William Morris's Socialist Diary

edited and annotated by Florence Boos


Morris's achievements routinely exhaust the enumerative abilities of his biographers. When in 1883 William Morris joined the Social Democratic Federation, he had already been a writer of narrative poems and prose romances; pioneer in the decorative arts; translator of Icelandic sagas; designer of stained-glass windows, wallpapers, and tapestries; illuminator of manuscripts; vigorous man of business; founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB); and loyal personal friend and relation to an impressive range of people.

More relevant to the Diary is Morris's identity as the most prominent Victorian artist to embrace the new socialist movement of the 1880s, a choice which was deprecated or condemned by most friends and associates, and some members of his family. From 1883 to 1890, he continued to maintain Morris and Co., and wrote some apolitical prose romances and translations, but devoted most of this period to the socialist movement. Several times each week he spoke and attended meetings. He also made strenuous propaganda tours in the North of England and Scotland; kept up a heavy political correspondence with fellow socialists; wrote socialist songs, a long poem on the Paris Commune, a socialist play, and historical and utopian romances; defended socialist and related causes in innumerable letters to newspapers; edited and wrote weekly for the socialist newspaper Commonweal after 1885; and led from 1885 to 1890 one of England's two major socialist organisations, the Socialist League.

Some of the literary work of this period was among the best he ever wrote. His translations declined in number but not quality, and several of his socialist poems are excellent. A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere are the most well-known and admired of his prose works, and his short, pithy political commentaries in Commonweal helped to make it the most vigorous and sophisticated leftist publication of its decade. In addition, he wrote many socialist essays from 1883-94, which he himself never published in full or in chronological order. Direct and rhythmic in cadence, they reflect the intense simplicity which Morris considered appropriate for dignified popular art.

During this period, Morris's personal example and dedication inspired and encouraged members of every faction of the left, and his decisions had a strong effect on the origins of British socialism. But the influence of his political prescriptions and theoretic emphases waned quickly after his death in 1896, and both his actions and his views have since been reassessed many times. Morris was an impressive eclectic, and representatives of all parties have argued that he anticipated or approved their endeavours - Fabians, anarcho-communists, parliamentarians, trade unionists, art societies, all shades of gradualists and revolutionaries, ethical socialists, members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP); even, grotesquely, anti-communists. Inevitably, some of these reinterpretations have led to dubious projection and misappropriation. British socialism of the 1880s was so riven by faction and isolated that both activists and later historians have tried many times to recast the sequence of events - could and should Morris have behaved differently, could he have united an effective socialist workers' movement, were his stances politically consistent, or valid, or constructive? Morris's decisions were intelligent and tolerant, but sometimes idiosyncratic. Often they seem to reflect Morris's personal heroism, and a tendency in his view of socialism to polarise the very concrete and the very distant - immediate propaganda, and the ideal future society. In his other endeavours this 'idealism' had united in pragmatic form a strong individual creative drive and a deep perception of kinship with others; here it provided more a heroic exemplar than a pattern for imitation.

Yet is this a legitimate reproach? In the British socialist movement of the '80s, continental exiles already strained against representatives of a nascent electoral politics and trade-unionism; and this divergence was probably inherent. The fragmentation of the 'anarchist', 'reformist', and 'collectivist' factions of the British socialist movement may have been unpreventable, and it is perhaps to Morris's credit that he successfully harmonised these still-creative tensions as long as he did, and offered moderate admonitions and qualified support in the final years of his life to several of the divergent parties.

Morris's Socialist Diary of 1887 is one of the most interesting writings from this period of his work. It is one of only two extended diaries of his activities which he kept in his life, each of which represents an effort to record and analyse experiences ofa new phase of his work and thought. His 1871 and 1873 Journals of Travels to Iceland embody a commitment to Icelandic literature which inspired much of his work during the next two decades. The much briefer Socialist Diary was kept during a period of intense activity from January to April 1887, and until recently had never been published in its entirety. Its brevity and bluntness render it a more accessible introduction to his political activities and beliefs than the editorial notes of Commonweal, his more expansive essays, or his massive socialist correspondence to friends and comrades during this period. Morris's tactical analyses give a shrewd but admirably disinterested view of many of the political groups of his time: Gladstonian liberalism and the Liberal Unionists, Bradlaughian radicalism, Fabianism, Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation, several varieties of anarchism, and the anti-parliamentarian and parliamentarian wings of the Socialist League. The Diary also records grim economic conditions, hostility of the newspapers and police, shifting responses of his audiences, and practical obstacles to his efforts at propaganda. Finally, it documents some of the movement's many achievements - its genuine intellectual variety and cooperation under stress, and a sense of excitement and anticipation, which deepened as well as intensified its doctrinal and tactical disputes.

Like the Icelandic Journals, the Socialist Diary represents an effort to concretise and analyse the activities of a period of transition. In early 1887 Morris had already been an active socialist for four years, working throughout this period to encourage the mass movement he knew was necessary for the achievement of socialism, and for almost, two years he had struggled to unite the non-Hyndman elements of the socialist movement around a common programme in the Socialist League. The Diary records his understated but honest assessment of the factors which would frustrate both of these goals and eventually exclude him from active political leadership outside of the local Hammersmith Socialist Society. Written after the completion of the visionary A Dream of John Ball, and before the suppression of the Trafalgar Square Demonstration of November 1887, the Diary is a good indication of Morris's reactions at the midpoint of his period of most vigorous activity. It has been claimed that the Trafalgar Square police attack darkened his view of the immediate possibilities for socialism. It certainly demonstrated the hopelessness of untrained, unarmed demonstrators when faced with military attack, but the Diary clearly indicates that Morris had never been sanguine about the immediate effectiveness of socialist agitation.

