Friday, May 30, 2014

News from Nowhere (1990)

Book Review from the October 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

William Morris and News From Nowhere: A Vision Four Our Time. Edited by Stephen Coleman and Paddy O'Sullivan. Green Books, 1990, 8.95

As 1990 is the centenary year of the publication of the utopian novel News From Nowhere, this book is a timely assessment of one of William Morris's most inspiring works. Nine writers have contributed chapters on topics as diverse as architecture, socialism, love, and ecology, each demonstrating how much William Morris had to offer a world that was, to him, getting drabber and more divided as the capitalist system subordinated everything of worth to the dictates of profit.

The first chapter, written by Christopher Hampton, sets News From Nowhere in the context of the wider utopian literary tradition, whilst recognising some of the features that set it apart from earlier utopian works, not least of all Morris's commitment to socialist change:
It was the shock of his reaction to the material conditions determined by a rapacious economic system at work and the devastating consequences for the people of his world that drove him towards commitment and from that to the writing of News From Nowhere.
In providing a vision of a socialist society of common ownership and democratic control without class division, money or the state, News From Nowhere is without doubt a literary milestone as far as the socialist movement is concerned, but the conception of socialist revolution outlined in it by Morris is not without its faults, emphasising as it does the role of insurrection and civil war. John Crump, in Chapter Two, makes much of the fact that the socialist revolution described by Morris involved the use of organisations akin to "workers' councils", set up so that the "irrelevant" Parliament could be by-passed. However, it is also worth mentioning that this is a view which later in his life Morris rejected in favour of capturing control of political power and the state machine through Parliament. In truth, Morris had a tendency to simply associate Parliament with reformism and was wary that activity geared towards Parliament could lead a genuine socialist party off course.

As John Crump states, "News From Nowhere derives its reputation more from its wonderfully attractive description of communist society than from its account of how communism is achieved". In Chapter Three, Stephen Coleman investigates one of its most attractive features, namely the contrast between the inhabitants of the socialist society envisaged by Morris and the inhabitants of our own, present-day capitalist society. Coleman describes how News From Nowhere challenges the traditional Judeo-Christian ideology which states that human nature must always act as a barrier to lasting harmony and freedom. In doing so he shows how Morris can not only depict a changed social organisation, but a changed people with different outlooks and behaviour to our own:
Morris was too imaginative a materialist to presume to have discovered a single, finalized, human nature; he understood that human behaviour—relationships, culture, feelings of self-identity—are fundamentally historical. Stripped of capitalist education, capitalist work routines, capitalist legislation and morality, Morris allowed himself to depict humans freed to behave beyond the limiting confines of the money-wages-profit system.
Ray Watkinson develops this theme further in Chapter Four, arguing that Morris saw creative work, liberated from the confines of the wages system, as an essential feature of "living society". He persuasively argues against the idea that Morris was completely opposed to the use of machinery, stating that "what Morris is against is not the machines, but the alienation, that under capitalism, they produce." In socialism, humans were no longer to be appendages of machines, but machines were to be subordinated to the real needs of labour.

The fifth chapter concerns itself with how Morris views women and sexuality, with Jan Marsh arguing that in this sense News From Nowhere tends to reflect some of the attitudes of the period in which it was written. With some justification, Jan Marsh labels News From Nowhere "a masculine vision of paradise", but comments that:
It is all very well for there to be no jobs in Nowhere for lawyers or army commanders, for example—and we can all agree that in an ideal state these are unnecessary—when women have never had the opportunity to select or reject such work. 
This comment would suggest that this particular author's commitment to a truly socialist society is rather token. After all, the choice between a system of common ownership and peace on the one hand and a competitive war-oriented society with a few women generals on the other is hardly a difficult one for those with a real commitment to equality.

The next two chapters, written by Colin Ward and Mark Pearson, discuss Morris's vision of housing, design and architecture—the "mother of the arts"—while Chapter Eight reverts to discussing the specific type of socialist society envisaged in News From Nowhere, this time from the standpoint of how the inhabitants of this society organised to satisfy their needs. In this chapter, Adam Buick argues that implicit in News From Nowhere is the idea of common ownership rather than government ownership. For in the society of News From Nowhere there is no state machine with its police and prisons and consequently no government to oversee its affairs. And, of course, along with common ownership goes direct democratic decision-making without recourse to government or leaders, free access to wealth without monetary payment, and voluntary co-operative work free from the coercion and exploitation of the wages system. In a particularly important section of this chapter Buick considers whether such an economic arrangement is feasible, concluding that contrary to the myths propagated by economists, human needs are not limitless and that a potential abundance of wealth exists in the world with which to satisfy those needs.

