Sunday, 7 February 2010

Thinking Hands – the power of labour in William Morris
By Phil Katz
Pubs. Hetherington Press
Pbck £10

Do we need another book on William Morris? So many - good and bad - have been written about this giant of a man. Among them, the much lamented Ray Watkinson, a stalwart of the William Morris Society, left us many excellent essays and a book on William Morris, which are still obligatory reading for any serious Morris student today.

However, the simple answer has to be, yes, we can always do with another book if it adds something new to the already copious Morris literature. Phil Katz’s book certainly does that in a number of ways. The present era is characterised by the hegemonic domination of globalised capitalism. With the demise of the former socialist countries, we have, according to some pedants, reached ‘the end of history’. There is no alternative, we are told incessantly; we must learn to live with capitalism. By reminding us of the rich legacy of William Morris, of his idealism, his vision of a socialist future, Phil Katz gives a resounding riposte to such Jeremiahs. Never has the need for an alternative social model been more pressing than today if we are to regain our humanity and save our world for future generations. And on these issues, Morris still has valuable ideas to contribute, as this book reveals.

Katz explores much ground covered by other Morris scholars, but he does so with a freshness, a very readable style in a superbly designed volume. He establishes the clear connection between the Victorian industrialisation and mechanisation of life and the concomitant devaluation of human labour. Morris was angered by what he saw as the deskilling of craftsmen by industrialised production. Work and labour largely defines who and what we are, he emphasises; it gives us a sense of social purpose, dignity and satisfaction. But if we become mere cogs in the wheels of production, our labour only valued in terms of quantitative accumulation, then we become alienated and dehumanised. With today’s call centres, computerised offices and factory assembly lines, this principle has hardly changed.

Morris had an abundance of ideas about work and society which are as challenging today as they were in the 19th century. ‘To him, work was central to life. It determined both its character and quality. It was the prism through which people came to discover social relations and develop an understanding of nature and the place of people in it.’ Katz writes. He deals also with Morris’s relationship to the social movements of his era, with the general impact of machinery and monopoly, as well as the fraught subject of nation building. Morris also had considerable impact on our whole aesthetic and on post-Victorian architecture. This was admirably demonstrated in the classic tome: William Morris und die Sozialen Ursprunge der Modern Architektur (William Morris and the social roots of modern architecture) by Edmund Goldzamt, published in the sixties. I mention such sources because an unfortunate ommission in this otherwise excellent book is an index and, more importantly, a bibliography.

Morris saw clearly the duality of technological innovation as, on the one hand, a potential release from the drudgery of labour but, on the other, that under capitalism it can only mean deskilling and increased exploitation. Readers may remember how, at the height of the Wilson era, with its emphasis on ‘white-hot technology’, we were encouraged to learn how to utilise our soon-to-be increased leisure time. We would be released from drudgery and long working hours by technological advance. Today those exhortations sound like a very sick joke.

Katz’s chapter on Morris and nationalism is also of particular interest for us in view of the present passionate debate around national identity. ‘Morris loved his England’ but abhorred imperialism’, Katz says. Morris’s fidelity, however, was not to the state but to its working people and landscapes.

Morris was a leading light in the main socialist organisation of the time: the Social Democratic Federation. However, he very soon had an acrimonious disagreement with Hyndman, its chief ideologue and, shortly afterwards, left to form his own Socialist League. Hyndman, he felt, wanted to turn Marxism into a schema, a credo. Morris saw it rather as a historical method and viewed education of working people as central to building socialism. In his copious writings for the magazine Justice, his books, essays and lecturing tours, Morris made a considerable contribution to that end.

How was it, many of Morris’s contemporaries wondered, that one of Britain’s greatest craftsmen and cultural icons could jump the capitalist ship?’ At the time, he was viciously attacked as a class traitor. For us, he remains a giant alongside the other pioneers of justice and socialism: Thomas Paine, Robert Blatchford, Engels and Marx. He is much more than the quaint designer, craftsman and cohort of the Pre-Raphaelites, as so often depicted.
This book by Phil Katz is an excellent introduction to the ideas and thoughts of William Morris, set in the context of his times, but revealing his continued relevance for our world now.

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