The Left has always been uneasy with aesthetics. The very word suggests privilege, preciousness, a remoteness from the real. Even when radicals respect culture, they assign it, quite properly, a secondary place to social utility. If it’s a choice between snatching from the flames the Holbein or the hippie, the radical is a mite less agonised than the aesthete. Almost everyone agrees that a museum is not as fine a thing as an orphanage; what differentiates Left from Right is just the degree of mental reservation you feel about the proposition.
In any case, too many conservatives have hijacked the aesthetic to ratify their politics. The sublimity of power; society as a mysteriously unified organism; history as spontaneous growth; truth as an intuitive certainty felt on the pulses: it is no wonder (though it is a pity) that the old Left tended to counter these Burkeian mystifications with a bloodless rationalism. And that rationalism merely reflected the Utilitarianism of a society for which art was an embarrassing superfluity. The contemporary Left, to be sure, has rectified this error with a vengeance. If politics once swallowed up culture, culture has now almost entirely absorbed politics. There is a good deal more interest in Madonna than in the multinationals.
There was always, however, an alternative heritage. The young Marx owed much of his critique of capitalism to the aesthetics of Friedrich Schiller, and aesthetic notions lurk within the political and economic thought of his maturity. If the early Marx opposes industrial capitalism, it is as much because it robs us of our sensuous life as of our material well-being, plundering the body and stripping its perceptual organs to so many commodified objects. Nothing about Sky television would have surprised him. The Frankfurt School, and Marcuse in particular, were the great inheritors of this cultural politics; but meanwhile an indigenous British current of it had got under way, passed from Coleridge and Carlyle to John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold. From this radical-Romantic viewpoint, industrial capitalism was to be condemned for stifling a creativity which the arts, above all, most finely exemplified. Art was the enemy of alienation, craftsmanship the antithesis of labour. Human culture implied a community at odds with the atomised social order of the marketplace.
There were three mighty flaws in this generous vision. It was embarrassingly nostalgic, enraptured by the dream of an organic society of colourful peasants and clean-limbed artisans before the Fall into modernity. Freedom was less a matter of having the vote than of being allowed to doodle the odd gargoyle on a cathedral roof. It was unsure whether its target was industrialism or industrial capitalism, which somewhat blunted its political edge. And it was inescapably idealist, trusting to a change of heart rather than a transformation of the economy. Scornful or ignorant of socialist thought, it was forced to oppose the social order it detested with pre- rather than post-capitalist forms. Its Romanticism was thus radical and reactionary together – a bizarre blend of communalism and neo-feudalism in which the predatory capitalist was ousted by the paternalist landlord. It was this tradition which lay behind the great figures of Modernist English literature, radical reactionaries to a man (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis) though not, as it happens, to a Bloomsbury woman.
The advent of William Morris was the point where this ambiguous lineage finally joined the modern world. Morris was of course quite as much a neo-medievalist as Carlyle or Ruskin; but his achievement was to take the Romantic critique of industrial capitalism and harness it for the first time to a progressive political force, the British labour movement. He was thus medievalist and materialist together, as devoted to tapestry weaving as he was to theories of surplus value. For his non-socialist admirers, the one could always be highlighted at the expense of the other: in this shrewd, stylish biography, Fiona MacCarthy tells us that Stanley Baldwin once gave a speech on Morris which managed to omit all mention of his political activities, which would be rather like seeing Dickens only as a sanitation reformer. Less drastically, one can view Morris’s political ideas as the gentle fantasies of a naive visionary in Oedipal revolt against his plutocratic parentage, a matter more of sentiment than of Saint-Simon. But those who would like to take the wallpaper without the barricades have been sorely tried by E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary, which established Morris as an eager student of Marx as well as a fan of the Vikings. He was, in fact, one of the greatest Marxist cultural theorists Britain has ever produced, which is not perhaps saying a great deal for British Marxist cultural theory. He was also the only member of that tradition to combine the theory of art with a supremely fine practice of it. All of this was duly erased by some of his medievalist custodians, to the point where, as MacCarthy reminds us, we still shamefully lack a comprehensive collection of his political writings.
We do have a comprehensive edition of his letters, of which Fiona MacCarthy is the first biographer to make full use. From this and other sources she has spun a splendidly acute narrative of her Falstaffian subject, a man whose gusto, élan and robust high spirits were at best a kind of Blakeian vitalism and at worst the bluff camaraderie of the rugby club. They were also as much a part of Victorian entrepreneurship as a creative protest against Victorian sterility. Morris was afflicted by a repellent English heartiness, given to swinging children from his hair and carrying coal-scuttles in his teeth; but MacCarthy paints a darker portrait too, of a man more reticent and repressed, but also more emancipated, than one had imagined. His spectacular rages were probably, she thinks, a form of epilepsy, an illness inherited by his disabled daughter, Jenny, and in these fits he could drive his head against the wall hard enough to make a dent in the plaster. He was also plagued by gouty joints and an adulterous wife. Jane Morris, daughter of an Oxford stablehand, fell with tedious predictability for two of the most notorious seducers of the age, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; but her husband seems to have managed the matter well, and this book discerns a (qualified) sexual enlightenment in him which other biographers have overlooked.
Morris was born in 1834, the child of a wealthy financier, and after school at Marlborough went up to post-Newmanite Oxford to encounter Ruskin and (in the form of his lifelong colleague Edward Burne-Jones) Pre-Raphaelitism. After Oxford, he and his friends set up an arts and crafts workshop in Red Lion Square and helped to paint the Arthurian murals in the Oxford Union, while Morris himself unleashed an unstaunchable stream of poetry. He then removed himself to the Red House at Bexleyheath, an artists’ commune which became the basis for his celebrated firm of designers and restorers. Before long, the firm was receiving commissions from aristocrats, so that the increasingly socialist Morris found himself ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’. The company became the Habitat of its day, and no bourgeois home was complete without its chic artefacts. As a communist who had inherited his father’s commercial talents, Morris was to be haunted by such contradictions throughout his life. There wasn’t much socialist self-management in his workshops, and while he himself was haranguing striking cotton workers in Lancashire, his craftsmen back home were producing woven silk velvet for £10 a yard.
