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Henry Collins

William Morris: Revolutionary Socialist

(October 1960)

From Socialist Review, October 1960.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 274–77.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Was it all to end in a counting-house on the top of a cider heap,
with Podsnaps drawing-room in the office, and a Whig committee
dealing out champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor?

On October 3, 1896, William Morris died at the age of 62. Artist, craftsman and poet of considerable talent, he was first drawn into politics in 1876 by the threat of war against Russia in defence of the Turkish Empire. “I cannot help noting,” he wrote in a letter which appeared in the Liberal Daily News on October 24, “that a rumour is about in the air that England is going to war: and from the depths of my astonishment I ask, On behalf of whom? Against whom? And for what end?” In May of the following year, as Treasurer of the Eastern Question Association, he felt able to answer his own rhetorical questions. In a manifesto addressed To the Working-men of England he wrote that the threat of war came mainly from a class of men who, “if they had the power (may England perish rather) would thwart your just aspirations, would silence you, would deliver you bound hand and foot for ever to irresponsible capital – and these men, I say it deliberately, are the heart and soul of the party that is driving us to an unjust war.’’ [See E.P. Thompson: William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 1955, pp. 230–1.]

By 1883 Morris had broken with radicalism and joined the Democratic Federation, precursor of the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist party. Although his main inspiration was aesthetic he soon came to realise that a society based on exploitation was ugly in its essence and could only cheapen life and debase art, life’s highest product. In an article in Justice two years before his death Morris explained that “the desire to produce beautiful things” had been the leading passion of his life and that this had inevitably given rise to a “hatred of modern civilisation.”

“What shall I say,” he wrote, “concerning its mastery of and its waste of mechanical power, its commonwealth so poor, its enemies of the commonwealth so rich, its stupendous organisation – for the misery of life! … So there I was in for a fine pessimistic end of life, if it had not somehow dawned on me that amidst all this filth of civilisation the seeds of a great change, which we others call Social-Revolution, were beginning to germinate.” [How I Became a Socialist, Justice, June 16, 1894, republished as a pamphlet, 1896]

The Socialist League

Quarrels within the S.D.F., arising out of Hyndman’s personal autocracy and political intrigues, resulted in a split at the end of 1884. Morris, together with Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Ernest Belfort Bax, seceded and set up the Socialist League, its monthly journal was The Commonweal which Morris edited and, in large part, financed. During the four years of his editorship Morris contributed a large number of articles, many of them showing a remarkable creative insight into the nature of society and the future development of Socialism. The new society, Morris insisted, must not be merely a capitalism reorganised, with its frictions ironed out and its values retained. On his right he found Socialists, principally Fabians, so immersed in institutional reform that they lacked all vision of the quality of life as it might be under Socialism. “Surely they must allow,” he argued, “ that such a stupendous change in the machinery of life as the abolition of capital and wages must bring about a corresponding change in ethics and habits of life.” This change must include the equality of social life, sex and family relations, education and leisure. As things were, the model Victorian family man was “an affectionate and moral tiger to whom all is prey a few yards from the sanctity of his domestic hearth,” his wife’s physical charms “but an appendage to her property” and the education of his children “a system of cram begun on us when we are four years old, and left off sharply when we are eighteen.”

From Marx, and, more directly, from Engels, with whom he had some personal contact, Morris learned to see Socialism as the product of a historical process and as the result of forces engendered by Capitalism’s contradictions. Economics he never claimed to understand. “I put some conscience,” he told the readers of Justice [Ibid.] “into trying to learn the economic 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.” Perhaps it was as well that he remained ignorant of economics, since his Marxist contemporaries who prided them on their understanding of Capital predicted the absolute impoverishment of the workers as an inevitable outcome of Capitalism’s economic laws. Understanding nothing of this, Morris foresaw another kind of obstacle to the achievement of Socialism.

“I want to know and to ask you to consider,” he wrote in a Fabian Tract in 1893, “how far the betterment of the working people might go and yet stop at last without having made any progress on the direct road to Communism. Whether in short the tremendous organisation of civilised and commercial society is not playing the cat and mouse game with us socialists. Whether the Society of Inequality might not accept the quasi-socialist machinery ... and work it for the purpose of upholding that society in a somewhat shorn condition, maybe, but a safe one.”

As it happened, Morris’s remarkable insight led him into some serious errors in tactics. If reform was to be regarded as the enemy of revolution then, it seemed to Morris, the task of “making socialists” must absorb not their main but their total energies. Work in existing trade unions was irrelevant and the attempt to get socialists returned to Parliament positively harmful. Defending his policy of abstention from parliamentary activity, Morris emphasised “the necessity of making the class struggle clear to the workers, of pointing out to them that while monopoly exists they can only exist as its slaves: so that the Parliament and all other institutions at present existing are maintained for the purpose of upholding this slavery.”

Abstention from parliamentary politics and from trade union work kept the Socialist League, for the most part, a propagandist sect remote from mass movements and from the vast, unorganised majority of the working class. Isolation bred despair and a tendency to look for short cuts. In this atmosphere the Anarchists secured control of the Socialist League and succeeded, in 1889, in deposing Morris from his editorship of Commonweal. After that he withdrew from the League and from active politics, founding, in 1890, the Hammersmith Socialist Society, a small body which concentrated on discussion, education and local propaganda. At about the same time he began the publication, in Commonweal, of News from Nowhere, perhaps the noblest and most inspiring Socialist Utopia ever conceived.

Art and Society

Despite declining health, Morris, together with Bax, revised and republished in 1893 an earlier joint work with the new title, Socialism, Its Growth and Outcome, one of the most comprehensive statements of Marxist political philosophy to appear in English in the nineteenth century. And on November 10, 1893, the Daily Chronicle published a letter from William Morris which gave perhaps the clearest expression to his views on art and its relation to the working class movement. He strongly disbelieved “in the possibility of keeping art vigorously alive by the action, however energetic, of a few groups of specially gifted men and their small circle of admirers amidst a general public incapable of understanding and enjoying their work.” To live, art must break through to the people and, in an age in which the working class was rising to rising to power, art must be democratised. So confident was Morris in the wholesomeness of this development that he was even “prepared to accept as a consequence of the process of that gain, the seeming disappearance of what art is now left us; because I am sure that that will be but a temporary loss, to be followed by a genuine new birth of art, which be the spontaneous expression of the pleasure of life innate in the whole people.”

Visions of the future did not blind Morris to the realities of the present. As he wrote, the great and terrible miners’ lock-out, which lasted for fifteen weeks, was drawing to a partially successful close.

“The first step,” he told the editor of the Daily Chronicle, “towards the new birth of art must be a definite rise in the condition of the workers; their livelihood must (to say the least of it) be less niggardly and less precarious, and their hours of labour shorter; and this improvement must be a general one, and confirmed against the chances of the market by legislation. But again this change for the better can only be realised by the efforts of the workers themselves. ‘By us and not for us’ must be their motto!”

The enemy of bureaucratic, Fabian, reform-from-above, Morris had come to see the value of reforms extorted by working class struggle from the capitalists and their state machine.

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Last updated: 21 June 2014