Issue 196 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Tony Blair recently became one of a long line of Labour leaders to claim William Morris as an inspiration. Ramsay MacDonald turned up at celebrations to mark the centenary of his birth and Clement Attlee was fond of quoting from his work. But despite this, and despite the attempts of many biographers to paint him as an eccentric utopian who dabbled in politics, William Morris was in fact one of the pioneers of revolutionary socialism.
Morris's tremendous political speeches and writings were central to the revival of the British socialist movement at the end of the 19th century. They show that Marxism has been influential in Britain for over 100 years, and their relevance today is striking. Writing in the 1890s he warned against faith in partial reforms that depended on 'parliamentary agitation'. Such reforms would, he believed, 'be sucked into the tremendous stream of commercial production, and vanish into it, after having played its part as a red herring to spoil the scent of revolution.' If they wanted real change, Morris argued, people must 'take over for the good of the community all the means of production: ie credit, railways, mines, factories, shipping, land, machinery.'
Morris was a man of awe inspiring energy and huge talents. A contemporary remarked that he achieved what five normal men might do in one life. He was one of the leading poets of the age, a celebrated lecturer and pamphleteer, he wrote novels and edited two socialist newspapers, he led campaigns for the preservation of ancient buildings and he achieved international fame as a designer of textiles, wallpapers and even stained glass windows. But all his work was shaped by his developing rebellion against the values of Victorian capitalist society.
Most of his life he was an artistic rebel. The son of a businessman, he was attracted as a young man by the Romantic movement's alienation from the ugliness and meanness of industrial society. In his early painting and poetry he created a romantic vision of the middle ages, a sensual fantasy world in which humans lived in equality with each other, and in harmony with nature.
But Romanticism did not satisfy Morris. It was too easily accommodated. Shelley had written poems to change the world, Wordsworth's nature poems were merely an attempt to escape reality. By the 1850s Morris's ballads had become required reading amongst the new middle classes, a kind of genteel retreat from the grubbiness of the world they had created.
Morris felt the late Romantics were merely wallowing in nostalgia. His own fascination with the medieval past took a more practical turn, and led him towards design, and a critique of the way things were produced under capitalism. Morris intuitively made the connection between the shoddiness of capitalist production and the alienation of workers from production. In the Middle Ages, he argued, 'every craftsman was an artist and brought definite intelligence to his work.' For a while Morris tried to live out the ideal of the artist-craftsman. He set up various workshops to produce quality goods, involving himself personally not just in the design but in the process of production itself, checking the quality of the dyes or the cloth and rediscovering forgotten techniques.
Despite the popularity of his various ventures--his wallpapers and prints became the height of fashion--he realised that he was bound to lose his one man battle against the degradation of capitalist production. Success itself was proof of this. He hated 'spending ... life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich', and the more involved he became in production the more evidence he found of the injustices and misery caused by exploitation. By the 1870s he had come up against the limits of artistic rebellion. 'What business have we with art unless all can share it?' he asked. 'Only from the life of the people could there come a living art.'
Morris never shied away from the practical conclusions of his own insights. He didn't stumble into politics. He was looking for the opportunity for open battle against the system he hated.
The opportunity came with the threat of imperialist war. In 1877 Disraeli's Conservative Party was considering war with Russia to defend British interests in the Turkish empire. The Turkish government had committed atrocities against nationalists in Bulgaria, and Disraeli's plans to support the Turkish empire caused outrage amongst Radicals and trade unionists in Britain.
Morris joined the anti-war movement, which was led by middle class Radicals and Liberals, and soon became one of its leading figures, speaking at a series of mass rallies. He was nervous and uncomfortable about public speaking, but he forced himself to learn the skill.
Morris soon learnt that the anti-imperialism of the middle class professional politicians was skin deep. Swayed by war fever, Liberal leaders called off a mass rally that Morris had organised just as British ships were anchoring off the Turkish coast.
Morris's politics were a product of a half understood rebellion against exploitation itself, and he was already moving beyond the timid reformism of the Liberals. He had sensed the link between imperialism and tyranny at home. In his manifesto, To the Working Men of England, he lashed out at the champions of war, 'greedy gamblers of the stock exchange, idle officers of the army and navy', and he noted that it was the working class element of the anti-war movement that had been all along 'the most staunch and sagacious'. But for the time being, 'he could not find any party more advanced' than the Radicals.
Since the collapse of the Chartist movement in the early 1850s the working class had been relatively subdued. There had been periods of anger and action--campaigns for wider democracy, demonstrations in support of American independence, and the growing opposition to imperialism--but they had been led by the middle classes. Leading trade union leaders had consciously tied themselves to the Liberal Party. Morris spent the next few years trying to force the Radical movement to the left from within--fighting for full blooded opposition to imperialism and denouncing the conservatism of the trade union leaders.
