William Morris: The Man and The Myth. R Page Arnot 1964

Chapter Three: The Socialist League

Sometime in these first years of public agitation Morris became a convinced socialist – while as yet there was in Britain no declared socialist organisation. As soon as there was one, Morris was now sure to be in; for as early as August 1881 he writes in a letter: ‘To do nothing but grumble and not to act – that is throwing away one’s life.’ Two years later he writes to Andreas Scheu that ‘I always intended to join any body who distinctly called themselves socialists’ and goes on to explain that when he had accepted an invitation in 1882 ‘to join the Democratic Federation’ it was in the hope that ‘it would declare for socialism’. The invitation had come from Henry Mayers Hyndman – who some thirty years later was described by Lenin as ‘an English bourgeois philistine, who, being of the best in his class, in the long run beats out the road to socialism for himself, never fully getting rid of bourgeois traditions, bourgeois views and prejudices’. Hyndman began his plunge in the socialist direction badly, with a sort of plagiarism of Marx. Karl Marx in the last letter to his friend FA Sorge wrote:

In the beginning of June, there was published by a certain Hyndman (who had before intruded himself into my house) a little book: England for All. It pretends to be written as an exposé of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently-formed association of different English and Scotch radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletaires. The chapters on Labour and Capital are only literal extracts from, or circumlocutions of, the Capital, but the fellow does neither quote the book, nor its author, but to shield himself from exposure remarks at the end of his preface: ‘For the ideas and much of the matter contained in Chapters II and III, I am indebted to the work of a great thinker and original writer, etc, etc.’ Vis-à-vis myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that ‘the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners’, that ‘my name was so much detested, etc’. With all that, his little book – so far as it pilfers the Capital – makes good propaganda, although the man is a ‘weak’ vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – of studying a matter thoroughly. All those amiable middle-class writers – if not specialists – have an itching to make money or name or political capital immediately out of any new thoughts they may have got at by any favourable windfall. Many evenings this fellow has pilfered from me, in order – to take me out and to learn in the easiest way. (15 December 1881)

What was the situation of the English working-class movement at the moment when this Democratic Federation (in 1883) proclaimed itself socialist? The answer to this question is to be found in the letters of Frederick Engels to August Bebel and other leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party:

Do not on any account whatever let yourself be deluded into thinking there is a real proletarian movement going on here. I know Liebknecht tries to delude himself and all the world about this, but it is not the case. The elements at present active may become important since they have accepted our theoretical programme and so acquired a basis, but only if a spontaneous movement breaks out here among the workers and they succeed in getting control of it. Till then they will remain individual minds, with a hotch-potch of confused sects, remnants of the great movement of the 1840s, standing behind them and nothing more. And – apart from the unexpected – a really general workers’ movement will only come into existence here when the workers are made to feel the fact that England’s world monopoly is broken.

Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the basis of the political nullity of the English workers. The tail of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly but nevertheless sharing in its advantages, politically they are naturally the tail of the ‘great Liberal Party’. (30 August 1883)

A satisfactory history of the 1880s and 1890s has still to be written. Here we are concerned only with the progress in socialism of Morris, who early in 1883 had got hold of Marx’s Capital in the French translation and was reading it with the greatest assiduity and delight. From this moment onwards the teachings of Marx in Capital begin to shine through Morris’ writings, letters and speeches. At first, indeed, like that earlier socialist manufacturer, Robert Owen, Morris hoped that ‘leaders of society’, or, at any rate, that artistic section with which he was best acquainted, would be ready to join the ranks of the class struggle. So we find him writing to Algernon Swinburne and others, but without success. Presently, however, Morris, in writing to a friend who thought that change depended on ‘individuals of good will belonging to all classes’, says outright:

The upper and middle classes as a body will by the very nature of their existence resist the abolition of classes. I have never underrated the power of the middle classes, whom, in spite of their individual good nature and banality, I look upon as a most terrible and implacable force.

