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The Revolutionary Socialism of William Morris

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Revolutionary Socialism

Throughout the socialist decade 1883–1894 Morris spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy endeavouring to further the cause of revolutionary socialism. Indeed, he practised the socialist imperatives that he had inscribed on the membership card of the Democratic federation: educate, agitate, organize. He thus wrote numerous letters, tracts and articles relating to socialism which were published in “Justice” or in “Commonweal”. And he travelled throughout Britain addressing open-air meetings and giving lectures on a wide variety of topics relating to art and socialism, as well as being involved in popular demonstrations against the iniquities of capitalism. His collected essays are a unique contribution to socialist theory, as well as to radical ecology. Although Engel may have dismissed Morris as a “sentimental” or “emotional socialist”, Morris was, as John /Quail affirmed “a powerful and original thinker” (1978:28). Here, in this final part, I want to simply outline some of the essential themes which emerge from Morris’ political writings.

On the Rise of Capitalism

Morris, following Marx and Engels, was very much a historical materialist, and viewed European history over the past millennium as essentially a history of class struggle. Although, as he put it, he always felt a “strange emotion” when he recalled the medieval period (1973:161), Morris viewed medieval society as a rigidly ordered class system based on hierarchical principles that were sanctified by religion. It was a society in which feudal lords enacted “the robbery of the workers” — the agricultural serfs — openly through taxation and coercive power. Capitalism, or what Morris described as the “great commercial epoch” began essentially around the 17th and 18th century with the destruction of aristocratic privileges and the rise of the capitalist farmer/landowner. This essentially entailed a “portentous” change in agriculture, as it became focussed on the generation of profit not on livelihood.10 This led to the growth of towns, as the landless peasants drifted into urban areas. These peasants eventually developed into a definite proletarian class, with the emergence of industrial production — manufacture — under the control of an embryonic bourgeoisie.

The French revolution though fought under the banners of liberty, fraternity and equality, was, according to Morris, essentially a class struggle that freed the commercial class from the fetters of “feudalism”, and put an end to aristocratic privilege.11 But the bourgeois leaders of the French Revolution always defended the rights of “property”, and the revolution ended with the dictatorship of Napoleon. In Britain, by contrast, Morris suggests, there was a “covert alliance” between the landed aristocracy and the rising “middle class” — the industrial capitalist (1973 : 164).

The development of industrial capitalism not only led to a protracted war between France and Britain with regard to the possession of colonial markets, but to the complete destruction of the “individuality” of the working man. The industrial worker became a mere appendage of the machine, and enslaved to the profit-seeking industrial capitalist. Morris argued that at no point in English history “was the condition of the workers worse than in the early years of the nineteenth century” (1973 : 170).

Such conditions gave rise to what Morris described as two “currents of hope”; the paternalistic socialism of Robert Owen and the Chartist movement of the 1840’s. Morris emphasized that Chartism was a thoroughly working class movement and a genuinely popular revolt; but that it was limited in that it focussed purely on political demands. Such demands constantly led to “palliative” measures and reforms being accepted by the British government; the Factory Acts, the repeal of the laws against the formation of trade unions and the right to strike. But the Chartists did not understand, Morris wrote;

“that true political freedom is impossible to people who are economically enslaved” (1973 : 172).

Morris suggested, however, that the “flame of discontent” eventually lost its fervour, and until the formation of the Social Democratic Federation in the 1880’s there was little sign of any “revolutionary feeling” in England. On the continent it was different. France, under the influence of such socialists as Fourier and Proudhon, retained a tradition of revolutionary socialism, and the Paris Commune of 1871 was an attempt to establish a society “on the basis of freedom of labour” (1973 : 174). In Germany Lassalle had formed the German Workers’ Party in 1863, and it was the German economist Karl Marx, Morris suggested, who made “modern socialism what it is” — the “new school” — of historical materialism (1973 : 175).

Capitalism, for Morris, was a class society, consisting of a propertied class, the “modern slave owners” as Morris described them, who, controlling the means of production, exploit the labour of working men (as well as women and children). The only alternative to capitalism, Morris argued, was the creation of pure communism which Morris defined as the “absolute equality of condition” (1973 : 177). He is thus extremely critical of those — his contemporaries — who preached the importance of “thrift” and “industry” or advocated the “shame co-operation” between the two classes. But Morris clearly felt, like Kropotkin and other socialists, that with the rise of socialism, the capitalist system was in a state of “decay” and that it now seemed — and Morris was writing in 1885 — as if capitalism was “sickening towards its end” (1973 : 179).

