William Morris: Ecology and the shift to socialism

Submitted by AWL on 12 February, 2009 - 8:14 Author: Paul Hampton

The sixth part of a series by Paul Hampton

Sometime in 1882, William Morris decided he was no longer a radical and began to associate himself explicitly with socialism. He stated in How I Became A Socialist (16 June 1894) that by the summer of 1882 he was ready “to join any body who distinctly called themselves Socialists.” (Edward Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 1976)

In January 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Federation and began his agitation for socialism — a commitment that he would maintain to his death. He continued to be a dedicated conservationist. In his celebrated lecture ‘Art under Plutocracy’, delivered at the Russell Club at Oxford University in November 1883, at which he unashamedly urged the audience to join the socialist cause, Morris repeated some of his earlier themes.

He said: “I can myself sympathise with a feeling which I suppose is still not rare, a craving to escape sometimes to mere Nature… I can deeply sympathise with a weary man finding his account in interest in mere life and communion with external nature, the face of the country, the wind and weather, and the course of the day, and the lives of animals, wild and domestic; and man's daily dealings with all this for his daily bread, and rest, and innocent beast-like pleasure.” (A L Morton, Political Writings of William Morris)

In ‘Under an Elm-Tree; or, Thoughts in the Country-Side’, published in Commonweal (6 July 1889), he described his joy at the countryside: “Midsummer in the country — here you may walk between the fields and hedges that are as it were one huge nosegay for you, redolent of bean-flowers and clover and sweet hay and elder-blossom. The cottage gardens are bright with flowers, the cottages themselves mostly models of architecture in their way. Above them towers here and there the architecture proper of days bygone, when every craftsman was an artist and brought definite intelligence to bear upon his work.

“Man in the past, nature in the present, seem to be bent on pleasing you and making all things delightful to your senses; even the burning dusty road has a look of luxury as you lie on the strip of roadside green, and listen to the blackbirds singing, surely for your benefit, and, I was going to say as if they were paid to do it, but I was wrong, for as it is they seem to be doing their best.

“And all, or let us say most things, are brilliantly alive. The shadowy bleak in the river down yonder, which is — ignorant of the fate that Barking Reach is preparing for its waters — sapphire blue under this ruffling wind and cloudless sky, and barred across here and there with the pearly white-flowered water-weeds, every yard of its banks a treasure of delicate design, meadowsweet and dewberry and comfrey and bed-straw — from the bleak in the river, amongst the labyrinth of grasses, to the starlings busy in the new shorn fields, or about the grey ridges of the hay, all is eager, and I think all is happy that is not anxious.”

In News from Nowhere, he has Ellen express his what he would later call his “deep love of the earth and the life on it”: “O me! O me! How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it, — as this has done!”

However I would argue that his conversion to socialism developed his ecological politics in a number of significant respects. In particular Morris developed a more sophisticated conception of the relationship between nature and human society, a more adequate explanation for the causes of ecological degradation, a notion that the working class could become the vital social agency in ecological as well as wider politics and a positive conception of socialism as a more ecologically sensitive as well as a freer, more equal and non-exploitative mode of production.

He also gave more concrete responses on the nature of work under socialism (including on factories and machinery), on forms of energy, on transport, on housing and urban life, and on lifestyle politics, that repay reading today.

Morris had read Marx’s Capital in French by 1884 (in an authorised English edition was still to be properly translated at this time). The first fruits of this reading were contained in the lecture, ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, (21 January 1884). Morris expresses the primacy of nature in terms very similar to Marx, arguing that “Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort of degree” and that “Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment [clothing] and housing necessary and decent…” (Morton)

He also summed up the nature-society nexus in the language of the time: “Men urged by their necessities and desires have laboured for many thousands of years at the task of subjugating the forces of Nature and of making the natural material useful to them. To our eyes, since we cannot see into the future, that struggle with Nature seems nearly over, and the victory of the human race over her nearly complete… Thus then have the fruits of our victory over Nature been stolen from us, thus has compulsion by Nature to labour in hope of rest, gain, and pleasure been turned into compulsion by man to labour in hope - of living to labour! What shall we do then, can we mend it?” (Morton)

Morris repeated this theme in a lecture, ‘How We Live and How We Might Live’ (30 November 1884). He argued that humanity’s progress had been broken and halting “and though he has indeed conquered Nature and has her forces under his control to do what he will with, he still has himself to conquer, he still has to think how he will best use those forces which he has mastered. At present he uses them blindly, foolishly, as one driven by mere fate.

“It would almost seem as if some phantom of the ceaseless pursuit of food which was once the master of the savage was still haunting the civilised man; who toils in a dream, as it were, haunted by mere dim unreal hopes, born of vague recollections of the days gone by. Out of that dream he must wake, and face things as they really are. The conquest of Nature is complete, may we not say? and now our business is and has for long been the organisation of man, who wields the forces of Nature.” (Morton 19)

Morris came close to identifying the dichotomy between nature and human society that Marx called in Capital the “metabolic rift”. This was most eloquently expressed in ‘Socialism from the Root Up’, jointly written with Bax and published in Commonweal (19 May 1888): “Consequently, with the development of material civilisation from the domination of things by persons to that of persons by things, and the consequent falling asunder of Society into two classes, a possessing and dominating class, and a non-possessing and dominated one, arose a condition of Society which gave leisure to the possessing or slave-holding class, the result of which was a possibility of observation and reflection amongst the upper class. As a consequence of this a process of reflection arose among this class which distinguished man as a conscious being from the rest of nature.

“From this again arose a dual conception of things: on the one hand was man, which was familiar and known, on the other nature, which was mysterious and relatively unknown. In nature itself grew a further distinction between its visible objects now regarded as unconscious things, and a supposed motive power which acted on them from behind, which was conceived of as manlike in character, but above mankind in knowledge and power, and no longer a part of the things themselves, but without them, and moving and controlling them.”

Morris also expressed this idea in his fiction. In News from Nowhere, he has Clara sum it up: “Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living? — a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — ‘nature’, as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind as another. It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make 'nature' their slave, since they thought 'nature' was something outside them.”

And Morris believed that through the socialist reorganisation of society the reconciliation of human society and nature would be affected. Humanity would be “set free from intestine warfare among ourselves for the nobler contest with Nature, and should find that she also when conquered, would be our friend, and not our enemy”. ‘Attractive Labour’, Commonweal, June 1885

Not that socialism was simply a panacea for all ecological problems. In a lecture, ‘Society of the Future’ (13 November 1887) raised the possibility of more profound changes in humanity’s relationship with the environment, where socialism would be “a society conscious of a wish to keep life simple, to forgo some of the power over Nature won by past ages in order to be more human and less mechanical, and willing to sacrifice something to this end.” (Morton).

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