means and goals, the official utopianism of the Five Year Plans was Romantic in its iconography and rhetoric, hailing from every loud-speaker the creative pleasure of the shock-worker in his labour. The spell of these images lasted long: down even to the first edition of William Morris.31 So long as they did, Morris’s utopianism was necessarily at a discount because of its eclipse of technology and science: a world where the forces of production were stationary was hard to relate to a society dominated by the objective of all-out economic growth.

In the West, the same difficulty was in a direct sense not so acute, although even there Morris’s foreshortening of history was a major obstacle to the later reception of his work, as scientific and industrial problems multiplied. Perhaps more important, however, was the form of his work. For Thompson, the term "system" is nearly always pejorative. In The Poverty of Theory it signifies intellectual closure, cramp, repression, unreason. The dangers to which Thompson points are indisputable, within Marxist or any other form of social or philosophical inquiry. But he is at the same time insufficiently aware of the strengths of systematic, as against scattered or piecemeal, modes of thought. They are twofold. Firstly, a genuine theoretical system demands a certain degree of overt connection and coherence between its constituent parts. It thereby not only works against lazy or inconsequent thinking: it also exposes its own premises and logic more clearly to criticism. Secondly, the order of such a system typically permits a greater degree of continuity with it after its origination, whether in the form of assimilation or development. Thought laid out as theory in this sense is at once easier to appropriate over time, and more immediately amenable to correction or modification in a cumulative tradition. It is the latter consideration that is important for the destiny of Morris’s work. His thought was coherent enough in substance, by any standards. But its form was largely unsystematic — variously strewn through prose and verse romances, lectures and articles alike. Attractive yet ad hoc, this dispersal told against it afterwards. For the lessons of Morris to be learnt, either for emulation or amendment, they had first to be assembled. This they were not. Some of the major political texts themselves were not even readily available until the two supplementary volumes of his work were belatedly published by his daughter in 1936. A good part of the reason why Morris became so posthumously isolated a figure probably lies in this difficulty. For that isolation was never one from Marxists alone: it was from virtually all later currents of the socialist movement in Britain. Systems have their costs, as Thompson has argued: but lack of system too has its price, and in this case it was paid in limited influence. In the absence of a consolidated canon of thought, Morris’s communism was to be soon effaced in the homely alternative image, so readily available, of the English artist and designer. The posthumous fate of Blake, Shelley or even Wilde reveals something of the same pattern, perhaps a peculiarly national one. A purely aesthetic reconstruction took place, which for long separated Morris from successor generations on the Left.

Was Marxism in the West meanwhile unable to generate any utopian thought of its own? Not quite. The Frankfurt tradition contributed two idiosyncratic chefs d’oeuvre of utopian register, Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. In a vastly different idiom, both have significant affinities with Morris’s work. Each envisages a liberated society as one not of perpetual motion, but of tranquil rest. Each reveals a sceptical suspicion of modern science and technology, and a calculated rejection of the promethean motifs in Marx — a renunciation of any prospect of ceaseless economic growth. Each recalls the intimacy rather than the conflict of man with nature — a theme central to the whole Frankfurt School, whose first historical formulation by a socialist actually occurs in one of the least noticed and loveliest passages of News from Nowhere. 32 Each links ethics directly to aesthetics, as did Morris, as the principle of a world at last delivered from oppression and inequality. The two, of course, also diverge in important ways, between themselves and from the emphases of Morris. The lattice-work of aphorisms in Minima Moralia seeks to afford glimpses of a free future through minute observation of the imprisoned present: its morality is constructed as a set of impossible maxims for living within capitalism. The Orphic world of Eros and Civilization, on the other hand, is projected beyond any determinate contemporary horizon. Its regulative notions are drawn from Schiller’s Enlightenment vision of art as sensuous play, and Freud’s metapsychology of libidinal economy. Both works are more concerned with sexual life than was Morris, and both have a more intellectual conception of art. But the major difference is, of course, the aristocratic — at times esoteric — cast of the work of Adorno and Marcuse, and its distance from active politics. What has disappeared completely from the Frankfurt tradition is the popular texture of Morris’s writing and the organic connection between his utopian imagination and his militant conception of the transition between capitalism and communism. For Morris, utopian images of the future were indispensable for revolutionary struggle against reformism in the present: "It is essential that the ideal of the new society should always be kept before the eyes of the working classes, lest the continuity of the demands of the people should be broken, or lest they should be misdirected."33

