William Morris: Anglo-Socialist and Ethnocentrist

William Morris, 450x557William Morris (1834-1896) was a British poet, painter, novelist, translator of Icelandic sagas, textile designer, a major figure in the revival of traditional British crafts — and, within the British Empire, the best-known Socialist/Communist of his era.

Today it may seem odd that a man who personally excelled in so many arts and crafts, a man whose whole life showed an exquisite sensitivity to the highest moral and aesthetic ideals, should have espoused a cause which we have since come to associate with the Russian gulags, the Soviet rape of eastern Europe, the Chinese cultural revolution and the killing fields of Cambodia. But, as with any other historical figure, in order to understand Morris we need to consider the times in which he lived.

During William Morris’ lifetime the working class was shamefully and brutally exploited, in order that the newly dominant capitalist industrial class could become ever richer. It would take a book to convey the harshness of this oppression. Fortunately, we have many such books, among which I would recommend some of the campaigning novels of Charles Dickens.

For those readers who haven’t the time to read all the sociological and legal literature on this topic, perhaps one simple fact will encapsulate the situation. On 4 August 1842, the British government passed a law that stopped women and children under ten years of age from working underground in mines. Prior to that date working-class White women and children had been treated far worse in Britain than Black slaves in America and the Caribbean. The reason is that Black slaves were saleable property, and therefore had a monetary value. By contrast, White women and children down in the pits could be replaced without cost once they had been worked to death.

It is true that there was an ameliorative movement in Victorian Britain. The passage of the 1842 law proves that. But it was feeble. By contrast, in 1823 an Anti-Slavery Society was founded in England, aimed at abolishing Negro chattel-slavery. Within ten years, by 1833, it succeeded in abolishing most cases of Black slavery throughout the British Empire. You will note that Black slaves were thus liberated nine years before Parliament addressed the issue of White women and children being worked to death in mines in Britain itself. (Curiously, in order to free the Black slaves the British government had to pay out their former owners, which cost £20 million in 1833 terms — a figure so large that the government was forced to borrow £15 million from banker Nathan Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore. According to Wikipedia, “The money was not paid back until 2015.”)

It might be imagined that the legions of women and children toiling underground were an anomaly, or that the well-to-do were unaware of the extent of British poverty. Here is how one modern writer describes working-class life in London:

“… a million Londoners lived in slums where the streets were frequently so narrow that you could step from the window of one house into that of its opposite neighbour, while the houses were piled so high, storey upon storey, that the light could scarcely penetrate into the court or alley that lay between. Far from the theatres and cafes of the Haymarket, this was a word where there were no sewers or privies or drains and the houses were filthy and overcrowded. Most families lived in a single room, sleeping together on a heap of straw and rags, men and women, brothers and sisters, old and young.”[1]

Without money for food, without any other way of staying alive, vast numbers of young women had no option but to sell their bodies in the streets and parks of England. Dr Michael Ryan estimated that in 1857 there were 80,000 street prostitutes working in London alone.[2] The lives of these poor creatures were nasty, brutish and short, constantly threatened by violence and disease. Many of them took to cheap gin to blot out their degradation, and wealthy citizens often complained of their rowdy and importunate hustling. Yet rather than trying to save these mostly Anglo-Celtic girls from their misery, the plutocratic class condemned them as wanton “unfortunates”, and bestowed whatever compassion they had on faraway Negro slaves in America.

In 1852 the American abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, published her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This polemical work was a roaring success in England, opposed only by the London Times, which argued that “the slaves of America lived much better lives than the English working class, and the fear was that advocating the emancipation of the slaves would lead to an uprising among the lower classes of England”.[3]

This pro-Black, anti-White hypocrisy was satirised by Charles Dickens in his 1852-53 novel Bleak House, in the chapters concerned with the virtue-signalling Mrs. Jellyby. The other great Victorian novelist of that generation, W. M. Thackeray, satirised the same pro-Black, anti-White activism in the character of Lady Emily in his 1847-1848 novel Vanity Fair: “a mature spinster, and having but faint ideas of marriage, her love for the blacks occupied almost all her feelings.”

