. William Morris, Socialism, and the World | London Progressive Journal
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William Morris, Socialism, and the World

Sun 28th Jul 2019

This short essay is a study of William Morris, Socialism, and the World. Since the end of the 20th century we have entered a period of Crisis. This Crisis is obvious, especially if we look at how the world has developed since the end of the Cold War and since the beginning of the War on Terror. The crisis of economics, politics, society, ecology, and ideas, faces all of humanity – in all parts of the globe. The Crisis of Capitalism, since 2008, has only increased since 2008. The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy, since 2015, has only increased since 2015. The world today is faced with so many problems that it is often difficult to know where to begin in terms of solving them. In this essay I want to explore what William Morris, the great British Socialist, might have thought of our world, our times, and the crisis of our times.

Capitalism is a system of problems and crises. The Crisis of today is not exactly new. Capitalism has always produced crisis and Capitalism has always pushed itself into crisis. The nature of the Crisis of today is that it is a total crisis of Capitalism – affecting every part of Capitalism and every part of Capitalist society. The Crisis of today is an economic crisis, a political crisis, a social crisis, and a historical crisis. The Crisis is also a crisis of the way in which human society reproduces itself – as the crisis of Capitalism threatens to undermine the very means by which human life, and all life, exists on this planet. The nature of the Crisis of Capitalism would not have been new to Morris. Indeed Morris saw the nature of Capitalism – its crises and its barbarism – in the 19th century. Morris saw the nature of the Crisis today – even before humanity experienced the awful crises of the 20th century. 

Morris saw the nature of Capitalism. He saw the reality of what Capitalism produces for human society – vast economic development, alongside vast social misery. Morris understood the reality of Capitalism – that it is based, firmly, on exploitation and oppression. He saw this in his own times – the times of Industrial Britain and Victorian Britain. His response to this reality was to shift his politics towards Socialism and towards the Left. Morris became a Socialist in 1883. Morris became a Socialist because he saw the reality of what Capitalism produces – particularly its exploitation, its oppression, and its barbarism. Morris became a Socialist, as we should all become Socialists, because he became committed to the struggle for a better world – a world which exists without exploitation, oppression, and barbarism.

Morris saw the nature of crisis – before the crisis of the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. Morris saw the nature of crisis – before the crisis of today. He foresaw, before many others in the 19th century, the tendency of Capitalism to produce both civilisation and barbarism. Morris saw the reality of Capitalism – that it is capable of mass production and mass development, yet that it is also capable of imperialism, barbarism, exploitation, and oppression. Morris, in his own times, tried to think about the Crisis of Capitalism, and the ways to overcome the Crisis of Capitalism - by overcoming Capitalism. Morris saw, before most, that in order to solve the crises of our times, and the Crisis of Capitalism, humanity will need to produce a new form of society. Morris hoped that this new form of society would be Socialism.

The nature of the crisis of today requires solutions. The Left, across the world, cannot sit back and watch as the crisis of today continues to divide and destroy the world. All of the great events of the last few decades – the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of Neo-Liberalism, the War on Terror, the Afghan War, the Iraq War, the Crisis of 2007, the Crisis of 2008, the Crisis of Neo-Liberalism, the Crisis of the EU, the Arab Revolutions of 2011, the rise of the Right, the assault against the Latin American Left – show the need for an active Left, and a Socialist Left. We cannot look at the world, today, and simply believe that the world will fix itself. The Right are advancing today – and the Left are in full retreat. If we are to ever reverse the crisis of our times, to overcome Capitalism and to establish Socialism, we must understand that crisis, and work to build a better Left. In our times it is vital that we find ways to build a new Left, and a better Left. The nature of the crisis requires a better Left, and a better struggle for Socialism. This is the only way that we can solve the crisis of our times – with a better struggle for Socialism.

The nature of the crisis of today has disillusioned many on the Left. The defeats of today remind many, on the Left, of the defeats of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. So many defeats, across many decades, has left behind a defeated and disorganised Left. Many of the Left have lost hope – both in the struggle and in the struggle for Socialism. Morris, in the 1880s and the 1890s, suffered many defeats and disasters – such as the split of the Social-Democratic Federation and the collapse of the Socialist League – yet he did not give up hope, either in the struggle or in Socialism. Morris, and his commitment to the struggle for Socialism, is an example to us all in these dark times and these despairing times. Morris remained loyal to the struggle for Socialism, until his own death in 1896. Many on the Left might be disillusioned today – but the struggle continues, and it will continue until the victory of Socialism. 

