William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary 2

detail_256_William_morris150(Part 1 here)

Into the nitty gritty of Morris’s role in Socialist/Anarchist/Marxist Politics! I make that sound exciting, but it’s really not, and this post is way too much of a summary because I am just starting to get my head around these early radical politics. For a while these were contained within many of the same groups, and at least remained talking to each other — I had always thought the definitive split came with the end of the International Workingmen’s Association, aka the First International. Of course, I had forgotten first that people don’t work like that and definitive splits are usually mostly theoretical, but also the later dates of the IWA. It started long after 1848 — in 1864 — and only fell apart in 1876. Morris and Marx (1818-1883) didn’t miss each other by much, and that thought makes me sad. Hyndman met with Marx, however, and attempted to claim his blessing for his leadership of the Democratic Federation (DF) founded in 1881.  Thompson describes a period of widespread agreement on what socialism was, based on Marxist principles. Here is a quote from a letter from Morris: ‘our aim, to be always steadily kept in view, is, to obtain for the whole people, duly organised, the possession and control of all the means of production and exchange, destroying at the same time all national rivalries’ (334). Of course, the principal leaders in London — Joynes, Bax, Aveling ( and Eleanor Marx, not included in this list to which she has more right than her husband I think), Hyndman, Shaw and Morris himself — were all middle class, and so the ‘masses’ who would carry out this appropriation meant different things and carried different levels of intelligence and agency for each. The DF would split in 1886, and it arose from both personal mistrust of Hyndman and his motives, but also around tactics of partial reform as opposed to total. Familiar, all too familiar.

After Marx’s death Engels busied himself with putting his papers in order, an old man himself by then, and Eleanor Marx’s biography shows most sympathetically what personal tragedies he was suffering through this time. But Thompson’s account  draws on many of his letters to better understand the complexities of the discussions and in-fighting, and Engels appears very much a cranky old man on the sidelines sniping at almost everyone. Not that he wasn’t right about their ultimate ineffectiveness.

I like Morris so much in this account though, perhaps to be expected. Possessed of an explosive temper he still worked as peacemaker, attempting to keep people working together towards a common goal despite personal and strategic differences. The DF became the the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and declared it’s goals:

‘The Socialization of the Means of Production, Distribution and Exchange to be controlled by a Democratic State in the interests of the entire community, and the complete Emancipation of Labour from the domination of Capitalism and Landlordism, with the establishment of Social and Economic Equality between the Sexes’ (345).

For its programme that of the Labour Emancipation League to draw them in:

  • Equal direct adult suffrage
  • ‘direct legislation by the people’
  • a National Citizen Army in place of the standing army, and the people to decide on peace or war
  • free secular education
  • free administration of justice

They didn’t take on the sixth, so I don’t what that was. Not too shabby, Hyndman was displaced as President, but with all the egos in the room this was not enough to hold things together. The SDF at this time was about 400 strong, almost entirely based in London: Battersea (with John Burns), Clerkenwell, Marylebone, Croydon, tottenahm, Hammersmith. The Labor Emancipation League under Joseph Lane centered in the East End. A group in Birmingham, another in Edinburgh, but slowly it grew until the split in 1885. Thompson describes how this should have been around issues of strategy, but instead was primarily personal, and left Hyndman in a position of strength as head of the SDF which retained most of its membership as Morris left to form the the Socialist League with Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Lessner, Bax, Mahon, Lane, Kitz and others.  The last two represented some of the strong anarchist streak in the League.

They were focused on open air propaganda, speaking on street corners, trying to convert the masses and fighting to protect the right to free speech, which the government had begun to repress. This was interesting:

And this is the reason why the Socialists, if they were to become a force, had no alternative but to defy the police and stay in the streets in the face of intimidation. The resulting struggles, which continued in London and the provinces until the end of the decade, were the most important form of advertisement for Socialism at this stage of the propaganda (393).

Morris continued this work — while still running his business and continuing work on a number of projects and editing the organisation’s newspaper Commonweal. To his old friend Georgie Burne-Jones, worried about his health, he wrote something I love:

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism, nay worse…is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it — on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now…(424)

So the League lumbers on. They write a preposterous letter to Northumberland miners on strike in 1886, telling them the strike will bring misery and be hopeless, they need to fight for revolution instead. Thompson writes ‘soon the League was back to its old exhortations — Utopian in form, but in actual effect and tone defeatist’ (437). More wrangling, discussions, infighting, decisions between parliamentary and revolutionary strategy, splits. A great quote from Engels: ‘No movement absorbs so much fruitless labour as one which has not yet emerged from the status of a sect’ (454, Engels to Sorge, 4 June 1887). True then, and I am so sad to say it feels true now. Morris’s own position, in contrast to that of Shaw and the Fabians, was that the League needed to remain outside of parliament, but supportive and working with those inside — ‘Increasingly between 1887 and 1890 he came to see the role of the League as being educational and propagandist within a larger Socialist movement’ (460). Yet really it was ever more isolated from the ‘masses’.

