Debunking the `Menshevik myth': William Morris and revolutionary politics

Image removed.

The Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, William Morris is fifth from the right in the second row.

By Graham Milner

With some great revolutionary figures in world history, and in international labour history in particular, it has been found necessary for historians or biographers to dig out their subjects from beneath "a load of calumny and oblivion", "a mountain of dead dogs".[1] With others, however, a different problem exists. Lenin pointed to this when he wrote that the ruling classes, following upon the deaths of great revolutionaries, often attempt -- after having met the ideas and actions of such men and women during their lifetimes with "furious hatred ... and slanders" -- to turn them into "harmless saints ... by way of `consolation' to the oppressed ... while at the same time emasculating and vulgarising the real essence of their revolutionary theories and blunting their revolutionary edge".[2]

Where William Morris (1834-96), arguably the greatest revolutionary figure in British labour history, is concerned, the problem indicated by Lenin has been compounded by the fact that Morris was not only a significant political leader and thinker. He was also an artist and craftsperson accomplished in many fields, such as painting, design and printing, and in addition to those accomplishments he was a major poet and creative prose writer. In fact, and this is a point of some historical importance, Morris was, in the words of his biographer E.P. Thompson, the "first creative artist of major stature in the world to take his stand, consciously and without shadow of compromise, with the revolutionary working class".[3]

Partly because of the wide range of his creative activity, it was long possible for the "official" view of Morris to be one that tended to depreciate his involvement in the socialist movement.[4] The first major biography of Morris, published in 1899, consistently downgraded his socialist commitment.[5] Mackail's biography initiated what R. Page Arnot has characterised as the "bourgeois myth" about Morris.[6] It had become possible by 1934 for Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative Party leader, to open a Morris centenary exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London with a speech lauding Morris the poet and artist, but totally avoiding the fact that Morris had been a revolutionary.[7]

Another side to the attempt to "canonise" Morris into a harmless establishment figure has come from within the official Labour Party-dominated labour movement in Britain. Page Arnot has described the result of this attempt as the "Menshevik myth", the notion that Morris was a mild, reformist, "ethical" socialist who thus fitted in with the requirements of the labour bureaucracy.[8] Part of the source for this second myth may be traced to a memoir by John Bruce Glasier, a member of the revolutionary Socialist League of Morris's day, who devolved into a sentimental, "ethical" Labourist and confidant of Ramsey MacDonald.[9] Much debate and controversy has surrounded this memoir, but its reliability as a factual record of Morris's views and activity has been effectively brought into disrepute.[10]

The "Menshevik myth" sought to dismember Morris's heritage from any connection with revolutionary Marxism. Three important works published since the Second World War have now gone a long way to deflating the anti-Marxist myths about Morris. These are the works already cited in the notes, by Page Arnot, E.P. Thompson and Paul Meier. Thompson's book, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, in particular, has been an extremely influential text, although it was largely ignored by the academic establishment when it appeared at the most intense phase of the Cold War in 1955.[11] By the 1960s Thompson's book was being cited as the standard work on its subject in general texts on British labour history.[12]

Image removed.

William Morris.

Some writers have claimed that the pendulum has swung the other way and that there is now a new Marxist orthodoxy to contend with in Morris studies.[13] The point is, however, that Thompson's book at least, whatever one may think of Meier's, is in itself a major statement of "unorthodox" Marxism and is, as well as a great biography of William Morris, a considerable historical contribution to the reorientation of post-Stalinist socialist thought.

In his standard history of anarchism, George Woodcock wrote that this movement's ideas were essentially "Protean", as opposed to the allegedly single-faceted orthodoxy of socialism and Marxism.[14] In the light of developments in the decades since Woodcock's book appeared, with the extension of the colonial revolution, the mass youth radicalisation of the 1960s, the further breakup of the Stalinist monolith, and newer developments such as the Green movement, and now 21st century socialism, no one could seriously dispute that Marxism too is as Protean as the libertarian trends examined by Woodcock -- having many different faces. The problem for the historian, where Morris is concerned, is now essentially to try to make an objective analysis of just what kind of Marxism he believed in.

This essay will look at the practice and theory of Morris as a Marxist, by examining briefly the genesis of his world outlook, his involvement as a political activist in the nascent socialist movement of the 1880s and 1890s in Britain, and by attempting to analyse the character of his contribution to Marxist and socialist theory.


Romanticism formed the essential matrix of Morris's early intellectual awareness and of his initial rebellion against the strictures of a Victorian upper middle-class upbringing. From childhood Morris was steeped in the novels of Walter Scott and the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Byron.[15] Romanticism has been variously chartacterised,[16] but few could disagree with E.J. Hobsbawm's comment that once bourgeois industrialism had established itself by the early 19th century, "romanticism unquestionably became its instinctive enemy".[17] In fact a tradition of social criticism developed in England, basing itself on romanticism, which struck at the foundations of utilitarianism and liberal capitalism.[18] Two central figures in this tradition at mid-century were Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin: both of these men were cited by Morris as having influenced his intellectual development.[19]

Carlyle's excoriating attacks on the evils of Victorian industrial civilisation were enthusiastically received by the young Frederick Engels,[20] which shows to some extent the creative confluence of "Morrisian" and Marxist thought. Later, Carlyle's denunciation of the "cash nexus" at the heart of capitalist society, in Past and Present,[21] was to appear, slightly rephrased, in the Communist Manifesto of 1847.[22]

Ruskin's influence on Morris was evidently profound, and the latter described Ruskin as having been at one point "my master".[23] The medievalist slant of Ruskin's social criticism is apparent from a reading of "The Stones of Venice"(1851-53), but the most important point there is the aesthetic attack Ruskin makes on the capitalist division of labour, which he saw as having been initiated by the Renaissance.[24] There is an authoritarian, hierarchical element in Ruskin's outlook, which is typical of the "feudal socialism" criticised by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, but it should be remembered that the positive side of this form of socialism was also presented there.[25]

By the 1870s Morris was an established poet, whose "Earthly Paradise" (1868-70) had been received with great critical acclaim.[26] He was known, through the activities and products of his "Firm", as a designer and craftsman of originality and strength.[27] Yet he was not satisfied with these achievements; he disliked the middle-class clientele of the Firm and regarded his poetry as a spare-time occupation. His move towards political involvement stemmed, in large part, from disillusionment with the prospects of art under capitalism. As he later wrote to a friend:

...practical conflict with the philistinism of modern society...forced on me the conviction that art cannot have a real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering.[28]

Morris's first political experience was gained through his involvement in the "Bulgarian Agitation" of 1876-78. One of the great radical agitations of the 19th century, the movement against Turkish atrocities in the Balkans and against British support for the Ottoman Empire drew in broad layers of middle-class and working-class support behind an essentially anti-imperialist program.[29] Morris became treasurer of the Eastern Question Association and issued a famous manifesto "To the Working-Men of England", in May 1877:

Working men of England, one word of warning yet: I doubt if you know the bitterness of hatred against freedom and progress that lies at the hearts of a certain part of the richer classes in this country.... These men cannot speak of your order, of its aims, of its leaders, without a sneer or an insult: these men, if they had the power...would thwart your just aspirations, would silence you, would deliver you bound hand and foot for ever to irresponsible capital.[30]

Morris quickly became disillusioned with the Liberal Party leadership and its Radical allies as they manoeuvred to contain the outburst of mass energy around the Turkish question.[31] When Gladstone's return to government in 1880 was followed by an Irish Coercion Act and a naval and military assault on Egypt, Morris began to look for a solution beyond bourgeois radicalism.[32] About this time, in the Fortnightly Review, appeared a series of articles on the subject of socialism by John Stuart Mill, which persuaded Morris, probably against the author's intentions, of the efficacy of basic socialist doctrine.[33]

Socialist commitment

Morris began looking for a socialist organisation to join. He had reached the point cited by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of 1847, where "a section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands".[34]

His commitment was to be wholehearted, and to permit of no backsliding.