At an early stage Morris seems to have thought of publishing his diary; he wrote to his daughter Jenny that he had begun an account of his socialist activities which might be useful later on, 'a sort of Jonah's eye view of the whale, you know,' and early in the Diary he pauses several times to explain items that might not have needed clarification in a private document - at one point, for example, he notes 'for the benefit of well-todo west-enders' the familiar pattern of police brutality toward the poor.

Why then did Morris put it aside after only three months? The obvious answer is overwork. The weekly Commonweal of this period was in itself a massive labour, demanding detailed narrations of meetings and political events which he would also have described in the Diary. When parallel accounts of similar events in the Diary, Commonweal, and letters to his daughters and other socialists became impossible, Morris probably decided that letters and journalism were commitments he could not suspend. Most immediately, the Scottish campaign distracted him from his usual schedule, and material which might otherwise have seemed more suitable for a semiprivate journal was placed directly into the articles on his travels. The Diary as it stands may have accomplished its essential purpose of enabling Morris to analyse patterns of socialist agitation and formulate his own views more clearly, as expressed in the essays which he wrote during the year, including 'Monopoly' , 'Feudal England' , 'The Policy of Abstention', 'The Society of the Future', and 'The Present Outlook in Politics'. Also the tension between parliamentarians and anti-parliamentarians which preceded the 1887 Conference may have seemed too factionalised for a semi-public document, and during the next months he diverted his time to writing urgent letters to potential allies, and to private and public reformulations of his arguments against palliation, compromise, and parliamentarism.

The Diary has suffered an uneven fate at the hands of biographers, beginning with J. W. Mackail, who published The Life of William Morris, 1899, and a mildly sympathetic account of Morris's socialism in a pamphlet, William Morris, 1901. In his biography Mackail published long excerpts from the Diary, but he omitted passages describing Morris's more productive campaigns in the North, and highlighted accounts of the movement's internal debates and failures. A classical scholar who was by temperament more retiring than Morris, Mackail summarised the Diary's contents in dour reduction:

The extracts which follow show what immense labour he continued to spend in the service of the League, and how clearly nevertheless he saw the weakness of their machinery and the futility of the greater part of their efforts, and of his own. (vol. II p.169)

By contrast May Morris greatly respected her father's socialist writings but, as Eugene LeMire has carefully documented in his introduction to The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris (1969), was pressured by both executors and publishers to reprint as little as possible of the lesser-known works, especially the socialist writings. Perhaps in compensation, she tended to smuggle favourite portions of these writings, in confusing sequence, into her introductions to the Collected Works. In two of the four volumes in which she describes Morris's socialist activity in greatest detail- numbers 20 and 23 - she prints additional passages, and two decades later she published further excerpts in William Morris Artist Writer Socialist. Although some sense of the Diary's contents can be obtained from these fragments, their publication did little to further appreciation of its literary and political unity. E.P. Thompson's William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955; 2nd.ed. 1977) cites the Socialist Diary in considerable detail, and responds sympathetically to the intensity and vigour of Morris's speaking trips to Scotland, but Thompson's own electoral marxism may cause him to de-emphasise Morris's anti-parliamentarian associations during this period and to deprecate his commitment to labour issues. Of Morris's energetic propaganda among the striking miners, Thompson writes:

Morris appears to have failed to realize either the importance of the possibilities opened up by this foothold in the coalfields or the gravity of the defeat. (2nd. ed. p.438)

In April Morris proposed to the Council a Hyde Park meeting in support of the miners' strike and the socialists' northern campaign. To him, the failed strike seemed only one of a number of signs (not least among them the general apathy of London audiences) of the desperate situation of the proletariat.

Throughout the Diary Morris reflects on obstacles to the progress of socialism. In several glances backward, he despairs once again of parliamentary Liberalism, and his distaste for the Radical Clubs never wavers. His response to the tactics of the Socialist League's chief rival, H.M. Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation (SDF), is more complex. With other secessionists from the SDF, he had been repelled by Hyndman's 'vanguardism', his insistence on personal and secretive control of London and provincial branches, and his evenhanded condescension towards the two groups that inevitably comprised most members of the party, foreign emigrÉs and members of the working class. Upon leaving the SDF Morris wrote:

[Hyndman's] aim has been to make the movement seem big, to frighten the powers that be with a turnip bogie which perhaps he almost believes in himself: hence all that insane talk of immediate forcible revolution, when we know that the workers in England are not even touched by the movement; hence the founding of branches which melt away into mere names, the neglect of organization for fruitless agitation; and worst of all, hence discreditable intrigue and sowing of suspicion among those who are working for the party. (BL Add. MS, 45, 345, letter to Joynes, Christmas Day 1884)

. . . We have formed another body, the Socialist League... it expects singleheartedness from its members and fraternal co-operation, and. . . will not suffer any absolutism amongst it. (letter to Robert Thompson, 1 January 1885,Letters, p.229)

Morris's objections to the antecedents of 'democratic centralism' were deeply rooted in conviction and temperament, and associated in his own mind with his antiparliamentarianism, and his preference for local organisation loosely interwoven by international ties.

