William Morris and the trade unions

Submitted by AWL on 29 October, 2008 - 11:03 Author: Paul Hampton

Morris was no dilettante on matters of organisation. Once he had decided to become a socialist he joined the Democratic Federation and became a leading activist and public spokesperson. This entailed speaking at open-air meetings, selling papers and other literature and giving educational lectures on a regular basis. Far from being a Sunday socialist, he became a dedicated semi-professional revolutionary.

The issue of party democracy was one of the reasons behind the split with the SDF in late 1884. When the Socialist League was set up, it specifically subordinated the paper Commonweal to the control and supervision of the organisation, rather than treat it the personal property of the editors.

He emphasised the need to “make socialists” by patient propaganda. But socialists also had to intervene in existing struggles, in the unions, for free speech, on Irish Home Rule etc. As he put it in Our Policy in Commonweal (March 1886): “I say that our business is more than ever Education… This educational process, therefore, the forming a rallying point for definite aims is necessary to our success; but I must guard against misunderstanding. We must be no mere debating club, or philosophical society; we must take part in all really popular movements when we can make our own views on them unmistakably clear; that is a most important part of the education in organisation…” (Nicholas Salmon, William Morris: Political Writings).

Morris also continued to speak and work alongside the SDF and other socialists when a member of the Socialist League. As he expressed it in the same article, “when the principles and tactics held are practically the same, it seems to me a great mistake for Socialist bodies to hold aloof from each other.” He was to write one of his best-known articles, “How I Became a Socialist”, for Justice in 1894, when he reconciled to some extent with the SDF.

After breaking with the Anarchist leaders of the Socialist League in late 1890, he and the Hammersmith branch continued to organise and publish. In 1893 the Hammersmith Socialist Society initiated a unity manifesto with the SDF and Fabians. In 1894 Morris lamented the lack of united party, writing in The Labour Prophet that, “The materials for a great Socialist party are around us, but no such party exists. We have only the scattered limbs of it”. (Edward Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary).

Morris also took a close and critical interest in the trade unions. When he first came into political activity, unions in Britain mainly represented a small layer of workers scattered across a myriad of small societies. However this was already changing with the organisation of workers outside of the traditional skilled sectors, as well as miners and rail workers.

Between 1850 and 1914, the working population in Britain doubled from 9 to 18 million. In 1850 trade union membership stood at 600,000, with the largest organisation, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers having 21,000 members. Union membership peaked in the mid-1870s at around one and a half million, before falling again. It only revived to that figure in the early 1890s on the back of New Unionism.

Morris’ views on unions underwent an evolution, but they remained overwhelmingly critical. In a lecture, Art under Plutocracy (14 November 1883), a year after he became a socialist, Morris argued that “the Trades Unions, founded for the advancement of the working class as a class, have already become conservative and obstructive bodies, wielded by the middle-class politicians for party purposes”. (A L Morton, Political Writings of William Morris, 1973)

Like many socialists at the time, he appears to have subscribed to the iron law of wages, which meant that wages were driven down to subsistence level under capitalism, with no hope of changing the terms of exploitation (The Dawn of a New Epoch, 6 June 1886). He also observed that unions at the time did not contest “the right of the masters to the sweating of labour” and left workers to be “the slaves of the competitive market”. (Order and Anarchy, 9 February 1884)

In particular he maintained a visceral contempt for the trade union bureaucracy of the time who held back the transformation of unions into militant class organisations. Socialism from the Root Up, jointly written with Bax, condemned “the dead weight of their leaders, who look upon this feeling [of discontent] with the utmost disfavour, and have done their best to smother it, hampers the possible development of the Trades' Unions in this direction; but it ever breaks through these and other obvious obstacles. (Commonweal, 17 March 1888)

In particular he criticised the political subordination of unions to Whig-Liberal politicians. In Commonweal on 17 September 1887 he wrote: “Socialists are not hostile to trades’ unions, but to those who wish to prevent the trades’ unions developing with the times. Their real enemies are those who would crystallise them into mere societies for guaranteeing of the privilege of capitalism, and recruiting grounds for ‘the great Liberal party’ — that is, Whig vote preserves. This would be an ignominious end to such an important association of workers; but it need not be dreaded. The trades’ unions will develop, even if in doing so they have to change their old form and be no longer recognisable by their once enemies, now their anxious allies, the Whig politicians.” (Nicholas Salmon, William Morris’ Journalism)

Under the influence of Frederick Engels, Eleanor Marx and others, Morris came to see the potential of trade unionism as a form of class struggle.

