William Morris’s Socialist Diary
Edited by Florence S Boos
(Five Leaves, £10)
WHAT was striking about William Morris's entry into socialist politics as a man of mature years was his exuberance, energy and unceasing activity.
Equally striking was his well-formed critical analysis of the many strands of political and philosophical thought that coursed through late 19th century British society as the underlying contradictions in the transformative drive of British capitalism began to assert themselves.
His instinctively critical take on British imperialism remains an inspiration. It entailed a sharp polemic with Henry Hyndman, the self-appointed leader of British socialism in the Social Democratic Federation, and a schism which produced the Socialist League as the more balanced elements rejected the top-down control, puffery, absolutism and bourgeois condescension that Hyndman visited on the SDF membership.
It is often a surprise to those whose vision of Morris is shaped by his bourgeois class position, activities as a designer and manufacturer and his central role in shaping the aesthetics of the English arts and crafts movement that he came to consider himself a revolutionary socialist.
“I call myself a Communist, and have no wish to qualify that word by joining any other to it,” he stated. “The aim of Communism seems to me to be the complete equality of condition for all people; and anything in a Socialist direction which stops short of this is merely a compromise with the present condition of society, a halting-place on the road to the goal.”
His Socialist Diary, edited by Florence Boos, professor of English at the University of Iowa and general editor of the William Morris Archive, is an intense personal account of Morris's activity in 1887.
He was the most outstanding cultural figure, writer and artist, to transform the “anti-capitalism” — more properly opposition to the degradation and ugliness of urban capitalism — of the aesthetic movement into practical and theoretical activity for the alternative.
His was not a socialism of the instinct, of a personal experience of poverty and exploitation, but his alienation from bourgeois society was profound. He hated political hypocrisy and politicians equally and took this into a disdain for parliamentary action. His socialism caused a sharp rupture with the circles in which he had moved and threw him into contact with a wide range of working people.
What emerges from his diary is a sense of a man whose action and thought were as one, whose personal generosity and sense of duty were at the service of the movement and who constantly tested his ideas in practice.
That said, he also displays a certain obduracy, a distance from political manoeuvre and subterfuge and a taste for plain dealing. That this was fused with a strong organisational drive and a clear sense of the ultimate goal might serve as a model for young people today whose anti-capitalism is yet to be fused with a sense of what the future might be like.
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