Morris understood the danger of pessimism. He understood that if humanity is to ever achieve a better world – a Socialist world – it must overcome pessimism and replace it with optimism. In our times, a times of crisis, we might often give in to pessimism, but we cannot allow pessimism to dominate our politics or our struggle. Socialism, in the end, must be built – and it will only be built if we are optimistic that it can be built. Morris, in the end, was always an optimist for Socialism. In our times we need to remain optimists for Socialism. Morris always remained an optimistic Socialist:

"But in any case, and whatever the nature of our strife for peace may be, if we only aim at it steadily and with singleness of heart, and ever keep it in view, a reflection from that peace of the future will illumine the turmoil and trouble of our lives, whether the trouble be seemingly petty, or obviously tragic; and we shall, in our hopes at least, live the lives of men: nor can the present times give us any reward greater than that.

" [1]

The memory of Morris has remained a key part of the British Left and the International Left. We all remember Morris – largely thanks to the biography of Morris by E.P. Thompson. We all remember Morris, as a founder of British Marxism and British Socialism. Our vision of Morris remains because he was a genuine man and a good man. He believed in human liberation, the central idea of Socialism, and he fought for that idea of human liberation. What we also need to remember about Morris was his commitment – to a better world and to a Socialist world.

The Left, today, is emerging out of a period of defeat. If we are to ever emerge completely out of that period of defeat we need to be optimistic about our chances. We need to overcome not only our pessimism but the reaction of the Right. The Right, who have plunged the world into reaction, crisis, and darkness, since the 1980s, now lecture the Left about the prospects for Socialism. Despite the fact that they have caused the crisis of our times, the Right go on defending their failing system. Indeed we are told, daily, that Socialism cannot work or that Socialism has failed – despite the fact that millions of workers, around the world, are still struggling for a better world and for a Socialist world. These responses, from the Right, are based on pessimism and reaction. These responses, from the Right, have no solutions to our crises and our times. The only solution is Socialism.

Socialism can work – indeed the power of the working-class shows that it can work. Indeed Socialism must work if we are to have a future worth living in. In our society today we have many Liberals, Conservatives, and others on the Right, who tell us, every day, that Socialism cannot work. Yet their own system, the system of Neo-Liberalism, is daily falling into crisis and into deeper crisis. These people like to lecture yet they also like to drive the whole of humanity down into the muck of exploitation and oppression. The old arguments of the Cold War no longer work in our times – because of the reality of our times as an age of crisis. We cannot go on living as we are living – in an age of crisis. We cannot accept or tolerate this crisis – nor can we tolerate the intolerable social reality generated by the crisis. One of the key dangers of our times is that we will go on accepting a social reality which should not be tolerated by any decent human society – specifically exploitation and oppression. We need to build a better world. We need a world based on real humanity and real solidarity – a world of Socialism. We need to overcome the limits of the Right, their lies, their distortions, their politics, and their reaction, if we are to ever achieve a better world. Indeed the future of humanity and the planet probably rests on overcoming them. Socialism can work – and we can make it work.

If we are to achieve a better world we need to have an idea of a better world. We also need to have an ideal of a better world. That idea is Socialism. That ideal is Socialism.
 The struggle of the 20th century has led to the struggle of the 21st century. Every Socialist who is active in the struggle for Socialism, today, knows that the struggle is shaped by the successes and defeats of the past. Morris, himself, knew this. He understood that the struggle for Socialism exists as part of history - and as part of the development of history. Our struggle, today, is ultimately the result of the struggle of the past. This struggle might not be ideal, but it is the struggle that we have inherited from the past. It is the duty of every Socialist to make the best of the times in which we live, in order to continue the day-to-day struggle for Socialism.

Those Socialists who remember the old struggles of the past – from the 20th century – know how difficult the struggle can be. As we move into the current period of struggle we need to remember that past – and remember that we still live in an age of struggle.
 Those Socialists who are fighting the struggle of today - in the early 21st century - know how difficult the struggle is today. In our times we can clearly see that the struggle remains difficult - and will remain difficult until we achieve Socialism. 

If we look at the world today we can see that there is a clear reality of social struggle and class struggle. This reality will not go away, even if we ignore it. We need to face that struggle and work towards an alternative. We need to face that struggle and work to build Socialism.

The world, today, needs alternatives. It is clear that the current order of Neo-Liberalism cannot go on forever. It is also clear that the whole Capitalist order, itself, is undermined by its crisis. It is time to put Socialism back on the agenda – simply due to the failure of Neo-Liberalism. As Socialists we must put Socialism back on the agenda – and put the idea of Socialism to the working-class. In most societies, since the 1970s and 1980s, the lack of an alternative to Capitalism has produced nothing but crisis, economic disaster, social disaster, ecological disaster, and the growing power of the Right. This reality cannot be accepted if a better world is to be achieved during our times. We need to build the alternative of Socialism in order to achieve Socialism. We need to convince millions of workers, across the globe, that Socialism is not only in their interest but also in the interest of humanity. We need that vision, not only because of our struggle for a better humanity, but also because of our struggle to achieve a better world. This vision, of a better world, is at the heart of Socialism – and it might just be the only vision capable of achieving that better world.