The final chapter by Paddy O'Sullivan deals with Morris's vision from an ecological perspective, arguing that his commitment to ecology was more than just an aesthetic reaction to the disfiguration of the environment, but involved a consideration of how the implementation of his political ideas would affect nature. This chapter, however, is a little disappointing as O'Sullivan confuses what some environmentalists term "surplus production" (the socially useless production of cheap "throw-way" commodities) with the Marxian concept of surplus value (the unpaid labour of the working class) and this tends to cloud the analysis of the chapter.

William Morris And News From Nowhere: A Vision For Our Time is an interesting and important book which contains arguments which can inspire new generations of workers to look beyond the confines of the profit system, a hundred years after Morris's original work dod the same.

Here and there. (1916)

From the January 1916 issue of the Socialist Standard

Arnold Bennett has been touring munition factories with the object of discovering why the workers do not invest in the war loan. He discovered that, the workers there, living from hand to mouth as they do elsewhere, prefer to keep the few shillings they are able to save in the house, They dare not risk lending them to the Government, because they may be wanted before 1935.

"After I had done visiting works" says the same writer, "an employer said to me: 'Some of the union leaders are splendid. I have one. He always does everything he can to make things run smooth and increase the output. And about 50 per cent of the men are the same—quite in earnest'". Good, old labour leaders. The employer in question knows that something of an oily nature is required to make things run smoothly. But what a simple Simon Arnold must be to give the show away. The function of the labour leader—to make things run smoothly—must be kept dark or "the things" get suspicious and the oil-can is ineffective.

*    *   *

Mr. Ford, of peace fame, has visions of a practical utopia in the very near future, to be reared on "The manufacture of a new farm tractor, which is to make it possible for farmers to have a six-hour day. for it is claimed that the machine will do the ploughing, threshing, pumping, churning, washing, stacking, harvesting, mowing and transportation of produce, and then will carry the family to church on Sunday. The active member of the firm is to be Mr. Ford's son, Edsel, who says that both workmen and buyers will share in the profits, and the workmen will spend only four months in the factory, the other eight being spent on the farm, where they will be able to study possible improvements."

The instalment of this mechanical wonder will necessarily reduce the number of hands required, and if these make the best use of their time during the eight months on the farm, the machine, when not carrying some of them to church, will be busy carrying fresh batches to the workhouse. That is the beauty of profit-sharing: the more you study the harder you have to work to keep your job.

*    *   *

"I should like to go toward those they call our enemies and say to them: 'Brothers, let us fight together: the enemy is behind us. Yes, since I have been wearing this uniform I do not feel any hatred toward those who are in front; but my hatred has grown against those who have power in their hands."

The above is from a letter found on a German prisoner and quoted by the "Daily Chronicle" (17.12.15) We send him greetings, and do not mind in the least anonymous letters or attacks by the "Globe" or any other capitalist rag. Our German comrade, though inclined to be sentimental in the rest of his letter, at least recognises that the workers, after they have fought their master's war, have yet to fight their own against the masters - the Class War.
F. Foan

Obituary: Frank Dawe (1958)

Obituary from the October 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

Comrade Frank Dawe died in hospital after a short illness in which time I was only able to visit him once. He was 59 years of age.

Frank joined the Party in February, 1936, although he had "seen the light" four or five years previously. During that time he was with the Party not only in the spirit, but in the flesh. He came to the local branch, attended outdoor meetings, and sold literature. When he at length signed on the dotted line it was but the formality of the fait accompli. During that time he was often economically in the red, yet he was sensitive, over-sensitive perhaps, in the payment of dues. He would have hated to ask them to be waived and so his actual membership hung fire for that reason.

Frank Dawe was a stormy petrel, blazing a path wherever he went. In adolescence he was fiercely anti-war and although liable for call up at the end of the first world war he succeeded in not being roped in.

As a young man he took an active part in an engineers' strike at his father's works. It was to cost him not only his job, but the business. Later, he cracked that he at least escaped the fate of becoming a Capitalist.

