Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo
In 1890, the artist, designer, and visionary socialist, William Morris, published his novel News from Nowhere. Morris’s novel tells the story of a time traveller from the late nineteenth century London who wakes up sometime after the year 2003. The time traveller finds a changed world; the great clash between capital and labour has ushered in a new utopian age in which there is no criminal class, no judiciary, and no state. It is a world in which mastership has given way to fellowship, hence the full title of Morris’s novel: News from Nowhere or an Epoch of Rest. Although the details of how society reached this Arcadian state are not revealed in Morris’s novel, like his time traveller, I too have wondered
“what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution.”
And I wondered how society might reach a Morris-like utopian era.
Outlaws, highwaymen, and rebel leaders such as Wat Tyler and John Ball – about whom Morris wrote in A Dream of John Ball (1888), for according to Morris, Tyler and Ball represented the beginnings of English socialism – have featured prominently on this site, and thanks to Philip Cunliffe’s recent work entitled Lenin Lives! (2017), those who are interested in a history of “what might have been” can add Cunliffe’s fascinating work to their reading lists.
Cunliffe has written a counterfactual history of how history might have turned out had the goals of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century socialists such as Lenin been realised to their fullest extent. Unlike Morris’s work, however, Cunliffe has not contrived to present a whimsical, dreamlike story, for the first two chapters give readers a thorough overview of Karl Marx’s views on capitalism, which is enlightening in several respects. What may come as a surprise to some readers is that capitalism had no greater cheerleader than Marx himself:
“… not only did Marx admire the tremendous productiveness and wealth generated by capitalism, he also admired it precisely for those aspects of market society that still fills its defenders with dread: its dissolution of all inherited institutions, traditions and authorities, notably those of state, nation, and kingship and religion.” (p. 14)
This fact is easily forgotten by many on both the left and the right today; as Cunliffe points out, and Marx’s idea of socialist revolution was “less to disrupt as much as to consciously steer a society already riven by disruption” (p. 15). Communism was necessary to solve humanity’s socio-economic problems, although it was not inevitable and was one of many possible outcomes. Indeed, although I drew upon Morris in the introduction, Cunliffe points out that utopian visions of the future were dismissed by Marx because
“such prognoses might simply degenerate into ideological fantasy” (p. 31).
The counterfactual side of Cunliffe’s history appears mainly in chapters three and four, and is related in an exciting and engaging way. In Cunliffe’s counterfactual world, communism spread at a fast pace throughout Western Europe and America, the industrialised nations where Marx always said that communism should (not definitely would) take root. By 1926, the UK is engulfed in civil war; Churchill deploys the Black and Tans on British streets against armed workers; all the while the Liberal Party makes some pitiful overtures in the form of limited social security to the British proletariat in a forlorn attempt to salvage the bourgeois liberal democratic regime. The monarchy is finally ended and England becomes a republic. Similar developments follow across the globe in other countries while the British Empire is reconstituted into an internationalist workers’ federation, which means that the bloody ethnic conflicts which occurred in the wake of decolonization never occur.
The only minor disagreement I have with Cunliffe’s work is he never explains who is governing the British colonies while, in his alternate timeline, the mother country is engulfed in civil war; surely this would have been the perfect time for the nationalist agitators to have taken control of their own affairs? Perhaps a consideration of this might have altered his somewhat optimistic view that, once Britain becomes a socialist republic, the former colonies of the empire along with Britain are seemingly seamlessly reconstituted into an international workers’ federation. Nevertheless, in this alternate timeline, what emerges in the developed Western world is a world in which citizens and their governments are no longer beholden to the wishes of banks and multinational corporations.
The question which most interested readers would probably want to know is whether, in this parallel world, these newly socialist states would have descended into authoritarianism. The answer of course is no: in this timeline, socialism retains its original meaning of a small and decentralized state (p. 97). Thus, there is no place for tyrants in a world in which the state is small and private property has been abolished, which is, of course, in alignment with Morris’s vision of the final end of capitalism.
This is most certainly a book written for the general reader. Obviously it is not priced expensively as a monograph would be, and, amazingly for a work which is heavily grounded in Marxist theory, it is wholly jargon-free. Where Cunliffe does delve into difficult concepts, these are always explained clearly. Cunliffe is also very witty, and in some parts, with a good sense of humour, the odd quip here and there lampoons certain modern figures who in his view have diluted socialism and its principles and turned it into an elitist tool:
“In the historical world, British communism would eventually become an incubator for New Labour, as well as spawning a generation of shady liberal columnists who continue to scribble away today for the Times and Guardian – these last two perhaps among the most overlooked historic crimes of communism.” (p. 81)
This book will, therefore, be of interest to people, including students, academics, and general readers, who not only want an exciting narrative of how history might have turned out, complete with civil wars, rebellions, and the final end of capitalism, but its first two chapters are the clearest introduction I have yet read to Marx’s theory of history and his teachings on communism.
Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, which he joined in 2009. He has written widely on a variety of political issues ranging from Balkan politics to Brexit, with a particular focus on international efforts to manage violent conflict since the end of the Cold War.