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International Socialism, June 1996


Hassan Mahamdallie

William Morris and Revolutionary Marxism:
Crossing the ‘River of Fire’


From International Socialism 2:71, June 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This October marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death of William Morris. People who go to the exhibitions of his work will rightly marvel at his contribution as a designer and artist. Morris’s achievements in this field are impressive and diverse. His furnishings and textile work, his famous wallpapers, carpets and ‘Morris’ chair still retain their beauty and popularity. His socialistic views that towns should be built round people’s needs were taken up by future town planners. To the Victorian middle classes he was known as the author of poems such as The Earthly Paradise. In his lifetime he was considered for the position of poet laureate (but he couldn’t stand the idea of composing fawning verses for royalty, while the establishment thought him too radical).

His prose works, especially The Dream of John Ball, The Pilgrims of Hope and News From Nowhere, were translated into many different languages. In the 1930s the Labour Party intellectual Harold Laski found copies of Morris’s prose work in the houses of impoverished miners in the north east of England when their furniture had long since been sold. No wonder a doctor put down his cause of death as ‘Simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.’

Ironically it is the very diversity of his work that has allowed the type of people Morris fought tooth and nail in his lifetime to claim his legacy today. So Tory environment secretary John Gummer declares himself an enthusiast of Morris’s architectural work. Gummer must have overlooked Morris’s advocacy by insurrection of ‘the death of the whole bourgeois system’. Either that or Gummer fits perfectly Morris’s description of ‘a peculiarly stupid Tory’.

Morris’s writings apparently taught the young Barbara Castle ‘that socialism was not merely about struggle, but sensual fulfilment, and it gave her hope’ according to Morris’s recent biographer, Fiona MacCarthy. But Morris sided with the working class far more consistently than Labour governments have done. In 1888, backing the match girls’ strike in east London, he wrote, ‘If there were no strikes...the manufacturing capitalists would have an easy time of it, and would reduce the workers under their control to the very lowest point of misery’. [1] What does Castle think her hero would have thought of In Place of Strife – her 1969 Labour government anti trade union proposals, which planned to lock up strikers who took unofficial action?

Tony Blair is a fan of Morris’s political writings. They were an inspiration when he was at Oxford University, he says. However, it is unlikely that Blair would agree with Morris’s description of parliament in his great pro-revolutionary novel News From Nowhere as a ‘dung market’. Would Blair agree with Morris’s analysis that ‘to avoid the disaster of gaining the doubtful alliance of the well-to-do at the expense of losing the support of the poor, it is surely necessary to never cease saying: “The test of the realisation of socialism will be the abolition of property”?’ [2]

William Morris the artist was also William Morris the revolutionary socialist. In 1884 at the age of 49 he crossed what he described as the ‘river of fire’. He joined the 200 or so Marxists in Britain at the time, and worked unceasingly until his death in 1896 for the revolutionary cause. Morris wrote the following declaration of the revolutionary socialist party he founded – the Socialist League. It began, ‘Fellow citizens, we come before you as a body advocating the principles of revolutionary international socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of society – a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities’. [3]

Morris has often been caricatured as a dreamer, a utopian who had little to say about how this new society was to come about. A brief look at his work from 1884 onwards rebuts that view entirely. Central to Morris’s understanding of socialism was the cast iron belief in revolutionary organisation. That was always the centre of his activity from his wide ranging newspaper articles, pamphlets, books to his lectures and campaigns. And apart from a short period in the 1890s Morris was always in a revolutionary organisation – first the Socialist Democratic Federation and then the Socialist League.

Central to Morris’s politics was the belief that fundamental change in society was reliant on the self activity of the working class. Environmentalists are fond of quoting Morris, but they should note what force he looked to to stamp out pollution: in one of his many lectures Morris told the Staffordshire School of Art, ‘When the day comes that there is a serious strike of workmen against the poisoning of the air with smoke or the waters with filth, I shall think that art is getting on indeed’. [4]

Also important to an understanding of Morris was his core belief in revolutionary change. He was a standard bearer of revolution in Victorian Britain. In 1887, defending the Paris Commune he wrote:

The revolution itself will raise those for whom the revolution must be made. Their newborn hope translated into action will develop their human and social qualities, and the new struggle itself will fit them to receive the benefits of the new life which revolution will make possible for them. It is for boldly seizing the opportunity offered for thus elevating the mass of the workers into heroism that we now celebrate the men of the Paris Commune. [5]

Even E.P. Thompson, in his path-breaking biography of Morris written in 1956 and intended to save Morris from reaction and keep the revolutionary spirit alive in the midst of Stalinism and the Cold War, plays down the insurrectionary stance Morris took. Many less political biographers have tried to separate Morris the artist from Morris the socialist. For some, this meant isolating his art from his politics. For others, it meant ignoring his artistic output altogether. In reality, the two were indissolubly linked. what is fascinating about Morris’s art is that it expressed precisely the conditions and contradictions of the period and in it one can trace the trajectory of Morris’s political career.

William Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, north London, into a wealthy middle class family. His father moved to London from Worcester in the 1820s to join a firm of City stockbrokers. When William was ten his father acquired 272 £1 shares in a new Devonshire copper mining company. Within six months the shares, due to the discovery that the mines were richer than first believed, were worth £200,000, a fortune for those times. Of course, one consequence was that William and the rest of the family didn’t have to worry about money. But Morris’s father’s ‘good fortune’ is also an indication of the economic and political changes that were being wrought in society.

While William was growing up, British society was changing incredibly rapidly. The watershed politically was 1848 – the year the British working class in the form of the Chartists suffered a historic defeat at the hands of a rapidly maturing British state. The period was marked by what John Saville has defined as ‘the consolidation of the capitalist state’. [6]

This stability brought a period of continuous economic expansion between 1848 and 1874, shaping the world which Morris was to grow up in. This meant that:

For some 30 years British capitalism was in the happy position of living in a world in which an expanding market and ever-increasing profits seemed to be a law of nature, in which even the least efficient manufacturer could prosper and the more pushing and resolute prospered fabulously. [7]

This expansion created rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. The slums and smoke stacks, that were simultaneously a mark of Victorian prosperity, were also a symbol of, as Morris himself put it, ‘all the incredible filth, disorder and degradation of modern civilisation’.

The worst aspects of these slums were dealt with, beginning in the 1840s, after repeated epidemics of cholera, typhus and smallpox demonstrated to the ruling class that certain reforms in sanitation and sewerage systems were desirable from their point of view. However, that did not mean that the working class of the cities were lifted in some philanthropic way out of the degradation imposed on them. It was rather that, as Engels put it in 1892, ‘the bourgeoisie have made further progress in the art of hiding the distress of the working class.’

But what the prosperity of British capitalism did mean was that it was possible to believe you could take steps to improve your life. Some people emigrated in search of a decent life. It has been estimated that between 1852 and 1868 some 3 million people emigrated mainly to America and ‘the Dominions’ such as Canada and Australia. The fictional representatives of this phenomenon were the Micawbers in Dickens’s David Copperfield published in 1850 (Dickens was a favourite of Morris’s). As Mrs Micawber says on the eve of their voyage to the New World:

From the first moment of this voyage, I wish Mr Micawber to stand upon that vessel’s prow and say, ‘Enough of delay, enough of disappointment, enough of limited means. That was the old country. This is the new. Produce your reparation. Bring it forward!’

The other side was the general improvement in the lives of skilled workers who banded together with the belief that if they exerted sufficient pressure on the employers they could wrest improvements in wages and conditions from their employers within the framework of capitalism. Thus it was that powerful ‘New Model Unions’ were formed. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) was the most prominent, founded in 1851. It was a national craft union; only those who had gone through the appropriate apprenticeship could join its ranks. It was highly centralised, with a rigid set of rules that controlled what local branches could do – they couldn’t call strikes unless they had the authority of national officials. All sorts of benefits were open to members – sick benefits, unemployment benefits, even emigration payments. These took precedence over strikes. So between 1851 and 1889 the ASE paid out £2,987,993 on benefits compared to £87,613 for strikes.

The view of the leaders of the New Model Unions like the ASE was that labour was a commodity – their role was to try and control the supply of labour. This is exemplified by a rhyme of the time:

Lads unite to better your condition:
When eggs are scarce, eggs are dear;
When men are scarce, men are dear [8]

That is not to say that unions like the ASE never struck – but they were confined to a layer of skilled workers and were expressly limited to economic aims, at least on the part of the leadership. It would be also be a mistake to believe that the class struggle had died away completely. [9] For instance in 1853 the remnants of the Chartist movement mobilised national support for striking Preston weavers. In 1855 some 200,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to oppose a government bill prohibiting Sunday trading (Sunday being the only day workers had time to enjoy leisure).

In 1861 there was significant support amongst workers for the states of the North in the American Civil War. This split the country on class lines, the working classes being against slavery and the South, the upper classes desperate to come to the aid of the slaveowners. Lancashire cotton workers resisted taking the side of the South, despite the fact that a blockade on cotton plunged them into desperate hardship. (Indeed it was this demonstration of internationalism that encouraged Marx and Engels to set up the First International in 1864.) In 1866 the defeat of the Reform Bill to extend the franchise led to huge meetings across the country. Another 200,000 strong demonstration marched to Hyde Park and ignoring a banning order, tore down the railings in order to enter the park and meet. This pressure led to the 1867 Reform Act that, though far short of popular demands, succeeded in enfranchising the lower middle classes and the better off sections of workers.

But for all this, there was a general absence of an independent working class outlook, which had previously been shaped by the Chartists. This led to an orientation and dependence on the Liberal Party and the formation of the Radical clubs which organised working class support for the Liberals. Even though the Radical leaders tended to be middle class, the composition of Radical clubs was mainly working class. The leaders of the New Model Unions formed themselves into a ‘junta’ and pursued a policy of class collaboration – taking their place at the left elbow of the Liberal Party. [10]

William Morris was later to learn that the Liberal Party could never be a vehicle for working class interests. As he wrote,

On the fall of Chartists, the Liberal Party, a nondescript and flaccid creation of bourgeoisie supremacy, a party without principles or definition, but a thoroughly adequate expression of English middle-class hypocrisy, cowardice, and short-sightedness, engrossed the whole of the political progressive movement in England, and dragged the working class along with it, blind as they were to their own interests and the solidarity of labour. [11]

This then was the political, social and economic world that faced Morris and it seemed as if there was no escape. With no contact with the socialist flame being kept flickering in London by Marx, Engels, a handful of emigres and old Chartists, there seemed to be no future but capitalism triumphant. There seemed to be no alternative but to retreat, harking back to the days before industrialism.

It is worth quoting at length Morris’s description of this feeling of hopelessness and suffocation in his 1894 article How I Became a Socialist:

The immediate future seemed to me likely to intensify all the present evils by sweeping away the last survivals of the days before the dull squalor of civilisation had settled down on the world. This was a bad outlook indeed, and if I may mention myself as a personality and not as a mere type, especially so to a man of my disposition, careless of metaphysics and religion, as well as of scientific analysis, but with a deep love of the earth and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind.

