Born in 1834 into a wealthy middle class family, William Morris was destined for the Anglican Church. His mother had visions of his becoming a bishop. However, after education at Marlborough and Oxford, Morris abandoned religion in favour of art.
William Morris was a polymath who excelled at everything he turned to -- from stained glass to textile design, from poetry to translations of the ancient Icelandic sagas and novels that prefigure the work of Tolkien.
In 1861 he set up the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, which offered paintings, decoration, metalwork, stained glass, jewellery, sculpture and furniture of all kinds. An example of his stained glass can still be seen in Wimbledon Labour Club.
He married Jane Burden and they went to live in the Red House, which still exists, in what is now Bexleyheath. There they had two daughters, May and Jenny, who followed their father into socialism. But his marriage was not a happy one.
The reform agitation of the 1860s and the Republicanism of the 1870s inspired by the re-establishment of a French Republic seem to have passed Morris by. He entered politics as an opponent of a repeat of the Crimean War, becoming treasurer of the Eastern Question Association. He made his first political speech then and wrote his "Appeal to the Working Men of England" in which he saw the question of war as a struggle between capitalists and the people.
Morris canvassed for Charles Dilke, the erstwhile Republican MP, and became treasurer of the National Liberal League, a pressure group of radical working men.
He became disillusioned with Gladstone's Liberal government and its failure to carry out reform at home and with its continuation of imperialism abroad. Aged nearly 50, he crossed what he called "the river of fire" and joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain's first Marxist organisation, led by Henry Hyndman.
Having read Henry George's Progress and Poverty and J S Mill, Morris set about reading Robert Owen and William Cobbett and the first volume of Capital in French. He said he enjoyed the historical parts but had difficulties with the pure economics. He wrote for the SDF paper Justice and undertook numerous speaking engagements up and down the country, both in the open air and in numerous clubs and halls. He spoke to striking coal miners.
He defined socialism as "...a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master's man; neither idle nor overworked; neither brain-sick brain workers nor heart-sick hand workers; a world in which all men would be living in equality of condition and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all -- the realisation at last of the word commonwealth."
But all was not well in the SDF, which Hyndman tended to treat as his private property. Matters came to a head late in 1884 at a stormy meeting of the SDF, which Hyndman had packed with loyal supporters. Morris and others walked out to form the Socialist League (SL).
It published, first monthly and then weekly, a paper, the Commonweal. This was largely the work of Morris, who subsidised it by as much as £500 a year. With a circulation of two to three thousand, it was the best socialist paper of its day.
The Socialist League manifesto stated: "...the machinery, factories, workshops, stores...all means of production and distribution of wealth, must be declared and treated as the common property of all." It continued: "...the waste incurred by the pursuit of profit will be at an end, the amount of labour necessary for every individual to perform in order to carry on the essential work of the world will be reduced to something like two or three hours daily..."
A circular "To Socialists" proclaimed that in the present a socialist body had no function but to "...educate the people in the principles of socialism..."
The SL was an odd mix. There were the European exiles like Scheu, who had been involved in the anarchist group around Most, and Lessner; there were the intellectuals like E Belfort Bax, an intimate of Engels; Eleanor, the youngest of Marx's surviving children, and her lover Edward Aveling; a scientist and former leading secularist. And, mainly in the East End of London, there was a group of self-educated working men who were anti-parliamentarian and had a healthy disrespect for authority.
Among them were Joseph Lane, a carter involved in Radical politics from his teens; Franz Kitz, a dyer for whom Morris found work in his factory at Merton; and Sam Mainwaring, an engineer. They had organised the Labour Emancipation League, which held meetings at Mile End and other East End locations.
Morris got on well with anarchist intellectuals like Peter Kropotkin. The similarity between Morris's ideas and those of Kropotkin, in such works as the Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops, is obvious. However, Morris would fall out with the East Enders.
These men's lives were blighted by often chronic poverty and insecurity, and under those conditions they moved towards anarchism. They espoused individual deeds of resistance leading to mass acts of resistance, which would lead to revolution. Morris on the other hand wanted a mass movement of conscious socialists, people who would understand socialism and be prepared to act for it.
A draft constitution written by Aveling and Eleanor Marx committing the League to contesting elections was defeated at the conference of 1885. An attempt to reintroduce parliamentarianism by Bax's Croydon branch prompted Lane to write his "Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto" as a minority report.
The gradual departure of the parliamentarians strengthened the hand of the anarchists in the League, leaving Morris increasing isolated. Morris called himself a Communist, feeling that the word required no further qualification. He disagreed with the anarchists, but also thought electoral efforts premature.
At the League's 1887 conference there were four motions from the Bloomsbury branch of Aveling and Eleanor Marx. Three were concerned with strengthening the power of the branch in the League. The fourth, known as "Bloomsbury Two", again proposed contesting elections. This was amended by Morris to make it an anti-parliamentary motion and was passed by a comfortable margin. The other motions were heavily defeated. Finally, amidst acrimonious bickering, Bloomsbury declared its autonomy.
There was now an anarchist majority on the League Council. At the end of 1888 Morris was writing to Bruce Glasier, a leading League member in Scotland, that Hammersmith branch was coming into conflict with the rest of the League because it kept up the idea of "...making of genuine convinced socialists without references to passing exigencies of tactics..."