What sort of movement was Morris joining when, in January 1883, he became a member of the Democratic Federation? Although it has been claimed that the socialism that emerged in Britain in the 1880s was "wholly new",[35] more considered studies have traced the origins of the movement back into the radicalism of earlier Victorian politics.[36] This is not to suggest that there was no qualitative leap: there was unquestionably a hiatus between the collapse of Chartism after 1848, and the emergence of socialism in the 1880s. But in any case the Chartists had never been socialists.[37] Karl Marx, the great leader of international socialism, had lived for decades in England virtually as an unknown exile. His books were treated with patronage by complacent bourgeois critics,[38] and his death in 1883 went all but unnoticed in the British press.[39]

Engels regarded the quiescence of the British working class in the period after the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the prevalence of Liberal politics within its trade union leadership, to be essentially a function of British international economic dominance, and he saw the appearance of a new socialist movement there in the light of the ending of British absolute supremacy in the world market, under the pressure of growing competition from Germany and the USA.[40] The relative decline of British industrial predominance was compounded by conjunctural slumps in the trade cycle which led to increased unemployment and hardship, expecially for unorganised working people.[41] The "Great Depression" of 1873-96 tended to undermine to some degree the position of the labour aristocracy, which underpinned the "Lib-Lab" alliance, and the crisis stimulated some new layers of workers into industrial organisation and political activity.[42]

Although the original program and perspectives of the Democratic Federation had reflected the influence of radicalism,[43] secularism[44] and positivism,[45] the organisation had by 1883, largely under the influence of its moving spirit, H.M. Hyndman, adopted a socialist program derived from the central ideas of Marx.[46] Indeed, Hyndman had written and circulated a short book, England for All, which drew extensively on Marx's Capital, although this was not acknowledged.[47]

Hyndman was one of the central leaders of the socialist agitation in its early days, and remained an important figure in the movement until the First World War.[48] An ex-Tory stockbroker, Hyndman was described by Lenin in 1911 as a "bourgeois philistine who, being the pick of his class, finally makes his way to socialism, but never completely throws off bourgeois traditions, bourgeois views and prejudices".[49] Hyndman was the first major indigenous Marxist theoretician in Britain and, although his work undoubtedly shows a doctrinaire slant, as critics have pointed out,[50] it nevertheless reveals, as with the Historical Basis of Socialism in England (1883) considerable analytical powers and a wide acquaintance with the international socialist movement.[51]

The fact that the Democratic Federation, or Social Democratic Federation (SDF), as it later became known, adhered so quickly to revolutionary ideas, is partly an indication of the state of play in the international labour movement in the early 1880s. For one thing it showed the influence of the growing Social Democratic Party in Germany,[52] as well as the influence of German exiles living in England.[53] Two Germans, who had been former members of the First International, Weiler and Jung, steered Ernest Belfort Bax, who became a collaborator of Morris in the Socialist League, in the direction of Marxism.[54]

But of course not all socialists of the 1880s and 1890s period were Marxists, or even revolutionaries, and some of them came together in the Fabian Society, founded about the same time as the SDF. The Fabians, whose ideas had coalesced into a doctrinal form by the end of the 1880s, with the publication of the Fabian Essays,[55] promoted a frankly reformist perspective, strongly influenced by utilitarian philosophy.[56] This grouping was, however, essentially restricted to a core of "bourgeois intellectuals",[57] removed from the working-class movement, and its influence on the latter has often been greatly overestimated.[58] It has been pointed out that there were in any case at this early stage no hard and fast divisions between the different tendencies on the socialist left, and sometimes individuals could straddle more than one current.[59]

Morris rapidly emerged as a leader of the SDF, having soon steeped himself in the theory and practice of revolutionary socialism.[60] Far from being a dilettante, as have so many of his class who have attempted to cross the "river of fire"[61] and join the proletarian movement, Morris threw himself into all spheres of movement work, including regular street selling of the party newspaper Justice, and an arduous round of public lecturing and open-air speaking.[62] In 1884 he co-authored, with Hyndman, a pamphlet entitled A Summary of the Principles of Socialism.[63]

Socialist League

A leadership crisis emerged almost immediately in the SDF. The fundamental problem was the character of Hyndman. It has been said that "... there never was a more arbitrary leader of a democratic movement".[64] But the differences that emerged within the SDF and led to the split of 1884-85 also turned around a programmatic question. It was the old problem of the maximum and minimum program -- how to bridge the gulf between the day-to-day struggle for "palliatives" and reforms, and the ultimate goal of the overturn of capitalist society and the construction of socialism.[65] This was no minor problem and was never really resolved by any of the socialist parties of this era.[66]

Hyndman was accused of political opportunism by a growing tendency within the SDF and with harbouring personal political ambitions.[67] His evident jingoism and heavy emphasis on electoral politics lent support to these accusations. Hyndman's later career, his parliamentary bloc of 1885 with the Tory party,[68] and his support for British naval supremacy and the First World War,[69] to some extent proves that his critics were correct. But the SDF leaders who split to form the Socialist League, among whom Morris was the most prominent, although they cannot be accused of opportunism, exhibited some degree the ultra-leftist errors criticised later by Lenin in his pamphlet Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.[70]

In fact the group that split actually had a majority of the SDF executive and by breaking away in the fashion that they did this group confused the membership and prevented a full airing of the differences.[71] Their conduct can be contrasted with that of Lenin's faction at the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Lenin's faction also had a narrow majority at this congress. In the Russian case the Bolshevik faction, as it became known, insisted on its right to lead the party, and it was the minority that split away.[72] Morris himself claimed that a drawn-out brawl "would [have been] a sorry spectacle to offer the bourgeois world",[73] but such a view avoids the obvious questions concerning the rights of the membership.

The split's damaging effect on the socialist movement can be overemphasised.[74] Tom Mann, later to become a great industrial union leader, stayed with the Hyndman faction, and characterised relations between the SDF and what became the Socialist League as "friendly rivalry".[75]

The SDF executive members who split thus reconstituted themselves, and Morris drafted a "Manifesto of the Socialist League", adopted at a general conference in July 1885, which declared for the principles of "Revolutionary International Socialism".[76] The strategic concepts expressed in this manifesto focus around a theme that Morris was always to adhere to in his Socialist League period -- the belief that the purpose of a revolutionary organisation is fundamentally an educational, or "propagandist", one. New members will be recruited to the party, "made" into socialist cadres and then, when the masses move, the body of revolutionaries will be "ready to step into their due places and deal with and direct the irresistible movement".[77] In this schema, the dialectic between party and class is essentially absent. As Jack Lindsay has written, "The concept of educating the workers through struggle through a succession of interlinked struggles aimed at raising their standards of living and giving them confidence, was nowhere present."[78]

The Socialist League contained many talented men and women among its members, including Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Belfort Bax.[79] In its initial period the Socialist League received the patronage of Engels,[80] but his correspondence reveals an at times aloof attitude to the nascent British socialist movement, and his remarks about Morris in particular -- "untalented politician",[81] "sentimental socialist"[82] -- suggest only a grudging tolerance.[83] Engels has often come under criticism for some of the formulations of his later years,[84] but his positive contribution to the international socialist movement far outweighs any shortcomings.[85]

The evolution of the Socialist League, in which Morris himself played the central role, was characterised essentially by a dialectic of conflict between its parliamentarist "right" wing and its anarchist "left". This conflict eventually led to splits and then disintegration. Morris attempted to hold the league together,[86] though his strong anti-parliamentarist position pushed him, at times, close to the anarchist wing. Eleanor Marx criticised him for this.[87] Opposition on principle to participation in bourgeois parliaments was rejected by Karl Marx,[88] and criticised in classic terms by Lenin during the early years of the Comintern.[89]

It would be too easy to catalogue Morris's errors in the field of political organisation and tactics during his period as central leader of the Socialist League.[90] But it should be pointed out that, for instance, he did not know how to fight on two fronts in his position as "mediator" of the Socialist League's conflicts.[91] Yet strengths are evident, as well as weaknesses. His actual record as a party organiser has not perhaps been brought out sufficiently in the research to date, but the correspondence with J.L. Mahan, the Northern SL leader, gives a good indication that he was conscientious and sensitive in relations with the branches.[92] In any case his public presentation of the socialist message was indefatigable; he toured up and down the country relentlessly, addressing gatherings large and small, both in and outdoors, and the drafts of many of his talks and lectures have been preserved.[93]

Regrettably, the major struggles of the decade found the league often tailending other forces. The "Free Speech Fight" (1885-86)[94] and the Unemployed Agitation (1886)[95] are to some extent exceptions. But when major opportunities emerged at the end of the decade, with the rise of a militant new industrial unionism,[96] the league leadership responded with only a lukewarm commitment, repeating sectarian and ultimatist errors made in the Northumberland miners' strike of 1886-87.[97] The dock strike of 1889 was assessed by Engels as a major step forward for the British working class, and for the previously unorganised workers of the East End of London in particular.[98] But the Socialist League and the Social Democratic Federation looked upon the strike with suspicion, and Mann, Tillet and Burns, the socialist strike leaders, had to act more or less as independents.

