‘Turn the Page’

The Romantic Socialism of William Morris
William Morris (Alamy)

It was the summer of 1889, and William Morris was reclining in the shade of an elm tree somewhere in Oxfordshire. As he recalled the moment in an essay published in the Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League (and later the inspiration for this magazine’s name), the bucolic scene opened on an earthly paradise invaded and despoiled by avarice. The fields and hedges were “redolent of bean-flowers and clover and sweet hay and elder-blossom.” The river was “sapphire blue,” its banks adorned by “pearly white-flowered water-weeds” along with “meadowsweet and dewberry, comfrey and bedstraw.” Blackbirds and starlings glided over a “labyrinth of grasses” set back from the river. Medieval towers dotted the countryside, an architecture made by craftsmen “bent on pleasing you and making all things delightful to your senses.” The ambience was languid and sensuous—not the hectoring, inflammatory tone one would expect from a revolutionary socialist.

But a serpent had slipped into Eden, and the idyllic prose turned combative as Morris spiraled into radical dudgeon. The day before, he had come upon some older men and women, “ungraceful and unbeautiful” haymakers toiling and sweating in the midday sun. As one of them explained, the younger people refused the low wages paid by the farmer who owned the field. Only one young man, desperate for money, had acceded to the skinflint’s terms; but after leaving and looking unsuccessfully for factory work, he had returned “begging for his slavery.” “What will happen,” Morris asked, “with all this country beauty?” What an appalling waste, he thought, of land exploited by absentee profiteers “for the sake of villa-dwellers’ purses.” But the greater outrage was the injustice and indignity inflicted on godlike beings:

When people had created in their minds a god of the universe...they were driven to represent him as one of that same race to which the thirsty haymakers belong; as though supreme intelligence and the greatest measure of gracefulness and beauty and majesty were at their highest in the race of those ungainly animals.

Now, the moneybags had reduced this race of divinities to “a population of slaves and slave-owners.”

This tale of subjugation to Mammon was a “shabby, sordid story,” but Morris saw a happy ending if the workers could mobilize and topple their masters. “Turn the page, I say,” and the story concluded with a vision of beloved community in labor and repose:

Suppose the haymakers were friends working for friends on land which was theirs...with leisure and hope ahead of them instead of hopeless toil and anxiety—need their useful labor for themselves and their neighbors cripple and disfigure them and knock them out of the shape of men fit to represent the Gods and Heroes?

“Under an Elm-Tree” (1889) is a vintage Morris essay: the vivid rapture at the natural world, the reverence for craftsmanship, the passion for things medieval, all blended in an elegant and vigorous homily against the iniquity of capitalism and in favor of the loveliness, as well as the justice, of a socialist and eventually communist future. In our callously mercenary neoliberal era—coming after the disappointment of revolutionary hope in what the historian Eric Hobsbawm once called “the short twentieth century”—such a vision is dismissed as a utopian reverie or a dangerous historical delusion.

But “socialism” is once again popular, especially among younger voters in the North Atlantic world—fearful of their own enslavement to debt and low-wage, precarious employment, and increasingly impatient with the neoliberal insistence that “there is no alternative” to capitalism. Yet if the left’s rejuvenation is electrifying, there is hardly a unified program. The Labour Party that Morris’s work did so much to inspire is still trying to recover from its pact with the devil that Tony Blair signed and sealed in the 1990s. Here in the United States, epitomized in the Green New Deal that takes aim at inequality, racism, and ecocide, a social-democratic insurgency is challenging the establishment of the Democratic Party, those woke but intellectually bankrupt minions of the techno-financial plutocracy. Though vilified as “socialists” both by Republicans and by their own insipid party leaders, the Green New Dealers aren’t nearly as radical as Peter Frase and his comrades at Jacobin, who contend that the spread of automation augurs a society beyond wage labor—“the realm of freedom,” as Karl Marx dubbed it in Capital.

What could a laureate of craftsmen and haymakers say to a cybernetic world? Isn’t Morris an exquisitely irrelevant heirloom of Victorian radicalism? His writing and handicraft spurred the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the twentieth century; but what began as resistance to mass production soon morphed into a market in high-end ornaments. Still, far from being period pieces, Morris’s ideas on art, work, technology, and politics are more important than ever for those eager to create a post-capitalist world. He would remind proponents of a “Green New Deal” that even the most far-reaching reforms cannot be equated with socialism, and he would warn enthusiasts for automation—following, so they think, the dialectical trajectory of capitalist technological development—that they might be depriving human beings of the pleasures of creation, just as the moneybags do. Morris was a revolutionary Romantic, and his utopianism arguably made him a more incisive critic of capitalism than Marx.

