In A Texan in England (1946) J. Frank Dobie, after a spell of teaching at Cambridge, mused that doctoral theses are often "a transference of bones from one graveyard to another" (26). This bon mot comes irresistibly to mind when one has to review a book entitled William Morris's Utopianism which is the bookshop version of a Ph.D. thesis recently completed at Cambridge. The text appears to have been little altered, i.e. made more digestible for the common student of English literature, for it is stodgy fare with its convoluted, at times inscrutable prose and recherché vocabulary that seem to owe not a little to the French theory lingo in which professors used to talk to professors.
To renew a topic that has been the subject of unbroken and intense debate since at least the 1950s but now seems to have reached a consensus is an enterprise that requires a fair amount of critical daredevilry. Owen Holland, who is currently editor of The Journal of William Morris Studies, has bravely tried and produced a book which has clearly been thoroughly researched (witness the plethora of end-notes — unfortunately placed in the most inconvenient location, at the end of each chapter — and the very thick bibliography). No stone in the field of Morris studies and the late-Victorian context has been left unturned. The result is a 300-page-long monograph that is certainly a valuable contribution to the study of the Victorian Left, of the place of Morris in his time and of his political and social thought, but perhaps not of his utopian thought, his utopianism,1 because whatever the exhaustiveness of a research and shrewdness of an analysis, there are cases in which the chosen thesis runs up against the wall of textual and conceptual realities. This is one.
In The Concept of Utopia Ruth Levitas, after sifting through the writings of several well-known utopian social theorists (and devoting a whole chapter to Morris) reaches the conclusion that whatever its content and form the function of utopia is fundamentally transformative and emancipatory. It criticises the present and depicts or adumbrates alternatives to the prevailing order. It thus sets people dreaming; it creates desire "for a better way of being" (221). However this desire can become reality only if, in the existing historical conditions, the right revolutionary agency can be found — which, once upon a time, in better days, those of Morris for instance, could only mean the proletariat:2
If Utopia arises from desire, the transformation of reality and the realisation of utopia depend upon hope, upon not only wishful thinking but will-full action.... But while utopia may keep alive the sense that the here and now is unsatisfactory, and can contribute to the belief that it might be otherwise, it is not the source of hope.... The dream becomes vision only when hope is invested in an agency capable of transformation. [Levitas 230-231]
It is not difficult to show that Morris's utopia, News from Nowhere in particular, follows this pattern of dream-desire-hope-revolution and utopia in an imaginary future to the letter — an interpretation founded on the debates round the works of E. P. Thompson, Miguel Abensour and Paul Meier and which does not cause much disagreement any more.
Morris's "desire for the socialist future". Left: Morris's satchel, © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest. Right: A card-carrying Socialist: Morris's name appears here as Treasurer, and Emery Walker's as Branch Secretary.
Schematically speaking the argument runs as follows. Admittedly the society of Nowhere is described in more detail than Morris himself would have liked (he thought the future must be left to those living after the revolution has triumphed), but it was inevitable that it should be so since its immediate function was to serve as a counterblast to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and its "Cockney Paradise." However Morris's romance is not exactly a classic model-building utopia in which long disquisitions take the reader into the minutiae of institutions (see Abensour 133). There is very little about the mechanics of government, even less about an economy which creates so much prosperity with so little work. Morris is solely interested in conveying a sense of beauty, equality and community. What we discover in Nowhere is an aesthetic vision of the communist utopia, and this vision has a political purpose — to persuade those contemplating it to desire the socialist future as Morris sees it,3 and conversely to refute Bellamy's "State Socialism" and the various reformed futures proposed by "those more or less touched by Socialism, who are not definite Socialists" and who, for this reason, think their mission is "to wrest from the capitalists some portion of their privileged profits," but would not dream of working at the destruction of that modern civilization which is the spring of all human misery in order to usher in "the New Order of Things" (Morris, "Where Are We Now?," 224, 226). As Krishan Kumar puts it, the depiction of Nowhere "sought to make the dream of socialism so alluring, so compelling, that others would wish to join in the task of realising it, and so transform the dream into a collective vision that could remake the world" (143). Miguel Abensour says the same thing in more dramatic fashion: the Morrisian utopia's ambition is "to awaken and energize desires so that they might rush towards their liberation" (133) through the class struggle in quest not of a better life, but of a different life. News from Nowhere is thus a book "informed by revolutionary politics" (Beaumont 80), intended to raise the political consciousness of its readers and create the historical conditions that, combined with the expected capitalist crisis, would trigger off the long struggle leading to a post-capitalist world and eventually the communist utopia. Like all utopias, and possibly more clearly than most owing to the Marxist influence, Morris's is primarily a "venturing beyond" (Levitas 134) the present with which its only link (besides the fact that it is a reaction to it) is its immediate political function of "making socialists" or building up "a mass of opinion" (Morris, "Where Are We Now," 225; 216), that is to say filling the ranks of the so far meagre battalions of "hope" indispensable to realise the "desire" of the people for utopia.