Frank Dawe had grim experiences of the two slumps after the first world war. In the 1921 slump he became caught up in the activities of the National Unemployed Workers' Committee Movement. They were days of mass meetings outside the local Labour Exchange and often their dispersal by the Cossacks (mounted police). Of the besieging of the local relief station by hordes of unemployed; of forced entries into it in futile attempts to demand from the then Board of Guardians a little extra on outdoor relief. The arrival of the "flatties" and the ejection of the demonstrators; of derelict buildings taken over to serve as the headquarters of local unemployed organisations and centres of social activity, each ironically proclaiming itself as Poverty Hall; of unemployed marches in efforts to reach Parliament via Westminster Bridge and baton charges and broken heads. All of this Frank could recount mordantly. For the Communists who exploited unemployed organisations for political ends he used his most trenchant invective. For the unfortunate, but misguided, rank and file he never lost his sympathy.

We first met at the local Labour Exchange in 1928. Many future S.P.G.B.ers first met there. For many of us it became a social, political and cultural centre. A university where admittance could be gained by possession of yellow signing-on card, and where Marxism might be learned the hard way.

We began as opponents and ended as friends. Into my youthful hot-air idealism he at least breathed an icy realism. After that we went places together. I joined the N.U.W.M. and became its London organiser. We also joined the Communist Party together and left together. We passed through its amorphous body and appendages like a dose of salts. Just over 18 months saw us out at the right end. For Frank the Communist Party, Russia and all that was never "the God that Failed." Rather it soon became a graven image to be mocked at. He learned to mercilessly satirise the C.P.'s pseudo-revolutionism, their histrionics and crude political melodrama.

Then we tangled with the S.P.G.B., but got so badly mauled in the clinches that we at length decided that it might be better to fight for the Party than against it. I joined the Southwark branch and Frank gave it his moral support. To that branch we brought many converts, all unemployed. From the S.P.G.B. being a political expression in S.E. London we made it a political force to be reckoned with. Only a book could do justice to its political epics and varied personalities among them was Frank Dawe. Shortly after we brought about the formation of the Lewisham branch in which Frank took an active part. It was that branch he subsequently joined.

He also largely initiated the reforming of the Camberwell branch of which he was a consistently active member, playing as he said, the role of the elder statesman.

Frank Dawe cut his Socialist teeth in a whirling vortex of activity; on the streets at the Labour Exchange, public libraries and elsewhere; a formidable and rumbustious protagonist for Socialism. It was the hectic crisis days when, vide the C.P., Capitalism was collapsing and they thought if they did not hurry they would not be in time to take it over. It was into this seething frothy excitement, always turbulent, sometimes violent, that Frank Dawe flung himself, a number nine pamphlet in one pocket and a copy of Engel's "The Revolutionary Act" in another.

It was a time when the reading room of the local library was taken over by us and the CPers as a political forum without, of the course the conventional procedure. And where librarians vainly exhorted us to keep politics out of literature.

It was also a time when the Labour Exchange was jam-packed with signers-on. Somewhere in the seething maelstrom was invariably Frank, close pressed by a small crowd inside a big one. Above the din and tumult could be heard snatches such as—the dictatorship of the proletariat, the class struggle, the Gotha Programme—and counter-revolutionaries. This often resulted in the complete disorganisation of Labour Exchange procedure and incensed officials sending for the police to eject us, that is, if in the confused mass we could be found.

Frank had a wide and sure grasp of the essentials of Marxism coupled with a considerable cultural background. He had a deep appreciation of both classic and modern French literature which he read in the original. He was a mine of information on classical music to which he introduced me. He often suppressed his many sided cultural attainments, believing that it might imply on his part, pretensions and snob values and thus provoke unfavourable reactions among those he came in contact with.

Frank spoke and at times wrote for the party. He was a good outdoor speaker with a facility for illustrating various aspects of the party's case. He could be a veritable cartoonist in words, imaginatively delineating a situation with a few bold strokes.

The comic muse must have presided at his birth. He had a sublime sense of the ridiculous and a rich seam of riotous humour. He not only told a good story—what Frank told an American professor and an English bishop would not pass the censor—but the best ones he told against himself.

Yet under his bluff and at times boisterous exterior lay a shy and sensitive person often apologetic and deprecatory of his work for the Party. He was something of a perfectionist, underestimating what he to give to the Party. It was a pity for he had much to give.

His attachment to the Party was deep and abiding, his class loyalties, passionate and sincere. He will certainly be remembered. For me, his death will not only be a Party loss, but a personal loss as well.

To his wife and family we express our sympathy in their misfortune.