 

Morris and Ruskin contemplated forming a celibate religious order dedicated to the life of art; but Morris soon drifted away from religion, and abjured the consecrated life.

Born on March 24, 1834 to William and Emma Morris of Walthamstow, Essex, the bard of Romantic communism grew up in an impeccably bourgeois household. His father was a successful broker and speculator who owned shares in a lucrative copper mine. The wealth enabled his parents to devote the family to what Morris later scorned as “rich establishment puritanism”: the stodgy and venal sanctimony practiced by middle-class Evangelicals, in which Sabbath observance, abstention from alcohol, philanthropy, and kindness to the help were considered the pith and marrow of the Christian life. For relief, he read John Keats and Sir Walter Scott, whose Romantic insistence that beauty was a portal onto truth afforded Morris an imaginative refuge from his family’s philistinism.

Although his father died suddenly in 1847, the copper mine’s dividends allowed his mother to send young William to Marlborough College, an especially awful specimen of England’s public-boarding-school culture. Morris endured his education stoically; bored both by his snobbish classmates and by the musty classical curriculum, he was only mediocre as a scholar, preferring to swoon over the Middle Ages and spin “endless stories of knights and chivalry.” Morris fell in love with the churches and prehistoric mounds in the countryside around Marlborough, and his letters home conveyed his affection for the alluring landscape; “what a delectable affair a water meadow is to go through,” he once wrote to his mother.

In the winter of 1853 Morris entered Exeter College, Oxford, arriving there at the crest of the Romantic critique of industrial capitalism. In part a reaction to the crisis of Christian faith in the wake of the Enlightenment, Romanticism registered, in the historian Bernard Reardon’s words, “the inexpungable feeling that the finite is not self-explanatory and self-justifying...[that] there is always an infinite ‘beyond.’” For many artists and intellectuals Romanticism offered a surrogate for the sacramental imagination of Christianity, from William Blake’s “Heaven in a Wild Flower” to William Wordsworth’s “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused.” But it could also enkindle challenges to the brutal emergence of capitalist modernity. Unlike the “progressive” dialecticians of Marxism, Romantics looked to the past for resources to oppose the pecuniary and instrumentalist values of bourgeois life. In Britain, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and others were Romantic prophets of “Tory radicalism,” a conservative opposition to the corrosive effects of capitalism on tradition, custom, and hierarchy.

Raised, like Morris, in a wealthy Evangelical family, Ruskin experienced an “unconversion” from orthodox Christianity, but a firm (albeit heterodox) faith always leavened his art history and social criticism. While he was certainly a “conservative” who recoiled from the progressive pieties of liberalism and socialism, Ruskin also mounted one of the most compelling moral and religious critiques of capitalism. Though Ruskin was known and respected primarily as an art critic and historian, Unto This Last (1862)—his impassioned and controversial treatise on economics and one of the greatest moral documents of the nineteenth century—was revered by innumerable workers, trade-union leaders, and Labour Party members. And he exerted a broad influence on intellectuals across the political spectrum, from G. K. Chesterton to G.D.H. Cole, R. H. Tawney, and Mahatma Gandhi. Throughout the five volumes of Modern Painters (1843–60), the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851–53), but especially in Unto This Last, Ruskin insisted that both the theory and practice of capitalism represented nothing less than a sacrilege against humanity. Topping Carlyle’s dismissal of economics as “the dismal science,” Ruskin likened it to “alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and other such popular creeds.” The phony discipline’s account of homo economicus—the self-interested, maximizing utilizer—was not just unedifying but, at bottom, untrue. A human being is the imago Dei, “the witness and glory of God,” as he wrote in the second volume of Modern Painters. Ruskin’s sacramental view of the human person underlay his sardonic observation, in Unto This Last, that he knew “no previous instance in history of a nation’s establishing a systematic disobedience to the first principles of its professed religion.”