Alas, capitalism as an economic system has proved to be extremely resilient, and more than a hundred years later, it continues to develop and expand, penetrating through so-called “privatization” into every aspect of social life and culture.

Art and Labour Under Capitalism

“History so-called has remembered kings and warriors, because they destroyed; Art has remembered people, because they created” (1947 : 42)

Although Morris by no means romanticized the medieval period, recognizing that the history of the period reflected the “evil deeds of kings and scoundrels” and the exploitation of the agricultural serfs; he always emphasized the art of the period essentially reflected the cooperation of many craftsmen, and was a form of popular art. Medieval art was thus the art of the people.

Morris had a clear distinction between wealth and riches: wealth is “what nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out of the gifts of nature for his reasonable use” (1947 : 179). Wealth signifies the means of living a decent life; it consists both of material things such as food, raiment and shelter, and of “mental wealth” specifically art and knowledge (1947 : 126), as well as human fellowship. But it also consisted of the sunlight, the fresh air, and the unspoilt aspects of the natural world — all things, in fact, that give pleasure to humans and are conducive to human well-being (1947 : 179). Riches on the other hand, for Morris meant the exercising of dominion over other people — and was thus to be deprecated.

To obtain wealth, or what he also described as people’s livelihood, humans had to labour; for Morris, as for Marx, labour was thus a key concept. In his well-known pamphlet “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil” (1885) Morris stressed thatlabour was a necessary activity for humans and that they must “either labour or perish”, for nature “does not give us our livelihood gratis”(1947 : 175). He was critical of those who made a cult of work, who insisted that all labour was good in itself, a convenient belief, he wrote, “for those who live on the labour of others” (1947 : 175).

Acknowledging that humans, like all living things, find pleasure in the exercise of their energies, work, as an essential human activity involved, according to Morris, three distinct forms of pleasure: “ the hope of pleasure in rest; the hope of the pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill” (1947 : 177).

Under capitalism, however, it was not wealth that had been created, but riches, which for Morris, had the inevitable accompaniment of poverty and wage slavery. For while the landed aristocracy did little work, living mainly off their rents, the middle classes, particularly the industrial capitalists, essentially derived their riches from exploiting working people through a system of wage slavery. Forced to work for the capitalist or “manufacturer”, as they had no other source of livelihood, the “surplus labour” of the worker was extracted by the capitalist as profit — Morris, in his political essays, largely following Marx’s critique of the capitalist political economy.. The worker thus became an appendage of the machine, and work under capitalism became useless toil, lacking any artistic creativity or pleasure. The worker had little or no control over the labour process, which usually involved long hours of labour in unhealthy conditions, or of the product of his or her labour.

As the Marxist historian Al Morton indicated, Morris’ emphasis on the exploitation of the worker through the extraction of “surplus value” and the inhumanity of the labour process under capitalism, was pretty well “identical” — although thesewritings were unknown to Morris and not in fact translated and published until 1959. (1973 : 14, see Fromm 1961).

Art for Morris was motivated by the imagination and a sense of beauty, and was essentially defined as “the expression by man of his pleasure in labour” (1947 : 50.) In the past, both in tribal society and in medieval Europe, art was essentially made by people for people and was conducive to the happiness or pleasure of both the artist (or craftsman) and of the user of the product — whether this was a building or a household utensil, or the everyday surroundings in which people lived and worked. Art, Morris stressed, was an expression of the society in which people lived; its aim was to increase the happiness of human life, to give people a sense of beauty and an interest, thus giving them pleasure in both their work and leisure (1947 : 84–85).

But again, with the advance of western conquest (colonialism) and commerce, genuine art under capitalism had been largely destroyed or devalued. Morris acknowledged that there had been something of a revival of the fine arts in the nineteenth century, and an increasing interest in art education; but there had also been a devaluation of handicrafts, and of art generally; and art had become “art for arts sake” cultivated and possessed by a few rich men. While such men pretend to value art, their own commercial activities had led to the pollution and despoliation of the landscape, as well as to the destruction of beautiful and ancient buildings in the pursuit of profit (1947 : 71–73). Art, under capitalism had produced, Morris argued, simply luxury goods for the indulgent rich and cheap and shoddy goods for the poor., who live ands work under the most appalling conditions — utterly devoid of any aesthetic sensibility. Real art, Morris concluded, the expression of human pleasure in the labour of production, made by people for people, had been virtually destroyed under capitalism.

