The Laws of Hospitality: Liberty, Generosity, and the Limits of Dissent in William Morris's the Tables Turned and News from Nowhere

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This article scrutinizes recent critical claims that William Morris's The Tables Turned (1887) and News from Nowhere (1890) constitute exceptionally tolerant and accommodating visions of the ideal society. The first section provides evidence in support of Morris's liberalistic concern for the rights of minorities. The second and third sections complicate this analysis, stressing Morris's parallel commitment to informal regulatory methods. Particular attention is directed towards the role of hospitality in these utopias, a form of generosity whose combination of freedom and control is comparable to the operation of gift-exchanges as understood by Marcel Mauss.


In the postscript to his revised edition of William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1) E. P. Thompson considers M.M.-H. Abensour's now influential reading of News from Nowhere (1890). (2) Referring primarily to Abensour's guiding conception of an 'education of desire', he identifies the French critic's approach as a useful and productive way of reappraising Morris's utopianism. Thompson's enthusiasm for Abensour has not been uncontroversial. Perry Anderson, for one, notoriously characterized it as a brief insinuation of that 'Parisian irrationalism' which favours 'metaphysical vacancy' over 'clear and observable meaning'. (3) Among the more receptive responses to Thompson's postscript has been that of Ruth Levitas, who takes into account the views of both Thompson and Anderson, and synthesizes them: Morris's utopianism, Levitas argues, is no vague expression of frustrated desire, but rather a disciplined, politically effective, form of dream. (4)

Most critics have adopted a less guarded approach in accounting for the imaginative processes that inform this vision of the ideal society. In recent discussions of News from Nowhere one hears less of discipline than of Morris's exceptional openness, receptivity, and pluralism. (5) William Morris @ News from Nowhere (1990), a collection of essays issued to mark the centenary year of the work's publication, is typical in this respect. Morris is presented here as a kind of anarcho-communist forebear of recent trends. The views of the volume's editor, Stephen Coleman, are especially germane. He suggests, first, that 'in Nowhere cohesion is not the product of compulsion', and second, that our recurrent failure to endorse Morris's insistence on the achievability of political liberty is merely 'a reflection of the intensity of the modern fear of freedom' (p. 89). (6) What limits Morris may have placed on the scope of these freedoms, or more specifically on the conduct of his utopians, have received far less attention.

Of course the troubled history of utopian experimentation in the twentieth century makes this emphasis unsurprising. It is now a precondition of any favourable appraisal of Morris's work that it echo A. L. Morton's assertion that 'Morris' is the first Utopia which is not utopian'. (7) All the same, it is my purpose in this article to insist on the limited nature of Nowhere's openness. This does not mean that I dispute the common assertion that News from Nowhere constitutes a libertarian utopia. As the first part of this discussion should serve to demonstrate, much evidence exists to support such a reading. It has simply become necessary to register the fact that, in certain respects, Nowhere remains typically utopian, that it constitutes a vision of happiness achieved by means of an act of exclusion. Morris, this is to say, exercises his sovereignty as a utopist: he leaves out what displeases him.

'News from Nowhere': A Tolerant Utopia?

In the first half of the twentieth century Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek began to express the view that the crimes of Fascism and Communism were directly attributable to the historicism latent in utopian thought. (8) The misgivings prompting such critiques were only strengthened by the publication of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1920-21), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), all three of them dystopias. …