Given that the interpretation of Morris's utopia as backward-looking, prelapsarian, is by now hardly acceptable despite the ambiguities of the text, it is difficult to imagine what one could do with the preceding analysis beyond introducing a number of nuances. There is thus little leeway for anyone whose rash ambition would be to put a really new slant on the subject. Owen Holland, however, thought he had found one when coming across a 1984 article by Michael Holzman. Holzman's opinion is that while it was being serialised in Commonweal in 1890, the novel must have appeared to its readers as "a vehicle for the presentation of Morris's own views about Socialism and the current intra-party struggles" (591)4. He has no doubt that to Morris himself the romance was "literally first of all a vehicle for the presentation" of his case "against Anarchism" (590, see also 596 and 598). In support of his argument Holzman necessarily emphasises the topical side of the book, what he defines, in a distinction borrowed by Holland, as the political aspects (Nowhere as "a political act") and tones down the revolution-inspiring utopian elements.
Morris, from a sketch by Philip Webb — dreaming of a more "present-oriented" utopia?
By his own admission it was Holzman's piece that gave Holland the clue he needed for a new interpretation of Morris's utopianism, less future-oriented, more present-oriented as he explains in the first two chapters, his intention being "a thoroughgoing exegesis of the present-oriented moments of Nowhere" (33), in other words those elements of the novel which he regards as concerned with immediate issues and short-term goals, not the least of which being an "attempt to carve out a position of ideological hegemony within fin-de-siècle culture" (37). More ambitious than Holzman, he means to "reconstruct Morris's utopian intervention into discussions of first-wave feminism, back-to-the-land communitarianism, and fin-de-siècle imperialism" (41), the matter of his chapters 3, 4 and 5.
It cannot be denied that many utopian writings include present-oriented and socially critical aspects, but regarding News from Nowhere Holland goes very far indeed to try and provide a fresh interpretation. As a consequence of the approach he has chosen, he is forced to emasculate the novel as a forward-looking subversive text "that explicitly repudiates or negates the empty present of capitalism" (Beaumont 172), and must transform it intoa political tract of limited temporal scope when, in fact, its essential relation to the present is that it aims to open it up to the Communist "redemptive" future (172). In the chapter he devotes to News from Nowhere in Utopia Ltd, Matthew Beaumont quotes Walter Benjamin according to whom the present in Morris's romance, the time of the Now, "is shot through with chips of Messianic Time." Holland borrows the image but inverts it: "Nowhere is a tapestry bejewelled with shards of the 'real'.... These shards threaten to tear the fabric of Morris's utopian romance, creating holes through which the political comes streaming into the text" (23). An assertion which almost drives out of Holland's book the fundamental constituents of utopia, those "concerned with the pedagogic education of desire," the blurb tells us before waving them aside in order to charge the Morrisian utopia with "the more mundane work of propaganda." That is why, throughout the book, News from Nowhere is defined as "political," "propagandistic," "polemical," "interventionist," "instrumental" rather than "imaginative," "prefigurative," "transcendent" — "strategy" and not "speculation."
