A Marxist for our time: William Morris

Submitted by cathy n on 16 October, 2008 - 3:00 Author: Paul Hampton

William Morris is probably best known to most people these days as the creator of kitsch Victorian wallpaper designs. Morris was certainly a prominent nineteenth century artist, poet and all-round polymath, and it is impossible to do justice to the force of his personality.

However the Morris that should matter most to us, and the Morris that has most contemporary relevance is the man who shortly before his 50th birthday became an active revolutionary socialist and remained so to the end of his tumultuous life. Morris’s Marxism and his prescient views on socialist ecology are the subjects of this appreciation by Paul Hampton.

Morris was born on 24 March 1834 in Walthamstow, then a village on the edge of Epping Forest to the north east of London. He was born into a wealthy middle class family who wanted him to join the church. Ever the dissident, he gave up Oxford University to take up art and poetry.

In 1861 he founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, which did paintings, decoration, metalwork, stained glass, jewellery, sculpture and furniture for wealthy Victorians.

His political activity dated from the struggle to stop the Tory government going to war with Russia between 1876 and 1878. His “Appeal to the Working Men of England” (1877) blamed capitalists for the war and set him on the road via liberalism and radicalism to the socialist movement.

In January 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Federation, a small Radical group led by Henry Hyndman, which would soon become explicitly socialist (it became the Social Democratic Federation, SDF in August 1884). In November 1883 Morris spoke at Oxford University, scandalising the audience by calling on them to join the struggle against capitalism.

From then onwards Morris became a leading spokesperson for socialism as well as political journalist, publishing articles in the SDF paper Justice. However in December 1884 Morris, Eleanor Marx, Ernest Belfort Bax, Edward Aveling and others — fed up with Hyndman’s dictatorial behaviour and jingoistic politics – resigned from the SDF. They set up the Socialist League and published the paper Commonweal.

The Socialist League was divided. Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Bax favoured standing candidates for parliament and local councils to advance socialist propaganda. Others, including Morris, opposed such parliamentary tactics. The radical anti-parliamentarians - anarchists – took over the Socialist League and marginalised Morris.

Morris and his close comrades in the Hammersmith branch eventually broke with the Socialist League at the end of 1890. He continued to work in the Hammersmith Socialist Society until ill health took its toll. He remained committed to socialism until the end, telling an American correspondent, “I have not changed my mind on Socialism” in one of his last interviews, given in January 1896. (Paul Meier, William Morris: The Marxist Dreamer)

When William Morris died on 3 October 1896, apparently his doctor pronounced that the cause of death was “simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men”.

Political commitment

William Morris is perhaps unique in being claimed by almost everyone on the left as an inspiration. From Tony Blair to the old Communist Party of Great Britain, from Fabians to anarchists, Morris is held to have been an historic precursor.

However Morris was quite simply, as Edward Thompson put it, “an outstanding member of the first generation of European Communist intellectuals”, on a par with Plekhanov or Labriola. (William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 1976) Not for nothing did Tom Mann recall nearly forty years after Morris’ death that he “was to me the outstanding man among the intellectuals of the time” (Daily Worker, 24 March 1934).

Morris was probably the most active propagandist for socialism in Britain during the 1880s. He spoke at over one thousand meetings between 1883 and 1890, and may have been heard by as many as 250,000 people. In 1884 alone he wrote 34 for articles for Justice and some 450 pieces for Commonweal newspaper, ranging from short news pieces to serials such as Socialism from the Root Up and News from Nowhere that eventually ran to book length. He also wrote for the socialist journal Today, published several socialist books and pamphlets, and wrote for the Hammersmith Socialist Record (1891-93). He edited over 400 copies of Commonweal, which published (largely funded by his fortune) as a monthly from February 1885 until April 1886 and then as a weekly until he was deposed as editor in May 1890. (Nicholas Salmon, William Morris: Political Writings, 1994 )

In one of his first lectures after becoming a revolutionary socialist, Morris warned his audience what to expect from such a commitment. In Art and Socialism (23 January 1884) he argued: “You will at least be mocked and laughed at by those whose mockery is a token of honour to an honest man… You will run the risk of losing position, reputation, money, friends even: losses which are certainly pin pricks to the serious martyrdom I have spoken of... Nor can I assure you that you will forever escape scot-free from the attacks of open tyranny… So on all sides I can offer you a position which involves sacrifice…”

Nevertheless he urged “those of you who are convinced of the justice of our cause, not to hang back from active participation in a struggle”. Morris saw himself primarily as a propagandist for socialism, with the intention of “making Socialists” – convincing and educating a layer of socialists through open air meetings, lectures, socialist newspapers and books.

