Anarchy in the UK

If wikipedia is to believed, John Lydon was merely searching for a rhyme to “antichrist” when he wrote “Anarchy in the UK.” It seems plausible, and also fitting that when Dave Mustaine of Megadeth covered it, he simply made up the words he didn’t understand. While I’m sure there is a rich intellectual tradition to anarchism, the ones that spout the loudest about it don’t really seem to know much at all. As the socialist league in the UK was disintegrating in 1889, William Morris wrote:

“the active (?) members in London mostly consider themselves Anarchists, but don’t know anything about Socialism and go about ranting revolution in the streets, which is as likely to happen as the conversion of Englishmen from stupidity to quickwittedness.”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.522

Given the politics of the occupy movement and several attempts to address real social problems in the last few years, it seems as if the touting of “anarchism” (which seems to me to read as synonymous with radical libertarianism, or better, individualism) tends to obscure most attempts to create actual change. Morris clearly felt that the main job of his socialist league was education—  to “make socialists” by educating people about the oppressive nature of the capitalist system that dominated them. The root cause of economic misery is the economic system, not any abstract notion of “government” as the anarchist/libertarians propose. Morris did not favor a state based socialism, by any means, but an individual socialism that would require an educated polis. The details are sketched in News from Nowhere. Where I get confused is the fact that Morris tends to lump the anarchists with the parliamentarians:

“The truth must be face, the ‘Communists of the League’ are in a very weak position in the Socialist party at present. We have been damaged both by parlementaires & Anarchists, & I don’t think we are strong enough to run a paper; although, numbers apart, there is something to be said for us”

ibid., p. 519

Yes, I do think there is something to be said for them myself. It’s hard to sort through it all. The difficulty of reading a massive book like Thompson’s is that there are so may ways to slice through the contents. After reflecting on Morris’s distaste for Anarchy, which I share, I find myself now wondering why he also dismissed the movement toward “simplicity” claiming that the simple folks were, well, simple. I didn’t save a note in those sections, and I don’t want to reread the entire book to find them. I’ve moved on to a different, less challenging book these past few days.

I’m not through with Morris by any means, but I wanted to try to sort some other things out.

Tumbling drunk into the fire

“Even such things as this,” he wrote of one quarrel, “the army setting off to conquer all the world turning back to burn Jack’s pigstye, and tumbling drunk into the fire—even this don’t shake me: means one must use the best one can get: but one thing I won’t do, wait for perfect means are made for very imperfect me to work with.”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.425

It took me about three weeks to finish Thompson’s book; I still haven’t read the afterword. It’s hard to figure out where to begin discussing it. The thing that has struck me the most is the change in my own attitude about the critiques of the arts and crafts movement (though arts and crafts moment is probably a better description). I used to think they were fairly accurate (thinking of David Pye, among others) but now I see that they pretty much stress John Ruskin as the sole font of theoretical groundings for the movement. Because of that, they miss a lot of development and fracture of Ruskin that is far more interesting. Perhaps the idea of a coherent theory of hand work is not as far fetched as it sometimes seems.

Morris wasn’t systematic in the slightest, nor was he (despite his laudatory essays on Ruskin)  simply a blind disciple at the feet of Ruskin. There is much in him to admire, and much more work to be done to develop his theories on work. Thompson has made a good beginning in this book, although it wasn’t his primary intention. His focus was on Morris as a socialist/communist. Understanding why and how he derailed his entire life in support of that cause is essential to making sense of his theories, however. His passion for the socialist “movement” was consumptive:

“You see, having joined a movement, I must do what I can while I last, that is a matter of duty . . . All this work I have pulled upon my own head, and though in detail much of it is repulsive to the last degree, I still hold that I did not do so without due consideration. Anyhow, it seems to me that I can be of use, therefore I am impelled to make myself useful. . .

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism; nay worse . . . is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it— on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now . . .” (424)

For 200 more pages, Thompson goes through the ins and outs of Morris’s relationship with the failed socialist league in the UK. This sort of reading usually just bores me to tears, but I fear I am indeed tumbling backward into the fire. It’s hard to understand theories of work without dealing with the axis of socialism/communism/anarchism, etc.. I’m pretty much of the “count me out” school when it comes to revolutions.

Nonetheless, dealing with this text has altered my perception of Morris as a florid manufacturer of chintzes and books that only rich people could afford. I didn’t like the hypocrisy of being a “man of the people” while making products that ordinary people could never afford (I have much the same problem with certain strains in modern woodworking, i.e. tool fetishists).   But clearly, Morris wasn’t this. He was aware of what he was doing, and what his place in it was. There is much, much more to say.

Remember me as a Revolutionary Communist

small_selfportrait_sunX400It’s been hard to figure out how to write this, but I really feel like I need to write down exactly how I became more comfortable with studying political theories. I’ve avoided them my entire life, largely because I thought of myself as an “artist” and felt that these things were best kept separate. It isn’t that I didn’t understand the truism that “everything is political”, it’s just that it seemed like a sure way to avoid the really considering issues rather than confronting the state of the world.

