DREAMS AND VISIONS: William Morris in Australia, 1885-1914

Yes surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.

– William Morris,

News from Nowhereor, An Epoch of Rest: being some chapters from “A Utopian Romance”

Illustrated Sydney News, November 26, 1892, p.4

Following an increase of 300% in the sales of Das Kapital in Germany during the Global Financial Crisis, the Guardian declared: “Karl Marx is back.” According to a Berlin based publisher “‘those of a young academic generation’” embraced Marx, in the recognition “‘that the neoliberal promises of happiness have not proved to be true.’”

It is time to find an alternative to the current system.

Perhaps we should look to William Morris and his utopian novel News from Nowhere, just as many Australian radicals did at the turn of the century for an alternate, egalitarian, beautiful vision for society.

WILLIAM WHO?

In 1896 the Brisbane Courier described Morris as a man who “needs no introduction in any part of the English-speaking world.” Despite this, it is likely that many of us today have never heard of Morris.

Bruce Scates argues that Morris’ importance to Australian radicalism has been largely ignored because historians have a very low regard for the ‘utopian novel’, considered too “sentimental” and “vague” to be a serious, or significant, political work.

However, as David Goodway and Bradley J. Macdonald show, Morris wrote News from Nowhere not to outline a political agenda, but to provide a vision for a future socialist society, with remarkably different social structures, gender relations and views on Art and labour.

And it is a fresh vision that we are in dire need of today.

THE STATE

The England of News from Nowhere, is essentially a mediaeval, rural commune, writ large. The Houses of Parliament store manure as “the whole people” are the parliament.

News From Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

This, as Verity Burgmann describes it, “decentralised”, rural society appealed to many early Australian radicals- as no doubt it appeals to many of us, considering the bureaucracy we are faced with today.

In an 1895 Letter to the Editor, Morris’ utopia is described as a “natural”, “free, flowing, untrammeled”, “poem”. Morris’ association with nature fits with Edgar Ross’ argument that Australians had a predisposition to utopian socialism due to Australia’s rural society and economy at the turn of the century.

Morris also appealed to the quasi-socialist stream of thought that Burgmann characterises as “bush socialism” associated with, as Marilyn Lake asserts, “egalitarianism and mateship”- values since co-opted for conservative political purposes.

The Australian Socialist League, inspired by Morris’ own English Socialist League, originally endorsed Morris anarchistic vision, as Bruce Mansfield has examined. However, as Burgmann recounts, following internal factional battles “State Socialism” emerged as the League’s primary objective and most viable way of achieving change. Similarly, the Australian Labor Party endorsed “practical Socialism”.

In spite of this, the International Socialist Club in Australia continued to reproduce Morris’ poetry, suggesting that some members of the labour movement did not consider Morris’ utopia impractical, but a desirable model and a viable alternative.

MARRIAGE

Marriage does not exist in News from Nowhere. People “come and go freely” in their unions.

S. A. Rosa, The Coming Terror or The Australian Revolution (Sydney: S. A. Rosa, 1895)

Since the abolition of private property, and the belief in females as property, “the trouble that besets the dealings between the sexes” has lessened.

While such a view is underpinned by Marxist theory, Morris’ progressive views on marriage are also the result of, as Fiona MacCarthy argues, Morris’ difficult marriage to the Pre-Raphaelite model Jane Burden– described by Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

At the turn of the century, long before Germaine Greer, some Australian radicals recognised marriage to be an exploitative and anachronistic institution and responded to Morris’ vision of a more equitable society.

In S. A. Rosa’s utopian novel The Coming Terror “there were no marriage ceremonies” in the outback commune. Similarly, in a 1910 newspaper article discussing Morris, the “present marriage system” is described as “horrible and revolting.”

However, Morris’ vision did not gain currency within the mainstream media and newspaper readers criticised Morris’ views for the threat they posed to “religion”, “morality” and a key social “institution”.

ART AND LABOUR

Morris’ socialism and views on labour are best understood as an outgrowth of his artistic theories and his desire to make the world more “beautiful”– a concept no doubt attractive to those of us in industrialised, concrete rendered metropolises.

Morris’ socialistic utopia, where capitalistic exploitation has been eradicated, is beautiful because “Art is man’s expression of his joy in labour.” Overproduction, which had previously enslaved workers, is non-existent and all labour has social significance and is inherently satisfying.

In the first biography written on Morris in 1899 by J. W. Mackail Morris’ art is central and his socialism is represented, as MacCathy discusses, as an “aberration from which he soon recovered.”

While this view is evident in some obituaries in Australian papers following Morris’ death, he is overwhelmingly remembered as both a socialist and an artist.

However, while many Australians admired Morris’ artistic abilities, the political theories underpinning his attempt to, as E. P. Thompson describes, ensure Art’s “moral purpose”, did not gain widespread acceptance.

Morris’ vision did gain currency amongst some Australian socialists. The Worker praised his insightful views, while John Curtin, as David Day discusses, became involved in “Eight-Hour Day” campaigns, inspired by the belief that Morris’ beautiful utopian society was not just a dream, but an attainable vision.

John Curtin found inspiration in Morris’ utopian vision.

In Australia at the turn of the century, Australian radicals responded to Morris’ ideal of a beautiful, anarchistic, egalitarian society. In light of the continuing inequalities, injustices, and general ugliness, of modern society Morris’ utopia is a desirable vision that we should use to guide our own political actions.

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3 comments on “DREAMS AND VISIONS: William Morris in Australia, 1885-1914

  1. Joanna Irving says:

    Merryn,
    Your post was very interesting to a reader who only knew a little about socialism in Australia and basically nothing about William Morris. You related what he stated to the twentieth century well and the rhetorical questions at the beginning cleverly reflect what a reader who knows nothing about William Morris is thinking. I like the way you have set your post out- it makes it easy to read and approachable. You have evidently done a lot of research on the topic, but at the same time you have made us not overwhelmed with information which is a tricky thing to do.
    Well done
    Joanna

    • merrynlynch says:

      Thanks Jo!

      I’m glad the amount of painstaking research I did comes through! Since there has been so little written on the subject, I have had to be a little detective and search for primary sources which evidence a link between the thinking of William Morris and Australian radicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I spent a fair amount of time trawling Trove and handling fragile documents at the State Library of New South Wales.

  2. Ah, I feel that red pride stirring inside.

    This is clearly a timely issue to be discussing with the current economic situation of the world. As you highlight, the last 30 years have been a strange time for Australia where we have moved away from the ingrained socialism of our ‘bush’ society toward a failed attempt at neo-liberalism. What you have clearly worked toward is highlighting how Morris’ work not only had influence on Australian socialist thought, but can continue to guide us as the “Light on the Hill”: that knowledge of a better future to come.

    Particularly interesting I thought was your examination of marriage. Obviously you know that from my own point of view I don’t believe in the dissolution of marriage as perhaps Morris intended, but I certainly agree with the need to reform this institution. I think you summarised this perfectly in your suggestion of bringing more balance between the genders, but also within the equation of all relationships.

    In fact, I think this is the shining hope which Morris presents to Australian society: a society of truly egalitarian society in terms of our relationships, both intimate and structural.

    Thanks for the great info!

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