Then Bloody Sunday. Another Bloody Sunday — the first? There have been so many. 13 November 1887. The police bloodily cleared protests in Trafalgar Square using batons and horses. Morris writes of the need for organisation in the face of this kind of repression:

All that our people could do was to straggle into the Square as helpless units. I confess I was astounded at the rapidity of the thing and the ease with which military organization got its victory. I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in consent and each knowing his own part (490).

He also wrote poetry and songs, to inspire and to raise money for the survivors of the dead.

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With this started a period of increased rebellion. In News From Nowhere, Morris’s utopian vision of the future, the events in Trafalgar Square actually become a turning point in the march towards Socialism, even though they were crushed.  But 1889 and 1890 saw strikes by the Bryant and May match girls, tram workers, seamen, dockers. The Paris conference founding the Second International took place with Morris in attendence. H.G. Wells was running around London meetings, W.B. Yeats, Malatesta and Kropotkin. Thompson has no kindness at all for the anarchists, blaming Morris’s lack of leadership for allowing them to get the upper hand and destroy the league, ‘make it rotten’. Harsh words that seem highly debatable, but the League certainly fell apart. Morris wrote in his farewell article ‘Where are We Now’ published in Commonweal, 15 November 1990:

Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e. convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible. Have we that body of opinion or anything like it? Surely not…Though there are a great many who believe it possible to compel their masters…to behave better to them, and though they are prepared to compel them…all but a very small minority are not prepared to do without masters. They do not believe in their capacity to undertake the management of affairs, and to be responsible for their life in this world. When they are so prepared, then Socialism will be realized; but nothing can push it on a day in advance of that time (576).

I love this faith, and believe ultimately this is true. Like Thompson, and later Morris himself I am skeptical that this ‘making of Socialists’ can happen independently of struggle, outside of the worker’s movement (or other movements). But he then believed it was all or nothing, requiring a purity of revolutionary intent that did not work towards small victories like the eight-hour day (!). This argument continues its life in left discussions.

Morris would go on to retire, and in his retirement found the Hammersmith Socialist Society with those of the SDF who had left with him. He also began work on Kelmscott Press in earnest — and I have a special love for any press, but Kelmscott produced such beautiful things. There is very little here about the press itself, so disappointing and again a place where Thompson and I part ways — instead there is much more about Morris’s continuing work on translating Icelandic sagas in his free time (! I am certain that he had more hours in the day than I do).

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By 1894 Morris had moved away from the purism of his earlier stand:

Thus Socialists were set (Morris wrote) a twofold task. First, they must provide the theory of the struggle: if they failed in this, they were abandoning their duty of giving direction to the spontaneous movement of the workers. Second, they must participate alongside the workers in all forms of the labour struggle, including parliamentary and municipal elections:

“It is certainly our business, then, to make that struggle as strenuous as possible, while we at the same time hold up before the workers the ideal that lies ahead of the present days of conflict” (613)

He thus came around to the idea of creating a strong party, electing delegates to the House of Commons, but a parliamentary party subordinate to party as a whole. He continued active right up to the end, through illness and tiredness of age, and died in 1886. After coming so far with him you mourn, and I love this obituary by Blatchford in Clarion.

Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true.

The book doesn’t end there, but with his views on art and work, and his contribution to political though. His legacy. Thompson finds Morris important as a political theorist in two ways: ‘one of the earliest…most original and creative thinkers within the Marxist tradition in England’ and second, as ‘a pioneer of constructive thought as to the organisation of social life within Communist society’ (682). I love that he spent time imagining the future society as a refuge from his present. Yet still Morris writes:

for no man can really think himself out of his own days; his palace of days to come can only be constructed from the aspirations forced upon him by his present surroundings, and from the dreams of the life of the past, which themselves cannot fail to be more or less unsubstantial imaginings (685 – ‘Socialism: It’s Growth and Outcome’).

This, and: ‘The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author’ (693 – ‘Looking Backward’).

Also this, on how he disagreed with the Fabians and many another:

Morris, alas, would not have rested content with the “Welfare State”: when the “ideal” was set before him of the “capitalist public service…brought to perfection”. he merely remarked that he “would not walk across the street for the realization of such an “ideal” (727).

But I shall end with some of his quotes on what he loved, his art and his work:

neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art. (646 – ‘The Socialist Idea in Art’)

His precepts of art, summarised through quotation by Thompson:

  1. Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour
  2. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers
  3. the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’

William Morris writes:

Yet I have looked at this claim by the light of history and my own conscience, and it seems to me so looked at to be a most just claim, and that resistance to it means nothing short of a denial of the hope of civilization.

This then is the claim:

It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall he worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should he done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.

Turn that claim about as I may, think of it as long as I can, I cannot find that it is an exorbitant claim; yet again I say if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed

The whole of the text on ‘Art and Socialism’ is here, and reading it over I rather think it deserves its own post. So just one more quote from elsewhere:

The arts are man’s expression of the value of life, and also the production of them makes his life of value (656, letter to May Morris).

There is so much of value here, I have barely scraped the surface. So I will be coming back.

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