To destroy this force by the power of the revolutionary workers consciously fighting for its overthrow had now become Morris’ chief end in life: ‘The antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural and necessary instrument of its destruction.’ (Letter to CE Maurice, 1 July 1883)

In the Social-Democratic Federation Morris, rather against his own will – he had wanted to be a ‘rank-and-filer’ – found himself playing a leading part: but a leading part in that little organisation meant either submission to its founder or opposition. That opposition, in which participated Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, her husband Edward Aveling, Belfort Bax, Frederick Lessner, JL Mahon, Andreas Scheu, as well as Morris, became more and more opposed to Hyndman’s methods. At length, at the end of 1884, the leading group were driven by Hyndman’s behaviour to force matters to an issue, and by a majority passed a vote of censure on him: and then, as a majority, withdrew from the organisation, the main reason being, as Engels said, ‘because the whole Federation was nothing but a swindle’.

The seceders then formed the Socialist League on 30 December 1884. Within two months they had brought out a new paper, the famous Commonweal. Engels, who had helped to organise the secession, was nevertheless not over-sanguine as to the prospects, as may be seen from his letter to Eduard Bernstein:

Those who resigned [he wrote at the time] were Aveling, Bax and Morris, the only honest men among the intellectuals but were as unpractical (two poets and one philosopher) as you could possibly find. In addition, the better of the known workers. They want to act in the London branches; they hope to win the majority and then let Hyndman carry on with his non-existent provincial branches. Their organ will be a little monthly journal. Finally they will work on a modest scale, in proportion to their forces, and no longer act as though the English proletariat were bound to follow as soon as a few intellectuals became converted to socialism and sounded the call. Their entire strength in London was (on Morris’ admission) less than four hundred: in the provinces they had not a hundred supporters. (29 December 1884)

So that was how they began, ‘the feeble band, the few’. But the quality of the new organisation, its fearless outlook at its first beginnings, was of a very high order. This quality can be far better shown by a single extensive quotation than by a series of shorter extracts: and for this purpose choice must fall upon a very early declaration against a colonial war of aggression. It may be taken as the first anti-imperialist manifesto of the socialist movement in Britain, written when the tide was setting in strongly for annexations and protectorates in Asia and Africa.

On The Sudan War (2 March 1885)

Fellow Citizens

A wicked and unjust war is now being waged by the ruling and propertied classes of this country, with all the resources of civilisation at their back, against an ill-armed and semi-barbarous people whose only crime is that they have risen against a foreign oppression which those classes themselves admit to have been infamous. Tens of millions wrung from the labour of workmen of this country are being squandered on Arab slaughtering; and for what: 1) that Eastern Africa may be ‘opened up’ to the purveyor of ‘shoddy’ wares, bad spirits, venereal disease, cheap bibles and the missionary; in short, that the English trader and contractor may establish his dominion on the ruins of the old, simple and happy life led by the children of the desert; 2) that a fresh supply of sinecure Government posts may be obtained for the occupation of the younger sons of the official classes; 3) as a minor consideration may be added that a new and happy hunting ground be provided for military sportsmen, who, like the late-lamented Colonel Burnaby, find life boring at home and are always ready for a little Arab shooting when occasion arises. All these ends determine the dominant classes, though in different proportions, to the course they are pursuing.

Citizens, you are the dupes of a plot. Be not deceived by the flimsy pretences that have been, and are, alleged as reasons for the cowardly brigandage perpetrated on weak and uncivilised peoples by these classes in the name of the community. Rest assured the above are the sole motives animating them, whatever their professions; in brief, that, in the words of our manifesto, ‘all the rivalries of nations have been reduced to this one – a degrading struggle for their share of the spoils of barbarous countries to be used at home for the purpose of increasing the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor’.

With the history and causes of the bondholders’ war in Egypt you are probably already sufficiently familiar, but we invite your attention for a moment to the leading facts in this latest development of a career of hypocrisy and crime. After the British conquest of Egypt, General Hicks is allowed to attempt the reconquest of the Sudan in the interest of Egyptian usury. This attempt failing, General Baker is authorised to subdue at least the seaboard. A second failure demonstrating the utter futility of Egyptian arms against the desert spearmen, a fluttering in the dovecotes of the military and the Stock Exchange worlds ensues. But there is balm in Gilead yet. Happy thought, the garrisons – yes, they must be rescued! General Gordon, the successful subduer of rebels in China, and ex-Governor-General at Khartoum, is he not the man to deal with Sudanese malcontents? Assuredly, say the Pall Mall Gazette and The Times. Cabinet ministers, unable to resist the mandates of the classes these powerful organs represent, bow their heads and submit.

