William Morris and the Hammersmith Socialist Society

The Hammersmith Socialist Society was created out of the old Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League after the latter’s demise in 1890. The Hammersmith Branch chose to form a new body, in which William Morris was undoubtedly the greatest influence. One of the largest branches of first the Social Democratic Federation and then the League, Hammersmith Socialists were enthused by the socialist vision and sheer effort of Morris. Clearly the HSS felt that it had something distinct to offer the socialist movement. This something was simple revolutionary clarity.

Morris has been cited as ending or declining his interest in socialist activity from 1890; the evidence suggests otherwise. It was Morris’s socialism that was largely enshrined in the Statement of Principles (1890) of HSS which he wrote. By the early 1890s it was the parliamentary and increasingly reformist route that was emerging as the dominant strategy; electoral requirements meaning reformist minimum programmes. It was against this trend that Morris fought a rearguard for revolutionary clarity and it was this fight that Morris bequeathed to the later “impossibilists”.

From the late 1880s, by which time legislation allowed working people to stand for election to municipal authorities, school boards, boards of guardians, and so on, the socialist and labour movement turned increasingly away from the necessity of revolution and began to appeal to the working class on electoral terms. Thus direct appeals to workers and efforts to bring about a socialist majority went by the wayside as efforts shifted from direct presentation of the socialist case and towards elections and the immediate improvement of social and material conditions by legislative action. Morris and the HSS sought to redress the balance, to restore the movement to definite socialist aims. For the HSS, the use of the state as a central means was misguided. While representatives of a united and strong socialist party might, in future, be sent to parliament, the situation in the early 1890s simply demanded that more socialists be made.

While resurgent trades unionism and radicalism had created a generation of workers who were demanding improvements to working and social conditions, their demands stopped a good deal short of anything like definite socialist aims. Many in the movement saw the growth in trades unionism and a declining hostility to socialism from working people as an indication that a socialist society was evolving or that new attitudes would allow representation in the legislature. Political opportunism, it was thought, based on these developments would gradually increase the demands made by the working class. It was these strategies that Morris and the HSS feared would lead to an electoral emphasis and piecemeal social and material improvements becoming the ends rather than the means of socialists. While use of the state may be the route chosen by some social-reformers, it should not be used as a veil of expediency by genuine socialists.

In its Statement of Principles the HSS states that without definite socialist aims the working class radicalism which had revived in the late 1880s would come to no greater end than the partial improvements that were being sought:

“as Socialists, we would remind our brethren generally that, though we cannot but sympathise with all the struggles of the workers against their masters, however partial they may be, however much they fall short of complete and effective combination, yet we cannot fail to see that of themselves these partial struggles will lead nowhere; and that this must always be the case as long as the workers are the wage slaves of the employers.”

Thus, by pursuing electoral success and partial reforms the wider movement was at best deferring socialism by abandoning socialist propaganda for the new radical reformism of the working class. In fact, rather than encouraging the working class movement to increase its demands, it was socialists who were reducing their demands in the face of working class radicalism. Faced with this, for the HSS, the strategy of socialists needed to be firmly set on the society of the future and definite aims to this end. The Statement of Principles outlines clearly how the HSS saw its role in the socialist movement:

“. . . it should be our special aim to make Socialists, by putting before people, and especially the working classes, the elementary truths of Socialism; since we feel sure, in the first place, that in spite of the stir in the ranks of labour there are comparatively few who understand what Socialism is, or have had opportunities of arguing on the subject with those who have at least begun to understand it; and, in the second place, we are no less sure that before any definite Socialist action can be attempted, it must be backed up by a great body of intelligent opinion – the opinion of a great mass of people who are already Socialists, people who know what they want, and are prepared to accept the responsibilities of self-government, which must form a part of their claims.”

The Socialist League, from which came the Hammersmith Socialist Society
The Socialist League, from which came the Hammersmith Socialist Society

Definition of socialism was therefore important. In the opening paragraph of the Statement of Principles the HSS defines its socialism in clear and cogent terms:

“By Socialism, the Hammersmith Socialist Society understands the realisation of a condition of society all embracing and all sufficing.
It believes that this great change must be effected by the conscious exertions of those who have learned to know what Socialism is.
This change, it believes, must be an essential change in the basis of society: the present basis is privilege for the few, and consequent servitude for the many; the future basis will be equality of condition for all, which we firmly believe to be the essence of true society.”

Given the aim of the HSS and its definition of socialism that were both uncompromising, how did the Society propose to achieve the formidable task it had set itself? The Rules of the Hammersmith Socialist Society give the answer. Essentially the Rules state that only definite socialists who could demonstrate their understanding could join, that it would rely on direct contact with the working class to propagate socialist understanding, and would be democratic with elected officials and committees but no leader.

