R. Page Arnot

William Morris versus the Morris myth

Source: Labour Monthly, March 1934, pp. 178-184
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Graham Seaman
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

WILLIAM MORRIS is a name in the working-class movement of Britain. His revolutionary poems, almost our only native revolutionary poems, are sung at May Day demonstrations. His memory is revered by those who can recall him, especially his plain, simple habit of speech, essence of straightforwardness and revolutionary vigor. His revolutionary Socialist writings still have an influence, and would have more, but for the veil with which the capitalists have surrounded him. For, more than almost any other socialist leader of the 19th century, Morris has been subjected to that "canonisation" of which Lenin spoke.

This month the centenary of Morris's birth is being celebrated, and the final sanctification of him as a "harmless saint" is being carried through. Consequently, the first task is to clear away the nuisance that the capitalists are committing on the name of Morris before any estimate of him can be attempted.

There are several myths about William Morris, of which the most important are the bourgeois on the one hand, and the Labour Party and I.L.P. myth on the other. Already the bourgeois myth is proclaimed with the choice of Mr. Baldwin to open the William Morris Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum last month. In Mr. Baldwin's speech, and in the newspaper comments upon it, there is no mention whatever of as a revolutionary. He is a great poet, a great craftsman, a great artist, a great influence, a great what-not; but he is not mentioned as a revolutionary. The capitalists were not always as impudent as this. When Mr. Asquith delivered his Romanes Lectures at Oxford on the Great Victorians, he significantly omitted William Morris from the list. But now the Tory leader of the House of Commons — representative of the capitalist class, of "these foul swine" as they are called in The Dream of John Ball — has the impudence to scatter his dirt over the memory of the man who said, of Parliament, that it was

on the one side a kind of watch committee, sitting to see that the interests of the upper classes took no hurt, and on the other hand a sort of blind to delude the people into supposing that they had some share in the management of their own affairs.

Of course Morris was a great artist and a great craftsman; but neither his art nor his craftsman's work can be truly understood, nor can the whole man be understood, unless he is seen as he really was, as a revolutionary Socialist, fighting for the overthrow of capitalism and for the victory of the working class; and neither the capitalist politicians, nor the tribe of official biographers will be able to rob the working class of his memory and his teachings.

The Labour Party and I.L.P. myth is of a different character. It pictures Morris as a gentle Socialist, and fits in well with what Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, as leader of the I.L.P., once said of Socialism — his Socialism, the I.L.P. Socialism — as being based not upon economics, but as having a historical, ethical "and literary" basis. William Morris was hardly dead before this myth began to be built up by Bruce Glasier and many others, until at the present day it is being spread by literary ghouls like J. Middleton Murry — whose prolonged sessions on the grave of Morris, however, will neither give him the life blood of Morris nor distort the memory of what Morris was. The main burden of this myth, as it has lasted for over thirty years, is that Morris was "not a Marxist", and if there is now some assimilation of Morris and Marx in their scribblings, it is only because they have at length created a mythical Marx to fit in with their mythical Morris. It does not matter to them that his first political writings display his consciousness of class antagonism and class hatred; that these writings, beginning with the influence of what are called Ruskin's Socialist teachings, became more and more filled with the influence of Marx; that he joined a Marxist organisation; that, like Marx and Engels, he distrusted and fought the adventurer Hyndman, that along with Marx's daughter, Eleanor, and other close associates, he founded a second Marxist organisation: that he attended the Marxist International Congress in Paris in 1889, while Hyndman ranged himself with the opposition (possibilist) Congress: and that in his whole writings during the period of his political activity, Morris is accepting and following as best he can the teachings of Marx on economics, the class struggle and the victory of the working class through a period of civil war.

It should be realised that there is no question at all of these people weighing up the mistakes of Morris, as Engels did, estimating his grievous errors in tactics and concluding that he was all the less a Marxist for these things. No. They simply brush aside the Morris that was and construct a Morris that never existed, a sort of sickly dilettante socialist, as personally incredible as he would be politically monstrous.

What was the cause of this myth-building? The early myth-mongers of the I.L.P., all of them bitterly anti-Marxist, found it intolerable that an artist whom some of them regarded as a new Michaelangelo or new Leonardo da Vinci should be counted a follower of Marx. So that in essence the fight over the body of Morris was a fight against the influence of Marx inside the Labour movement; and unfortunately the only Socialist society on a class-struggle basis was dominated by H.M. Hyndman, whose bitter antagonism to made him ready to hand over Morris's memory to the I.L.P. traducers without a struggle.

The result is to this day even old associates of Morris will calmly state that he had not even studied Marx.1 What evidence is brought forward for this? Can it be believed that the only substantial evidence is his statement (since repeated over and over in books about him) 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.