In 1889 a discussion took place on anarchism in Commonweal. Morris wrote: "I am not pleading for any form of arbitrary or unreasonable authority. But for a public conscience as a rule of action: and by all means let us have the least possible exercise of authority."
On April 6 1890 Morris wrote to Glasier: "...members in London mostly consider themselves anarchists but don't know anything about socialism and go ranting revolution in the streets..."
By July he was complaining to David Nicoll about an article in Commonweal, Nicoll haven taken over as editor, luridly describing the Leeds gas-strike riots. "It goes too far or at any rate further than I can follow you", he wrote. There followed a dispute over an article on revolutionary warfare by Nicoll. At a meeting at the Kay Street Radical club, where there had been calls for revenge for police attacks on demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, he stated: "The only real revenge we could possibly have was by our own efforts bringing ourselves to happiness."
Morris now wrote his last article for Commonweal in which he denounced riots by men who do not understand socialism. Hammersmith branch withdrew from the League, which thereafter went into decline.
The paths of Morris and the anarchists were to cross again in 1892. The police had arrested Charles Mowbray, a tailor, for a particularly violent article by Nicoll in the Commonweal on the Walsall case in which he appeared to advocate assassination of the judge and police inspector involved. Mowbray was now publisher of the newspaper. Mowbray's wife had just died from consumption compounded by poverty. Morris stood £500 surety for Mowbray so that he might attend his wife's funeral, which became a political demonstration. Nicoll received 18 months imprisonment, in the course of which he started to become unhinged, hearing voices in his cell. He began to accuse his colleagues of being police spies.
Morris gave evidence in the trial of Tom Cantwell, an old League member who had been accused of soliciting the murder of the royal family. He wrote in support of the Walsall Anarchists who had been framed for alleged bomb making.
Hammersmith Socialist Society carried on alone. Its politics can be judged from its "Statement of Principles", which Morris wrote. "It should be our special aim to make Socialists by putting before people, and especially the working classes, the elementary truths of socialism... before any definite socialist action can be attempted, it must be backed up by a great body of intelligent opinion -- the opinion of a great mass of people who are already socialists..."
The HSS became a model of non-sectarian socialism. Socialists of all types from Shaw to Kropotkin spoke at its Sunday lectures.
Morris was on the platform with Engels and Aveling on the May Day demonstration in 1891. Morris now made his peace with the SDF, speaking on its platforms and supporting George Lansbury, future leader of the Labour Party, in an election at Walworth. When the ILP was formed at Bradford in 1893, Engels and Aveling and many former SL members joined it. Morris did not. It was not sufficiently socialist for him.
Early in 1896 Morris gave his last lecture on "One Socialist Party". He died in October of that year. Among many moving tributes was one from Robert Blatchford in the Clarion: "...he was our best man and he is dead..."
Socialists of all types, anarchists, SDF, and League veterans joined together in Holborn Town Hall to say farewell to their fallen comrade.
Fifty years later, at the height of the Depression, cherished copies of his Dream of John Ball and News From Nowhere were still to be found in the homes of impoverished miners.
News from Nowhere was written in part as a reply to the utopian novel Looking Backward by an American, Edward Bellamy, which Morris had reviewed in Commonweal. Bellamy advocated a form of state socialism, which he called nationalism, in which workers would be conscripted into labour brigades, an idea advocated by Trotsky in Russia in the early 1920s.
Nowhere is a place of communistic freedom where all are equal, beautiful and healthy. Money, prisons, formal education and central government have been abolished. Parliament has been made useful as a dung store. The pollution-belching factories are gone. The environment has been cleaned up -- salmon have returned to the Thames. Commodity production and the dull grind of alienated labour for wages are no more. Work is no longer useless toil, but the joyful creation of things that are both useful and functional. The false antithesis between work and leisure is a thing of the past.
People no longer bear the burden of armoured characters. They are free, joyful, spontaneous, sensual. They call each other neighbour; they touch, they love without fear. As one of Morris's characters puts it: "The spirit of the new days, of our days, has to be delight in the life of the world."
Morris makes it plain that this new and beautiful society has been arrived at by a process of revolutionary struggle.
Much has been written about Morris. Many have claimed him as their own. The church would have made a saint of him, Andrew Collins, a writer of occult fiction, thinks he was a Druid!
Morris belongs neither to Marxists, Anarchists or Greens. He belongs to all of toiling humanity, for his is a message of hope for their freedom.
The best biography remains that by E P Thompson, William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (Merlin Press, London, 1977). News from Nowhere is available as a Penguin paperback. There is a useful selection of his writings, William Morris On History (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). Much of his political journalism, in which is included his debate with the anarchists, has been republished by Thoemmes Press in Bristol, who have also republished Bruce Glasier's 1921 work, William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement. John Quail's The Slow Burning Fuse (Paladin, London, 1978) is an excellent history of anarchism in this period.
In his Dream of John Ball, a novel set during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, Morris wrote: "I pondered how men fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men fight for what they meant under another name."
In a wounded world made foul and ugly by capitalism, where socialism at the hands of Stalinism has been turned from a philosophy of liberation into an excuse for tyranny, we have again to take up that fight. And in our fight we can only be inspired by the vision and the example of William Morris.
This is the text of a talk given to London Anarchist Forum on 18 October 2003. Reproduced with permission from Workers Liberty.