William Morris made a distinctive contribution to the development of Marxist ideas, for example on the nature of work and on the vision of a classless, communist society. But arguably his most significant contribution — and certainly one with great contemporary relevance - was his conception of a socialist ecology.
In this respect Morris was a pioneer and an innovator – he evolved from conservationism to integrate ecology within a Marxist framework. His views have much to teach us today in our age of climactic convulsion.
Morris made his name as an artist and as a poet, and his commitment to conservation was expressed through his work. His mode of expression was particularly influenced in this respect by John Ruskin, and many of his early pronouncements bear a striking resemblance to those found in Ruskin’s writings. Above all Morris articulated the horror at the effects of the industrial revolution. For example in his well-known poem, The Earthly Paradise (1868-70).
Nature was also integral to Morris’ conception of art. In his first public lecture, The Lesser Arts (4 December 1877), where he equated beauty with nature: He wrote: “Everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her.”
Even at this early stage, Morris understood that modern industrial capitalism (“commerce”) was the root of environmental degradation. He wrote: “Is money to be gathered? Cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the son and poison the air with smoke and worse, and its nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce… will do for us herein.”
And even at this early stage, Morris had a conception of the role of science and art in environmental protection and improvement. He wrote: “Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for [Science]; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river…”
For Morris, art was crucial to the relationship between humanity and nature: “That art will make our streets as beautiful as the woods, as elevating as the mountain-sides: it will be a pleasure and a rest, and not a weight upon the spirits to come from the open country into a town, every man’s house will be fair and decent, soothing to his mind and helpful to his work: all the works of man that we live among will be in harmony with nature.”
These themes were developed during the first five years of his political activity, the period before he became a revolutionary socialist.
Morris exhorted “those of you who are real artists” to “follow nature” (The Art of the People, 19 February 1879) and argued that, “love of nature in all its forms must be the ruling spirit of such works of art as we are considering” (The Lesser Arts of Life, 21 January 1882). He urged humanity to rediscover “the greatest of all gifts to the world, the very source of art, the natural beauty of the earth” (Speech to the Kyrle Society, 27 January 1881).
Morris argued for action by conservationists to protect the countryside. His conception was largely negative, dwelling on the damage that humanity had done to nature. He wrote: “There is one duty obvious to us all; it is that we should set ourselves, each one of us, to doing our best to guard the natural beauty of the earth: we ought to look upon it as a crime, an injury to our fellows, only excusable because of ignorance, to mar the natural beauty, which is the property of all men; and scarce less than a crime to look on and do nothing while others are marring it, if we can no longer plead this ignorance.” (The Prospects of Architecture in Civilisation, 10 March 1881)
He expressed this in terms familiar to the stereotype of a conservationist: “Again, I must ask what do you do with the trees on a site that is going to build over? Do you try to save them, to adapt your houses at all to them?… Pray do not forget, that any one of you who cuts down a tree wantonly or carelessly, especially in a great town or its suburbs, need make no pretence of caring about art.” (The Beauty of Life, 19 February 1880)
But he also had a more millenarian, catastrophist view on where the destruction of the environment was leading. He argued: “Mankind, in striving to attain to a complete mastery over Nature, should destroy her simplest and widest-spread gifts, and thereby enslave simple people to them, and themselves to themselves, and so at last drag the world into a second barbarism… a thousandfold more hopeless, than the first.” (The Beauty of Life)
There were nevertheless elements of social ecology in his outlook at the time. In The Beauty of Life he railed against advertising hoardings, “the daily increasing hideousness of the posters with which all our towns are daubed”, arguing for a boycott: “I think make up our minds never to buy any of the articles so advertised”. It was in this lecture that a expressed one of his best known dictums for ecological living: “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
In The Prospects of Architecture in Civilisation, Morris outlined the reasons for political action on ecology, arguing that we are “responsible to posterity for what may befall the fairness of the earth in our own days, for what we have done”. He also set out some of his ideas on urban planning:
“Once more neglect of art has done it; for though it is conceivable that the loss of your neighbouring open space might in any case have been a loss to you, still the building of a new quarter of a town ought not to be an unmixed calamity to the neighbours: nor would it have been once: for first, the builder doesn't now murder the trees (at any rate not all of them) for the trifling sum of money their corpses will bring him, but because it will take him too much trouble to fit them into the planning of his houses: so to begin with you would have saved the more part of your trees; and I say your trees, advisedly, for they were at least as much your trees, who loved them and would have saved them, as they were the trees of the man who neglected and murdered them. And next, for any space you would have lost, and for any unavoidable destruction of natural growth, you would in the times of art have been compensated by orderly beauty, by visible signs of the ingenuity of man and his delight both in the works of nature and the works of his own hands.”
And he began to articulate a conception of a different kind of society with a more harmonious relationship to ecosystems: “[Until] we have clear sky over our heads and green grass beneath our feet; until the great drama of the seasons can touch our workmen with other feelings than the misery of winter and the weariness of summer… unless they make up their minds that they swill do their best to give us back the fairness of the earth.”
In Art and the Beauty of the Earth, (13 October 1881) he implored his audience to “turn this land from the grimy back-yard of a workshop into a garden”. He also tied together his conceptions of art, conservation and social betterment:
“We must learn to love the narrow spot that surrounds our daily life for what of beauty and sympathy there is in it. For surely there is no square mile of earth's inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty; and it is this reasonable share in the beauty of the earth that I claim as the right of every man who will earn it by due labour; a decent house with decent surroundings for every honest and industrious family; that is the claim which I make of you in the name of art.”