Everyone knows that the first chapters of Capital are difficult; as much is stated by Marx himself as well as by Engels (and also by Lenin), and the only meaning of this sentence is that Morris was honest enough to confess his difficulties. Yet, actually, the meaning of this sentence was somehow twisted to make the proof that Morris was an anti-Marxist. Starting from the axiom "Morris an anti-Marxist", they then proceed on the evidence of ill-remembered gossip to rule out all in his writings that is evidence to the contrary.

It will be valuable to take two examples. J. Bruce Glasier in his book on Morris (published in 1921), shamelessly tries to show that the historical sketch, known as Socialism, its Growth and Outcome, by William Morris and Belfort Bax, does not represent the true views of Morris, though even his shamelessness might have been put to flight by the last sentence of the preface, signed by Morris and Bax, and reading as follows:

We have only further to add that the work has been in the true sense of the word a collaboration, each sentence having been carefully considered by both the authors in common, although now one, now the other, has had more to do with initial suggestions in different portions of the work.

But it was clear that the chapters of that book, dealing with scientific socialism and Karl Marx, with their anti-Fabian and anti-I.L.P. outlook, had to be discounted at all costs.

But the virulence of the myth appears most strongly in relation to Morris's best-known book, News from Nowhere.2

In this case the poison ivy of the myth has completely hidden the oak. Almost everyone appears to have read News from Nowhere under the domination of the I.L.P. myth and have, consequently, read not what was in the book but what they expected to find.

Whereas the essence of "News from Nowhere" is the insistence on the necessity of an armed rising and bitter civil war as the only path to socialism for the working class.

Thirty years later it took all the force of Lenin's genius and profound knowledge of Marxism to restore in a revolutionary epoch the actual teachings of Marx and Engels. So much the easier was it for the myth-mongers to smother up the teachings of Marx forty-five years ago.

News from Nowhere was written at a time when the vapid counterrevolutionary book of Bellamy, Looking Backwards, had just been published and when this American petty-bourgeois philistine — a real predecessor of H.G. Wells, who lifted several ideas from him, was attaining a wide popularity. It was written, too, shortly after the events of "Bloody Sunday" in Trafalgar Square had given a foretaste of the ferocity of the bourgeoisie — a ferocity displayed many times since up to last month's atrocities in Vienna and always regarded by the myth-mongers and reformists on each occasion as an "accident" in the &34;peaceful path" to Socialism. It was written fugitively for publication in the weekly Commonweal, the organ of the Socialist League (the revival of whose name by the unspeakable Cripps and his crew of faint-hearts is another befoulment of Morris's memory). Just because of its fugitive and unconsidered nature it is possible to estimate Morris's views; because if what a man says in a hastily written series forms an artistic and logical whole, then we can be certain that it represents his essential outlook.

Morris set out in News from Nowhere to write a Utopian3 romance about a Communist Society, about what Marx called the "higher phase" of Communist society, when the State shall have withered away and the Government of Men given way to the Administration of Things. A romance is not to be judged like a treatise, and clearly some of the matters in News from Nowhere are set down by Morris just as they came up his back; and so it is really astonishing the extent to which Morris's picture corresponds to the indications given by Marx in his letter on the "Gotha Programme" and even anticipates some of the features already beginning to show themselves in embryo in the present transition to Socialism within the U.S.S.R.

Those who fail to see the insistence upon the civil war as the central feature of News from Nowhere, also blame Morris because, unlike Anatole France, in his White Stone, he did not draw a picture of the marvellous machinery of the future society. But since it is precisely the same type of people who omitted to note, in the case of Anatole France, the insistence on the proletarian dictatorship as a preliminary to his future society — and this in a book written ten years before the Russian Revolution — their opinions on Morris can have but little value. Supposing Morris had made his book hum with machines and complicated metal devices, what would have happened? His machines, imagined before the age of electricity, before the age of flying machines, or wireless or television, would have been not the machines of a Communist society, but of a decade, or at most, two decades ahead of 1890. Morris did not care to display the wooden imagination of an H. G. Wells in his Anticipations, which would have made his book take on the peculiarly ephemeral quality of Well's pre-war writings. Thus Morris, while missing the local popularity of the man who can tell what the parson is going to have for dinner by virtue of having peeped over the Vicarage wall and seen the Cook plucking mint. Indeed, what Morris says is that the productive forces have enormously developed while as for the actual machines of Communist society, he says that they were beyond his comprehension or capacity to explain.