Gordon, after duly consulting with his friends, is despatched, bearing in his hands the instructions of the Government, but – as events have proved – in his pocket those of the distinguished newspapers in question. Arrived at Khartoum, the ‘Christian hero’, accordingly with scarcely a feint at negotiation, and in defiance of his professions of peace, proceeds to fortify himself within the city, and use it as a base for military raids upon the surrounding tribes, who he had previously cajoled with protestations of friendship. The play after this move was easy. The wicked Mahdi menaces the life of the ‘hero'; ‘hero’ demands an expedition to help him ‘smash the Mahdi’. The ‘rebels’, otherwise Sudanese, are base enough to take their own town of Berber from the Egyptian garrison. ‘Christian hero’ feels it his bounden duty to announce his intention of recapturing Berber, and putting all its inhabitants to the sword by way of chastisement. (This pious intention, fortunately for the Berberese, remained unrealised.) Meanwhile, garrisons are forgotten. The Jingoes know a cry worth two of that. Gordon abandoned! Despatch your expedition! cry The Times, Pall Mall Gazette and company. Cabinet ministers faintly remonstrate and at length again bow their heads. Who are ministers to dispute the orders of influential newspapers representing important interests?

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs not to make reply;
Theirs but to do and – die,

and dying they are, to all appearances, as Cabinet ministers – of Pall Mall Gazette. That, however, is no concern of ours.

The expedition is despatched. British cut-throats slaughter a few thousand Arabs amid the jubilation of the press, when – oh horror! – Khartoum is fallen: and fallen, too, into the hands of the Sudanese themselves. Gordon, no more! In Fleet Street is there a cry heard; lamentation and weeping and great mourning. Never was the dust of a hero so watered by the gush of newspaper before. Nowadays, however, we produce emotion like other things – primarily for profit – and only secondarily for use. Time was when men poured forth each his own grief in his own manner when they sorrowed for some great departed. Under the rule of the great industry we have changed all this. Now the factory system and the division of labour superseded individual emotion: it is distilled for us by the journalist, and we buy it ready-made from the great vats in Fleet Street and Printinghouse Square. The result is that the public sometimes have emotion forced upon them when it suits the purveyor, for other reasons than the greatness of the departed. Perhaps it is so in this case. Anyway, from the well-watered dust of Gordon rises up for The Times, Pall Mall and their clients, the fair prospect of British Protectorate at Khartoum, railway from Suakim to Berber, new markets, fresh colonial posts, etc. Cabinet ministers once more bow before the all-powerful press, and whispering they will ne'er consent, consent – to the reconquest of the country in the interest of English commerce – for the permanent railway from Suakim to Berber can mean nothing less than this.

Citizens, if you have any sense of justice, any manliness left in you, join us in our protest against the wicked and infamous act of brigandage now being perpetrated for the interest solely of the ‘privileged’ classes of this country; an act of brigandage led up to through the foulest stream of well-planned hypocrisy and fraud that has ever disgraced the foreign policy, even of this commercial age. Mehemet Achmet (the Mahdi), the brave man who, in Oriental fashion, is undertaking the deliverance of his country, has repeatedly declared through his agents his willingness to release the Bashi-Bazouk garrison and give guarantees to refrain from aggression in Egypt. Mr Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was in a position, even when the ‘Christian hero’ was wantonly waging an offensive war against the Mahdi, to ensure the success of the negotiations for his release, as well as that of the garrisons, had he been allowed to make them, as he assuredly would, had this been the real object in view, but such an arrangement was not quite good enough for the market-hunters and filibusters for whom the ‘influential’ press writes. ‘Not this man, but Wolseley’, cried they; and Wolseley was sent, avowedly to rescue their nominee – who by that ostentatious pietism which, as they were well aware, gilds everything with a certain section of the British public, had already so well served their turn – but in reality to engage in the conquest of the devoted land upon which from the first their vultures’ eyes had been cast.

And, finally, we ask you to consider who it is that have to do the fighting on this and similar occasions. Is it the market-hunting classes themselves? Is it they who form the rank and file of the army? No! but the sons and brothers of the working classes at home. They it is who for a miserable pittance are compelled to serve in these commercial wars. They it is who conquer for the wealthy, middle and upper classes, new lands for exploitation, fresh populations for pillage, as these classes require them, and who have, as their reward, the assurance of their masters that they are ‘nobly fighting for their Queen and country’.