To Ruskin, the capitalist assault on the divine image and likeness was most evident in industrial work and technology. Looking back to the Middle Ages in “The Nature of Gothic,” a renowned chapter in The Stones of Venice, Ruskin surmised that “the principal admirableness of the Gothic school of architecture” was that it hallowed “the labor of inferior minds”: the great cathedrals were built not by geniuses but rather by ordinary, now-unknown artisans, who with humble and imperfect talents created monuments of enduring beauty. Driven by the imperatives of productivity and profit, capitalists enforced an industrial division of labor that subdivided tasks, imposed absolute precision of motion, and thus deskilled the mass of everyday workers. Mechanization made people into machines: “you must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” In order to maximize accumulation, one must not honor workers but rather “unhumanize” them—in other words, one must defile the imago Dei. Thus, for Ruskin, the fundamental evil of capitalism was not inequality but rather desecration, a profaning manifest in the factory discipline that extinguished all delight in labor: “It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread.” Still, Ruskin virulently opposed socialism—“simply chaos,” he once mused—and called instead for a renewed paternalism.

This was the Tory Romanticism that Morris encountered as a student at Oxford, and he expressed his opposition to bourgeois society in its loftily aestheticized accent. He fell in with other students enthralled by the Oxford Movement—another genuine, albeit reactionary, bastion against the mercenary spirit of the age—and they formed a “Brotherhood” devoted to poetry and art as antidotes to commerce and industry. “Full of enthusiasm for things holy and beautiful and true,” as his friend Edward Burne-Jones later described them, the Brotherhood adopted the “High Church” Anglicanism associated with the Reverend Edmund Pusey, and affirmed a medieval aesthetic as the antidote for industrial ugliness. (Inspired by the “Gothic Revival” in architecture, Morris joined several of the brethren who toured medieval churches in France and Belgium.) They also grew fond of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and other “pre-Raphaelite” painters, who rejected the classicism that in their view had enervated much of the art of the past three centuries. United by what Morris later termed “a hatred of modern civilization” and stirred by a “desire to produce beautiful things,” they contemplated forming a celibate religious order dedicated to the life of art; but Morris soon drifted away from religion, and abjured the consecrated life.

Propelled by his “hatred of modern civilization,” Morris’s quest for the life of art and beauty led him inexorably to Ruskin, who made an indelible impression on the young and increasingly rudderless Romantic. After reading the first four volumes of Modern Painters while a student at Oxford, Morris proclaimed him “a Luther of the arts”; almost forty years later, in a preface to “The Nature of Gothic,” Morris declared the aging sage “my master” and praised him as a great “teacher of morals and politics.” Despite Ruskin’s aversion to socialism, Morris learned from his “teacher” and “master” that “art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labor,” that beauty is “a natural and necessary accompaniment of productive labor,” and that the craft ideal must be revived and reaffirmed as “the hallowing of labor by art.”

In the almost three decades after he left Oxford in 1856, Morris embarked on an apostolate of art, a secularized “hallowing” project that turned out to be remunerative but not revolutionary. He apprenticed to a London architect and befriended Rossetti and other pre-Raphaelites, whose dreamy medieval reveries aroused his own poetic imagination; he wrote The Defence of Guenevere (1858) and The Earthly Paradise (1870), as well as Love is Enough (1872), and published illustrated translations of medieval Icelandic eddas and sagas. In 1861, along with Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and other partners, he founded a decorative arts firm, Morris and Company (also known as “the Firm”), which produced furniture, tapestries, stained-glass windows, and murals for walls and ceilings. Determined to recover medieval craftsmanship in the Firm’s day-to-day operations, Morris became a virtuoso of craft, mastering carpentry, embroidery, ceramics, weaving, dyeing, and printing. Objecting to architectural restoration that involved the removal of medieval accretions to buildings, he formed the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (“Anti-Scrape”) in 1877.

