Friday, October 26, 2007

Political Activism & Great Art: William Morris

The son of capitalist parents, William Morris became a pioneer Marxian socialist.

While a student at Oxford in the 1850s Morris was involved with a group of romantic artists known as the pre-Raphaelites because they reckoned that painting had degenerated after the Middle Ages with Raphael, the first Reformation painter. Morris tried his hand at painting but became more famous as a poet, though he was involved in a wide variety of arts and crafts.

Morris began his political life in the Radical wing of the Liberal Party. In the 1880 general election he worked for the return of Gladstone, but soon became disillusioned with the new Liberal government. In 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation, an association of working class radical clubs formed in 1881. Soon after Morris joined, it changed its name to the Social Democratic Federation, proclaiming Socialism as its aim and Marxism as its theory, though in fact it never did outlive its radical-Liberal origins as it continued to advocate the same reforms of capitalism.

Morris set about studying Marxism and there can be no doubt that he did understand Marx's ideas well enough to be regarded as a Marxist. But that was not all. John Ruskin had defined 'art' as the expression of man's pleasure in his labour. Morris wholeheartedly endorsed this definition of art, with its implication that people would produce beautiful things - things of everyday use, not mere decorations - if they enjoyed their work. It was recognition that capitalism denied most people pleasure in their work that led him to become a socialist.

Hyndman, the man who had been largely instrumental in founding the Democratic Federation, was an authoritarian and tried to run the SDF as his personal organisation. This led to discontent and eventually, at the end of 1884, to a split in which Morris became the key figure in the breakaway Socialist League. Unlike the reformist SDF, the Socialist League saw its task as simply to make socialists. As Morris wrote:
Our business, I repeat, is the making of socialists, i.e., convincing people that socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles into practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible. (Where Are We Now?, 1890)
Morris found himself as the main theorist of the Socialist League. He never denied that the working class could capture political power, including parliament; but his refusal to advocate the use of parliament to get reforms upset a group, including Marx's daughter Eleanor, who in the end broke away from the Socialist League. This left Morris at the mercy of the real anti-parliamentarians and anarchists, who eventually came to dominate the League with their advocacy of violence and bomb throwing. In 1890 Morris and the Hammersmith branch seceded, carrying on independent socialist activity as the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

William Morris was an outstanding socialist activist: he frequently toured the country giving talks and wrote a prodigious amount of literature, culminating in his masterpiece about a socialist utopia, News from Nowhere (1890). He died in 1896, but eight years later the Socialist Party was formed from a group that broke with the SDF (and for much the same reasons as the League). The Socialist Party, when formulating its Declaration of Principles in 1904, drew heavily upon the Manifesto of the Socialist League that was drafted by Morris.


Coleman, S. and O'Sullivan, P., William Morris and News from Nowhere: A Vision for Our Time, 1990.

Thompson, E.P., William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 1977.

The Life and Death of Jason.


Bob Hoeppner said...

I'm as wary of socialism (production in the hands of government) as I am of capitalism (production in the hands of corporations.) I'm intrigued by the idea of distributism, as championed by G.K. Chesterton.

Dana Herbert said...

There is "collective ownership" of production in socialism, which does not necessarily mean "government ownership" of production.

Dana Herbert said...

"It was recognition that capitalism denied most people pleasure in their work that led him to become a socialist."

That is exactly what led me to become an artist and a socialist.

Bob Hoeppner said...

I like his golden rule.

I must say I enjoy my work (although it does occasionally have its frustrations.) But what resuscitated my involvement with poetry is that my work was not enough to fulfill me. After several years my poetry, work and fatherhood were not enough to completely fulfill me. One of my challenges in crafting a worthwhile life is that I'm not much of a joiner. So I tend to instinctively recoil from the idea of belonging to a collective of any kind. Hence my intrigue with distributism.

Since the death of a musician friend a couple months ago I've intensified my inward search for meaning.

Dana Herbert said...

Finding pleasure in my work keeps me out of trouble!

Bob Hoeppner said...

Given your high level of social consciousness, I'm dubious you can stay out of trouble for long!

Dana Herbert said...

Yeah, but that's the GOOD kind of trouble!

And I'm against violence. Though I did get into an altercation with a dentist outside of a courtroom in New York this year. One of these days I may just post that police report on my blog.

Don't ever ask for your money back from a dentist. They get very MAD when you do that.

Bob Hoeppner said...

Attila the Hun: Scourge of God.
Dana Herbert: Scourge of Dentists!

Dana Herbert said...

He came after ME.