1970s >> 1974 >> no-836-april-1974

Letter: William Morris and Parliament

I refer to the book review, Revolutionary Art & Socialism”, in the January, 1974, Socialist Standard.

The writer states that “, . . he (William Morris) never did deny that in the course of the socialist revolution the working class would have to capture political power including Parliament”. Maybe. But putting it a different way: where does Morris actually advocate the capturing of political power, including Parliament as a (the?) means of establishing socialism/communism in Britain and elsewhere in the world ?

Perhaps A.L.B. might tell us the names of the “. . . anti-parliamentarians and anarchists” in the Socialist League who advocated “violence and bomb-throwing”.

Furthermore, was Morris’ vision of socialism the same as that of the SPGB? In his article, “Communism”, he writes: “An anti-socialist will say How will you sail a ship in a socialist condition? How? Why with a captain and mates and sailing master and engineer (if it be a steamer) and ABs and stokers and so on and so on. Only there will be no 1st, 2nd and 3rd class among the passengers: the sailors and stokers will be as well fed and lodged as the captain or passengers; and the captain and the stoker will have the same pay”. (Selected Writings, p670). But under socialism, will a ship have a captain as Morris and, for that matter, Engels (see his article “On Authority”) argue ?

Peter E. Newell
Colchester

Reply:

For the six years from 1884 that William Morris was an active member of the Socialist League he was resolutely opposed to a Socialist organization advocating or supporting reforms of capitalism and insisted that the sole task of such an organisation was to make socialists. In 1890 he left the League (because it had fallen under anarchist control) and later became reconciled to some extent to the Social Democratic Federation, and its policy of trying to advocate both Socialism and reforms.

But even in his period as a member of the League Morris was never completely and dogmatically anti-parliamentary in the way that anarchists were and are. For instance, he wrote to Dr. J. Glasse in May 1887:

  My position to Parliament and the dealings of Socialists with it, I will now [try] to state clearly. 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 by passing palliative measures to keep “Society” alive (William Morris. The Man and The Myth, by R. Page Arnot, London, 1964, p.82).

and again in September 1887:

Of course, it’s clearly no use talking of parliamentary action now: I admit, and always have admitted, that at some future period it may be necessary to use parliament mechanically: what I object to is depending on parliamentary agitation. There must be a great party, a great organisation outside parliament actively engaged in reconstructing society and learning administration whatever goes on in the parliament itself (Morris’ emphasis, p.86).

We would not claim that Morris’ views were always clear, but it should be remembered that Morris was a pioneer Marxian socialist in Britain and was grappling here for the first time with a very important problem: how could a Socialist party prevent itself from becoming a reformist organisation? In his day the reformists were advocating the use of parliament to get reforms. Hence Morris’ anti-reformism tended at times to express itself as anti-parliamentarism. The use of parliament for the one revolutionary purpose of dismantling capitalism and its State, such as was advocated by the Socialist Party of Great Britain when it was founded in 1904, had not yet been elaborated, but as the above quotes show Morris came very near to doing this.

Was Morris’ vision of Socialism the same as ours ? Substantially, yes, but, as we said, Morris didn’t always express himself precisely. He and Engels are entitled to their opinions as to how they think a ship should he run in Socialism.

The 1890’s was a period of anarchist bomb-throwing called “propaganda by the deed’’. Those who came to control the League’s journal, Commonweal, after Morris left in November 1890, supported this policy. As one example, on 9 December 1893 Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies. Within two months he had been tried and executed. In June 1894 another anarchist assassinated the French President, Sadi Carnot, for having refused to pardon Vaillant. In July the English anarchists were selling a pamphlet “Why Vaillant Threw the Bomb’’ defending this assassination (see William Morris, His Life, Work and Friends by P. Henderson, Penguin, pp. 411-2 and also pp. 376-7). For further evidence, Peter Newell might like to consult the files of Commonweal from 1890 onwards.

Editorial Committee.