- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
William Morris is renowned today for his work as an artist and designer. But he was also one of Britain’s greatest socialist thinkers. Morris combined his opposition to capitalism with a deep understanding of environmental questions that was rare in his own time.
The Education of William Morris
Many people will perhaps be familiar with William Morris primarily as an artist and a designer who still has a very high reputation. But he was also deeply engaged with the world of politics. How did Morris define himself politically?
He defined himself as a communist from the mid-1880s. It was a long journey to that point, but he firmly asserted that communism was the ideology with which he identified in the last ten years of his life. There were various reasons for doing that.
Socialism was an extremely factional, fissiparous entity in England during the late nineteenth century. Morris also believed that socialists on the whole were those who identified themselves with a reformist tradition. In calling himself a communist, he was identifying with a rather different revolutionary tradition derived from the Paris Commune, among other things.
But you’re absolutely right to say that this will come as a surprise to many people today, because he’s very much associated still with the textiles and tapestries that one finds in museums all over the world and in bourgeois drawing rooms. He was almost concertedly turned into what Robin Page Arnot in 1934 called a “harmless saint.”
He was a kind of bourgeois saint — a saint of bourgeois design — for many decades. It wasn’t until various scholars, in particular socialists like E. P. Thompson, started to take another look at Morris and opened up the revolutionary tradition in which he had intervened that we began to remember what he’d been like as an activist in the 1880s and ’90s.
What was the social background from which Morris came in nineteenth-century Britain as he was on his way to this political destination?
He came from a bourgeois background. In fact, his father was a financier who worked for a company in the City of London. He died when Morris was just hitting puberty in the mid-1840s. That was rather devastating to the family, which from then on had to live off his stocks and shares.
William Morris Sr had major shareholdings in copper mines in the west country of England — Devon in particular — and they raked in quite a good deal of money. The family had to downsize a bit in Essex, where they had been living in an extremely well-appointed and large home. They had to move to a slightly smaller home which was still very large, but they remained an extremely affluent family.
All through his life, Morris wrestled with that legacy and a certain class guilt. There’s a wonderful line in Theodor Adorno’s work somewhere where he says that in order to hate a tradition you need to have lived it or lived in it. Morris was someone who lived inside a tradition. He was brought up in a particular upper-middle-class, nineteenth-century tradition, but it was precisely because he had grown up in that tradition that he came to hate it with such passion and loathing.
That was something exacerbated by his experience in a British public school — in other words, a private school — in a place called Marlborough College. As a teenager, he was bullied quite severely, probably for the most part because of his aesthetic sensibilities. I think that, too, reinforced his sense of resentment against the class into which he had been born and where he was being raised in effect to become a member of the ruling class — one of the leaders of the imperial nation.
What role did the ideas of John Ruskin play in the thinking of Morris about culture and society?
Those ideas were absolutely crucial. It’s hard to remember today because Ruskin is now an unfashionable figure in many respects, but he was one of the towering intellectuals of the mid-nineteenth century in Britain and had a wide influence elsewhere, including the United States. He was a historian of art and architecture, and he was also a social critic. In Ruskin’s best work, he brought those different faculties, skills, and discourses together.
The most important place where he did that, especially for Morris, was in a chapter of a vast, three-volume book that he wrote in the early 1850s called The Stones of Venice. It was an account of architecture and the visual arts in Venice before the moment at which he felt European culture went into decline during the early modern period. Ruskin regarded the Renaissance not as the great flowering that we tend to think of it as today, but rather as a decline from the high point of medieval creativity.
In this chapter from the second volume of The Stones of Venice, titled “The Nature of Gothic,” Ruskin unleashed a very powerful polemical attack against contemporary industrial capitalism. Ostensibly, the chapter is about defining what made the Gothic what it is. However, in order to evoke the individuality and creativity of the artisanal workmen of the Middle Ages who were working on the cathedrals of Venice, for example, Ruskin contrasted them with the industrial worker of the mid-nineteenth century, at the time when he was writing.
