William Morris – against ‘state socialism’

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Early in 1883, the artist, designer, poet and former anti-imperialist liberal William Morris crossed what he called the river of fire and joined Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. In May that year he was elected to its Executive as Treasurer. When the SDF split in 1885, members including Morris leaving in protest at Hyndman’s dictatorship the Socialist League was formed. Although a leading member of the Socialist League, Morris called himself neither a Social Democrat nor a Socialist but always a Communist. As his biographer EP Thompson put it Morris was ” an outstanding member of the first generation of European Communist intellectuals.”

Although small, at its first conference in 1885 membership was reported to be 230, thanks to the financial generosity of Morris the Socialist League started its own paper

Commonweal, firstly as a monthly and then from April 1886 as a weekly. Morris edited over 400 issues until he was deposed as editor in 1890.

In February 1885 in the first issue of Commonweal the Socialist League published its manifesto. The manifesto attacked State Socialism proclaiming : “No better solution would be that of State Socialism…whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages still in operation:no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to socialism.” The results of State Socialism are there for all to see. My grandfather told me that when the mines were nationalised proud miners marched with banner and band around the pit head. When they got to the office, the manager yelled at them to get back to work. Yet still “socialist” organizations are calling for nationalisation albeit with “workers’ control” added on as a cosmetic sop.

Morris returned to the theme of State Socialism in an article on May Day published in the May 17, 1890, issue of Commonweal writing: “State Socialism?- I don’t agree with it; in fact I think the two words contradict one another, and that it is the business of Socialism to destroy the State and put Free Society in its place.”

In 1889 Morris had reviewed Edward Bellamy’s state socialist novel Looking Backward in Commonweal. Rather than pen a political tract in reply Morris wrote a novel of his own News From Nowhere. This depicts a society of communistic freedom where free happy healthy people live in decentralised communities which form the basis of social administration. The State has been abolished and Parliament has been redeployed as a store for animal fertiliser.

As an organization the Socialist League defined itself thus: “Close fellowship with each other, and steady purpose for the advancement of the Cause, will naturally bring about the organization and discipline among ourselves absolutely necessary to success; but we shall look to it that there shall be no distinctions of rank or dignity amongst us to give opportunity to the selfish ambition of leadership which has so often injured the cause of the workers. We are working for equality and brotherhood for all the world, and it is only through equality and brotherhood that we can make our work effective.”

Equality and brotherhood do not exist in most socialist organizations which reproduce within themselves the rigid hierarchical distinctions of bourgeois society. They are dominated by self-appointed permament leadership factions who demand that the rank and file carry out the line they have decided on pain of expulsion, or worse, if they don’t. Some socialists see other socialists as far worse enemies than the ruling class. The result is ongoing fragmentation and fratricide which makes the socialist movement look idiotic!

Morris’s aim was always to make socialists. Without a conscious politically organized majority in the working class socialism was impossible.Socialism was the work of the working class itself and without this socialism would not be. This was proclaimed in the Socialst League’s constitution. To this end Morris became one of the most prolific socialst propagandists of the 1880s and in seven years spoke at over a thousand meetings. At strike meetings, in dismal working class halls and clubs and in the snow from a soap box near Hammersmith Bridge he procalimed the undiluted message of working class self emancipation.

As Guy Aldred put it: “Later Morris was torn between the charlatan parliamentary element, which did not want action, and the Anarchist element…which is lacking in the real genius of revolution as a civil factor.” A draft constitution written by Edward Aveling committing the League to contesting elections was defeat at the 1885 conference as was a similar motion from the Bloomsbury Branch at the 1887 conference. Bloomsbury left the League and the parliamentarians drifted back to the SDF.

Morris stated his position in an article Anti-Parliamentary published in Commonweal on June 7, 1890.” What is the aim of parliament?”, asked Morris. He answered: “The upholding of privilege; the society of rich and poor, the consequent misery of all genuine workers and the degradation of all classes.” He concluded: “…an antiparliamentary boycott will show your determination to be free, and will give you the instrument of attaining your freedom.”
In 1890 the anarchists, advocates of terrorist propaganda by deed, removed Morris from the editorship of . In his last contribution to Commonweal entitled Where Are We Now? Morris stated: ” Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists ie, convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles into practice.” Alas socialists remain an isolated minority, their isolation often being self-imposed. Movements from below are not welcomed and aided but are cynically manipulated in service of the fetish of building the party. Where this can’t be done socialists often set out to destroy the movement.

Morris left the Socialist League and its Hammersmith Branch went with him to form the Hammersmith Socialist Society. This became a model non-sectarian organization, all wings of the socialist movement from the Anarchist to the Fabian were invited to address its Sunday meetings. However its efforts to bring about socialist unity between itself, the SDF and the Fabians came to nothing. Nor for that matter have more recent efforts towards socialist unity been blessed with success.

When the Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893 many ex-Socialist League members joined. Morris did not, it was not sufficiently socialist for him. The ILP, which has now vanished into history, begat the Labour Party which is now socialist in name only. Who can say that Morris was wrong?

Morris now made a kind of peace with the SDF. He was on the platform with Engels and Aveling at the 1891 May Day demonstration and campaigned for the SDF candidate George Lansbury, later leader of the Labour Party,  in an election at Walworth. Early in 1896 he gave his last lecture on One Socialist Party, an aim which is still far from being realised. He died in October of that year. It was said that he worked himself to death in the cause of socialism but it is likely that the debilitating ailment of diabetes was a cause of his premature decease. His legacy is claimed by many including the Stalinists of the New Communist Party and the Strasserite wing of the National Front. But few have really understood the content of his socialism or if they have have chosen to ignore for the sake of expediency.

In his novel A Dream of John Ball, set in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 Morris wrote: “I pondered how men fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

The world is as ugly, squalid and impoverished as it was in the time of Morris. Capitalism made psychotic but its werewolf lust for profit has torn the heart out of much of humanity turning it into a shadow of what free human beings could be. We have again to take up the fight of Morris but under the name he himself chose – Communism.

By Terry Liddle

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