Socialist Classics: William Morris, ‘News from Nowhere’

In Issue 51 (March 2013) Henry Gibson examined a book that pictures a vision of socialist society and how to get there.

William Morris retains his fascination as one of the most remarkable and diversely talented people who have shaped, and been shaped by, the movement for socialism. The glimpse of a socialist society he gave us dates from 1890, but the century and more that have elapsed between him and ourselves has done little to diminish the inspiring power of that vision.

News from Nowhere sprang in large part from his dissatisfaction with the way socialism was commonly being envisaged at the time. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had been published in the US three years earlier and taken a grip on the public imagination. Its protagonist wakes up in the year 2000 in a world of planned equality where the irrationalities of capitalism are no more. Morris was all but horrified, however, at its depiction of a society that differed from contemporary capitalism primarily in being run more efficiently. Human beings in this utopia were cogs in a huge machine, albeit cogs with a fairer standard of living, with no say in running things until their retirement. What’s more, Bellamy presented this society as emerging peacefully as a natural development of capital­ism’s own tendencies. In 1889 Fabian Essays in Socialism appeared in Britain, outlining the Fabian Society’s conception of socialism as a reformed version of capitalism, to be gradually introduced by sympathetic liberal politicians. This prospect of a state administered by enlightened planners, with the idea of a liberated human existence conspicuous by its absence, severely rubbed Morris up the wrong way, and he said as much around the time he was beginning his book.

Alongside these, Morris faced tension among his own comrades. He was a prominent member of the Socialist League, an openly revolutionary organisation formed five years earlier. In the meantime it had rejected on principle standing in parliamentary elections—a position Morris wholeheartedly endorsed—and then gone on to embrace anarchism more and more openly—a position Morris didn’t share. News from Nowhere was serialised in The Commonweal, the League’s paper which Morris edited, but by the time its final chapter appeared, he had been replaced by an explicitly anarchist editor. The book’s opening sentence has its events following from a discussion “Up at the League” on a post-revolutionary society, and week by week it portrayed a socialism which went against the grain of the new orthodoxy prevailing in the League. Subtitling his story ‘An Epoch of Rest’, Morris was imagining a time beyond the storm and stress of party divisions, focussing on what should be the end goal of it all. Its protagonist feels that his experiences “should be told to our comrades” as well as the general public.

The introductory chapter is conventionally told, but the narrator then shifts to the first person “since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world does”. Morris hardly bothers to hide the fact that the protagonist is himself: his name is William, and he happens to be 56 years old, as Morris was in 1890. So this new world is not presented to us objectively to be accepted as a finished article, but revealed bit by bit through Morris’s eyes, with all his incomprehension, questions, and reservations.

There are certainly things to doubt and question in what Morris puts before us. The educational system of this society, for instance, is not to have one, to just leave children and adults to acquire whatever learning they may happen to pick up along the way. The rustic paradise of it all sometimes suggests a 1950s Hollywood movie where the happy folk of Ye Olde England merrily ply their trades in the forest as a lute sounds in the background. You could certainly imagine a baffled Danny Kaye making a fool of himself as Morris’s hero does when he tries to offer strange old things called money in return for goods received, or when he fails to understand that people in their forties now look younger than people in their twenties did when harassed by the worries of capitalist society. The Commonweal’s readership would certainly have appreciated the running anti-parliamentary gag about the Palace of Westminster having been converted into a place for storing dung.

Sometimes in News from Nowhere, though, the most radical changes have the most practical feel. With no private property to own or covet, crime has become largely a thing of the past, and civilised living is taken for granted, as Hammond—a character whose main function is to explain the new society—describes:

We have been living for a hundred and fifty years, at least, more or less in our present manner, and a tradition or habit of life has been growing on us; and that habit has become a habit of acting on the whole for the best. It is easy for us to live without robbing each other. It would be possible for us to contend with and rob each other, but it would be harder for us than refraining from strife and robbery.

This habit is occasionally broken, of course, either through a break­down in an individual’s mental health—“in which case he must be restrained until his illness or madness is cured”—or a freak rush of blood to the head. Either way, such instances are treated as “the errors of friends, not the habitual actions of persons driven into enmity against society”. The most notorious case mentioned in the book is someone who accidentally killed a man in a jealous fight over a woman they both loved. The fact that it is such a cause of comment underlines its rarity, and the remorse he has to live with is considered worse than any punishment would be.

