Last night we held a launch for my book Business for Bohemians at the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School in Clerkenwell.
This long-standing bastion of revolutionary socialism may have seemed a strange choice of venue for the launch of a book celebrating private enterprise.
Or maybe not. Marx may be seen now as the prophet of state control and enemy of the freedom seeker. However, in actual fact he believed in autonomy and variety in work.
Marx himself was altogether a bohemian, roaming the streets of London, drinking, cadging money off Engels. What he railed against was the slavery and the boredom which, he argued, derived from the new distribution of labour, whereas a good life, in his view, was about variety. In 1845 he wrote joyfully:
… as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
This sounds very much like Bohemianism, no? I think that the problem with Marxism is that people get it mixed with Leninism. Now there was a genuine lunatic. Lenin was so far left he considered anarchists to be bourgeois wannabe aristocrats. He was one of those Oliver Cromwell types, the sorts who consider Christmas to be a decadent Popish anachronism which should be wiped out. Here is Lenin writing in 1905 on “party literature”. He argues – in quite magnificent style, it has to be said – that writers are just grubby shopkeepers and that literature should be controlled by the state:
In contradistinction to bourgeois customs, to the profit-making, commercialised bourgeois press, to bourgeois literary careerism and individualism, “aristocratic anarchism” and drive for profit, the socialist proletariat must put forward the principle of party literature.
The fun-hating socialist goes on to declaim:
Emerging from the captivity of the feudal censorship, we have no desire to become, and shall not become, prisoners of bourgeois-shopkeeper literary relations. We want to establish, and we shall establish, a free press, free not simply from the police, but also from capital, from careerism, and what is more, free from bourgeois-anarchist individualism.
Business for Bohemians is precisely a defence of and guide to bourgeois-anarchist individualism! But Lenin really hates authors and literary types:
Secondly, we must say to you bourgeois individualists that your talk about absolute freedom is sheer hypocrisy… Are you free in relation to your bourgeois publisher, Mr. Writer?
While promoting bourgeois-anarchist individualism, my book is firmly in the spirit of that other great 19th century socialist or proto-socialist, William Morris, who died in 1896. A banner made by his hand and reading “Hammersmith Socialist League” hangs in the Marx Memorial Library today. Morris – best-selling poet, novelist, founder of societies and leagues, originator of the arts and crafts scene, medievalist, guildsman, founder of Morris and Co., an avowedly capitalist scheme which made workers into craftsman, and is still going today.
Morris wrote in praise of creativity, variety, autonomy: “My work is the embodiment of dreams…. if a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he is weaving a tapestry then he had better shut up… it is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays.”
PICS BY DIRK LINDNER