Big problems, but are there big solutions?
William Morris, the 19th-century poet, designer and Socialist agitator, is now relatively well-known and is much admired. It has to be said, however, that this is more for his design and crafts work than for his socialist ideas. Even so, that he was a revolutionary socialist in the tradition of what might be called “Anglo-Marxism” or “impossibilism” is now more widely understood, thanks to the writings of Florence Boos and Nicholas Salmon, as opposed to the earlier work of writers linked to the so-called Communist Party who tried to make Morris out to be a proto-Leninist.
Most of those who are interested in Morris’s political ideas don’t really agree with his approach, though few are prepared to spell out where and why they think he was wrong. An exception is Labour Party member John Payne in his recent book Journey Up The Thames. William Morris and Modern England. Although this is mainly a travel book on the towns and villages of the Thames Valley today on the basis of the astute observation that “Utopia for Morris was a real place—England”—or more exactly, South East England on a summer’s day—Payne gives it a political dimension by declaring right at the start that he is also going to “try to demonstrate ways in which Morris was wrong—both in his predictions about the future and in the political positions he adopted in the 1880s and 1890s”.
Payne summarises Morris’s views, not entirely inaccurately, as:
- “that capitalism cannot be tamed, only overthrown, and that any other approach was a diversion from the ‘real task'” (p. 143).
- “that the function of a socialist party is to ‘make socialists’ and that anything short of that was a waste of time and effort” (p. 40).
- “that ‘the change’ (the overthrow of capitalism) can only be achieved by violent conflict and upheaval” (p. 20).
Payne’s counter-argument is that capitalism has been tamed to a certain extent thanks to the Labour Party operating through Parliament and local councils and to the work of trade unions and other such bodies; that “revolutions more often produce dystopia rather than utopia”; that “there are big problems ( . . . ) but there are no longer big solutions”, i. e. that socialism as a “big solution” is no longer on the agenda.
If socialism, and so making socialists for getting it, is not on the agenda, what is?
“At a local level, and in loose alliances at national and international level, people will do what they can to mitigate the worst effects of human kind’s enemies: greed, militarism, global capitalism, disease, ethnic tensions, global warming and environmental degradation.
People have to function at the level that seems real to them, where they think they may be able to produce small, local changes, even if they have no picture of what the sum of their small, local solutions might look like.”
So it’s come to this. Not only is the idea of any alternative society to capitalism abandoned, but so even is trying to achieve one by reformist political action at national level. Instead, all we are offered is a species of sub-reformism: little local attempts to mitigate things without any vision of where you’re trying to get to, exclusively defensive actions without end.
It’s pathetic stuff, but the conventional wisdom today amongst the sort of people who only a generation ago were thinking in terms of a big solution (even if more often than not the wrong one). But, with the collapse of state-capitalist Russia and the transformation of Labour into New Labour, in one or other of which they placed their hopes, they’ve had the stuffing knocked out of them. Unfortunately, the resulting disillusionment and pessimism which they have spread has made it more difficult to get the case for socialism, as indeed a “big solution”, across. But we can’t believe that many of those involved in these petty, sub-reformist struggles won’t eventually come to realise the utter inadequacy of endlessly trying to merely stop things getting worse.
Morris did indeed envisage that the changeover to socialism would involve some degree of violence—he introduces this into his description on how socialism came to be established in News from Nowhere—but this was never the essence of what he meant by “revolution”, and Payne is being misleading in suggesting that Morris was advocating violence as a socialist tactic as opposed to expecting the violence to be started by those opposed to the socialist revolution.
Morris was quite clear what he meant by “revolution”. As he put it in the opening paragraph of his How We Live and How We Might Live:
“The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s ears, even when we have explained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accompanied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment. Even when we explain that we use the word revolution in its etymological sense, and mean by it a change in the basis of society, people are scared at the idea of such a vast change, and beg that you will speak of reform and not revolution. As, however, we Socialists do not at all mean by our word revolution what these worthy people mean by their word reform, I can’t help thinking that it would be a mistake to use it, whatever projects we might conceal beneath its harmless envelope. So we will stick to our word, which means a change in the basis of society.”
This is exactly our definition too. “Revolution” means a change in the basis of society, irrespective of whether or not this happens to involve violence. It also implies that this change will be fairly rapid rather than a prolonged, gradual one, so that terms such as “overthrow” and “upheaval” are not out of place. It’s our view in fact that, these days, the socialist revolution could be carried out more or less peacefully, with a socialist-minded majority using existing elective institutions to win control of political power and employing this to overthrow capitalism. In other words, we don’t see Morris’s description in News from Nowhere of how socialism came to be established as a likely scenario today.
But do revolutions tend to lead to dystopia rather than utopia? This was certainly the experience of the Russian revolution but this was never the sort of revolution we (or Morris) advocated. It was a political revolution that led to a social revolution—a change in the basis of society—but from feudalism to capitalism via a prolonged period of state capitalism rather than from capitalism to socialism. Since this was only a change from one class society to another it could be, and was, carried out by a minority some of whose members became the new ruling class. Indeed dystopia, rather than the utopia the minority revolutionaries originally promised.
We, however, would reject that this has any relevance to the sort of revolution we have (and Morris had) in mind. We’re talking about a majority revolution from class society to classless society, not about a minority revolution from one class society to another. Unfortunately for us, these latter type of revolutions described themselves as “socialist” and it is their failure to bring about the equality associated with the word “socialism” that has led people like Payne to conclude that there is no “big solution” and indeed that trying to achieve one can only make things worse.
But to say that we shouldn’t seek a “big solution” but only “small, local changes” is in effect to accept that there is no alternative to capitalism. This is because capitalism is a big—a world-wide—system and, as Payne admits, causes big problems. Any alternative to it—any solution to these problems—must therefore be “big” too, global in both senses—world-wide and a total new system.
If you reject this analysis then you are accepting that we cannot get rid of capitalism and that the best we can expect is to mitigate its effects a little. It is because we refuse to accept this defeatist conclusion that we say that Morris’s policy of making socialists is still the most constructive activity that those who want a better world should engage in at the present time. Fight to save your local beauty spot if you like, but don’t accept that that’s all that can be done.