Morris theorized his devotion to craft and architecture in “The Lesser Arts” (1877), a lecture that encapsulated some of the basic concerns that would animate his socialism. Aiming at the exaltation of Art, he rejected the separation between the decorative or “lesser” arts and the supposedly “higher” arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Because of this chasm, the decorative arts had grown “timid, mechanical, unintelligent,” while much of the art of the galleries and museums consisted of “dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.” Morris traced the invidious distinction between the arts to the belief that beauty and utility are mutually exclusive. Rather, he maintained, they are mutually reinforcing; “nothing can be a work of art which is not useful.” The duty of the artist—now understood as an artisan—is “to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life.” Morris realized that this was a profoundly democratic conception of art: “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

Still, Morris imagined this democracy of art within the mercantile parameters of capitalism; the erasure of illegitimate aesthetic boundaries would foster “the pleasure of cheerfully buying goods at their due price” and “the pleasure of selling goods that we could be proud of.” Like other bien-pensant Victorian intellectuals, Morris looked to culture rather than politics for a solution to “the social question,” hoping that his prodigious literary and artisanal production could elicit transformation:

To what a heaven the earth might grow

If fear beneath the earth were laid,

If hope failed not, nor love decayed.

Yet the Firm’s clientele was overwhelmingly bourgeois, and despite his disdain for middle-class life Morris found himself “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” (This goes a long way toward explaining what his biographer E. P. Thompson perceived to be the “evasive” quality of his verse.)

By the mid-1870s, Morris was no longer politically indolent. Still, if he had died at that time, he would have been remembered as a prototypical bourgeois bohemian, a Romantic liberal espousing what he later called “ordinary middle-class radicalism”: extension of the suffrage, some modicum of reform, and a pronounced distaste for the more egregious atrocities of British imperialism. Recoiling from London’s poverty and squalor, he evinced no support for socialism or the trade-union movement. In 1876, outraged by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s indifference to Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans, Morris joined other dissident Liberals in the Eastern Question Association (EQA). But when Disraeli’s Liberal successor, William Gladstone, pursued similar policies elsewhere, Morris learned his first important political lesson: there was an effective consensus among Tories and Liberals about maintaining the imperial system. The Liberal Party, he realized, was “made for and by the middle classes” and “will always be under the control of rich capitalists.” Then as now, “bipartisan consensus” was the talisman invoked to ratify and obfuscate injustice.

 

In the world Morris envisioned, workers would labor (and rest) in conditions worthy of their human nature.

By the early 1880s, Morris was beginning to perceive the threads that connected the “swinish luxury of the rich” to urban destitution and imperial brutality. In 1883, he joined Eleanor Marx, H. M. Hyndman, and others in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain’s first socialist party. For the rest of his life he threw himself wholeheartedly into revolutionary agitation—even after he and other disgruntled SDF members defected in 1885 to form the Socialist League. He also entered the most prolific phase of his career, writing essays and pamphlets as well as his utopian masterpiece, News from Nowhere (1890). Having apparently embraced Marxism, Morris, it seemed, had repudiated his old “master” Ruskin, the radical Tory. In Thompson’s neat formulation, he had completed the ideological metamorphosis “from romantic to revolutionary.”

But was Morris a Marxist? To make his case in 1955, Thompson had to finesse or evade some fairly obvious counterevidence. As Thompson himself noted, Friedrich Engels considered Morris “a sentimental socialist”—decidedly not the “scientific” variety. Moreover, Morris himself disclaimed the theoretical prowess that Thompson attributed to him. In “How I Became a Socialist” (1894), his own account of his political transformation, Morris admitted that while he “put some conscience toward trying to learn the economical side of Socialism”—he “even tackled Marx” and his “great work,” Capital—he experienced “agonies of confusions of the brain.” Besides, Morris wrote, he “had no transitional period”; while the SDF afforded “a hope of the realization of my ideal,” that ideal itself had already been formed.

Indeed, the wellspring of his socialist commitment, he asserted, was the medievalism of “Carlyle and Ruskin,” especially the latter. Through Ruskin he had “learned to give form to [his] discontent” which was “not by any means vague.” For all his eagerness to align himself with “scientific socialism,” Morris remained a revolutionary Romantic. (In an appendix to the 1977 edition of his book, Thompson conceded curtly that his original argument had been marred by “some hectoring political moralism as well as a few Stalinist pieties.”)