Think of it! Was it all to end in a counting house on the top of a cinder-heap, with Podsnap’s drawing room in the offing and a Whig committee dealing out champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor in such convenient proportions as would make all men contented together ... Yet believe me, in my heart, when I really forced myself to look towards the future, that is what I saw in it, and, as far as I could tell, scarce anyone seemed to think it worthwhile to struggle against such a consummation of civilisation. [12]

When Morris went up to Oxford in 1853 at the age of 19, the era of capitalist expansion looked as if it would stretch on forever. He soon fell into a circle of friends who set up a ‘brotherhood’ – a mock monastic order for a ‘crusade and holy warfare against the age and the heartless coldness of the times’. Morris dallied briefly with Roman Catholicism at this time. But more significant were the literary influences he encountered. He read the works of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and John Keats. The influences of these three were to shape the rebellious young Morris and lay the foundations for his later political development.

Carlyle’s Past and Present, published in 1843, was a ‘blistering Old Testament attacks on the morality of industrial capitalism, contrasted with an idealised picture of life in the monastery of St Edmunsbury in the 12th century’. [13] This obsession with medievalism, which was portrayed as a time of honour, simplicity and morals, appealed to Morris and was to have a huge impact on his future artistic output. Ruskin was no socialist, and was not even sympathetic to the working class, but he scornfully denounced the modern age that reduced everything to its ‘cash-nexus’: ‘Cash-payment never was, or could expect for a few years to be, the union-bond of man to man. Cash never yet paid one man fully his deserts to another; nor could it, nor can it, now or henceforth to the end of the world’. [14]

The poet Keats was a contemporary and friend of Shelley and was radical in his sympathies. Keats’s reaction to the unbearable nature of the society around him was to intensify the craftsmanship of the art he produced, through ‘poetic’ vocabulary and setting his poems in a dream or past times. As he wrote in Ode to a Nightingale, ‘The thought that we are mortal makes us groan’. For Morris this provided a model of escape. As he wrote in 1885, ‘We were borne into a dull time oppressed with bourgeoisdom and philistinism so sorely that we were forced to turn back on ourselves, and only in ourselves and the world of art and literature was there any hope’. [15]

The influence of John Ruskin is key to understanding Morris’s development. Ruskin was Morris’s ‘master’. In How I Became A Socialist Morris says, ‘It was through him [Ruskin] that I learnt to give form to my discontent.’ Ruskin in his work The Nature of Gothic (which Morris later published) compared medieval society to that of 19th century capitalism through architecture. Ruskin denounced the transformation of production away from the hands of craft workers – the mode of production of the middle ages – towards the modern factory system, the capitalist mode of production. The former was a ‘human’ mode of production, the latter ‘inhuman’:

You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must inhumanise them. [16]

Morris embraced this view: if there was no way that society could go forward unless it was merely an intensification of the miseries that the factory system created, then to advocate the ways of the past was the only civilised thing to do. What attracted Morris to this argument was that in medieval times production was based on the handiwork of individuals; there was no separation between the workers and the ‘fruit of their labour’. The craft workers gathered the raw materials, fashioned the entire product themselves, and then used it or sold it on. [17]

For Ruskin and the young Morris the replacement of this with ‘filth, disorder and degradation’ was unforgivable. In part, of course, they were correct in their condemnation of capitalism. The machine had taken away livelihoods and replaced them with exploitation and alienation. As Morris put it, ‘The system of a man working for himself leisurely and happily was infinitely better, both as regards the worker and his work, than that division of labour system which the profit-grinding of rising commercialism supplanted it by’. [18]

However, there was an essential element missing from both Ruskin and Morris’s argument. Of course it was true that capitalism worked ‘blindly, violently, destructively’, but it had also increased the productive forces in society. Crucially, capitalism had transformed small producers into proletarians, and so had created the force that could, by revolution, lay hold of the means of production for the common good, putting an end to alienation and drudgery. As Engels argued, the productive forces could be thus transformed:

Demoniacal masters into willing servants in the hands of the producers working in association. It is the difference between the destructive forces of electricity in the lightning of the thunderstorm and the tamed electricity of the telegraph and the arc light, the difference between a conflagration and a fire working in the services of man. [19]

After he had become a socialist Morris embraced this view of society and of the artistic process. In 1884 he wrote:

Of course it is impossible to go back to such a simple system [medieval production] ... On the other hand...the workman should again have control over his material, his tools, and his time; only that control must no longer be of the individual workman, as in the Middle Ages, but of the whole body of workmen. When the workers organise work for the benefit of the workers … they will once more know what is meant by art. [20]

But at the time the young Morris could only see the lightning and the conflagration. He had no idea that there was a possible future beyond the ‘cash-nexus’. For a follower of Carlyle, Keats and Ruskin the choice was between the present and the past, or even ‘dreams’. Morris’s instincts, even at this time, were good. He was right to assert that humankind had been degraded to the status of an appendage of a machine, that there was no longer pleasure in labour, that every human interaction, including art, was being turned into a balance sheet of financial profit and loss. He was anticipating the socialist principle that in a communist society there would not be the division between labour and play – the two would be the same.

So Morris’s position was both simultaneously a retreat and an act of rebellion. It was not until decades later that he was to come across an alternative which enabled him to look to the future with hope.

But for now Morris was to retreat into his ‘holy warfare against the age’. In 1856 he left Oxford and returned to London to train as an architect. He wrote to a friend, ‘I can’t enter into politico-social subjects with any interest, for on the whole I see that things are in a muddle, and I have no power or vocation to set them right in ever so little a degree. My work is the embodiment of dreams in one form or another’. [21]

Morris the artist was a great success. The later idea that ‘fitness for purpose’ was central to art can be detected in Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement he encouraged. Morris was attempting to say something new in the language of the old. As E.J. Hobsbawm says:

This movement of artistic renovation specifically sought to restore the broken links between art and the worker in production, and to transform the environment of daily living ... It inspired those who wished to change life. [22]

Central to Morris’s artistic output was the setting up of The Firm. This was the company he co-founded in 1861 to manufacture crafts, decorative work, furnishings, and interior design. He set about training himself to work in the manner of the medieval craft workers painstakingly researching medieval processes. In contrast to this were the developments in design in Victorian society. The Victorian bourgeoisie marked its affluence through ornate possessions, and furnishings that demonstrated its wealth to all, to architecture that has become a monument of its power and confidence. Architecture was influenced by scholarship and the increasing ability for travel abroad, reflected at first in a hodgepodge of style, from Gothic to Greek to Roman. Manufacturing processes were revolutionised by the capacity for mass production – a further move away from the hand wrought product of the craftsman.

The 1851 Great Exhibition was held to celebrate the British Empire. Morris’s friend and contemporary Walter Crane described the exhibits as ‘monstrosities in furniture and decoration which were supposed to be artistic’. The exhibition was housed in the Crystal Palace, which was in itself an indication of the impact of increasing industrialisation – that it was possible to build huge prefabricated buildings in a short space of time. Morris painstakingly tried to recover the skill of craftwork. He researched and tried to reproduce ancient dyes. His famous wallpaper patterns were handprinted. He wanted work to be enjoyable. In the place of mass production he put the intricate and the finely finished. In place of outward show of wealth he put simplicity. As Morris said, ‘I have never been in a rich man’s house which would have not looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all that it held’. [23]

Thus the motto he is best known for is, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ The patterns that he created reflected his attitude to the world outside the door of his workshop. So his wallpaper patterns, ‘Jasmine’, ‘Marigold’, ‘Apple’ and ‘Vine’, were created to indicate the natural world outside the conurbations. As a visitor exclaimed, The Firm ‘seems as if it were all-a-growing’. This fits with Morris wanting patterns to be a ‘visible symbol’ of nature, clothing ‘our daily and domestic walls with ornaments that reminds us of the outward face of the earth, of the innocent love of animals, or of man passing his days between work and rest’. [24]

Morris wanted this to be reflected in town planning. ‘We must turn this land from the grimy back-yard of the workshop into a garden.’ Town architecture should ‘to a certain extent make up to town dwellers for their loss of field, and river, and mountain.’ He wanted housing to be built round existing trees instead of levelling everything until it was ‘as bare as a pavement’. ‘Every child should be able to play in a garden close to the place where his parents live.’ Morris also advocated that housing should be social. It could be built:

In tall blocks, in what might be called vertical streets, but that need not prevent ample room in each lodging, so as to include such comforts of space, air and privacy as every moderately-living middle-class family considers itself entitled to ... Inside the houses, beside such obvious conveniences as common laundries and kitchens, a very little arrangement would give the dwellers in them ample and airy public rooms in addition to their private ones; the top story of each block might well be utilised for such purposes, the great hall for dining in, and for social gathering, being the chief feature of it. [25]

This is Morris at his very best, visionary in his insights and practical in his views.

During this period (roughly from 1856 to 1884) Morris came up against a contradiction that eventually drove him into political action. This was the contradiction between the past he revered and the actual society he lived in. It confronted him in his art. For instance in architecture he realised it was not so easy to revive or recreate Gothic style. As Paul Thompson has written:

A Gothic architect was forced continually to correct and oppose the habits of the mason, the joiner, the cabinet-maker, the carver etc., and to get them to imitate painfully the habits of the 14th century workmen, and to lay aside their own habits, formed not only from their own personal daily practice, but from the inherited turn of mind and practice of body of more than two centuries. [26]

It would be wrong to say that Morris wanted to slavishly recreate Gothic art and architecture. What was important was mastering past skills, whether that be book binding, glass firing, engraving or weaving. It was the process, bringing out the creativity of the worker that was central to medievalism.

This meant that the processes he used for his furnishings cost a lot of money. He was forced to build up very rich clients, people who symbolised everything he detested. But to make his handicraft cheaper would mean surrendering to mass production – separating the worker from his or her work. This went against Morris’s philosophy. [27]

So he was caught. He expressed this contradiction in typically rebellious fashion. He lost a contract for work for a church to provide a silk and gold altar cross after he included the following note with the estimate: ‘Note: in consideration of the fact that the above item is a wholly unnecessary and inexcusable extravagance at a time when thousands of poor people in this so-called Christian country are in want of food – additional charge to that set forth above, ten pounds’. [28] Morris must have been infuriated when his contempt for his clients made him even more fashionable. As a friend remarked, ‘Top’s [Morris was nicknamed Topsy because of his mop of hair] very eccentricities and independent attitude towards his patrons seem to have drawn patrons around him’. [29]

The ‘exquisite despair’ of his poetry of the time, such as his famous The Earthly Paradise, was eagerly embraced by the middle classes as a retreat from the worst aspects of the society that they simultaneously upheld. During the 1870s Morris also began to travel to Iceland, fleeing a society that was overwhelming him to a pre-industrial country where everything, from the landscapes to the human relations, seemed unspoilt. He immersed himself in Nordic folklore and attempted to bridge the gap by exploring the nature of Victorian society through this medium. His poem Sigurd of Volsung (1876) replaced the romance between the traditional characters and made lust for gold the motivating force.