There is a particularly famous passage in which Ruskin talks about those who work in factories creating glass beads, produced purely as an ornament for middle-class and upper-middle-class women. Ruskin pointed out that this was a completely pointless commodity with a purely decorative purpose.
Even more heinously, it demanded no creativity or individuality on the part of the worker, who just had to lop off bits of glass as it came out of a machine. In effect, he argued that the workman was also lopped off, atomized, and dismantled, becoming a series of moving machine parts.
All of that was crucial to Morris. He later produced a special edition of “The Nature of Gothic,” excerpting the chapter for his own imprint. He wrote a preface to it where he talked about it being one of the “very few necessary and inevitable utterances” of the nineteenth century.
This attack on industrial capitalism was influenced by other thinkers at the time such as Thomas Carlyle. But it also speaks to people within the Marxist tradition because it is effectively a critique of alienation and the commodification of the worker. Ruskin was affirming the imagination and the importance of imaginative creative labor in the nineteenth century at a time when it was very much under threat, and that was crucial to Morris.
Morris said that he had gone through “no transitional period” on the way to becoming a socialist in his middle age. How would you assess that claim?
I think it was probably not entirely ingenuous. There’s another reading of his conversion — to put it in rather unneutral terms — to socialism in the early 1880s. E. P. Thompson talks about him, in a metaphor that he borrows from Morris himself, crossing a river of fire, which suggests a quite punctual moment at which he passes from a sort of radical liberalism to socialism proper.
However, there’s another sense in which all his career — all his life, indeed — was a preparation for that moment. I don’t want to be overly tendentious in looking at his life and suggest that it was all about his conversion to socialism in relatively late middle age. But there’s a sense in which the class resentment that he accumulated growing up in the upper middle classes combined with his engagement with art and with Ruskin’s ideas, as well as his early political interventions prior to becoming a socialist. All of this led to that particular moment.
The activism that preceded the moment in which he became a socialist centered on two main things. First of all, he joined an organization called the Eastern Question Association, which was set up by radical Liberals for the most part to criticize and campaign against Benjamin Disraeli’s policy, which involved an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. He became quite active, writing songs and pamphlets and demonstrating.
Secondly, he was doing something less overtly political by setting up a group called the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which he used to refer to as Anti-Scrape. That was because he realized that medieval churches, which were particularly precious to him, not least because of Ruskin’s influence on his aesthetics and his understanding of social history, were being destroyed along with other buildings in the mid- to late nineteenth century.
In a certain sense, I suppose we’d call them gentrifiers. They were people who were doing rushed jobs instead of managing the decline of these buildings and preserving them, pimping up their decorative qualities to make them some sort of commodity. Morris campaigned vigorously to preserve these old buildings.
In 1883, he joined the Democratic Federation, as it was known then, which was an organization run by Henry Hyndman, who at least officially was an orthodox Marxist — he knew Friedrich Engels, for example. In reality, he was far from a revolutionary, and Morris very quickly exceeded the confines of both Hyndman and the Democratic Federation and became a self-described revolutionary.
The Ecosocialist Morris
After Morris had become active in an avowedly socialist organization, what positions did he adopt and what was his experience from that point on?
As I said earlier, the socialist movement at that time was deeply factional. That wasn’t merely because of sectarianism, although there was a certain amount of that. It was because the movement was so young, and because its relationship to the organized working class was relatively unstable, volatile, and unformed. Everything was in flux during this period, and there was a lot of movement, ideologically and politically, within factions and organizations.
In the Democratic Federation, Morris soon began to chafe against the reformism that defined the group, thanks to its leader, Hyndman. It later became the Social Democratic Federation, which was another sign of the fact that everything was in flux at this point in the history of the Left in Britain. But Morris reached a certain point in 1884 when he simply didn’t feel comfortable in an organization that, as he saw it, was postponing socialism to some future toward which Britain and the world would eventually evolve.