Morris’s revolutionary Romanticism was most evident in his writing on work and technology. It’s important to remember that, for Marx, the dehumanization of production is a tragic but ultimately liberating objective. In his dialectically promethean account of “machinery and modern industry” in Capital, the dispossession of artisans and craftsmen from control over the means of production and their conversion into wage laborers—in short, their proletarianization—are the necessary conditions of both technological innovation and socialism. Driven to lower costs by gaining mastery over the social and technological processes of production, capital introduces mechanization—what we now call automation. While the relocation of human skill in machinery enhances the power of capital over labor, it also creates the material basis for socialist and communist society. Now, machinery increases the exploitative intensity of capital; after the revolution, it will relieve human beings of drudgery and allow them the pleasures of free time. This is Marx’s “realm of freedom” adumbrated today in briefs for automation such as Frase’s Four Futures (2016) and Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2019).

But there is a price for this emancipation, one that Morris thought exorbitant: the degradation and monotony of labor. “Labor cannot become play,” Marx observed; the realms of necessity and freedom are forever divided by an impenetrable wall. This demarcation was of a piece with Marx’s disdain for “utopian socialism,” his epithet for any radical politics he considered disconnected from the Forces of History, among which was capitalism’s “progressive” technological development of productive power. Just as he was unwilling to accept the separation of the “lesser” from the “higher” arts, Morris devoted his career as a socialist to the joyful reunion of labor and play—a reversal, not a culmination, of the alleged trajectory of history. In a series of essays—“A Factory As It Might Be” (1884), “How We Live and How We Might Live” (1887), “The Society of the Future” (1887), and “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” (1888)—as well as in News from Nowhere (1890), Morris transformed his “desire to produce beautiful things” into a revolutionary project, turning Ruskin’s Tory Romanticism into a template for Romantic communism.

Marx and Morris agreed that the problem of work and technology was a political one. But for Marx it was quantitative (automation reduced the amount of necessary labor and increased the amount of free time), while for Morris it was qualitative. Promulgating “the semi-theological dogma that all labor, under any circumstances, is a blessing to the laborer,” capitalism both keeps us “terrified for our livelihood”—servile and harried as we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of shareholder value—and shifts our attention to the length of the workday and away from the way it damages us, eroding our manual and imaginative dexterity by the progress of mechanization. Against the inferno of busywork enforced by stockholders, managers, and technicians, Morris posed the ancient ideal of poiesis and upheld the medieval icon of the artisan who “stamped all labor with the impress of pleasure.” Rather than demand higher wages—“improved slave-rations,” in Morris’s view—workers should demand the abolition of wage labor and the full delights of production and leisure: “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself.” In a world of artisanal communards, the slavery of the Protestant ethic would yield to a new freedom in labor, not from it.

Morris did not oppose all mechanization; some machines were indeed “miracles of ingenuity,” but they should be used only to minimize “unattractive labor.” The point, for Morris—as one would have thought it was for his Marxist comrades—was that workers, not a class of technical and managerial specialists, should control the design of production technologies and their deployment in the workplace. If workers think that “handicraft is better than machinery for production and pleasure”—and Morris clearly believed they would—then “they will certainly get rid of their machinery.” Machines may be efficient in some strictly technical way, but in a new world of playful labor, “people will be able to use them or not as they feel inclined.” (The same principle would conceivably apply to the labors of care—doctors, nurses, teachers, janitors, and others should determine the practices and technologies they employ.) Morris’s insistence on what Lewis Mumford would later call “democratic technics” stemmed both from his socialist convictions and from his lifelong commitment to the hallowing of labor.

In the world Morris envisioned, workers would labor (and rest) in conditions worthy of their human nature. As Hammond, the narrator’s guide in News from Nowhere, explains, because the utopians are no longer driven by the consumption of goods, “we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them.” Morris imagined the factories of the future as both workshops and community centers, with libraries, schools, dining halls, and venues for theatrical and musical performances. Rather than specialize in one trade or profession, people would vary “sedentary occupation with outdoor” (everyone, he believed, should learn at least three crafts), while instruction in the liberal arts and sciences would be open to people of all ages. And while Morris focused (too much) on work, he thought four hours a day sufficient for all necessary, reasonable production—as Hammond tells him, “we have now found out what we want, so we make no more than we want”—to be followed by idleness, or the free pursuit of interests, or the manifold forms of love and conviviality. (The subtitle of News from Nowhere is “an epoch of rest.”) The spirit of the post-revolutionary world would be gentle, lighthearted, and voluptuous, with a love of the earth “such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves.”