In Victorian society Morris was increasingly a success, feted as a great poet and patronised by society’s most prominent members. Yet the more success he attracted, the more and more unsatisfied he became. His discontent drove him to begin to intervene in society. His first public stand was, not surprisingly, a mixture of art and politics. In 1876 he founded the Anti-Scrape League. This was launched to stop crude Victorian restoration (or mutilation as he saw it) of ancient monuments and buildings. He wrote to his prominent friends and influential figures to back SPAB as it came to be called (Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings). He drew on Ruskin for his manifesto: ‘Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them … and many a generation will still be born to pass a way beneath its shadow’. [30]

Then at the end of October 1876 a letter of protest arrived at the Daily News: ‘Sir, I cannot help noting that a rumour is about in the air that England is going to war; and that from the depths of my astonishment I ask, On behalf of whom? Against whom? And for what end?’ [31] The correspondent was William Morris protesting at the prospects of Britain going to war against Russia – a war that became known as the Eastern Question. The letter continued, ‘I am writing this as one of a large class of men – quiet men, who usually go about their own business, heeding public matters less than they ought, and are afraid to speak in such a huge concourse as the English nation, however much they may feel, but who are now stung into bitterness by thinking how helpless they are in a public matter that touches them so closely’. [32]

The letter marked Morris’s launch into politics. At the age of 43 he finally abandoned his retreat from the age in which he lived. Morris joined the movement against British intervention on the side of the fading Turkish Ottoman Empire against the Russian Tsarist Empire. In 1876 the Tory government of Disraeli was thrown onto the defensive over its support for Turkey and securing of interests in the region, including, crucially, control of the Suez Canal.

It was news of Turkish atrocities against the Christian population of Bulgaria that crystallised opposition against Disraeli. Liberal leader in opposition William Gladstone wrote a pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. It sold almost 250,000 copies in the space of a month. Morris weighed in against Disraeli. The Victorian England that Morris detested was also the Victorian England of the empire.

The dominant idea in British society was that the empire was a God given right and that prosperity at home depended on expansion abroad. It led to the encouragement of a nationalism which aimed ‘to resist, expel, defeat, conquer, subject or eliminate “the foreigner”.’ The ruling class knew that it had to try and wed a British working class that had a fine tradition of internationalism to its expansionist order. As Morton and Tate write:

An ideology of imperialism was now developed to try to justify and win popular support of acquiring and penetrating overseas areas... Scientific theories, such as Darwinism, were perverted into its service. British history was rewritten in its image. Song writers, journalists, academics, clergy, poets joined in its new eulogy. By every means, imperialism was propagated as the new British orthodoxy. [33]

To stand out against chauvinism and imperialism, as Morris and others did, was incredibly important. Workers, organised into Radical clubs up and down the country pressed the Liberal Party to form a league against British imperialism. This became the Eastern Question Association (EQA) organised by Sheffield Radical Liberal MP A.J. Mundella, with Morris on board as treasurer. Mundella acted as a fixer for Gladstone, his job being to provide a link between the working class and the Liberal Party establishment. Gladstone backed the EQA, hoping that he would ride back into office on the back of popular opposition to Disraeli’s interventions. It was a purely opportunist move, as Morris was to find out to his cost.

For Morris this was to be a profound turning point, because for the first time in his life he was to encounter the organised working class. On 24 April 1877 Russia declared war on Turkey. That night Morris hurried to a meeting of the Workmen’s Political associations and Trade Societies, remarking afterwards that he was impressed by those workers who ‘spoke well’ on the issue. [34] Morris was beginning to address the contradiction that had driven him up to that point – wanting a better society but forced to retreat by evoking the past through lack of an agency of change.

In May 1877 Morris published his famous document Manifesto to the Working Men of England. The focus for his powerful appeal is not the bishops, not the famous and eminent – it is a direct address to the working class. It is a magnificent blast against the British establishment that up to then had regarded Morris as perhaps eccentric, but essentially one of them:

Who are they that are leading us into war? Let us look at these saviours of England’s honour, these champions of Poland, these scourges of Russia’s iniquities! Do you know them? Greedy gamblers on the stock exchange, idle officers of the army and navy (poor fellows!), worn-out mockers of the Clubs, desperate purveyors of exciting war-news for the comfortable breakfast tables of those that have nothing to lose by war, and lastly, in the place of honour, the Tory Rump, that we fools, weary of peace, reason and justice, chose at the last election to ‘represent’ us: and over all their captain, the ancient place-hunter, who, having at last climbed into an earl’s chair, grins down thence into the anxious face of England [Disraeli, recently made earl], while his empty heart and shifty head is composing the stroke that will bring on our destruction perhaps, our confusion certainly. O shame and double shame, if we march under such a leadership as this in an unjust war against a people who are not our enemies, against Europe, against freedom, against nature, against the hope of the world. [35]

This was a powerful attack on the jingoism being whipped up by Disraeli and the Tories. But Morris’s commitment was not returned by Gladstone and the Liberal Party in anything like equal measure. As war got closer, Disraeli, overtly backed by Queen Victoria, went on the attack by playing up anti-Tsarist feeling, mobilising the press against the EQA and encouraging right wing gangs to smash up anti-war meetings. Gladstone, seeing that there was no longer electoral advantage in the EQA, dropped the campaign, leaving Morris and working class activists to face the rising jingoism on their own. [36]

Here was a bitter lesson to learn, and learn it Morris and others did: the Liberal Party, even with its radical wing, could not be a vehicle for working class interests. There was a crying need for an independent working class organisation. Morris was disheartened but not defeated. Not a natural public speaker, he began to lecture on art, fusing his long held artistic critique with trenchant opposition to imperialism. There is no doubt that Morris’s anti-imperialism is one of his finest contributions to socialist politics.

In a Birmingham meeting in 1879 he impressed his audience with the point that ‘while we are met here in Birmingham to further the spread of education in art, Englishmen in India are … actively destroying the very sources of that education – jewellery, metal-work, pottery, calico-printing, brocade weaving, carpet-making – the famous and historical arts of their great peninsula have been … thrust aside for the advantage of any paltry scrap of so-called commerce’. [37] A year later he is even more explicit:

England’s place – what is England’s place? To carry civilisation throughout the world? Yes indeed the world must be civilised, and I doubt not that England will have a large share in bringing about that civilisation ... I begin to doubt if civilisation itself may not be sometimes so adulterated as scarcely to be worth the carrying – and how it cannot be worth much, when it is necessary to kill a man in order to make him accept it. [38]

Morris was searching around for a socialist organisation. In 1879 he became treasurer of the National Liberal League formed to help working class people become Liberal candidates, but he found once again that principle was secondary to the elevation of Gladstone’s fortunes. Then two years later he helped set up a short lived Radical Union, an amalgam of London Radical working class groups in which he hoped to organise a ‘strong political party out of the radical elements or out of the trade unions’.

Gladstone was back in office. The author of The Bulgaria Horrors now refused to reverse Disraeli’s annexation of the Transvaal, passed the notorious 1881 Coercion Bill against Ireland, and ordered the shelling of Alexandria by British warships during the Stockjobbers’ Egyptian War. It confirmed for Morris his hatred of the intrigue and corruption of the ‘wretched little personalities’ that populated parliamentary politics and fuelled his revulsion for a system that nurtured itself through imperialism and war.

By now Morris was desperate to ‘join any body who distinctly call themselves socialist’. In the winter of 1882 he attended a series of lectures in central London organised by the Democratic Federation on ‘the stepping stones to socialism’. On January 1883 he joined the Federation and plunged himself into the study of Marxism. In the 13 years that followed he was to find himself at the centre of building the British Marxist tradition – agitating, fighting, writing, and lecturing and leaving us with an impressive legacy. Morris’s career proves that Marxism, not reformism, was the driving force at the centre of the British socialist movement from the beginning. Indeed those individuals who were in the forefront of the struggle in the decades that followed were schooled first in the ideas of Marxism by Morris and his contemporaries.

Interest in socialism had, since Chartism, been kept alive in Britain by the small London grouping around Marx and Engels. The 1871 Paris Commune, in which the Paris workers briefly ran society, provided proof that socialism was possible and reawakened working class ideas in Britain with Republican clubs springing up everywhere. [39] Through the late 1870s and 1880s there was the establishment of working class associations in the East End of London, which adhered to socialist ideas, membership being a mixture of local workers, Radicals, political refugees from Europe, and Chartists. There were similar organisations beginning to come together elsewhere. The Midland Social Democratic Association in Birmingham was one example.

The Democratic Federation was launched by H.M. Hyndman, formerly a Tory Radical. Hyndman was a strange figure to be in at the beginning of British Marxism. He was a rich factory owner who had been a bit of an adventurer before taking up Marxism – globetrotting, journalism and making money on the stock exchange being amongst his pursuits. (He lost a part of his fortune at the first Barings bank crash in 1890.) His politics were a mixture of determinist Marxism and opportunism. He believed the colonies to be ‘the special heritage of the working class’ – in contradiction to Morris’s internationalism. He had to be persuaded out of opposition to home rule for Ireland. He wanted an expanded navy to ‘keep command of the narrow seas and trade routes’ to protect British interests. Yet in 1880 he read Marx’s Capital (in French; it did not appear in English until 1887) and announced his conversion to socialism. At the founding of the Democratic Federation he presented the delegates with a copy of England For All, his pocket version of Capital. (He earned Marx and Engels’ anger and suspicion for plagiarising Capital without any acknowledgement – he apparently thought Marx’s name too German!) Lenin gave a very good description of Hyndman when he wrote he was an ‘English bourgeois philistine who, being the best of his class, finally finds the road to socialism for himself, but never completely throws off bourgeois views and prejudices’. [40]

Hyndman believed that socialism was inevitable and not far off, and the sole role of revolutionaries was to propagandise for it. As a contemporary described, a future crisis would lead to a workers’ uprising and the SDF (as it became) ‘would resolve itself into a Committee of Public Safety, and … it would be for him as chairman of that body to guide the ship of state into the calm haven of socialism’. [41] Therefore any struggle short of revolution was a diversion from this. So he held that strikes merely renegotiated the level of exploitation:

There is nothing in strikes themselves, whether for a rise of wages for all, or for the enactment of a minimum wage for the lowest grades of labour in any industry, which can emancipate the propertyless workers, or render them less dependent upon the owning and employing class. On the contrary, the most successful strikes under existing conditions do but serve to rivet the chains of economic slavery, possibly a trifle gilded, more firmly on their limbs. [42]

Marx and Engels in London would have nothing to do with Hyndman. Engels condemned him as a ‘petty and hardfaced John Bull’ and accused him of trying to ‘buy up the movement’. Yet for all distortions of this ‘weak vessel’, as Marx put it, Hyndman and his voluminous writings attracted workers and intellectuals to Marxism.