But his efforts were frustrated. The experience of the Liberals in government after 1880 exposed the link between politics and class once and for all for Morris. The Liberals proved to be enthusiastic supporters of imperialism and they did nothing to tackle the effects of the deepening depression at home. 'Radicalism', he wrote in 1883, 'will never develop into anything more than Radicalism ... it is made for and by the middle classes, and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development, if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them.' Morris was sensing the need 'to cross a river of fire'.
Morris was one of the first to join the Social Democratic Federation in 1883. It had been launched two years earlier by HM Hyndman, an ex-Tory journalist, around a socialist programme broadly drawn from Marx. The discovery of a coherent theory that could tie his own critique of society with an effective way of changing it filled him with joy. A friend noted in his diary that 'he was bubbling over with Karl Marx'. When he was invited to speak at Oxford, his old university, he shocked his distinguished audience with a rallying call to class war: 'Here are two classes, face to face with each other...no man can exist in society and be neutral, no-body can be a mere looker on...you must either be a reactionary... or you must join in the march of progress, trample down all opposition.'
The SDF produced pamphlets and a weekly newspaper--Justice--that outlined a coherent Marxist politics for the first time in Britain. Its members set up branches wherever they could, built around weekly meetings and using public sales and outdoor meetings to attract an audience. Morris soon became a sought after speaker and a regular at various sales pitches around London.
At first the going was slow. At the end of 1883 the SDF had around 200 members, some political emigrés from Europe, a number of disaffected intellectuals, a few Old Chartists and also a small number of exceptionally gifted working men like Harry Quelch, a London meat porter, and John Lincoln Mahon, a young Scottish engineer.
Such a small organisation outside the mainstream of working class life was open to unfortunate influences. Hyndman, the SDF's charismatic but dictatorial leader, was prone to revolutionary melodrama, which was hypnotic, but hardly fitted the real situation. It also led him into conspiratorial politics and a complete contempt for the everyday partial struggles of workers. Also Hyndman had never quite left behind the chauvinism of his Tory background. Despite his professions of Marxism, Marx and Engels were very critical of him.
Morris soon saw the need to break from Hyndman's leadership, and after much soul searching he led the majority of the organisation out of the SDF to form the Socialist League, reluctantly accepting its leadership.
Morris drafted the new organisation's manifesto: 'We come before you advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism; that is we seek a change in the basis of society--a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities.'
Morris also edited Commonweal, the League's remarkable paper. The second edition contained articles by George Bernard Shaw, Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, and Frederick Engels, as well as greetings from leaders of the socialist movement around the world. Over the following months the paper developed an analysis of the new imperialism which predicted that sharpening imperialist competition would end Britain's monopoly and lead to a return of class struggle.
By the middle of the 1880s the audience for socialist ideas was definitely growing. Economic depression had created mass unemployment, and the popular movement for democratic reform had revived. Government repression at home and in Ireland helped to sharpen popular discontent. Morris and other socialists were attracting hundreds to their outdoor speeches. A thousand workers came regularly to the League's open air meetings in Norwich, and an Edinburgh branch was launched with a meeting of 500 in 1885. Morris's own Hammersmith branch reported audiences of 200 at its open air meetings, with good sales of Commonweal, even in the worst of winters.
By 1886 anger was beginning to spill out onto the streets. Members of the SDF organised unemployed demonstrations which led to rioting and caused panic amongst the London rich. On 13 November 1887, later known as Bloody Sunday, 100,000 turned out on a banned demonstration to Trafalgar Square to protest against the arrest of the Irish Nationalist MP William O'Brien. The police tried to stop the demonstration and a violent struggle ended with three demonstrators killed.
Morris and his comrades' response to police repression was clear. Morris publicly stood bail for the SDF leaders and wrote an article in Commonweal blaming the riots on the misery caused by economic depression. He was also one of the speakers at the funeral procession for Alfred Linnell, killed by the police after Bloody Sunday. Morris and his comrades also joined the 'free speech' campaign to stop police harrassment of SDF paper sellers in Dodd Street in Limehouse, east London. Morris himself was arrested by the police along with other socialists, but the following Sunday the police were completely overwhelmed by a gathering of between 30,000 and 50,000 radicals and socialists. Such spirited resistance did the socialists 'a power of good'.
At the end of the 1880s bitterness burst out inside the trade union movement. Low paid and previously unorganised workers--particularly in docks and transport--were now drawn together in such great and relatively stable masses that they felt they had the power to defend themselves. In traditionally strong sections like mining, the strategy of a Liberal-Labour alliance was falling apart, useless in the face of the vicious attacks that accompanied the depression.
The strike wave started at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, east London, in 1888. It spread rapidly to gasworks, the docks, and in the next few years to the new food factories, transport, the new steel and electrical industries and even amongst shop assistants and clerical workers. The whole of the working class seemed to be on the move. 'The grandchildren of the Chartists are entering the line of battle,' wrote Engels.
