1990s >> 1996 >> no-1102-june-1996

Socialism, Saints and Muffin the Mule

William Morris lived from 1834 to 1896. During his lifetime he involved himself in a bewildering array of activities. The last quarter of his life was spent in the cause of socialist revolution and he left a considerable body of socialist writings when he died.

Saint William Morris? It had to be a hoax. Actually, it wasn’t. The Church of England, in its pathetically opportunist bid to recruit anyone with a credible image to its side, proposed canonising Morris, the nineteenth-century Marxist revolutionary who resolutely rejected all gods and religions. When he died in the late morning of 3 October 1896, Morris’s last reported words were “I want to get mumbo-jumbo out of this world.” Hardly the stuff of which saints are made. If it weren’t for mumbo-jumbo every clergyman would be on the dole looking for real work.

In an age when, as the Stranglers reminded us, there are no more heroes (we’re all cynics now), the present writer readily confesses to more than a passing admiration for William Morris. Here was a man born into affluence and opportunity: educated at Marlborough public school, where he famously stated that he learned nothing except by walking in the local countryside and observing nature and reading useful books in the local library, and then Exeter College, Oxford, where he was sent to train for the priesthood and left stating: “I won’t sign the 39 Articles” (1855) because he had seen through the sham of the Church’s authoritarian morality. Like many others of his age and class he could have become just another time-wasting ponce, living in thoughtless indolence upon the hard work of the majority. But Morris took a different course.

Talented Artistic Creation

Morris’s belief was that art and society are inseparable. How often do we meet those dullards of the artistic establishment who, cocooned like monks in their galleries, pontificate about art as if it is something to be hidden behind bullet-proof screens: either a purchasable indulgence for the rich or a thing of beauty for school groups of working-class kids to be allowed to gawp at as a spectacle. Morris hated this idea of art. For him, art was about making things which were useful and accessible and beautiful to look at and to touch. He was, to be sure, a man of immensely varied talents: probably the most versatile and talented artistic creator of the last century. As an architect Morris revolutionised house design, with his building of the Red House near Bexleyheath. as a designer of textiles and wallpapers Morris revolutionised the skill, reviving approaches to colour and inventing methods of production. With Burne-Jones, his closest artistic friend, he did the same with the design of stained-glass windows in which their productions were unsurpassed in their splendour. As a poet of the second Victorian generation Morris was respected as being a superb writer, not only composing great long works such as ‘The Dream of John Ball’ (with its invigorating sense of how history changes in ways often unclear to those living through it), but also translating Greek classical poetry as well as the Icelandic sagas which so inspired him. When Tennyson was offered the poet laureateship in 1892 it had been planned to offer it to Morris who, needless to say, would have no part in being appointed to write flattering ditties for royal parasites. Not content to write poetry, Morris was a pioneer in the field of typography in which during the latter years of his life, he devoted himself to revolutionising printing methods and building up his own press which could produce words pleasurable not only to read but to look at.

What kind of man embodied these talents? Yeats, who came to know Morris in his London days (and was even tempted for a while by his revolutionary ideas until the folly of the fairies drew him to the mysticism of Irish nationalism which ended in a personal attraction to fascism), wrote of William Morris that “You saw him producing everywhere organisation and beauty, seeming in the same instant helpless and triumphant; and people loved him as children are loved.” By all accounts, Morris seems to have been one of the most undisliked men of his century. When he died, only in his early sixties, a century ago, the doctor declared that he died of simply being William Morris. It is understandable that vicars, usually noted for adding little to the world and most in their element when burying the dead rather than energising the living, might look at the enormous vivacity of Morris’s character and assume that he must have been superhuman, fit for sainthood. Morris would have hated such an idea of himself. For him, there was nothing that he could do which, given the opportunity, others could not learn to do also. Unlike the precious artists, so often second-rate, who surround themselves with a mystique of creative specialness, Morris’s achievements were always intended as inspiration, not exclusivity.

For most of his life Morris was just a critical complainer against the effects of capitalism, but, like so many others, one who never knew what capitalism was or even that it existed. At first he bemoaned the loss of true arts in the nineteenth century, pursuing the criticisms of his teacher, Ruskin, against the regimentation, waste and tackiness of urban, industrial squalor. But he knew not what caused this to be. As a supporter of the radical wing of the Liberals (the equivalent of Labour today, as the anti-Conservative but pro-capitalist party of his time) he joined the Eastern Question Association in protest against the atrocities being committed in the Balkans to which the rest of the world turned a cynical blind eye. (What changes?) As Treasurer of the EQA Morris was forced to look in the face the hypocritical posturing and limited vision of the capitalist politicians. Meanwhile, as a founder of SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), Morris and his friends were fighting a losing battle to preserve some of the beauties of the pre-industrial world from the ravages of vandalism for profit.