He lost faith in the idea that socialism could just emerge out of capitalism and its contradictions. He no longer believed that. He began to believe in the necessity of waging class war against the ruling class. He was already conscious that the ruling class is defined by the war that it wages against the working class.
In 1884, he formed a breakaway organization called the Socialist League with various other figures who were in exile from the Social Democratic Federation, including Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s remarkable daughter, and Ernest Belfort Bax, who was very important in educating Morris. He continued his activities as a socialist through the league, where he had more autonomy and a more central role.
He edited the journal Commonweal, for example, which was a very important organ, although one with a relatively small audience. He went up and down the country to an exhausting extent, standing on podiums, giving speeches, supporting strikes, handing out leaflets, doing all the sorts of things that revolutionary socialists still do to this day.
He wrote poetry, songs, and hymns for “the Cause,” as it was known. He also wrote novels. All of this contributed to his campaign to assert a revolutionary socialist current within the Left in the late nineteenth century. He was far from being an armchair socialist.
He was accused of being a champagne socialist, as we’d call them today, not least because he continued to run a company that produced textiles. Those textiles were principally bought by the middle classes, to his disappointment. But he was a long way from being an armchair socialist.
He was arrested at demonstrations, particularly in the violent fracas that took place between police and demonstrators in November 1887, known as Bloody Sunday. The fracas led a week later to the death of a young working-class activist. Morris was very much embroiled in the everyday textures of the socialist movement, and he was uncompromising in his revolutionary politics.
Morris might well be seen in today’s political terminology as a pioneer of ecosocialism. How did his understanding of the processes of urbanization and industrialization that were transforming Britain and the wider world in the late nineteenth century differ from the view that was held by many of his Marxist contemporaries?
I think the key thing in this regard is Morris’s Romanticism. He was very much a Romantic, and he remained one. There’s a sense in which Marx himself was a Romantic, having grown up in an earlier generation in Germany that was influenced by the Romantics and written Romantic poetry in his youth. Unlike Marx, however, Morris had very little handle on economics.
He was rather baffled and intimidated by economic language and analysis, and he cleaved very closely to his Romantic affiliations, which came down from the Romantic poets through Carlyle, Ruskin, and others. This formed a kind of anti-capitalist critique that in some cases, such as that of Carlyle, took a reactionary form, though not in the case of Morris. In that entire tradition, there is an identification of nature with the precapitalist past and with some kind of alternative to capitalism.
He was banging his head against the French translation of Capital in the early 1880s. He didn’t speak French particularly well, but he worked his way painstakingly through the French translation because there wasn’t an English one to rely on at the time. Yet all the time, what animated him was a utopian urge to think of the ways in which industrial capitalism was destroying what was most precious about life, both individual and collective.
The natural world was central to that. It was a sense of a precious ecology, the resources of which needed to be husbanded and not ruthlessly exploited and commodified. There were very few other socialists at that time who were so indebted to a Romantic tradition. That brought ecology to the fore in a way that it wasn’t going to be again until the 1960s.
How did Morris come to write his utopian novel, News From Nowhere, and what were its main themes?
He wrote News from Nowhere in 1890–91. It was serialized in Commonweal, the journal that he edited for the Socialist League at the time. We should take its title literally: it’s a bulletin from the socialist or communist future.
It probably wasn’t read by a huge number of workers at the time, but it was certainly aimed at workers. His purpose as an activist in this period was, as he put it, to “make socialists.” He was in the business of making socialists. That was his phrase. News From Nowhere was yet another of his attempts to make socialists, this time not by critiquing capitalism and by combating exploitative factory owners, but by showing what things might be like in a postcapitalist future.
That kind of discourse and approach was relatively disreputable by then, even in the Marxist tradition, and he very much called himself a Marxist. One only has to think of the work by Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, to get a sense of that. But he really believed in the importance of utopian thinking.