When these novels were published William Morris was a very young man. His parents, wealthy industrialists, had given him the best education that their new money could buy. At Oxford he developed his early interest in the history and architecture of medieval England, soon becoming the nation’s leading expert in fourteenth-century Gothic. To Morris these superb buildings were more than just beautiful: he saw them as “history made visible” (in J. Middleton Murray’s phrase).[4] And more: to understand them properly was the road to overcoming the squalid soullessness of nineteenth-century capitalism, which physically destroyed so many at the bottom of society but also morally corrupted the plutocratic elites.

The question of how to understand the Gothic aesthetic properly was simple enough. The great English cathedrals could only have been built at a time when skilled English craftsmen had at least enough freedom to take personal and physical pleasure in their work. But that was not possible after the Industrial Revolution. Wealthy men like Morris himself could acquire the old skills, yet the life of a working stonemason in Victorian England was more like that depicted in Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel Jude the Obscure. Therefore society had to be changed. Only after profound changes could a new, vibrant and honest art be produced — bearing in mind that great art is a form of work, and useful work of any form should help the worker toward his or her spiritual fulfilment.

It must be stressed that Morris knew there was no going back to some misty-eyed vision of a romanticised past. The past was to learn from, not to copy — just as Morris himself would not have “treated” an illness by applying leeches. It was all very well to create stained-glass images of medieval knights and ladies, or neo-Gothic Victorian churches and public buildings, but these were derivative. They were not a complete expression of the hearts and minds — and souls — of Victorian men and women. Those hearts and minds and souls simply could not be expressed under the social conditions of capitalism, as the high suicide rate among London’s 80,000 starving and gin-soaked prostitutes attested. Therefore the Victorian economic and social system had to be transformed. Therefore Morris became a radical, fire-breathing socialist. In his own words:

“The absence of popular art from modern times is more disquieting and grievous to bear for this reason than for any other, that it betokens that fatal division of men into the cultivated and degraded classes which competitive commerce has bred and fosters; popular art has no chance of a healthy life, or, indeed, of any life at all, till we are on the way to fill up this terrible gulf between riches and poverty.”[5]

William Morris usually called himself a Socialist, and sometimes a Communist. Clearly he was not the same sort of “socialist” or “communist” as Karl Marx, and Marx’s followers today. The Victorians knew that. Marx published his obscure articles in journals that very few Victorians read. Morris packed town halls with people eager to hear his booming calls and songs for reform; his books were best-sellers; and the commercial success of his decorative arts firm, eventually known as Morris & Co., proved that a revival of genuine craftsmanship was still possible even in plutocratic England. It is therefore important to review from our present perspective some of the points of contrast between two Victorian-era communists. Here are just some of the differences:

Practicality: Marx made blunt apocalyptic prophecies about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” leading to the “withering away of the state”. Those who followed him worked toward something very different. Morris, on the other hand, was thoughtful about the future, writing:

“The whole set opinion amongst those more or less touched by Socialism, who are not definite Socialists, is towards the new Trades’ Unionism and palliation. Men believe that they can wrest from the capitalists some portion of their privileged profits, and the masters, to judge from the recent threats of combination on their side, believe also that this can be done. That it can only very partially be done, and that the men could not rest there if it were done, we Socialists know very well, but others do not.

I neither believe in State Socialism as desirable in itself, nor, indeed, as a complete scheme do I think it possible. Nevertheless, some approach to it is sure to be tried, and to my mind will precede any complete enlightenment on the new order of things.”[6]

Historicity: As we have seen above, Morris based his views on a close study of British history, culture and society. Marx’s essays falsified history, deliberately misquoting official reports, as Paul Johnson has documented.[7]

Honesty: Morris was generous toward young artists and craftsmen who needed a start. Marx was a parasite who exploited even his domestic servant — who, as Johnson has pointed out, was never even paid for her drudgery.