Hyndman’s work such as Socialism and Slavery, The Historical Basis of Socialism in England and The Coming Revolution in England popularised Marxism. Crucially, the Democratic Federation was formed as British capitalism began to go into an economic crisis, feeding into discontent that began to stir itself in the working class for the first time since Chartism.

It is important to point out, without accepting Hyndman’s ideas, that revolutionaries at the time were engaged in pioneering work. They were trying to apply a new set of ideas – Marxism – in a world that was changing at a rapid rate. Apart from the Paris Commune there was no example of how socialism could come about. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was in the future. There was little experience of relating to trade unions and the day to day struggle of workers against capitalism. Relating to New Model Unions such as the ASE must have been a daunting task. Nonetheless the Democratic Federation made faltering, unsure steps towards workers.

E.J. Hobsbawm in his 1961 essay Hyndman and the SDF, reassessing the organisation, points out:

Its greatest achievement was to provide an introduction to the labour movement and a training school for a secession of the most gifted working class militants: for John Burns, Tom Mann and Will Thorne, for George Lansbury and even for Ernest Bevin. Consequently also, in spite of its frequent neglect of trade unionism, its members or those formed in its school were at their most effective as trade union leaders. [43]

But in all, the sum of the people, including Morris, who passed through its ranks was greater than the contribution of the organisation itself.

The series of meetings that Morris attended, the ‘stepping stones to a happier period’, were an instinctive attempt to unite theory and practice. From the stepping stones conference came a series of immediate demands designed to bridge the gap between the party and aspirations of workers. The programme demanded ‘the compulsory construction of public bodies of healthy dwellings for the people’, ‘free secular and technical education’, legislation for an eight hour day, cumulative taxation of incomes over £300, public work for the unemployed, the repudiation of the national debt, state appropriation of the railways, the municipal ownership of gas, electricity and water supplies and nationalisation of the land. [44]

The Federation endeavoured to unite existing organisations. So it soon had influence in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society. It gained the affiliation of the important Scottish Land and Labour League (co-founded in Edinburgh by Marx’s old friend the Austrian socialist Andreas Scheu). Morris was enthused by his discovery of the Federation and of Marxism. By May 1883 Morris was on the Democratic Federation executive (he was predictably made treasurer due to his income and thereafter substantially subsidised the movement).

He made a serious study of Marx’s writings. In How I Became a Socialist he describes how, ‘I put some conscience into trying to learn the economical side of socialism, and even tackled Marx, though I must confess 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’. [45]

This self deprecating aside has been unfairly used to assert that Morris had no time for Marxist theory, implying that Morris was indifferent or even hostile to Marx’s teachings. In her biography Fiona MacCarthy cites Morris’s daughter May ‘who watched his struggles, commenting perceptively that it was difficult for someone with her father’s deeply emotional attitude to the people and the land to delve with sustained enthusiasm into the intricacies of the scientific socialism of Marx with its hard technical arguments and economic formulas’. [46]

This view can only be seriously sustained if one discounts the whole of Morris’s political trajectory from 1883 to his death. He demonstrated his knowledge of Marxism through and through, whether writing about art, workers’ struggles or history.

Socialism From the Root Up, which he co-wrote with fellow socialist Belfort Bax, was an attempt to explain Capital to a working class audience. A Dream of John Ball was an attempt to explain historical materialism. Morris was one of the finest recruiting sergeants to Marxism that the British working class ever had. Again, writing in How I Became a Socialist, he asserted, ‘The consciousness of revolution stirring amidst our hateful modern society prevented me, luckier than many others of artistic perceptions, from crystallising into a mere railer against “progress” on the one hand [like Ruskin], and on the other from wasting time and energy in any of the numerous schemes by which the quasi-artistic of the middle classes hope to make art grow when it has no longer any root, and thus I became a practical socialist’. [47]

It was anger at Victorian society that drove him to socialism, but it was the understanding that opposition to the system in itself was not enough that shaped him into a committed Marxist. Morris may have been ‘a catch’ for the SDF, but his discovery of Marxism enraged the establishment. For at exactly the same time as Morris became a revolutionary he was being prepared to be sanctified as an eminent Victorian.

In July 1883 he was received as a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Just four months later he returned to Oxford to deliver a speech on politics to Liberal and Radical minded undergraduates. Hyndman had been refused a platform but Morris was allowed to speak, on the misunderstanding that he was moderate. In the audience was John Ruskin. Morris delivered a storming critique of capitalism after which there was a ‘deathly hush’. The college authorities were shocked, the newspapers went for him – he had to weather ‘a sort of storm of newspaper brickbats’. The newspapers responded at first with obvious confusion at the fiery rhetoric of this eminent public figure: the Manchester Weekly Times hoped ‘that he would reconsider his ideal, and have something less impracticable and less discouraging to say to us the next time’. A year later in the London Echo curiosity had turned to hostility: ‘Mr Morris … is not content to be heard merely as a voice crying in the wilderness ... He will be content with nothing less than the propagation of his ideas by means that must result in social revolution’. [48] As E.P. Thompson comments:

After each lecture there would follow indignant letters to the local papers, and measured reproofs upon the ‘unpractical’, ‘misguided idealist’, ‘poet-upholsterer’, and so forth, swelled to a crescendo the moment that Morris had found a practical remedy to the evils which he had before attacked, and had proclaimed himself to be a member of a practical revolutionary movement. [49]

Morris was not deterred by this approbation. In 1883 he spoke in Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford, Cambridge and numerous lectures in London, exclusively for the Democratic Federation. This is the Morris who a few years previously had described himself as a ‘quite man’ ‘afraid to speak’.

In 1883 the Democratic Federation adopted a specific socialist programme, widening nationalisation to all ‘means of production, distribution and exchange’. Out of this came the Democratic Federation manifesto, Socialism Made Plain, which was a great success, selling 100,000 copies. By the end of the year the SDF had made headway, reporting branches in Newcastle and Liverpool, and having contacts in Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Nottingham. The Democratic Federation, through intervention in strikes, albeit for the purpose of propaganda, led to wider influence. The receptiveness of workers to Marxism was demonstrated by the setting up of a branch in Blackburn after intervention in the 1884 cotton strike. Morris himself travelled to Blackburn and addressed the 1,500 strikers who had gathered in the biggest hall in the town to hear the socialist case.

A good measure of support was the size of the March 1884 procession to Highgate cemetery called by Hyndman on the first anniversary of Karl Marx’s death. It attracted over 1,000 marchers with another 3,000 or 4,000 onlookers at Highgate. Around this time the Democratic Federation renamed itself the Social Democratic Federation.

Three months earlier the SDF had taken an important step forward. It launched a weekly paper, Justice, ‘The Organ of the Social Democracy’. As an observer at the founding editorial meeting recounted, Hyndman ‘declared that humbug, political, social and scientific, would be exposed, art was to be emancipated (here Morris nearly shook his shaggy head off with approving nods) and the workers of the world would be united by means of a great free, independent press!’ [50] It marked the beginning of an outpouring of socialist writing by Morris. Between 1884 and 1890 Morris published almost 500 signed articles, including poetry, prose, sketches, lectures, essays and columns. It also signalled a reawakening of Morris’s talent. This period is his finest.

His contribution for issue one of Justice, although not weighty politically, is typically Morris. It is titled An Old Fable Retold. In it the storyteller describes how:

In the days before man had completely established his domination over the animal world, the poultry of a certain country, unnamed in my record, met in solemn conference in the largest hall they could hire for their money: the period was serious, for it was drawing near Christmas, and the question of debate partook of the gravity of the times; for, in short, various resolutions, the wording of which has not come down to us were to be moved on the all important subject, ‘with what sauce shall we be eaten?’ This debate goes on, says the narrator of the fable, until a ‘middle-aged barn-door cock’ gets up and explains: ‘I don’t want to be eaten at all; is it poss ...’

The cock is howled down with cries of ‘practical politics!’ and he retires from the assembly. The meeting ends in harmony with a resolution agreed upon to be forwarded to the farmer’s wife. The fable ends with: ‘A rumour has reached us 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. Moral: Citizens, pray draw it for yourselves’. [51]

Morris and the other members sold Justice where they could. ‘The wholesale newsagents would not take the paper, so the Federation members began to sell it on the streets, marching through Ludgate Circus, Fleet Street and the Strand, shouting, “Justice, the organ of social democracy, one penny!” ‘ Morris was soon unwillingly catapulted into the leadership of the movement. Members of the SDF including Morris, Marx’s daughter Eleanor, her partner Edward Aveling and leading figures such as Belfort Bax, had grown frustrated by the behaviour of the dictatorial and opportunistic Hyndman, who was apt to ignore party decisions with which he did not agree. A year after the split the SDF was to suffer a heavy blow when it was revealed that Hyndman had accepted ‘Tory gold’ for putting up two candidates in the general election to split the Liberal vote and let the Tories in. Morris was particularly alarmed at Hyndman’s sectarian attitude to those attracted to the Radical wing of the Liberals. He disagreed with Hyndman’s ‘Perpetual sneers at, and abuse of the Radicals, who, deluded as we must think them, are after all the men from where our recruits must come’. Morris was vindicated when the Oxford Radical club was argued over to a revolutionary socialist position.

The SDF split in December 1884. Morris and Eleanor Marx went to Engels for advice on how to form a new party – which became the Socialist League. Engels later wrote, ‘The whole movement here is but a phantom, but if it is possible to draw into the Socialist League a kernel of people who have a good theoretical understanding, much will be gained for a genuine mass movement, which will not long be coming.’ Engels regarded Morris, Bax and Aveling as ‘the only honest men amongst the intellectuals – but men as impractical (two poets and a philosopher) as you could possibly find’. [52]

The Socialist League manifesto, written by Morris, with its famous address to the workers, was published in the first issue of the organisation’s newspaper – Commonweal – in February 1885. (Commonweal was published, on Engels advice, first monthly then weekly.) The manifesto is a clear exposition of the socialist case. Importantly it also contains a passage on women’s liberation which reflected Morris’s position: ‘Our modern bourgeois property-marriage, maintained as it is by its necessary complement, universal venal prostitution, would give place to kindly and human relations between the sexes’. [53] Shot through Morris’s writings is the issue of women’s oppression. He was clear that he ‘did not consider a man a socialist at all who is not prepared to admit the equality of women’. [54]

The manifesto also takes up the question of nationalisation: ‘Whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages still in operation: no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to socialism’. [55] This passage also confirms that Morris was certain that the road to socialism would involve the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – far from the ethos of gradualism that Morris is often tarred with today.

Morris was also at pains to make the point that the League was internationalist, against the chauvinism of Hyndman: ‘For us neither geographical boundaries, political history, race, nor creed makes rivals or enemies; for us there are no nations, but only varied masses of workers and friends’. [56] The first edition of Commonweal was an impressive effort. As well as the manifesto it had Belfort Bax on Imperialism Versus Socialism, Eleanor Marx on the international labour movement and reminiscences of Peterloo by the Chartist, E.T. Craig. This quality and breadth were kept up in following issues, that included articles by Engels, French socialist Paul Lafargue and George Bernard Shaw.