Quite specifically, he attacked Hyndman's threats against the government, attempts to conceal the movement's limited following, and his nationalism, as, among other things, a failure of socialist imagination as well as integrity:

Hence attacks on foreigners as foreigners or at least sneers at them: coquetting also with jingoism in various forms, all of which mean waiting about to see what can be made of the political situation, if perhaps at the best one may attain to a sort of Bismarkian State Socialism, or as near it as we can get in England. 1 cannot stand all this, it is not what I mean by Socialism either in aim or in means: I want a real revolution, a real change in Society: Society a great organic mass of well-regulated forces used for the bringing about a happy life for all … the revolution cannot be a mechanical one, though the last act of it may be civil war, or it will end in reaction after all. (to Robert Thompson, 1st January 1885, Letters, p.228)

Morris is also wary of street demonstrations of the unemployed; unless they anticipate the rising of an entire class, they manipulate the misery of their participants, and provoke needless arrests.

Well, it is a mistake to try to organise riot … yet … Any opposition to law and order in the streets is of use to us, if the price of it is not too high … (10 February 1886, in Arnot, p.79)

Take this for my word about this kind of thing: if a riot is quite spontaneous it does frighten the bourgeois even if it's but isolated; but planned riots or shows of force are not good unless in a time of action, when they are backed by the opinion of the people and are in point of fact indications of the rising tide. (16 February, Diary).

He would later argue in similar terms about 'propaganda of the deed', and sporadic appeals to popular violence, that mindless taunts to the authorities would be suicidal, if they failed to reflect a rising tide of consistent feeling.

Traditionally, the most difficult to understand of Morris's tactical convictions is his deep opposition to electoral politics. Even in the early days of the Socialist League (SL), his aggressive opposition to socialist parliamentary campaigns was shared by few, especially outside of London. Almost all of the Marxists associated with the Socialist League - Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, Engels, A.K. Donald, and E.B. Bax - were parliamentarists from the beginning, and his allies from the provinces - Bruce Glasier, John Glasse, Tom Maguire - all abandoned their anti-electoralism in later years. More to the point, the resulting dispute eventually incapacitated the SL, and led to its division in 1888. Efforts by the Socialist Union, J.L. Mahon and the North of England Federation, the Labour Emancipation League, H.H. Champion, the Labour Union, the SDF, and others to elect socialists were unsuccessful before the London County Council elections of 1891, but not as overwhelmingly so as the SDF's first campaigns of 1885 (in which the two London candidates had polled a total of 50-odd votes).

Moreover, Morris's alternatives - education of the entire working class to socialism, followed by an uprising of the workers - receded constantly from view. Morris also had similar reservations about other provisional or 'palliative' measures - co-operative stores, or campaigns for free speech in the parks - which he nevertheless supported as legitimate forms of training in propaganda and organisation. By contrast Morris's Diary and political letters of the period indicate that his single greatest concern may have been to prevent the League Council of 1887 from taking a parliamentary position.

Several of Morris's associates and later commentators - Fabians, members of the ILP, Marxists - have argued that Morris later changed his mind. For example, Hyndman wrote that in a speech in 1895, Morris supported his parliamentary campaign and retracted his former opposition. In William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement, Bruce Glasier, by then a supporter of the ILP, writes that Morris expressed encouragement and approval in 1895 of gains by the Labour Party (p.134). Several later editors and historians have followed suit (eg, A.L. Morton, ed., Political Writings of William Morris, 1973, p.241). There is no such evidence of reconciliation with the Fabians. Robin Page Arnot records that when he asked Sidney Webb what Morris had said to him after an 1895 Hammersmith SL lecture, Webb reported Morris's parting remark: 'The world is going your way at the present, Webb, but it is not the right way in the end' (Arnot, p.108). In any case, the issue of electoral politics was the central one in Morris's relation to the League. It is important therefore to define carefully his position in 1887, ask why he defended it so heatedly, even at the cost of further active political influence, and inquire whether his later statements do represent a genuine change in view.

The most restrained version of Morris's 1887 position was that he saw several alternate forms of socialist endeavour - parliamentarianism among them - but felt that the SDF was a parliamentary party, and so the SL should choose an alternate form of effort. This conception of a confederated movement with several harmonious and alternate strategies for propaganda is an attractive one, and Morris did use such grounds to urge J.L. Mahon and other SL parliamentarians to return to the SDF. A similar view appears in letters to Glasse:

… to have two organisations holding the same tenets and following the same policy seems to me absurd. (19 May 1887, Arnot, p.82)

I appeal to those who doubt the usefulness of such a body of principle at all events to stand aside and not to break it up but join other bodies now existing for whom I for my part feel complete tolerance, so long as they are not brought inside ours, (23 May 1887, Arnot, p.83).

Even here a crucial qualification enters in the determination that the SL and parliamentarians must be completely disjoint: the SL itself can contain no parliamentary wing. In all his evaluations, Morris clearly considers his educationalist-revolutionarism the superior position. Parliamentarian ism inevitably requires vitiating compromise, and a vigorous association of extra-parliamentary socialists must reassert the movement's original aims. This mixture of tolerance and distaste appears in his remarks to John Glasse on 23 May 1887, a month after the Diary ends, and shortly before the Conference on 30 May.

