George Walford: William Morris

In Freedom of 14 December reviews of two books, one by William Morris and the other about him, occupy a full page. Thoughtful, informed and informative though they are, both of them display one surprising omission.
Look at these quotations:

  • “RICH SCUM . . Thought – terminate ’em!’ (Class War);
  • “the rich will always save themselves, leaving us to go on paying for their greed and inhumanity with our lives” (Nottingham Anarchist News);
  • “(we) who are wage slaves. . . live in an inflexible world determined for us by others who you can be sure are not thus constrained” (Article in Freedom);
  • “As long as workers in Britain accept that ‘their’ state has a right to occupy part of Ireland they will be unable to develop independent working class politics, unable to develop anarchist politics” (letter in Freedom);
  • The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself (SPGB, also Proudhon).

A strong tendency in anarchism and libertarian socialism presents them as movements of the workers, the poor, the oppressed, an assertion of their interests against those of the capitalists, the rich, the bosses. Of the two books reviewed, the one edited by Coleman and O’Sullivan links Morris with this theory, speaking of his understanding that socialism arose out of material circumstances.

This makes it surprising that neither of the reviews (and, as far as the reviews tell us, neither of the books) mentions that William Morris stands on the wrong side of the great divide. His biographer E. P. Thompson, not inclined to present Morris in a bad light, puts it bluntly: “The toil under appalling conditions, of the workers in the tin and copper mines of Devon and Cornwall shielded him from poverty, and gave him his freedom of choice… ” His material circumstances set him with the rich scum, with the greedy and inhuman, with the unconstrained, with those to whom the state does belong. Economically he stands with the exploiters, with the oppressors, with – let us not baulk at a word – with the capitalists.

If we could dismiss Morris as an isolated exception, the theory that economic material conditions fundamentally determine political outlook might still stand up, but too many prominent revolutionaries have occupied similar social positions. In the words of one anarchist historian of anarchism “A high proportion of celebrated anarchists came from the aristocracy or the country gentry: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Cherkesov and Tolstoy in Russia Malatesta and Cafiero in Italy, are typical examples. Others, like Godwin, Domela Nieuwenhuis and Sebastien Faure, were former clergymen or seminarists.” (Woodcock, Anarchism). We can add the founders of communism: Engels a Manchester manufacturer, Marx living partly on subsidies from Engels, on profits from the exploitation of his workers. Enough revolutionaries have come from the upper levels of the economic pyramid to demolish the theory that would explain revolution as a response to exploitation or oppression.

A small but significant minority of the “upper” classes support revolution. This may not matter, except as an indicator. But it undeniably does matter a great deal that the overwhelming majority of the poor, the oppressed, the workers, do not support it. With information about anarchism available without charge in every public library and (as Freedom recently reported) with the state beginning to offer instruction in the subject, they stay away in their millions.

The belief, that socialism arose out of material circumstances and that the economic material conditions of life under the capitalist state will turn the great numbers against it, has been contradicted by events for well over a century now, and we have no good reason for expecting this to change. Persistence with this exploded theory prevents us getting down to the job of finding out how it comes about that a small minority, of rich and poor alike, support anarchism while the great majority of each class ignore it. When we have understood that we shall have a hope of making progress towards the ends sought by William Morris, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta and so many others. But not before. (Reprinted from Freedom 26 January.)

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Individual women of exceptional powers have been able to make themselves felt as far back as the record goes: Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, the women saints, Boadicea, some of the Bible women. Over the past century or so something different has been happening: a feminist movement. It has come in two waves, first the suffragettes and then a less narrowly political agitation beginning in the sixties. Social movements have social causes, and the immediate causes of these stand out. For the first, the typewriter, providing respectable employment for large numbers of middle-class women, bring them into the offices; one of Israel Zangwill’s novels, written early this century, includes: “My sister is a typewriter.” And the movement of the sixties, much larger both in the scope of its demands and in the size of the minority (of women and of men) supporting it, grew out of the Pill that gave women, for the first time in history, control of their reproductive powers.

from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.