The Socialist Imagination of William Morris

William Morris wasn’t just a brilliant artist and designer; he was also a committed socialist who raged against the injustices of capitalism and imperialism. From his political essays to his utopian novel News from Nowhere, Morris left us with a vital legacy.

English writer, painter, and socialist William Morris, c. 1875. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

“I will begin by saying that I call myself a Communist,” wrote William Morris in 1889, “and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it.” This isn’t an announcement that seems consistent with Morris’s unappealingly chintzy reputation today.

In the early twenty-first century, he is still probably best known for his densely decorative, highly textured wallpaper designs, helping pioneer the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century. Online, it appears, Morris is often referred to as “the wallpaper guy.”

But Morris’s avowal of communist beliefs was a characteristically plain-speaking one. As an artist, he was sharply attuned to the politics — and the risks — of speaking plainly, not least because he was conscious of his reputation as a fashionable and highly sophisticated designer of fabrics and textiles for the more affluent members of the middle class.

Speaking Plainly

In an 1881 lecture on “Art and the Beauty of the Earth,” delivered shortly before he first declared himself a socialist, he insisted it would be an insult to stand before an audience and tell it “at great length what I do not think. . . . I will ask your leave and license to speak plainly, as I promise I will not speak lightly.” He did not apologize, he said defiantly, for “my downright meaning, my audacious and rash thought,” only for “my clumsy way of expressing it.”

So Morris spoke plainly, deliberately dealing only in “downright meaning.” But he did not speak lightly. He was uncompromising in his affirmation of communism, whether he was passionately denouncing the crass philistinism of the ruling class in which he had been raised or seeking to distance himself, politely but emphatically, from the anarchist politics of some of his comrades. The principal point of these interventions, and their lasting achievement, was to draw public attention to the desecration of “art and the beauty of the earth” by capitalism.

If the idea of calling himself a communist was especially “audacious” — and appeared to many of his more stiff-necked contemporaries shockingly “rash” — it was in fact the result of careful, thoughtful, and at times, no doubt, tortuous consideration. And, it should be added, of active political involvement in the socialist campaigns of the late nineteenth century.

Certainly, Morris had a reputation for impulsiveness. The English poet Alfred Noyes was typical in characterizing him, after his death in 1896, as an “illogical, impetuous, idealistic, sensuous, and fiery being who walked as if the whole world belonged to him, and carried the head of a Viking on his burly, blue-clad, seamanly, middle-sized figure.”

Yet if this cartoonish portrait captured his passionate temperament and the understated eccentricity of his appearance, it also implicitly and sentimentally dismissed him. For a start, it seems perverse — or perhaps obtuse — to describe someone as walking “as if the whole world belongs to him” when he had become celebrated for his obstinate belief that people needed to fight for a world that belonged to the poor and disenfranchised rather than the rich and privileged.

Morris might not have thought that the meek would inherit the earth, as Christian socialists of the late nineteenth century did. However, as a communist, he was convinced that those whose labor was brutally expropriated under the conditions of colonial and industrial capitalism would in the end forcibly reclaim the earth and its beauties. Morris was committed to the expropriation of the expropriators, in Marx’s formulation — to social revolution.

Inclined Toward Rebellion

How had this scion of the nineteenth-century ruling class come to call himself first a socialist and then a communist — and in his late forties and fifties, at precisely the time of life when middle-class people are supposed to become increasingly reactionary? Born in 1834, Morris was the son of a financier who made a considerable fortune investing in copper and tin mines.

After his father’s death in 1847, Morris’s family continued to live off the profits appropriated from those who, in circumstances that were often unendurable, labored underground in England’s southwest. “Regularly the handsome dividends came in,” the socialist historian E. P. Thompson wrote in his biography of Morris, “bringing with them nothing to indicate the miseries at the bottom of the cramped and ill-ventilated shafts from which they had their source.”

After a childhood in which he felt blissfully free to roam about on horseback in Epping Forest, like one of the knights errant who featured in the fast-paced medieval fantasies that he wrote in middle age, Morris was sent as an adolescent to a boarding school. In this forcing house for the ruling class, he came into collision with the school’s authoritarian regime and with the bullies whose cruel habits it semi-deliberately fostered.

He was homesick and he hated it. Children “who have brains and feelings,” he remarked stoically in retrospect, are not tolerated by “the hard and stupid.” He consoled himself, however, with the thought that, in contrast to pupils who were “content to grow like rotting cabbages,” his sensitivity as a youth opened him up to joys and griefs and at least made him “alive and eager.”

By the time he arrived in Oxford in 1852, Thompson observed, Morris “was certainly inclined towards rebellion.” At this ancient, conservative university, where he was inspired in part by Christian medievalism, in part by romanticism, Morris became more and more opposed to the commercialism and utilitarianism of the mid-nineteenth century. In short, he became an anti-capitalist.

Ruskin and Labor

Perhaps the most important influence on him in this environment, where he cultivated his aspirations as a poet and painter, was John Ruskin, the preeminent social and cultural critic of the time. In The Stones of Venice (1851–53), the crucial second volume of which was published when Morris was a student, Ruskin attacked the conditions of industrial production and fulminated in prophetic tones against the “degradation of the operative into a machine.”

If this process alienated the laborer, it also led to the degradation of art. Ruskin argued that art thrived only in societies in which labor was cultivated as a collective and creative process. Morris learned from Ruskin that, under ideal social circumstances, art was effectively unalienated labor and unalienated labor was effectively art.

