The 24th March, 1984 marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of one of England’s most important but misunderstood socialists, William Morris. Most appropriately, the Thatcher Tory government completely ignored the William Morris sesquicentenary. Instead, as befits and administration committed to high corporate profits and the constant immiseration of the British working class, the Thatcher regime commemorated Morris’s birthday by mounting the biggest paramilitary operation since the 1926 General strike against the militant. heart of the organised working class, the. National Union of Miners. One of Thatcher’s political forebears, Stanley Baldwin, a Tory with cultural pretensions and just a touch of humanity, celebrated the William Morris centenary exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1934. Baldwin, possibly with the Depression in mind, praised Morris as a designer, craftsman, artist and poet but not as a revolutionary writer.
Unfortunately, sections of the Left continue to adopt a Baldwinian approach to Morris, If his writings are studied, they are dismissed as the works of a dreamer, a gentle anarchist, a Fabian gradualist. Morris could never be what he strove to be – a communist writer. The great Irish Fabian, George Bernard Shaw took Morris at his word. Shaw remarked that Morris defined himself politicailly as a communist: “Communist was the only word he was comfortable with.”
Those who continue to dismiss the Morris self-definition readily concur with Engels estimation, “Morris is all right as far as he goes — which isn’t very far.” Others hold up a quote from Morris uttered when he was grappling with Das Kapital suffered agonies of the brain over the pure economic of that great work.” This last quotation reveals Morris’s honesty and seriousness as a revolutionary. After all, Marx himself admitted some might find his opus difficult in parts. Many of us can only nod our heads in agreement with Morris and Marx.
The Engels quote cannot be continually cited as proof that Morris was not a Marxist. Such a position is too narrow, too sectarian. In fact, if we examine Morris’s biography and surviving papers as Edward Thompson has done, it will be discovered that Morris studied Marxism at length and in great detail. Copious notes on Das Kapital were made by William Morris. This is the mark of a steadfast revolutionary, not an idle dreamer. His own writings reflect this commitment.
News from Nowhere written in 1890 often mistakenly seen as a call to the return to a mythic semi-feudal paradise, is, in fact, Morris’s vision of communist society. Morris in this work offers us no blue print. Nor does he burden the reader with statistical data about communism. Instead, he hints at the far higher technical level of production and comments on the blossoming of art, culture and, most crucially, human relations that this new communist society nurtures. Morris’s communist future is a place without poverty, without money, wars, armies or police; where people work because they want to and not just to survive. Morris’s communist civilisation is a future full of hope for humankind.
Other of Morris’s fictional works which display his understartding and solidarity with the struggles of the working people are The Pilgrims of Hope and A Dream of John Ball. The Pilgrims of Hopeis a hymn to the courage and daring of the proletarian army of the Paris Commune of 1871. Morris always supported the Communards even at times when it was least popular and dangerous to do so in imperial Britain. A keen understanding of the development of distinctive social epochs and the continuous link between popular struggles of the past and the present are illustrated in “A Dream of John Ball.”
Morris did not become an active. socialist until he was nearly fifty. If one reads Edward Thompson’s evocative biography of Morris what is demonstrated is Morris’s wish that he had come to socialism much earlier in his life. He was justly feted as a designer, artist and poet before and after joining the Social Democratic Federation in 1883. Indeed his work and fame in these cultural pursuits continued even after he became disillusioned with the Social Democratic Federation to form the Socialist League amongst others with Eleanor Marx.
On the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, William Morris should be remembered as the significant designer, craftsman, poet, and revolutionary writer, that he was. And as sure as night follows day, William Morris’s heart and soul would be found not in some rich Tory interior but amongst Arthur Scargill’s flying pickets as they valiantly fight to defend their jobs, living conditions and the future of their children.
With the early English Marxist, Belfort Bax Morris penned, “Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome” which roundly criticises the premises of utopian Socialism, and champions Marxism. The Bax Morris estimation of the Utopian’s efforts to establish small scale “communist” societies is damning: “Their conditions of life have no claim to the title of Communism, which most unluckily has been applied to them. Communism can never be realised till the present system of Society has been destroyed by the workers taking hold of the political power.”
A committed revolutionary approach is reflected in his fiction.