The years of patient socialist propaganda had helped prepare the ground for the New Unionism. Many of its leaders were socialists who had formed their ideas in the branches of the SDF and the Socialist League. Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling had actually helped set up the gas workers' union, Tom Mann and HH Champion were leading figures on the dockers' strike committee. But as organisations, the SDF and the Socialist League failed to relate effectively to the explosion of militancy.
This was partly because they did not have a wide enough base amongst organised workers, but that itself was a result of a more fundamental weakness--their exclusively propagandist approach. Neither party had ever grasped the importance of workers' partial struggles in the fight to build socialist organisation.
Morris shared this tendency with the other early British Marxists. They believed socialist education was enough to build a revolutionary movement. But without being demonstrated in practice socialist ideas can be appealing but remain abstract. This explains the discrepancy between the readership of their propaganda--early Marxist pamphlets like Socialism Made Plain often sold more than 100,000, far more than the actual membership of the SDF and the Socialist League.
Morris recognised the general significance of the strikes, calling the dockers' action 'a revolt against oppression ... a strike of the poor against the rich'--but he and the Socialist League leadership maintained a detached attitude. Their members who were involved in the strike operated purely as trade unionists. Other comrades distributed revolutionary propaganda at the dock gates but failed to argue a specific way forward in the strikes or to try and organise the most militant workers around them.
The result was that neither the SDF nor the League grew much during the strike wave and they had limited influence in the subsequent debates that led to the foundation of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, some of the best militants kept in contact with revolutionary ideas. Many of the leaders in the next great wave of struggle before the First World War were revolutionary socialists. William Morris and a handful of pioneers had ensured that Marxism had taken root in Britain, and that the socialist tradition had been revived and developed.
It has often been claimed that Morris 'grew out' of socialism towards the end of his life. He was frustrated by the failure of the Socialist League to grow and the internal wranglings that were an inevitable result of its isolation. But his socialist views remained as strong as ever. News From Nowhere, his best known book, published in 1890, confirmed Morris's belief in the potential of human beings to transform society, and in the process transform themselves. It is the account of a dream in which a socialist future appears in the present. It is a future without oppression, violence and drudgery. Human beings are free to enjoy their own creativity, and to 'delight in the life of the world'. But such freedom had to be fought for:
Morris was involved in the discussions over socialist unity in the 1890s, but he continued to identify with the revolutionary left. He was heartened by the labour movement's break with Liberalism but he warned, perhaps more clearly than anyone else at the time, of the dangers of reformism. Right up until his death in 1896 he was agitating and arguing for a socialist movement that would change the world 'by open revolt'.
Morris's life cannot be reduced to his political activism. His artistic output continued throughout his political years. His poetry has had many revivals and his concern to break down the divisions between art and labour as well as his emphasis on design for living were important influences on the 20th century art world.
But there is no doubt that his commitment to socialism was the logical outcome of Morris's life's work. He was a gifted artist, but his work itself had taught him that human creativity could never really flourish 'till people could at last rub out of their dictionaries altogether those dreadful words rich and poor'.
The exhibition Questioning the Legacy which marks the centenary of the death of William Morris explores the theme of the collaboration of craft and industry. This collaboration was the aim of Morris's Design and Industries Association, set up in 1915 to raise the standards in British industry, and to 'restore joy in labour' by restructuring the relationship between craft and machine. Morris's own designs form the backbone of the exhibition but the work of other designers who had a relationship with industry, as well as amateur craft work, is also shown.
The exhibition acknowledges that Morris's ideas informed his work. He was aware of the alienation of the machine operators, engaged in the mass production of goods which in past ages would have been unique, crafted by hand according to the skills and tastes of their individual makers. Through the theories and work of Morris, and John Ruskin, the 'mark of the hand' became a desirable feature of much of the decorative art and of many manufactured goods in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Ultimately, the exhibition regards Morris's attempts to encourage a relationship between industry and craft as a failure. This is largely because the curator has equated machinery with alienation, and craft with personal fulfilment, and fails to recognise them as historically separate modes of production. in this he takes his cue from Ruskin:
This dichotomy led to a movement towards the revival of cottage industries and craft associations through the patronage of wealthy middle and upper class philanthropists. They invoked a rural romanticism which harks back nostalgically to the days before the Industrial Revolution.
The exhibition argues that the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement were realised in the period after 1914 through the field of amateur handicrafts. It suggests that then the creative individuality of the maker was fully recognised and completely unalienated, failing to acknowledge that craftwork was no longer a mode of production, but had been relegated to the sphere of artistic hobby. It certainly offered no escape from the effects of capitalism.
Morris would have disagreed fundamentally with this representation of his ideas. He welcomed the introduction of machinery as a way of making good designs available to everyone, yet his dislike of their effects on workers led him to turn towards cottage industry, which was so labour intensive that it forced the price of his products above the reach of ordinary workers. He did not regard machines as alienating in themselves, but as instruments which could be used to benefit mankind.
He saw the true source of oppression as capitalism which had to be abolished before all the resources available could be used with creative freedom:
Questioning the Legacy is at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until 8 April. It will then move to London and Birmingham