William Morris: Romantic or revolutionary?

Submitted by Anon on 4 December, 2008 - 11:06 Author: Paul Hampton

The Fourth Part of a series; the other articles are collected here: http://www.workersliberty.org/category/marxist-theory/history/marxists/william-morris

Morris has been claimed by a wide spectrum of socialists — often without careful reference to his views. However a comprehensive study of writings indicates that he was not a utopian socialist, nor an anarchist, not a Fabian state socialist nor a sentimental socialist, as some have characterised him.

Morris was never enamoured by the socialist colonies and experiments organised by Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet and others. He argued that it was not possible “to establish a real Socialistic community in the midst of Capitalistic Society, a social island amidst an individual sea; because all its external dealings would have to be arranged on a basis of capitalistic exchange and would so far support the system of profits and unpaid labour.” (‘Answers to Previous Inquiries’, Commonweal, September 1885)

In a review of Annie Besant’s Modern Socialism (10 July 1886), Morris argued that “although these [Owenite] communities were experiments in association, from one point of view they were anti-Socialistic, as they withdrew themselves from general society — from political society — and let it take care of itself. They were rather modern and more extended forms of monasticism”. (Nicholas Salmon William Morris’ Journalism)

Towards the end of his life he was still describing Owen’s experiments as “of their nature non-progressive” because even “at their best they are but another form of the mediaeval monastery”. (Why I am a Communist, Liberty, February, 1894)

Morris was an opponent of the gradualist, reformist Fabian current that grew up during his socialist years — and opposed the broader state-socialist trends that affected even the revolutionary left.

In Fabian Essays in Socialism, Morris criticised the reformism of Webb, Bernard Shaw and their co-thinkers (Commonweal, 25 January 1890). He wrote: “The result is, that the clear exposition of the first principles of Socialism, and the criticism of the present false society… is set aside for the sake of pushing a theory of tactics, which could not be carried out in practice; and which, if it could be, would still leave us in a position from which we should have to begin our attack on capitalism over again; a position, it may be said, which might be better or might be worse for us than our present one, as far as the actual struggle for the new society is concerned.” (Nicholas Salmon, William Morris: Political Writings)

Nor was Morris ever an anarchist, despite his friendship with Peter Kropotkin and his joint work with some anarchists on Commonweal. In a debate on socialism and anarchism in the paper in 1889, he took issue with “our Anarchist-Communist friends, who are somewhat authoritative on the matter of authority, and not a little vague also. For if freedom from authority means the assertion of the advisability or possibility of an individual man doing what he pleases always and under all circumstances, this is an absolute negation of society, and makes Communism as the highest expression of society impossible; and when you begin to qualify this assertion of the right to do as you please by adding ‘as long as you don’t interfere with other people’s rights to do the same’, the exercise of some kind of authority becomes necessary. If individuals are not to coerce others, there must somewhere be an authority which is prepared to coerce them not to coerce; and that authority must clearly be collective.” (Salmon)

Morris also rejected the terrorism of some anarchists, who were inspired by the example of the Narodniks in Russia and American anarchism. In May 1892 he wrote in the Hammersmith Socialist Record: “It is difficult to express in words strong enough the perversity of the idea that it is possible for a minority to carry on a war of violence against an overwhelming majority without being utterly crushed.”

On 26 May 1895, Morris wrote a letter to Henry Joseph Wilson MP giving his support to the campaign to get the Walsall Anarchists released. In this he wrote: “I should mention, to show that I am not biased in this matter, that I am not an anarchist, but disagree both with the theory and tactics of Anarchists.” The appeal for clemency was unsuccessful.

Some Marxists have characterised Morris as a sentimental socialist. The designation seems to have originated with the German Marxist Karl Kautsky and was taken up by Engels.

Kautsky wrote an article in the Frankfurter Zeitung in early 1884 characterising Morris as, “in strong antithesis to Hyndman, a sentimental socialist”. Bax translated the comment and it was published in Justice on 1 March 1884, along with the comment, “that Mr Morris though a poet and an artist is no ‘sentimental Socialist’ but a robust disciple of Marx.”