Socialism and the State

It is evident that Morris, like Kropotkin, often used the terms “socialism” and “communism” as virtual synonyms. He did, however, make a clear distinction between what he described as moderate or “state socialism” and revolutionary socialism or communism. The state socialists, exemplified by both the Marxists within the Social Democratic Federation (Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx and Ernest Belfort Bax) and the more reformist Fabian Socialists (Bernard Shaw and Annie Bessant)12 believed , Morris wrote, in sending socialists to parliament

“who should try to get measures passed in the interests of the working class, and gradually transform the present parliament, which is a mere instrument in the hands of the monopolizers of the means of production, into a body which should destroy monopoly, and then direct and administer the freed labour of the community” (1996 : 438).

Such state socialists:

“accept as a necessity a central all-powerful authoritative government, a reformed edition, one might say, of the state government at present existing” (1996 : 437).

Like both Marx and Kropotkin, Morris argued that parliament (or representative government) largely functioned to maintain the hegemony of the capitalist system. Its essential purpose was to maintain the stability of “robber society”, upholding its system of wage slavery (1996 : 439). Parliament, he felt, was a “contemptible thing” that falsely pretended to be “representative” of the whole society, when in reality it served only the interests of the capitalist class. What is the aim of parliament? He wrote:

“the upholding of privilege: the society of rich and poor; the society of inequality; and the consequent misery of the workers” (1994 : 481).

Morris therefore advocated, as a political strategy, a “policy of abstention” from “parliamentary action”. Like the anarchist-communists he was radically opposed to political action, that is, becoming involved in parliamentary or electoral politics. As he put it in the organ of the Socialist League, the “Commonweal” (1890):

“our policy is …abstention from all attempts at using the constitutional machinery of government” (1994 : 480).

It is clear that Morris associated parliaments with intrigue and corruption, and that involvement with parliamentary elections was simply reformist, leading only to “palliative” measures that would tend to support and bolster rather than undermine capitalism — the system of wage-slavery.

What socialists should be engaged in, Morris argued, was propaganda, and as a preliminary step should be involved in the “making of socialists! By preaching the principles of socialism (1996 : 441). What such propaganda should entail was to make all workers freely conscious of the nature of the capitalist system, namely, that it was a form of exploitation based on wage-slavery, and that there was an irreconcilable opposition between the interests of labour and that of the capitalist. Although Morris advocated holding aloof from parliamentary action and being engaged solely in socialist propaganda, he nevertheless envisaged that when workers had achieved “full consciousness” of their oppression, then their political action would involve a perpetual “struggle of labour against capitalism”. By organizing boycotts, strikes, and through trade unions becoming masters of their own destinies, administering their own affairs and their own business, the workers would come to form one “vast labour organization” that would change the basis of society. As Morris wrote:

“The workers can form an organization which without heeding parliament can force from the rulers what concessions may be necessary in the present, and whose aim would be the total abolition of the monopolist classes and rule” (1996 : 452).

The workers themselves through their own organization, independent of parliament, would put an end to capitalism — class rule. This is very reminiscent of both council communism and the anarchist-communist strategy, anarcho-syndicalism.13

But Morris perceived that this would inevitably lead to a reaction by the capitalist class and to a political “crisis”; then, he argued, socialists would be “obliged to usethe form of parliament in order to cripple the resistance” of the revolutionary capitalists. He saw this as the “last act” when “socialists are strong enough to capture the parliament in order to put an end to it” (1994 : 482).

Whereas Marx and Engels in the “Communist Manifesto”(1968 : 52–53) and elsewhere, advocated utilizing a highly centralized state in order to eradicate capitalism, which would then, in the process, simply “wither away”. Morris tends to put an emphasis on the workers’ struggle against capitalism, the state being utilized only as a last resort to counter the reactionary politics of the capitalist class — the “last act” of the state. Either way, the use of “state power” is thought necessary to engender a socialist revolution. Thus although Morris may be conceived as a libertarian Marxist he was not exactly an anarchist.14

In his pamphlet “True and False Society” (1888) Morris made a distinction between socialism and communism in relation to the future society. The former concept implied, he wrote, that a centralized state would possess all the means of production and be the “sole employer” of labour, while communism suggested a “federation of communities” in which all wealth would be held in Common. But Morris argued that these were not opposed categories, for socialism implied a “transition period” and that communism was simply a “necessary development of the former” (1947 : 315).

In a lecture five years later on “Communism” he reiterated the same view: communism would be “the completion of socialism” (1973 : 233). This, of course, simply expresses the typical Marxist conception of the role of the state in the revolutionary transformation of capitalism.