Perhaps the finest achievement of the Socialist League was the publication and distribution of Commonweal, one of the best quality journals ever produced in the history of the British labour movement. Most commentators have agreed that the paper set a high standard while under the editorial control of Morris.[99] Yet it has to be faced that Commonweal was not really a "combination" paper,[100] as a revolutionary newspaper should strive to be: it was more a theoretical journal than a newspaper.

In 1888 the Socialist League's trajectory lurched to the left, following the defeat and resignation of the tendency around Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, which had been advocating a more positive attitude towards participation in the mass movements, and use of the electoral tactic.[101] The anarchist influence grew and Morris was compelled to give combat. He wrote in Commonweal:

Freedom from authority means the assertion of the advisability or possibility of an individual man doing what he pleases, always and under all circumstances; this is an absolute negation of society, and makes Communism as the highest expression of society impossible.[102]

But the anarchist influence in the Socialist League grew strong enough to have Morris removed from editorial control of the paper. By 1890 his branch in Hammersmith, London, had decided to form itself into a separate society and leave the Socialist League to the anarchists.[103]

It has been said of the Social Democratic Federation and, by extension, of the Socialist League that, despite their shortcomings, the major positive contribution to the labour movement in Britain of these organisations was the training of cadres in socialist ideas.[104] Even though the "bearers" of these ideas often quickly passed through the organisations, they could take the ideas and any organisational skills into the broader working-class movement, or the general community. Some Socialist League cadres in the provinces in particular played an important role in the broad labour movement. Tom Maguire, for example, was instrumental in guiding the formation of the Independent Labour Party in West Yorkshire.[105]

In his last years Morris reconciled himself with the Social Democratic Federation.[106] While his stance on the question of parliamentarism matured, his basic outlook on strategy and tactics remained fairly similar to the one he had had during his Socialist League days. But a trenchant passage from a lecture he delivered in March 1893 anticipates arguments later developed by Rosa Luxemburg in the fight against Eduard Bernstein's revisionism: "Most anti-socialists and even some socialists are apt to confuse ... the cooperative machinery towards which modern life is tending with the essence of socialism itself".[107]

As a socialist he was always firmly committed to the road of revolution, rather than reform.

One of Morris's last public speeches, occasioned by the Jameson Raid of 1895-96, attacked the machinations of British imperialism in southern Africa.[108] Anti-imperialism continued to be a strong point with him until the end.

Contribution to socialist theory

Having looked at Morris's political record, we now turn to the question of his contribution to socialist theory. In my view the central preoccupation of Morris, a theme that runs like a red thread through all his writings and lectures, is the problem of the degradation of work (or labour activity) under the capitalist mode of production, and the urgent requirement for a socialist transformation of society to remedy this situation.[109] Ultimately Morris's aim was the birth of a communist world, where the division of labour is superseded and replaced with authentic human relations based on free interchange.[110] Closely related to this vision of the future was his belief that art, in the broadest understanding of the concept, should be reintegrated with life activity in general and with labour activity in particular.[111]

These themes are absolutely central to the Marxist tradition. The concept of "alienated labour" is crucial for an understanding of Marxism. Morris, writing and thinking to a certain extent in a different tradition from the one that formed the matrix of Marx's own intellectual development,[112] reached conclusions essentially similar to those of the early Marx, the Marx of the Grundrisse, and the Marx of the chapters on commodity fetishism in volume 1 of Capital, and indeed of the whole of that work.[113]

The appearance of E.P. Thompson's biography of Morris in 1955 reflected to some degree the beginning of the rediscovery of the early Marx in post-war Europe,[114] particularly the Marx of the "Paris Manuscripts",[115] and The German Ideology,[116] texts that were unknown even to Lenin. The theme of alienation that runs through these works has been at the basis of at least the two major strands in post-war philosophy and social thought.[117] Important critical works, such as Istvan Meszaros' Marx's Theory of Alienation[118] have firmly established the importance of the concept in Marxist theory despite attempts by Althusserian structuralists to place an intellectual ban on it.[119]

Morris undoubtedly made major contributions to the Marxist theory of alienation, particularly in its aesthetic dimension. The concepts he developed were enriched by a profound grasp of history, which is clear from a reading of such works as the lecture Art and Labour (1884) and the book he co-authored with Belfort Bax: Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome (1893).[120]

Morris admitted that he had little aptitude for pure economic studies, yet his writings indicate a firm grasp of some central Marxist economic concepts, such as the division of labour and surplus value.[122] He certainly did tend to underestimate the importance of the national aspirations of oppressed peoples in cases like Ireland,[121] although he was far from unusual among European socialists in this respect; even Marx and Engels themselves showed inconsistencies of this question.[123]

Morris' vision, and he was a visionary, is best seen in the utopian romance News from Nowhere (1891). Paul Meier, the French scholar, has written an important book establishing the firm links between Morris' outlook in that book, and the perspective of the communist future developed by Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Programme.[124] Originally inspired by the negative example of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, a regimented "state socialist" utopia set in the 21st century,[125] Morris's book has been described aptly as a "scientific Utopia"[126] and the "first utopia which is not utopian".[127]

Apart from its vision of a future communist society, which depicts the Thames Valley 200 years hence, when the restraints of the division of labour have largely been overcome and where a totally new attitude to work and leisure prevails,[128] the most striking feature of News from Nowhere is its historical realism -- the detailed description in it of the transition from the old society.[129] A class struggle view is sharply in evidence here.[130]


In conclusion we could briefly look at Morris's historical status with the traditions of the British and international labour movements. Historians have unhesitatingly considered that Morris was "admitted to be the most influential socialist of his day in Britain",[131] and "the greatest of English socialists".[132] His influence on the Independent Labour Party and the labour movement as a whole in Britain is well established, but even today one can read accounts that tie in Morris as a "father figure" of reformist Labourism, which is something else again.[133] Individual socialist leaders of the pre-World War I working-class movement in Britain have testified to the great influence Morris had on them.[134] Morris's influence has been detected in currents as diverse as the Guild Socialists[135] and the ultra-sectarian Socialist Party of Great Britain.[136] But Morris's central significance lies in the direct inspiration he gave to the broad revolutionary left of the labour movement in Britain, from the Social Democratic Federation, through the early Communist Party, and down to the anti-Stalinist left of the post-World War II period.[137]

Morris's international stature is in some ways an open question. Perry Anderson has maintained, in a footnote in his Considerations on Western Marxism, that Morris "unjustly remained without much influence even within his own country, and was unknown outside it".[138] This is a surprising judgement. We have seen that Morris had a quite definite influence on the British labour tradition. But internationally as well, he was far from being "unknown". For one thing he had attended the founding congress of the Socialist International in Paris in 1889,[139] and was received there as the "most distinguished British representative".[140] He was elected to the International Executive Committee.[141] And News from Nowhere has been described, in a major work on the history of international socialism, as "a classic of the movement".[142]

The currency and influence of William Morris's ideas and example will no doubt extend, both within the international labour movement and in society at large, as major interpretative works such as those by E.P. Thompson and Paul Meier continue to be discussed and subjected to critical appraisal. Study of the contribution of this outstanding socialist should be among the priorities of those who are seeking a road to the full emancipation of humankind.


1. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky: 1921-1929 (Oxford, 1959) p. v.

2. The State and Revolution, Collected Works, vol. 24 (Moscow, 1965).

3. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (London, 2nd ed., 1977) p. 727.

4. This point is put strongly by Paul Meier, William Morris: the Marxist Dreamer (Hassocks, Sussex, 1978), 2 vols., vol. 1, p. x.

