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Marx 200 The crucial impact of Marx on William Morris

JOHN ELLISON explains how the great philosopher convinced Morris that a different way of ordering society was possible

WILLIAM MORRIS, who was already a poet, painter, designer and translator of medieval Icelandic sagas, began to read the work of Karl Marx, whom he never met, early in 1882, when he was in his late forties and Marx himself was approaching his 64th birthday, having one more year to live.  

Studying Marx was crucial to Morris’s becoming a socialist journalist, thinker and educator. 

Morris was a man of intense feelings, burning with a desire to understand better how the world worked. He was already an enemy of the processes of industrial capitalism, having originally considered these, as a child of the romantic movement, by situating himself notionally in medieval times in order to judge the era in which he lived.   

In doing so he had taken the same path as had his early influences, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin.

Political understanding developed through Morris’s increasing participation in public debate from 1876 onwards in person and by pen. 

This was in regard to both international politics and to the systematic “restoration” of medieval buildings, which he opposed, considering it misguided to go beyond “preservation.”   

In January 1876, he resigned from his copper mines company directorship and from wearing top-hats to sitting on his own and never acquiring another.  

Then war drums began to beat for Britain to intervene in conflict between Russia and Turkey. Although Britain ultimately went no further than drumming and diplomatic opportunism, in 1879 came war on Afghanistan and in 1882 came the shelling of Alexandria. These imperialist adventures appalled Morris.

Born rich as the son of a London banker and rich in his own right as a manufacturer and vendor of products enjoying the benefit of his remarkable skills, Morris’s main place of abode had since 1878 been Kelmscott House in Hammersmith.   

He lived there with his wife Jane and daughters, often spending time weaving on a loom in his bedroom. The deterioration of his daughter Jenny’s health in 1882 caused him much anguish. 

Crom Price, a friend of Morris, wrote in his diary on April 22 that year: “Top [ie Morris] to breakfast at Ned’s [ie artist Edward Burne-Jones] — extra brilliant after overcoming some drooping spirits on account of Jenny … was full of Karl Marx which he had begun to read in French — praised Robert Owen highly.”

The first English edition of Capital was not to appear until 1887, and Morris did not read German.  

So Capital, for Morris, had to be in French. Working his way through it and deriving from it an understanding that crucial to human historical development was the struggle between classes was revelatory. It assisted Morris substantially to define the outlook that was to be his until his own death at the age of 62 in 1896.   

Stating this more robustly, Capital was an essential element in his conversion, in enabling and encouraging him “to cross the river of fire” to committed socialist convictions and campaigning. Its lessons informed and were to drive the artistic and literary work that was yet to come. 

Other serious reading of Henry George, Robert Owen and the socialism-sceptical John Stuart Mill, and discussions with others, were parts of the process too, but Marx’s analysis of capitalism past and present, and his conclusion that socialism and communism were its necessary successors, played a vital part in Morris’s evolution into a rounded and profound socialist thinker.   

A symbolic date was January 13 1883, when he joined the Social Democratic Federation, owned by as much as led by Alfred Hyndman, who inappropriately regarded his own top hat, as well as his own distortions of Marxism, as assets to the working-class movement.

Edward Thompson, in his magnificent life of Morris, estimated that Morris was one of perhaps a total of 200 people who became socialists in Britain around that time.  

Morris’s life continued to be multifaceted. During 1882 he established a new work base for the firm of Morris and Co, where painted glass, embroidery, tapestries, carpets, wallpaper, wall-hangings, curtains and furniture were produced for sale to the well-off.    

On March 6 1883 he gave his first explicitly socialist lecture in Manchester. The subject was Art, Wealth and Riches.   He wrote about this soon afterwards: “I specially wanted to point out that the question of popular art was a social question, involving the happiness or misery of the greater part of humanity … What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?”

His understanding of the vital connection between capitalism and imperialism was captured in another early lecture, in which he said of imperialism: “It is simply the agony of capitalism driven by a force it cannot resist to seek for new and ever new markets at any price and any risk.”

In 1885, his poem The Pilgrims of Hope, told of how he had experienced the satisfaction of joining the ranks of socialists.

I was one of the band.

And now the streets seem gay and the high stars glittering bright;

And for me, I sing amongst them, for my heart is full and light.

I see the deeds to be done and the day to come on the earth,

And riches vanished away and sorrow turned to mirth;

I see the city squalor and the country stupor gone.

And we a part of it all — we twain no longer alone

In the days to come of the pleasure, in the days that are of the fight —

I was born once long ago: I am born again tonight.

At the end of 1884 Morris with others left the Federation and set up the Socialist League. Soon after, he became editor of the League’s weekly publication, Commonweal. For the next five years he edited the paper, contributing many remarkable pieces of political journalism.

In this final but enormously fruitful socialist period of Morris’s life, he delivered powerful insights through his articles and lectures into the relationship between art and society, past and present. 

Edward Thompson pinned down this contribution with razor-edged definition, saying: “Where Ruskin had jabbed an indignant finger at capitalism and had often — guided by Carlyle’s wrath at the ‘cash-nexus’ — indicated, in the worship of Mammon, the source of its degradation and horror, Morris was able in page after page of coherent and detailed historical exposition to reveal in the very processes of production the economic root both of capitalist exploitation and of the corruption of art.”

In 1886 his A Dream of John Ball appeared and in 1890 News from Nowhere, a utopian novella which remains today both highly readable and relevant.   

Thompson commented that half the latter’s purpose was a criticism of capitalist society and the other half “a revelation of the powers slumbering within men and women and distorted or denied in class society.”

Morris did not underestimate the mountainous task of transforming society. He wrote: “It is not a small change in life that we advocate but a very great one … Socialism will transform our lives and habits and leave the greater part of the political social and religious controversies that we are now so hot about forgotten, useless and lifeless like wrecks stranded on a seashore.”

His conviction that a different way of ordering society from that in which he lived had grown, in part, from his own personal investigations into the pre-industrial capitalism workshop system present a century earlier.   

It was because of this, he declared in an 1884 lecture to the Society opposing the fashion for medieval building restoration, that it was, “with a ready sympathy that I read the full explanation of the change and its tendencies in the writings of a man, I will say a great man, whom, I suppose, I ought not to name in this company, and who cleared my mind on several points, also unmentionable here, relating to this subject of labour and its products…”

He was referring, of course, to Karl Marx.


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