It may be that Holland's diagnosis is correct, but in this case he should allow that what he is studying is not a variety of utopianism as all the key parameters are left out. On rare occasions he hedges: he speaks of "the dual temporality of Morris's utopianism" (157) and limits himself to pointing out that present-oriented propagandistic elements are as central as "futural" ones. But clearly such comparisons of equality are purely rhetorical. Holland does not want simply "to complicate" E. P. Thompson's analysis of Morris's utopianism as the blurb also claims; he intends to supersede it. The subtitle of his book is "propaganda, politics and prefiguration." One wonders why the third term, since any critical comment that highlights the prefigurative nature of the Morrisian utopia comes in for a lot of flak and Holland never fails to express his disapproval of critiques that "underplay" (46) the "non-transcendent worldliness of Morris's utopianism"(38) and do not perceive that in all his writings from the early 1880s Morris "was more concerned with thinking about revolutionary strategy in the context of a propagandistic political organisation than he was with imaginary transcendent alternatives" (39).
From beginning to end Holland persists in speaking of Morris's "utopianism," in asserting that his aim is "reorienting the focus of Morris's utopianism" (94), but all he writes in fact denatures this utopianism which is seen as no more than a "complement" to his "more direct political writings" (44), a definition repeated several times in a variety of forms throughout the book and which, incidentally, also implies that Morris's lectures and journalism are in reality not intrinsic to his utopianism even in the eyes of Holland himself (although, when it is convenient, he can write as if they were). At times the question arises: would Holland even speak of Morris's utopianism had he not unwisely chosen the title of his book which then acted as an intellectual straitjacket obliging him to spot evidence of utopia in nearly all of Morris's post-1880 writings? When he writes that Morris's utopianism "could be reconceived as a tactical complement, rather than lateral [our italics] play in relation to the classical political activity in which Morris was so evidently engaged" (35) is he not excluding what he calls Morris's utopianism from those "lateral possibiles" which according to Raymond Ruyer characterise the utopian mode of thought?
And so, by an intellectual sleight of hand Nowhere ceases to mean no-where to become now-here (14) although there is no evidence at all that Morris ever thought of going one better than Thomas More in the matter of wordplay. Holland writes that "the truth of the pun in the title" is that "Nowhere was more now-here, than no-where" (53). The truth is more Holland's than Morris's, but the consequence is that News from Nowhere is shorn of its "futural, heuristic aspect" to perform, along with the political writings, the same utilitarian "present-oriented propagandistic function" (20). The latter, Holland admits, is in the novel "the harder to recover, or the easier to miss" (20) – unsurprisingly since it is at best accessory – but nothing daunted he launches into three chapters meant to illustrate his point. These prove to be a testament to his extensive reading in many fields, but above all show that a better title for his book would have been William Morris in his Time: A Study of his Political Thought.
"Fellow-travellers": William Strang's Socialists (1891).
In chapter 3 ("At the Crossroads of Socialism and First-Wave Feminism") one expects Holland to investigate women's place in the Morrisian utopia, an issue which, although well-trodden territory, seems impossible to avoid (were it only because in recent decades Morris's supposedly essentialist view of female identity in the novel has concentrated the minds and bile of many of his critics). He does not, though, being spared the pain by his argument that nowhere is now-here. Instead he focuses in the relevant5 parts of this fifty-page long chapter on the then ongoing debate about the woman question and on the connection between Socialism and what was not yet called feminism in order to show that "Morris's utopia appears less as a heuristic exploration of values that might prevail in a possible future, and more as an ideological intervention directed towards antagonists and fellow-travellers in the present" (76).