I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so: in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, not as members of the governing body, prepared by passing palliative measures to keep 'Society' alive. But I fear that many of them will be drawn into that error by the corrupting influence of a body professedly hostile to Socialism: and therefore I dread the parliamentary period (clearly a long way ahead at present) of the progress of the party; and I think it will be necessary always to keep alive a body of Socialists of principle who will refuse responsibility for the actions of the parliamentary portion of the party … I repeat, the non-parliamentary feeling will assuredly not be repressed entirely. (Arnot, pp.82-3)

More harshly, his letters and essays of the period charge that palliative measures create active harm, by distracting people from true awareness of their degradation and servitude. For example, on 20 March 1887, he wrote Joseph Lane:

Meanwhile I believe all palliative measures like the 8 hours bill to be delusive, and so, damaging to the cause if put forward by socialists as a part of socialism: though of course they will be put forward and carried at some time by some party, and we shall then have to take the good and the bad of them. But we should be clear that they are not our measures. I think the duty of the League is educational entirely at present; and that duty is all the more important since the SDF has entirely given up that side of things. (BL Add. MS. 45,345)

Later in the year he formulated his position more explicitly in 'The Policy of Abstention':

… I cannot help thinking that the scheme of parliament would be found in practice to stand in the way of the formation of that widespread organization with its singleness of aim and directness of action which it seems to me is what we want: that the effort towards success in parliament will swallow up all other effort, that such success in short will come to be looked upon as the end … the organization I am thinking of would have a serious point of difference from any that could be formed as.a part of a parliamentary plan of action: its aim would be to act directly, whatever was done in it would be done by the people themselves; there would consequently be no possibility of compromise, of the association becoming anything else than it was intended to be; nothing could take its place: before all its members would be put but one alternative to complete success, complete failure, namely. Can as much be said for any plan involving the representatives of the people forming a part of a body whose purpose is the continuous enslavement of the people? (AWS, vol.II p.447)

In a farewell to the SL written three and a half years later, Morris made the point more epigrammatically:

… there are a great many who believe it possible to compel their masters by some means or another to behave better to them, and though they are prepared to compel them (by so-called peaceful means, strikes and the like), all but a very small minority are not prepared to do without masters. (Morton, ed., Political Writings, p.226)

Interwoven with Morris's anti-reformism was his deep ethical contempt for the activity of politicians: so fundamentally a matter of sordid compromise and dishonest temporary alliances did parliamentary activity seem to him. Something of this real hostility surfaces in the contexts in which he describes Hyndman and Donald as intriguers and 'politicians', and in his sharp exchange with the increasingly parliamentary J.L. Mahon, directly before and after the Conference of 1887. If the parliamentarians do take over the League, Morris asserts, the League itself will be destroyed:

Finally you must not forget that whatever open steps I might take, I personally would have nothing to do with politics properly so called. The whole business is so revolting to a decent quiet body with an opinion of his own, that if that were our road, I should not be able to help dropping off it. (17 May, Arnot, p.66)

If the League does disappear, I shall try to get a dozen men together whom I can trust, and who have definite ideas about socialism and decline anybody who doesn't really hold these views: I will speak and write wherever I can: but I will not give one penny to support any set of people who won't come up to the test. (14 June, Arnot, p.68)

Later in the year he concluded a lecture on 'The Present Outlook in Politics' with the hope that in a new society politics as we know them may be completely superseded:

It is certain that even now while we speak politics of the old kind, the shuffle of Ins and Outs, are waning away, and the new politics that are taking the place of the old mean a struggle against stupidity for the reconstruction of society on a tolerable instead of intolerable basis, so that at last we may be led into the happy days when society shall be what its name means, and politics will be no more. (LeMire, Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, p.216)

And as late as 1895, in a lecture on 'What We Have to Look For', he speaks of the immediate future as filled with

… failure and disappointment and stupidity and causeless quarrels, and in short all the miseries that go to make up the degrading game of politics. (AWS, vol.II p.358)

The paradox of a political movement founded on contempt for existing politics is perhaps too familiar for further comment. At least during this period Morris was actively hostile to the argument that an electoral campaign could itself be educational, and provide expression for the more theoretical formulations of the League.

One wonders what influence the character of the socialist parliamentarians of 1887 had on Morris's 'theoretical' position. Morris felt active contempt for the motives and actions of Hyndman, Aveling, and Donald; he had no moral objections to Mahon and Champion, but indicates in the letters that he considered them misguided and changeable. He seems to have been only peripherally concerned with Engels's views, and saw Eleanor Marx as essentially an adjunct of Aveling. Bax's abstruse and theoretical manner may have undercut the persuasiveness of his tactical arguments, and Morris seems to have felt little active sympathy with any of the Fabians except Shaw.

By contrast Morris's letters indicate active respect for anti-parliamentarians such as Joseph Lane, and perhaps more significantly, for such anti-parliamentarian foreign refugees as Andreas Scheu and Peter Kropotkin (and perhaps to a lesser extent for Victor Dave, Henry Charles, and Sergius Stepniak).

One should perhaps keep in mind that Morris's great model for revolutionary heroism was the Paris Commune. The emigrÉ-communards' internationalism, revolutionary histories, and obvious sufferings on behalf of the cause elicited Morris's sympathy for heroic defeats and his sense of alliance in a continuing struggle. Hyndman's association of jingoism and parliamentarianism seemed to suggest an opposite stance. Finally, elements of Morris's fears became reality: internationalism was submerged, mainstream socialism did become narrowly British, reformist ministers did break strikes and suppress all anarchist or syndicalist impulses.

All the same: if 'politics' were inevitably contaminated, what political means could the League use to effect the total reversal of economic relationships? For Morris the solution to this enigma lay in an alternate vision of worker organisation: he wanted a separate government by workers, as it were a Labour Parliament, which would eventually assert its alternate legitimacy to rule.