The Provisional Council of the Socialist League

W Bridges Adams
Edward Aveling
Eleanor Marx Aveling
Robert Banner
E Belfort Bax
Thomas Binning
H Charles
William J Clark
J Cooper
ET Craig
CJ Faulkner (Oxford)
W Hudson
Frank Kitz
Joseph Lane
Frederick Lessner
Thomas Maguire (Leeds)
JL Mahon
S Mainwaring
James Mavor (Glasgow)
William Morris
C Mowbray
Andreas Scheu (Edinburgh)
Edward Watson

A couple of generations later Lytton Strachey acquired or at any rate enlarged his fame by the ‘debunking’ of General Gordon, who had been furbished up as ‘a hero of the Empire’ for use in schools. But the job had already been done, and on the spot, by William Morris, who at this time was responsible for drafting most of the documents of the Socialist League. The Manifesto of the Socialist League (of 30 December 1884), quoted in the above declaration on the Sudan War, was his also: and it may be worthwhile to revert to this as typical of the new birth, especially in its opening words:

Fellow Citizens: We come before you as a body advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism.

On the cover of it (as printed in 1885) is an engraving by Walter Crane of three symbolic figures who sustain a scroll – The Socialist League – and above whose heads are three words ‘Agitate, Educate, Organise’. Below it is stated that the Manifesto, ‘signed by the Provisional Council at the foundation of the League’ on 30 December 1884, was adopted at the General Conference ‘held in Farringdon Hall, London on 6 July 1885’: and that this is ‘a new edition, annotated by William Morris and Belfort Bax’. A prefatory note signed by these twain, begins: ‘The spread of Socialism since the first issue of this Manifesto makes a new edition necessary.’ Nine months had elapsed since the first issue: an unquenchable optimism was the birth-right of these pioneers. On the back page runs the heading: ‘Literature of the Socialist League’, beginning with The Commonweal and The Manifesto and followed by Art and Socialism by William Morris (price 3d) and Chants for Socialists by William Morris – ‘1) The Day is Coming; 2) The Voice of Toil; 3) All for the Cause; 4) No Master; 5) The March of the Workers; 6) The Message of the March Wind. The six poems in one pamphlet, 1d.’ Then they advertise socialist leaflets and The Socialist Platform [1] – seven pamphlets of a uniform size, each embellished with the same Walter Crane engraving, which are said to be ‘intended in great measure to be a Commentary on the Manifesto of the League’.

Morris turned with great enthusiasm and courage to the building up of a new party. The files of The Commonweal and the letters to his friends give a picture of what now became his main activity. He goes with Eleanor Marx and her husband to a meeting of Oxford undergraduates, thence to meetings in Glasgow and Edinburgh, thence again to meetings in London, speaking all the weekend in the open air at various pitches, sometimes to large audiences, sometimes to the proverbial half-dozen. He is busy writing and proofreading The Commonweal, and then selling it in the street. Unlike other well-known men who had given their blessing to socialism, Morris threw himself into the hard, unremitting toil that was necessary to build up a party, because, it should be noted, he understood well that it would be impossible for the working class to win the victory in a revolutionary situation without a strong party. He understood also (for in this he shared the opinion of Engels on lumpen-proletarian riots led by Hyndman) that without a mass movement and a working-class party, strong in its revolutionary theory, there was no possibility of real advance. But though Morris understood this well enough, and understood also many essential features of a revolutionary workers’ movement better than many other Englishmen up to the war of 1914-18, he was not in the situation, nor was he himself the man, to build successfully the party that was needed.

Here is no space to give any detailed history of the Socialist League. [2] It was the period when the Fabian and Hyndmanite opportunist tendency amongst the sects was met by a wave of anarchism, amongst whose prominent representatives were Kropotkin in Britain, Domela Nieuwenhuis in the Low Countries and Pelloutier in France.

