Reading for a Future: William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890)

Tom White @___TomWhite___

I really appreciated last week’s post, ‘Reading for a future’, and its reflections on critiquing and organising against what’s happening now and, at the same time, finding the time and energy to imagine radically different futures. This post is intended as a follow-on to Tom’s—in it, I turn to a utopian novel that did not appear in his crowd-sourced reading list, but which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and which offers a compelling vision of the place of education in a more equitable world.

William Morris is probably best known as a poet, artist, and designer, and as one of the founders of the Arts and Craft movement. He was also a dedicated revolutionary socialist and an incisive critic of late-Victorian capitalism. Prompted by his growing opposition to British imperialism, Morris embarked in the late 1870s on a journey of Marxist self-education and political organising that would last the rest of his life. In his 1890 utopian novel News From Nowhere, Morris imagined a world after the revolution. The novel begins with the narrator, the aptly named William Guest, waking from a fitful sleep to find that he has been thrown forward in time to the twenty-second century.

We follow Guest as he embarks on two linked journeys. The first, from Hammersmith to Bloomsbury, takes place so that he can meet a historian named Hammond. Over the course of an afternoon, Hammond describes to Guest not only the shape of the new society, but also how it was won through class struggle and civil war during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Guest’s second, longer journey sees him travel westward along the Thames toward Oxfordshire. He encounters a series of situations via which Morris gives voice to some of the potential issues with his depicted world.

The ‘Old Grumbler’ looks back nostalgically to a previous age of competition and bemoans the dullness of the present. A group of stonemasons refurbishing a house seem not to have got the memo that work shouldn’t dominate their lives. An accidental manslaughter committed by a jealous lover enables Morris to stress that the communist future won’t be a world without conflict and pain, while also proposing how rational response and community support might take the place of the police and criminal justice system. Guest’s journey ends and he is slowly pulled back into his nineteenth-century present. He meets a prematurely aged man who embodies capitalist exploitation and its privations—‘his eyes dull and bleared; his body bent…His clothing was a mixture of dirt and rags’. A black cloud gathers, and Guest reawakens.

In his 1884 lecture ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, Morris railed against mass education as it was developing in Britain in the last decades of the nineteenth century. ‘At present’, he wrote, ‘all education is directed towards the end of fitting people to take their place in a hierarchy of commerce – these as workmen, those as masters’. Morris well understood the important ideological and disciplinary role formal education played in establishing capitalist norms and he bitterly lamented its suppression of talents that could enhance society in manifold ways.

Morris retuned to these lines of thought in News From Nowhere. Education in his depicted future society is a radically open-ended pursuit that takes place over the course of a life. In fact, and with a characteristic playfulness, Morris depicts a world in which education has become so open-ended and so embedded in everyday life that the word itself has largely fallen out of use. ‘School’ has also shed its former meaning in relation to education: ‘I don’t see how it can have anything to do with children’ one of Guest’s companions tells him, in response to a question about some children they see playing in the street, ‘We talk…of a school of herring, and a school of painting’.

The precise nature of the formal education that does exist in Nowhere isn’t sketched out in much detail, but that’s OK, because it leaves space for the reader to fill in the gaps. What is clear is that work and education are means of personal expression and fulfilment, and of collective and creative world-building to which all can contribute. The literary scholar Jacob Jewusiak has elegantly described the broader significance of Morris’s vision:

‘[this] expanded timeline for education does more than liberate children from the grind of formal studies. It produces a model of the lifespan that resists the compartmentalization of capitalist age ideology, where youth serves as a period of training, adulthood of productive labor, and old age of retirement’ (1)

Morris was ambivalent about utopianism and stressed that his novel was a ‘vision’ to prompt the imagination, not a blueprint. Relatedly, by the 1890s he had come to appreciate, through hard experience and his own failures as a political leader, that socialist theory can offer only ‘the barren shore of Utopianism’ if it is not securely tied ‘to all action that tends toward Socialism’.

We imagine a future when we organise against Prevent, against exclusions, and against the increasing ‘Uberfication’ of our work, among numerous other known harms of the present. Then there are concrete, progressive proposals for large-scale institutional change—I’m thinking here of, for example, Tom Sperlinger, Rosie McLellan, and Richard Pettigrew’s ‘university for everyone’. Like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, discussed briefly in Tom’s post, Morris’s novel offers a horizon against which to view these actions and proposals, and the occasion to think and dream about education in the shape of a life.

(1) Jacob Jewusiak, ‘Retirement in Utopia: William Morris’s Senescent Socialism’, English Literary History 86.1 (2019): 245-66 (p. 254)