1980s >> 1984 >> no-954-february-1984

Morris’s vision of socialism

“Yes, we agree that capitalism stinks; but what are we going to put in its place?” It is a question which socialists have heard often and, if our revolution is to amount to more than a grand act of demolition, we who want to create a new system of society must have our answers. Of course, only the majority who create the new social order will be able to decide what sort of a society socialism will be and even then, such decisions will be determined largely by the restraints of historical continuity and material necessity. Those who are lucky enough to live in socialist society will have recognised from the start that socialism will not be an ideal world, freed entirely from all problems. Unlike under capitalism, however, the inhabitants of socialist society will not allow themselves to be obstructed in the task of solving social problems by the artificial, historically obsolete features of the capitalist system.


William Morris well understood that the poverty and ugliness of what is called “civilisation” will not be eradicated until the whole “commercial”, or capitalist, system is destroyed. Unlike many of the self-styled socialists of his day — and the many more who advocate the propaganda of class confusion today — Morris was not interested in “socialistic” measures within capitalism, which amounted to no more than the robbers throwing crumbs to the robbed from the loaves that they have accumulated. Morris stood not for vaguely defined “socialist change” but for a new’ social order which was the sole end of socialist activity. It was because Morris stood for socialism that his speeches and writings were filled with a sense of urgency about that alternative. For him, socialism was not some millenium; neither was it a pious ideal, to which occasional lip-service could be paid. What is to come after the revolution was, for Morris, at least as important, if not more so, than the propaganda against the system of the present. It was this awareness of the question posed at the beginning of this article — “What are we going to put in its place?” that led Morris to speak and write in ways which surpassed both the imaginary and historically predictive skills of most others in the movement, both before his day and since.


There are three main sources from which an insight into Morris’s vision of socialism can be gained. Firstly, and perhaps most popularly, there is his literary masterpiece, News from Nowhere, described by its author as “a utopian romance” and. published originally in serial form, between January and October 1890, in the Socialist League’s journal, The Commonweal. The story is about a man who returns one night, tired after a heated discussion at the Socialist League about “the future of the fully-developed new society”. He falls asleep and wakes up in the midst of a “fully-developed new society” – socialism. In the course of thirty-two fascinating chapters the reader observes this “guest” in a socialist society; he asks the questions which might be asked by one who wants to know more about socialism, and so Morris uses what is on the surface a futuristic fiction (written in the nineteenth century and set in the twenty-first) as a speculative socialist vision.


Secondly, there are the published speeches and writings of William Morris, most of which have been described as “political” works and which are stimulating in theme and embracing in style. Morris’s “political” works are not about matters of factional intrigue or theoretical jargon, but present arguments for revolution which touch the feelings and class experiences of ordinary men and women who, without pretensions to scholarship, are sickened by the squalid lifestyle which the market system imposes on them. Thirdly, there is A Dream of John Ball, written in 1886: a visionary story about the desire for common ownership which pre-dates capitalism.


To begin, let us quickly explode the myths which those who have not taken the bother to understand Morris’s outlook have concocted about his conception of socialism. As an affluent poet and artist — a man who was much admired for his creative genius and was even offered the Poet Laureateship when Tennyson died in 1892 — Morris was highly vulnerable to accusations that his socialist ideas were merely quaint ideals — a poet’s fad, the dreams of a political utopian. Such labels were stuck on Morris, despite his well-formulated and practicable ideas. Repeatedly it has been asserted, more often than not by “scholars” who prefer to comment on what Morris almost said than on what he actually did say, that Morris was an opponent of modern machinery. Indeed, so often is the myth recited that when one reads the contrary in Morris’s writings one is almost tempted to chastise Morris for contradicting his interpreters! Morris made clear that his opposition was not to machinery, which he thought could be used in a socialist society to do some of the work which capitalism finds it more profitable to have done manually; his opposition was to the social nature of industrial mass production under capitalism:


  I do not mean . . . that we should aim at abolishing all machinery: I would do some things by machinery that are now done by hand, and many other things by hand which are now done by machinery: in short, we should be the masters of our machines and not their slaves, as we are now. It is not this or that tangible steel and brass machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us. (Art And Its Producers)

In A Factory as It Might Be Morris points out that socialism will put an end to “the manufacture of useless goods, whether harmful luxuries for the rich or disgraceful makeshifts for the poor”. Only then will the community as a whole be “. . . in possession of the machines once used for mere profit-grinding, but now used for saving human labour”. Again, in As to Bribing Excellence, written a year before his death. Morris wrote:


 What are the said machines about now that the mass of the people should toil and toil without pleasure? They are making profits for their owners, and have no time to save the people from drudgery. When the people are the owners — then we shall see.

In short, Morris’s objection was not to development in the productive forces. He realised that machinery will liberate human energies from many wasteful labours once machinery is used for need and not profit. Under capitalism the wage slave becomes the appendage of the machine, the impotent victim of a production line which travels to the uncompromising rhythm of profitability. Socialism with its crucial transformation in the objective of production from profit to use, will turn machinery into a useful device for saving labour. In a socialist society we could well imagine printers, who now fear automation as a threat to their highly-priced labour power, welcoming such machinery as a means of freeing them from needless toil. But — and this was Morris’s point — once production is for use and human beings are in control of their own labour, perhaps people will decide that the pleasure of creative work will be preferable to industrialised mass production. In some cases this will probably be so; maybe the skilled printers will prefer to print using methods which take longer, but provide greater creative enjoyment. In News from Nowhere Morris writes of farmers who, having done away with much of the big machinery of agriculture, enjoy working on the land. Of course, material conditions will determine the choices which will be made in socialist society: perhaps Morris’s agricultural picture would not be fitting if a massive increase in agricultural productivity was needed. As socialism develops production priorities will change and Morris is right to point out that once an abundance of wealth has been produced there will be every opportunity to experiment with human lifestyles.


