Janus-Faced Fictions: Socialism as Utopia and Dystopia in William Morris and George Orwell *

Article excerpt

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING PLOT SCENARIO for a literary work. A married Englishman of strong left-wing views, who has partly earned his bread as a journalist, arrives by train at a revolutionary city on the Continent, and witnesses a society transformed. Red flags are flying, the people are happy, a feeling of fellowship inspires him with hope for a better day, although the country is involved in a larger war which it is destined to lose. But in the city, the forces of reaction launch an attack against the revolutionary elements. Our hero participates in the street fighting, is later wounded, and having recovered is amazed to learn that his comrades are dead or imprisoned, and he must flee for his life. He crosses the border in the guise of a respectable English visitor and escapes to the green fields of his home. But despite the failure of the revolution, his socialist zeal remains undiminished.... The author of this piece was a man awakened to political consciousness by his opposition to British imperialism, and was himself, among other things, a journalist and a revolutionary socialist. By the end of his life he had despaired of the imminence of the revolution and moved toward a greater accommodation with existing political institutions, but his belief in the necessity and desirability of the socialist ideal never faltered. Finally, his most famous and arguably greatest work was in the utopian genre.

This description, surprisingly at first sight, fits William Morris and his 1885 poem about the Paris Commune, The Pilgrims of Hope, as well as it does George Orwell and his Spanish Civil War documentary Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938. But short of drawing parallels where none exist, there can be no question of any direct influence by Morris upon Orwell. Morris is rarely mentioned in Orwell's writings, and when he does appear it is either as a "dull, empty windbag" and patron saint of "the outer-suburban creeping Jesus," in The Road to Wigan Pier (162), or, at a later stage of Orwell's political development, as a valuable reminder of socialism's "original, half-forgotten objective of human brotherhood" ("Review: The Soul of Man" 428) and an admirable "Utopian dreamer" (qtd. in Crick, "Orwell" 18, from the 1946 review "What is Socialism?"). Orwell's positive references to the concept of the earthly paradise and specifically to News from Nowhere in these reviews of the late 1940s show not only a surface familiarity with but a newfound esteem for Morris's work, although general stabs at "wooly-minded Utopianism" (qtd. in Ward 40, from the 1948 Observer article "The Writer's Dilemma") persist alongside commendations of Utopians as "the true upholders of the Socialist tradition" (Crick, "Orwell" 18). But the view has certainly changed in the few years since 1943, when Orwell described News from Nowhere as "a sort of goody-goody version of the Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty's, but the impression left behind is of a sort of watery melancholy" ("Can Socialists be Happy?" 505). However, beyond these few asides, no direct connection between the two authors is apparent. Morris's utopia plays no discernible role in the formation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the scattered allusions in several of Orwell's books and articles to "the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined" are seen in context to be directed mainly against H.G. Wells (Nineteen Eighty-Four 389).

So why draw attention to accidental biographical and narrative similarities, even if, as is the case, the list could be continued indefinitely? The reason is that such echoes are symptomatic of a much more fundamental congruence: the participation of both authors in a distinctive English tradition of "romantic socialist" writing. The words "romantic" and "socialist" take on especially volatile connotations in the context of Morrisian criticism, but they are used here without the intention of entering into the existing debates of claim and counterclaim (although Ruth Kinna's assessment of the relation between these two concepts in William Morris: the Art of Socialism seems to me the most balanced). …