Imagining Socialism: Aesthetics, Anti-Politics and Literature in Britain, by Mark A. Allison

When Sir Keir Starmer was seeking to become Labor leader in 2020, he was keen to spruce up his left-wing credentials as the unity candidate to replace Jeremy Corbyn. He therefore declares “I am a socialist”, but quickly qualifies: “For me, it is a very practical application. This no frills position echoed that of one of the party’s founders, Keir Hardie, who said of the British: “We are a solid people, very practical, and not inclined to chase bubbles.

This remark – oft-quoted but rarely contextualized – comes from a letter to Friedrich Engels, explaining why the British labor movement supported parliamentary paths to reform rather than revolutionary socialism. But does this alleged tension between pragmatic eligibility and transformative change capture the scale of the existential crisis facing social democratic parties across Europe?

Starmer’s repeated use of the “moral case of socialism” recalls the ambiguous “anti-politics” which, according to Mark Allison, has characterized socialism since its heyday in the 19th century. For him, “socialism is best understood as a goal to imagine, rather than an ideological program to be instantiated”. Its relationship to politics is instrumental, even disdainful, insofar as the desired reconfiguration of social relations would render political institutions in the traditional sense obsolete. Thus, in imagining socialismLabor’s adoption of a new constitution and first-party platform in 1918 is seen as marking the end of a long “socialist century” that began with the first circulation of Robert Owen’s community “plan” in 1817.

Earlier socialists sought to reinvigorate collective life through social rather than political reform, which, for Allison, links socialism’s antipolitical effort to its aesthetic imagination: “the ultimate consequences of socialist experimentation would only become apparent over time – into a future that could only be reached by extrapolating, imaginatively, from the conditions of the present”. Through richly contextualized cases, her book traces an aesthetic impulse that drives socialist writing, thought, and practice, from Owen’s geometric designs for “Unity Villages” to oratorical Chartist poetry and cooperative associations of workers led by Christian socialists as conductors of divine order until William Morris’s notion that the foundation of a non-governmental society was labor as a form of artistic practice.

It is fascinating to see so many examples where socialist ideas have been debated in unabashed aesthetic terms. Based on the protagonist of Robert Tressell’s novel Philanthropists in torn pants (1914) regales his collaborators with a “great speech” on the virtues of socialism, another reflects: “Socialism was a beautiful ideal, which he would be very happy to see realized, but he feared that it would not be altogether too good to be practical. But while some have caricatured socialism as fanciful flights of overloaded imagination, Allison convincingly suggests that it was actually the aesthetic logic of, say, Owen’s “new vision” that allowed him to claim that political strife would soon yield to a condition of “harmony”.

Such a long historical perspective perhaps holds salutary ideas for today’s radical thinkers. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell once tried to reassure voters that ‘socialism is about planning’ – that could also be a bit of a dream come true.

Charlotte Jones is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary University of London.

Imagining socialism: aesthetics, anti-politics and literature in Britain, 1817-1918
By Mark A. Allison
Oxford University Press, 288 pages, £70.00
ISBN 9780192896490
Posted on April 21, 2021

Comments are closed.