William Morris: How we live and how we might live

 William Morris was one of the foremost creative artists of the nineteenth century. Designer of furniture and wallpaper, printer, architect, novelist and poet, Morris was respected by the ‘respectable’ people of Victorian capitalist society. His upbringing was far from one of poverty. He was born in March 1834 into a wealthy capitalist family. He was sent to public school and then to Oxford where his mother wanted him to train for the clergy. At university Morris fell under the spell of Ruskin who criticised the mechanised, economically regimented nature of industrial capitalism.

As time passed the success of William Morris as a celebrated artist clashed more and more with his understanding that society was dominated by the values of money and profit. What passed as civilisation was merely the rule of Property. What was the point of being creative in a world which regarded creations of art as just a few more expensive commodities to be bought and sold? What was the point of producing great art when the mass of humanity was confined to the drudgery of wage slavery, forced to produce what was cheap and nasty for a mass market which paid no recognition to craft, skill and quality? In 1894 Morris described his feelings as he first became a socialist:

“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 magarine to the poor in such convenient proportion as would make all men contented together, though the pleasure of the eyes was gone from the world, and the place of Homer was to be taken by Huxley? 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 worth while to struggle against such a consummation of civilisation. So there I was in a fine pessimistic end of life, if it had not somehow dawned on me that amidst all this filth of civilisation the seeds of great change, what we others call Social-Revolution, were beginning to germinate. The whole face of things was changed to me by that discovery, and all I had to do then in order to become a socialist was to hook myself on to the practical movement… ”

The ‘practical movement’ for socialism which Morris joined was the Social Democratic Federation. This was the first Marxian political organisation in Britain, formed in 1883. Morris was an energetic speaker and writer for the cause of socialism from the moment he joined the movement at nearly fifty until his death in 1896. His two major contributions to the development of socialist thought were, firstly, his rejection of the policy of reformism, and secondly, his clear and simple expression of the outline of what a socialist society could look like.

We do not look back uncritically at what Morris had to say on these two subjects, and where his thinking was unclear or mistaken we shall endeavour to explain why, but we can look back upon Morris as one of the pioneers of a genuine socialist tradition, as distinct from the pseudo-socialism of so many ‘socialist stars’ who reside in the gallery of left-wing heroes.

Revolution -v- Reform

Socialists have one objective; the transformation of society from the profit system to production for use. There is no socialist programme for running capitalism—it would be like a pacifist policy for running an army. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) took the absurd view that it could work for the abolition of capitalism while at the same time proposing reforms to improve the capitalist system. These reforms were put forward as so-called Stepping Stones to Socialism. But a socialist system cannot come about gradually as a result of legislative amendments to the profit system.

In December 1884 Morris, together with a number of other socialist revolutionaries (Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, her husband Edward Aveling, Belfort Bax and several others) resigned from the SDF and formed a new body, the Socialist League, which was free from the advocacy of reforms—or palliatives, as they were then referred to. (It was refusal to be part of a reform-peddling organisation which led the founder members of The Socialist Party to leave the SDF twenty years later.) This was not their only reason for leaving the SDF. The party was also dominated in an undemocratic fashion by the arrogant, public-school educated bully, H.M.Hyndman, who treated the SDF as if it was his own possession. He actually owned the press on which its journal “Justice” was printed and regarded that as grounds for acting in a dictatorial manner as editor. He was also an English nationalist and something of a racist. He ridiculed SDF members who were of Jewish origin and he supported the policy of having a strong British navy. An ardent supporter of the British war effort, he formed a new outfit called the National Socialist Party in 1916!

In his letter of resignation from the SDF, Morris made it clearwhy he could not work within a reformist organisation:

“We believe that to hold out hopes of amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be wrung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers, is delusive and mischievous.”

