Book Reviews: ‘William Morris. His Life, Work and Friends’, & ‘Political Writings of William Morris’
Revolutionary Art & Socialism
‘William Morris. His Life, Work and Friends’, by Philip Henderson. Penguin. 90p.
‘Political Writings of William Morris’, ed. by A. L. Morton. Lawrence and Wishart. £1.
William Morris was a Victorian poet and designer and it is as such that he is probably best known to the general public. But for the last ten or so years in his life he was also a revolutionary socialist and pioneer Marxist in Britain. He was born in 1834, the son of wealthy capitalist parents and as a result enjoyed an independent income all his life. Not that he chose not to work. Far from it. He interested himself, and tried his hand at, nearly every craft from dyeing to printing (setting up a business to sell the products of such crafts to the “swinish rich”), a living proof of the proposition that men will choose to work even if they are not forced to.
Work was always central to Morris’ whole outlook, even before he became a Socialist. While at Oxford in the 1850’s he became involved with a group of romantic artists known as the pre-Raphaelites because they reckoned that painting had degenerated after the Middle Ages with Raphael, the first Reformation painter. Morris, naturally, tried his hand at painting but became more famous as a poet. The general tenor of the pre-Raphaelite criticism was that mediaeval society was better for “art” than the industrial society which followed it. However “art” was not used in the sense just of paintings, sculptures, etc. but was defined by John Ruskin as the expression of man’s pleasure in his labour. Morris wholeheartedly endorsed this definition of art, with its implication that men would spontaneously produce beautiful things — things of everyday use, not mere decorations — if they enjoyed their work. This product of enjoyable work Morris called “popular art”. It was a recognition that capitalism denied most men pleasure in their work that led him to become a socialist in 1883, not long before he reached the age of 50.
Before that he had been on the Radical wing of the Liberal Party, first taking an active part in politics in the agitation against war with Russia following Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria in 1876. Morris became the treasurer of the Eastern Question Association and wrote a manifesto on its behalf addressed “To the Workingmen of England”, thus showing that even at this time Morris relied on the working class to carry out his political ideas. In the 1880 election he worked for the return of Gladstone, but soon became disillusioned with the new Liberal government. He made contact with various trade unionists and working-class political organisations and in 1883 joined the Democratic Federation. This was an association of working-class radical clubs formed in 1881.
Soon after Morris joined, it changed its name to the Social Democratic Federation, proclaiming Socialism as its aim and Marxism as its theory, though in fact it never did outlive its radical-Liberal origins as it continued to advocate also the same reforms of capitalism it always had. Morris set about studying Marx, reading Capital where, understandably in view of his background, he preferred the historical parts on the rise of modern capitalist industry and its effect on the working class rather than the abstract economic theory. Nevertheless there can be no doubt at all that Morris did master sufficient of Marx’s ideas — on history and society as well as economics — to be regarded as a Marxian socialist. A reading of Morton’s selection of his political writings will confirm this
Hyndman, the man who had been largely instrumental in founding the Democratic Federation, was an authoritarian and tried to run the SDF as his personal organisation. This led to discontent and eventually, at the very end of 1884, to a split in which Morris, somewhat reluctantly, became the key figure in the breakaway Socialist League. Unlike the SDF, the Socialist League had no programme of reforms, which it regarded as mere palliatives; it saw its task as simply to “make Socialists”, as William Morris put it, thus in many aspects anticipating the policy of the Socialist Party of Great Britain when it was founded twenty years later as another breakaway from the reform-mongering SDF.
William Morris found himself as the main theorist of the anti-reform, make-socialists policy of the Socialist League. At times this brought him to the verge of an anti-parliamentary position since he thought that to enter parliament would be to become bogged down in reformist politics, but he never did deny that in the course of the socialist revolution the working class would have to capture political power including parliament. This refusal to advocate the use of parliament to get reforms upset a group, including Marx’s daughter Eleanor, who in the end broke away from the Socialist League. This left Morris at the mercy of the real anti-parliamentarians and anarchists, who eventually came to dominate the League with their advocacy of violence and bomb-throwing. In 1890 Morris and the Hammersmith branch seceded, carrying on independent socialist activity as the Hammersmith Socialist Society.
During these six years Morris was a real Socialist activist. Besides being editor of Commonweal, the League’s journal, he spoke indoors and outdoors up and down the country. A number of these talks (including some while he was still in the SDF) are reprinted in Morton’s book. They can leave no doubt as to Morris’ socialist understanding:
“Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e., convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles into practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible” (‘Where Are We Now?’, 1890, p. 226).
“Intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel. If our ideas of a new Society are anything more than a dream, these three qualities must animate the due effective majority of the working people; and then, I say, the thing will be done” (‘Communism’, 1893, p. 229).
Part of Morris’ first public profession of his socialist views, a lecture delivered at University College Oxford in November 1884, was republished by the SPGB in 1907 and again in 1962, under the title Art, Labour and Socialism. This, like many of his earlier lectures, was addressed to his fellow-members of the bourgeois middle class rather than to the working class, but it still makes good reading (though, in this writer’s opinion, two of his other lectures, whose titles Useful Work versus Useless Toil and How We Live and How We Might Live speak for themselves, are better). Morris’ message was that enjoyable work should be available to all men and women but that capitalism denies such “popular art” to the propertyless working class and that only Socialism, a classless society of equals, can provide it. Morris also wrote two books, in the form of utopian romances, which are again good socialist — and Marxist — propaganda: A Dream of John Ball (a brilliant application of the materialist conception of history to the Peasants Revolt of 1381) and of course News from Nowhere.
Towards the end of his life, it must be pointed out, Morris modified his attitude to the use of parliament to try to get reforms and become reconciled to the SDF, though he never rejoined it. But he still insisted that such action must only be a means to the end of creating a determined Socialist majority, which alone could establish Socialism. He died in 1896.
Henderson’s biography is now reprinted as a paperback. Readable enough, it shows little sympathy for Morris’ socialist views, criticising him for supposed inconsistency in being a Socialist and art-lover. This perhaps is because Henderson accepts the myth that Russia is socialist. But, surely, Russia is the “state socialism” — or, as we would say today, state capitalism — Morris always disliked. He certainly would not have regarded Russia as socialist.