Saturday, 25 January 2014

William Morris: We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold

“Apart from my desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilisation.” (William Morris, from “How I Became a Socialist”, 1894)

Much of what I have learned about William Morris has come from E. P Thompson’s volume William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. The book was part of an effort by the Communist Party Historians' Group to emphasise the domestic roots of Marxism in Britain at a time (1955) when the Communist Party was under attack for always following the Moscow line. Morris has often been portrayed as “The English Marx”. E. P Thompson is also author of the classic The Making of the English Working Class. Both are door stop tomes, but if you can get over that, Thompson is a rewarding read which fills in a great many blanks about the early labour movement, in which Morris was pivotal. 

I was interested to see that the artist Jeremy Deller has recently opened an exhibition in the William Morris museum at Walthamstow. The mural of a giant Morris striding the ocean like a moral Poseidon whilst throwing Roman Abramovich’s yacht away in disgust particularly demanded attention. It is refreshing that William Morris is not just seen as a “textile maker” these days, but increasingly as a “socialist”. For a while there I had thought there was a conspiracy of silence in airbrushing out Morris’s keenly held beliefs. Although “socialist” is a more willingly applied label, it is not very well known Morris was no glib Blairite grand daddy, bestowing philanthropic benevolence on needy folk for good causes (his co- workers were paid as artisans with good conditions and not as ‘minimum wage lackeys’). Morris was a radical  anarcho- communist who wanted to see the overthrow of capitalism altogether. Many “democratic” socialists who claim him as theirs should remember he was in favour of Irish home rule, and against the notion of Parliamentary representational democracy, and sided with the anti- Parliamentarians during the great split within the Socialist League.

William Morris was a wealthy man, having inherited a fortune, and being a successful interior designer for the homes of the effete middle classes. Could he be trusted to lead up an anarcho- socialist revolutionary party? Morris faithfully bankrolled the Socialist League and it’s publication, Commonweal, as well as maintaining a punishing marathon of lectures, campaigns and protests all across Britain and Europe for nearly 10 years. He frequently bailed out his fellow comrades from the inevitable legal scrapes, but kept his own nose clean with the authorities. He was arrested on September 21, 1885, in a melée at the Thames Police Court, but made no public comment on the incident. The arrest was for disorderly conduct at the trial of Lewis Lyons, a tailor, and others who had been charged with resisting arrest at a mass meeting of Socialists the previous day. Lyons was sentenced by the magistrate to two months hard labour. Among the crowd that protested the harshness of his sentence were Eleanor Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx, and her husband, Edward. In the end, after identifying himself : "I am an artist, and a literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe", Morris was discharged without penalty.

So we see the "class pass" in operation. One rule for “them”, another for “us”. No Gandhian style solidarity protest in sympathy with the oppressed working classes there. Even as a renegade “gentleman”, it’s galling to see how softly the establishment treats one of their own. And Morris comes up smelling of embroidered roses, in a tapestry of self importance. Still, notwithstanding this incident, the overall contribution of William Morris to the development of libertarian socialism cannot be criticized. He was an endlessly positive influence on the movement.

Morris was also a rural preservationist (founding Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), and saw the decimation of folk arts and crafts as an insidious and withering artifact of capitalism, which destroyed the spirit of human beings. What’s changed? Mass production has only led to the amelioration of life quality for millions, a fact that Morris foresaw with plaguing lucidity.  He is without much doubt the founder of contemporary green socialism as a political movement. In fact it was the eco- socialist writer Derek Wall who pointed me in the direction of Morris, in his book The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement.

The conflicting ingredients of Morris's life makes him a complex and juxtaposed man, a nature lover pitched as he was against the industrial revolution, with the burgeoning needs of his art to express itself within commercial constraints, with the shadows of history, his legacy and his status all about him, by nature an uneasy leader enmired in petty squabbles and the slings and arrows of other people’s politicking. To overcome these he was, in short, a visionary human being who extended himself beyond the envelope of what was expected or required of him to make the world a better place. Ultimately the visionary fires which burned so brightly, would consume him.

Above: Kelmscott Manor, home of The Kelmscott Press and the idyll where Morris wrote News from Nowhere, probably the finest example of utopian socialism in literature, which went on to inspire many other writers including Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and James Joyce.

To me, Morris can indeed be seen as the English Marx. Whereas Marx concerned himself with burdensome economic proofs and overly intellectualised historical “scientific” formulas, Morris appeals to the heart, the poet within, the wild man of the woods, the urgency of fighting against all the alienation and narrow dehumanising technological bankruptcy of capitalism which acts against the free artistic spirit. Marx undoubtedly shaped the 20th century, but Morris may yet speak to future generations.

“Thus, in this matter also does the artificial famine of inequality, felt in so many other ways, impoverish us despite of our riches; and we sit starving amidst our gold.”  
 (William Morris, from “The Socialist Ideal: Art”, 1891)

by South Utsire

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