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, environment, and ideas, faces all of humanity — in all parts of the world. The crisis of Capitalism, since 2008, has only increased since 2008. The crisis of Capitalist Democracy, since 2015, has only increased since 2015. The crisis, today, is so great that it is often difficult to find a way of confronting it. We live in a world shaped by the barbarism of exploitation and oppression. We live in a world where we must struggle for humanity and for Socialism. In this short 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.
William Morris was probably the greatest British Socialist of the 19th century. Morris was a romantic who became a Socialist. He became a Socialist in 1883, joined the Social Democratic Federation (1883), and formed the Socialist League (1885). He was one of the key British Socialists during a time when British Socialism was only just beginning to come to terms with Capitalism and Capitalist society. Morris was an artist, an artisan, a thinker, and a writer, and he was probably the best Socialist of the 1800s to understand the barbarism of Capitalism and Capitalist society. His ideas were always based on a humanist view of Socialism and a humanist critique of Capitalism. For Morris, Socialism is a society based on human freedom. Morris struggled for Socialism because he believed in building a better, humanist, world. He believed in the need for human liberation in order to achieve a better world. Today, during a time of crisis, the ideas of Morris still can help in our current struggle for Socialism — and for a better world.
The world, today, is a world of crisis. The world is in crisis because of the crisis of Capitalism. Capitalism is a system of problems and crises. 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. William Morris, as a great Socialist, would have understood the crisis of the world today — and the crisis of Capitalism. The nature of the crisis of Capitalism would have been clear to Morris. Indeed, Morris saw the nature of Capitalism — its crises, its exploitation, and its barbarism — in the 19th century. Morris saw the nature of Capitalist crisis — even before humanity experienced the awful crises of the 20th century.
The world, today, is a world of social struggle. 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 — the alternative of Socialism. Morris would have understood this reality. He would also have understood the need to struggle for Socialism. 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, the growing power of the Right and the Far-Right, and the need for a Left and a Socialist Left. 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.
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 also understood the reality of Capitalism — that it is based, firmly, on exploitation and oppression. He saw this reality in his own times — the times of industrial Britain and Victorian Britain in the 1800s. 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 Capitalist crisis — before the crisis of the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. Morris saw the nature of Capitalist crisis — before the crisis of today. He predicted, 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.
Morris understood the importance of optimism and 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. As Morris himself wrote:
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
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 humanist form of human life. Capitalism might have brought economic development and human prosperity, for some, but it cannot bring us a better form of human life. 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 — the vision of human freedom and human community. As Morris himself wrote:
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. He was a Socialist and a Humanist. 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 regard 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 opportunities 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 humanity far, in terms of advancing the human species, but he also understood that if the future for humanity is to be a happy future, we will need to overcome Capitalism and advance towards 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 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 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 in 1991, 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 decline of the Left, and the environmental crisis — 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 overcome the crisis of our times — to overcome Capitalism and to establish Socialism — we must understand the 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.
Morris was an optimistic Socialist. He was optimistic about the possibility of 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 created 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.
The Left, today, has the potential to struggle for Socialism. The Left, today, is emerging out of a period of defeat. Hopefully, the Left, today, is emerging into a period of victory. If we are to ever emerge completely out of that period of defeat, we need to be optimistic about our chances — about the chances for Socialism. 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, and yet the Right has no solutions to the problems of humanity that exist today. 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, by the Right, 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. Morris understood this, as long ago as the 1880s and 1890s. He understood that the reaction of the Right cannot solve the problems of human society. He understood that only the ideas and struggles of the Left can solve the problems of human society — by achieving Socialism.
The world, today, is a product of the social struggles of the past. The struggle for Socialism, in the past, has led to the struggle for Socialism today. 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. The struggle for Socialism, as Morris understood the struggle for Socialism, is the struggle to achieve real human liberation. This means that the struggle for Socialism, in the end, is to achieve a real humanity — a better humanity. Morris can still inspire us for that type of struggle for Socialism.
Morris can still inspire good ideas for Socialism. The ideas of Morris are still important for the struggle for Socialism. There are millions of people, around the world, who believe in Socialism and who are fighting for Socialism. Those millions of people need to be united, in strong political parties, to make the 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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This post was written by R.G. Williams