So Morris doesn’t claim that the revolution will abolish un­requited love, but he does show it having established relationships between the sexes which are based on free will and equality. Partner­ships are formed, broken and reformed casually enough, as people desire themselves: “families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases”. There is no need for courts to sanction or dissolve such relations, and importantly, “there is no code of public opinion which takes the place of such courts, and which might be as tyrannical and unreasonable as they were”. People still hold opinions, right or wrong, on the affairs of others, but there is no unbending standard of moral rectitude imposed on them.

Unfortunately, News from Nowhere doesn’t anticipate an end to the sexual division of labour. Domestic work and child rearing still fall to the lot of women, albeit free from economic degradation. The visitor is asked: “don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a clever woman to manage a house skilfully, and to do it so that all the house-mates about her look pleased, and are grateful to her?” The idea that women be freed of the burden of parenting is described as a “strange piece of baseless folly”, and instead woman is “respected as a child-bearer and rearer of children”. It is good to hear that such important work is recognised as such, but there is nothing approaching an explanation of why it should still be woman’s work. Could men not be equally willing and able to run a house, equally willing and able to bring up children if not actually give birth to them? Could this society not be making provision for such work to be done more collectively, as and when women and men wanted that? While ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to the liberation of women, Morris failed to go all the way with it, and as a result this is one aspect of his book which has dated very badly.

On the other hand, the actual portrayal of female characters does go beyond this. They are not in fact contented housewives or mothers, but quite emancipated women, and they exercise an attraction for the central character which he isn’t shy about expressing. Morris must have thought likewise: living in a less than happy marriage himself, his longing for someone like Ellen, the free spirit in love with life and nature who appears in the latter half of the book, is evident.

Love of nature shines through the whole of News from Nowhere, “love of the very skin and surface of the earth… a nature bettered and not worsened by contact with mankind”. The visitor is constantly shocked to see that districts he knew as polluted slums are now clean and pleasant places for people to live. London has shrunk, and people now live in smaller communities. Following the revolution people flocked from the cities to populate the countryside, “so that the difference between town and country grew less and less” with the “world of the country vivified by the thought and briskness of town-bred folk”. This rational relationship of humanity to the rest of the natural world reverses the old way of seeing things, and again it is a woman who points it out:

Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature’, as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another. It was natural to people thinking in this way that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was some­thing outside them.

The key to the whole transformation is work, which is of course the key to human life at any time or place. As Hammond explains, socialism couldn’t exist without radically reshaping human labour:

What is the object of Revolution? Surely to make people happy. Revolution having brought its foredoomed change about, how can you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in except by making people happy?… And happiness without happy daily work is impossible.

Work has become pleasurable, something people enjoy doing and take pride in. Artistic creation has become the norm: “the production of what used to be called art… has become a necessary part of the labour of every man who produces”. There is no pretence that such a state of affairs came about overnight, but now it is established, there is no contradiction between the satisfaction of need and the need for satisfaction: “as we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them”, says Hammond, even sacrificing technical efficiency whenever it robs work of its joy. The basic principle, he explains, is “the freedom for every man to do what he can do best, joined to the knowledge of what productions of labour we really wanted”.

This is expanded upon in two passages that Morris added to News from Nowhere between its serialisation in The Commonweal and its publication as a book in 1891. One deals with the impression that work in this society is “a mere part of a summer holiday” by showing a gang repairing a road. While this is difficult and necessary work, they deprive fulfilment from it, with the physical exertion making a welcome change to the more sedentary occupations they would engage in at other times. A new chapter focusses on “The Obstinate Refusers”, a group of artists, led by a sculptress, who prefer to renovate an old house than to go haymaking with everyone else. There is something of a general bemusement at their desire to do their own thing, but nothing like hostility, suggesting that individual inspiration has a secure place in a society of mutual solidarity. The secret of it all, Morris’s character concludes, is that people “had at last learned to accept life itself as a pleasure, and the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, and the preparation for them, as work fit for the best of the race”.

The administration of this society is not a matter for a specialised class: “the whole people is our parliament” is how Hammond puts it. He explains that each local community has regular meetings where anyone can propose to do something new or different. If they get some support, the proposal is put off to the next meeting while people discuss arguments for and against. At that meeting a vote is taken.