In his pamphlet The Policy of Abstention (31 July 1887) he argued for socialists to support workers’ struggles, making an implicit case for workers’ control: “I say that the real business of us propagandists is to instil this aim of the workers becoming the masters of their own destinies, their own lives… Let them settle e.g. what wages are to be paid by their temporary managers, what number of hours it may be expedient to work; let them arrange for the filling of their military chest, the care of the sick, the unemployed, the dismissed: let them learn how to administer their own affairs.”

However he constantly linked this struggle for material improvements to the goal of socialism: “Any combination among the workmen checks this tendency [of competition], and is good as far as it goes; but the partial combination of the trades’ unions and the like must develop into a general combination, which will at last assuredly destroy the war of classes which is the foundation of our Society of waste, strife and robbery – at last — might the workers but see it at once and set on foot that great combination before the pinch of utter misery which will come of the breakdown of our short-sighted system of commercial war…” (20 August 1887 in Salmon, Journalism).

He therefore welcomed the matchworkers’ strike and praised the work of Annie Besant in it (Commonweal 21 July 1888). He hailed the dock strike in the summer of 1889, describing it as “a strike of the poor against the rich” and recognised that it represented a “sign of the times”. (The Lesson of the Hour, Commonweal, 7 September 1889)

At the conclusion of the strike, he wrote: “The dockers have won their victory; for with all drawbacks it must be called a victory. They have shown qualities of unselfishness and power of combination which we may well hope will appear again before long. For one thing, they have knocked on the head the old slander against the lower ranks of labour… these men can organise themselves at least as well, and be at least as true to their class, as the aristocracy of labour… although mere combination amongst the men, with no satisfactory ulterior aim, is not itself Socialism, yet it is both a necessary education for the workers, and it is an instrument which Socialism cannot dispense with… the new epoch of combination is only just beginning…”

However he also went on to point out the limits of the strike: “The dockers are to have their ‘tanner’ (if companies keep faith with them, which is very doubtful), but what will be their position when they reap the result of their hard won victory? Let us be plain on this matter. They will receive precarious mere-subsistence wages for the hardest of hard work. They will be lodged in hideous and foul slums; they will have no reasonable pleasure, no taste of the comforts and the luxuries which their labour helps to win for others. In a word, they will still be slaves as far as their material condition is concerned, though they have shown that they are not the stuff of which it is safe to make slaves. For us, it is our business to make them understand that they never can be anything else than slaves till they have swept away class domination and privilege… When they have learned that, their combination will both be infinitely improved as an instrument, and they will compelled to use it for its one real use, the realisation of Socialism, to which this strike has undoubtedly been a step, as part of a labour struggle, as part of an attack on our enemy — Capitalism.” (Commonweal, 21 September 1889)

His attitude summed up both the strength and the weakness of his politics. Morris was never afraid to speak the truth or to look reality in the face. However on trade union struggles he was often abstract, offering little by way of strategy for winning disputes, and rather sectarian. This was summed up by the Socialist League Executive Committee, which felt obliged to issue a statement a month after the dockers struggle, reassuring its members that they “do not in any way compromise their principles by taking part in strikes”, but asking them “not to let the revolutionary propagandist suffer thereby”. (Thompson)

A similar attitude was also revealed by his stance toward laws to reduce the working day. In Commonweal (6 July 1889) he argued: “I think that ‘unpractical’ as the question is, legislation limiting the working hours of adult males will be forced on the Government, and that before very long. If that legislation were effective, it would certainly give more leisure to the workers… On the other hand, the masters would be driven to meet the comparative scarcity of labour by carrying still further and faster the development of machinery and the organisation of labour… the improvement in machinery would increase the intensity of labour… All these would disappoint the hope of those who think that the eight hours day would give more employment to the mass of workers. The system of wage slavery and the profit market necessitates ‘a reserve army of labour’… and no shortening of the hours of labour will do away with this wretched state of things that does not bring with it obvious revolution, that is to say a change in the basis of society. (Salmon, Journalism)

To the campaign to reduce hours, he counterposed the call for a general strike: “Is it not the time to press on the workers general combination in this matter of the regulation of wages?… But suppose the inert and languishing body of trades’ unionism revivified by a ‘plan of campaign’, which would mean the whole mass standing shoulder to shoulder in all strikes (and much increased in numbers as it certainly would be), surely that would be worth a heap of parliamentary legislation, and armies of paid and lukewarm inspectors! (Commonweal, 24 August 1889)

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