It is clear that only Socialism can solve the crisis of our times. It is clear because Capitalism has failed to solve the crisis of our times – despite its victories in the Cold War and its victories in the rise of Neo-Liberalism. It is clear because Capitalism has caused the crisis in the first place. If we are really to solve the issues of our times, and the crises of our times, we must look beyond the limits of Capitalism. We really need to look beyond the reality of Capitalism – its exploitation and its oppression – and seek out a better form of society. The reality of our times shows the need for us to find a better way of organising human life - simply as a means of achieving both a better form of human life and a more sustainable form of human life. Capitalism might have brought us human prosperity, for some, but it cannot bring us a better form of human prosperity. If we truly believe in human liberation, and the survival of the human species, we will need to move beyond Capitalism – and more towards Socialism. Morris understood this, and he understood this as long ago as the 19th century. If any person from the 19th century truly understood the ethical and moral problems of Capitalism then that person was William Morris. Morris also understood that the solution to our problem is Socialism – and that we must struggle to solve our problems through Socialism. Morris’ vision of Socialism is a simple vision:

"Let us again then look at the end: it is a Community striving for the happiness of the human race: each man striving for the happiness of the whole and therefore for his own through the whole. Surely such a community would develop the best qualities of man, and make such a world of it as it is difficult to conceive of now: a world in which sordid fear would be unknown and in which permanent injustice defended by authority would not exist, and in which acts of wrong would be but the result of sudden outbursts of passion repented of by the actors, acknowledged as wrongs by all." [2]

Morris believed in the potential of Socialism. Morris believed that Socialism was capable of achieving both human freedom and human liberation. He also believed that Socialism is capable of solving the wider problems of human life – particularly in regards to the reality of Capitalism destroying both our society and our planet. His dream was for a better society, but his dream was also for a society that understood the limits and the dangers of ecology and human ecology. In many ways his Socialism was a Socialism which liberates both humanity and our planet. Morris understood that Capitalism has taken us far, in terms of advancing the human species, but he also understood that if the future for humanity is to be a happy one we will need to leave Capitalism, in the future, and leave it for Socialism. Morris believed in a vision of life – and a better form of life. His vision was for a better humanity. His vision was for Socialism.

The hope of the world, today, is Socialism. This is clear if we look at the reality of the social struggle today. Clearly Capitalism cannot solve its problems. Clearly Capitalism will need to be replaced by Socialism. Morris understood this – and he struggled to make sure that Socialism triumphed over Capitalism. In our times, which are times of struggle, it is the duty of every Socialist to continue that struggle, like Morris, to achieve Socialism. The ideas of Morris can still help in our common struggle for Socialism – because the ideas of Morris point to the common nature of our struggle. Morris can still help in our common struggle to revolutionise both society and humanity.

The hope of the world, today, is the working-class. The working-class, alone, has the political power and the social power to change the world for the better. This is because the working-class is based at the level of production in society – with all the economic and social tools to change society. Morris understood this – as he understood that it was the working-class, in his own time, who were capable of changing society for the better. Morris understood that the working-class has the social vision, and the social labour, to transform the world. Like Morris, we need to build Socialist organisations of the working-class. The cause of labour is the hope of the world. The struggle of the working-class is the hope of the world.

The ideas of Morris still exist. There are millions of people, around the world, who believe in Socialism and are fighting for Socialism. Those millions merely need to be united, in strong political parties, to make that struggle for Socialism the reality of Socialism. The need for Socialism, as Morris understood it, is obvious given the failures of Capitalism. In every country in the world the millions of workers who have already been won for Socialism need to be united with those millions who have yet to be won for Socialism. Some of Morris’ ideas could still be useful for winning those workers for Socialism - particularly his emphasis on humanism, humanity, and human liberation. His ideas on ecology could help to save us from the disaster of climate change - and the reality of climate change. If there is any hope for the future of the world, and the future of the human species, then the ideas of Morris might still have a role in getting us to that future. Morris the Socialist still speaks to us. Hopefully we might still be able to achieve a Socialist world.

1 W. Morris, Useful Work Versus Useless Toil, (1885)

2 W. Morris, Socialism: the Ends and the Means, (1886)

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