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August Bebel

Renewable Energy Technologies in the Socialist and Communist Societies Envisioned by William Morris and August Bebel

By Dennis Bartels - Material Cultural Review, Spring 2003

1 The nineteenth-century English designer, writer, and political activist, William Morris (1834-1896), saw "state socialism" as evolving after the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. He hoped that state socialism would be followed by the sort of "higher" communist society that he sketched in his Utopian novel, News from Nowhere ([1890] 1970). Morris's contemporary, the German socialist leader, August Bebel (1840-1913) also envisioned a socialist society that would succeed capitalism, and outlined its major features in his influential book, Woman in the Past, Present and Future ([1883] 1988), abridged by Progress Publishers in Moscow (1971) under the title, Society of the Future. In this research note, Morris and Bebel's views on the role of eco-friendly and renewable energy technologies in socialist and communist societies will be compared. Differences between their visions of future technology and actual technological developments in the former USSR and in contemporary capitalist society will be briefly explored.

2 A major theme in the political writing and lecturing of Morris was that the quest for short-term profit inevitably brings environmental degradation. In his 1878 lecture, "The Lesser Arts," he said, "Is money to be gathered? Cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch, blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it's nobody's business to see it or mend it — that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house, forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein" ([1878] 1962:102-3).

3 Morris also believed that, in a capitalist society, science and technology would not be used to remediate environmental degradation: "I fear that she [science] is so much in the pay of the counting-house... and the drill sergeant, that she is too busy... [to teach] Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river" ([1878] 1962: 85).

4 Morris suggested that in the phase of state socialism, working people, represented by the state, would take over "all the means of production: that is, credit, railways, mines, factories, shipping, land [and] machinery..." ([1887] 1910-1915: 232). He hoped that a socialist state would allocate resources for environmental restoration, and ensure that productive technology was eco-friendly. In, "A Factory As It Might Be," published in 1884, he wrote, "... our factory must make no sordid litter, befoul no water, nor poison the air with smoke" (1884b: 2). In, "Why Not?", Morris wrote, "It seems probable that the development of electricity as a motive power will make it easier to undo the evils brought upon us by capitalist tyranny... but even it if turns out that we must still be dependent on coal and steam for force, much could still be done toward making life pleasant if universal co-operation were to take the place of our present competitive anarchy" (1884c: 2).

5 Morris saw the productive technology of socialist society as a legacy of capitalism, and expected that rapid technological development in the "lower stage" of communism — that is, state socialism — would greatly shorten the work day. In, "Work In A Factory As It Might Be," he wrote, "...machines of the most ingenious and best approved kinds will be used when necessary, but will be used simply to save human labour... it follows that much less labour will be necessary for each workman; all the more as we are going to get rid of all non-workers and busy idle people; so that the working time of each member of our factory will be very short, say, to much within the mark, four hours a day" (1884a: 2). Bebel expected that the work day might be less than three hours in a socialist society ([1883] 1988:193).

6 After the development of a state socialist leisure society, Morris envisaged a spontaneous movement toward communal, physical labour that integrated the decorative arts. This transition to communism would not, however, involve a wholesale rejection of industrial technology. Even though people in Morris's Utopian society, Nowhere, prefer to ride horses and to harvest hay with scythes, heavy loads are hauled on canals by "force barges" powered by engines which do not burn fossil fuels ([1890] 1970:140).

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