… as the approaching break-down of the monopolist system comes closer conviction will be forced on the minds of more and more people, till at last the mere necessities of life will force the main part of the workers to join them …

The revolutionary body will find its duties divided into two parts, the maintenance of its people while things are advancing to the final struggle, and resistance to the constitutional authority, including the evasion or disregard of the arbitrary laws of the latter. Its chief weapons during this period will be co-operation and boycotting … ('The Policy of Abstention', AWS, vol.II p.448)

Marxist views of recent revolutions, and their greater likelihood of occurrence in nations where capitalism had evolved to its most intense and self-defeating level of organisation, may have contributed to Morris's intransigence. So also may the analogy of Home Rule. If the revolutionary Irish could advocate election of their own representatives outside of Parliament, why not the proletariat? Recall also the parliament of early 1887: Conservative-dominated, with not a single working-class member Independent of the Liberals, and only one maverick quasi-socialist aristocrat, R.B. Cunninghame-Graham, soon to be ostracised for his part in the Trafalgar Square Demonstration of November 1887. In this light, Morris's impatience with 'permeation' may seem more understandable. Freed from a hereditary upper house and reactionary monarch, a truly independent Labour Parliament could make clear pronouncements, and set its own suffrage requirements (presumably universal adult suffrage). Its very existence would threaten the established government and publicise the socialist cause among the workers.

Ironically, Morris may well have been confirmed in his opposition to electoral politics by sincere, rather than verbal, commitment to revolutionary determinism and the monolithic outlines of Marx's model for the fall of capitalism. If as Marx claimed, capitalism was a self-defeating system of oppression which would exhaust itself in overproduction for increasingly scarce markets; and if, as Marx and Morris both believed, labour not only ought to be but in fact was the only source of value and wealth; then accommodation with an exploitive system would only increase the wealth of capitalists, and decrease the power of labour:

… at present when the rights of capital are admitted and all that is claimed is a proportional share in the profits, it means a kind of relief to the employers, an additional poor-rate levied from the workers … (AWS, vol.II p.443)

Or degenerate into hypocrisy:

Any other programme is misleading and dishonest; it has two faces to it, one of which says to the working-man, 'This is Socialism or the beginning of it' (which it is not), and the other says to the capitalist, 'This is sham Socialism; if you can get the workers, or part of them, to accept this, it will create a new lower middle class, a buffer, to push in between Privilege and Socialism, and save you, if only for a while.' (CW, vol.XXIII p.253, 'Monopoly')

To talk of redistributing wealth, but avoid the issue of self-determination was a mere fantasy:

Well the masters can and do reply: My friends … we know your interest better than you do yourselves, and shall resist your feeble attempts to reduce our salaries; and since we organize your labour and the market of the world which it supplies, we shall manage your wages amongst other matters. (AWS, vol.II p.443)

Morris may have been wrong. But these quotations should effectively refute the view that his position was literary-utopian or 'naive'.

Which is not to say that other motives did not reinforce his intransigence. All his life - in his poetry, narrative fantasies, friendships, and his work for the Firm - Morris I sought to promote a kind of idealised comradeship which strained against the resort to compromise for (alleged) immediate tactical gains. He was capable of sustained hard work of almost incredible intensity; but gradualism and bargain-cutting were as remote from his natural mode of action as from his imaginative efforts. In Morris's early poetry, a protagonist often holds out nobly against insuperable odds in the name of fellowship, justice, and love; in the quest-allegories of his maturity, such as the Earthly Paradise tales, the protagonist breaks the frame of each partially completed journey and begins anew. Had Morris been content to live less the spirit of his searching, poetic protagonists, he would never have 'betrayed his class interests' and embraced revolutionary socialism in the first place. His refusal or inability to coerce others or reduce a unified vision to its more 'practical' components expressed the same anger and compassion as did his political engagement. A 'political' temperament, which might have made Morris a good parliamentarian, Fabian, or trade-unionist at 53, might also have frozen him in any number of earlier, more 'reasonable' bourgeois roles; for example: (i) as a Christian socialist at 20 (his mother had wanted him to become a bishop, and as a young man he was fond of ecclesiastical lore); or (ii) as a restorationist architect at 25 (he apprenticed in the firm of G.B. Street, the most enlightened practitioner of exactly the sort of restoration Morris later bitterly opposed); or (iii) as a Gladstonian Liberal MP at 40 (his friends' expectation).

The restless anger with which he rejected all these plausibly trimmed expressions of middle-class liberalism may have reflected an acutely heightened awareness of the nature and ease of co-optation. Morris was one of the few who debated the issue of electoralism for whom a 'successful' political career as a suitably trimmed 'maverick' would in fact have been readily available. He was always conscious of the fact that his environment clearly encouraged what he considered defections from duty, and discouraged self-sacrifice. He wrote Georgiana Burne-Jones:

Meantime what a little ruffles me is this, that if I do a little fail in my duty some of my friends will praise me for failing instead of blaming me. (31 October 1885, Letters, p.242)

To someone to whom compromise and partial success were always available, voluntary assumption of defeat came to seem a test of sincerity:

We must get used to such trifles as defeats, and refuse to be discouraged by them. Indeed I am an old hand at that game, my life having been passed in being defeated; as surely as every man's must be who finds himself forced into a position a little ahead of the average in his aspirations. (letter, 15 August 1889, to Andreas Scheu, CW, vol.XX p.xlvii)