This sense of the relationship between utopian and quotidian politics has been restored to us again today by Rudolf Bahro, whose Alternative is the finest Marxist attempt yet written to think the future. It is only necessary to indicate the ways in which it represents a departure from previous utopian traditions. First, unlike any predecessor, it is a product of the historical experience of the actual construction of a society beyond capitalism. Not coincidentally, the DDR is economically and socially the most advanced country in the Communist world: and at the same time the only one to share a common culture with a leading capitalist state. Secondly, it is the work of a man conversant from personal practice with the structures of a modern industrial economy, yet whose competences have cross-cut the compartments of its division of labour, in a career successively as agricultural organizer, cultural journalist and industrial consultant. Thirdly, and decisively, it represents a socialist figuration of the future beyond the antithesis between Romanticism and Utilitarianism — the first to give something like concrete shape, however preliminary, to Marx’s hope. Unlike the romantic utopias of either Morris or Marcuse, Bahro’s world is based on full acceptance of modern science and the necessary complexity of industrial society. The achievements of the epoch of capitalist civilization are integral to it, the Renaissance and Enlightenment proudly claimed as its heritage. Unlike the Utilitarian utopias of Bellamy or others, it refuses any neutral imperatives to machinery and declines economic growth as any longer a paramount objective. Education, far from disappearing, is radically raised and generalized to all. Within its compass, technical and mathematical studies balance with aesthetic, historical and philosophical formation. Labour is redivided at once by the universalization of higher education, the general obligation to participate in simple operative work, and the diminution of time devoted to production. In the space for life so liberated, politics — far from receding — acquires full centrality and dignity for the first time, as the "general labour" of democratic direction of the affairs of society as a whole. Bahro’s vision of the future is by no means beyond criticism. It greatly overestimates the level of economic development in Eastern Europe,34 and abstracts from current struggles and demands within it, with the result that its institutional articulation (party system, commune structures) remains very weak. But of its intellectual significance, for socialists in the West as in the East, there can be no doubt. Marxism today has given birth to a major Utopia. The terms of Thompson’s counterposition of the two manifestly no longer hold. Common socialist debate over the nature of a world beyond classes, in the doughty spirit of the first lines of News from Nowhere, can resume again.


1.William Morris, p. 728.

2.WM, pp. 717, 721.

3.WM, p. 786.

4.WM, p. 786.

5.WM, pp. 780, 802.

6.WM, p. 790.

7.WM, p. 791.

8.WM, p. 792.

9.WM, p. 806.

10.WM, p. 807.

11.WM, p. 807.

12.WM, p. 807.

13.WM, p. 791.

14.WM, p. 791.

15.See Abensour’s edition of Etienne de La Boétie’s Discours sur la servitude volontaire, Paris 1976, with its "Présentation—les leçons de la servitude et leur destin" by Miguel Abensour and Marcel Gauchet, and its two successive afterwords by Pierre Clastres and Claude Lefort. For Clastres, "societies with a State" are founded on "the desire for submission" — "there is no feasible desire for power without the correlative desire for submission" (p. 239 ff). In Lefort’s companion meditations, "the desire of servitude" divined by La Boétie springs from "the charm of the Name of One" in a secret yearning for uniformity as "social narcissism," realized through "the desire of each, whatever their hierarchical position, to identify with the tyrant by becoming master of another" — "such is the chain of identification that the lowest of slaves still wishes himself a god" (pp. 273-274, 301).

16.WM, p. 793.

17.See The Life of William Morris, London 1899, vol. I, p. 14, in the light of W.D. Rubinstein, "The Victorian Middle Classes: Wealth, Occupation and Geography," Economic History Review xxx, November 1977.

18.Probate value of £55,000 in 1896, adjusted by Economist index.

19."The Society of the Future," in May Morris, ed., William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist, Oxford 1936, vol. II, p. 455.

20.WM, p. 793.

21.PT, p. 363.

22.WM, p. 697.

23.Art and Labour, London 1884, p. 116.

24.Politics and Letters, pp. 128-129.

25.Grundrisse, p. 611 (translation modified)

26.See Meier’s comment, William Morris—The Marxist Dreamer, London 1978, p. 549.

27.WM, p. 802.

28.Grundrisse, p. 162.

29.See the excellent discussion in Gareth Stedman Jones, "The Marxism of the Early Lukács," in Western Marxism—A Critical Reader, pp. 23-24.

30.News from Nowhere, in A.L. Morton, ed., Three Works by William Morris, London 1977, p. 101. John Goode, in his otherwise illuminating essay on Morris, reads this passage too solemnly, I think, as an invocation of "the destructive individualism which the story escapes from": "William Morris and the Dream of Revolution," in John Lucas, ed., Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century, London 1971, p. 275. The tone is rather humorously self-ironic.

31.Where "Stalin’s blue-print of the advance to Communism" is held to "promise fulfilment" to the claims of Morris: William Morris, 1955, pp. 760-761.

32.News from Nowhere, p. 367.

33.Socialism—Its Growth and Outcome, London 1893, p. 278.

34.It is for this reason, essentially, that Bahro’s thought can be described without derogation as utopian. In general, the historical capacity to project a future qualitatively beyond the confines of the present has typically involved overshooting the limits of the realizable, in transforming the horizons of the conceivable — a condition in turn of other and later liberations. This is true of themes in Marx or Lenin as well. In that sense, all creative socialist thought is likely to possess a utopian dimension.