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The Past is Red: Some New Departures in the Historiography of Victorian Socialism

2013 January 2

The Making of British Socialism, by Mark Bevir, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011, xiii + 350 pages, £24.95 (hardback), ISBN 0-691-15083-3

Ecology and the Literature of the British Left: The Red and the Green, edited by John Rignall and H. Gustav Klaus in association with Valentine Cunningham, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012, xi + 267, £60 (hardback), ISBN 1-4094-1822-1

William Morris and the Idea of Community: Romance, History and Propaganda, 1880-1914, by Anna Vaninskaya, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010, viii + 232 pages, £70 (hardback), ISBN 0-7486-4149-9

Reviewed by Owen Holland (University of Cambridge)

owen.j.holland@googlemail.com

William Morris’s remark about popular, or decorative, art – that “[h]istory (so called) has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed” whilst “[a]rt has remembered the people, because they created” – could be modified and applied to the writing of socialist history: history has remembered the intellectuals and the leaders, because they wrote.[1]

What are we to make, for example, of the short dream-vision published in the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal, on March 17th 1888? The text, entitled ‘The General Strike; or, Scaring the Capitalists’, signed by the anonymous ‘D’, appeared shortly after the publication of a far better-known dream-vision and shortly before the publication of another. Whilst it is likely that D’s text had been influenced by the Commonweal serialisation of William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball, it is also possible that D’s text might, in turn, have had some reciprocal impact on Morris’s representation of the “GENERAL STRIKE” in the chapter on ‘How the Change Came’ in News from Nowhere.[2] If read together, A Dream of John Ball (1886-7), ‘Scaring the Capitalists’ (1888) and News from Nowhere (1890) point towards the possibility that a creative conversation took place within the pages of the Commonweal between one of the Socialist League’s leading members and one of its anonymous rank-and-file members.

This conjecture (for that is all it can be) offers a salutary reminder that the history of any socialism – British or otherwise – can never be wholly accounted for, in part because it is a history of defeat, and not least because of the manifold conversations and quarrels in branch meetings and elsewhere which have gone unrecorded and will therefore remain untraceable. It is a much harder task for a historian to reconstruct the internal life of the many and various late nineteenth-century socialist organisations, as well as the day-to-day activities of the ‘ordinary’ members of such organisations, than it is to rummage around in an archive which remains largely impassive. The differing approaches of Mark Bevir and Anna Vaninskaya to the writing of socialist history are instructive in this regard.

Bevir’s account of the making of British socialism is structured around intellectual biographies of the movement’s leading thinkers – the philosophically inclined Ernest Belfort Bax, the ex-Tory radical Henry Mayers Hyndman, the romantic revolutionary William Morris, the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the technocratic Sidney Webb. Bevir is textually rigorous, offering concise  overviews of Webb’s ethical positivism, for example, or Fabian theories of rent; by contrast, Vaninskaya’s book is the more textured, plotting its extensive itinerary from “the headquarters of revolutionary parties, to street-corners and shabby lecture halls” (3). Bevir relies primarily on a series of intellectual biographies in order to delineate the apparent ideological differences between different sections of the movement: his discussion is focussed for the most part on the political writings of the movement’s ‘great men’. Vaninskaya’s attempt to account for the promiscuous mixing of “several conflicting structures of feeling” (141) across and between different groups is more ambitious and methodologically explorative: fruitful use is made of fictional texts, including H.G. Wells’ Ann Veronica (1909) and Robert Tressell’s ‘canonical’ novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914/1955), both of which are treated, almost sociologically, as manifestations of the internal complexity of the socialist movement’s life-world. Both studies, however, contain much that will be useful for scholars working on the political culture, or the cultural politics, of late nineteenth-century socialism in Britain. The interdisciplinary intellectual formation of many of the movement’s leading thinkers means that the discussions necessarily range across economic, anthropological, philological and philosophical material.

Bevir’s discrete chapters include conceptual discussion, much of which is adeptly accomplished: the philosophical basis in German idealism of Bax’s socialism is deftly retrieved, for example, in order to offer a convincing explanation of an apparent contradiction in his political position, which has baffled previous historians. The apparent contradiction in Bax’s position on the revisionist question – he attacked both Eduard Bernstein for his betrayal of socialism and Karl Kautsky for his economic determinism – is explained with reference to his philosophical approach to history, by turns logical and alogical (56). Bevir moves competently from Bernard Shaw’s encounter with Jevonian economics to Fabian strategies of permeation, all the while clearly demarcating points of divergence from foregoing historiography. Sidney Webb’s ethical positivism is emphasised against his utilitarian radicalism (176), whilst the psychologising tendencies of some previous historians are criticised and avoided (50). When taken as whole, however, it is debateable whether Bevir’s interlocking, but somewhat discontinuous, chapters amount to more than the sum of their parts.