If the division is a close one, the question is again put off for further discussion; if the division is a wide one, the minority are asked if they will yield to the more general opinion, which they often, nay, most commonly do. If they refuse, the question is debated a third time, when, if the minority has not perceptibly grown, they always give way; though I believe there is some half-forgotten rule by which they might still carry it on further; but I say, what always happens is that they are convinced, not perhaps that their view is the wrong one, but that they cannot persuade or force the community to adopt it.

If the vote is still close, the rule is that “the question must lapse, and the majority, if so narrow, has to submit to sitting down under the status quo”, although in practice, the minority usually yields by this point.

This amounts to democracy in practice. In individual affairs people can do as they wish, and in social affairs “the majority must have their way” at the end of the day. This ran directly counter to an individualist type of anarchism then becoming stronger in the Socialist League, which maintained that no one could ever submit to the will of another without being a slave. Morris’s character puts this point of view to Hammond, “that every man should be quite in­dependent of every other, and that thus the tyranny of society should be abolished”, but the very notion only causes them both to burst out laughing. Hammond states that the only alternative to consensus-based majority rule would be some kind of a privileged class making decisions and having them enforced, whereas no one “needs an elaborate system of government, with its army, navy and police, to force him to give way to the will of the majority of his equals”.

Morris challenges his anarchist colleagues in “How The Change Came”, a chapter twice as long as any other in the book. The over­throw of the old system is related here by Hammond, who is another alter ego of the author’s: “in truth his face… seemed strangely familiar to me; as if I had seen it before—in a looking-glass it might be”. The revolutionary narrative Morris puts in his mouth is no sudden thunderclap brought about by the bombs and bullets of underground agitators, but a process of political change working itself upwards in plain sight, emerging historically out of the ruins of the society it brought down, with the revolution located over sixty years after News from Nowhere appeared.

The idea of a society of freedom and equality had emerged in the nineteenth century, but the power of the ruling class was so great “that some of those more enlightened men who were then called Socialists… shrunk from what seemed to them the barren task of preaching the realisation of a happy dream… had no faith in it”. So they believed “in their impatience and despair” that the system could be modified by something “which was known at the time as State Socialism” so that the working class “might have their slavery some­what ameliorated”. Some improvements were brought about, but “that instinct which produced the passion for freedom and equality” persisted among the workers, and remained unsatisfied.

The trade union movement had often fallen victim to corrupt leaders, we are told, but did succeed in winning improvements from employers and the state, and expanding the organisation of the workers. An economic crisis led to it demanding workers’ control over the economy, which was met by military repression. The response was a general strike, the workers boycotting the capitalist class while busily arranging distribution of goods for themselves.

now that the times called for immediate action, came forward the men capable of setting it on foot; and a new network of work­men’s associations grew up very speedily, whose avowed single object was the tiding over of the ship of the community into a simple condition of Communism; and as they practically undertook also the management of the ordinary labour-war, they soon became the mouthpiece and intermediary of the whole of the working classes…

Arresting their leaders proved pointless, “For they depended not on a carefully arranged centre… but on a huge mass of people in thorough sympathy with the movement”. All the while, the ideas and activity of socialists had been making themselves felt throughout the working class. Although most of the rank and file soldiers came over to the workers’ side, unofficial capitalist militias fought on, and capitalism was only beaten after a couple of years of bitter civil war. The workers were victorious because “the very conflict itself… developed the necessary talent amongst them”, experience which proved invaluable in laying the foundations of the new society.

Morris wrote when the world had little experience of actual workers’ revolution, beyond the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the outline he sketches coincides to such an extent with revolutionary situations since. The general strike, the spread of grassroots workers’ councils, the dis­semination of socialist ideas among the working class, the army splitting along class lines, the tough challenges of definitive class struggle themselves equipping people to take over society: it comes close to a checklist of how revolutions happen, of what factors need to be present for them to win.

It wasn’t long after the final chapter appeared in The Commonweal that Morris left the Socialist League, having concluded that it had outlived its usefulness in spreading sane socialist politics. The main thing was to convince people on the ground that socialism was necessary and possible, he wrote in his parting shot: “When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice.” In News from Nowhere Hammond looks back to Morris’s time, which is still very much our own time too: “knowledge, discontent, treachery, dis­appointment, ruin, misery, despair—those who worked for the change because they could see further than other people went through all these phases of suffering”. William wakes up in the end, of course, but far from cursing it all as only an idle dream, he wants others to see it so that it can become a vision. He remembers Ellen’s last look and the message it conveyed:

Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.

