Toggle full-width

The Revolutionary Socialism of William Morris

The poet and designer William Morris has been described as a sentimental socialist with a nostalgia for the medieval period. He has also been described as a Marxist, as an anarchist, and as the inspiration for many members of the British Labour party. Motivated by the issue of whether or not Morris can be described as an anarchist, this essay outlines the historical context and the nature of Morris’s unique version of revolutionary socialism.


The political philosophy of William Morris has always been viewed as something of an enigma, which is one reason why he has been acclaimed as the founding inspiration for three very different political traditions — the British labour Party (social democracy), the Socialist Workers’ Party (Marxism) and various anarchist groups that still cherish his memory. In his well-known history of anarchism peter Marshall devotes four pages to Morris and suggests that he belongs more to the extended “anarchist” family rather than to authoritarian socialism, the usual depiction of Morris being that he was in some important respects a Marxist (1992 : 171–75).1

Marshall places William Morris alongside John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter, as a British libertarian, although neither Mill nor Spencer could be described as “anarchists,” and Morris was a libertarian socialist rather than simply a libertarian, as Marshall acknowledges.

In contrast Lucien van de Walt and Michael Schmidt’s (2009) history of anarchism and revolutionary class politics makes no mention of William Morris, or of the anarchists with whom Morris was closely associated, Frank Kitz and Joseph Lane. Yet all three men could be described as revolutionary libertarian or anti-parliamentarian socialists, and thus close to anarchism. Even so, neither Morris nor Lane would care to describe themselves as anarchists. So this essay is a journey along a well-trodden trail, and attempts to assess whether or not William Morris can be described as an anarchist.

After some initial remarks on William Morris’s romantic background, the essay consists essentially of two parts. In the first part I discuss Morris’s important role during the decade of the 1880’s when socialism emerged as a distinctive political tradition in Britain. In the second part I explore some of the key themes that constitute Morris’s libertarian socialism, aiming to re-affirm the importance of revolutionary communism (of which Morris was an exemplar) in an era when the only alternatives to the hegemonic neo-libertarianism that are offered by academic scholars are either some variant of liberal democracy (Rorty1999, Sen 2009), or a revamped form of Marxism (Derrida1994, Bensaid2002, Callinicos2003), or an atavistic appeal to ideas and theories that were in fact antecedent to the emergence of historical anarchism. These include an appeal to Nietzsche (poetic terrorism), anarcho-primitivism, Stirner (ultra-individualism), or Proudhon (mutualism). The latter, together, comprise what is nowadays described as the “new anarchism.”2

Some of the themes that I discuss in the second half of the essay are Morris’s writings on the rise of capitalism, socialism and the state, and Morris’s conception of a future communist society.

The Background

William Morris (1834–1896) was an extraordinarily talented and energetic individual, a truly creative artist. Unlike his friend Peter Kropotkin, he has, however, been the subject of numerous biographies and studies, many of them of high quality. These studies have all attempted to explore and integrate the many different aspects of his life and work.3 For, as many have noted, William Morris had many different talents. Indeed he has been described as having several distinct lives or personalities.

He was, for instance, an extremely talented artist and designer, having trained as an architect as well as being a close friend of two renowned pre-Raphaelite artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Throughout his life Morris thus produced and designed furniture, stained glass windows, wallpaper, tapestries, carpets and books, and even today these designs are still popular. Morris also had a sound business sense, and along with some friends he established a small company known as “the firm” which produced printed fabrics, furniture and stained glass for a middle-class clientele. But Morris was also a talented poet and writer, and with such works as “The Earthly Paradise” and “Sigurd the Volsung” he was considered to be one of the leading romantic poets of his own generation. Influenced by John Ruskin, Morris had a particular fascination for the medieval period and for the Nordic and Icelandic Sagas. Thus from his earliest years Morris was an inveterate romantic, his poems and prose romances celebrating a past golden age. Yet it has to be recognized that such a romantic sensibility implied for Morris a deep seated antipathy towards industrial capitalism — with regard to both its “brutal squalor” and its social inequalities.

Morris declared himself a socialist in January 1883 when he joined the Democratic federation. He was already a well-known and well-respected public figure. He was then almost fifty years of age. But this “transition”, as he described it, from a romantic poet and designer with liberal sentiments, to a revolutionary socialist certainly caused consternation among his many friends, as well as among the general public. The poet Alfred Tennyson thought that Morris had ”gone crazy” (Henderson 1973 : 305), while his relationship with Edward Burne-Jones became severely strained. This was particularly upsetting as he and “Ned had been close friends ever since their undergraduate days at Oxford University. But it marked the beginning of a decade when Morris became actively engaged in socialist politics.