One can also invoke his class background and privilege to support quite different critical arguments about Morris's purism. Did his financial security influence his relative opposition to immediate political gains such as the eight-hour day or increased hourly wages? He himself drew a more complex connection:

… in my position of a well-to-do man, not suffering from the disabilities which oppress a working man at every step, I feel that I might never have been drawn into the practical side of the question if an ideal had not forced me to seek towards it. For politics as politics, i.e., not regarded as a necessary if cumbersome and disgustful means to an end, would never have attracted me, nor when I had become conscious of the wrongs of society as it now is, and the oppression of poor people, could I ever have believed in the possibility of a partial setting right of those wrongs. In other words, I could never have been such a fool as to believe in the happy and 'respectable' poor. ('How I Became a Socialist', Morton, Political Writings, p.243)

Perhaps some of my desires for the new society will seem strange to you, he told an audience in 1887, but

One reason which will make some of you think them strange is a sad and shameful one. I have always belonged to the well-to-do classes, and was born into luxury, so that necessarily I ask much more of the future than many of you do; and the first of all my visions, and that which colours all my others, is of a day when that misunderstanding will no longer be possible; when the words poor and rich, though they will still be found in our dictionaries, will have lost their old meaning … (AWS, vol II pp.455-56)

When Joseph Lane left the SL in 1889, he criticised Morris rather sharply, and Morris responded as follows:

As to your estimate of my character, I am not going to dispute that, not even the fool part of it; indeed there is much truth in it - fool and all. You see (and I mean this in all soberness) you must make allowance for a man born and bred in the very heart of capitalism, and remember that however he may rebel against the sham society of today we are all damaged by it. (BL Add. MS. 45,345, 21 May 1889)

A suggestive analogy can be drawn with Peter Kropotkin: also favoured by birth, he had renounced professional and hereditary favours to espouse the cause of the oppressed; he also distrusted reformism, envisioned ultimate realignment of society, and believed in patient education toward a mass uprising. Morris of course was not an aristocrat, but the self-employed son of a prosperous merchant. His analysis of repression was intimately anti-capitalist, but one cannot readily deduce his antielectoralism from his middle-class origins, at least not without some auxiliary hypotheses: most of the Fabian and parliamentary Marxists from whom he differed - Engels, Hyndman, Aveling, Champion, A.K. Donald, E.B. Bax - were fellow bourgeois, after all. True, they did not spend an early boyhood on a wooded estate. But Morris's response to this environment, however, like Kropotkin's to the beauty and complexity of nature, was his own. Asked by Wilfred Blunt whether a love of beauty was hereditary, he replied:

'As for me', he said, 'I have it naturally, for neither my father nor my mother nor any of my relatives had the least idea of it. I remember as a boy going into Canterbury Cathedral and thinking that the gates of Heaven had been opened to me - also when I first saw an illuminated manuscript. These first pleasures, which I discovered for myself, were stronger than anything else I have had in life. (BL Add. MS. 45,350, F.40)

This sense of isolation both deepened the fierceness and ardour of many of Morris's responses, and aroused an intense desire for a wider fellowship and community.

Whatever its origins, Morris's sense of detachment, fairness, and identification with any fellow workers, led to a deep contempt for politics as a combative middleclass game, or even a forum for electoral-socialist 'leadership'. Morris seldom spoke directly of the deepest motives for his acts. A long and carefully reasoned letter written soon after his conversion to socialism to a distant acquaintance, C.E. Maurice, the Christian Socialist, is a rare revelation of the insights which impelled him to socialism:

… furthermore in looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, 'How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?' I have always been uneasy when I had to ask myself that question, and of late years I have had to ask it so often, that I have seldom had it out of my mind: and the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. Nothing can argue me out of this feeling … the contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. (1 July 1883,Letters, p.176)

Something close to utter alienation emerges from his letters of the period:

A society which is founded on,the system of compelling all well-to-do people to live on making the greatest possible profit out of the labour of others, must be wrong. For it means the perpetuation of the division of society into civilized and uncivilized classes: I am far from being an anarchist, but even anarchy is better than this, which is in fact anarchy and despotism mixed: if there is no hope of conquering this -let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (September 1883, to T.C. Horsfall,Letters, p.182)

Whatever hope or life there is in me is staked on the success of the cause: I believe you object to the word: but I know no other to express what I mean. (1 June 1884, to Georgiana Burne-Jones,Letters, p.200)

Parallel remarks appear in Morris's earliest and latest political lectures. He seems to have felt the greatest desire to reflect on his emotional and intellectual motives at the beginning and end of his efforts. Since adolescence, he had written poetry whose protagonists express despair at the entrapment of sordid human environments. Gradually, and with great effort, he came to conceptualise a social equivalent (source? analogy? correlative?) for this discontent. In the 1884 lecture, 'Misery and the Way Out', Morris breaks into a more drastic declaration than his audience may have expected:

Is it so indeed? yet here I stand before you, one of the most fortunate of this happy class, so steeped in discontent, that I have no words which will express it: no words, nothing but deeds, wherever they may lead me to, even [if] it be ruin, prison, or a violent death. (AWS, vol II p.156)

Seldom has such 'merely personal' and 'individual' restlessness combined more intelligently with perception of an all-penetrating social wrong. The creator of the Launcelot of 'King Arthur's Tomb' and Bodli of 'The Lovers of Gudrun' had found a more adequate and comprehensive plot, and one that required a different audience.