Socialist Classics: William Morris, ‘Art and Socialism’

In December 2008 (Issue 34) Henry Gibson looked at a little-known work arguing that capitalism must be overthrown to build a creative society.

This pamphlet, published in 1884 and based on a lecture given that year, is rarely cited as required reading for revolutionaries. Indeed, its author frequently features in left-wing discourse more as a convenient proof that yes, socialists are very much in favour of culture and all that kind of stuff. Nodding in the direction of such an outstanding artist as William Morris is a lazy way of discharging our artistic obligations, if we feel we have any. Taking seriously what he actually had to say on the matter is rare enough.

Morris condemns the exclusion of the working class from the joys of art: “the greater part of the people have no share in Art—which as things now are must be kept in the hands of a few rich or well-to-do people”. There is nothing particularly unusual about this claim, and its result is usually no more than advocating increased public funding for galleries. But the argument moves on to a generalised critique of capitalism’s degradation of art:

All this I say is the result of the system that has trampled down Art, and exalted Commerce into a sacred religion… The poet, the artist, the man of science, is it not true that in their fresh and glorious days, when they are in the heyday of their faith and enthusiasm, they are thwarted at every turn by Commercial war, with its sneering question “Will it pay?”

The other side of this coin—and far more common in our own day—is the way capitalists sometimes patronise (in every sense of the word) the arts, with sponsorship of an exhibition or an award providing a quite cost-effective way of forging (again, in every sense of the word) a cuddly corporate image. In either case, the result is the same: free artistic enquiry and expression gets subordinated to the priorities of capital.

But what takes Morris beyond this partial criticism is an under­standing that art is not just poems, painting and pottery. Art is by right a natural element of human life and labour, and the fact that this natural element is suppressed by capitalism is the heart of the problem:

the cause of this famine of Art is that whilst people work throughout the civilized world as laboriously as ever they did, they have lost—in losing an Art which was done by and for the people—the natural solace of that labour; a solace which they once had, and always should have, the opportunity of express­ing their own thoughts to their fellows by means of that very labour… the world’s work, almost all of it—the work some share of which should have been the helpful companion of every man —has become even such a burden, which every man, if he could, would shake off.

A frightening amount of the work performed under capitalism is entirely pointless, producing “embarrassing or superfluous” luxury commodities. This branch of production has ballooned out of all proportion since Morris spoke, giving his comments a remarkably contemporary feel. The mechanisms needed to sell all this have expanded too: “the very capitalists know well that there is no genuine healthy demand for them, and they are compelled to foist them off on the public by stirring up a strange feverish desire for petty excitement, the outward token of which is known by the conventional name of fashion”.

Useless work cannot be other than frustrating and alienating work, a torture to mind and body. Morris’s simple claim is that “It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.” Reasonable and all as this claim is, “if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed… it is a direct challenge to the death to the present system of labour”.

The fascinating aspect of the argument here is the way Morris reverses the usual order of things. In his day and our own, socialists advocated and advocate an end to the capitalist system, after which a life of fulfilling labour would be introduced. But Morris raises the demand for fulfilling labour as an argument against capitalism in the here and now, rather than as a distant post-revolutionary prospect. It is not just an anticipated result of capitalism’s overthrow, but a battering ram to be used in its overthrow. Employing “the true doctrine that labour should be a real tangible blessing in itself” as a weapon against capitalism was something Marx had done years before, but that had been lost even to his followers.

The post-capitalist future Morris envisages also goes against the grain of much socialist thinking. “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making”, he says in restating his claim, “or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.” This is a socialism not oriented to production but to the liberation of labour. How many tons of pig iron are produced in the workers’ republic is not as important as how and why it is produced. If something cannot be produced in a manner worthy of true human dignity, it is better left unproduced.

Worthwhile work means nothing without worthwhile leisure. Morris argues

first that all men must work for some portion of the day, and secondly that they have a positive right to claim a respite from that work: the leisure they have a right to claim must be ample enough to allow them full rest of mind and body: a man must have time for serious individual thought, for imagination—for dreaming even—or the race of men will inevitably worsen. Even of the honourable and fitting work of which I have been speaking, which is a whole heaven asunder from the forced work of the Capitalist system, a man must not be asked to give more than his fair share…

For Morris, the defining characteristic of socialism is not any specific political or economic set-up, but the development of a rounded way of life, work and pleasure for all.