The Socialist Decade

Morris’ involvement in politics began when he joined the liberal campaign against the Tory government’s plan to take Britain into war against Russia. It was, however, his decision to join the Democratic Federation in 1883 that essentially marked the beginning of Morris’ political career as a revolutionary socialist.

The Democratic federation was formed in June 1881 by Henry Myers Hyndman, who has been described as the “father of English socialism.” He was, however, something of a political maverick, a wealthy “Tory Democrat” who always wore a frock coat and a top hat. Around 1880 Hyndman had read Marx’s “Capital” and produced a booklet “England for All” that was mainly based on Marx’s ideas. The Federation consisted largely of members of radical clubs, although it also included a number of gifted working class men, such as Harry Quelch, Tom Mann and John Burns.4 But the Federation also included such people as the Marxist economist Ernest Belfort Bax and Andreas Scheu, and Austrian socialist and furniture maker — both of whom became close friends of Morris. Bax is said to have taught Morris the elements of Marx’s economic theory, and co-authored with Morris the book “Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome” )1893). The book was based on a series of articles “Socialism from the Root Up” that had earlier been published in “Commonweal” (1886–1888). Marx’s daughter Eleanor also became a member of the democratic Federation, along with her partner Edward Aveling, a talented free-thinker and intellectual, who was also, by all accounts, a thoroughly disreputable character. It has been suggested that the Democratic Federation consisted only of about two hundred members (Thompson 1976 : 287–300, MacCarthy 1964 : 464–6).

Given its increasing socialist orientation in August 1884 the Federation adopted the name Socialist Democratic Federation, having earlier launched a propaganda paper “Justice,” the first weekly socialist periodical. Morris was a member of the executive committee of the SDF, along with Joseph lane, Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx, and the name of the organization was declared to be:

“The socialization of the means pf production, distribution and exchanged 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, with the establishment of social and economic equality between the sexes.”
(Thompson1976 : 344).

But at the same time that the Social Democratic federation was being formed, a deep schism was already emerging within the embryonic socialist movement. Scheu and Morris, in particular, had come to thoroughly dislike Hyndman, with regard to both his personality and his politics; for Hyndman was seen as dictatorial, dogmatic, jingoistic and given to political intrigue. But as Morris wrote to his daughter Jenny in January 1884, the “real subject” of the dispute was on the question of the “parliamentary programme” whether or not to utilize the state in order to further the cause of socialism (Thompson1976 : 338). Morris had by then come to adopt an anti-parliamentarian stance.

The split in the Social Democratic Federation became final in December 1884 when a majority of the council resigned from the organization. The “cabal”. besides Morris, included Eleanor Marx, Aveling, Ernest Belfort Bax, and the “anarchists” Joseph lane and Samuel Manwaring. At that time Frederick Engels, whom Hyndman famously and disparagingly described as “the Teutonic Grand Lama of Regents Park Road” — acted as a kind of political advisor to both Aveling and Eleanor Marx. He too thoroughly disliked Hyndman, whom he described as a “petty and hard-faced John Bull” — vain and jingoistic (MacCarthy 1994 : 494). Towards Morris Engels was more positive, and although he acknowledged Morris’ talents and integrity, he had little sympathy with his medieval romanticism, and thought Morris “impractical”. Engels thus tended to dismiss Morris as a “very rich but politically inept art lover”, or as a “sentimental dreamer pure and simple” (Hunt 2009 : 327).

After resigning from the SDF Morris and his associates formed the Socialist League — on December 30th, 1884. On the provisional council of the league were not only Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Scheu, but also the libertarian socialists that Morris identified as anarchists — Joseph Lane, Charles Mowbray, Frank Kitz and Sam Manwaring. Both lane and Kitz have been described as “class conscious workers in revolt against intolerable conditions”, and although they expressed a strident individualism and were against party discipline, to suggest, as Edward Thompson does, that they inherited their libertarian politics from the “ultra-Jacobin tradition” is quite fallacious (Thompson 1976 : 376–77). They were both, like Morris, libertarian socialists. Morris had a high regard for both men in spite of their later differences — and this affection and respect was reciprocated. Lane and Kitz had both been involved in forming the Labour Emancipation League in 1882, which was based in the East End of London. A group of anti-state socialists, its membership became affiliated to the League on the latter’s foundation. Lane became joint publisher with Morris of the Socialist league’s monthly paper the “Commonweal.” 5

At the annual conference of the Socialist League in July, 1885 its membership adopted its “manifesto” drafted by William Morris. This “splendid document”, as Thompson describes it, began with the words:

“Fellow citizens — we come before you as a body advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of society — a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and “nationalities”

It was stridently anti-capitalist, seeking to put an end to a system of production that was based on profit and competition. It repudiated land nationalization and state socialism, and sought through education of the people, the realization of complete revolutionary socialism. It ended with the words that the religion of socialism was “the only religion which the Socialist League professes” (Thompson 1976 : 732–37). On the Manifesto John Quail writes:

“The document, if not anarchist, is clearly libertarian in its commitment to revolution, its view of the role of socialist groups, and its depreciation of state and party hierarchy” (1978 : 38).

