Famous for his art, William Morris's commitment to socialism and struggle is less well known, writes Hassan Mahamdallie
William Morris is known today for his exquisite patterned wallpapers, his famous chair design, and his rule, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Yet relatively few people know that Morris was also one of the most political figures of the second half of the 19th century – a committed revolutionary socialist, and a talented writer, orator, theorist and activist.
His work still speaks to a modern audience concerned with the destructive nature of the profit system, war and environmental disaster.
William Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, east London, into a wealthy middle class family.
While he was growing up, British society was changing incredibly rapidly.
In 1848 the Chartist movement for political reform in favour of the working class suffered a historic defeat.
Almost 30 years of continuous economic expansion followed this. Chartism’s defeat shaped the world that Morris grew up in.
The city slums and atmospheric pollution were the result of “Victorian prosperity”. For those on the receiving end they represented, as Morris later put it, “all the incredible filth, disorder and degradation of modern civilisation”.
The bulk of the working class had no political representation at all. Skilled workers were organised in exclusive craft unions with conservative leaderships that were in turn represented by the Liberal Party. “Unskilled” workers were not yet represented by trade unions.
When the young Morris went to Oxford university, there seemed to be no future but capitalism triumphant. What else was there to do but to retreat, and dream of a time before man and woman were chained to the machine?
Later, in an 1894 article, How I Became a Socialist, Morris wrote, “The immediate future seemed to me likely to intensify all the present evils by sweeping away the last survivals of the days before the dull squalor of civilisation had settled down on the world. This was a bad outlook indeed.”
Morris looked around for answers. He was drawn to the writings of two great thinkers – the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, and art critic and social thinker John Ruskin.
They influenced Morris and led to the foundation of the Arts and Crafts movement, which believed the design of objects should be “fit for purpose”.
After university, Morris put his considerable energies and talents into a highly successful career as an artist and designer. He set up a company called The Firm to make craft goods, decorative work and interior design.
His famous wallpaper patterns were hand-printed and recreated the natural world outside the city slums.
He hated the ugly and crude mass produced goods churned out by Victorian industry. “I have never been in a rich man’s house which would have not looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all that it held,” he fumed.
He built a national reputation as a fine poet, and if he hadn’t turned to radical politics he may well have become the poet laureate.
The Firm was all the rage with the rich – people who represented everything he detested.
The processes Morris used for his furnishings were expensive, but to make his handicraft cheaper would mean surrendering to mass production and capitalist thinking.
At the age of 43 he joined the movement against the British intervention on the side of the Turkish Ottoman Empire against Russia. The British ruling class wanted to get its hands on Turkish territory.
The Victorian England that Morris detested was also the Victorian England of the Empire. He was desperate to “join any body who distinctly call themselves socialist” and found a small organisation called the Democratic Federation.
H M Hyndman had launched the Federation. He was a rich factory owner who had been a bit of an adventurer before taking up Marxism.
Anger at Victorian society drove Morris to socialism. But it was the understanding that opposition to the system was not enough in itself that shaped him into a committed Marxist.
Hyndman believed that socialism was inevitable and not far off, and the sole role of revolutionaries was to argue for it. Therefore any struggle short of revolution was a diversion – strikes merely renegotiated the level of exploitation of workers.
It is important to point out, without accepting Hyndman’s ideas, that revolutionaries at the time were engaged in pioneering work.
They were trying to apply a new set of ideas, Marxism, in a world that was changing at a rapid rate.
The group sharpened its politics and was renamed the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Its manifesto, Socialism Made Plain, was a great success, selling 100,000 copies.
The SDF launched a weekly paper, Justice. It marked the beginning of an outpouring of socialist writing by Morris. Between 1884 and 1890 Morris published almost 500 articles, including poetry, novels, sketches, lectures, essays and columns. He addressed over 1,000 meetings across the country. This was his finest period.
Members of the SDF included Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, her partner Edward Aveling, and the writer Belfort Bax. But they grew frustrated by the behaviour of the unpredictable and unprincipled Hyndman and split from him in December 1884.
Morris and Eleanor Marx went to Frederick Engels – Karl Marx’s collaborator – for advice on how to form a new party. This became the Socialist League.
Engels regarded Morris, Bax and Aveling as “the only honest men amongst the intellectuals, but men as impractical (two poets and a philosopher) as you could possibly find”. Morris became editor of their newspaper, Commonweal.
The League was immediately plunged into campaigns for free speech. Throughout the 1880s London police had harassed the small groups of socialists. In the summer of 1885, the harassment was stepped up in the East End. Newspaper sellers were arrested every weekend.
On one occasion Morris was arrested and charged with hitting an officer. But the magistrate, confronted with a furious and unrepentant Morris, was forced to drop the charges. This episode scandalised Morris’s respectable contemporaries. The writer George Gissing moaned, “It is painful to me beyond expression. Why cannot he write poetry in the shade?”
But the police came back for more, notoriously on 13 November 1887, known as Bloody Sunday.
In the midst of a savage economic depression Trafalgar Square had become a focus for the unemployed. Many had nowhere else to sleep.
All meetings in the square were banned on 8 November. But a rally against repression in Ireland was already planned and its organisers vowed it would go ahead.
Hundreds of police on foot and horses, and foot soldiers, occupied the square while feeder marches assembled across London.
In Clerkenwell Green, Morris and others addressed a contingent of 5,000. Morris knew that the authorities lay in wait, but the viciousness of the attack on the demonstrators was much worse than he had imagined.
Two hundred marchers were hospitalised, and at least two men died as a result of their injuries.
Three hundred were arrested, with 160 people sent to jail. Around 40,000 gathered in Hyde Park the following Sunday, passing a resolution that demanded the release of those arrested and the right to assembly.
Later that day in Trafalgar Square police killed Alfred Linnell, an innocent law clerk. The working class of London turned out to mourn and vent their anger.
A 120,000-strong demonstration marched from central London to Bow cemetery. Morris wrote the poem A Death Song for Linnell.
Bloody Sunday was a bitter blow, but the fight now shifted from the streets to the factories.
For the first time, the massed ranks of “unskilled” workers – dockers, factory and sweatshop labour and gas workers – were moving into confrontation, helped by activists such as Eleanor Marx and SDF members. This came to be known as New Unionism.
In July 1888 a strike by 700 terribly exploited Bryant & May match girls in Bow electrified the movement. Morris supported the strike – but with an aloofness that betrayed his overall position towards struggle.
Like Hyndman, Morris misunderstood the real potential for change that happens when workers move into confrontation with the bosses.
In August 1889 the London dock strike exploded from a small dispute into a stoppage by 60,000 workers. Victorious after five weeks, they provided inspiration for the whole working class and the foundation of new unions in many industries.
That year there were over 1,200 stoppages.
It was a terrible irony that Morris sidelined himself and his comrades from the struggle he had so desperately fought and hoped for. The League found itself dragged down in internal disputes and collapsed.
Morris’s health failed, and he died at the age of 63 on 3 October 1896. His doctor diagnosed that Morris had “died the victim of his enthusiasm for spreading the principles of socialism”.
In the last few years of his life, he was still at the centre of building the British Marxist tradition – agitating, fighting, writing, lecturing and leaving us with an impressive legacy.
At the time the newspapers moved between ignoring his socialism by talking about Morris the poet and dismissing “the force that drew him…into a sentimental socialism”.
But Morris knew precisely the liberationist project he had embarked on. As one socialist obituary put it; “Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true.”
Hassan Mahamdallie is the author of Crossing the ‘River of Fire’: the socialism of William Morris, available from Bookmarks for £7.99.