Notable utopian socialists include Claude-Henri de Saint Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. We concentrate, though, on the literary utopia of William Morris, News from Nowhere (17). Literary utopias tend to emerge from politically turbulent and optimistic times. News from Nowhere was published in the midst of a revolutionary century in Europe that gave rise to a tradition of ‘utopian socialism’, first labelled thus and subsequently lambasted by Karl Marx. Though we must perforce give it short shrift, we’ll try to do Morris’ novel justice, at least in the context in which we are reading it herein.
William Morris was an energetic polymath: a textile designer who contributed much to the field of architecture, he also found time to be a translator of ancient Norse literature, an acclaimed poet, and, obviously, a novelist. Morris was also a prominent Socialist activist. Ironically for such a busy life, the subtitle of Morris’ News from Nowhere is An Epoch of Rest. First published in 1890 when Morris was 56, News from Nowhere is set in his home city of London transported into a far-flung socialist future. Morris was writing in a period of history marked by the collapse of empires, the revolutions of 1848, and social change across Europe. Not complete coincidence, then, that Marx and Engels published the avowedly anti-utopian Communist Manifesto in the same year (18). The protagonist in News from Nowhere, satirically named Guest, is transported to utopia via the simple expedient of falling asleep in his - and indeed Morris’ – own time and waking in a future of undetermined date. News from Nowhere has been subjected to harsh criticism by some reviewers who accuse it of falling into the traps of romanticism, unreality, nostalgia and pastoralism that we outlined. Merlin Coverley, for instance, concludes his vitriolic review thus: ‘Morris’ pre-industrial utopia is truly a return to the Middle Ages, an Arcadian fantasy of material abundance and wish fulfilment, that has little in common with the pragmatism of Owen and Marx.”(19)[i]
For our purposes, however, a very different reading of News from Nowhere is possible. As well as being grounded in his familiar London geography, Morris situated his utopia in history, having his characters discuss how the transformed society of utopia had been fought for in past reality by Socialists. He does not, though, speculate upon events in the time between documented history and his utopia. Antipathetic towards the ‘modern civilisation’ of his own day, community and equality were central to Morris’ thinking. He expressed the wish for rich and poor to become words without definition, terms so archaic and alien that historians would try and fail to explain them to students. Common ownership and mutuality are the economic basis for Morris’ utopia in which money plays no part and coins are artefacts consigned to museums. News from Nowhere expounds a work ethic very different to that serving the accumulation of capital or the valorisation of hard work for its own moral sake, as in Christian Protestantism. While creative work is placed joyfully at the core of the good life and self-realisation, irksome work is done by machines or shared. Morris is an unapologetic Luddite in the sense of insisting that technology be evaluated in terms of its benefit or otherwise to the community. In his utopia the products of creative work have two defining normative qualities: they should benefit the community and they should be beautiful. In News from Nowhere the boundaries between work, craft and art are significantly eroded. Craftsmanship is certainly a virtue in Morris’ utopia and, to ensure work remained attractive, the working day was short. Laurence Davis writes that: ‘Morris the socialist craftsman believed that art should be radically democratised, and that is ought to serve the function of making common labour a source of pleasure and joy’ (20, p.240).
In News from Nowhere society has moved beyond the centralized state and a localised participatory democracy holds sway. This society was not, in Morris’ thinking, to be confused with anarchism, which he understood as radically individualistic libertarianism, and which ran counter to his commitment to collective authority. Morris emerges from News from Nowhere as very much a proto environmentalist wherein air and noise pollution have been eradicated from a London of many green spaces. Moreover, architectural conservation is a prominent feature of his account of his city in the future. Thus, News from Nowhere has been hailed as an early Ecotopia[ii]. Contradicting Coverley’s critique, Morris is not anti-urban or wedded to a rural idyll. Rather, in his utopia he seems intent on narrowing the distinction between city and country, celebrating the best of both. By contrast to his prescient environmentalism, though, Morris is apparently blind to the politics of gender. Household work in his utopia remains the province of women and is not elevated to the level of craft, nor mechanised, nor yet shared with men. Morris does, however, choose to replace the institution of marriage with looser and more permissive social relations based on affection. Morris’s attitudes to art, architecture and fashion indicates that his utopia would not be frozen in the past. Moreover, he consciously refused to entirely prescribe its social, political and especially economic space, reacting against the dominance of economy in constructions of socialism in his own time, notably The Communist Manifesto. David Leopold writes: ‘News from Nowhere is no comprehensive and static portrait of perfection’ (21, p. xxv). To his despair, Guest is returned to his own time, but his experience of the utopian future acts a spur and he realises he must work to help bring about the social transformation he has experienced (or dreamed): ‘the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness’ (17, p.182).
Laurence Davis nicely summarises News from Nowhere in a way that, we believe, has clear implications for street choir singing:
‘Unlike so many utopian writers, Morris did not attempt to prescribe in law-like detail how people ought to live their lives. Rather, he developed a new chastened and anti-perfectionist style of utopian writing that was neither prescriptive nor prophetic but heuristic. It was a style, in other words, meant to help awaken ordinary people’s latent hopes and desires for a radically egalitarian, co-operative, and creative form of life; provoke them to reflect on, and discuss and debate collectively, the rationality of hopes and desires; and so give them the courage and confidence necessary to strive for the studied convictions that emerged from the process of constructive imagination, reflection, and democratic dialogue’ (20, p.221).
17. Morris, William. News From Nowhere (or An Epoch of Rest). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
18. Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Classics, 2015.
19. Coverley, Merlin. Utopia. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2010.
20. Davis, Laurence. “Morris, Wilde, and Le Guin on Art, Work, and Utopia. Utopian Studies 20, 2 (2009): 213-248.
21. Leopold, David. “Socialism and (the rejection of) utopia.” Journal of Political Ideologies, 12, 3 (2007): 219 -237.
[i] Referring to Robert Owen and Karl Marx and their, arguably non-utopian, future imaginings in, respectively, A New View of Society and The Communist Manifest.
[ii] Ernst Callenbach conception of an ecological utopia, which we discuss briefly in a subsequent passage.