Yet within two years a further schism emerged within the Socialist League itself. It occurred at a time when there was political turmoil throughout Britain, with mass demonstrations of the unemployed, which often developed into riots, and widespread strikes — especially of miners. At the third annual conferenceof the Socialist League in May 1887 a clear division became evident over the issue of parliamentary action. In fact, it was a deep division between those who advocated parliamentary action, such as Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Ernest Belfort Bax and John Mahon and those who, like Morris, were anti-parliamentarians. The first group, encouraged by Engels, were committed to a form of state socialism — the advocacy of parliamentary action — that was based on the German Social Democratic (Marxist) model. In contrast, the political outlook of the anti-parliamentarians was clearly expressed by Joseph Lane in his “An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto”, which Lane presented to the annual conference as “ minority report”. It is a remarkable document considering the fact that Lane was not an accomplished writer or public speaker, but mainly a local organizer and a working class agitator.

Lane’s manifesto suggests that:

“the object of socialism is to constitute a society founded on labour and science, on liberty, equality and solidarity of all human beings”

It expresses opposition to all “those who desire by means of parliamentarianism to achieve a conquest of political power” as Marx and Engels had advocated in the “Communist Manifesto” (1968: 52–53).

Thus Lane writes: “If we are atheists in point of philosophy, and anti-statists in point of politics, we are communists as regard the economic development of human society” (1978 : 30–32).

Thus lane’s “Manifesto” was opposed to the democratic state and to the parliamentary system, as well as to the individualism (mutualism) — as expressed by several of his contemporaries. Lane concluded by declaring his commitment to Free Communism, or anti-state communism, or International revolutionary Socialism — and he seems to regard these as synonymous. (1978 : 37–39).

Like Morris, Lane used the term “anarchism” to describe various kinds of individualist anarchism, especially that advocated by the mutualist Henry Seymour:6 but, in fact, the Manifesto is essentially an anarchist tract. Morris, of course, was a staunch anti-parliamentarian at this time, and threatened to resign from the Socialist League if it adopted a parliamentary strategy. For Morris, involvement with the parliamentary system implied reformism, careerism, opportunism and political corruption. (Thompson 1976 : 453, 510).

Yet the departure of the parliamentarians (Eleanor Marx, Belfort Bax, Aveling) from the Socialist league, meant that the League by the time of the Fourth Annual Conference in may 1888 had been virtually taken over by the anarchists, most of whom were working class activists. They included, besides the anti-[parliamentarians like Lane, Kitz and Mainwaring — who were also essentially anarchists — working men like Fred Charles Slaughter, David Nicoll, Charles Mowbray and James Tochatti.

Several factors were involved in this resurgence of anarchism; namely the events surrounding what came to be known as Bloody Sunday (November 13, 1887), when a large demonstration approaching Trafalgar Square were attacked by police and the cavalry with great brutality, which led to three people being killed, more than two hundred injured, and scores of people arrested;7 and the sympathy and theoutrage invoked by the execution of the Chicago anarchists on the eve of Bloody Sunday. One final factor, Thompson suggests, that may have motivated the socialist League to move in an anarchist direction — besides the two events above — was the teachings of Peter Kropotkin (Thompson 1976 : 506).

Kropotkin had arrived in Britain in 1886, after spending several years in prison in France. Like Morris, he was a libertarian communist, and they had much in common, especially a deep interest in ecological issues. By all accounts they were close friends, and Kropotkin often gave lectures at the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League and visited Morris’ family. Throughout 1887 Kropotkin toured the country giving lectures and engaged in socialist propaganda — and was widely acclaimed as an “apostle” of revolutionary socialism. But it is significant that Kropotkin tended to maintain his independence, and was mainly associated with the Freedom group. He thus kept aloof from the Communist League, including the working class anarchists, like Kitz and Lane, from the East End of London. Max Nettlau always regretted that there was never any real political collaboration between Morris and Kropotkin (Quail 1978 : 59).8

Feeling isolated within the Socialist League which by 1890 had become a largely anarchist organization, and repelled by the actions and pronouncements of many anarchists who were advocating revolutionary violence and insurrectionary tactics, Morris severed connection with the League in November1890. This marked the beginning of the end for the Socialist League. The paper “Commonweal”, now edited by Kitz and Nicoll — it became in May 1891 a revolutionary journal of anarchist communism” — did however publish in 1890 in serial form Morris’ classic utopian novel “News from Nowhere.” The book essentially outlined Morris’ conception of a future socialist society.9

In his last years Morris is said to have abandoned his rather intransigent stand on “anti-parliamentarianism” and, as the only alternative to armed insurrectionism, seems to have accepted the necessity of following the so-called “parliamentary road” to socialism. He this reconciled himself with the politics of the Social Democratic Federation, and supported one of their candidates, George Lansbury, in the 1894 elections. But he insisted, according to Thompson, in making a distinction between the revolutionary and reformed use of parliament (1976 : 617–619).