For Morris was not concerned simply with the improved and novel machinery which he assumed as the basis of heavy industry and transportation, but with the productive relations of men. Given these developed productive powers, his business was to imagine a world with no exploitation of man by man, with no birthmarks of capitalism, or — to give it a local habitation and a name — to picture the lower reaches of the Thames as they would be in the higher phase of Communism. Morris goes on to make one assumption, which is unlikely enough, namely, that after the material basis of Communism is laid there comes to mankind an epoch of rest wherein men express their joy in labour, largely through handicraft. Nevertheless, this assumption of a temporary epoch of rest before the advance of mankind to further heights of Communist development is an essential part of Morris's picture. Once this assumption was made, what else was to be expected but that Morris would hark back to the London as it once was, where "Geoffrey Chaucer's pen moves over bills of lading," to get some concrete idea of what it again might be. So the stones of his buildings seem hewn out of the masonry of the Middle Ages. And the picture recalls the opening lines of his Earthly Paradise:

Forget six counties overhung with smoke
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.

There is a prevalent objection to the absorption of Morris in the Middle Ages, an objection partly warranted. For the Middle Ages from which he drew inspiration were also a fetter on his thought. But the objection often goes beyond this and is partly due to the lack of understanding of Utopias and how they are made and imagined. After the Renaissance utopias of Sir Thomas More and Rabelais, the first great outburst of utopian thoughts and imagination were in the writings of the French revolutionaries, who imagined "justice," "equality" and all other "republican virtues" to be just around the corner. But when they wanted symbols of their dreams they evoked the ancient Republics of Rome and Sparta, the toga and the Phrygian cap. Utopians all look back to a golden age and then project it into the future.

If the ancient world of the slave holders may be used in a transfigured form by other Utopists, then William Morris may evoke John Ball as well as Spartacus, or Chaucer's London instead of Lacedaemon. So presently, in his Utopian romance, some of the atmosphere of the transfigured Middle Ages is built up as the antithesis to the atmosphere of London fifty years ago. But this atmosphere, this fragrance of the Garden of England in which this Communist dialogue is written, so overpoweringly assails the senses already drugged by the Labour-I.L.P. myth, that, seemingly, many who wander there hear the News from Nowhere but do not hearken to it; remember the fragrance of the garden, but nothing of the men who dwelt therein. It is as though readers of the Dialogues of Plato were to remember only their setting — the shady plane tree beyond the banks of the Cephisos and Socrates paddling his feet in the burn, but forget what the Dialogue was about.

We, who can look back over the developing years since Morris wrote, can see with what insight he beheld the class struggle in Europe. Had he lived another ten years he would have seen many features of his chapter on "How the Change Came" enacted in the year 1905 in Russia, from the massacre of Bloody Sunday, through the mutinies of the armed forces and the General Strike to the creation of Soviets (Workers' Committees, Morris called them), the formation of Black hundreds and, finally, the armed rising.

All this does not mean that William Morris had anything like the understanding of Marxism that was afterwards to be shown by the Bolsheviks. On the contrary, he allowed himself to be influenced by the Anarchists, showed an anti-Parliamentary tendency, and several other similar tendencies — all of them (as Lenin was to note afterwards) a punishment of the movement for the sins of opportunism rampant in Hyndman and the Fabians.

If Maxim Gorki, who may be rightly acclaimed as the greatest artistic force of the Russian proletariat, made mistake after mistake, even in the most serious moments of the Revolution, how much more is this likely to have been so of Morris who had lived four parts of his life before he joined the Social Democratic Federation in his fiftieth year. Just herein lies the contradiction which made it hard for Morris to grasp and apply with full correctness the teachings of Marx.

But these things no more entitle Morris to be canonised as a Reformist by two generations of the Labour Party and I.L.P. than Gorki's weaknesses would entitle him to be regarded as a Whiteguardist and a Menshevik.

It is high time that the Morris myth was destroyed: for the real Morris belongs to us, belongs to the revolutionary working class of Great Britain.

Many this centenary year will be turning to read News from Nowhere or An Epoch of Rest, being some chapters from a Utopian romance. As they do it they should realise that the poet, once "the idle singer of an empty day" in the 'sixties, had developed by his great period of the 'eighties into the full revolutionary artist.



1. Actually, this year, amongst the papers of the late J.L. Mahon (one-time secretary of the Socialist League), there was discovered a manuscript in the handwriting of Morris, being a brief précis of one of the "pure economics" portions of Capital. Things have come to a pretty pass when it is necessary to mention evidence of this kind to convince those who have been blinded by the Morris myth.

2. For over ten years I have made it a practice to ask three questions, which have always invariably been answered as follows:

Question 1: Have you ever read News from Nowhere?
Answer: Yes, a long time ago.
Question 2: What would you say about it?
Answer: A beautiful dream of a future society, but quite impossible.
Question 3: Do you remember how the change took place to the future society?
Answer: No, I can't say that I do remember.

3. The Morris myth is made still more confused by those who think Morris was a Utopian Socialist because he wrote a Socialist Utopia — whereas, in point of fact in Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, Morris and Bax analyse and explicitly condemn the Utopian Socialists.