5. J.W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris (London, 1912), 2 vols.

6. William Morris: the Man and the Myth (London, 1964) ch. 1.

7. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

8. Ibid., pp. 11-14.

9. William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement (London, 1921). See the famous passage that has Morris disavowing Marxist political economy: p. 32. Laurence Thompson, in The Enthusiasts: a Biography of John and Katherine Bruce Glasier (London, 1971), holds that Glasier's memoir "should perhaps be taken as impressionist in its detail rather than strictly factual", p. 244.

10. See Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, Appendix 2. John Y. LeBourgeois, "William Morris and the Marxist Myth", Durham University Journal, vol. 39 (1976-77), pp. 76-82, has attempted to refute some of Thompson's arguments and defend Glasier's memoir as a source.

11. See Thompson's comments in the postscript of the 1977 edition of William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, pp. 769-70.

12. See, for example, J.N. Evans, Great Figures in the Labour Movement (Oxford, 1966), ch. 1.

13. For example, James Hulse, Revolutionists in London (Oxford, 1970), p. 78.

14. Anarchism (Harmondsworth, 1963), p. 15

15. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, part 1, ch. 1. See also Philip Henderson, William Morris (Harmondsworth, 1973), ch. 1.

16. J.L. Talmon, in Romanticism and Revolt (London, 1967), comments on romanticism's "dual" character; its reactionary as well as its progressive strains: p. 157. Bertrand Russel, in his History of Western Philosophy

(London, 1961), marks out the romantic movement as an enemy of Whiggery: Book 3, ch. 16.

17. The Age of Revolution (London, 1962), p. 259. It is of some significance to note that the young Marx was profoundly influenced by romanticism, as his earliest literary efforts demonstrate. See David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (New York, 1973), p. 22. As Alvin Gouldner notes, however, in his essay "Romanticism and Classicism: Deep Structures in Social Science", For Sociology (Harmondsworth, 1975), part 2, ch. 11, Marx later rejected it as essentially "ineffectual": p. 340.

18. See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (Harmondsworth, 1963). Williams situates Morris as a pivotal figure in the tradition he discusses.

19. See "How I Became a Socialist" (1894), in A.L. Morton (ed.), William Morris: Political Writings (London, 1973), pp. 243-44, and also the letter to Andreas Scheu: September 5, 1883; Henderson (ed.), The Letters of William Morris (London, 1950) p. 185.

20. "The Condition of England", "Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, London, 1843", Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London, 1975), vol. 3, pp. 444-69.

21. (Oxford, 1909; originally published, 1843) p. 192.

22. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Collected Works, vol. 6 (London, 1976), pp. 486-87.

23. "How I became a Socialist", p. 243. See also Alasdair Clayre, Work and Play (London, 1974).

24. The Works of John Ruskin (London, 1904-12), vol. 10: see, in particular, ch. 6, "The Nature of Gothic". On the medieval orientation in 19th century thought in general and its influence on Morris, see Margaret Grennan, William Morris: Medievalist and Revolutionary (New York, 1945).

25. Ruskin's "Unto This Last", The Works of John Ruskin, Vol. 17, pp. 5-119, contains passages extolling the "paternal" authority of employers. See the comments in Williams, Culture and Society, pp. 145-46.

26. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, part 2, ch. 2.

27. Ibid., ch. 1.

28. Letter to Scheu, p. 187.

29. For a good account of the agitation see Richard Shannon, The Crisis of Imperialism: 1865-1915 (St. Albans, Herts., 1976), pp. 123-33.

30. Asa Briggs (ed.), William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs (Harmondsworth, 1962), p. 80. The Eastern Question Association contained a contingent of active trade unionists, including Henry Broadhurst, secretary of the Trades Union Congress Parliamentary Committee. See Henry Pelling, A History of British Trade Unionism (Harmondsworth, 1963), p. 84.

31. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, pp. 223-25.

32. Ibid., p. 266. See also the letter to Scheu, p. 188.

33. "Chapters on Socialism" (1879), Geraint L. Williams (ed.), John Stuart Mill on Politics and Society (Glasgow, 1976), pp. 335-38. In his article "How I Became a Socialist", Morris wrote that these writings of Mill "put the finishing touch to my conversion to Socialism". p. 242.

34. p. 494.

35. Raymond Postgate, Pocket History of the British Working Class (Tillicoultry, Scotland, 1964), p. 57.

36. See, for example, G.D.H. Cole, "A History of Socialist Thought", Marxism and Anarchism: 1850-1890 (London, 1964) ch. 14.

37. This point is made by Thompson, "At the Point of Decay", Out of Apathy (London, 1960), p. 3. There are those who have claimed that no socialist upturn of any kind took place in this period. Theodore Rothstein, From Chartism to Labourism (London, 1983: originally published 1929) holds that "the [1880s and 1890s] ... represent the lowest point in the class consciousness of the English workers... The last quarter of the last century stands out in the history of the labour movement, not only of England but of the whole world, as a period of unparallelled stagnation, decay, and complete absence of any vitality". Thus the whole of the period that gave rise to the first mass socialist international is written off as a dead loss.

38. See Hobsbawm, "Dr. Marx and the Victorian Critics", Labouring Men

(London, 1964) pp. 239-50.

39. Philip S. Foner (ed.), When Karl Marx Died: Comments in 1883 (New York,

1973). The Times only reported Marx's death at all as a result of receiving a memo from its Paris correspondent.

40. See "England in 1845 and 1885", Marx and Engels, Articles on Britain (Moscow, 1971), pp. 388-94.

41. Ernest Mandel has situated the period 1874-93 within a historical presentation of "long waves" in capitalist development, describing the period as one of "decelerated growth", where a first technological revolution (based on the machine-made steam engine) would down. See Late Capitalism (London, 1978), ch. 4.

42. See Cole and Postgate, The Common People 1746-1946 (London, 1961) ch. 36. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (Harmondsworth, 1969), links the "Great Depression" to the rise of mass socialist parties in Europe; p. 129.

43. See S. Maccoby, English Radicalism 1853-1886 (London, 1938). Among other items the early program demanded adult suffrage, triennial parliaments, equal electoral districts, payment of MPs, abolition of the House of Lords as a legislative chamber, independence for Ireland and land nationalisation: pp. 329-30. See also Paul Thompson, "Liberals, Radicals and Labour in London, 1880-1900", Past and Present, No. 27 (April 1964), p. 77.

44. The link here is established by Edward Royle, Radical Politics 1790-1900: Religion and Unbelief (London, 1971), ch. 5-7.

45. On the significance of Professor Beesly and British positivism for the labour and radical movements see Royden Harrison, Before the Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics 1861-1881 (London, 1965).

46. The importance of Hyndman in steering the Democratic Federation in the direction of revolutionary socialism is emphasised by M.S. Wilkins, "The Non-Socialist Origins of England's First Important Socialist Organization", International Review of Social History, vol. 4 (1959), pp. 199-207.

47. England for All (London, 1973: originally published 1881). See Marx's hostile comments in his letter to F.A. Sorge, December 15, 1881; Labour Monthly, vol. 15 (September 1933), pp. 580-81.

48. See Hobsbawm, "Hyndman and the SDF", Labouring Men, pp. 231-39.

49. "Hyndman on Marx", Collected Works, vol. 27 (Moscow, 1963), p. 309.

50. For example Henry Collins, "The Marxism of the Social Democratic Federation", Briggs and John Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History 1886-1923 (London, 1971), pp. 47-70.

51. The Historical Basis of Socialism in England (London, 1883).

52. Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party 1880-1900 (Oxford, 1966), p. 13.

53. John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse: the Lost History of the British Anarchists (London, 1978) gives a good account of this process.

54. Collins, "The English Branches of the First International", Briggs and Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History (London, 1960), p. 275.

55. One of these essays, George Bernard Shaw's "The Economic Basis of Socialism", was reprinted in that author's Essays in Fabian Socialism (London, 1932). The essay shows the strong influence of marginalist economic theory. Fabian ideology by the late 1880s was articulate enough to have influence on continental socialists, for example Eduard Bernstein: see Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism (New York, 1952), pp. 55-57. H.G. Wells makes some interesting comments on the relative strengths of the socialist tendencies in London by the late 1880s. See his Experiment in Autobiography, vol. 1 (London, 1934), p. 247.

56. Mary Peter Mack, "The Fabians and Utilitarianism", Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 16, no. 1 (January 1955), pp. 76-88.