This premise was the basis of Morris’s aesthetic critique of industrial capitalism, which was increasingly accompanied by an economic and political critique. “It was through him,” he said of Ruskin in “How I Became a Socialist” (1894), “that I learned to give form to my discontent.” He went on to explain: “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

We cannot separate the constructive and destructive impulses here. Morris’s desire to produce beautiful things was an attempt to find some sort of utopian alternative to the ugly things that industrial-capitalist society created, for the simple reason that it was predicated on ugly, exploitative social relations. So was his desire to preserve the beautiful things of the past, as exemplified in the organization he founded in 1877, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Capitalism, Morris came to see, transformed art, like every other product of human labor, into a commodity defined not by its aesthetic value but its exchange value in an exploitative economic system. He battered his bearded Viking’s head against this stubborn fact not only as an artisan and artist — producing exquisite books, chairs, and tapestries for their own sake, for their use value — but as the owner of a company.

This company, Morris and Co., catered almost exclusively to the upper-middle-class marketplace, despite his democratic hopes for its products. Morris thus lived the dialectic described by Walter Benjamin in his famous claim that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He realized that, in capitalist society, even beautiful things were uglified because they ignored or obscured the exploitative system that made it possible for a small number of especially privileged people to enjoy them when the mass of people could not.

A Political Laboratory

By the second half of the 1870s, Morris had become actively involved in the Eastern Question Association, an organization in which he campaigned against the complicity of the British in Ottoman imperialism. However, we might still argue that it was aesthetics that drove him into politics above all.

Morris himself stressed that he had gone through “no transitional period” in becoming a socialist and was suddenly converted to the cause in the early 1880s. As soon as he understood the scale of social transformation that would be necessary to institute a society in which all men and women “would be living in equality of condition,” he realized in a flash that he had to join a political party if there was to be the slightest prospect of realizing this ideal.

The member card for the Democratic Federation, designed by William Morris. (William Morris Society)

Yet this political autobiography leaves out a key fact about Morris: his entire career as an artist before this moment of conversion, reflecting on Ruskin’s insights and attempting to put them into practice, had comprised a “transitional period.”

In 1883, Morris joined the Democratic Federation, which was renamed the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1884, when it became a more openly socialist organization. The SDF’s factionalism and the authoritarianism of its leader, H. M. Hyndman, almost immediately drove Morris to look for an alternative. He left the group, in December 1884, along with Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, and several other activists to form the Socialist League.

As a member of both organizations, Morris relentlessly attacked imperialism — “a domination compounded of fraud, injustice and violence” — as well as capitalism. But he most tirelessly pursued his efforts in the League, an openly revolutionary party that was itself eventually split by sectarian struggles.

Morris’s activism in the second half of the 1880s involved delivering innumerable speeches on picket lines and demonstrations and dispatching countless articles for the League’s paper, Commonweal. It served as a laboratory for his idiosyncratic and brilliantly creative contribution to the Marxist tradition.

Undegraded Existence

What did that contribution consist of? Probably no socialist before the 1960s was so committed not only to ruthlessly critiquing capitalism as a system of economic and social relations but also to patiently understanding its distortive, destructive effects on what he called “Art and the Beauty of the Earth.” He remains almost peerless in his grasp of the sheer scope of human alienation as a lived, acutely felt experience under capitalism.

Morris certainly offers an inspiring example in the twenty-first century as someone who fought, at considerable personal cost to his health and reputation alike, for an emancipated, unalienated society in which human beings would no longer instrumentalize and exploit nature. Morris struggled for what he called an “undegraded existence on Earth.” His communism was avowedly ecological.

Pages from William Morris’s novel News from Nowhere.

Furthermore, there was probably no other socialist before the 1960s who sought so assiduously and imaginatively to assert the importance of utopian thinking for the practical task of abolishing capitalism. This was precisely the point of declaring himself a communist as well as a socialist.

In doing so, Morris certainly wanted to align himself with the political principles set out by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto and with the historical achievements of the 1871 Paris Commune. Yet his identification as a communist also signaled that, unlike the reformists of his time, he was fighting without qualification for “the complete equality of condition for all people; and anything in a Socialist direction which stops short of this is merely a compromise with the present condition of society.”

“In speculating on the future of society we should try to shake ourselves clear of mere phrase,” Morris wrote in the open letter in which he announced himself a communist. Morris’s finest literary testament to his communism, the utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890–91), asserted the pressing political importance of speculating about the future of society and of freeing this task from “mere phrase.”

In the book, Morris pictured a postcapitalist community in England that had evolved over more than a century after a violent revolution, which he vividly reconstructed. Here, in stirring, often moving prose, was the vision of a communist society in which art and unalienated labor had become indistinguishable, and in which the beauty of the earth was preserved because nature’s resources were nurtured for the sake of the entire community and its future rather than being plundered for the profits of the ruling class in the present.

Morris set the events of News from Nowhere two centuries ahead of his own time, dating the socialist revolution in England to the early 1950s. His optimism about the lifespan of the capitalist system proved to be mistaken, of course. But confronted with the overlapping crises that global capitalism is generating — social, ecological, geopolitical — we need the imaginative vision of Morris now.

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Matthew Beaumont teaches at University College London. He is the author of several books, including The Walker: On Losing and Finding Oneself in the Modern City and Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.

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