For the next six years Morris edited (and subsidised) Commonweal. The first issue sold around 3,500 copies, not a bad figure at all. It strove to connect with workers, and become a popular newspaper, as its promotional leaflets demonstrate:

It speaks plainly without fear or favour on behalf of the suffering. It shows plainly your actual position ... It tells you what you are, that is down-trodden slaves, and what you ought to be – the rulers of yourselves. [57]

Morris wanted to build a revolutionary socialist party in the working class: ‘When I first joined the movement I hoped that some working class leaders would turn up, who would push aside all middle class help, and become great historical figures’. [58] To that end he bent his considerable energies. Between 1884 and 1890 he addressed over 1,000 meetings across the country.

Working meticulously on his speeches, Morris endeavoured to attract workers to the cause. Some of his most absorbing articles are reports from lecture tours and party organisational meetings. His report in Commonweal of a lecture tour in 1886, showing him involving himself in the nuts and bolts of organisation, is one of the many examples.

In Edinburgh:

I had a short but pleasant interview with members of the branch ... They seemed rather depressed: lack speakers, and so find it difficult to make much way; but they are getting a few new members, in spite of the slackness of their propaganda ... On the other hand, our comrades are making most commendable efforts to push the Commonweal, and with it much success. The news shops take it and sell it.

The next day he is in Glasgow. He notes, ‘Our comrades here ought to make a push and get up a branch in Dundee’. [59]

In the spring of 1887 the Socialist League made one of its first major interventions and showed what was possible for socialists to achieve at the time. Scottish Socialist League member and leading trade unionist John L. Mahon had argued in the organisation for an orientation on strikes and the setting up of a ‘strike committee’. In 1887 he established the North of England Socialist Federation amongst Northumberland miners. Morris suspected Mahon of trying to set up a new party entirely. But whatever Mahon’s intentions, the result was a body that drew to it both members of the League and the SDF, prepared to work together without resort to the sectarian London based squabbles.

The Federation played a leading role in the 1887 Northumberland Great Miners’ Strike against a 12.5 percent reduction in wages. Morris went up and spoke to a rally of 7,000 miners and their families. During the dispute the North of England Socialist Federation founded 24 branches and, although they faded away after the strike’s settlement, they demonstrated the influence that socialists could win amongst workers. But apart from individuals such as Mahon, and later on members in Leeds, the Socialist League as an organisation failed to grasp the significance and nature of trade union intervention. Not until members like Eleanor Marx seriously took up the question of industrial work amongst the unskilled workers of the East End were the experiences of Northumberland to be repeated.

Meanwhile Morris and the League were plunged into campaigns for free speech involving joint work with wider forces than themselves. A crucial part of both the SDF’s and the League’s activities was selling their publications at street meetings. As E.P. Thompson writes, ‘Morris would go with a few members of the League … to the stands of the Hammersmith branch [to which Morris belonged], at Waltham Green or Hammersmith Bridge, where audiences of up to 500 were regularly won’. [60]

Increasingly through the 1880s the London police harassed the small groups of socialists and Radicals, no doubt fearing the kind of solidarity they expressed with the Paris Commune of 1871. In the summer of 1885 the harassment was stepped up in the East End of London with socialists arrested every weekend. The SDF, the League and East End Radical Clubs came together to form a united front – the Free Speech Vigilance Committee – and called for a mass demonstration to be held on 20 September. This was attacked by the police, the socialist banner was seized and eight people were arrested. Morris came in for the attention of the police, but by all accounts gave as good as he got. He was charged with a public order offence, but the magistrate had the sense to drop the charges. This episode scandalised Morris’s respectable contemporaries – Morris, author of The Earthly Paradise, scuffling with the police! The writer George Gissing moaned, ‘It is painful to me beyond expression. Why cannot he write poetry in the shade?’ [61]

But amongst the working class the affair had the effect of widening opposition to the police; the following Sunday around 60,000 demonstrators took to the streets. The police were under orders to hold back (it was on the eve of a general election), and the socialists celebrated an important success. But the war was far from over.

The police, out to crush the movement, came back for more, notoriously on 13 November 1887, known as Bloody Sunday. A short revival of trade between 1881 and 1883 had alleviated unemployment. but this faded away, leaving a savage depression, throwing increasing numbers of people out of work. The recession also crippled the New Model Unions, whose funds were exhausted by unemployment benefits. The response of the SDF to the rising ranks of the unemployed was to agitate amongst them (even to the extent of drilling them to get them in shape for the insurrection that Hyndman believed imminent). This agitation led to Black Monday in February 1885 when an SDF called demonstration in Trafalgar Square ended in a small riot after the demonstration was jeered and pelted by Pall Mall club patrons. This took place against a background of unemployed riots in Leicester and elsewhere. The response of the SDF was to exaggerate this entirely as the signal for coming revolution. They found themselves in agreement with Queen Victoria who complained that it was the ‘momentary triumph of socialism and a disgrace to the capital’. Morris’s analysis was more measured than the SDF’s. In an editorial in Commonweal he wrote of these outbreaks of bitterness amongst the unemployed:

What is to be said about these? They are leaderless often, and half blind … [but] the worse thing we have to dread, though every day now it is less to be dreaded, is that the oppressed people will learn a dull contentment with their lot, and give their masters no more trouble than dying inconveniently ... With all genuine revolutionary attempts, therefore, we must sympathise, and must at the least express that sympathy. [62]

The response of the ruling class to Black Monday was twofold: subscriptions to the Mansion House Fund for the Unemployed, having hit rock bottom, rocketed, ‘not out of pity but fear’, as Hyndman observed. Their other response was to look at what preparations they had for confronting working class revolt for the first time since Chartism. A new Metropolitan Police commissioner was swiftly appointed.

Sir Charles Warren had commanded the Diamond’s Field Horse during the ‘Kaffir War’ of 1877–1878 and was feted as the ‘Saviour of Bechuanaland’. One paper observed that he was more used to ‘dealing with barbarians than the inhabitants of London’, which is presumably why the then Tory administration picked him. His opinion of the unemployed soothed the bigots. [63]

The scene was set for confrontation. As Eleanor Marx wrote, ‘In the streets here one sees so many starving people – people with hunger in every line of their faces that one cannot but be wretched’. [64] Trafalgar Square became the focus for the unemployed, many of whom had nowhere else to sleep. On Tuesday 8 November a public notice appeared in the newspapers, a declaration by Charles Warren that all meetings in Trafalgar Square were banned. But a rally in the square by the Metropolitan Radical Federation and the Irish National League in protest at renewed repression in Ireland and the internment of Irish MP William O’Brien was already planned. It now became the rallying point for free speech (thus converging the two great progressive causes of the day).

Bloody Sunday started with the occupation of the square by hundreds of police on foot, mounted police and foot soldiers of the Grenadier and Life Guards while feeder marches assembled across London. In Clerkenwell Green, Morris and others addressed one contingent of 5,000. Morris knew that the authorities lay in wait. He reportedly warned the crowd, ‘When the procession was passing through the streets, those behind must not fall back ... He hoped they would shove the policemen, rather than hit them, for the policemen were armed and they were not’. [65]

The viciousness of the attack on the demonstrators was much worse than Morris imagined. He recounted in the next issue of Commonweal:

We had no sooner crossed [Shaftesbury Avenue] than the attack came, and it was clearly the best possible place for it ... It was all over in a few minutes: our comrades fought valiantly ... The police struck right and left like what they were, soldiers attacking an enemy, amidst wild shrieks of hatred from the women who came from the slums on our left. The band instruments were captured, the banners and flags destroyed, there was no rallying point and no possibility of rallying, and all that the people composing our once strong column could do was struggle into the square as helpless units. [66]

Morris was ‘astounded at the rapidity of the thing’ and disgusted at the brutality of the attack which included ‘one brave man wrapping his banner torn from his pole around his arm and facing the police till he was hammered down with repeated blows’. [67] The police eventually cleared the square through mounted baton charges. Two hundred demonstrators were hospitalised, at least two men dying as a result of their injuries. Three hundred were arrested, with 160 people sent to jail. The hundred odd police injuries were a testimonial to the courage with which demonstrators attempted to fight back. The Law and Liberty League was launched shortly after to aid those arrested and injured. A 40,000 strong meeting in Hyde Park the following Sunday passed a resolution which demanded the release of those arrested, condemned Warren and demanded the right to assembly. Later, in Trafalgar Square, an innocent law clerk, Alfred Linnell, was killed by mounted police. On Sunday 18 December the working class of London turned out to mourn and vent their anger. A huge demonstration 120,000 strong marched from central London to Bow cemetery. Morris had written the poem A Death Song for Linnell. It was produced as a penny pamphlet and sold on the march to raise money for Linnell’s bereaved family:

What cometh from west to east a-wending?
And who are these, the marchers stern and slow?
We bear the message that the rich are sending
Aback to those who bade them wake and now.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day. [68]

Morris gave the speech at the graveside:

Our friend who lies here has had a hard life and met with a hard death, and if society had been differently constituted his life might have been a delightful, a beautiful and a happy one. It is our business to begin to organise for the purpose of seeing that such things shall not happen; to try and make this Earth a beautiful and happy place.

A comrade remembered how:

He threw his whole soul into his speech. There was a fearful earnestness in his voice when referring to the victim he had just laid to rest. He cried out, ‘Let us feel he is our brother.’ The ring of brotherly love in it was most affecting. [69]

But despite Bloody Sunday and the death of Linnell the fight for free speech was successful – not only were the authorities forced to back down and concede the right of assembly in Trafalgar Square, but the struggle had also raised the profile of the socialists in the working class movement.

Throughout these hectic years, the editing and contributions to Commonweal never ceased. Indeed these years produced Morris’s three enduring socialist masterpieces, first serialised in Commomweal: The Pilgrims of Hope (April 1885 to June 1886), A Dream of John Ball (November 1886 to January 1887) and News From Nowhere (January to October 1890).

The Pilgrims of Hope is a narrative poem that merges Morris’s early days as a socialist with a defence of the 1871 Paris Commune. For Morris to choose to defend and celebrate the Commune would have scandalised his contemporaries. But he believed in revolution. As he wrote elsewhere, ‘My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force’. [70] At the same time the Commune ‘frightened the wits’ out of the ruling classes, as Eric Hobsbawm puts it. In the working class movement the attitude taken to the Commune became a dividing line.

The right wing trade union leaders who headed the New Model Unions deserted the First International set up by Marx and Engels, scared that they would be labelled as supporters of foreign revolutionaries.

