Book Review: ‘William Morris The Marxist Dreamer’

Romantic revolutionary

‘William Morris: The Marxist Dreamer’, by Paul Meier. (2 Vols. Harvester Press 1978)

Two works have recently been published, both written to show that William Morris was a follower of Marx. One, by E.P. Thompson, ‘William Morris, From Romantic to Revolutionary’, was issued in a revised edition with a useful postscript in 1977. The other is the work under review. William Morris’s socialism is no news to the SPGB. A lecture which he gave in Oxford in 1883, later reprinted as Art under Plutocracy, was published by the SPGB in 1907, apart from two paragraphs, and reprinted with a long introduction in 1962. The carefully chosen title which the pamphlet was given — Art, Labour & Socialism — shows how clearly Morris’s message was understood.

Paul Meier’s book was originally published in France in 1972 with a more appropriate title — The Utopian Thought of William Morris. The author deals first with the influence of religion and of William Morris’s bourgeois background; and for the greater part of volume I with the influence of various writers and thinkers, including the Utopian socialists — Saint- Simon, Fourier, Louis Blanc, Owen, and Henry George. The longest section, however, is very properly devoted to Ruskin, because his ideas concerning social problems, especially those of poverty in a rich world, the meaning of work, the significance of art, profoundly impressed the young Morris. Meier shows that Morris’s study of Marx not only quickened his understanding of these issues, and gave to Ruskin’s vague idealism real purpose and meaning, but made Morris a revolutionary socialist, which Ruskin failed to become.

Meier offers convincing evidence that Morris knew Marx’s Capital and understood it. Morris’s own alleged statement often quoted, ‘To speak quite frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know’, comes from Bruce Glasier’s ‘William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement’, published in 1921, long after the event. Meier examines it at length, and concludes that Glasier’s memory was perverse and at fault; and even if Morris said this in the heat of the moment, there is nothing else in his writing, nor in what was said about him by others, to warrant the charge. He quotes Cobden-Sanderson, who inherited Morris’s copy of volume I of Capital . . . ‘before it came to me’, he says, ‘it had been worn to loose sections by his own constant study of it’. Probably, Meier thinks, Morris was diffident when it came to economics, where he was not on his own ground; concealing, as he often did, a greater knowledge than he cared to admit.

Much of the book is taken up with what, according to the author, is Marx’s theory of the “Two Stages of Socialism’, and his attempt to prove that Morris accepted this. He pursues the argument into the pages of News from Nowhere, probably taking that work rather too literally. Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875 spoke of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, a phrase he used on other occasions. Engels, at the same time, explained clearly what he meant — the workers will take over the state power in the revolution, and, having captured it, will use it to hold down their adversaries, the capitalist class. There would be, therefore, a transitional period before complete ‘‘freedom’’ was established —that is, socialism proper; when the state, having served its purpose in the revolution, will fade out of existence. Meier apparently takes this to mean, and argues that Morris means, that socialism cannot be established at once, immediately after a revolution, and that there will be a period during which some kind of control and state intervention will be necessary.

Concerning this, what Marx and Engels had in mind early in life can be debated. Later Engels certainly came round to the view that the majority must understand and accept the meaning and responsibility of socialism before the conquest of power. Even in 1881 he had moved towards this concept. In his 1891 introduction to Wage Labour and Capital he wrote — ‘A new social order is possible, in which the class differences of to-day will have disappeared, and in which — perhaps after a short transition period   — which, though somewhat deficient in other respects — will in any case be very useful morally — there will be the means of life, of the enjoyment of life, and of the development and of the activity of all bodily and mental faculties . . .’ (my italics). Morris, by a ‘transition’ period, appears at different times to mean different things: a period before the revolution when the workers have gained concessions and capitalism has been modified — which, unless such a change was likely to bring socialism nearer, he deprecated; a period of armed struggle; ‘State Socialism’ — though, as Meier admits, he uses this expression in more than one way; a period after the revolution when the mess and remnants of capitalism are being cleared away. The truth is that Morris was not consistent, and that Meier gives him credit for greater consistency than he displays.

In support of his case Meier at all times quotes widely from Morris, though he is not always careful to ensure that his quotations are of approximately similar date. He is apt, too, to curtail them when it suits him; and in context they sometimes have a different ring. Happily, for the most part, he relies on readily available sources. It is unfortunate that he is so concerned to fit Morris into a strait-jacket with ‘Two Stages of Socialism’; but this remains, none the less, a valuable work. It covers an immense ground. It contains much that is new. It is scholarly, and, in general, fair in its presentation. It disposes of, once and for all, some of the myths about Morris— that he understood neither history nor Marx; that his socialism was an aberration, and that towards the end of his life he abandoned it altogether. Above all, the work, in spite of these reservations, places Morris clearly in the stream of Marxist thought and it shows how this informs his philosophy of art and of work. It is highly readable — often movingly so. Sadly, the price (£28.50! !!) puts it beyond the pocket of most workers. It is hoped that a cheaper edition is on the way.

C. Devereaux

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