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Buzard 81 James M. Buzard The Fiction of a Finished World: Utopia and Ideology in Morris's News from Nowhere I It is well known that the political frustrations and Utopian visions that were to eventuate in William Morris's News from Nowhere were immediately occasioned by Edward Bellamy's Utopian novel, Looking Backward. "I suppose," Morris wrote to Bruce Glasier on May 13, 1889, "you have seen... Looking Backward.... Thank you, I wouldn't care to live in such a cockney paradise as he imagines.'" Some six weeks later, Morris disdainfully reviewed the novel in the Socialist league's paper, Commonweal ; Bellamy's prediction of a future "state Communism" in which a super-monopoly would gradually come to preside over all commercial, industrial, and political operations, came in for special denunciation. Bellamy's "underlying vice" was that he cannot conceive... of anything else that the machinery of society.... Individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other... Modern nationalities are mere artificial devices for the commercial war that we seek to put an end to, and will disappear with it.2 Morris's own Utopian fiction, which began its serial publication in Commonweal six months after this review, culminated its author's response to Bellamy and sought to reconcile the conflicting strains in Morris's whole career—a career stretched between the seemingly antithetical poles of Romantic cultural criticism and "scientific" historical materialism. The recent history of Morris criticism has itself presented a pageant of the contradictions with which its subject wrestled. E.P. Thompson's monumental biography, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (originally published in 1955), was regularly chastized at the time of its appearance by depoliticizing critics who agreed, as Thompson put it, that "my scholarship [was] vitiated by Marxist dogmatism";3 these critics were willing to fix Morris within a safe Romantic tradition, but they shied away from the application of any "foreign" and dangerous Marxist principles. In a postscript to the 1976 edition of William Morris, Thompson found himself fighting on an opposite front, taking on over-eager Communist 82 the minnesota review interpreters like Paul Meier, who argued that a scrupulous adherence to Marxist theory actually underlay Morris's attack on Bellamy: Morris's condemnation of Bellamy's utopia seems to have been misunderstood by most critics, because of their lack of sufficient understanding of the Marxist theory of two stages upon which Morris's predictions were founded. The essential idea is that the first stage could not in any circumstances be regarded as the culmination, an end in itself. Now this is exactly what [Morris] reproaches Bellamy with/ Reviewing both News from Nowhere and the Commonweal essay on Bellamy's novel, however, one finds little evidence of this sort oftheoretical purity. Even in those central chapters ofNews in which the historian Hammond relates "How the Change Came" and "The Beginning of the New Life," we might look long and hard without discovering much resembling the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and its dismantling in the "withering away of the state"—the terms established late in the Marxist canon in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Reading Meier, Thompson writes, "it seemed that one had extricated Morris, twenty-one years ago, from an anti-Marxist myth, only to see him assimilated curtly within a myth of Marxist orthodoxy."5 From the standpoint of the 1976 postscript, Morris's particular value has seemed to Thompson to lie in his forcing a reassessment of marxist thinking itself, one that abandons the rigid polarities or "Romantic 'V'Marxist" or "Utopian'V'Scientific" (to recall the influential late essays by Engels). For Thompson, Morris represents the great lost opportunity for Marxist thought, the imaginative, humanistic alternative to the tradition of cold-blooded "science" that has run from the late Engels to Stalin and beyond. Morris's "conversion" to Marxism offered a juncture which Marxism failed to reciprocate, and this failure—which is in some sense a continuing failure, and not only within the majority Communist tradition—has more to teach us than have homilies as to Morris's...


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