Morris was always a graceful loser, ready to acknowledge that his opponent may have acted for the better after all. For this reason, I believe, reports of his later acceptance of electoralism have been exaggerated: Hyndman and Glasier may have blurred just such self-deprecating and carefully qualified nuances of his casual speech. As Morris's health made active political work less possible, he became anxious that such contacts as he could make were for the encouragement of socialist unity. His earlier position had been on the order of: palliative efforts may achieve some results, but I wish to devote myself to a more radical effort. The nuanced emphases of his public statements of the 1890s (often made to people who had made different choices) were: though I do not find these methods or goals most urgent or beneficial, the achievement of limited reforms may be useful in preparing us for the (greatly more desirable) next stage of socialism (for which I had chiefly hoped to work).

Even then, tensions remain between his desires to praise, and to give warning that immediate goals must serve long-term ones. On 10 March 1893, Morris delivered a lecture to the Hammersmith Socialist Society on 'Communism', passages from which are sometimes cited as an example of his shift in opinions about tactics as well as ultimate aims. Again Morris freely admits the uncontroversial: that if reforms can encourage the strength of labourers' desire for equality and co-operation, they will achieve real good:

… if the sum of them should become vast and deep reaching enough to give to the useful or working-classes intelligence enough to conceive of a life of equality and co-operation; courage enough to accept it and to bring the necessary skill to bear on working for it; and power enough to force its acceptance on the stupid and the interested, the war of classes would speedily end in the victory of the,useful class, which would then become the new Society of Equality. (Political Writings, p.229)

Notice however the many conjuncts to his hypothesis. After he has acquitted himself of these, and other, heavily qualified, endorsements, he returns to his familiar warning:

For the Social-democratic measures above mentioned are all of them either makeshift alleviations to help us through the present days of oppression, or means for landing us in the new country of equality. And there is a danger that they will be looked upon as ends in themselves. (Political Writings, pp.233-34)

Morris did not really reverse himself about reformism-as-co-opted-revolution; he suspended the debate. Perhaps he simply decided at the end of his life that reformism was an inevitable evil, and that he would have to plead his case in more conciliatory terms.

May Morris cites similarly reluctant passages from another partially recorded lecture on 'Communism' of the same period, as evidence of her father's changed view:

I confess I am no great lover of political tactics; the sordid squabble of an election is unpleasant enough for a straightforward man to deal in: yet I cannot fail to see that it is necessary somehow to get hold of the machine which has at its back the executive power of the country, however that may be done … (AWS, vol II p.350)

Even in the 1887 letters to Glasse and Glasier, Morris had accepted that parliamentarianism was an inevitable obstruction to be mastered or overcome, ' … however that may be done'. What he rejected was the proposition that this was a method sufficiently radical to serve as a programme for socialists. In one of his last published public addresses, made in 1894 to the Ancoats Fellowship of Manchester, he has nothing but praise for Robert Blatchford, the Clarion, and other 'sturdy labourers' for socialism, but the goodwill of such a parting gesture does not completely obscure more characteristic admonitions against half-measures:

Let us … take care that our present struggle leaves behind it no class distinction, but brings about one condition of equality for all, which condition of society is the only one which can draw out to the full the varying capacities of the citizens and make the most of the knowledge and skill of mankind, the gain of so many ages, and thus do away for ever with MAKESHIFT. (AWS, vol II p.483)

His lecture on 'Communism' ends with a plea:

… since it is just these means in which the difficulty lies, I appeal to all socialists, while they express their feelings about them honestly and fearlessly, not to make a quarrel of it with those whose aim is one with theirs, because there is a difference of opinion between them about the usefulness of the details of the means. . . So let us forgive the mistakes that others make, even if we make none ourselves, and be at peace amongst ourselves, that we may the better make war upon the monopolist. (Political Writings, pp.239-40)

Differences remain, but we must not cripple ourselves in self-destructive quarrels over them. I see no evidence in such passages that Morris ever asserted that, were he again active, these were methods he himself would use.

But this, after all, was the essential distinction, discussed above, which he expressed in his earlier letters to Mahon, Glasse, and Glasier before the split of 1888. As he became physically more remote from the labour movement in the mid-1890s, Morris's exhortations to socialist unity became somewhat more urgent; but this was a shift of emphasis, not a change of attitude; even in the 1880s, friends and fellow socialists such as Scheu and Lane had criticised him as too willing to be put upon, too pacific and conciliatory.

As early as 1884, Morris embodied the fundamental view to which he continued to adhere in a cogent brief fable, which he published in Justice (19 January, AWS, voL II pp. 114-16). The poultry of an entire country meet in solemn assembly (a parliament of fowles), and discuss the basic question of their condition, 'With what sauce shall we be eaten?' After hours of energetic speeches, one ragged 'battered looking and middleaged barn-door cock' rises and blurts out in a trembling, shrieking voice, 'In short, I don't want to be eaten at all: is it poss --?' but he is cut off by the others' cries of practical politics, municipal franchise, and so forth. The old cock withdraws, and the conclave passes a resolution, to be sent to the farmer's wife, which embodies their decision that 'while there were doubts as to the sauce to be used in the serving up, slow stewing was settled on as the least revolutionary form of cookery'. The tale's moral is an exhortation: 'Citizens, pray draw it for yourselves'. Once the moral was drawn, I believe, the 'middle-aged barn-door cock' remained true to it to the last.

