Book Review: ‘William Morris on History’

‘William Morris on History’. Edited by Nicholas Salmon. Sheffield Academic Press. £6.95.

This is yet another book published to take advantage of the fact that this year is the centenary of William Morris’s death. Not that we are complaining. Far from it. The cause of socialism can only gain from the wider diffusion of Morris’s political writings.

Morris didn’t claim to be a historian. He was, in this context, just a socialist writer and speaker who from time to time wrote and spoke on historical (as on other) subjects. All the pieces included in this book were composed after he had become a socialist. They cover such subjects as English society before and after the Norman conquest, the Middle Ages, the medieval guilds, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the rise of capitalism.

After reading them nobody will be able to claim, as some still do, that Morris proposed “a return to the Middle Ages”. He did think that skilled craftsmen had enjoyed somewhat of a golden age for part of the Middle Ages, and did want to revive this but in a socialist society, not by going back to feudalism where he was well aware most producers were not guild craftsmen but serfs exploited by a class of feudal lords.

Morris became a socialist when he was nearly fifty, so it was only normal that he already had set views on certain subjects. One of these, for instance, was that the moral attitudes of the “Teutonic” peoples of Northern Europe -what he called their “manly” virtues- were superior to those of the Roman Empire.

Despite such personal views (and despite one bad talk in which he gives out good and bad points to the various English kings of the feudal period after the fashion of conventional history textbooks) Morris’s general approach is that of the materialist conception of history.

In other words, he starts from the premise that it is the way humans in any society are related to each other, with regard to the production and distribution of the material means by which society and its individual members survive, that in the end determines the ideas and political structure of that society; and that social change occurs when advances in technology change these basic social relations of production and give rise to a new economic class which struggles against the established ruling class to consolidate the new mode of production economically, politically and ideologically.

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