Again, perhaps it’s part of his Romantic inheritance. He believed in cultivating and instrumentalizing — if I can put it in those slightly utilitarian terms — what he called the “longing for freedom.”
I often think of Walter Benjamin’s line in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” from 1940 where he talks about how the reformist parties of the socialist movement spent too much time talking about the great new dawn of socialism. For Benjamin, the working class should above all be inspired by what he calls enslaved ancestors rather than liberated grandchildren.
Morris is one of the few people in the history of the revolutionary socialist movement who has managed to make a powerful case for orienting our politics not just toward the past — the enslaved ancestors — but toward the future — our liberated grandchildren. To that end, in News From Nowhere, he attacks a tradition of reformist utopianism that was particularly associated in the late 1880s with an American journalist called Edward Bellamy.
Bellamy wrote a utopian novel in 1888 called Looking Backward. It was set in Boston in the year 2000, and it imagined capitalism simply evolving into socialism. It was unbelievably successful: I think it was only the second novel in America during the nineteenth century to sell more than a million copies. It was phenomenal in its impact, and all sorts of organizations sprung up to promote its ideas.
Morris was extremely suspicious of it and very disturbed that Bellamy’s book was beginning to capture socialism and utopianism on the Left. News From Nowhere was an intervention. It was a deliberate assertion of a revolutionary socialist tradition, which didn’t give up on the idea that utopian longing — the longing for freedom — was an important motivating force in activism.
One of the striking things that the book did, which made it a very innovative and unusual utopian novel, was to describe in detail the historical process by which communism emerges from capitalism. Importantly, for Morris, that’s not just a bland, abstractly sketched evolution from capitalism into socialism. It involves struggle and class war, with pitched battles between the police and army on the one hand and the working class on the other in London. It’s very graphic in its account of the historical process.
The other thing I could draw attention to is its emphasis on the artistic. He portrays an artisanal form of labor, clearly indebted to Ruskin, which effectively acts as a critique of commodity production under capitalism. Unlike Marx, for example, Morris believed that work was the key to the future. It wasn’t about surpassing work, mechanizing it so that we free ourselves to do other things — to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and philosophize in the evening.
For Morris, work was where we were going to derive most pleasure in the socialist, egalitarian future in which everyone owned the wealth and resources of society. We would take pleasure in the act of working because it was not mechanized and commodified and because we were not being exploited and having our surplus value extracted in so doing. It’s very committed to the idea of labor, not as something we have to get beyond, but something we have to redeem in revolutionary ways.
One thing that’s very striking about the book for a modern reader is that the future Morris has in mind is effectively postindustrial. Manchester has ceased to exist, or so we’re told; London is still there, but it’s much smaller; and there’s virtually no machinery.
Yes, that’s right. He cuts corners here because he does refer to what he calls “force barges” in a rather vague way at one point. It’s the one science-fictional touch in the novel. What he seems to be saying is that these force barges — whatever the hell they are — are somehow doing a lot of the mechanical, industrial work, freeing up humans to engage in redeemed forms of labor.
Now, it’s a perfectly legitimate case to make. After all, we’re having a debate today about what the future of artificial intelligence means for work. Very crudely, it could either lead to greater alienation or else free us up to work three days a week instead of five, six, or seven, and allow us to cultivate our interests, our sensibilities, and our everyday lives in new and exciting ways — if it were to be used in a nonexploitative manner.
Something like this debate was going on in the late nineteenth century, with all sorts of people intervening, such as Oscar Wilde in his famous essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” It talks about machines becoming the slaves of men so that we can all sit around and be like Wilde, cultivating our sensibilities, smoking, coming out with witticisms, and reading beautifully made books.
Morris didn’t completely give up on the idea that mechanization and some of the progressive aspects of capitalism, technologically speaking, might be of service in a socialist future. But he doesn’t give us any detailed sense of that. There’s nothing very concrete about it at all.