Within a short time an anarchist wing began to develop in the Socialist League. Morris, desperately afraid of a drift back to the opportunist policies of Hyndman, allowed, and even encouraged, the anarchists in the League to gain increasing influence. Engels, who knew well how to fight on two fronts (which Morris did not), and who, along with Marx, had had to leave the Communist Workers Educational League in the early 1850s when it began to fall into the hands of the ‘Putschists’, gave his experienced counsel in vain:

Of the so-called Movement here [Engels writes] I cannot communicate anything good. Hyndman gets more played out every day, he has lost all the trust of his own adherents, but the League is passing more and more into the hands of the Anarchists... Bax and Morris are strongly under the influence of the Anarchists. These men must go through it in corpore vili: they will get out of it somehow; but it is a real piece of luck that these children’s ailments are finishing before the masses come into the movement. [3]

Morris, though never an anarchist, took sides against good elements in the League, those who were making a stand against this epidemic of ‘children’s ailments’. The best of these were driven out. The fact is that Morris in the late 1880s was largely of the same type as those ‘left’ communists with whom Lenin thirty years later carried on a convincing polemic (incidentally taking the title of his book, Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Ailment, from just this pungent reference by Engels to the case of Morris and Bax) and by means of this polemic brought them back into a mature understanding of communism. In the case of Morris what Engels had predicted (’they will get out of it somehow’) in the end came to pass – as is made clear in his later writings.

The League, after losing the help of Eleanor Marx, got finally into the hands of the anarchists through yielding on Morris’ part, and once it became an anarchist body it soon ran upon the rocks. Morris was driven out of the League by the anarchists. Before midsummer 1890, they had taken from him the editorship of The Commonweal. The truth of Engels’ prophecy is best related in Morris’ own words some years later, when he wrote:

Such finish to what of education in practical Socialism as I am capable of I received afterwards from some of my Anarchist friends, from whom I learned, quite against their intention, that Anarchism was impossible.

At the age of fifty-seven Morris set himself to build a new socialist organisation and composed the manifesto of the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which was the largest branch of the League and which now, in November 1890, seceded: but there was little he could do. He was rapidly becoming an old man. Four years before this he had written: ‘I wish I was not so damned old – if I were but twenty years younger.’

Hardly had the new society begun when he was prostrated by his worst attack of gout, with disabling kidney disease added thereto. He continued to speak and give lectures, but his most active period was over. But those who, like Mrs Bruce Glasier in the Northern Voice of March 1934, suggested that he had surrendered to opportunism were simply slandering the memory of Morris. The story was told by the correspondent of Vorwärts that at the funeral of the Russian revolutionary Stepniak, Morris heard one speaker say that in his later years Stepniak had become more moderate, had abandoned his revolutionary outlook and had come to see the need of Fabian or Liberal methods. Morris was furious. It was a funeral speech, but Morris had no hesitation as he spoke at the grave: ‘This is a lie’, he said, ‘to suggest that Stepniak had ceased to be a revolutionary. He died as he had lived, a revolutionary to the end.’

It was as though Morris already heard the drumming hooves of the asses on his own grave. Within a twelve-month William Morris was dead (on Saturday, 3 October 1896). The next week the Daily Chronicle contained an article by Bernard Shaw on William Morris as a socialist in which, inevitably, there appeared the words: ‘He, Morris, practically adopted the views of the Fabian Society as to how the change should come about.’

The myth-monger had lost no time in getting to work.

It was forty years later that Bernard Shaw, in his splendid palinode, written at the request of May Morris, took back these suggestions and began his Morris As I Knew Him with the noble words:

Morris, when he had to define himself politically, called himself a Communist. Very often, of course, in discussing Socialism he had to speak of himself as a Socialist; but he jibbed at it internally, and flatly rebelled against such faction labels as Social-Democrat and the like. He knew that the essential term, etymologically, historically and artistically, was Communist; and it was the only word he was comfortable with.

It must not be inferred that he had any prevision of Soviet technique or any other developed method of Communist organisation. Nobody had, or could have, in his time. He was on the side of Karl Marx contra mundum.


1. The series was to run as follows: 1) Address to Trade Unions, by E Belfort Bax, 1d; 2) Useful Work Versus Useless Toil, by William Morris, 1d; The Factory Hall, by Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx Aveling, 1d; The Commune of Paris, by E Belfort Bax, Victor Dave and William Morris, 32 pages, 2d; Organised Labour: The Duty of the Trade Unions in Relation to Socialism, by Thomas Binning, 1d; True and False Society, by William Morris, 1d; Monopoly: Or How Labour is Robbed, by William Morris, 1d.

2. With much more fullness than anything hitherto written and with a great intensity of research EP Thompson has given the history in his William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (Lawrence and Wishart, 1955).

3. Letter to W Liebknecht, 12 May 1886. See Appendix to this chapter.