«So long as the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life goes on, the degradation of the arts will go on; and if that system is to last for ever, then art is doomed, and will surely die; that is to say, civilization will die.» (W. Morris)
«Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.»
For a long time, I was only aware of William Morris as co-founder of the British Arts and Crafts movement in the mid-19th century. The movement emerged as a return, both in terms of content and form, to old craft traditions and «naturalness». Morris moreover insisted that craftspeople were to be seen as artists. A craftsman, architect, printer, and engineer himself, William Morris, however, was also a prolific writer, and a very political one, too. He became one of the major contributors to and pioneers of the British socialist labor movement.
Morris had come from a wealthy family, he became friends with the artists Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As entrepreneur he founded a flourishing furniture company which strongly influenced the British Arts and Crafts movement. His major work, the utopia of an ideal socialist society, News from Nowhere, was not published before 1890, towards the end of his life.
The genre of the Utopia (Ancient Greek for «no place») had been initiated in 1516 by Thomas More, the English statesman and author, with his famous book of the same title. Until today, utopias continue to thrive, especially in the English language, spanning over Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to Huxley (1932), Orwell (1949), and Boyle (2000), with a distinction to be made between the positive, ideal world of a utopia and the negative dystopia of a world worse than ours.
William Morris wrote his utopia as an inspiration to create a free, non-hierarchical, ecology-based society. He saw ecological action indispensably linked to the debunking of existing power structures, but without neglecting individual liberties – which is an extremely attractive idea again today!
One fine morning, the protagonist of the book, a contemporary of William Morris, wakes up in London as usual, but, to his utter amazement, finds himself in the future: All that was previously ugly and repulsive has suddenly morphed into beauty; everything has turned enchanting, pleasant, peaceful, orderly, clean, and full of inner and outer beauty.
Morris’s narrative reads relaxed, charming and cheerful, reflecting the way his protagonist sees and feels about his new old city. Entertaining and lighthearted, the author introduces us to this future ideal world, where there is neither need for courts, prisons, or authority, nor for class distinctions, property, or money. An old man who still knows how rotten and unjust the former world used to be, explains the new social system to our protagonist, who – with initial incredulity – gradually begins to understand and appreciate it:
«Civil law abolished itself, my friend. The civil law-courts were upheld for the defence of private property; for everybody pretended that it was only possible to make people act fairly to each other by means of brute force. Well, private property being abolished, all the laws and all the legal ‹crimes› which it had manufactured of course came to an end.»
«The true weapon of the workers as against Parliament is not the ballot-box but the Boycott.»
Morris built his political approach on both Marxism and anarchism; he was a humanist and an undogmatic socialist, a visionary of a better society and more justice. Once a metropolis, London in News from Nowhere has transformed into a decentralized, re-ecologized, village-like commune, into a non-hierarchical federation of autonomous agricultural and commercial communities. In line with anarchist utopias (such as Kropotkin’s), individual associations have developed on a voluntary basis, granting the greatest possible freedom of decision to the individual. The former British Parliament building has finally been put to a reasonable use: it now serves as a depot for agricultural fertilizer…
«I looked, and wondered indeed at the deftness and abundance of beauty of the work of men who had at last learned to accept life itself as a pleasure, and the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind and the preparation for them, as work fit for the best of the race.»