He summed up his attitude in Commonweal, 10 November 1888: “‘Agitate! Educate! Organise!’ Agitate, that the workers may be stirred and awakened to a sense of their position. Educate, that they may know the reason of the evils that they suffer. Organise, that we and they may overthrow the system that bears us down and makes us what we are; that there may be no futile waste of individual effort, but that the army of the revolution may move forward united, steadfast and irresistible, ‘the the Freedom of the Peoples and the Brotherhood of Man’.” (Salmon, William Morris: Journalism)

On capitalism and class struggle

In a number of significant respects, in his understanding of capitalism and class struggle, on the working class as the agent of its own emancipation, on the state and revolution, and on what socialism and communism would look like, Morris was a pretty orthodox follower of Marx and Engels.

Morris understood capitalism in Marxist terms, as a class society, but also as a system that prepared the ground for socialism. In another lecture early in his socialist life, Art and Labour (1 April 1884) he paraphrased the Communist Manifesto:

“[Capitalism] has strengthened and solidified the working class, has collected them into factories and great towns, has forced them to act together to a certain extent by the trades unions, and has given them a certain amount of political power: what they need now to enter on the last stage of the modern revolution of labour is that they should understand their true position… when they understand that they themselves can regulate labour, and by being absolute masters of their material, tools, and time they can win for themselves all that is possible to be won from nature without deduction or taxation paid to classes that have no purpose or reason for existence; when this is understood, the workers will find themselves compelled to combine together to change the basis of Society and to realise that Socialism the rumour of whose approach is all about us. (Eugene Lemire, The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris)

Morris read Capital and understood its importance of socialists. Looking back in his article, How I Became a Socialist, 16 June 1894, he explained about his own Marxist education. “Well, having joined a Socialist body (for the Federation soon became definitely Socialist), I put some conscience into trying to learn the economical side of Socialism, and even tackled Marx, though I must confess that, whereas I thoroughly enjoyed the historical part of Capital, I suffered agonies of confusion of the brain over reading the pure economics of that great work. Anyhow, I read what I could, and will hope that some information stuck to me from my reading; but more, I must think, from continuous conversation with such friends as Bax and Hyndman and Scheu.” (A L Morton, Political Writings of William Morris, 1973 p.242)

He understood that “the basis on which ‘Society’ is built, to wit, [is] the safe and continuous expansion of the exploitation of Labour by Capital.” (Commonweal, 7 August 1886)

In the Manifesto of the Socialist League (February 1885) he argued that, “the conflict between the [classes] is ceaseless. Sometimes it takes the form of open rebellion, sometimes of strikes, sometimes of mere widespread mendicancy and crime; but it is always going on in one form or other, though it may not always be obvious to the thoughtless looker-on.” (Salmon)

From that position, Morris believed that the working class was the central social agent of change and that it was the job of socialists to help raise up the labour movement and make workers self-conscious of their condition and interests.

Working class self-emancipation

The theme of working class self-emancipation runs through his writings. As the constitution of the Socialist League put it: “the liberation of the workers will be brought about by the workers themselves”. (Meier)

Introducing the first issue of Commonweal, February 1885, Morris wrote: “Lastly, a word of appeal, to the workers chiefly. It is not only that whatever we say is professedly directly in their interest: much more it is that through them alone, through the slaves of society, we look for its regeneration, for its elevation from its present corruption and misery.” (Salmon 1994 p.82)

In a lecture entitled, Monopoly; or, How Labour is Robbed (20 February 1887) he argued that “it is the workers themselves that must bring about the change”. In Common-Sense Socialism, a review in Commonweal (18 June 1887), he chastised the author for being “incapable of conceiving of the class-struggle, or the historical evolution of industrialism, or of understanding that the real point at issue is when and how the workers shall emerge from their condition of pupillage and be masters of their own destinies.” (Salmon)

Morris retained this idea even as his political organisation fell apart. As he put it in the Daily Chronicle (10 November 1893): “‘By us, and not for us’, must be their motto”. (A. Briggs, William Morris, Selected Writings and Designs)

Hal Draper, in his seminal study, The Two Souls of Socialism (1966), championed the conception of socialism from below, i.e. of socialism as essentially the self-emancipation of the working class. He described Morris as “the leading personality of revolutionary socialism in that period”. He argued that “Morris’ writings on socialism breathe from every pore the spirit of Socialism-from-Below” and are “pervaded with his emphasis from every side on class struggle from below, in the present; and in the future.”

Draper was absolutely right. It was working class self-liberation that demarcated Morris from most of his contemporaries and places him centrally within the real Marxist tradition.

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