Morris died peacefully on October 3, 1896, apparently because, according to his doctor, of his enthusiasm for spreading the principles of socialism.” (Thompson 1976 : 635)

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).


  • Arnot, R.P. 1934 William Morris: A Vindication London : Lawrence
  • Bensaid, D. 2002 Marx for our Times London : Verso
  • Callinicos, A 2003 An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto Cambridge : Polity.
  • Cole, G.D.H. 1954 A History of Socialist Thought Vol 2 Marxism and Anarchism 1850-1890 London : MacMillan 1973
  • --- John Burns 1858-1943 in M.Katanka (Ed) Radicals, Reformers and Socialists London : Knight Pp 163 - 201
  • Cole, M. 1961 The Story of Fabian Socialism London : Heineman
  • Coleman, S. and P.O'Sullivan (1990) (Eds) William Morris and News From Nowhere Bideford : Green Books
  • Derrida, J. 1994 Spectres of Marx London : Routledge
  • Fromm, E. 1961 Marx's Concept of Man London : Contimuum.
  • Glasier, J.B. 1921 William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement. London : Longmans
  • Henderson, P. 1973 William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends London : Penguin
  • Hunt, T. 2009 The Frock-Coated Communist : The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. London : Allen Lane
  • Hyndman, H.M. 1911 The Record of an Adventurous Life London : MacMillan.
  • Kinna, R. 2000 William Morris: The Art of Socialism Cardiff: Univ. Wales Press
  • Lane, J. 1978 An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto Sanday : Cienfuegos press
  • Lefevre, G. 1967 The Coming of the French Revolution Princeton : Princeton Univ. Press
  • MacCarthy, F. 1994 William Morris : A Life for Our Time. London : Faber
  • MacKail, J.W. 1912 The Life of William Morris 2 vols. London : Longmans
  • Mahamdallie, H. 2008 Crossing the "River of Fire" : TheSocialism of William Morris. London : Redwords.
  • Marshall, P. 1992 Demanding the Impossible : A History of Anarchism. London : Harper Collins.
  • Marx, K. and F. Engels 1968 Selected Works London : Lawrence and Wishart
  • Meier, P. 1978 William Morris : The Marxist Dreamer. Sussex : Harvester.
  • Morris, B. 1996 "The San-Culottes and the Enrages : Libertarian Movement in the French Revolution" in Ecology and Anarchism Malvern Wells : Images pp 93-107.
  • --- 2009 "Reflections on the 'New Anarchism'" Social Anarchism 43 : 36-50
  • Morris, W. 1891 News From Nowhere in A.L.Morton (1977)
  • --- 1947 On Art and socialism Int. H. Jackson London : Lehmann
  • --- 1994 Political Writings : Contributions to Justice and Commonwealth. 1883-1890. Ed. Introd. N. Salmon Ponistal : Thoemmes Press
  • --- 1996 "The Policy of Abstention," in S.Coleman (Ed) Reform and Revolution Bristol : Thoemess Press pp 434-453
  • Morton, A.L. 1973 (Ed.) Political Writings of William Morris London : Lawrence and Wishart
  • Oliver, H. 1983 The International Anarchist Movement in Late Victorian England. London : Croom Helm
  • Pannekoek, A. 2003 Workers' Councils. Edinburgh : AK Press
  • Pierson, S. 1973 Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism Ithaca : Cornell Iniv. Press.
  • Quail, J. 1978 The Slow Burning Fuse London : Granada
  • Rocker, R. 1938 Anarcho-Syndicalism London : Secker and Warburg.
  • Rorty, R. 1999 Philosophy of Social Hope London : Penguin
  • Sen, A. 2009 The Idea of Justice London : Allen Lane
  • Steltzer, I. 2004 (Ed) Neo-Conservatism London : Atlantic Books
  • Thompson, E.P. 1976 William Morris : Romantic to Revolutionary 2nd edition New York : Pantheon
  • van der Walt, L. and M. Schmidt 2009 Black Flame Edinburgh : AK Press
  • Williams, R. 1963 Culture and Society 1780-1950 London : Penguin
  • Wood, E.M. 1999 The Origin of Capitalism New York : Monthly Review Press
  • Woodcock, G. and I.Avakumovic 1971 The Anarchist Prince : A Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin, 2nd edition New York : Schocken