Communism: The Society of the Future

"The term revolution” as Morris admitted, had many negative connotations, implying riots and all kinds of violence. For Morris, however, it simply meant “a change in the basis of society”, namely the eradication of the capitalist mode of production, and thus an end to a society based on class divisions. He employed the term “revolution” specifically in contrast to that of “reform” which simply implied palliative reforms to the capitalist system, as advocated, for example, by the Fabian society and the Independent Labour Party.

A socialist visionary rather than a utopian socialist, Morris outlined his own vision of a future communist society in many essays/lectures as well as in his utopian novel “News From Nowhere” (1891). Especially important are his lectures “How we live and how we might live” (1884) and “The Society of the Future” (1887).

The communist society of the future, as Morris envisaged it, would entail the abolition of private property and the transformation of the means of production from individual into common property. It would be a society which does not “know the meaning of the words rich and poor, or the rights of property, or law and legality, or nationality; a society which has no consciousness of being governed” (1973 : 201).

It would be a society where land and means of production would be communally owned — although there would be no sense of exclusive “ownership” as such; where politics would involve a federation of independent communes; and where production would be organized through free associations and co-operatives — people working according to their capacity and receiving from the collectivity what they needed (1973 : 147). It would be a society based on co-operation and mutual aid — not on competition. For Morris was convinced that under capitalism competition (and war) was an inherent motivating factor — competition between rival capitalists, national rivalry with regard to overseas markets and the exploitation of colonial peoples; as well as involving the class struggle between owners of capital and the working class, (1973 : 137–44).

In contrast, production in a communist society would be communal, directed towards enhancing people’s livelihood and well-being, rather than for profit. When Morris suggested that asa socialist he had a “hatred of civilization” (1973 : 192), by the term “civilization” he clearly meant the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century.

The aim of social life, according to Morris, was human happiness. This could only be achieved if humans had a “free and full life”; freedom both to express themselves as creative individuals and to enjoy life. I demand, he wrote: “a free and unfettered animal life”, the liberty to be amorous, merry, hungry or sleepy — and to enjoy the simple pleasures of earthly existence (1973: 192). Morris was no ascetic. The aim of existence, he felt, was to enjoy life to the full, and for a decent life he wrote, besides human fellowship, a person needed a healthy body, an active mind in sympathy with the past, present and future, a worthwhile occupation, and a “beautiful world to live in” (1973 : 156).


Although an advocate of communism and essentially a libertarian socialist, Morris always distanced himself from anarchist-communism. He seems to have equated anarchism both with extreme libertarianism and insurrectionist politics — the “terrorist tactics” of those advocating propaganda by the deed” — and with the suggestion that in a future anarchist society there would be absolute freedom, and the “absolute negation of society! (1973 : 210).

This was not, of course, what anarchist-communists like Kropotkin actually envisaged, and Kroptkin’s and Morris’ vision of a future communist society were virtually identical; they differed only in their revolutionary strategy.

There have been numerous interpretations of Morris’ political philosophy. His first official biographer J.W.Mackail (1912), completely downplayed Morris’ political involvements, emphasizing his stature as a poet and designer. The Scottish socialist John Bruce Glazier, who knew Morris well and much admired Morris as a man of “genius”, was not only unsympathetic towards anarchism (considering anarchism and socialism to be incompatible ideas) (1921 : 125), but tended to play down the Marxist influence on Morris. Glasier firmly argued that |Morris was not a utopian socialist and not a Marxist-scientific-socialist (1921 :143). E.P.Thompson has questioned whether Glasier’s recollections of Morris are altogether trustworthy (1976 : 749) and emphasized that Morris had a profound admiration for the work of Marx and Engels, even though Morris admitted that though he enjoyed the historical parts of “Capital” he had difficulty in understanding Marx’s economic theory (1973 :241).It is important to recognize, of course, that Glasier was a keen member of the Independent Labour Party, and thus tended to be hostile towards both anarchism and Marxism. He therefore interpreted Morris as a precursor of the labour Party.15

E.P.Thompson (1976) in his well-known study, essentially interprets Morris’ life history as involving a transition from a liberal romantic to that of a revolutionary communist or Marxist, even if a rather unorthodox Marxist. Many scholars over the past decades have tended to affirm that |Morris was indeed one of Marx’s “legitimate heirs”, as Ruth Kinna puts it (2000 :13) and so largely repudiated his earlier romanticism. (See Arnot 1934, Meier 1978, Mahamdallie 2008).

What is clear, however, is that Morris’ writings during the socialist decade, certainly reflect some of the key themes of Marxist theory, namely, a historical materialist perspective that postulated a series of modes of production (tribal, ancient, feudal, capitalist);the importance of the labour theory of value; an emphasis on class struggle and class analysis; and finally, a firm acknowledgement that it would be the workers themselves who would bring about a revolutionary transformation.