In contrast defending the Paris Commune was a point of pride for every revolutionary. As Morris wrote in a Commonweal article, ‘We honour them as the foundation-stone of the world that is to be.’ That is why he entitled the section in which his three protagonists travel to the Commune A Glimpse of the Coming Day:

So at last from a grey stone building we saw a great flag fly,
One colour, red and solemn ’gainst the blue of the springtide sky,
And we stopped and turned to each other, and as each at each did we gaze,
The city’s hope enwrapped us with joy and great amaze. [71]

The Pilgrims of Hope is also worth reading for the account of Morris’s early days in the movement:

When I joined the Communist folk, I did what in me lay
To learn the grounds of their faith. I read day after day
Whatever books I could handle, and heard about and about
What talk was going amongst them; and I burned up doubt after doubt,
Until it befell at last to others I needs must speak. [72]

In A Dream Of John Ball Morris drew on his knowledge of medievalism to deliver a modern lesson. He took as his subject the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. In a familiar device the narrator falls asleep in the present day and finds himself back in 14th century Kent. Morris wanted to use A Dream of John Ball to say something about the nature of class struggle. E.P. Thompson argues that Morris wanted to assert the necessity for a conscious agency of change – that change for the better would not just come about naturally as it were. What individuals and movements did were not incidental to history – they were integral to it – shaping the future. This was a rejection of the spontaneity and evolutionary conception that dominated Hyndman’s theory. As Morris wrote elsewhere, ‘If the present state of society merely breaks up without a conscious effort at transformation, the end, the fall of Europe, may be long in coming, but when it does, it will be far more terrible, far more confused and full of suffering than the period of the fall of Rome’. [73]

For Morris the fight for socialism was an active process, driven by an understanding of the processes of history. In A Dream of John Ball, Morris, through the narrator, asserts that ‘I … pondered how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name’. [74]

John Ball, having heard his fate, asks what his role in history is, trying to grapple with the knowledge given to him by his 19th century vision that the feudalism he is fighting in his present is conquered, but its conquest ushers in not an end to tyranny, but the inconceivable – a more terrible order of things – capitalism:

‘Now I am sorrier than thou hast yet made me,’ said he; ‘for when once this is established, how then can it be changed? Strong shall be the tyranny of the latter days. And now meseems, if thou sayest sooth, this time of the conquest of the earth shall not bring heaven down to the earth, as erst I deemed it would, but rather that it shall bring hell up onto the earth. Woe’s me, brother, for thy sad and weary foretelling! And yet saidst thou that the men of those days would seek a remedy. Canst thou yet tell me, brother, what that remedy shall be?’

‘John Ball,’ [the narrator replies] ‘be of good cheer; for once more thou knowest, as I know, that the Fellowship of Men shall endure, however many tribulations it may have to wear through ... The time shall come John Ball, when that dream of thine that this shall one day be, shall be a thing that men shall talk of soberly, and as a thing soon to come about … thy name shall abide by thy hope in those days to come, and thou shalt not be forgotten’. [75]

Morris was adamant that he didn’t want to re-establish medieval society, but he did want to fight for the same thing that John Ball was fighting for – liberation and equality. As Morris wrote elsewhere: ‘The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.’ A Dream of John Ball was set in the past, but firmly rooted in Morris’s struggle for the future.

Like all of Morris’s writings, A Dream of John Ball is full of sensuous descriptions of people. In Morris’s writing the female characters are often idealised, so in John Ball, Will Green’s daughter is described as:

Tall and strongly made, with black hair like her father, somewhat comely, though no great beauty; but as they met, her eyes smiled even more than her mouth, and made her face look very sweet and kind, and the smile was answered back in a way so quaintly like to her father’s face, that I too smiled for goodwill and pleasure. [76]

To the contemporary reader these descriptions may read awkwardly, partly because of the language and partly because of a perceived sentimentalism. But what Morris was trying to do was reveal an essential ‘goodness’ in human relations – in contrast to the present society that bred alienation, oppression and ugly conflict between individuals. In his writings Morris tried to allude, as best as he was able to, a world where men and women would be ‘free’ to form ‘genuine unions of passion and affection’. [77]

Today Morris’s fictional writings are dismissed as the work of a Utopian dreamer. Indeed his best known work, News From Nowhere, has been labelled a ‘socialist fantasy’. It was written in response to a popular book by the American Edward Bellamy in 1888. Bellamy was an academic who disliked the effects that capitalism was having on humanity and wanted a much more rational society. He believed capitalism would inevitably be superseded by socialism – because it was a much more reasonable state of affairs.

In Looking Backwards Bellamy’s hero wakes up in Boston in the year 2000 and finds himself in a socialist society. How did this marvellous state of affairs come about? We are told that over time all the corporations and businesses came together into a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit’. [78] This state of affairs did not take ‘great bloodshed and terrible convulsions. On the contrary there was absolutely no violence. The change had been long foreseen. Public opinion had become fully ripe for it, and the whole mass of the people was behind it. There was no more possibility of opposing it by force than by argument.’ [79] Monopoly capitalism would eliminate competition and transform itself into socialism. Crucially there would be no need for revolution when evolution would do the job. [80]

This assertion annoyed Morris enough to write his counterblast, News From Nowhere. For not only did Bellamy’s work advocate support for those monopoly capitalists who represented everything Morris opposed and detested, it advocated support for the system. It denied that the working class had any role to play. It dismissed the idea that there was or ever would be a confrontation between the classes which would ultimately have to be fought out. Bellamy, in conclusion, was predicting that the future of humanity was more akin to the actual life that middle class Bostonians (like Bellamy) enjoyed in 1888 than communist society. As Morris wrote, ‘A certain tincture of socialism … (generally very watery) is almost a necessary ingredient nowadays in a novel’. [81] But Bellamy’s book was also popular amongst workers who were drawn to the socialist project.

Morris first took up the argument in a review of the book in Commonweal. He refuted the idea that change would come about in the way Bellamy described: ‘He conceives of the change to socialism as taking place without any breakdown of that life, or indeed disturbance of it, by means of the final development of the great private monopolies’. [82] He then proceeded to write News From Nowhere, at the heart of which is a defence of revolution and revolutionary change.

This riled Morris’s first biographer, J.W. Mackail, who dismissed the book saying, ‘It is a curious fact that this slightly constructed and essentially insular romance has, as a socialist pamphlet, been translated into French, German and Italian, and has probably been read in more foreign countries than any of his more important works in prose or verse’. [83] (Mackail regarded Morris’s socialism as a rather distasteful malaise, setting the tone for a myriad of revisionist biographies that continues today.) The narrative of News From Nowhere follows the same structure as Bellamy’s book. But there are crucial differences: Morris’s hero meets a historian in his ‘dream’ who provides the link between the readers present and the possible future. ‘Old Hammond’ remembers the revolution (which Morris sets in 1952). In the chapter entitled How the Change Came the hero asks Hammond:

‘Tell me one thing, if you can,’ said I. ‘Did the change, the “revolution” it used to be called, come peacefully?’

‘Peacefully?’ said he; ‘what peace was there amongst those poor confused wretches of the nineteenth century? It was war from beginning to end: bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it’. [84]

In How the Change Came Morris has Old Hammond tell the story of the insurrection that ushered in socialism. It starts with a massacre of workers during a demonstration in Trafalgar Square (the book having been written three years after Bloody Sunday) and although the revolution is set in 1952 the events and the characters (including Gladstone) place News From Nowhere in Victorian time.

Morris wants us to be sure that this future is not simply a dream, but a possibility growing out of the conditions of present society. So it would be wrong to brand News From Nowhere as merely a pleasant fantasy or an escape. Morris wants to engage the Victorian reader in the society he or she lives in – this is not fantastical, Morris is saying, this is possible – it is what might be.

The detailed description of the events surrounding the revolution in News From Nowhere follows the only historical model that Morris knew – that of the bourgeois revolutions – but with the working class at the centre of affairs. The battle is fought out on the streets over a prolonged period before the revolution triumphs. But whatever model Morris based the revolution on, there can be no doubt that it is a refutation of gradualism. It is an advocacy of revolution and revolutionary change.

Morris also hints at the need for some kind of leadership: ‘But now the time called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot; and a vast network of workmen’s associations grew up very speedily, whose avowed single object was the tiding over of the ship of state into a simple condition of communism’. [85]

He also describes how under communism people, their lives, their outlook on life and their relations with one another would be utterly transformed. This is in contrast to Bellamy who thought the highpoint of people’s leisure under communism would consist of listening to the radio!

Morris uses all his imaginative skills to create this new world, to draw the reader into it, as a means to convince them to become a socialist. He wanted the book to ‘add a little hope to the struggle’. He called it the ‘instinctive vision’ of socialists, to be able to keep hold of the future goal at the centre of the everyday fight against the system.

The thrust of Morris’s argument is repeated again and again in his writings. What Morris was trying to do with works like News From Nowhere or lectures such as A Factory As It Might Be and The Society of The Future was to explain what was wrong about Victorian society, what needed to happen to change it and what the future might bring. So as far as Morris was concerned, visionaries were also ‘practical people’.

During the mid to late 1880s Morris fully engaged his energies in the practical tasks of revolutionary socialism, replacing for a large part his work at The Firm. He was utterly dedicated to the Socialist League and wanted to see it grow into an effective organisation:

What I should like to have now, far more than anything else, would be a body of able, high-minded, competent men, who should act as instructors of the masses and as their leaders during critical periods of the movement. It goes without saying that a great proportion of these instructors and organisers should be working men ... I should like to see 2,000 men of that stamp engaged in explaining the principles of rational, scientific socialism all over the kingdom. [86]

To that end Morris tramped ‘the kingdom’ helping to set up branches. In its first year the League attracted (from a handful) maybe 600 members, with around 23 branches from Dublin to Leeds, Birmingham, Norwich, many in London and such places as Croydon. More branches continued to be founded in towns such as Ipswich and Lancaster. Norwich was one of the most successful branches. As E.P. Thompson describes it, ‘The Norwich Leaguers drove hard for working class support and headed the unemployed agitation. By Easter 1886, the branch was drawing audiences of 1,000 to its open-air meetings in the Market Place. From this time onwards, for the next 12 months, its membership rose rapidly’. [87] In contrast the Edinburgh branch was kicked off in early 1885 with a 500 strong meeting, but had dwindled to five or six by the end of December. But by the 1887 annual conference they could count maybe 1,000 members. On the horizon there were significant developments in the working class struggle of which the Socialist League should have been poised to take advantage.

A new fighting spirit and political awareness was growing and generalising amongst the working classes for the first time since the Chartists. The task that presented itself to revolutionaries was to influence these mass movements in the direction of revolutionary socialism. This is what Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling embarked on when they travelled to America in 1886 on a Marxist lecture tour in the midst of mass agitation over the establishment of an eight hour day that included strikes and huge May Day demonstrations across the country. [88]

When the two Socialist League members returned to Britain they were invited by the East London Radical clubs to lecture on The Working Classes of America. It was the beginning of their agitational work in which they sought to reach the hitherto unorganised workers of the East End of London. It was the correct strategy that was to reap impressive and telling rewards.