Socialist Activist

William Morris was over fifty when something important developed within his thinking. He came to realise that all of these hideous acts of destruction against art, beauty and human life were not accidents of history or the consequences of wrong government. They were the inevitable effects of the capitalist system which can no more put beauty and life before rent, interest and profit than the church could put science before superstition. What was wrong with the times in which he lived was the system. Morris was no less energetic about this revelation than he had been about any of his other occupations. He set himself to read Marx (in French, for Capital was yet to be translated into English) and became an active member of the newly-formed Social Democratic Federation, the first revolutionary socialist body in Britain.

Within a year of joining the SDF (and giving it time, money and enthusiasm hitherto reserved for artistic creation) Morris found himself in a majority on its Executive Council refusing to endorse some of the policies being pursued. Firstly, there was the arrogance of the Eton-educated self-appointed leader, Hyndman, whose belief that the SDF was almost his own personal property, and whose contemptible imperialism and anti-Jewish racism, was too much for those like Morris, Eleanor Marx and Belfort Bax to stomach. Then there was the question of reform. Hyndman and his supporters took the view that a socialist body should advocate reforms of capitalism under the illusion that these would be “Stepping Stones to Socialism”. Morris had read Marx too well to believe that the inherent class robbery of capitalism could be reformed in the interest of the robbed. He took the view that only by educating those who are robbed by capitalism of the cause of their miseries and the hope of a real alternative could socialism ever be achieved. Like Marx, Morris maintained that there could be no socialism without conscious socialists to bring it about. So, in December 1883 Morris and the others, though a majority on the EC of the SDF, resigned from it and established the Socialist league. Soon they had their own journal, Commonweal: the political contributions made to it by Morris have now been collected in two volumes in the William Morris Library (edited and introduced by Nicholas Salmon) and these, together with A.L. Morton’s excellent little edition of the Political Writings of William Morris are amongst the finest socialist writings ever produced. (Every socialist owes it to themselves to read these.)

In 1890 Morris took upon himself the task, tried by others but never with anything close to the same force of clarity and imagination, to depict what a socialist society might look like. More than that, what it would feel like to live in. Morris’s News From Nowhere is more than just a pretty picture of utopia. Readers may like bits and discard others, and Morris the libertarian would respect them more for doing so: he was no prophetic author of blueprints for the future. What Morris attempted to do – and succeeded with brilliance – was to show that a society based upon common ownership and democratic control could exist; that free access to wealth without the existence of the market or money as social fetters upon human freedom could work effectively; that a society could exist co-operatively and humanely without the need for the state, with its governments, police and prisons; that human nature is not opposed to human decency in the world. What had happened to the world to allow this great transformation to happen? It did not require the coming to earth of some miracle-making messiah who, in line with infantile religious belief, would purify the earth so that Saint Morris could write about it. No such claptrap for Morris: his depiction of the new age of humanity depended upon the assumption that workers had united to get rid of capitalism. There was no other way to bring about the socialist alternative.

It was once said of Morris that whereas the reformers had told people what to want, Morris had told them how to want. He had attended to the education of desire, teaching people that their dreams of a better world could only be realised as visions to be enacted if they would organise on the basis of knowledge and co-operation. He was right. How much more refreshingly right than those sad relics of the museum of political postures on the British Left, marching not to the socialist Nowhere but the capitalist nowhere being planned for by that emblematic nobody, Tony Blair.

There is something of an irony that in this year of the centenary of his death, vast numbers of people will file past the great Morris exhibition at the Victorian and Albert Museum and many more will remember him with self-deceiving selectivity: every Sunday supplement is running something about Morris, but they will neglect to mention that he dedicated his later life to the creation of a moneyless, wageless, stateless society. Not only did he write about it, but he gave endless lectures and speeches, from Secular Halls to open-air platforms across the country. He talked to striking Northumbrian miners and small gatherings of drunks and autodidacts in damp rooms and windy street corners. He was a fighter and an inspiration to many of us who were born long after he died.

Better than any saint, it could be argued with some force that Morris’s contribution to the sum of human history was rather greater than that of Muffin the Mule. Not so according to the Post Office which has rejected a proposal to produce a commemorative stamp to mark his death on the grounds that “William Morris was not of sufficient stature”. (Instead, stamps with pictures of Muffin the Mule and the glove puppet, Sooty, will be produced.) There has been a minor outcry from a few Labour MPs (currently led by a human glove-puppet, operated with much dexterity by the Stock Exchange) which is the usual respect paid by Labour leaders to long-dead socialists. Had Morris been alive today, advocating the revolutionary abolition of the market and production for profit, his condemnation as “irrelevant”, “utopian” and “not in line with practical politics” would be churned out by the very Labour MPs who like looking at Marxists as long as it’s only on a stamp.

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