The pamphlet openly advocates revolution to achieve such a society, and masterfully answers the objection that revolution may be all very well in tyrannical dictatorships, but not where constitut­ional rights have been won:

To say the governing classes in England are not afraid of free­dom of speech, therefore let us abstain from speaking freely, is a strange paradox to me. Let us on the contrary press in through the breach which valiant men have made for us: if we hang back we make their labours, their sufferings, their deaths of no account.

Morris’s audience is not a working-class one: he addresses himself explicitly to “we of the middle classes, we the capitalists and their hangers-on”. This leads to an embarrassingly patronising moment where he advocates shared meals between masters and servants: “what an education it would be for the less refined members of a household to meet on common easy terms the more refined once a day, at least”.

But there is no political concession to the middle classes: what he recommends to sincere people of his own background is “renounc­ing our class… throw in your lot with that of the wage-slave… hope for the day when you will be compelled to be free!” The fighting movements of the working class are where the hope lies: “Chartism and Trades Unionism and Socialism… germs of the change which must be”. It is a change which necessitates the complete overthrow of capitalism, to create a free and artistic society from the word go: “the beginnings of Social Revolution must be the foundations of the re-building of the Art of the People, that is to say of the Pleasure of Life”.

Revolutionary Lives: William Morris

This remarkable English socialist was discussed by Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh in Issue 8 (November 2000).

For almost fifty years, the life of William Morris was not a revolutionary one, but when his conversion to socialism came, it made sense in the light of what went before. Born outside London in 1834 to a well-off family, his poetry and designs made him one of the most respected artists of mid-Victorian Britain. But his work was always motivated by a hatred for the way industrialism had debased craftsmanship, and he wasn’t long in con­cluding “that art cannot have a real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering”.

His first foray into politics came in 1876 when he got involved in a campaign to prevent the British government intervening in an imperialist war between Russia and Turkey. His involvement not only confirmed his loathing for imperialism, but revealed to him the intrigue and treachery of parliamentary politics. His political and artistic concerns then met as he fought a campaign to prevent ancient buildings being ‘restored’ out of existence.

His unease led him to question the fate of his own work. For all his railing against the evils of the upper classes, it was from those same classes that his enthusiastic customers came. “I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”, he complained. He felt a deep desire to fight against the world he had grown to hate: “To do nothing but grumble and not to act—that is throwing away one’s life”. But in the absence of an alternative, he seemed doomed to vainly tilting against the windmills of nineteenth-century capitalism.

“So there I was in for a fine pessimistic end of life,” he later reflected, “if it had not somehow dawned on me that amidst all this filth of civiliza­tion the seeds of a great change, what we others call Social-Revolution, were beginning to germinate. The whole face of things was changed to me by that discovery…” For the first time in a generation and more, efforts were underway to get a socialist movement going in Britain. In 1883 Morris took sides, and joined:

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: one camp or another you have got to join: you must either be a reactionary and be crushed by the progress of the race, and help it that way: or you must join in the march of progress, trample down all opposition, and help it that way.

Revolution and class war

Morris’s socialism was never anything other than revolutionary. It had to be, because socialism could only come about through revolution:

The word Revolution, which we Socialists are so often forced to use, has a terrible sound in most people’s ears, even when we have ex­plained to them that it does not necessarily mean a change accom­pa­nied by riot and all kinds of violence, and cannot mean a change made mechanically and in the teeth of opinion by a group of men who have somehow managed to seize on the executive power for the moment.… people are scared at the idea of such a vast change, and beg that you will speak of reform and not revolution. As, however, we Socialists do not at all mean by our word revolution what these worthy people mean by their word reform, I can’t help thinking that it would be a mistake to use it… So we will stick to our word, which means a change of the basis of society…

Morris was therefore unapologetic about waging a class struggle:

It is most important that young Socialists should have this fact of the class-war always before them. It explains past history, and in the present gives us the only solid hope for the future. And it must be understood that it is only by the due working out of this class-war to its end, the abolition of classes, that Socialism can come about… The middle-class semi-Socialists, driven by class instinct, preach revolution without the class struggle; which is an absurdity and an impossibility.

While “here and there a few men of the upper and middle classes, moved by their conscience and insight, may and doubtless will throw in their lot with the working classes”, it was the working class itself that would de­stroy capitalism: “there is no other force which can do so”. The workers wouldn’t improve their condition through reformist schemes—such as profit sharing, which was only “feeding the dog with his own tail”—but “by the efforts of the workers themselves. ‘By us, and not for us’, must be their motto.”