Vaninskaya’s use of three anchoring concepts – romance, history and propaganda – allows for more flexibility, letting her range more freely across much illuminating and recondite material. The generic, historiographical and political concerns are unified by a pervading focus on the Victorian socialist movement’s search for an ideal of community – located variously in the reconstructed historical past, through differing associational forms in the nineteenth-century present, as well as in the utopian hopes for a post-capitalist future. The polymathic figure of William Morris “stands at the core of the study”, but he does so “merely as the most representative figure of an extensive and diversified network” (4). The approach is refreshing, sparing readers from yet another trot through familiar biographical terrain, whilst opening up potentially expansive possibilities for further enquiry. Although Morris can seem, at times, like something of an absent presence – he hardly appears in the first chapter, for instance – this is no bad thing insofar as it allows Vaninskaya to offer a persuasive and comprehensively researched reconstruction of the wider intellectual culture in which Morris was situated and which formed the basis of the socialist revival of the 1880s and beyond.

The paradoxical clash between the socialist dreams of community (often located in the past, or in narrative romance) and the reality of alienation and the modern state is pursued through sections, moving “from trade publication, to anthropological theory, to socialist propaganda” (3). The genre of romance and its revival in the 1880s is discussed in terms of the contradiction between the romancers’ pretensions to exist outside of the sphere of commercial publishing, set against the revival’s reliance upon modern capitalist publishing practices.[3] Socialist thinkers’ reliance upon the insights of nineteenth-century professional historiography and liberal scholarship is treated as another animating contradiction, signalling, as it does, the modernity of the socialist movement’s “choice of disciplinary tools for reconstructing the past” (40). The Teutomania of writers such as Sharon Turner, J.R. Green, William Stubbs and Edward Freeman is persuasively shown to provide the intellectual sine qua non for the socialist reconstructions of the pre-capitalist past – whether in the form of propaganda, theoretical writing (particularly Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884)) or narrative romance. The material on Teutonic historiography is skilfully interwoven with a persuasive reading of Morris’s The House of the Wolfings (1889). The final section of the book, on propaganda, ranges widely across socialist writings of the period to demonstrate the hybrid nature of this form of political writing, whilst challenging some of the ostensibly stable binaries of previous historiography. The apparently hard-and-fast lines between revolution and reform, libertarian as against statist, scientific as against utopian, and ethical as against pragmatic forms of socialism are shown to be far more unstable than even some of the movement’s leaders would have cared to admit.

The movement’s internal differentiation and heterogeneity is a key theme throughout. “The hard-core Marxists”, as Vaninskaya points out, “never missed a chance to criticise their Labourite, Fabian and Christian socialist confederates for denying the class struggle” (141). As is intimated here, the centrality of class was hardly uncontroversial, even within the movement. There is a major weakness in Bevir’s approach, however, in that he attempts to dispense with the concept of class altogether, favouring, instead, a revised historiography which emphasises the liberal inheritance of the socialist tradition. The concept of class, as the “hard-core Marxists” were not shy to emphasise, articulates a social relationship of antagonism, fundamental to the socialist understanding of the capitalist mode of production (particularly the antagonism between the forces and relations of production). One might think of Henry Mayers Hyndman’s Marxian assertion that “[h]e who writes the history of class wars writes the history of civilised peoples”, or, indeed, of William Morris’s admonishment of those “among the middle classes who are sincerely grieved and shocked at the condition of the proletariat which civilisation has created […] [but who] nevertheless shudder back from the idea of the class struggle, and strive to shut their eyes to the fact that it is going on”.[4] Bevir’s avowedly revisionist intervention calls to mind those contemporary commentators who disavow class as an outmoded, or redundant, concept. To reconstruct the past in such a fashion as to make it correspond to this erroneous interpretation of the present – thereby “reading the spirit of the present into the records of the past” – is a practice which has its own historical antecedents.[5]

Bevir’s hope is that the ‘new’ historiography (designed to countermine the bulwark of the ‘old’ historiography, associated with a previous generation of historians such as E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm) will help “shift attention from socialism’s involvement with industrial labour and state action towards its involvement with liberal progressivism, radical democracy, and personal and communal utopianism” (313). In his concluding chapter, he contends that “[s]ocialism arose […] less as a new class-based politics than as part of a shift in liberal and radical thought towards a greater concern with social justice and a greater acceptance of state intervention” (314). It is hard to see how the scathing polemics found in the pages of Commonweal and Justice against both radicals and liberals could be incorporated into this perspective, let alone the weekly reports which these newspapers carried on the labour struggle. The commendable aim in view is to retrieve a more pluralistic, heterogeneous version of socialism – an acknowledgement of the many competing socialisms that came into being in the 1880s and 1890s, before the emergence of the modern Labour Party. However, to do so at the expense of jettisoning one of the movement’s key conceptual tools, one which occupies a central place in both socialist thought and practice, smacks of robbing Peter in order to pay Paul (as Stewart Headlam might have put it).