Most political art, in my experience, is really boring. There are exceptions, to be sure, (Guernica comes to mind, and Ben Shahn) but mostly I was more comfortable just changing the subject when things went that way. Most political discussions, inevitably, lead to preaching to the converted.

A while ago, I was invited with my wife to a sort of “going away party” for an activist that was seriously ill: Leslie Feinberg. I don’t get out much, and I hadn’t met Leslie before. I wasn’t simply a “plus one” according to my wife, who had been working with Leslie and her partner for quite some time on a variety of projects—Leslie really wanted to meet me. Apparently, my wife has been known to talk about me a bit.

When we arrived at the gathering, everything was just, well, friendly. I could see the Leslie showing some pictures on a TV screen to someone, and I was immediately struck by the images. They were not the usual amateurish cliches you usually see— no weird filters, nothing that resembled advertising at all. The pictures were quite “real” for lack of a better word. They were all taken from a high perspective (an apartment balcony, turns out). They reminded me a lot of Andre Kertez’s photographs of Washington Square in the last years of his life; somewhat sentimental but not forced at all, natural and touching.

I watched for a while, and then went over and spoke to Leslie briefly; I talked about Kertez (one of my lifelong heroes) and decided that I really needed to send over a copy of one of my monographs for her to look at. Though Leslie was weak, she really seemed interested. She looked the book over when I sent it, and expressed thanks when she returned it, with the gift of one of the photos that I had admired so much.

There was just a vital energy surrounding Leslie, you just felt better about everything being around her. When she passed, I just felt like the world was a poorer place. Her last words, “Remember me as a revolutionary communist” have stuck in my head.

As I read more and more about William Morris, and have conversations with Leslie’s partner Minnie Bruce Pratt, the more I become interested in the politics behind radical movements. E.P. Thompson’s book, as a matter of fact, was specifically crafted to rescue Morris from the land of bourgeois tapestries and fine books and place him squarely in the center of radical politics.

The problem I’ve always had with politics also centers on a corollary to the truism that “everything is political.” The old saw that “groups are always formed to exclude people” has always seemed to be more significant to me. A perennial outsider and a white heterosexual in the land of gender activists, I fully expected to feel at least a little uncomfortable when visiting Leslie. I wasn’t in the slightest. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcome anywhere as I was that day at the “going away party.”

Minnie Bruce, when detailing the fascinating history of the movements that she was involved in over dinner a week or so ago, noted that there were always strong currents of isolationist thinking among the activists she was involved with. I never sensed any of that from Leslie; she was a radical bent on bringing people together, at least in my limited experience of her. The dissolution and fracture of social movements has become increasingly fascinating as I read about William Morris. The pattern seems to be quite familiar.

When Leslie chose to make the most important aspect of her life to be her revolutionary communism, it changed me. Suddenly, it felt more important to pay attention to politics and strive to understand the systems better. They wouldn’t have been my choice of parting words, but they were hers. What I remember about Leslie was her warmth, and sensitivity, and above all else her energy on her way out. The world got smaller when she passed.


Century of Commerce

Imperialism, Morris saw, was the inevitable and most vicious outcome of the “Century of Commerce”. He denounced it both in artistic and political terms. “While we are met here in Birmingham”, he said at the beginning of 1879.

“to further the spread of education in art, Englishmen in India are . . . actively destroying the very sources of that education—jewellery, metalwork, pottery, calico-printing, brocade weaving, carpet-making—all of the famous and historical arts of the great peninsula have been . . . thrust aside for the advantage of any paltry scrap of so-called commerce.”

At the end of January 1880, in a lecture which was probably designed for some working class Radical Club in connection with the election campaign, and which was devoted to combating “the tribe of Jingoes”, and the slogan, “Our country Right or Wrong” blazoned upon their banners, he declared:

“England’s place—what is England’s place? To carry civilization through the world? Yes, indeed, the world must be civilized and I doubt not that England will have a large share in bringing about that civilization.

“And yet, since I have heard of wine with no grape juice in it, and cotton-cloth that is mostly barytes, and silk that is two-thirds somach, and knives  whose edges break or turn up if you try to cut anything harder than butter with them, and many another triumph of Commerce in these days, I begin to doubt if civilization itself may not be sometimes so adulterated as scarcely to be worth the carrying—anyhow, it cannot be worth much, when it is necessary to kill a man in order to make him accept it . . .”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.260

Respect and Tradition

Vivian Howard Watching an episode of A Chef’s Life this morning brought into focus a lot of the reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately. Tradition comes up in a variety of forms. It can be discussions of what have become traditional styles (e.g. Arts and Crafts, Shaker, etc.) or it can be the matter of traditional working methods. There’s a lot of talk in woodworking publications and sites lately about getting past some of these “traditions” and into other more rewarding modes or periods for discussion. That’s all well and good, but what does it really mean to work with/within a tradition?

E.P. Thompson suggests that there were several varieties of medievalists at work in the Victorian era. Some were most interested in emulating the substance of gothic affectations, making objects/buildings that looked medieval on the surface while being totally unconcerned about how or why these objects existed. This is a shallow sort of fashion following; it exists in virtually every sort of endeavor you can name. Others, like Morris for example, were interested on the sociality of medieval workers: their methods of interacting with others inside or outside their trades, modes of exchange and manufacture, etc. more so than the actual products produced or exchanged.