Pleading with one group of capitalists to throw a few more crumbs in the direction of the workers in return for which the workers would give the crumb-throwers their votes, was a policy repeatedly rejected by Morris:

“The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side. ”

This was a far-seeing comment by Morris. We have seen how after all of the reforms obtained by ‘worthy’ reformers who sought welfare aid for workers, the system simply creates new dimensions of poverty which undermine whatever apparent progress the reformers made. Capitalism as a social system cannot be humanised by reforms; as Morris pointed out in 1886:

“Those who believe that they can deal with capitalism in a piecemeal way very much underrate the strength of the tremendous organisation under which we live… ; it will not suffer itself to be dismembered, nor to lose anything which is its essence…”

In July 1885 the League declared its difference from all other parties by stating that:

“It is a new society that we are working to realise, not a cleaning up of our present tyrannical muddle into an improved, smoothly-working form of that same order…”

Social revolution and nothing less was the aim. The Socialist League had in its day, as the Socialist Party does in ours, to deal with all kinds of diversionary policies for running capitalism in the interest of the working class. Like now, there were those who suggested that the workers should form co-operative businesses and exploit themselves in order to pay the bank interest. Then there were left-wingers who called for the nationalisation of industry, partial or wholesale. Morris and the League rejected these schemes, referring to the ‘statist’ policies as ‘State Socialism’. (The accurate term is ‘state capitalism’, as we have seen in the case of the nationalised industries in Britain and the state-controlled economies in Russia and China.)

Morris drafted The Manifesto of the Socialist League which was adopted at its July 1885 conference. Its dismissal of reformist policies is worthy of quotation:

“As to mere politics, Absolutism, Constitutionalism, Republicanism have all been tried in our day and under our present social system, and all have alike failed in dealing with the real evils of life. Nor, on the other hand, will certain incomplete schemes of social reform now before the public solve the question. Co-operation so-called—that is, competitive co-operation for profit—would merely increase the number of small joint-stock capitalists, under the mask of creating an aristocracy of labour, while it would intensify the severity of labour by its temptations to overwork.

Nationalisation of the land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value inevitable under the Capitalist system. No better solution would be that State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, 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. The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation. ”

Morris agreed with Marx before him that there could be no socialist revolution until a majority of socialists understood and wanted it. His conception of revolution did not belong to the tradition associated with Lenin, who modelled his idea of a revolution on the capitalist coup d’états of the past in which one minority class had grabbed political power from another. In contrast to the undemocratic notions of Blanqui, Lenin and others who imagined that workers would be unconscious pawns in a revolutionary game, Morris was clear in his rejection of:

“… riots carried out by men who do not know what Socialism is, and have no idea what their next step is to be, if, contrary to all calculation, they should happen to be successful. Therefore, at the best our masters would be masters still, because there would be nothing to take their place.”

Morris was an opponent of the idea of bringing about socialism by parliamentary means. This opposition needs to be clarified. Firstly, Morris is to be clearly distinguished from those leftists who oppose the use of the ballot box as a means of registering the existence of a socialist majority and think that a socialist majority could never be won; so they want to bring about socialism without a socialist majority. (For example, the leader of the Leninist SWP informs his readers that, “In our times there is not a single issue that can be decided by ballots. In the decisive class battles bullets will prevail.” Lenin, vol. 3, p.36.)

As we have shown, Morris was not an advocate of insurrections, riots, gun battles or other tin-soldier plots devised by those who cannot imagine the possibility of there ever being a majority of workers in favour of a socialist revolution. Secondly, Morris’s real opposition was to what is sometimes called parliamentarianism—the reformist policy of winning local or national government power and then sitting in office administering capitalism in the name of socialism. Morris believed that for socialists to enter parliament would be an inevitable collaboration with the system as it stands.

The Socialist Party is committed to the use of the ballot box as a means of democratically sending socialist delegates into parliament. Revolutionary socialist delegates will have one single mandate—to abolish capitalism. While there are only a minority of socialist delegates in parliament (assuming that workers in some areas arrive at socialist consciousness before others), it will be their task to use the platform of the parliamentary stage as a means of opposing all policies for running the capitalist system of exploitation, and to speak out for working-class interest—Socialism.

Although Morris tended to think that parliament was an inherently reformist institution, even he stated that:

“I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so; in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, and not as members of the governing body prepared to pass palliative measures to keep Society alive.”

Morris’s overriding concern was to defend socialist principles from the compromise of reformist politics. You cannot demolish a slum and clean it up at the same time. In the years since Morris’s death the workers have been deluded by scores of political slum-cleaners; his pioneering role as an advocate of capitalist demolition was an important contribution to the socialist movement.

A Vision of Somewhere

The working class has not only got too little, but it wants too little. The job of a socialist is to make workers want more; to show that there is an alternative to the way we live now which is not only reasonable but desirable. In outlining the vision of how we could live—as equals in a world of our own—few writers have done better than William Morris in capturing the sense of genuine freedom which socialism will make possible. Morris was not concerned about designing a blueprint for socialism—to say that this or that is how the future must be. No individual, or any minority of socialists, can abrogate to itself the decisions about how to live. These must be determined democratically by the people who make the socialist revolution. What we can do is to offer a glimpse into society as it could become once it is freed from the stranglehold of the money men.