From the textual fragments analysed by Holland during what he calls his reconstruction of Morris's "cross-grained dialogue with first-wave feminist authors and activists" (95), it predictably emerges that there was little difference between the women's rights groups and Morris over the view that Victorian women were sexually oppressed and the victims of male supremacy. In this respect News from Nowhere merely reflects — essentially through the thoughts of Ellen — ideas already expressed in the lectures or in Commonweal articles. But by the time Nowhere was being serialised in the journal, Morris had put some distance between himself and these associations of mainly bourgeois liberal feminists who reckoned that the key to the emancipation of women was an extension of parliamentary democracy — a system abhorrent to Morris — and certainly not the political revolution he advocated. But judging by what Old Hammond says in News from Nowhere it may be that Morris was even more irked by their definition of women's traditional duties as quasi forms of bondage whatever the historical context. When in chapter 9 Hammond makes an acerbic reference to "the opinion of the 'advanced' women of the nineteenth century and their male backers," what he reproaches them with is not their political myopia but their belittling of "housekeeping" and "motherhood" which, after the Revolution, once the times have changed, will be not only "honoured," but gratifying and pleasurable activities (News from Nowhere, 50-52). Holland, of course, notes all this, but surprisingly concludes that Morris's stance makes News from Nowhere appear "less an attempt to prefigure post-capitalist social relations, than as one part of a diverse writing strategy aimed at consolidating an understanding of revolutionary socialist ideology and practice amongst the Commonweal readership" (90).
Admittedly in the few paragraphs in which the woman question becomes central Morris is trying to entice his readers away from the positions of the bourgeois reformists, but it remains evident that what preoccupies him most is to highlight the new condition of women in the Communist utopia. "Both healthy and at least comely, respected as a child-bearer and rearer of children, desired as a woman, loved as a companion, unanxious for the future of her children" (News from Nowhere, 52), and of course looking appetisingly 20 when she is 42 (News from Nowhere, 15), the woman of Nowhere, to parody Wells, is like a goddess and most appropriately an effective instrument of that "education of desire" first conceptualised by Abensour (145: "The education of desire is the 'organizing function' of Morrisian utopia") which, according to Kumar, provides "the necessary emotional spur to action" (143) and according to E. P. Thompson "an uninterrupted interrogation of our values" (791). This is a standpoint that Holland cannot adopt since it would very much weaken the cogency of his thesis that nowhere equals now-here. So his unconvincing conclusion is that, unlike himself, "Thompson and others" (92) have "overlooked" the propagandistic, interventionist aspect of Morris's utopianism because it is by definition of shorter political duration and interest than its "futural aspects." Somewhat embarrassed (by the textual realities confronting him?) Holland does not overtly deny the "speculative horizons of the text" (92) though he never comments on them, but insists on Morris's "anti-prefigurative stance" (92), on the "anti-prefigurative perspective" perceptible at the beginning of the novel, on the "anti-prefigurative and political aspects of Morris's utopianism" (95), leaving a confused reader wondering whether there can be a utopianism which is anti-prefigurative and strictly present-oriented, narrowly polemical and short-lived to boot, unable to survive the context in which it was generated. As Beaumont puts it, can we speak of utopia if the present is not "dynamically" related to a redemptive future (172)? This is something that Holland does not care to establish, and probably cannot, given his approach.
Chapter 4 grapples with a well-known issue: is Nowhere an Arcadia embodying Morris's longing for a return to England's green and pleasant land before the days of industry and capitalism or is it, in spite of appearances, something very different from the manifold versions of rural retreat that flourished in fin-de-siècle Britain? According to Holland, despite an undoubted "longing" (132) for pastoral retreat palpable in his lectures and journalism, Morris never succumbed to the temptation of withdrawing from the political fray and retiring into aestheticism and "pastoral otium" (105). Consequently his aim is to demonstrate that the pastoral passages in News from Nowhere must be looked at differently from the usual interpretations as "a type of propaganda for the organisational and strategic orientation of the Socialist League" (107) as well as for combating the attraction of back-to-the-land small-scale utopian communities which, Morris knew, did not leave socialists indifferent. These communities were intended to be prefigurations of a communist future which Morris judged impossible to achieve since it would not be the outcome of a social revolution (124-27). Therefore the pastoral elements in his utopianism are not simply meant to make Socialists, but "Socialists who would share Morris's distinctive strategic outlook" (122). This is well supported by means of references to a number of utopian communities set up in America or the British Isles (notably Edward Carpenter's Millthorpe Farm and Ruskin's Saint George's Farm) that were the subjects of commentaries in the pages of Commonweal and frequently dismissed by Morris as "non-progressive," monastic fantasies that were not likely to overthrow the existing system of society (117). Holland's own point of view is that these enterprises were the fruit of idealistic "utopian pastoralism" and, despite appearances, were poles asunder from "Morris's propagandistic pastoral utopianism" (131).