57. This phrase is A.M. Macbriar's, Fabian Socialism and English Politics (Cambridge, 1966), p. 6.

58. See the caustic essay by Hobsbawm, "The Fabians Reconsidered", Labouring Men, pp. 250-72, and the even more caustic remarks by Leon Trotsky in "Where Is Britain Going?"; George Novack (ed.), Leon Trotsky On Britain (New York, 1973), ch. 3, 4.

59. A good example is, of course, Bernard Shaw, who appeared on many platforms, including those of Morris' Socialist League. See Joseph O. Baylen, "George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist League: Some Unpublished Letters", International Review of Social History, vol. 7 (1962), pp. 426-29. Edward Carpenter was another, and Carpenter is in some ways typical of disaffiliated intellectuals: see Sheila Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks, Socialism and the New Life (London, 1977).

60. See "How I Became a Socialist", where Morris describes his encounter with Marx's Capital: p. 242.

61. The phrase is Morris'. See E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, p. 244.

62. Ibid., part 3, ch. 2.

63. (London, 1884).

64. Joseph Clayton, The Rise and Decline of Socialism in Great Britain 1884-1924 (London, 1928), p. 12.

65. E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, pp. 334-42.

66. For a discussion of the problem see Trotsky, The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution (New York, 1972).

67. See Morris's comments in the letter to John Carruthers, December 28, 1884, May Morris (ed.), William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist, vol. 2 (London, 1936) p. 593.

68. Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party, pp. 40-41.

69. Hobsbawm, "Hyndman and the SDF", passim.

70. Collected Works, vol. 31 (Moscow, 1966), pp. 13-118.

71. It was thus, as E.P. Thompson puts it, "an ugly, ragged split, rather than a clean break... It prepared the way for further splits and secessions in both bodies", William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, p. 365.

72. See Lenin's account and analysis in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Collected Works, vol. 7 (Moscow, 1961), pp. 205-425. the split in the Russian movement took place in 1903.

73. Letter to Carruthers, p. 595.

74. Willard Wolfe, for instance, in his From Radicalism to Socialism (New Haven, 1975), holds that the split inflicted "irreparable damage ... on the image and morale of the Socialist movement", p. 108.

75. Memoirs (London, 1976; originally published 1923), p. 32.

76. "The Manifesto of the Socialist League", E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, appendix 1.

77. Ibid., p. 737.

78. William Morris: His Life and Work (London, 1975), pp. 285-86.

79. Bax was something of an oddity in the movement, as he combined membership of the SDF (he rejoined after the demise of the SL) with membership in the Men's Anti-Suffrage League: see Rowbotham, Hidden from History (Harmondsworth, 1975), p. 95. On Bax's theoretical outlook see Stanley Pierson, "Ernest Belfort Bax 1854-1926: the Encounter of Marxism and Late Victorian Culture", Journal of British Studies, vol. 12, no. 1 (November 1972), pp. 39-61.

80. See the letters to Bernstein, December 29, 1884, Labour Monthly, vol. 15 (October 1933), p. 649, and Sorge, January 29, 1885, Ibid., (November 1933), p. 708.

81. Letter to Kautsky, June 22, 1884, Ibid., (October 1933), p. 645.

82. Letter to Laura Lafargue, September 13, 1886: Engels, Paul and Laura Lafargue, Correspondence, vol. 1, 1868-1886 (Moscow, 1959), p. 370.

83. Gustav Mayer, in Friedrich Engels: a Biography (London, 1936), observes: "Although he recognised the good will of a man like William Morris, he kept away from the League...", p. 251.

84. See, for example, Jeff Coulter, "Marxism and the Engels Paradox", The Socialist Register (London, 1971), pp. 129-56.

85. See Novack's well-argued essay, "In Defense of Engels", Polemics in Marxist Philosophy (New York, 1978), pp. 85-115.

86. James Hinton, in Labour and Socialism: a History of the British Labour Movement (Brighton, 1983), has argued that the SL was kept together "only by the force of Morris's personality", p. 41.

87. Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, vol. 2 (New York, 1976), p. 44. Morris's anti-parliamentarism is evident from the article "socialism and Politics", Commonweal (July, 1885). The poet W.B. Yeats, in his Autobiographies

(London, 1956), mentions that Morris tried to persuade him as a Socialist League "contact" to have nothing to do with the "parliamentary socialists", p. 147.

88. Robin Blackburn, "Marxism: Theory of Proletarian Revolution", Blackburn (ed.), Revolution and Class Struggle: a Reader in Marxist Politics (Glasgow, 1977), p. 47.

89. Left-Wing Communism, ch. 7.

90. Max Beer's comment, in his A History of British Socialism (London, 1929), vol. 2, that "it would be hard to find a socialist organisation which exhibited so much talent and self-sacrifice and at the same time so little organising and executive capacity, as the Socialist League", p. 255, seems a bit hard.

91. This point is made by Page Arnot, op. cit., p. 37.

92. Ibid., pp. 41-77.

93. The pace of his activity may be discerened from the diary he kept from January to April 1887. See Florence Boos (ed.), "William Morris's Socialist Diary", History Workshop, no. 13 (Spring 1982), pp. 1-75.

94. On this subject see E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, pp. 393-412.

95. Ibid., pp. 483-503. The agitation culminated in major clashes with the state, and several deaths.

96. On the New Unionism see Pelling, British Trade Unionism, pp. 97-103.

97. E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, pp. 435-45.

98. "[On the Dock Strike]", Marx and Engels, Articles on Britain, p. 401. See also Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London (Harmondsworth, 1976), especially ch. 17, and Ben Tillet, Memories and Reflections (London, 1931), ch. 14-16.

99. See, for example, Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris (London, 1967), pp. 205-06, and Trevor Lloyd, "Morris versus Hyndman: Commonweal and Justice", Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, vol. 9, no. 4 (December 1976), p. 125. Hulse, Revolutionists in London, is an exception. Hulse's claim, on pp. 16-17, that the socialist groups of the 1880s "filled the columns of their respective periodicals with criticisms of the other organisations" is patently untrue of Commonweal, and it is quite clear that Hulse cannot have looked through the files.

100. The concept of a weekly revolutionary paper "combining" the tasks of news organ and theoretical journal was developed in the Leninist tradition by James P. Cannon, editor for many years last century of the US weekly The Militant.

101. E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, pp. 503-11.

102. May 5, 1889.

103. E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, pp. 559-80. Compare this account with Quail, The Slow-Burning Fuse, ch. 5.

104. This point is strongly made by Tony Lane, The Union Makes Us Strong (London, 1974), p. 96.

105. E.P. Thompson, "Homage to Tom Maguire", Briggs and Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History, pp. 276-316. The influence of the Socialist League in Yorkshire and on the Clyde is emphasised in Cole, A Short History of the British Working Class Movement (London, 1948), p. 235.

106. Hyndman, in The Record of an Adventurous Life (London, 1911), claims that Morris accepted the blame for the split; p. 362.

107. "Communism", Political Writings, p. 239.

108. See Chushichi Tzuzuki, H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism (London, 1961), p. 125.

109. See "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" (1884), Political Writings, pp. 86-108; "Art and Labour" (1884, Eugene D. Lemire (ed.), The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris (Detroit, 1969), pp. 94-118; "Attractive Labour", Commonweal, June, 1885; "Artist and Artisan", ibid., September 10, 1887; "The Hopes of Civilisation" (1885), Political Writings, pp. 159-81.

110. "`How Shall We Live Then?': an Unpublished Lecture of William Morris", International Review of Social History, vol. 16 (1971), pp. 217-40; "How We Live and How We Might Live" (1884), Political Writings, pp. 134-58; "The Society of the Future" n.d., ibid., pp. 188-204; "True and False Society"

(1887), Lectures on Socialism, Collected Works, vol. 23 (London, 1915), pp. 215-37.

111. See "The Socialist Ideal", Holbrook Jackson (ed.), William Morris on Art and Socialism (London, 1947), pp. 317-24; "The Worker's Share of Art", Commonweal, April 1885. For a more recent amplification of some of Morris's ideas see Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art: a Marxist Approach (Harmondsworth, 1963).