Above all, Morris was concerned in showing how work would be transformed in a socialist society. Under capitalism, what is work? For workers, ‘looking for work’, ‘going to work’, ‘needing extra work’, ‘being out of work’ has nothing to do with freedom. What most workers call work is in fact employment. It is using their energies under the command of the boss. We are taught from an early age that we must work hard, that we must do as we are told at work, and that if we do not work we will not eat or be able to pay the rent. The price paid for being out of work is abject poverty. The reward given for being employed to work is a wage to keep us working.

The person who becomes rich by hard work is such an exception that he or she is a celebrity. Even then, becoming rich by hard work usually involves getting out of the working class by finding others to work hard for you. Generally speaking, you do not become a millionaire by hard work. It is a strange system in which we live; where those who do not need to ever do a day’s work are rich and secure, while the hardest and most useful working people are poor and insecure.

Not only is work under capitalism a path to poverty of varying degrees, but it is occupation which is often boring and over which the worker has little or no control. The product of work under capitalism is the commodity—objects to be sold on the market—and such is the alienation of the profit system that the commodity dominates the commodity-producer.

In a society of common ownership and democratic control of the means of living, humans will have a totally different approach to working. After all, work is the expenditure of our mental and physical energies. It is part of our nature to apply our energies to the world around us. Morris looked at what work could be like within socialism and concluded that:

“Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making; or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.”

Furthermore, in a society of co-operative labour, where work will not be for wages but for the good of the community:

“It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do:

First—Work worth doing;

Second—Work of itself pleasant to do;

Third—Work done under such conditions as would make it neither

over-wearisome nor over-anxious. ”

Morris saw that socialism would break down two distinctions which are characteristic of capitalist society.

Firstly, the distinction between work and leisure. It is only in a society where working is a compulsory burden that there is a special time of the day for what is called leisure—it should be more properly called the non-employment period. In this period workers are rather like prisoners allowed to combine socially outside their cells for a few hours a day. In a socialist society work will be part of living. Of course, we will all need to do our bit to make sure that our common home, the world, is kept going. But the types of work we do will vary. We need not be stuck in one job or specialised area of work for life. Working hours will be shorter—possibly only four or five hours a day. After all, under capitalism vast millions of people are employed doing work which is totally pointless from a useful social point of view. They are servants of the buying and selling system. In a socialist society people at work will be freed from the irritation of knowing that what they are doing is only being done to make someone else rich. Work in a socialist society will be free from control by bosses and tin pot foremen. Work will be part of what makes life worthwhile, not a horrible prison occupation to be escaped from as soon as a siren sounds.

Secondly, in a socialist society the distinction between work and art will no longer persist. The regimented labour of the commercial system stifled the art of those who could produce by the skill of their hands. Morris was not suggesting that socialism would mean a retreat to the days of handicraft, but that, in a society of production for use, the pleasure to be obtained in creative and expressive work activities would be encouraged. In a socialist society the producer would be treated as an artist, a creative being.

In 1890 Morris serialised in the Socialist League’s newspaper, “Commonweal”, a story about a socialist who wakes up one morning into a society established by a socialist revolution. The story, which was subsequently published as a utopian novel called “News From Nowhere”, offers a wonderful picture of Morris’s vision of a moneyless, wageless, stateless, propertyless society. The word picture made no claim to represent what socialism would have to be like. Much of it reflects Morris’s romantic attachment to qualities of medieval England, and not all socialists would go along with these desires for how society could be. What was more important than the contents of Morris’s desired society was its role in stimulating its readers to think about a world so differently arranged from the capitalism of the late nineteenth century.

One hundred years later it still strains the imagination of workers; tempting us to think practically about how it might be to live in a socialist society. The visitor to ‘Nowhere’ goes ‘shopping’ and attempts to buy a pipe and some tobacco from some children who are looking after a stall. When he offers to pay them for it he is greeted with looks of amused incomprehension. The entire novel, with its refreshing perspective of looking at the conventions of capitalism as if they are eccentricities in a new world, is a useful contribution to the struggle to persuade workers to want more. For until workers know what they could have they will be all too ready to put up with what they have.