It’s not clear that Morris grasped just how profoundly incompatible his views on technology were with those of Marx. (Thompson certainly didn’t: Soviet factories, he wrote, were “the poet’s dream already fulfilled.”) While Marxists often denigrate the ideal of craftsmanship as a “regressive” or “petty-bourgeois” fondness for a vestigial mode of production, the craft ideal enables us to ask questions about automation that its current enthusiasts seem disinclined and even unable to pose. If industrial technology under capitalism is designed not only to increase productivity, but also to give capital untrammeled control over the social as well as material processes of production, isn’t that technology marked ineradicably by the politics and sensibility of domination? For all its legitimate uses in eliminating dangerous and tedious labor, doesn’t automation deprive human beings of the pleasures of agency, ingenuity, and tactility? While writers such as Richard Sennett, Matthew Crawford, Wendell Berry, and Nicholas Carr have addressed these unfashionable concerns, anarchists have long envisioned the reconciliation of craftsmanship and automation, from Peter Kropotkin’s forecast of “industrial villages” to Murray Bookchin’s vision of “liberatory technology” that blends cybernetics with artisanal fabrication. By contrast, today’s left-wing votaries of robotics seem content to take whatever comes from Silicon Valley.

Perhaps even more significant, Morris challenges us to rescue socialism, even communism, from what Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity.” Before the Bolshevik Revolution, there was considerable debate on the left over the meanings of “socialism” and “communism”; the Marxist vernacular was only one among many. But whatever else they meant, “socialism” and “communism” meant the abolition of property in the means of production, and thus the overthrow of the aristocratic and industrial elites who exploited workers and peasants. Both words denoted the achievement not only of equality but also of freedom: from landlords, bosses, and stockholders. It meant the freedom of workers—like Ruskin’s imperfect artisans—to arrange their own affairs and design their technology without the supervision of managers or technocrats. Bringing property and production under workers’ control, socialism and communism represented not the bureaucratization of tyranny, as its critics claim, but rather the consummation of democracy.

Thus Morris helps us remember that socialism is not the sum of reforms to capitalism. Conservatives will usually vilify any restriction on the power of capital as “socialism”; liberals—“the more democratically inclined part of the ruling classes,” as Morris rightly perceived them—constitute a more complicated opposition. Because conservatives mock them for their oversensitivity, while socialists deride their moderation, liberals tend to see themselves as sensible pragmatists. And they are, within the horizon of capitalist rationality: they want wage slavery “somewhat ameliorated” (higher wages and benefits, a welfare state, perhaps even a universal basic income) as long as the imperatives of capitalist property remain the fulcrum of society. Contemporary liberals comprise the left wing of the neoliberal ruling class.

To be sure, Morris did not oppose reforms; what mattered was “what else is being done, while these were going on.” Unless reforms were part of a broader effort to overcome capitalism, they would turn out to be only “makeshift alleviations” that capital would terminate at the first opportunity. Indeed, if the history of the welfare state in the North Atlantic democracies offers any lessons on this score, it’s that New Deal liberalism and social democracy flourished only as long as business put up with them; always chafing at taxes and restrictions, capital threw them off as soon as they became politically vulnerable. (Accordingly, many liberals and social democrats morphed into business-friendly neoliberals.) What Morris would emphasize now to Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other self-avowed “democratic socialists” is that the reformist political imagination will always be circumscribed by the imperatives of capital.

Which is why we need utopia back, leavened by the Romantic desire for beatitude with which Morris endowed it—and more. Christians in particular have been warned about the seductive dangers of utopian hope, chastised with Augustinian platitudes about the intractability of human imperfection. But we might also think of utopianism as a form of realized eschatology, a proleptic politics rooted in a faith that the future can pay a visit to the present. Though a prodigal son from orthodoxy, Morris the Romantic captured something of this sacramental imagination; he praised (and, one suspects, envied) those medieval men and women “to whom heaven and the life of the next world was such a reality, that it became to them a part of the life upon the earth, which accordingly they loved and adorned.” If, in the Kingdom, we live as a beloved community of godlike beings—akin to those haymakers in Oxfordshire, but manumitted from oppressive toil—why not insist on flourishing, to the extent that we can, on this damaged side of the eschaton? Turn the page, I say.

Published in the July 5, 2019 issue: 

Eugene McCarraher is an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University. His book, The Enchantments of Mammon, will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall of 2019.

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