- William Morris and the Idea of Community: Romance, History, and Propaganda, 1880–1914
Anna Vaninskaya’s book is absorbing, thoroughly researched, and original. It locates William Morris in several fields, then seamlessly joins its findings without losing sight of the main topic: Morris and the idea of community.
The first section, devoted to the New Romance, considers Morris’s late prose romances along with the works of writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard, as well as the penny dreadfuls. Vaninskaya sees Morris as caught in a paradox: despite his socialism, Morris was as dependent as other New Romancers on the capitalist publishing industry. In romances such as The House of the Wolfings (1889) and The Roots of the Mountains (1890), however, Morris distinguishes himself from other practitioners of the genre by depicting ancient war leaders who battle on behalf of their communities rather than for personal glory.
The prose romances open the way for Vaninskaya to discuss Morris’s historical knowledge and his socialism. His devotion to Icelandic sagas is well known, but less familiar are his reading of academic research on Teutonism, particularly on the communal nature of primitive tribes, and his knowledge of medieval guilds, which carried on the tradition of association. Morris used this latter knowledge in A Dream of John Ball (1886–87).
All of this is prelude to Morris’s development in the 1880s and 1890s of the idea of community through socialism. In establishing this, Vaninskaya refers not only to News from Nowhere (1890) and Morris’s many contributions to Justice and Commonweal, but also to Ernest Belfort Bax, restoring his importance in the history of socialism in Great Britain. She establishes a presence for Bax second only to Morris’s.
Bax was a Marxist. He edited Commonweal with Morris and familiarized him with the ethics of primitive societies before Morris wrote his first prose romances. He acquainted Morris with Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), translated into English only after Morris’s death. Bax emphasized consciousness as the basis for socialism, noting that consciousness made a qualitative difference from the sacrifice of a member of a primitive Germanic barbarian for his limited kinship group. Bax spoke of a globalized socialist morality and wrote of “the religion of socialism” (83). He wrote, too, of the Germanic character of the Middle Ages as expressed in the guilds that carried on the ethic of communalism. He was a proponent of the so-called Aryan element in socialism but said that international socialism, his dream, was not to be based on any race or nation. He declared that socialism was not anti-Semitic, which was a significant issue in the 1890s. Vaninskaya regards Morris and Bax’s Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (1893) as the culmination of Bax’s importance to Morris.
In her final section, “Propaganda,” devoted largely to the Edwardian era, Vaninskaya describes the antithesis between community and modernity. Among other figures, Robert Blatchford, H. G. Wells, and Robert Tressell are prominent in her discussion. As an introduction to Blatchford, she says that Morris eventually regarded piecemeal reform as acceptable and saw the need for a socialist party in politics; indeed, as she notes, he supported Blatchford’s campaign for the fusion of the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party. Most to the point was [End Page 712] Blatchford’s ability to bring socialism to a wide audience. In the years before World War I, Blatchford’s The Clarion had the largest circulation among socialist newspapers, and his contemporaries regarded him as the leading light of the socialist movement. Blatchford’s book, Merrie England (1893), was enormously popular. As an advocate for community, he was a reformist and an educationalist, and was adept at “making socialists” (154). It’s of interest, too, that the motto of the Clarion Cycling Club was a quotation from A Dream of John Ball: “Fellowship is life, lack of Fellowship is death” (191...