Ethnocentricity: Morris was ethnocentric, concerned with the English, British and northern European peoples. He spent much of his lifespan translating racially Nordic literature into modern English, and therefore making available to us much of our ethnic heritage. These works included various Norse Sagas, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Old French Romances, and the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf.

By contrast, Marx was a globalist — but in a restricted way. His writings were often directed against his personal enemies, in his very limited world. Most people today don’t care about Marx’s polemics against forgotten figures like Ferdinand Lasalle, while Morris’s books continue to sell, and his paintings and handicrafts are featured in major exhibitions all over the world.

Love vs. hatred: Morris hated the social effects of plutocratic capitalism, but pitied and loved its victims, who were of all social classes. To him, reform was a positive-sum proposition, in that everyone would benefit. He tried to show how this might be in an 1890 utopian novel called News from Nowhere, which extols love, fellowship, and meaningful work. By contrast, Marx exuded hatred — in his early essays, against Jews; in his later works, calling down destruction on most of mankind.

Perhaps this accounts for the different receptions of the two men, best reflected in their funerals. Marx’s interment at Highgate cemetery in 1883 was attended by eleven mourners. Morris’ funeral at then-remote Kelmscott, in 1896, held during a violent storm, was honoured by a crowd of artists, writers, craftsmen, academics, Socialists and humble villagers in moleskins. Quite simply, the name associated with Socialism and Communism by the thinking Englishman of the late-Victorian era was William Morris.

William Morris pioneered a British tradition of Socialism/Communism that is based on Anglo-Celtic values and mentality. It has nothing to do with Marx, or with gulags or killing fields, and even less to do with the know-nothings of today who call themselves “left” or “progressive” — but who have probably never even heard of the fire-breathing and emblematic Socialist of the Victorian era.

Anglo-socialism in the William Morris tradition is equally alien to many people who arrogate to themselves the epithet “right” — as in “right-wing”. But even so, a few of those who have had a long involvement in “right-wing” causes recognise his relevance to today’s struggle. For instance, Tom Garforth wrote:

“Morris truly packed his years with a phenomenal range of activities. In addition to Morris the designer there was also Morris the writer, propagandist and radical prototype socialist, who believed in brotherhood and community rather than competition.

These beliefs have led some socialist politicians, such as Tony Benn, to claim Morris as an icon for the Left. Yet I wonder how the multiculturalists and ‘politically correct’ egalitarians of Old and New Labour feel about Morris’ devotion to Anglo-Saxon culture; his veneration of Arthurian myth; and to use a favourite term of the Left, his general ‘ethnocentricity’? I wonder how many Labour councillors and MPs would, today, marvel at Morris’ translations of Icelandic sagas; his dream-like, ruralist prophecies; his attraction to the moral certainties of the mediaeval world; and his own personal love of fine living, in harmony with Nature and England?”[8]

1. Arnold, Catherine, City of Sin: London and Its Vices, Simon & Schuster, London, 2010

2. Cited in Pearsall, Ronald, The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality, Sutton, Stroud, 2003

3. Ballenger, Marcus, “The Reception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Victorian Europe”, Victorian Literature, 11 March 2011

4. Murray, J. Middleton, “William Morris”, in The Great Victorians, Vol. 2, Pelican, London, 1938

5. William Morris, The Manchester Examiner, 14 March 1883. Cited in Henderson, Philip, The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1950, p. 165

6. William Morris, Commonweal, 15 November 1890. Cited in Mackail, J. W. (John William), The Life of William Morris, Vol. II (new edition), Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1901, p. 235

7. Johnson, Paul, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, Harper, London, 2007

8. Garforth, Tom, “Morris: Visionary for a better World”, in Standardbearers: British Roots of the New Right, Bloomsbury Forum, Beckenham, 1999

~ Osred