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Emanuel Garrett

Men And Women Of Labor

Out Of The Past

Hal Draper

William Morris
(March 24, 1834–October 3, 1896)

(11 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 49, 11 July 1939, p. 3. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

William Morris became a Socialist at the age of 49.

At this time Morris was already famous as one of the outstanding poets of England. He was also widely known as an artist who had revived a dozen different art-crafts – fine printing, tapestries, textile designing, household decoration, etc. He was wealthy and respected.

Yet, at the height of his career, Morris astonished his friends and “the public” by casting his lot with a small obscure political group and throwing his enormous energies, as well as his wealth and reputation, into their work. This group was the pioneer organization of the British Marxists, the Social Democratic Federation, led by H.M. Hyndman.

Not a Dabbler in Socialism

Morris joined the S.D.F. in 1883. His artistic friends thought he joined as an artist dabbling in politics as a diversion. But Morris soon showed he was no mere dabbler in Socialism.

He joined the movement as a rank-and-file Jimmy Higgins. For two years – during which his literary work lapsed – he crowded his days with street-corner speaking in Hyde Park and in the proletarian quarters of London. He called it “street-preaching” and he painfully sought to develop himself as a Socialist agitator for the masses of workers. He was a frequent speaker before workers’ groups, and on occasion his reputation gained him entrée to middle class organizations where he lectured the white-collar audiences on the necessity of working-class socialism. He was involved in the Trafalgar Square riot of the late 1880’s.

It was against his own desire that he was drafted onto the leadership of the S.D.F. and became a member of its executive committee, for he himself recognized that his bent lay in the direction of propaganda work among the masses. Moreover, he cheerfully admitted that he knew little of Socialist theory. And this indeed was one of the reasons for his split with Hyndman and the S.D.F.

Morris was second in prominence only to Hyndman in the ranks of the Federation, but he found that he could not work with Hyndman. For that matter, neither could anyone else; for Hyndman brooked no division of his uncontrolled power over the organization. This source of friction was complicated by the existence of an anarchist wing of the Federation, which in 1885 broke away to form the Socialist League.

Morris went along with the Socialist League, and became one of its leaders, in spite of the fact that he disagreed with the anarchists’ ideas. It was not long, therefore, before he found himself in opposition in the Socialist League also, and in 1889 he retired to form a Socialist propaganda group, the Hammersmith Socialist Society. To the end of his days, however, he remained an ardent advocate of the Socialist ideal.

Perhaps no one who has attempted to depict the achievement of that ideal has drawn as attractive a picture of the future Socialist society as has Morris, in his News from Nowhere. Within his limitations, of course. Knowing little of the economic end of the Socialist transformation of society, he emphasized another angle. This was that the new world would be a place where the beauty and pleasure of labor could be developed, where cultural advance and the flowering of the human personality would no longer be hampered by the shackles of capitalism, where art would no longer be something appreciated only by highbrows but where it would become an art for the masses and by the masses.

Morris’s Chants for Socialists, in which he turned his poetic powers to the service of the movement, are also still well worth reading by workers today.

“Art for the Masses!”

Why is the name of William Morris, which figures so prominently in the history of English literature, also remembered by the Socialists?

Today, when the “cultural front” and the “intellectual periphery” of the revolutionary movement are terms that are bandied about, it is important to point out that William Morris was, if not the first, one of the first artists to join the Socialist movement BECAUSE he was an artist, not IN SPITE OF that fact.

Morris’s social and political consciousness was first awakened by his realization that capitalism was not only harmful to the masses who lived in poverty, taut also to the development of art and the beauty of life. How could art be healthy when the great mass of human beings had to spend every waking moment thinking of bread and butter, and when only the social parasites could afford to indulge in “patronizing” art? The result was a parasitic art, which was bound to reflect the degeneration of boss-class society.

“Art for the masses!” was the slogan of William Morris. He serves to remind us that the ultimate aim of socialism is not merely to assure bread and security to the worker – that is only the first step – but to make the world a more beautiful place to live in.

After all, is it not a most crushing condemnation of capitalism to realize that after all the ages, the most important problem that still faces mankind is the same as that which faces the lowest animal – how to get the daily mouthful of food ...?


1. This column on William Morris is contributed by Hal Draper. Readers who wish to submit columns on Men and Women of Labor are urged to do so.

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