The problem is that in News from Nowhere there is next to nothing to buttress this argument relying mostly on short quotations extracted from the journalism or the lectures. The predominant impression left by a reading of the "green" parts of the novel is that Nowhere is a new earthly paradise, a classical pastoral out of Virgil or Theocritus. As Michelle Weinroth, quoted by Holland (139), points out in To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss, in the novel "the narrative's lyrical depictions of rural scenery" eclipse the "explicitly political discussions." In other words the influence of Nowhere is more that of a mobilising myth à la Sorel than that of a propagandistic tract with an immediate political purpose. The idyllic world of Nowhere may never come true, but it proffers a desirable heuristic vision without which men will not act. As Levitas pithily observes in her chapter on Morris, "utopia is speculation about the socialist future" (146). But the transformative function of utopia is something that Holland, who has painted himself into a corner with his thesis, cannot concede. His conclusion to chapter 4 relies on the last page of Nowhere, on Ellen's "message" to the vanishing Guest "to build up little by little the new way of fellowship." This he interprets as "reorientating the readers' attention to the mundane work of political agitation" (165) and as further evidence that "the pedagogic aspect of Morris's utopianism ... was thus more immediately strategic and political than is allowed by E. P. Thompson" (166). A moot point to say the least. Morris's "utopian romance" was hardly likely to help him and his friends "hegemonise the pastoral milieu of fin-de-siècle radicalism" (140). Considering that Morris's followers were about to become a secessionist rump, this would have been a vaulting ambition. Rather, the very last sentence of News from Nowhere suggests the prime importance of communicating a "vision" of the pastoral world of Nowhere rather than a political programme or strategy, in order to stir "some inchoate collective consciousness of the post-capitalist society with which the present is already parturient" (Beaumont 188). News from Nowhere, as John Goode has it, is the "collectivisation of dream" precisely because Morris has lost hope in the ability of his own party to change life. Nowhere is erected in opposition to the unpleasantness and ugliness of modern civilisation described in the first paragraphs of the book,
but not before the League, the agency of socialist activity in the present, has been already precluded as a valid response to the civilization which is to be rejected. The narrator dismisses his comrades as "fools" and ... it does mean that there is no prospect of the communication of dream, the creation of vision, within the party. On the contrary, it is as a relief from the despair of working within the party that the narrator moves towards utopia. [Goode 275-76]
Like its predecessors chapter 5, "Imperialism, Colonialism and Internationalism," is loosely structured with too many elements of dubious relevance (especially in the disparate section on internationalism) that hardly coalesce into a seamless whole. Holland's analysis relies heavily on the political writings of Morris which leave no doubt as to the intensity of his opposition to British expansion. He also considers a few paragraphs of chapter 15 in News from Nowhere in which Old Hammond supplies a perfect anti-imperialist thumbnail sketch of the havoc caused by the forceful opening up of the world's markets to English products (News from Nowhere, 79-81). He also adds a passage of chapter 7 in which Guest realises that the orchard he traverses on his way to the British Museum is Trafalgar Square shorn of Nelson's Column which has been pulled down, and freed of the statuary that celebrated the Empire and its heroes. Covering much the same ground (save for Trafalgar Square), Peter Faulkner writes that Morris's anti-colonialist texts convey "a vision of a (future) non exploitative, non imperialist world" (26); in other words Morris's critique of imperialism can fit into a speculative utopian framework. But not in the eyes of Holland who, though he himself speaks of the "utopian transfiguration" (219) of Trafalgar Square, again denies that Morris's novel can be defined as "an exercise in heuristic utopian projection" (226) and insists that in the matter of anti-imperialism it functions "as part of an over-arching counter-hegemonic political strategy" (191), a partial diagnosis at the most, which obscures the primary purpose of these fragments. Holland admits that "Morris's dream text recycles the propagandist debris [sic] of the socialist movement" (188) but is not inclined to probe any deeper into what comes out of this textual recycling lest it should undermine his general argument.