You’re absolutely right that it’s a postindustrial society that he pictures. It’s several hundred years after the revolution that he describes in the longest chapter of the book, “How the Change Came.” That does allow him to portray a world that is ecologically much richer and more diverse — one in which humanity and nature are living in some kind of harmony, and where there’s been a decentralization of Britain, as you say, and the industrial cities seem to have completely disappeared.
There are political implications for this, too. For example, in his portrayal of London, the Westminster parliament has become a place where all the dung — which was the source of energy as well as waste in the nineteenth century — is stored, because politics happens elsewhere. It doesn’t happen in London among unelected or scarcely democratically elected representatives. It’s something that’s woven into a truly egalitarian and democratic daily life.
London is, as he describes it at one point, like a small garden. There’s an attempt to nurture the green spaces of London and to redeem it in that way.
As a final question, how would you sum up the political legacies of Morris for our own time and our own way of thinking about the world?
One of the things that he said about capitalism was that it destroyed art and the beauty of the Earth, and I think we could take those two strands as being absolutely crucial to his political legacy. He believed that all work should be a form of art and that all art should be labor, but productive labor — labor that expanded one’s faculties and sensibility.
His aesthetic legacy is very important. He was most famous as a poet in his own time — more famous as a poet even than as a textile designer, although that tends to be forgotten. I think art is absolutely crucial, not just to his practice, but to his whole conception of socialism where everyday life itself effectively becomes a kind of art form.
I suppose everything is aestheticized in Morris, but not in some reactionary way. To cite Walter Benjamin again: Benjamin talks about the difference between the Left and the Right being the difference between politicizing aesthetics and aestheticizing politics. There’s a sense in which Morris contradicts that because he thought that everything should be aestheticized, too.
He did not mean this in the same way that fascists aestheticized politics, but in the sense that everyday activities — electing local representatives, organizing the workplace, or organizing leisure as a collective rather than an individualized, consumerist activity — become a kind of collective, collaborative art form. It would be one that requires our imaginative and creative input as well as some more mechanical and administrative ones.
Transforming our notion of art and the way it might serve as a model for all other aspects of life is one crucial legacy of Morris. Another legacy is his ecology — that emphasis on the beauty of the Earth, which makes him particularly serviceable today.
Like many of his contemporaries, he was influenced by Charles Darwin, but not the Darwin who was turned into a Social Darwinian by people on the Right in the late nineteenth century and after. He was very much a Darwinian who saw nature as not just a competitive process but a cooperative one, too. That aspect is in Darwin’s work as well, of course. The idea of tending to nature and not exploiting its resources is a vital paradigm for our own time.
A third point that I’d make about his legacy relates to his utopianism. To some extent, he did salvage utopianism, at a time in the late nineteenth century when it was incredibly popular as a political discourse. So many people on the Left, and indeed some on the Right, were writing utopias and fantasizing about the future.
But very few of them were doing it with the depth and seriousness that Morris brought to the task. Almost none of them were doing it with the historical imagination that he had, or with a sense of the textures of everyday life. He was a good novelist, and most of the utopians of the late nineteenth century were not.
He makes a fantastically compelling plea for the utopian imagination in News From Nowhere. He talks about the longing for the socialist future as being akin to the passionate yearning of a lover. In some ways, of course, that seems to trivialize the longing for a nonexploitative society. He’s apparently individualizing it and trivializing it.
But there’s another sense in which I think that is an incredibly powerful idea. In fighting for socialism, we might not merely feel hatred of capitalism and hatred of the ruling class — as of course we must do — but also an almost erotic or libidinous longing for a genuine alternative to that exploitative system.
News From Nowhere is very moving. It has its main character, who is the Morris figure who lands in the socialist future. To his initial confusion, he falls in love with a woman who lives in this utopian future. Morris gives us a sense that the feeling of falling in love with this woman, which he communicates through his central character, might mimic and reproduce the intensely felt longing that one might have for a future in which we enjoy fulfillment as individuals and as a collective.