112. This point is well developed by Pierson, Marxism and the Origins of British Socialism: the Struggle for a New Consciousness (New York, 1973), but the author's claim that in Morris's case Marxism was "superimposed on his earlier ideas rather than integrated with them", p. 80, has been challenged by E.P. Thompson, who argues forcefully that a successful fusion between the romantic tradition and Marxism took place with Morris; William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, p. 779.

113. Two critics who have identified the theme of alienation as central in Morris are John Goode, "William Morris and the Dream of Revolution", in John Lucas (ed.), Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1971), p. 236, and Lionel Trilling, "Aggression and Utopia: a Note on William Morris's `News from Nowhere'", Psychoanalytic Quarterly, vol. 42 (1973), p. 219.

114. See some of the comments in Novack, "The Problem of Alienation", in Ernest Mandel and George Novack, The Marxist Theory of Alienation (New York, 1973), pp. 54-57.

115. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dirk Struik (New York, 1964).

116. This book contains a famous passage briefly outlining what life might be like in communist society, where the division of labour has been transcended. See Marx and Engels, The German Ideology (extracts), Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (eds.), Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (New York, 1967), pp. 424-25. The passage has been dismissed as "romantic" and "utopian" by at least one leading Marx scholar, Shlomo Avineri: "Marx's Vision of Future Society and the Problem of Utopianism", Dissent, vol. 20, no. 3 (Summer, 1973), pp. 323-31. But Engels, in his classic pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific certainly never held that believing in the communist future and attempting to visualise it is the same thing as utopianism.

117. See Novack, "Marxism and Existentialism", in Polemics in Marxist Philosophy, pp. 59-85.

118. Meszaros' study owes a great deal to Georg Lukacs' book History and Class Consciousness, which appeared in the early 1920s.

119. Louis Althusser, in For Marx (London, 1971; originally published 1964) attempted to read the concept of alienation out of the Marxist corpus. The structuralist system that Althusser attempted to erect in the name of Marx has been effectively dismantled by E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and other Essays (London, 1978), pp. 193-399.

120. This book answers the charge laid by Raphael Samuel in his essay "British Marxist Historians 1880-1980" part 1, New Left Review, no. 120 (march-April, 1980), that Morris was excessively "medieval", as it specifically includes a chapter entitled "The Rough Side of the Middle Ages".

121. "How I Became a Socialist", p. 242.

122. See, for example, "Monopoly: or How Labour is Robbed", On Art and Socialism, pp. 194-207, and "Dawn of a New Epoch" (1886), Signs of Change, Collected Works, vol. 33, pp. 121-40.

123. See Morris's article "Ireland and Italy", which opposes Irish nationalism, Commonweal, October 1885. The broader theoretical issues involved here are covered by Michael Lowy, "Marxists and the National Question", New Left Review (March-April, 1976), pp. 81-100.

124. Meier, William Morris: the Marxist Dreamer, passim. Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, developed the famous notion of a two-stage transition to communist society, the first stage of which (socialism) would be based on the principle of "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his work". Only with the supersession of "bourgeois right" and the full reintegration of the individual and the community, would it become possible for society to inscribe on its banners the slogan "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". See Marx, Selected Works vol. 2 (London, 1942), pp. 564-66. The latter section of the German Marxist August Bebel's book Woman Under Socialism, dealing with future society, has much in common with Morris's News from Nowhere, and appeared at about the same time. See Society of the Future (Moscow, 1971).

125. See Morris's review of the book, Looking Backward, Commonweal, June 22, 1889.

126. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, p. 693.

127. Morton, The English Utopia (London, 1952), p. 164.

128. As Patrick Brantlinger writes in his article "`News from Nowhere': Morris's Socialist Anti-Novel", Victorian Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (September 1975), the book "is the best fictional version of the future according to Marxism in English", p. 39.

129. This occurs in ch. 17: "How the Change Came": "It was war from beginning to end, bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it", Collected Works, vol. 16 (London, 1912), p. 104.

130. It is possibly of interest to note in passing the extremely ignorant comment made by the critic Northrop Frye, in his article "The Meeting of Past and Future in William Morris", Studies in Romanticism, vol. 21, no. 3 (Autumn, 1982). Frye considers that "the later Morris was, perhaps, that very rare bird, a Marxist uncorrupted by Leninism", p. 311. Not only is this statement chronologically absurd, it betrays a total lack of knowledge of Lenin's politics, particularly the politics of Lenin's The State and Revolution. As a matter of fact, as Meier points out in William Morris: the Marxist Dreamer, a copy of News from Nowhere was found among Lenin's books at his death: p. 577.

131. John Bowle, Politics and Opinion in the 19th Century (London, 1963), p. 431.

132. Morton and George Tate, The British Labour Movement 1770-1920 (London, 1956), p. 168.

133. See, for example, Peter Stansky, William Morris (Oxford, 1983), p. 60.

134. For example Will Thorne, My Life's Battles (London, n.d.), p. 47. See also Dona Torr, Tom Mann and His Times, vol. 1 (London, 1956), p. 187.

135. See Cole's article "Collectivism, Syndicalism and Guilds" (1917), reprinted in Ken Coates and Tony Topham (eds.), Workers' Control (London, 1970), ch. 2, pp. 40-42. See also Russell, Roads to Freedom (London, 1970), pp. 64-66, and Beer, A History of British Socialism, p. 258.

136. Robert Barltrop, The Monument: the Story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (London, 1975), pp. 12-13. This group originally split from the SDF in the early 1900s.

137. On the latter developments see, in particular, the two articles by Peter Sedgwick, "The Two New Lefts", David Widgery (ed.), The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 131-53, and "Varieties of Socialist Thought", Bernard Crick and W.A. Robson (eds.), Protest and Discontent (Harmondsworth, 1970), pp. 49-53.

138. (London, 1976) p. 5n.

139. See Morris's "Impressions of the Paris Congress", Commonweal, July 27, 1889.

140. James Joll, The Second International 1889-1914 (London, 1974), p. 37.

141. Kapp, Eleanor Marx, p. 315.

142. Julius Braunthal, History of the International 1864-1914 (London, 1966), p. 202.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 08/05/2012 - 16:55



Jane Ennis (Green Left International Officer)

I have made the title of this paper into a question rather than a statement, since what I want to investigate is the extent of the Green movement’s debt to Morris. Some research on this topic has also been done by Florence Boos, who has also edited Morris’s Socialist Diary.
I want to suggest that many of the ideas and practices which we advocate today in the Green movement owe their origins to Morris – perhaps indirectly [Footnote 1]. He seems to have been one of the first Victorians to address himself consciously to the question of our relationship with Nature, the natural world – i.e. rather than just write about it, or paint it, he suggested concrete steps that might be taken to preserve and enhance the beauty of the natural world and of the countryside. Some of his major interests are those which are still very much central concerns of the Green movement today – for instance his concern with THE NATURE OF WORK. His discussion of the Nature of Work develops from ideas first discussed by Carlyle and Ruskin.

We will first of all consider the final paragraph of A DREAM OF JOHN BALL:

But as I turned away shivering and downhearted, on a sudden came the frightful noise of the “hooters,” one after the other, that call the workmen to the factories, this one the after- breakfast one, more by token. So I grinned surlily, and dressed and got ready for my day’s “work” as I call it, but which many a man besides John Ruskin (though not many in his position) would call “play.” 

This is a point that Morris develops at greater length in NEWS FROM NOWHERE. Because Morris enjoyed his work and was self-employed – indeed, was an employer – many people would have thought of his work as play, because it was enjoyable. It seems as though the section on Workers’ Rights in the  Manifesto for a Sustainable Society of the Green Party of England and Wales.

WR101 We define work in the full sense, not the traditional limited definition as employment in the formal economy. Green thinking recognises the latter as one part of the whole – a large part, but not the only one. Work exists in a variety of forms, each related to and often affecting others, like species in an ecosystem. Work covers all the activities people undertake to support themselves, their families and communities.

