William Morris, part 3: State and Revolution

Submitted by cathy n on 25 November, 2008 - 10:46 Author: Paul Hampton

One of the reasons for Morris’ scepticism about the possibilities of trade unionism was his understanding of the state. On the ABCs of the state, he was sharp and clear.

In ‘An empty pocket is the worst of crimes’ (Commonweal, 17 July 1886) he wrote of the ruling class: “‘This is mine, and whether I can use it or not, nobody else shall’ is the watch-word of property; and Queen, Lords, and Commons, Army and Navy, Judge, Magistrate, Lawyer and Policeman are kept in their places and paid (handsomely too) by Society in order to carry out this watchword to its legitimate consequences, that is, the semi-starvation and complete degradation of the majority of the people.” (Nicholas Salmon, William Morris’ Journalism)

He used his Notes on News column in Commonweal to disparage the state. For example in 1889 he wrote: “For after all, what is their [the government’s] business? The defence of property; the defence of the brigandage of the classes” and later that, “We are governed by a bureaucracy i.e. a government of professional officials governing in their own interests as representatives of the proprietary classes”. (Salmon)

Morris was also remarkably sharp on the emerging imperialism of the European bourgeois states and the tendency of capitalism to generate wars. The Manifesto of the Socialist League in 1885 warned in the language of the day that “There is competition always, and sometimes open war, among the nations of the civilised world for their share of the world market. For now, indeed, all the rivalries of nations have been reduced to this one — a degraded struggle for their share of the spoils of barbarous countries to be used at home for the purpose of increasing the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor.” (Salmon 1996)

In 1888 he published a remarkable article by Belfort Bax in Commonweal discussing whether the imperialist expansion into Africa would give new longevity to capitalism. Morris wrote: “I must say that our comrade Bax’s appeal to us to consider the Question of Africa is very timely… To put the matter in the fairest way possible — the present rulers of society are bound by their position to seek for new markets in order to work off the stock of wares which they go on producing by means of partly unpaid labour; they must do this whatever fresh suffering the process entails on the barbarous population they civilise, or the civilised population which they degrade far below barbarism.” (Salmon)

Morris expressed his opposition to the British Empire and its expansion. He described the missionary Henry Stanley as “the enemy of workmen in Great Britain as well as of the natives in Africa “and said that if he reached England again that “the workmen of this country will make some demonstration against him, and so clear themselves of participation in his crimes”. (Commonweal, 13 April 1889)

On Britain’s invasion of Sudan, Morris wrote that “it would be almost too good to hope for defeat” by the Mahdi army. (Commonweal, 22 December 1888)

He also explained the attitude socialists should take in the event of a major European war between the great powers, in terms reminiscent of the internationalists in the First World War:

“Meantime, if war really becomes imminent our duties as Socialists are clear enough, and do not differ from those we have to act on ordinarily. To further the spread of international feeling between the workers by all means possible; to point out to our own workmen that foreign competition and rivalry, or commercial war, culminating at last in open war, are necessities of the plundering classes, and that the race and commercial quarrels of these classes only concern us so far as we can use them as opportunities for fostering discontent and revolution; that the interests of the workmen are the same in all countries and they can never be really enemies of each other; that the men of our labouring classes, therefore, should turn a deaf ear to the recruiting sergeant, and refuse to allow themselves to be dressed up in red and taught to form a part of the modern killing machine for the honour and glory of a country in which they have only the dog’s share of many kicks and halfpence — all this we have to preach always, though in the event of imminent war we may have to preach it more emphatically. (Commonweal, 1 January 1887)

Morris was unequivocal about the necessity for working class revolution to put an end to capitalism, since, as he put it, “a proprietary class neither will nor can yield its privileges voluntarily”. (Emigration and Colonisation, 31 December 1887)

Ever blunt and straightforward, he wrote in Unattractive Labour (May 1885): “For my part, having regard to the general happiness of the race, I say without shrinking that the bloodiest of violent revolutions would be a light price to pay for the righting of this wrong.” (Nicholas Salmon, William Morris: Political Writings)

He retained this view until the end. In his last lecture, What we have to Look For (30 March 1895), he said: “I cannot for the life of me see how the great change which we long for can come otherwise than by disturbance and suffering of some kind.” (Edward Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary)


However this did not prevent him from denouncing the r-r-revolutionary phrasemongers, who “preach revolution without class struggle, which is an absurdity and an impossibility.” (Commonweal, 28 September 1889)

Soon after the split with SDF, the Socialist League debated its attitude towards standing candidates for parliament and for other bodies, such as local councils. On one side were Eleanor Marx, Aveling, and Bax, who like Engels favoured using elections as a means of making socialist propaganda; on the other stood Morris and some comrades influenced by anarchism, who opposed such an intervention.

In his contribution in Commonweal (July 1885), Morris argued: “I think that Socialists ought not to hesitate to choose between Parliamentarism and revolutionary agitation, and that it is a mistake to try and sit on the two stools at once; and, for my part, I hope that they will declare against Parliamentarism as I feel assured that otherwise they will have to retrace their steps at the cost of much waste of time and discouragement… On the other hand the object of Parliamentary institutions is the preservation of society in its present form — to get rid of defects in the machine in order to keep the machine going… if we mix ourselves up with Parliament we shall confuse and dull this fact in people’s minds instead of making it clear and intensifying it.” (Salmon, Political Writings)

He maintained this hostility throughout his involvement with Commonweal, asking readers in 1890: “What is the aim of Parliament? The upholding of privilege; the society of rich and poor; the society of inequality, and the consequent misery of the workers and the degradation of all classes.” (Salmon, PW)

He described the House of Commons as a “Den of Thieves” and famously in his utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890) made the historic parliament building a store for manure under Communism.

Of course workers had only recently obtained the vote and there were not, as in Germany, Marxist MPs in Parliament, although a few Radicals did seek workers’ support. Morris was therefore highly critical of the Liberal Party, which he described as “a nondescript and flaccid creation of bourgeois supremacy, a party without principles or definition, but a thoroughly adequate expression of English middle-class hypocrisy, cowardice, and short-sightedness, engrossed the whole of the political progressive movement in England, and dragged the working-classes along with it, blind as they were to their own interests and the solidarity of labour.” (Socialism from the Root Up)

At best, Morris believed that revolutionaries “Socialists may be obliged to use the form of parliament in order to cripple the resistance of the reactionists by making it formally illegal and so destroying the power of the armed men on whom the power of the parliament and the law-courts really rests. But this can only come in the last act; when the Socialists are strong enough to capture the parliament in order to put an end to it, and the privilege whose protection is its object, the revolution will have come, or all but come.” (Anti-Parliamentary, Commonweal, 7 June 1890)

Later in life Morris’ hostility toward standing for parliament softened, in part because of the experience of getting John Burns and Keir Hardie elected in 1892. In a lecture, The Present Outlook in Politics, in 1887 he looked forward to the “gradual building up of a great labour party” and as late as May 1895 he spoke in favour of George Lansbury, who stood for parliament as an SDF candidate.

On his earlier attitude toward standing candidates and parliament, I think Morris was simply wrong. His justifiable hostility to the bourgeois state and its parties was mechanically transformed into inflexible tactics to close off avenues for socialist propaganda, and thus conceded important arenas of national and local politics to the bourgeoisie.

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