Frontispiece to A Dream of John Ball, illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones and illuminated by Morris, 1892: "the image of a post-Edenic garden of life tilled by a young man and his spinning wife, who are beautiful in form and expression."
Luckily for Holland there lurk in Morris's writings, and especially in Nowhere, some ambiguities which allow him not to deviate one jot from his original position, debatable though it is. In Commonweal Morris declared himself not hostile to "fertilising the waste places" or "some hitherto neglected spot of earth" with British settlers (230). In News from Nowhere too there are a few lines which raise the question of the extent of decolonisation in Nowhere for "those lands which were once the colonies of Great Britain ... and especially America ... are now and will be for a long while a great resource to us" (83). It is impossible to determine what Morris had exactly in mind, but certainly not the continuance of some sort of Greater Britain. The difficulty is probably semantic, but is of great utility to help Holland, with whom such views do not go down well,6 to conclude his chapter with the remark that this ambiguity "illustrates the necessary failure of his utopianism to transcend the ideological horizon of its moment of production. In this respect, Nowhere does not offer a 'vision for our time,' but appears still more forcefully as a product of its time" (236). A judgment which he no doubt regards as applicable to his entire study, but which is hardly tenable logically and conceptually: if Morris cannot think outside of the Victorian frame of reference, laterally and forward, he cannot on any account be defined as utopian; on the other hand Nowhere being a product of its time does not make it impossible for it to offer the Victorians a new desirable vision for their time and thus to function as a future-oriented utopia, the only type that should really be. As Karl Mannheim points out, for a state of mind to be fully utopian, it is not sufficient that it should be "incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs": "Only those orientations transcending reality will be referred to ... as utopian which, when they pass over into conduct, tend to shatter ... the order of things prevailing at the time" (173). For her part Ruth Levitas, incidentally one of the examiners of Holland's thesis, accepts that regarding Morris's utopianism there is some overlap between his lectures and News from Nowhere, but that is because they both "refer to images of future society" (143). It is the dissection of these images and their instrumentality for "visualizing, hoping for, and working for a better world" (Levitas xiv) which one finds wanting in Holland's book to the point of making its contents largely inconsistent with its title and with what the latter suggests about its subject-matter and conceptual approach.
The book's final chapter is a conclusion of sorts, even though it tends to stray off course and incorporates too much free-floating material, particularly (and surprisingly considering that a few pages before Holland has stressed that Morris could not offer a vision for our time, and on several occasions throughout the book that his utopianism was only understandable if historicised) an examination of how inspirational Morris could be for today's would-be revolutionaries questing for "more radical strategies of rupture and confrontation" (255-56].7 For the rest Holland emphatically clings to his initial theory and even gives it a final tweak which anchors Nowhere yet more firmly to the present. After reasserting that the Morrisian utopia was not "a vision of utopian transcendence" but an endeavour to expand "Morris's propagandistic journalism" (249), he pauses on the (limited) alterations Morris made to his novel before publication in book form and finds in them further proof that Morris's utopianism is focused on the here and now:
Morris's deployment of the utopian romance genre was tactical; he was willing to alter the text of Nowhere in order to make propagandistic interventions into the emerging socialist and trade union movement. Such textual instability is indicative of the contingent, rather than scriptural character of Morris's utopianism. 
Undoubtedly the political context might change, prompting Morris to make further revisions to his book concerning the past of Nowhere, i.e. the Victorian present, but the inspiring vision at the core of his romance – the agrarian communist (see Harris 203-17) "Society of the Future" (Morris, "The Society of the Future," 187-204) best apprehended during the journey up the Thames culminating in the "ecstatic vision" (LeMire 10) of Kelmscott and "the beautiful grey villages ... all peopled now with this happy and lovely folk, who had cast away riches and attained to wealth" – was bound to remain the same for he was conscious that for the "time of Equality of Life" (News from Nowhere, 166) to be born "education by political and corporate action must ... be supplemented by instilling in the minds of the people ... a longing to bring about the complete change which will supplant civilization by communism" ("Communism," 233). And so one ends one's long march through this dense book convinced that Holland's case, despite his efforts to muster evidence to the contrary, does not stand up.
Corrected 17 December 2018