The chief accusation

Morris said that “the chief accusation I have to bring against the modern state of society is that it is founded on the art-lacking or unhappy labour of the greater part of men”. Everyone, he claimed, should have work to do that is useful, pleasant and not exhausting. And yet, “Simple as that proposition is, and obviously right as I am sure it must seem to you, you will find, when you come to consider the matter, that it is a direct chal­lenge to the death to the present system of labour”. Socialism was all about liberating human labour, creating a world where people could work in a fulfilling way.

When a socialist revolution has swept away capitalism, he said, “the first use we ought to make of that wealth, of that freedom, should be to make all our labour, even the commonest and most necessary, pleasant to everybody”. Everyone should do a variety of work: “To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment.” The citizens of a socialist society should be prepared to sacrifice industrial efficiency and luxury if it could only be obtained by back-breaking, soul-destroying labour: otherwise “our new-won freedom of condition would leave us listless and wretched, if not anxious, as we are now”.

Socialism would halt and reverse the mad urbanisation brought by capitalism:

For all our crowded towns and bewildering factories are simply the out­come of the profit system.… There is no other necessity for all this, save the necessity for grinding profits out of men’s lives, and of pro­ducing cheap goods for the use (and subjection) of the slaves who grind.… People engaged in all such labour need by no means be com­pelled to pig together in close city quarters. There is no reason why they should not follow their occupations in quiet country homes, in indus­trial colleges, in small towns, or, in short, where they find it happiest for them to live.

In his visionary novel News from Nowhere Morris depicts a socialist society where co-operation and solidarity are taken for granted, where people enjoy their relationships with each other and with nature, the old hatreds and habits of class society no more than a distant bad memory. But his intention was never to prescribe plans for socialism, only to envisage the possibilities of human freedom:

Do you think by chance that I mean a row of yellow-brick, blue-slated houses, or a phalangstère like an improved Peabody lodging-house; and the dinner-bell ringing one into a row of white basins of broth with a piece of bread cut nice and square by each, with boiler-made tea and ill boiled rice-pudding to follow? No; that’s the philanthropist’s ideal, not mine… No, I say; find out what you yourselves find pleasant, and do it. You won’t be alone in your desires; you will get plenty to help you in carrying them out, and you will develop social life in developing your own special tendencies.

“Variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of con­dition”, he said: “nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom”.

A religion of socialism?

Morris always had a passion about his socialism, a driving commitment to the cause, that he tried to awaken in others too. His conversion was a heartfelt one, and he was soon writing that “the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion”. Part of this was the healthy zeal of a convert, but another part was a dose of the purism and sectarianism that bedevilled British socialism then, and has done ever since.

He repeated again and again that the first duty was to make socialists, to spread the principles of socialism and convince as many as possible of their truth. There was nothing wrong with this; on the contrary, this is absolutely necessary if a socialist movement is to be more than a collection of transient activists without political understanding. But to Morris, this process became one of virtually building up an elect, ready to leap into the breach when the great day dawned. The Socialist League, he wrote in its founding manifesto, “will do all in its power towards the education of the people in the principles of this great cause, and will strive to organise those who will accept this education, so that when the crisis comes, which the march of events is preparing, there may be a body of men ready to step into their due places and deal with and direct the irresistable movement”.

The truth that socialists aren’t entitled to lead the workers’ movement, but have to win such respect through long and hard involvement in the everyday struggles of the working class, escaped Morris. He welcomed strikes as an expression of revolt against the system, but saw them as something of a diversion from the work of socialist propaganda. “We must be no mere debating club, or philosophical society;” he wrote, “we must take part in all really popular movements”—but this participation was more in the way of finding new people to preach to, rather than taking part in the movements as such. After a visit to Dublin he delivered himself of the following sermon: “To the Irish as to all other nations, whatever their name and race, we Socialists say, Your revolutionary struggles will be abortive or lead to mere disappointment unless you accept as your watch­word, WAGE-WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!” All well and good, but it provided little guidance beyond the slogan itself.