Central to Morris’s conception of socialism is the theme of work. Under capitalism most people are slaves to the commercial interests of a small minority. Morris draws the all-important distinction between employment, which is life-destroying, and work. In a socialist society men and women would have more than what is now called “the right to work’’:


  It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which is worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious. (Art and Socialism)


In short, the present barrier between work (what you do for Them) and leisure (being creative) will be broken down in a society where working is both creative and serving your own interests. Of course, there will be unpleasant tasks to be carried out by people in a socialist society but, unlike now, the incentive to do them will be the common understanding that all physical and mental contributions to society will be for the benefit of all members of society.


In News From Nowhere the guest asks Old Hammond “how you get people to work when there is no reward for labour, and especially how you get them to work strenuously”. Old Hammond replied that there is a “reward for labour”, although wages and salaries have been abolished. So. what will the “reward” be in a socialist society? Work, says Old Hammond, has become “a pleasure which we are afraid of losing, not a pain”. Work as pleasure; let Old Hammond explain:


  . . . all work is now pleasurable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable excitement, even when the actual work is not pleasant; or else because it has grown into a pleasurable habit, as in the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly, and most of our work is of this kind, because there is conscious. sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists.


The pleasure of work, according to Morris, arises out of the transformation of work from useless toil and drudgery to creative art. How different this is from the nature of work and art under capitalism. Wage slaves alienated from social power over the produce of their own labour, are far from being artists, not because they are talentless, but because capitalist production stifles the creativity of the class which exists only to create surplus value.


Morris’s critique of art under capitalism was not an incidental feature of his conception of socialism; it was crucial to it. Before Morris there were others who despised the ugliness of the ever-expanding capitalist edifice, with its blinkered regard for profit at the expense of happiness and beauty. In 1860 John Ruskin declared that:


  Our cities are a wilderness of spinning wheels instead of palaces; yet the people have not clothes. We have blackened every leaf of English greenwood with ashes, and the people die of cold; our harbours are a forest of merchant ships, and the people die of hunger.

Ruskin, Rossetti and the other Romantics dreamed of a return to an idealised natural past, uncontaminated by the filth of industrialism. It is an understandable misreading of Morris — and one which has been repeated often by the scholarly distorters — to assume that he too sought a Utopia by means of returning to the past. Indeed. Morris did write that:


  Anyone who wants beauty to be produced at the present day in any branch of the fine arts, I care not what, must be always crying out “Look back! Look back!”


But, as the scholars choose not to see, Morris was a materialist in his understanding of history, and thus it was not backwards that he wanted to go. Morris knew that:


  We cannot turn our people back into Catholic English peasants and Guild craftsmen, or into heathen Norse bonders, much as may be said for such conditions of life. (Morris’s letters, p.206)


And again:


  It is as ridiculous to yearn for a return to an original fullness as it is to believe that with this present emptiness history has come to a standstill.


This was the crucial point, which made Morris a revolutionary as well as a dreamer: his vision was to be realised within real material conditions.

Chapter VI of News From Nowhere describes “shopping” in a socialist society: goods are available freely; there is no money. In this propertyless society of which Morris writes (and for which socialists aim) there can be no exchange, for that which is owned in common cannot be bought or sold. The stranger in Morris’s imagined land feels the urge to put his hand in his pocket and pay for goods and services — but, to the people of socialism, this seems as curious as it would be under capitalism for a homeless family to demand a suite in the Ritz. Need it be asked which system has the more humane priorities?

On meeting a group of children the “stranger” in socialism is surprised to learn that they are not forced to go to school. Why should they be, asks his guide Dick, when learning is a natural human process and the children will come to it soon enough? Marriage, we are told, is not a legal contract, but a mutually entered bond of love. There are no laws or prisons, for the causes of most anti-social behaviour, which are to be found in property relationships. do not exist in Morris’s socialism. That is not to say that there are never acts of violence arising out of anger, and Morris is wise enough to include a reference to a case of homicide in News from Nowhere showing how, in a co-operative society, such problems would be likely to be dealt with. News From Nowhere is a novel which any student of socialist ideas should not be without, and there is no doubt that its image of the socialist future played a major part in influencing the thought of subsequent socialists, particularly in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The portrait of a moneyless, stateless, classless society based on production for use is of immense importance to those who want not only to destroy capitalism, but to create socialism. But News From Nowhere is not — and was not intended to be — a blueprint for socialism, or anything like one, Marx, in his day, refused to “write recipes for the cook books of the future” and Morris was not attempting to impose his conception of socialism, but to offer it to the working class as a vision of what might be.

  I want to tell you what it is I desire of the Society of the Future, just as if I were going to be reborn into it; I daresay that you will find some of my visions strange enough. (The Society Of The Future)

Of course, it will be up to those who establish the new system (ourselves, if we establish it soon) to decide democratically how we are going to use the material resources which are owned and controlled in common for our greatest mutual benefit. To move beyond capitalism — to remove the social features which seem today to be eternal. but are not any less transitory than any earlier social relation — is not a fantasy. If Morris could envisage such as change, as have many socialists since, there is no reason why our fellow workers cannot see beyond the narrow walls of the capitalist present. As Morris rightly concluded. “If others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream”.

Steve Coleman