Vaninskaya lays equal emphasis on the movement’s “internal variety” and “ideological incompatibilities” (140), but the tradition’s liberal inheritance is deemed to be of less significance than that accorded to it by Bevir. Distrust of the state, for example, was “also a feature of anarchist and syndicalist doctrines that drew their ideological inspiration from abroad and bore no relation to the English tradition” (141). As the presence of such ‘continental’ notions should remind us, socialism is a movement which cuts across national borders, emphasising the importance of international working-class solidarity because of the concomitant ‘internationalism’ of capital, which knows no Chinese walls. The 1885 Manifesto of the Socialist League boldly declared in its opening paragraph that “[w]e come before you as a body advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism”, whilst both the League and the Social Democratic Federation sent delegates to the international congress of socialists in Paris in 1889.[6] Moreover, the revolutionary milieu of Victorian London was populated by exiled Europeans and refugees fleeing from the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. The task Bevir sets himself, however, is to write a history of British socialism. He fails seriously to consider whether this task can adequately be accomplished if British socialism is treated in splendid isolation. As a consequence, the internationalist aspect of some sections of the movement is consistently downplayed, or overlooked.[7]

It is welcome, though, to read Bevir’s opening profession of hope to “retrieve neglected socialist ideas that might inspire political action today” (3). The final section of the conclusion is unapologetically entitled ‘Socialism Today’. The contemporary relevance, and persistence, of many of the issues discussed by both Bevir and Vaninskaya – not the least the historical attempts (and failures) to experiment with pre-figurative forms of politics, from Clarion cycling clubs to the small-scale ‘bad’ utopianism of the anarchist colonies at Clousden Hill, Purleigh and Whiteway – should be clear to all those who care to look. In this spirit, my few remaining words are given over to a collection of essays which revisits left-literary treatments of the natural environment, bringing to bear the insights of contemporary ecocriticism. John Rignall and H. Gustav Klaus’ edited collection seeks to demonstrate how ecological concerns have always animated the literature of the British left, from the Romantic poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth to the leftist pastoral poetry of the 1930s. Dinah Birch’s article on Ruskin’s vision of fallen nature, Vaninskaya’s article on Morris and the Garden City, John Sloan’s article on H.G. Wells, as well as John Rignall’s article on nineteenth-century landscape and labour, will be of particular interest to Victorian scholars. As Rignall and Klaus state in their introduction: the “collection […] brings together a number of different writers […] combining red and green perspectives in their attempts to understand a world where the development of society under capitalism has wrought damage on both man and nature” (15). In a year during which Arctic sea-ice has melted at an alarmingly unprecedented rate, the intervention could not be timelier.

Owen Holland is currently completing PhD research in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on late nineteenth-century socialist and utopian re-visioning of the built environment, with a particular emphasis on William Morris’s political and utopian writings. He has had (unrelated) work published in the New Theatre Quarterly, MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities and elsewhere.


[1] William Morris, ‘The Art of the People’ [1879] in The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris, 24 vols (London: Longmans Green and Company, 1910-15), 22: 32. Further references will take the form CW, 22: 32.

[2] CW, 16: 121.

[3] The essence of the contradiction will be familiar to those who recall the persistent (and banal) condemnations of Morris because of the fact that he was both a capitalist and a socialist.

[4] Henry Mayers Hyndman, The Coming Revolution in England (London: William Reeves, 1884), p. 6; CW, 23: 76-7. Morris extended the same admonishment to the Fabians, or “soft Socialists”, who are said to suffer with a similar myopia because “the barrier which they will not be able to pass, so long as they are in their present minds, [is] the acknowledgement of the class war. The ‘Socialists’ of this kind are blind as to the essence of modern society.” William Morris, Journalism: Contributions to Commonweal 1885-1890, ed. Nicholas Salmon (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1996), p. 613.

[5] William Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax, Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1893), p. 20.

[6] The ‘Manifesto’ is printed as an appendix in E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London: Merlin, 1976), p. 732.

[7] To quote Morris, again: “it is really strange to find a man of ability who has not been struck by the international character of modern capitalism, and who cannot grasp that if capitalism is international, the foe that threatens it, the system which is put forward to take its place, must be international also.” William Morris, Political Writings: Contributions to Justice and Commonweal 1883-1890, ed. Nicholas Salmon (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1994), pp. 267 (cf. p. 361).

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