After two trips to Iceland in the 1870s, which confirmed his enthusiasm for Norse epic, Morris moved his domestic life to Kelmscott House in Hammersmith and his professional life to the lovely Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. It was from this time, when he was already middle-aged, that he began to turn to the prodigious political activism which was to see him into his grave. From his preservation campaign with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he moved to the sectarian Social Democratic Federation and finally to his own libertarian-Marxist Socialist League, which combined cultural politics with an uncompromising ultra-leftism. It is in this, indeed, that Morris’s political style differs from the cultural politics of our own day, which sprang largely from political defeat. If ‘culture’ has enriched the modern Left’s concerns, it has also been a convenient displacement of them in a politically barren epoch. With Morris, however, as with Antonio Gramsci, a preoccupation with culture belongs to the ferment of a politically turbulent era – a deepening, rather than a tempering, of revolutionary aspirations. His spiritual assault on industrial capitalism is inevitably more root-and-branch than a Fabian concern with a rational economy. Culture, unusually, lies here on the side of a hard-line rather than soft-centred socialism; in Morris’s utopian fantasia, News from Nowhere, the Houses of Parliament have become barns for storing dung. Perry Anderson has remarked that News from Nowhere is one of the lamentably few utopian-socialist texts to tell us how the revolution actually happened; and for Morris, at least, this was no Pre-Raphaelite picnic.
In his account of Morris in Arguments Within English Marxism, Anderson makes another point which commentators have largely overlooked. Morris was a Marxist, no question of it; but where he was least at one with his mentor was in his vigorous contempt for modernity. For Marx himself, the epoch of modernity is one of conflict, alienation, exploitation; but it also represents the richest unfolding of human resources which history has ever witnessed. If the age of the middle class has been one of political oppression, it has also been the heyday of emancipation; if it has reduced the individual to a cipher, it has also brought individual powers to a peak of subtle complexity. Marx has constant praise for his political antagonists, as The Communist Manifesto itself testifies; it is Marx who memorialises, even if they themselves do not, their magnificent revolutionary heritage, the thoroughness with which they overturned the institutions of their feudal opponents in a relatively brief span of time. Any socialism which does not build on this great liberal inheritance will be bankrupt from the start. If Marx condemns liberal capitalism, it is by the yardstick of its own moral ideals of justice, liberty and autonomy, with which he has not the slightest quarrel. It is not a question of dreaming up some even more admirable moral notions, but of enquiring into the structural conditions which ensure, in capitalist society at least, that they can never be adequately realised, let alone universalised.
In so-called Post-Modernist theory, this eminently dialectical habit of mind has been disastrously abandoned. Instead, a style of thought which prides itself on rejecting binary oppositions ends up by demonising the whole of modernity in contrast to itself. From whatever historical moment the autonomous subject first dawned, it is downhill all the way. The Enlightenment was an unmitigated disaster, rather than – as in the more judicious thought of Marxism – calamity and opportunity together. Morris was far from Post-Modern, but he, too, shares this reductive standpoint. For him, it is as though everything from the dawn of the Renaissance to the rise of socialism can be written off as retrogressive. If he disliked Italy, it was not only because it reminded him uncomfortably of one of his wife’s lovers, but because it was the cradle of a culture he detested. Science, scholarship, technology, political liberalism, Modernist culture: none of these finds its niche in the future utopian order. It is true that Morris’s opposition to technology has been exaggerated: when Bernard Shaw, on a visit to Kelmscott, mischievously suggested that they should buy a machine to automate some delicate piece of handiwork, Morris retorted that they had one on order. But he failed to appreciate that socialism is a child of modernity as well as its critic, and that in this ambivalence lies much of its power. He also thought that the thing to do with labour was to render it pleasant rather than, as Marx considered, to abolish it as far as possible. The only good reason for being a socialist, as Oscar Wilde knew, is that one objects to doing any work.
Whatever its limitations, Morris’s socialism led him to mount stools on East End street corners, and to address six thousand striking Northumberland miners, which is more than can be said for Oscar Wilde. Fiona MacCarthy, who brings buildings and landscapes alive with great brilliance, conveys much of Morris’s passion for things, his devotion to barns and rivers and dovecotes, as well as the ways in which he was an ecologist avant la lettre. It is the man, as much as the artist or political theorist, who fascinates her; but here her biography fails fully to deliver what it promises. Precisely because her narrative is compelled to chart her subject’s prodigious outer life, it pauses too little to reflect on his elusive inner being. Poet, painter, textile weaver, manuscript illuminator, wallpaper designer: Morris was all of these things and a good deal more, but there is a sense in which they conceal as well as express him, and MacCarthy, for all her probing intelligence, never quite succeeds in lifting the veil.
The kernel of radical Romanticism is the belief that the arts embody a kind of creative energy which it is the task of political change to embody in society as a whole. If this vein of Romanticism ascribes too great a power to art, then it can be counterpointed, in both Ruskin and Morris, by its materialist corollary: unless a tawdry commercialist society is transformed, the conditions for the production of great art will fail to flourish. Morris holds firmly to both ends of this dialectic, and conjured from it a body of cultural theory which has still to be surpassed, if still to be properly edited. When he died in 1896, the train which transported his body from London to Kelmscott made a brief halt at his beloved Oxford. No representative of the university of which he was so distinguished an alumnus came to meet it.