The rising movement of the British working class in the 1880s led to a move to break from dependence on the capitalist parties, and establish an independent party to express workers’ interests in parliament. Morris stood aloof from the whole thing. “DO NOT VOTE AT ALL!” advised an elec­tion leaflet of his: “When those who govern you see the number of votes cast at each election growing less and less… terror will fill their souls”, and eventually the workers would “step in and claim your place, and become the new-born Society of the world”. While other socialists tried to use the election to present socialist arguments to a wider audience of work­ers, Morris recoiled in horror from sullying his hands with parliament.

“I do not mean that at some time or other it might not be necessary for Socialists to go into Parliament”, he grudgingly admitted, but this would only come “on the verge of a revolution”, with the intention of breaking parliament up. For the present, the idea was unthinkable: “I really feel sickened at the idea of all the intrigue and degradation of concession which would be necessary to us as a parliamentary party, nor do I see any neces­sity for a revolutionary party doing any ‘dirty work’ at all, or soiling our­selves with anything that would unfit us for being due citizens of the new order of things.” So the prospect of utilising parliament as a platform for socialist ideas, instead of backstairs compromise, was abandoned; and the idea of keeping socialist MPs under strict discipline, and subordinate to struggles in the real world outside parliament, never occurred to Morris. Indeed, his thoughts went the other way: “I think it will be necessary always to keep alive a body of Socialists of principle who will refuse responsibility for the action of the parliamentary portion of the party”.

Standing apart from the working class as it was on the move, making abstract observations, left Morris and the Socialist League on the sidelines, as he was forced to admit himself: “Socialism is spreading, I suppose on the only lines on which it could spread, and the League is moribund simply because we are outside those lines, as I for one must always be… you cannot keep a body together without giving it something to do in the present”. But his only solution was “to put forward the simple principles of Socialism regardless of the policy of the passing hour.… make Socialists. We Socialists can do nothing else that is useful”. When enough people were converted to socialism, “they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice”.

Intelligence, courage and power

The Socialist League fell apart under the pressure. Not least among the reasons was that, while Morris found himself on the same side as the anar­chist members when it came to parliament, he could not bring himself to agree with their fundamental political position. He had no time at all for the methods advocated by some of them:

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. There is no royal road to revolution or the change in the basis of society. To make the workers conscious of the disabilities which beset them; to make them conscious of the dormant power in them for the removal of these disabilities, to give them hope and an aim and organization to carry out their aspirations. Here is work enough for the most energetic; it is the work of patience, but nothing can take the place of it.

In his final years Morris moved away very clearly from the sectarian attitudes he previously held. On the question of fighting for reforms, he recognised that many of them were undoubtedly beneficial to workers—but their ultimate benefit depended “on how such reforms were done; in what spirit; or rather what else was being done, while these were going on”. These reforms did attack the rights and privileges of the capitalist class, and if they gave the working class “intelligence enough to conceive of a life of equality and co-operation; courage enough to accept it and to bring the necessary skill to bear on working it; and power enough to force its acceptance on the stupid and the interested”, then they could help the class struggle. By increasing the capacities and confidence of the workers, they could be of service to the fight for socialism. There still remained, of course, “a danger that they will be looked upon as ends in themselves”, as those sponsoring them hoped; but socialists had to see to it that they became a beginning rather than an end.

Realising the socialist commonwealth

Morris’s death in 1896 dealt the British socialist movement a deeply-felt blow. The cause of death given by his doctor wasn’t far off the mark: “he died a victim of his enthusiasm for spreading the principles of Socialism”. A couple of years earlier he had been asked to define his socialism:

Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.
Now this view of Socialism which I hold to-day, and hope to die holding, is what I began with…

So many have attempted to pervert socialism into a grubby scramble for scraps from the capitalist table. Morris reasserts for us the truth that soc­ial­ism comes through class war and revolution or not at all. So many still conceive of socialism as just a matter of redistributing wealth, or redefining property rights. Morris corrects them for us: socialism is about creating a new world where human beings live and work together in freedom and solidarity, realising their own and each other’s potential. His never-failing emphasis on how the capitalist labour process distorts us, and how social­ism would mean working in a truly human way, is something today’s soc­ialists need to rediscover. Even Morris’s mistakes can teach us, in so far as he overcame them. The difficulty of fighting for revolution without iso­lating ourselves, of fighting everyday battles without losing sight of the goal, is one that socialists will always face; and Morris’s attempts to grapple with it in the past can help us grapple with it in the future. William Morris is not some historical curiosity, a name to be added to the socialist pantheon: he is a socialist we should be learning from.