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Book Review: ‘William Morris – The Man and The Myth’

William Morris as a socialist

‘William Morris – The Man and The Myth’, by R. Page Arnot

William Morris, the poet and designer of the Victorian era, is not generally thought of as a Marxian Socialist. He is either praised for his artistic contributions or pictured as a Utopian sentimentalist. In fact Morris was a prominent and active member of one of the pioneer Marxist organisations in Britain, the Socialist League, which was founded in 1884 by a group of people who broke away from the Social Democratic Federation because of the dictatorial attitude of its founder, H. M. Hyndman.

The League, in the words of its manifesto, advocated “the principles of revolutionary international socialism.” This manifesto was written by Morris. Morris also served on the League’s executive committee, edited its official journal, wrote pamphlets and leaflets, addressed indoor and street-corner meetings and sold its literature. An examination of his writings will show that Morris had a clear grasp of the theory of exploitation and the materialist conception of history.

Economics, and history were not, however, his specialities. Where Morris can be said to have made a real contribution to socialist theory is in bringing out the positive side of Socialism. Anyone who regards his News from Nowhere as mere Utopianism misses the point altogether. Morris was not painting a detailed picture of the future society rather was he outlining what he saw as the possibilities of Socialism. He was attempting to describe what relations between people could be like when freed from the cash nexus. Other of his writings such as Art, Labour and Socialism and Useful Work versus Useless Toil explains why is a drudgery under capitalism and how it can be pleasure under socialism.

William Morris’s views are interesting for another reason. The early Marxian Socialism movement in Britain and North America spent much time in discussing whether a Socialist party should have a programme of immediate demands, of parliamentary reforms. This question came up for discussion at the annual conference of the Socialist League in 1887.

The League contained many diverse elements including out-an-out anarchists. Some of the branches (supported incidentally by Engels) were in favour of trying to get into Parliament and drawing up a list of “palliatives” as a parliamentary programme. The anarchists, naturally, were opposed to this. So was William Morris, but for different reasons. While not opposed to parliamentary action altogether, Morris was opposed to the League acquiring a programme of palliatives or reforms.

In his opinion there was a need of “a body of principle” to abstain from such opportunism. He suggested that for a Socialist organisation to contest elections on such a programme would end in the election of Socialists on non-Socialist votes. Morris was, however, prepared to work with those who favoured a reform programme and after he had resigned from the League following its capture by the anarchist section he signed a manifesto, together with Hyndman and Bernard Shaw, calling for a united socialist party.

Twenty years after the breakaway of the Socialist League from the SDF, another break occurred—and for the same reasons, Hyndman’s dictatorial attitude and the organisation’s opportunism. Those who broke away were to form the Socialist Party of Great Britain. From the very beginning, after the benefit of further discussions of the issue of a reform programme especially in America, the Socialist Party was—and still is—uncompromisingly opposed to a programme of immediate demands.

It would be ungenerous of us not to recognise that William Morris usefully contributed to the discussion among early socialist which led to the adoption of this principle by our party. Morris was quite conscious of the fact that his position was a departure from that of German Social Democracy.

This book contains further information on Morris’ position on this question, with the publication for the first time of some of his letters to J. L. Mahon, who was for a time the secretary of the League. Page Arnot has done some useful research but the commentary in this book, despite the new material, is incredibly bad.

Arnot creates a new myth, one of Morris as a forerunner of the so-called Communist Party of which he (Arnot) is a member. We are told that because of his position on reforms Morris was a “leftist” of the sort attacked by Lenin in his Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (incidentally a type which has always been given short-shrift by the Communist Party). Surely the choicest piece of distortion is that which tells us that the British Road to Socialism, the current programme of Arnot’s party, is a detailed version of News From Nowhere!

Adam Buick

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