The question of an independent workers’ party was beginning to be articulated in Britain. Partly this was to do with the discredited position of Gladstone and the Liberal Party amongst the most class conscious workers. Partly it was to do with experiments in workers’ organisation abroad and partly it was to do with the presence of Irish Nationalist MPs in the British parliament. In the 1885 elections Irish Nationalist MPs returned to Westminster in greater numbers and wielded their votes in a disciplined manner, thus increasing the argument for a working class party that could contest elections. The big question, in Britain as elsewhere, was what kind of party would that be and whether it would carry Marxist politics. But for socialists to influence that outcome it was obvious that they would have to take part in the debate in the first place.

Engels could feel that the working class was beginning to move. Over Easter 1887 a huge rally in Hyde Park against coercion in Ireland was big enough to encompass 15 speakers’ platforms. Engels noted afterwards, ‘It is now an immediate question of organising an English working men’s party with an independent class programme. If it is successful, it will relegate to a back seat both the SDF and the Socialist League and that would be the most satisfactory end to the present squabbles’. [89] What had happened to the Socialist League that Engels himself had helped conceive for him to make such a damning judgement?

In truth the Socialist League was never the success that Morris and his fellow party members had wished it to be when they broke from the SDF. When the League had split from Hyndman it had carried two groupings with differing positions which were never resolved. Morris, unfortunately, thought at first he could get away with balancing between the two. On the one hand, there were those, including Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in the League’s Bloomsbury branch, who knew that the party had to connect with the day to day struggles of workers to grow or as Engels put it ‘to fasten on the real needs of the people’. This included work in the trade unions, the kind of work Eleanor was doing in the East End, and taking part in the debate over parliamentary representation.

On the other hand, there was an anti-parliamentary grouping led by Joseph Lane. He was part of a triumvirate amongst the leadership who basically espoused an ultra-left position of non-engagement with workers apart from on an educational level. They condemned interventions in elections or trade union work such as the struggle for the eight hour day which they considered ‘palliatives’.

Unfortunately Morris’s position at the time of the dispute was on the side of the latter due to his hostility to any discussion of the parliamentary question. (It was not until the 1890s that he was to alter his view.) Morris regarded any intervention in parliamentary politics as futile and positively harmful. No doubt the memory was still sharp as to his own introduction to parliamentary politics around the Eastern Question and the betrayals of Gladstone. So the slogan adopted by the League in the 1885 election and thereafter was, ‘Do not vote at all’:

When those who govern you see the number of votes cast at each election growing less and less, and note at the same time the growth of socialist bodies … terror fills their souls, and they must … either use violence against you, which you will learn how to repel, or quail before you and sit helpless … until the time will come when you … will step in and claim your place, and become the new-born society of the world. [90]

As E.P. Thompson points out, it was no wonder that those who left the SDF in disgust at Hyndman’s intrigues did not go over to the League. The League, by their simon pure attitude to the question of elections, placed themselves outside the debate going on in the most class conscious elements in the working class movement that they were trying to influence. As Engels rightly noted in 1886, ‘You will not bring the numerous working class as a whole into the movement by sermons.’ But that is precisely what Morris continued to do. In May 1886, at the same time as Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling were in America, Morris declared:

The Commonweal, then, will steadily continue to put forward the principles of international revolutionary socialism; will deprecate all meddling with parliamentary methods of ‘reform’. Constitutionalism means the continuance of the present system; how can socialists, therefore who aim at abolishing the system, support its support? [91]

This sectarian attitude was fuelled, certainly in the first half of the 1880s, by Morris’s belief that the revolution was within reach. The key role of socialists was therefore to propagandise for it. In 1884 he wrote, ‘The hope of the speedy advent of … revolution is now being instilled into the thousands by the action of the Democratic Federation, and socialism is rapidly becoming something more in this country than a speculative philosophy’. [92]

But by 1887 Morris had changed his mind. In February of that year he wrote a perspectives article entitled Facing the Worst of It. Its timing was revealing. In distinctly measured prose for Morris, he warned the members of the League against attempting to ‘prophesy as to the date of the realisation of our hopes’. He warned that any economic recovery will promote ‘I told you so’ declarations from capitalists as to the health of their system. Ironically he predicts that the period will be one of rising trade union militancy, which he sees it was the business of socialists to ‘stimulate and support’. But he then moves quickly on to the certainty that a slump will follow. This was to be the period of politicisation of the working class. They would be propelled towards revolutionary conclusions. His overall message is that socialists should sit tight and do what they can in the meantime. [93]

This analysis sprang from his determinist views on the economy. Crudely, he held the belief that the more workers suffered under capitalism, the more they would be automatically driven to revolution. So when during 1886 British capitalism experienced a slight recovery, Morris’s logic led him to hope that the situation would get worse. He wrote:

Non-socialists will doubtless look on socialists who dread this recovery of trade as likely to calm down the present agitation as very dreadful persons ... It is clear that this attempt at diverting the aspirations of the workers into the channel of mere self-interest has not the same chance of success when times are bad and trade slack. [94]

The operational outcome was that the Socialist League put forward the purist slogan of ‘Union Among All Workers’, calling at all times for a ‘general strike for socialism’. This in no way connected with the consciousness of a working class beginning to recover from a period of low struggle. The opportunities missed can only be guessed at. However, there are indications of the potential there was to intervene and lead disputes. As Thompson writes:

Already in 1887 sections of workers were showing marked signs of sympathy with the socialists. In February 1887 [the same month as Facing the Worst of It was written] when the Glasgow branch [of the League] called a demonstration … in support of striking Lanarkshire miners, over 20,000 attended: the miners’ leaders spoke from the same platform as the Leaguers. [95]

Despite breaking from Hyndman, Morris still regarded trade unions with suspicion and work amongst them as something which should be confined to socialist education. It should be noted that Morris’s position was not uncommon on the left of the day but all the same it was to have grave consequences for the League. Where the Socialist League did intervene in industrial struggles, such as the Northumberland miners’ strike in 1887, Morris was disappointed that the strikers did not automatically embrace revolutionary ideas en masse. Morris reports meetings where he received a great reception, and where the evening was inevitably rounded off by unanimous passing of a resolution in favour of proletarian revolution. Local comrades would then complain that later they could not raise those same workers out of what they considered passivity. [96]

Morris was also affected by the Bloody Sunday confrontation. His idea that the simple strength of the masses on the streets would be the mechanism that ushered in socialism was shattered in the face of police brutality. As he recalled:

I shall never forget how quickly these unarmed crowds were dispersed into clouds of dust. I found myself suddenly alone. [97]

However, the rout in Trafalgar Square was not the determining factor – there is no evidence that Morris’s socialist campaigning slowed up significantly after Bloody Sunday. It was the League’s inability to orientate itself on the working class that fatally weakened the organisation and demoralised Morris. It was not until March 1890 that Morris, looking back, saw what a dreadful mistake he had made at the time:

Socialism is spreading, I suppose on the only lines it could spread, and the League is moribund simply because we are outside those lines, as I for one must always be ... The main cause of the failure (which was obvious at least two years ago) is that you cannot keep a body together without giving it something to do in the present. [98]

Of course it was not the case that all Socialist League members had Morris’s attitude to the everyday struggles of workers, but from reading Morris’s writings nowhere does one get the idea that these merited serious consideration for him or most other members of the leadership. The practical upshot was that both the Socialist League and the SDF were ill placed to take advantage of the upsurge of workers’ struggles that heralded the New Unionism, ironically with the working class leaders emerging that Morris had hoped for from the start.

An inkling of what was possible was shown by the Leeds Socialist League branch. (It is important to note that the League branches outside London had more success due to them being outside the immediate influence of the leadership and therefore liable to take local initiatives outside party discipline.) At the centre of the Leeds branch was Tom Maguire, who had joined the Democratic Federation in his teens. By 1886 the dynamic Maguire and 20 or so comrades made an impression well above and beyond their numbers, due to their high level of activity. In 1889 the number of comrades had grown to 30. In the early summer of that year they were beginning to draw large crowds, up to 1,000 strong, to their open air meetings. E.P. Thompson takes up the story:

Then, at the beginning of July, some builders’ labourers, who were at the meeting, began to discuss their grievances. Like the London dockers, they were paid at a rate of 5d an hour. Comrades Sweeny and Paylor … took the matter up and urged the men to form a union. The next Sunday, July 30th, 3,000 labourers came to the sprouting place: Maguire, Paylor, Hill and Sweeney addressed them: 200 names were handed in; in the afternoon the Socialist League clubroom was crowded out; a provisional committee was elected; it decided at once to strike for 1/2d an hour; a general meeting was held, and the proposal was agreed to unanimously. [99]

Using the League club as a campaign centre, the building workers battled successfully with the contractors for a wage rise. Maguire remained a general helper and adviser to the new union that the socialists had helped create. As Thompson says, ‘The Leeds socialists had been transformed from being a curious sect into being the advisers and leaders of the unskilled workers of Leeds’. [100]

But in London, where the Socialist League leadership dominated, the story was very different, even though the same explosion of workers’ struggle was manifesting itself. Low paid and generally unskilled workers, living in poverty and in fear of unemployment, working long hours with few rights, shut out of the exclusive New Model Unions, denied political representation and politicised by struggles such as Bloody Sunday, burst onto the political scene.

The historic strikes that followed were led by socialists. In July 1888 a strike by 700 terribly exploited Bryant & May match girls, their conditions exposed in newspaper articles by Annie Besant (who had been in the National Secular Society with Edward Aveling), electrified the movement. Morris supported the strike, but with an aloofness that betrayed his overall position towards the strikes that were erupting around his ears.

Eleanor Marx had had to work independently of the League, agitating amongst the unskilled workers of the East End. Alongside her, working amongst the Beckton gas workers, was SDF member Will Thorne. They launched a union, modelled somewhat on the American Knights of Labour, that Eleanor had observed on her 1886 American tour. Eleanor became an officer of the union and other SDFers like John Burns and Tom Mann, who had been agitating for an eight hour day, took a lead in organising the gas workers. The union spread like wildfire and immediately won a bloodless victory, forcing their 12 hour day down to eight hours. This was followed in August 1889 by the London dock strike, which exploded from a small dispute into a stoppage by 60,000 men. Dockers’ leader Ben Tillett turned to the socialists for help in the struggle for the docker’s ‘tanner’ increase. Burns took the lead, organising daily demonstrations through the city.

The dockers’ strike marked the rebirth of practical solidarity in the working class, with huge amounts of money raised, including £30,000 from Australian trade unionists. After five weeks the dockers won their ‘tanner’, providing inspiration for the whole working class and the foundation of new unions in many industries. That year there were over 1,200 stoppages and somewhere around 3.7 million working days taken in strike action. The previous year 509 strikes had been recorded. Significantly the struggle had been led by revolutionary socialists, but largely outside the ranks of their organisations.