I referred to Carlyle because he perhaps stimulated Morris’s examination of the Nature of Work. Carlyle himself never really tries to define what work is, and he certainly has no truck with the idea of Pleasure in Work – in fact he more or less dismisses the idea of happiness as an irrelevance; he almost seems to advocate ‘useless toil’ as being at least preferable to ‘idleness’ – however you define idleness. Certainly Carlyle, writing in 1843, was in a position to observe the Industrial Revolution at first hand, and to see the degradation of the worker from an ‘artisan’ to a ‘hand’, the appendage to a machine. But the remedies he proposed were vastly different from those proposed by Morris – not only is Carlyle vague about the definition of work, but he sees restoration of feudal authority as the only true remedy for the evils of laissez-faire capitalism. In fact both Carlyle and Ruskin seem to hold the view that if everyone remained content in their stations, and the workers worked and their ‘natural superiors’ recognised and lived by the principle of noblesse oblige everything would be fine and there would be no need for revolution.
Perhaps Morris’s concept of The Nature of Work should be seen as a reaction against the Protestant ethic expressed in Ruskin’s writings, and the dour Calvinism of Carlyle” [Footnote 2]

I think the problem with Carlyle and Ruskin was that they never quite came to terms with the fact that work basically consists of the production of commodities, or more properly the production and exchange of commodities; Morris had grasped this even before he read Marx, and he discusses:
(a) what commodities should be produced.
(b) how they should be produced.
(c) by whom they should be produced.
(d) for whom they should be produced.
(e) how they should be distributed.

A related theme is the question of how Morris’s expression of his love of nature, of landscape, of the English countryside, (a) is expressed in his poetry and later prose works; how it changed and developed as he travelled the road to Socialism – I think it can be convincingly demonstrated that it did change. Look at these excerpts from the Prologue to The Earthly Paradise:

Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;
Think,that below the bridge green lapping waves
Smite some few keels that bear Levantine staves,
Cut from the yew-wood on the burnt-up hill.

(this introductory stanza continues with images of a thriving medieval port).

The discussion therefore involves two main themes, following on from the above quote.
1) Morris developed from a poet who claimed to be a ‘Dreamer of Dreams’ and asked the rhetorical question, “Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?” into someone who took action to set the crooked straight, both literally and metaphorically. In fact I almost took ‘Setting the Crooked Straight’ as my title. The ‘crooked’ meaning – the injustices of laissez-faire capitalism, which he wanted to set right. In all the early poems we can clearly see his love of nature and of the English countryside – and some of this is in the tradition of pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry doesn’t necessarily lead to a Green Socialist position – the point being that in order to write pastoral poetry you need to know about the tradition of pastoral poetry, not to be aware of the realities of sheep farming – this may in fact detract from the idyllic nature of the landscape described in pastoral poetry.

2) HOWEVER, in works such as News from Nowhere, is he any less a ‘dreamer of dreams’? I think not – and in many ways this dreams resembles his vision of the Middle Ages, certainly in the way people dress and the style of their houses and gardens. (I shall return to the topic of gardens later). His vision of the world as it had been (or as Morris thought it ought to have been!) is similar to his vision of a harmonious socialist society in News from Nowhere.
I should also like us to examine the following passage from SIGURD THE VOLSUNG, which appeared in 1876. [Footnote 3].

Now sheathed is the Wrath of Sigurd[footnote 4]; for as wax withstands the flame,
So the kings of the land withstood him and the glory of his fame.
And before the grass is growing, or the kine have fared from the stall
The song of the fair-speech masters goes up in the Niblung hall.
And they sing of the golden Sigurd and the face without a foe,
And the lowly man exalted and the mighty brought alow;
And they say, when the sun of summer shall come aback to the land,
It shall shine on the fields of the tiller that fears no heavy hand;
That the sheaf shall be for the plougher, and the loaf for him that sowed,
Through every furrowed acre where the son of Sigmund rode.

Now this does demonstrate at the very least a concept of Victorian philanthropy, and also contains Biblical references or echoes. [Footnote 5]. SIGURD is actually full of Biblical references, for reasons which need not detain us here, but I think we may remind ourselves that the development of Socialism in England owes something of a debt to the Methodist church, although this is something in which Morris himself had no interest.

Thus we could say that Morris’s vision of the Middle Ages as a time of artistic excellence (he regarded the Renaissance as the beginning of degeneracy and decay in the arts) functioned as a blueprint for what the world might be like after the Socialist revolution. He did not idealise the medieval period in the way Ruskin did, or the way the Pre-Raphaelites did in their paintings, but he was aware that the art/craft of the medieval period was an expression of some creative spark that (he felt) the Victorian period had lost. Thus in some ways Morris could hardly be said to have idealised the medieval period at all. He admired the art of the period, which is not quite the same thing.

I did say that his expression of his vision changed – but the vision itself did not change all that much. He saw Socialism as the means to achieve his vision of an integrated, whole society, in which the landscape was not damaged, and in which the stark division between town and country was abolished – expressed most elaborately in NEWS FROM NOWHERE, of course. The idea of the abolition of the division between town and country (i.e. the abolition of large manufacturing districts such as, in the 19th. century, Leeds, Manchester, etc) was a common feature of Utopian writing. [Footnote 6] – and Marx had stated that one of the tasks of Socialism would be to end this division. Again, this is something that most environmentalists regard as a priority, even if they may not have heard of Morris and don’t approach the question from a Marxist perspective. Note, for instance, these extracts from the Green Party’s MANIFESTO FOR A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY:CY201 We believe that is is a fundamental human right and obligation for people to live in a style that ensures the can hand on to their descendants an environment that is at least as rich in wildlife and attractive landscapes as when they inherited it.
CY202 Rural and urban communities meet the many different needs of people in a healthy society. They are not separate from each other and one should not dominate the other. In a green society, towns will not grow beyond the ability of the countryside around them to provide fresh and healthy water and food, recreation, timber and wildlife habitats. There will be a constant flow of environmental, social and cultural information between them. Towns will return compostable materials to the countryside. These urban communities will integrate into all their decisions the impact on a vital, thriving rural community.

The germ of these ideas can be found in Morris’s Useful Work versus Useless Toil and Art and Socialism. In Useful Work versus Useless Toil, a talk given at the Hampstead Liberal Club on January 16, 1884, Morris said;
‘There are few men, for instance, who would not wish to spend part of their lives in the most necessary and pleasantest of all work – cultivating the earth. One thing which will make this variety of employment possible will be the form that education will take in a socially ordered community.’

Art and Socialism was a talk given to the Secular Society of Leicester, Jan 23, 1884, in the course of which Morris asks,

What are the necessaries for a good citizen? First, honourable and fitting work….
The second necessity is decency of surroundings, including
1. Good Lodging. 2. Ample space. 3. General order and beauty. That is:
1. Our houses must be well-built, clean and healthy. 2. There must be abundant garden space in our towns, and our towns must not eat up the fields and natural features of the country. Nay, I demand even that there be left waste places and wilds in it, or romance and poetry, that is Art, will die out among us. 3.Order and beauty means that not only our houses must be stoutly and properly built, but also that they be ornamented duly; that the fields be not only left for cultivation, but also that they be not spoilt by it any more than a garden is spoilt; no-one for instance to be allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape; neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder. (emphasis added).

The vision of society in NEWS FROM NOWHERE is one that is close to the vision of a possible future society expressed in many green/environmental manifestos and blueprints. For instance, the Thames is so clean – due to a lack of industrial pollution – that there are again salmon in the river near Hammersmith. The society has no money, it is a barter economy, people produce (a) what they need (b) what they LIKE. Piccadilly is a market, but one ‘ignorant of the arts of buying and selling’ – beautiful hand-made craft goods are exchanged and donated. The whole of London has reverted to being villages and parks. All the houses have gardens and (of course, this being Morris’s dream!) all the buildings are well-built and attractively ornamented, but NOT VULGAR.