In a revealing lecture of 1895, Morris argues that the labour movement was, as the HSS had feared in 1890, now concerned simply with limited material and social improvements. Socialists, according to Morris, should go beyond these aims – to socialism itself. While he now accepted that a socialist party should send delegates to parliament, he qualified this by saying that they would be delegates under the instructions of a socialist party and would be there not to run capitalism but to abolish it. Morris had clearly revised his earlier strongly anti-state position but retained socialist principles at the heart of any policy of sending socialist representatives to parliament. Morris now claimed that what was, above all, important was socialist unity and the building of a strong, genuinely socialist, party. There was room for differences of opinion amongst socialists but these had to be subservient to the central socialist aim, “to the old teaching and preaching of Socialism pure and simple”. It was the desire to bring this about which inspired the range of lectures and established Kelmscott House as a centre of socialist activity. It also resulted in an attempt at practical unity between the HSS, the SDF and the Fabian Society.

In December 1892 discussion between the organisations took place with the result of the formation of a Joint Committee consisting of five members from each body. Morris, George Bernard Shaw and Hyndman were given the task of drawing up a manifesto that could be the basis of united socialist action. The resulting Manifesto of English Socialists was issued on May 1st 1893. On the face of it the text could have provided the basis for some sort of unity. It suggested a programme of palliatives to satisfy the “stepping stones” of the SDF and the gradualism of the Fabian Society whilst, for the HSS, making clear that these were merely temporary measures not detracting from the ultimate need to abolish capitalism and establish socialism. It is probable that the SDF and HSS might have coped with the document but the revolutionary tone was probably too harsh for the Fabian Society to work with. The attempt at unity by the Joint Committee was at any rate a resounding failure with very little in the way of practical unity coming from their efforts.

Despite it emphasis on “socialism-and-nothing-but” the HSS was confused on the issue of political action and was prepared to compromise for the sake of socialist unity by advocating reforms provided they were firmly shackled to the socialist aim:

“The first step towards transformation and re-organisation must necessarily be in the direction of the limitation of class robbery, and the consequent raising of the standard of life for the individual. In this direction certain measures have been brought within the scope of practical politics . . . as tending to lessen the evils of the existing regime; so that individuals of the useful classes, having more leisure and less anxiety, may be able to turn their attention to the only real remedy for their position of inferiority – to wit . . .”

This position was clearly at variance with the general position of the Society with regard to support for political action that, according to the HSS, was futile for the ends sought. Clearly tension existed on the point at which socialist revolution was compromised by political expediency. In 1891 a member was lost through resignation after the Society agreed that individual members of the Society could help an SDF candidate standing for election to a school board. Also the Society did not discourage electoral voting as the League had done. Whilst allowing individual members to assist at elections for other socialist bodies and encouraging workers to use their votes at elections, the HSS still maintained a hostile attitude to involvement of the HSS itself in electoral activity. And there was still a strong opposition to the support of “futile” reforms. This is evident particularly in John Carruther’s pamphlet Socialism and Radicalism (1893) which stressed, as Morris did, that political action was useless unless a strong socialist party existed, that is, one that could achieve a majority in parliament.

On Morris’s death in October 1896 the Society, dependant as it had been on Morris’s ideas, efforts and, not least, premises, decided to continue. But the activities of the Society had been declining from its early years. Minutes and reports indicate a declining enthusiasm from members, increasingly brief minutes through 1896, and, most importantly, declining audiences at outdoor pitches. Even publishing activity was stopped by the end of 1896 and the last meeting, a social gathering, was held in January 1897, the business of the Society having been wound up the previous month.

In the face of a socialist and labour movement continuing to move away from the course advocated by Morris and the HSS, the Society’s impact was as small as its aim had been demanding of its members and resources. Throughout its course the Society attracted only a small number of new members besides those who had already been in the old Hammersmith League Branch. There were a small number of little known stalwarts of the Society but the Society also contained a high proportion of notable members such as Walter Crane, Philip Webb, Gustav Holst and others, all no doubt attracted to some extent by the association of the Society with Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Despite the intellectual vitality of the HSS it remained both a geographically and politically isolated group and its activity, although impressively prolific from few members, was hopelessly small for the task it had set itself. It is unfortunate, from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century, that Morris’s socialism and the activity of the HSS did not succeed in its revolutionary object with other contemporary radical organisations and the working class. It did, however, influence the 1904 “impossibilist” revolt in the SDF, forming a tradition of socialism-and-nothing-but that extends to the present-day Socialist Party of Great Britain.

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