Throughout his life, Morris's mind had renewed itself in interlocking cycles of creative effort and frustration. In each such cycle, he devoted arduous effort and massive attention to detail, confronted what he interpreted as failure or defeat, then turned with renewed intensity toward new, often larger, activities and endeavours. These enlarging cycles were subject to a kind of dialectic, in which aspects of each stage were re-expressed in later, modified forms. Periods in which more concrete or pragmatic aspects were dominant (creation of the Firm; Icelandic trips; formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings; the political activity of the '80s) complemented and alternated with other periods of abstraction or introspection, in which he created highly intense and allegorical poetry, and the abstractions of his designs. Had this pattern continued, and Morris's health not deteriorated, he would have undertaken another cycle of social or political effort in the late 1890s. Who can guess what form this might have taken?

This first scene of Morris's utopian romance News from Nowhere, could be directly from the Socialist Diary. The overwrought narrator leaves a faction-ridden meeting of the Socialist League and enters a carriage of the underground, 'that vapour bath of hurried and discontented humanity'. Self-reproachful because he cannot envision a new society, he thinks, 'If I could but see a day of it … if I could but see it" (CW, vol.XVI p.4). News from Nowhere can be read as a kind of infinite projection of these cyclical efforts to 'see it', and the Diary as a record of Morris's efforts to carry out Ellen's admonition to Guest, at the end of News from Nowhere:

Go back again, now you have seen us, and your outward eyes have learned that in spite of all the infallible maxims of your day there is yet a time of rest in store for the world, when mastery has changed into fellowship - but not before … Go on … striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness. (CW, vol.XVI pp.21O-11)

Morris's descriptions of a future society represent the contemplative aspect of his creative middle-age, and the Diary its active counterpart, the struggle to create fellowship and happiness in a real world.


Even a modest editorial project such as this is inevitably a co-operative endeavour. I wish first to thank the two persons who contributed most to the preparation of the Diary, Stan Shipley and Bill Boos. Stan was extraordinarily patient and gracious with many suggestions for the notes, maps, and introduction, and with materials from his own research; Stan and Mary Shipley's warm hospitality also lightened our visits to England. My husband Bill Boos first encouraged my interest in the Diary, discussed its substance with me many times, and worked through each draft of the notes and introduction.

I also owe special thanks to Ed and Ruth Frow of the Working-Class Movements Library, Old Trafford, Manchester, for their unusual hospitality, and access to their private collection of socialist materials, and to Ronald Goldstein of Oxford, who was especially generous with information on the Socialist League, notes of League Conferences, and other records not readily available in Britain.

I would further like to thank the many people who answered queries promptly and thoroughly, and provided useful material for the textual and biographical notes. The following persons helped particularly with the history of anarchism:

I would also like to express my appreciation to:

Richard Lloyd-Jones, Frederick McDowell, Valerie Lagorio, and Alexander Kern of the Department of English at the University of Iowa aided and encouraged me while I worked on the Diary. Elinor L. Saunders assisted with travel to England, and Kim Merker of the Windhover Press made helpful comments on the preparation of the text for an earlier, limited edition of the Diary. R.C.H. Briggs, Head of the Board of Trustees, William Morris Centre, and Joan South, Honorary Secretary of the William Morris Society, helped me during my two stays at the William Morris House.

Finally, I am very grateful to the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, which provided support during the period of final preparation of the notes and introduction; and to the graduate College of the University of Iowa, which awarded two summer wants which facilitated research in England, and a very generousfinancial grant which assisted in the publication of this edition. The Society of Antiquaries has kindly given permission for the publication of this edition, and the British Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, and William Morris Gallery provided the photographs which appear in the text.

My limited attempt to document three months of Morris's political activity has given rise to a year of work, hundreds of letters and interviews, and several thousand miles of travel. Even so, many uncomplete or inadequate entries remain. Everything I've uncovered has increased my respect for the stubborn foresight of the Diary's pioneers of communism, anarchists and socialists who struggled with all their mental and physical substance to create a more humane society for their descendents. I hope this publication of the Diary will help recreate some of Morris's wholehearted contribution to their efforts.

Florence S. Boos

Conventions and abbreviations

The text of the Socialist Diary may be found in British Museum Add. MS. 45,335, F.1-51. I have followed the example of Eugene LeMire's The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris and retained Morris's own punctuation. His use of colons and semicolons in place of periods often gives clauses a rhythmic evenness which suggests rapid and vigorous thought. The usage is not always consistent, but it seems arbitrary to differentiate between infelicitous 'errors' and purposefully unconventional usage. Likewise I have left intact his capitalisation, but small numerals have been written out, misspellings regularised according to nineteenth-century British usage, apparent writing errors excised, and abbreviations written out in square brackets.

The following abbreviations have been used in the notes:

William Morris
The Collected Works of William Morris, Longmans, London 1910-15
May Morris, ed., William Morris Artist Writer Socialist, Oxford 1936
Philip Henderson, ed., TheLetters of William Morris to his Family and Friends, Longmans, London 1950
Amsterdam, International Institute of Social History
R. Page Arnot, William Morris: The Man and the Myth, Lawrence and Wishart, 1964
J. Bruce Glasier, William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement, Longmans, London 1921
LeM Cal
'Appendix I: A Calendar of William Morris's Platform Career', in Eugene D. LeMire, The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, Wayne State Univ., Detroit 1969
LeM Ch
'Appendix II: A Bibliographical Checklist of Morris's Speeches and Lectures', in LeMire, above
John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse, Granada, London 1978
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 2nd ed. Pantheon, New York 1977
WM Gall
William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
British Library
Oxford English Dictionary