08 March 2018

Hammersmith – neither state nor anarchist

With apologies to the late great Lemmy Kilmister, a convinced anarchist as well as a top-class musician, the political society named for Hammersmith was not an anarchist one. William Morris, the Pre-Raphælite father of guild socialism, is often glossed as an ‘anarchist’ or a ‘libertarian socialist’, but he deliberately rejected such labels for himself, even though he maintained friendships with several prominent anarchists such as Pyotr Kropotkin.

What are we to make of this, then? Guild socialism did have a profound impact on subsequent generations of ‘libertarian socialist’ and ‘anarchist’ thinkers, to be sure. And it was in direct reaction against state socialist Edward Bellamy’s nationalist enthusiasm that Morris wrote News from Nowhere (on which work I will have a blog post at a later time). So why, then, did William Morris feel it necessary to distance himself from anarchism explicitly, repeatedly and with enough insistence that he withdrew Hammersmith from the Socialist League over the latter’s anarchist turn? Indeed, Morris set out the programme for the Hammersmith socialists explicitly as ‘neither state socialists nor anarchists’. What was the rationale there?

Morris brought two major charges against the anarchists of his day. Firstly, that even the ‘left’ anarchists with whom he worked and most closely associated in the League had a ‘thin’ understanding of the human personality, one which could be easily detached from its social moorings. On the epistemological level, Morris thought it impossible in the first place to consider the individual, as the anarchists wanted to do, in isolation from her social status, relationships and physical surroundings. On the normative level, Morris’s Christian background – even after he had foregone it to a degree – would not permit him to take leave of the conviction that human beings are complex, irrational, often short-sighted and contradictory, subject to a ‘variety of temperament, capacity and desires’. This insufficiency demanded the presence of what Morris himself called a ‘social conscience’ or a ‘public conscience’, which the best anarchists – like Kropotkin – recognised in theory but not in practice.

Secondly, and on a related note, Morris came to observe that the tactics of political violence used by anarchists were counter-productive to the goals they claimed to want to achieve, and ultimately reactionary both in their consequences and in the assumptions of human nature and political action that underlay them. To tell the truth, Morris was quite prescient here: this is a problem which particularly continues to plague modern anarchists. Morris deeply mistrusted anarchist attitudes toward authority and violence, even though on the surface his critiques of the state seemed to overlap heavily with anarcho-communist ones.

A third difference between Morris and the anarchists – as well as the Marxists – may lie in the differences of their approaches to history. Morris thought, in keeping with his High Tory tutor John Ruskin, that there was something very much worth recovering in the ancient English traditions. Else, he would not have appealed to the peasants’ revolts of bygone days, to Islamic art, to the traditions of mediæval epic poetry and romance that would lead him to pioneer the modern fantasy novel. Kropotkin in particular had no use for this kind of synthesis; for him the past was always the location of exploitation and alienation in more primitive forms. Liberation was to be sought in the present. For Morris, by contrast, though the distant, meaningful and spiritual past was not to be imitated, traces and indications of a purer and more noble way of life were to be sought there.

It is perhaps a little too easy and a little too pat to write off Morris as a refusenik and a ‘splitter’. Just as with his æsthetic-political commitments, Morris’s own attitudes toward authority and political violence were complex and not easy to unpack in a simple or easily-categorised way, except possibly to say that he was an anti-imperialist perhaps even before he was a socialist. The fact that his proto-guild socialism was, shall we say, apophatically defined should not detract from the clarity of his vision, even if that vision was primarily to be seen in his written works and visual artwork, rather than in the form of a political manifesto.

No comments:

Post a Comment