Morris repeated over and over again his hatred of the ugliness caused by rapid industrialisation; poisoning of the atmosphere by sulphurous emissions from factories, pollution of rivers, cutting down of trees – in short, the wholesale destruction of what we should now call the environment. The following examples are taken from Art Under Plutocracy, delivered at University College, Oxford, November 14, 1883. The meeting was chaired by Ruskin: Morris’s lecture caused a furore, especially at the point at which Morris declared his adherence to the Socialist cause and asked his audience to support it, at least financially if in no other way.

a. To keep the air pure and the rivers clean, to take some pains to keep the meadows and tillage as pleasant as reasonable use will allow them to be; to allow peaceable citizens freedom to wander where they will, so they do no harm to garden or cornfield; nay, even to leave here and there some piece of waste or mountain sacredly free from fence or tillage as a memory of man’s struggles with nature in his early days; is it too much to ask of civilisation to be so far thoughtful of man’s pleasure and rest, and to help so far as this her children to whom she has most often set such heavy tasks of grinding labour? Surely not an unreasonable asking. But not a whit of it shall we get under the present system of society. That loss of the instinct for beauty which has involved us in the loss of popular art is also busy in depriving us of the only compensation possible for that loss, by surely and not slowly destroying the beauty of the very face of the earth….not only have whole counties of England, and the heavens that hang over them, disappeared beneath a crust of unutterable grime, but the disease which, to a visitor coming from the times of art, reason and order, would seem to be a love of dirt and ugliness for its own sake, spreads all over the country….

b. And why have our natural hopes been so disappointed? Surely because in these latter days, in which as a matter of fact machinery has been invented, it was by no means invented with the aim of saving the pain of labour. The phrase labour-saving machinery is elliptical, and means machinery which saves the cost of labour, not the labour itself, which will be expended when saved on tending other machines.

c. I tell you that the very essence of competitive commerce is waste.

Morris owed something to Ruskin, who certainly had an instinctive hatred of the ugliness and pollution of industrial landscapes, but whose expression of this hatred failed to reach as far as an attempt to analyse the causes – Morris did try to analyse the causes, once he became an active Socialist. And the actual pollutants were different; that is, pollution didn’t to any great extent result from the use of pesticides on agricultural land – this is more of a 20th and 21st century phenomenon – it resulted from the production methods in the manufacturing towns, and though Morris was unable to suggest solutions himself, he did suggest that research should be done to find solutions, as in this extract from THE LESSER ARTS, (originally entitled THE DECORATIVE ARTS), which was the first lecture he gave; it was given to the Trades Guild of Learning, April 12 1877.

Is money to be gathered? Cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it. That is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.
And Science – we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting-house, the counting-house and the drill sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of black silks, or the biggest of useless guns.

It is as well to recall here that the terminology we now use was not used by Morris and his contemporaries, although I am suggesting that he gave the impetus to many of our own environmental concerns. At certain points Morris still used vocabulary such as “conquering Nature”, “our struggle with Nature” and so on, which indicates that, though he did his best, he could not entirely free himself from the mind-set that saw Nature as a hostile force to be conquered and subdued, or the Conquest of Nature as something desirable … although his awareness of humanity as a part of Nature is usually to the fore. It is possible that he used this terminology as an initial point of contact with his audiences>

For most of the 19th century, “environment” [Footnote 7]was a neutral term meaning “the surroundings”, “where we live” – it didn’t have the emotive weight it carries today. Similar, the word “ecology” (first recorded in English in 1893 according to “Ecology for Beginners”, but used by Thoreau in 1856, according to the OED) was not used with any positive or negative connotations – the general public were less aware of what an ecosystem was and how it could be damaged. [Footnote 8]

I want to add here something about public awareness – Morris at least was very aware of potential, indeed actual, damage to the environment, even if he did not use this terminology. This contradicts the claim made by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his Critique of Political Ecology (New Lft Review, 84, pp. 3-32, 1974). He was obviously totally unaware of Morris’s writings when he claimed that “Industrialisation made whole towns and areas of the countryside uninhabitable as long as a hundred and fifty years ago….the ecological movement has only come into being since the districts which the bourgeoisie inhabit and their living conditions have been exposed to those environmental burdens that industrialisation brings with it. What fills their prophets with terror is not so much ecological decline, which has been present since time immemorial, as its universalisation”.[Footnote 9]

Morris, like Engels, (and even Ruskin and Carlyle, as we have seen), was perfectly well aware of the dehumanisation of work and of the degrading, cramped and unsanitary conditions in which the working class lived. And he did set out to campaign against all this. He did visit industrial towns and saw how ugly and dirty they were, and was indignant at the conditions in which the workers lived. My point throughout has been that Morris’s ideas on the environment have had a great influence on the environmental movement, and Morris never denied that he was a member of the bourgeoisie – what is true is that has taken a century or more for some of these ideas to be taken up by large numbers of people. Unfortunately, it has to be conceded that the Green movement is still perceived in some quarters as something of a middle-class hobby, at least in the UK and the USA.

It should also be observed that Morris’s interest was also – indeed primarily – in the BUILT ENVIRONMENT – his first overtly “political” act (According to E.P. Thompson in his biography of Morris) could be seen as the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. (Still in existence today).

One of the contradictions in Morris’s own working life, of course, is that his own dictum of “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”, could not be universally applied, and one of his major complaints was that much of the work of the Firm of Morris & Co.consisted of “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”. He wanted his art to be available to everyone – and, perhaps more importantly, he wanted everyone to be able to practice ART, and for ART to have the widest definition possible. This is another field in which the Green Party’s Manifesto for a Sustainable Society seems to have taken Morris’s advice to heart:

AT101 We respect individual and group creativity in all its diversity and value freedom of expression. A list of examples of the type of activity to which this statement relates would include painting, sculpture, drama, music, dance, photography, film, writing, crafts and design, and other types of creative activity not specifically mentioned here.
AT102 We value participation as well as excellence in the arts: we do not value hierarchy.
AT103 Artistic expression permeates all human activity and can be thought of holistically as part of, not separate from, people’s lives.

Morris would obviously have given pride of place to craft and design, and he himself was not interested in the performing arts, so drama is not specifically mentioned in NEWS FROM NOWHERE, but this is probably just forgetfulness rather than anything more sinister!

So perhaps I could sum up by saying that Morris has influenced the Green movement in ways which he could not have anticipated, but would surely have been happy to know about. I think, though, that it was his perspective as a Socialist activist that enabled him to develop ideas and theories that could have practical application; as a young man, his poetry celebrated the beauty of Nature, but it is in his prose writings and lectures that we see a development towards an active ‘Green Socialist’ perspective.


[1] It is also vital to acknowledge Morris’s own debt to Ruskin – he himself never tired of reiterating that he owed a great deal to Ruskin in the field of aesthetics,though he soon parted company with him on the subject of ‘Political Economy’.But what they shared was a love of the countryside – what we should now call the environment – and a dislike of the ugliness and pollution brought about by the industrialisation of the early to mid-nineteenth century. This is why this paper starts with a quote from Ruskin, rather than from Morris himself – the difference being (as you are no doubt already aware!) that Ruskin was reluctant to contemplate any solution to this problem that could have been described,however loosely, as Socialist.

[2] Although it is always possible that none of the social criticism of the 19th. century would have been possible without Carlyle.

[3]I will briefly observe here that the date 1876 is not without significance; it is the year that Wagner’s RING was first performed at Bayreuth. I have argued elsewhere that SIGURD THE VOLSUNG is an anti-RING. (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, 1993).

Click HERE to read Chapter II on the web.

[4] His sword

[5]‘The lowly man exalted and the mighty brought alow’ is a reference to The Magnificat; ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.

[6] Although not universal – Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD is a very urban (or suburban!) Utopia,and NEWS FROM NOWHERE developed at least partially as a response to this. (It’s also very American, though – did Morris take this sufficiently into account?)

[7]It appears that it was Carlyle who first used the term ‘environment’ in the sense in which we now use it, although we are accustomed to think of Morris, rather than Carlyle, as the ‘proto-Green’. Sadly, Carlyle is more deserving of the term ‘proto-Fascist’ than either ‘proto-Green’ or ‘proto-Socialist’. Of course the term Fascist had not been coined during the lifetimes of Carlyle and Morris,but it is true that some of Carlyle’s idea contained the germ of what became Fascism – which presents itself initially as anti-capitalist and in tune with Nature. It cannot be denied, however, that he did have some influence on the development of Morris’s Socialist thought.

[8] Also, now we practice and discuss Organic Gardening, but the Victorians gardened organically anyway, as the use of chemical fertilisers was in its infancy, and pesticides were almost unknown, so they didn’t use the term ‘organic’, at least not in the way we use it today, because there was no NON-organic horticulture or agriculture to oppose it.

[9]Although for all I know this claim of Enzensberger’s may by now have been refuted – or just dismissed as obviously rubbish. It was written in the 1970s, and may not still be current.