It was a tragedy, therefore, that in October 1889, in the afterglow of the dockers’ victory and in the midst of the rebirth of the British working class, the Socialist League executive put out the following:

In answer to numerous enquiries, the executive council … desires to express its opinion that members of the League do not in any way compromise their principles by taking part in strikes, but asks them not to let the revolutionary propaganda suffer thereby. [101]

Morris was not unsympathetic to the strikes, nor was he immune to the generalising effects the strikes were having. Writing admiringly of the dock workers he could see that there was an ‘element of conscious or semi-conscious attack on the slave drivers generally … this is a revolt against oppression’. [102] But these insights did nothing to push Morris or the organisation into an active, leading, intervention in the disputes that were springing up. Such a position inevitably meant that Morris and the Socialist League saw an upsurge in workers’ struggle completely pass them by. The League collapsed, and so did the fortunes of Commonweal. It was at this time that anarchists in London began to fight for control of the newspaper. Its circulation spiralled downwards as it became a platform for conspiratorial nonsense. For a time Morris continued to write a column, Notes on News, but in reality this was more out of loyalty to the paper than in agreement with the anarchist articles published alongside. The Aveling’s Bloomsbury branch left the League. Even Belfort Bax went back to the SDF.

The takeover of the League by the anarchists and Morris’s willingness to try and keep Commonweal afloat have been used to insinuate that Morris ‘went over’ or was sympathetic to anarchism. This is not borne out in Morris’s writing at the time. In fact in the pages of Commonweal he engaged in a polemic precisely against anarchism. [103]

As the Socialist League disintegrated Morris strove to keep his Hammersmith branch together. His energy was also beginning to flag as he succumbed to ill health. Even though Morris was regarded as the elder statesman of the movement, he never stopped developing his politics. In fact, as E.P. Thompson successfully argues, Morris shifted on a whole number of issues away from the abstract position he had held earlier. In a sense he was going back to the unfulfilled ‘stepping stones’ that he had first encountered back in 1882, in which the fight for immediate gains was seen as important as long as the revolutionary aim was kept in view. In March 1893 he gave a lecture in Hammersmith called Communism. In it he recognised that his belief in the ‘inevitableness of a sudden a speedy change’ had distorted the League’s operation. Capitalist consolidation had not put paid to a future socialist society but it had ushered in the arrival of a ‘business like administration’ which it would take more than a street battle to topple.

He tempered his attitude towards reforms and elections, backing the struggle for a ‘rise of wages, shortening of hours of labour, better education’ and welcoming working class representation on bodies such as the London County Council. [104]

At the same time his revolutionary light burned as bright as ever. Talking of the ultimate aim of reforms he explained that there was no essential difference between socialism and communism: ‘communism is in fact the completion of socialism: when that ceases to be militant and becomes triumphant, it will be communism’. [105] In January, just in case anyone thought otherwise, he declared, ‘I have not changed my mind about socialism.’ In a gesture that demonstrated the centrality of revolutionary organisation in Morris’s life, he made his peace with Hyndman and the SDF. The tragedy is that he was not well enough to explore the deepening understanding of Marxism he was developing.

Morris died on 3 October 1896 aged 63, almost his last words being ‘I want to get mumbo-jumbo out of the world.’ The family doctor diagnosed that Morris had ‘died a victim of his enthusiasm for spreading the principles of socialism’. [106] The newspapers moved between ignoring his socialism by talking about Morris the poet, and denouncing ‘the force that drew him, without much regard for logic, or for the facts of life, into a sentimental socialism’. [107]

The socialist movement was in shock. Messages poured in from socialist organisations and individual workers alike: Robert Blatchford of the Clarion defended the Marxist Morris from all comers when he wrote:

I cannot help thinking that it does not matter what goes into the Clarion this week, because William Morris is dead … he was our best man, and he is dead. How can we think of the movement today but as a thing struck motionless? I have just been reading the obituary notices in some of the Labour papers, and I feel sick and sorry. The fine phrases, the elaborate compliments, the ostentatious parade of their own erudition, and the little covert sneers at the socialism Morris loved: all the tawdry upholsteries of these journalistic undertakers seems like desecration ... Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true. [108]


1. N. Salmon (ed.), William Morris – Political Writings, Contributions to Justice and Commonweal 1883–1890 (Thoemmes Press 1994), p. 37–38.

2. Ibid., p. 458.

3. E.P. Thompson, William Morris – Romantic to Revolutionary (Merlin Press 1976), p. 732.

4. P. Thompson, The Work of William Morris (Oxford University Press 1993), p. 71.

5. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 234.

6. J. Saville, The Consolidation of the Capitalist State (Pluto 1994), see Introduction.

7. A.L. Morton and G. Tate, The British Labour Movement (Lawrence and Wishart 1979), p. 101.

8. Ibid., p. 106.

9. The lack of struggle has in the past been put down to a ‘labour aristocracy’ of the upper layer of skilled workers (maybe 15 percent of the working class) who supposedly benefited from British capitalism to such an extent that they became a conservative block against the working class movement. However, this notion has been increasingly challenged and, in short, though there was an upper layer of better paid skilled workers who regarded themselves as ‘respectable’ and apart from the unskilled worker, this is a far cry from an ‘aristocracy’. The failure of Chartism, and a break in the radical tradition of workers (not least by imprisonment and transportation) combined with an expanding economy and the ability to fight for better conditions within the framework of capitalism, and a ruling class able to make concessions is a much more convincing explanation of the relative lack of struggle between the 1850s and the 1880s. It is also important to note that the leaders of New Unionism in the 1880s were people like Tom Mann and John Burns, who had both been engineers. For more on this see article by K. Corr and A. Brown on The Labour Aristocracy and the Roots of Reformism in International Socialism 59 (London 1993).

10. A few were allowed to stand as ‘Lib-Lab’ candidates in parliamentary elections as a reward for delivering working class votes to the Liberal Party. So, for instance, miners’ leaders Alexander MacDonald and Thomas Burt were elected as Lib-Labs in Stafford and Morpeth in 1874, having been given a free run against the Tories. MacDonald was not even on the Radical wing of the Liberals. He was described as ‘almost a parable of Victorian thrift, diligence and self-help’.

11. N. Salmon, op. cit., p. 551.

12. Morris, quoted in Political Writings of William Morris, A.L. Morton (ed.), (London, Lawrence & Wishart 1979), p. 241.

13. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 29.

14. Ibid., p. 29.

15. ibid., p. 14.

16. Ibid., p. 35.

17. F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (Bookmarks 1993), p. 78.

18. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 20.

19. F. Engels, op. cit., p. 92.

20. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 20.

21. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 40.

22. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875–1914 (Abacus 1994), p. 229.

23. P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 98.

24. Ibid., p. 105.

25. Ibid., p. 71.

26. Ibid., p. 62.

27. It would be wrong to say that Morris was totally against new machine techniques – he regretted that ‘in my small business I am obliged to refrain from doing certain kinds of weaving I should like to do because my capital can’t compass a power loom’. (P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 104). Rather he felt he couldn’t get the quality he needed from the machines that were around at the time. He also sold Arthur Gaskin’s machine made teapots, kettles and fittings in The Firm’s show rooms.

28. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p 249.

29. Ibid., p. 109.

30. F. MacCarthy, William Morris – A Life For Our Time (Faber & Faber 1994), p. 376.

31. Ibid., p. 380.

32. Ibid., p. 380.

33. A.L. Morton and G. Tate, op. cit., p. 140.

34. F. MacCarthy, op. cit., p. 381.

35. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 214.

36. At the time Marx and others on the left took a different attitude to the Eastern Question. Marx did not support a movement that gave backing to the Russian ruling class either militarily or politically – whilst being clear he in no way backed Disraeli’s imperialism. Russia under the Tsar was a bastion of reaction. Marx considered a weakened Tsar would be to the advantage of the working class movement in Russia and elsewhere.

37. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 260.

38. Ibid., p. 260.

39. 84 Republican clubs were formed in Britain between 1871 and 1874.

40. Lenin quoted in A.L. Morton & G. Tate, op. cit. p. 164.

41. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 295.

42. H.M. Hyndman, Further Reminiscences (Macmillan 1912), p. 459.

43. E.J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men – Studies in the History of Labour (Weidenfield and Nicolson 1986), p. 232. John MacLean also came into politics via the SDF.

44. F. MacCarthy, op. cit., p. 472.

45. Ibid., p. 241.

46. F. MacCarthy, op. cit., p. 468. MacCarthy has to admit ‘He [Morris] persevered, and the following year was still carving out time from his onerous lecture tours and socialist committees to study Marx’s theories of work and wages.’

47. N Salmon (ed), op. cit., p. 244.

48. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 310.

49. Ibid., p. 309.

50. Quoted in N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., Introduction.

51. Ibid., p. 3.

52. F MacCarthy, op. cit., p. 509.

53. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 735.

54. P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 251.

55. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 736.

56. Ibid., p. 732.

57. F. MacCarthy op. cit., p. 514.

58. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 490.

59. Ibid., p. 134.

60. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 394.

61. F. MacCarthy, op. cit., p. 528.

62. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 134.

63. See R. Mace, Trafalgar Square – Emblem of Empire (Lawrence and Wishart 1976), p. 170.

64. Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, vol. 2 (Pantheon Books 1976), p. 222.

65. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 489.

66. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 303.

67. Ibid., p. 303.

68. F. MacCarthy, op. cit. p. 573.

69. Ibid., p. 573.

70. E.P. Thompson, op. cit. p. 37.

71. Three Works by William Morris (Lawrence and Wishart 1986) p. 167.

72. Ibid. p. 143.

73. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 723.

74. Three Works, op. cit., p. 53.

75. Ibid., p. 109.

76. Ibid., p. 67.

77. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 700.

78. A.L. Morton, The English Utopia (Lawrence and Wishart 1978), p. 196.

79. Ibid..

80. See Bellamy quoted in A.L. Morton and G. Tate, op. cit., p. 196.

81. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 419.

82. Ibid., p. 421.

83. A.L. Morton and G. Tate, op. cit., p. 208.

84. Three Works, op. cit., p. 287.

85. Ibid., p. 304.

86. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 379.

87. Ibid., p. 418.

88. Y. Kapp, op. cit., p. 148.

89. A.L. Morton & G. Tate, op. cit., p. 178.

90. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 405.

91. N. Salmon (ed.) op. cit., p. 135.

92. Ibid., p. 55.

93. Ibid., p. 222.

94. Ibid., pp. 207–208.

95. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 437.

96. Ibid., p. 438.

97. Ibid., p. 490.

98. Y. Kapp, op. cit., p. 366.

99. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 528.

100. Ibid., p. 529.

101. Ibid., p. 531.

102. N. Salmon (ed.), op. cit., p. 453.

103. Ibid., p. 415.

104. Ibid., p. 227.

105. Ibid., p. 233.

106. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 635.

107. F. MacCarthy, op. cit., p. 672.

108. E.P. Thompson, op. cit., p. 638.

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