Kautsky wrote to Engels on 12 March 1884: “Morris is supposed to be furious about my article in the Franfurter Zeitung because I stamped him as a sentimental socialist [Gefühlssozialist]. I must have misunderstood Miss [Eleanor] Marx whom I contacted about Morris. To my mind, she said to me that Morris had read Capital but whether he had understood it was a different question. Morris was more a sentimental socialist. As Morris denies that so strongly, I must have understood Miss Marx wrongly.” (Engels Briefwechsel mit Kautsky, 1935. Thanks to Bruce Robinson for the translation)

Engels replied on 24 March 1884, reassuring Kautsky that “the Morris affair is of no significance, they are a muddle-headed lot”. (Marx-Engels Collected Works)

Engels first described Morris as a “sentimental socialist” to Sorge in April 1886. He described Morris as a “sentimental dreamer” to Bebel in a letter in August 1886 and as a “settled sentimental socialist” to Laura Lafargue in September 1886. (MECW 47) However Engels’ main political criticism was aimed at Morris’ hostility to parliamentary action.

Engels took a more conciliatory tone two years later, sending Morris a copy of the first English edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England (February 1888). Engels noted that in the dispute over the founding of the Second International in 1889, “Morris has come out openly in support of our congress”. In March 1894 Engels recommended Morris and Bax’s Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (originally published as ‘Socialism from the Root Up’ in Commonweal) to August Momberger and two months later sent Sorge a copy.

Was there any substance in the view that Morris harked back to some previous golden age for his socialism? He never denied the influence of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin on the formation of his ideas, but he broke with their reactionary feudal socialism in 1883.

In an early lecture, Art and Labour (1 April 1884): “I must explain that I do not mean that we should turn back to the system of the middle ages, but that the workmen should own these things that is the means of labour collectively, and should regulate labour in their own interests.”

Morris was no “back to nature” rural socialist. He rejected the old Chartist back to the land scheme as “a kind of half co-operative half peasant-proprietorship land scheme, which of course proved utterly abortive”. (‘Socialism from the Root Up’, 28 August 1886)

Perhaps a better approach is to accept what Morris said about himself and look at what he wrote and did for the last thirteen years of his life. To do so is to conclude that Morris was a revolutionary socialist, and one who built on and developed Marxist politics.

In an article in Cassell’s Saturday Journal on 18 October 1890, Morris wrote: “It was Karl Marx, you know, who originated the present socialist movement; at least it is pretty certain that that movement would not have gathered the force it has done if there had been no Karl Marx to start it on scientific lines.” (Edward Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary)

In his debate with anarchists in Commonweal, (18 May 1889), he wrote: “I will begin by saying that I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it. The aim of Communism seems to me to be the complete equality of condition for all people; and anything in a Socialist direction which stops short of this is merely a compromise with the present condition of society, a halting-place on the road to the goal.” (Salmon)

His conception of socialism was working class self-rule — and he even hinted at soviet-type bodies. In a lecture on ‘What Socialists Want’ (6 November 1887) he wrote: “In the Society which we Socialists wish to see realised labour will be free: no man will have to find a master before he sets to work to produce wealth, a master who will not employ him unless he can take from him a portion of what he has produced: every man will be able to keep himself by his labour, and the combination of all these workers will supply those things which can only be used by the public, such as baths, libraries, schools, great public buildings, railways, roads, bridges, and the like. There will be no political parties squabbling incessantly as to who shall govern the country and doing nothing else; for the country will govern itself, and the village, municipal, and county councils will send delegates to meetings for dealing with matters common to all. The trades also will have councils which will organise each the labour which they understand and these again will meet when necessary to discuss matters common to all the trades: in short life and labour [will be organised] in the least wasteful manner, and the ordinary citizen will learn to understand at least some part of this organisation.”

Beyond a short-lived workers’ state, Morris also had his own conception of life under Communism. In ‘The Policy of the Socialist League’ (Commonweal, 9 June 1888), he wrote that: “The League holds that the necessary step to the realisation of this society is the abolition of monopoly in the means of production, which should be owned by no individual, but by the whole community, in order that the use of them may be free to all according to their capacity: this we believe would necessarily lead to the equality of condition above-mentioned, and the recognition of the maxim ‘from each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs’. (Salmon)

In his novel News from Nowhere (1890) Morris recorded his own, idiosyncratic vision of the future after the abolition of classes. Whatever the details of his description — and he can certainly be criticised for his representation of women, for example — there is little doubt that he envisaged a society of freedom and equality. Such a vision — a rational grounded utopia, apparently so distant for us — is precisely what is needed today.

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