News from Somewhere

September 18th, 2012

News from Somewhere

E. P. Thompson’s study of William Morris is rightly considered to be a standard work on the man, though in some respects it remains incomplete. Hence the value of the current exhibition at Tate Britain called “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Gardes” that concentrates on the circle of people around Morris and their socially-aware activities, rather than Morris himself. An article in “TATE ETC.” Issue 26, Autumn 2012 indicates that something new may also be learned about Morris and the Socialist League – Hammersmith.

George Lichtheim’s quote from Pelling suggests that the author of “A Short History of Socialism” (London: Penguin, 1970) did not think much of Morris’s background knowledge of socialist philosophy despite his huge amount of activity in so many spheres of practice related to a critique of capitalism. He wrote that “…William Morris, when asked by an earnest questioner: “Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value?” characteristically replied:” To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know”. As an employer at the time, and being part of a family that owned tin mining concerns that financed Morris, this was an understandable position for Morris to have taken but it was not consistent with his overall, publicly-declared objectives in life.
George continues with a criticism of the Fabians, “…(they) did know, or thought they knew (about the labour theory of value), and they had concluded that in economics J.S. Mill and Stanley Jevons were more relevant for their purpose. But this particular issue arose after the group had come together on the basis of what it conceived to be a socialist philosophy.”

In this respect E. P. Thompson was less pedantic yet more cautious than Lichtheim in his criticism of Morris and made it clear that “…while Morris remained always an avowed amateur in economic theory, in his historical and utopian thought he filled in certain silences of Marx and proposed certain qualifications to the already-hardening doctrines of the Marxists of the 1880s…” (“William Morris From Romantic to Revolutionary” London: Merlin, 1977, second edition)

One of the experiments in arts and crafts and a social theory of art conducted by Morris and his associates was the construction of Red House (1860), in Bexleyheath. This place has often been difficult to get into but it will be open to the public free of charge during London Open House on Sunday 23rd September. A visit to this listed building repays the effort involved (and children are welcome). It also affords the visitor the chance to discover how in the staff quarters on the top floor the windows were intentionally set so high that the servants could not see out into the garden where Morris and, or, his guests used to gather together. A socially aware designer of his calibre was therefore able to produce something as functional as windows in their most dysfunctional form.

It would take about another 100 years before Asger Jorn, an artist in the International Situationists, who wanted to supersede art and not carry on painting as usual, became embroiled in a critique of the capitalist system. Jorn attempted to grapple with the theory of value and in 1961 he published his “Critique of Political Economy” in which he tried to elaborate on the subject, although the result it not thought to be good. (“New Left Review” includes an article on the writings of Asger Jorn.)

Today a critique of the system is still on the menu but questions remain: Whose viewpoint? Whose theory? “…keeping oneself in a pure state, like a crystal.” (purported to be from Henri Lefevbre) may be close to the impossible but millions of fatalities are the outcome of previous conflicts supported by theory and ideology. Privately there is a widespread but misplaced mistrust of theory.


3 Responses to “News from Somewhere”

  1. Nik Says:

    The failure to gain entry into Red House does not preclude the opportunity of gorging on more about the topic dealt with above. There is always the possibility of visiting the newly-opened William Morris Gallery in Morris’s birthplace in Walthamstow. This too will be open during the Open House London weekend. Additionally there are the Morris Gallery and the atmospheric Morris Room in the cafe, situated in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

  2. Barry Sheen Says:

    Plus the Merton Abbey works, by the banks of the Wandle.

  3. O.F. Says:

    Do not forget dialectics
    “real life” and ideology or art,allways act one on the other in some way,
    but in different directions

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