Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, March 28, 2010

That's why William Morris has gone to Iceland

[In the 1870s, the great Victorian artist William Morris made several trips to the now economically bankrupt (if remarkably relatively sexually liberated) country formerly known as 'Iceland' - and as the Morris scholar Fiona MacCarthy notes, we should all be glad he did because he came back a changed man, and indeed would later become an outstanding revolutionary socialist thinker:]

'Iceland itself became a kind of yardstick against which Morris measured the follies and iniquities of Victorian Britain. The Icelanders lived hard lives, but they never lost their dignity or sense of true priorities. The important things survived. Morris admired the strong literary traditions, noting how oral storytelling continued through the generations, keeping families transfixed through the long winter nights. He responded to the practical simplicity of Icelandic farmers' houses. These single-storey turf-walled structures, their rounded roofs blanketed with grass and flowers, had a minimalist beauty that showed up the self-indulgence of the "ordinary style of bourgeois comfort" in which Morris, a financier's son, had been brought up.

By the time he came to Iceland, Morris had founded his decorating firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co with the idea of reforming Britain's debased taste in the design of household products. From his own experience, he was already painfully aware of the economic pressures towards short cuts and shoddiness, the negation of the basic human instinct to perfect one's skills. In Iceland's more rudimentary economy craftsmanship still flourished within a living tradition of folk art. Morris's delight in discovering a country where design was directed only at supplying basic human needs fuelled his future diatribes against the Victorian culture of excess...Morris also came back with a new radical awareness. Reading the journals you can see the processes of revelation dawning. He came home politicised, convinced that "the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes"...

Early in 1883 Morris crossed the "river of fire" and became a revolutionary socialist. Note the image of the river: the journey across water was always a potent metaphor for Morris...This final transformation of the cosseted son of the capitalist classes, whose family fortunes derived from copper mining in the valley of the Tamar, was described by EP Thompson, the historian of the English working classes, as "among the great conversions of the world". Morris joined the Democratic Federation, a small and, at the time, relatively unknown party committed to bringing about a total social revolution, creating a society without rich and poor, without masters and men; a new world in which art could flourish. Art for Morris was the test of a true civilisation.

By now Morris had come to the conclusion that books without political purpose were flatulent and lifeless. For a decade he became totally embroiled in the literature of conflict. Everything he wrote – poetry and stories, journalism, lectures – was dedicated to what he called "the Cause". Not everybody noticed. In many people's eyes Morris was still the author of the relatively innocuous "Earthly Paradise", and he was seriously considered for the post of Poet Laureate in 1892 after the death of Tennyson. As a revolutionary socialist he could not possibly accept.

News From Nowhere is the book in which Morris's visionary politics find their ultimate expression. It is a novel of an ideal post-revolution future set in 2012, a date which now seems curiously imminent. Though it reads with the directness of a children's story, it has deep, underlying subversiveness, a total upturning of accepted values. News From Nowhere became a kind of handbook for the romantic-intellectual English socialism that has only just ended with the death of Michael Foot. Towards the end of this dream novel comes a haymakers' feast – a community gathering in a flower-decked church with a crowd of handsome, happy, well-dressed men and women looking "like a bed of tulips in the sun". The truly democratic village scene described by Morris reminds one of Iceland, but with better weather. Ideals of community he formed on those journeys of the 1870s stayed with him all his life.'

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At 2:26 pm, Anonymous mo said...

Hi Snowball,

enjoyed this essay and wrote about it here:


best, mo, another morris fan...

At 12:43 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks - and cool website - but for clarification I didn't write this essay - just cut and pasted from the Guardian article (I do that a lot as am generally quite busy and do not have a lot of time for blogging)...


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