Other scholars, however, have tended to emphasize Morris’ romantic heritage, and to place him outside the Marxist tradition. He has been seen as essentially a “sentimental socialist pining for the middle ages” as Morton (1977 :11) put it, and Engels certainly felt; or as someone who tried to combine the ideas of John Ruskin (romanticism) and Karl Marx (socialism) — with little success. Stanley Pierson (1973) suggested that Morris’ socialism was little more than a veneer, and, like Engels and Glasier, he argued that Morris was at best a Utopian Socialist — and that his socialism was “regressive” and “escapist” (Thompson 1976 : 779).

More recently, Fiona MacCarthy has suggested that Morris uniquely combined “the tradition of socialism as a critique of political economy with the tradition of Romantic anti-industrialism” (1994 :xix). And she rightly suggests that Morris would have repudiated the kind of politics adopted by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in Russia.

The literary Marxist Raymond Williams long ago suggested that there was more life in Morris’ political lectures than in any of his prose and verse romances (1963 :159) and that his work still has a contemporary relevance. Yet although, as Williams and others have stressed, Morris’ romantic sensibility and his deep-seated interest in the arts and culture, undoubtedly influenced his socialism, Morris was at heart a libertarian or revolutionary socialist. This made him a rather unorthodox Marxist, given that he tended to downplay parliamentary action as a means to socialism. There is, therefore, certainly some truth in G D H Cole’s suggestion that Morris seemed to be “more than half an anarchist” (1954 : 415).

But the key point is that in an era of capitalist triumphalism, Morris should not be looked upon as an interesting and compelling historical figure, but rather as a “contemporary voice and an inspiration to all those today who still strive for radical change.” (Mohamdallie 2008 : 5)

View notes


  • 1 Morton (1973), Thompson (1976), Meier (1978) and Mahamdallie (2008), for  example, all emphasize that Morris was essentially a Marxist in spite if the fact that he consistently advocated an anti-parliamentary strategy.
  • 2 See my critique of the “new” anarchism. Morris (2009)
  • 3. See for example: Mackail (1912), Henderson (1973), Thompson (1976), Meier (1978), McCarthy (1994) and Kinna (2000).
  • 4 John Burns, a radical engineer who was once known as the “man with the red flag” eventually became a cabinet minister in the liberal government of Campbell -Bannerman in 1905. A renegade, to many, from socialist politics. On John Burns life and politics see Cole (1973).
  • 5 On the role of Lane, Kitz and other anarchists in the Socialist League see Quail (1978), Lane (1978), and Oliver (1983 : 50-64).
  • 6 Henry Seymour (1862-1938) helped to establish and edit the first English language anarchist publication “The Anarchist” in 1885. Seymour, a follower of Spencer and Proudhon, was essentially an advocate of mutualism  see Quail (1978 : 47-52), Oliver (1983 : 33-36).
  • 7 See Morris’ account of the Bloody Sunday demonstration : “London in a State of Siege”  COMMONWEAL  3/7 (1887), Morton (1973 : 204 -8).
  • 8 With regard to Kropotkin’s relationship with Morris see Woodcock and Avaku Movic (1971 : 213-17) and McCarthy (1994 : 544).
  • 9 For interesting and useful discussions of Morris’ utopian novel see Coleman and O’Sullivan (1990).
  • 10 See Wood (1999) on the agrarian origins of capitalism.
  • 11 On the French Revolution as a form of class struggle see Lefebvre (1967) and Morris (1996).
  • 12 For a classic history of Fabian Socialism see Cole (1961).
  • 13 On council communism and anarcho-syndicalism see the classical accounts of Pannekoek (2003) and Rocker (1938).
  • 14 Interestingly, while state socialists including the Marxists, seek to utilize the power of the nation-state to destroy capitalism, anarcho-capitalists, by contrast aim to utilize the power of capital to eradicate the state. According to anarchists (Kropotkin, Goldman, Rocker) the former, whether it involves the democratic state or a party dictatorship, inevitably leads either to reformism or to state capitalism, while anarcho-capitalism is simply laissez-faire capitalism supported by private armies.
  • 15 Even stranger; we are informed that Tony Blair was inspired by the writings of Morris when he was a student at Oxford University (Mahamdallie 2008: 3).

    Completely devoid of any socialist sensibility, Blair’s politics are in fact akin to the American neo-conservatives. (see Stelzer  2004).


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