It dawned on me this morning that the most obvious difference here is between respecting practice rather than product. This doesn’t mean that product doesn’t matter, far from it, but by achieving the ends desired by using similar or identical means we offer a greater degree of respect for those who produced the products that we admire or are influenced by.

The boredom I think that many (rightly) feel about styles that have become too commonplace (like Shaker or Arts and Crafts) results from too shallow of an exploration of the practices rather than products. I feel like I’ve hardly begun with both of these styles, mostly because it is so unclear just how they produce the mental effects they do. I feel a sense of peace and well-being when I’m at the Hancock Shaker Village that comes from proximity to not simply artifacts or things (I suspect much of what’s there are copies) but from a constellation of material evidence for a way of life that has long passed.

Which brings me back to A Chef’s Life.  I had never thought of meals as having a “theme” (beyond an ingredient or a regional cuisine) until I watched the pair of episodes in the second season where she cooks a luncheon to celebrate the women that matter most to her. Yes, it’s about regional North Carolina foods, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about respecting her mother, and grandmother by trying to reproduce not simply their flavors but their methods of making the foods she loves. The heartbreak, when she had to resort to restaurant methods for producing one of the dishes instead of the way her mother had always done it, is palpable. She was so afraid that it just wouldn’t be the same, and reading that if if it failed it wouldn’t have been the first time she failed.

But more than that, it was the moment that she revealed how hard it was to watch people reject the “Tom Thumb” dish meant to pay homage to her grandmother, by witnessing it travel half eaten or not sampled to the garbage can after the luncheon showed just how personal and heart rending the experience of sharing a tradition with people not ready to appreciate it can be.  It’s not so much about rejecting a product that doesn’t fit contemporary tastes as much as rejecting a culture that she labored mightily to share. It was a really moving moment for me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it all day.

It’s easy to think we can improve upon the past, especially when it comes to improved technologies and materials. But to deny the simplicity and effectiveness of traditional practices disrespects those who came before us. Why are we so sure that our way will be better than the traditional methods? The ultimate respect we can pay to those who came before is often to simply reproduce not only their products,  but their methods— to do otherwise implies that we are somehow are better or smarter than they were. It’s easier for me to see that as disrespect now.



But, in the 1870s, Morris was coming to regard his writing as (in the words of Henry James), a sub-trade—a form of pleasurable recreation and relaxation from other work—rather than his central place of encounter with his age. He was coming to adopt an attitude towards his writing (drawn in part from his own version of Ruskin’s doctrine of pleasurable labour) which was incompatible with the fullest concentration of his intellectual and moral energies.

“I did manage to screw out my tales of verses, to the tune of some 250 I think”, he wrote to his wife in 1876 while working on Sigurd the Volsung. “That talk of inspiration is sheer nonsense”, he is quoted as saying in later years. “I may tell you that flat. There is no such thing: it is a mere matter of craftsmanship.” And again: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry he had better shut up; he’ll never do any good at all.”

Morris adopted this attitude partly in antagonism to the excessive airs of the romantically “inspired” and in part he was influenced by his earlier picture of the folk-poet, the scald, the bard who in earlier societies  could entertain the company in the hall or around the fire almost impromptu with an epic tale. But these poets, with every incident, every image and turn of phrase, every description of hero or heroine, were drawing on collected traditions of past singers, were evoking memories, associations and accepted judgements of a people.

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011), p.188-9

Romantic to Revolutionary

Romantic to RevolutionaryI’m around a hundred pages in on E.P. Thompson’s massive study of William Morris, and so far I’m really impressed.

It cites his letters and minor publications profusely, and though it’s obvious that it has the major goal of establishing Morris as an important communist/socialist, so far it’s hitting right at the heart of what I’m looking for in Morris.

I’m really looking for his attitudes toward craft and labor. Though I’m really not that interested in politics, I am interested in the things that constrain our lives. Morris was too, as indicated by this excerpt from one of Morris’s letters (1883):

 “In spite of all the success I have had I have not failed to be conscious that the art I have been helping to produce would fall with the death of a few of us who really care about it, that a reform in art which is founded on individualism must perish with the individuals who have set it going. Both my historical studies and my practical conflict with the philistinism of modern society have forced on me the conviction that art cannot have real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering.” (98)

Thompson observes that what drove Morris into his political views was actually the success, not the failure, of his commercial ventures. It’s easy to look at a rich man like Morris, making niche products for rich people, as someone detached from social problems. His fortune came from coal mining, initially. Something that Thompson spends much time establishing the background for, as well as his escapist tendencies. But when it comes to craft, Morris seems grounded and well informed. It isn’t clear if this bit comes from the same letter (I need to locate the volume of letters to check) but I appears as if it is:

“It would be well if all of us were good handcraftsman in some kind, and the dishonour of labor done away with altogether . . In each several profession, no master should be too proud to do its hardest work.” (99)

There will be a lot more to say about this tome, at 800+ pages it’s going to take a while to sort through.