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William Morris and the Treasures of Early Socialism

What is the point of studying the history of early socialism? The understanding of what “socialism” itself means has changed radically in the subsequent years.

by Michael Schauerte



6 min read

Photo originally published on Marxsts.org.

What is the point of studying the history of early socialism? 

Maybe the question itself is rather pointless. After all, nothing really needs to have a point. Enjoyment is enough, especially in a world where so much of the work we do is done under some form of compulsion. 

But I do think that there is a special value in studying the early period of socialist history, prior to the Russian Revolution. I say this because the “common sense” among many socialists in that era is quite different from the way of thinking that has prevailed since then. Above all, the understanding of what socialism itself means changed radically in the subsequent years. 

Going back to the early works of socialists published in the latter half of the nineteenth century can put us in touch with an understanding of socialism that actually seems fresh and new, pointing the way beyond the current impasse of the “socialist” movement. 

Of course, not all the self-proclaimed socialists of the late nineteenth century shared the same view of socialism. In fact, all of the subsequent divisions between radical political tendencies can be found, in embryo, in those early years. But at least the tendencies were still flowing in and out of each other, rather than being purely separate ideologies. Also, socialists at the time still seemed capable of thinking for themselves, rather than finding comfort in inherited dogmas. 

Or am I being too nostalgic? I don’t know.

What I do know, at any rate, is that there is much enjoyment and knowledge and encouragement to be found in the writings and in the life of early socialists, and none more than the great English socialist, William Morris. 

Two essays by Morris in particular — “How We Live and How We Might Live” and “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil” — present a brilliant criticism of life under capitalism and lay out a vision for a fundamentally different way of life — a new society where work is done solely to satisfy human needs and where the act of labor itself is a source of individual fulfillment.

The most widely available work by Morris presenting his view of a new society is, of course, the novel News from Nowhere. So in my brief discussion here of Morris’s socialist ideas, I will mainly look at passages taken from that remarkable work, which describes a socialist society through the eyes of a nineteenth century man, William Guest, who wakes up to find himself in a future world. 

Morris wrote this novel, which was first serialized in the socialist newspaper Commonweal in 1890, as a criticism of Looking Backward, a novel by Edward Bellamy that imagines a future society. In particular, Morris was repelled by how Bellamy focused narrowly on the reduction of labor time through machinery, rather than considering how the experience of labor itself might be transformed from “useful toil” into “useful work.” 

In his 1889 review of Bellamy’s novel, Morris wrote:

I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men’s energy by the reduction of labour to a minimum, but rather the reduction of pain in labour to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be pain; a dream to humanity which can only be dreamed of till men are even more completely equal than Mr. Bellamy’s utopia would allow them to be, but which will most assuredly come about when men are really equal in condition.

In News from Nowhere, Morris depicts many scenes of how work has become a joyous activity, much like the pleasure that people today take in their personal hobbies—and quite different from the drudgery of our ordinary working days. 

The idea that work could be a source of joy is rather foreign to the view that holds sway among the Left today. There is a focus on securing jobs for the unemployed, increasing wages, and reducing working hours; and rightly so, because those are all necessary under the current system. 

But I think that there is little thought given among socialists of how the entire experience of work and its significance to the individual might be transformed in a post-capitalist world. Usually such speculation is limited to the idea that the rise in productive power has made it possible for us to drastically reduce the working day — once we are freed from the dictatorship of capital and its ceaseless thirst for surplus value. 

Morris explains the qualitative difference that will come once class divisions have dissolved and work’s only aim is to create useful things:

When class-robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest – leisure, that is. Some Socialists might say we need not go any further than this; it is enough that the worker should get the full produce of his work, and that his rest should be abundant. But though the compulsion of man’s tyranny is thus abolished, I yet demand compensation for the compulsion of Nature’s necessity. As long as the work is repulsive it will still be a burden which must be taken up daily, and even so would mar our life, even though the hours of labour were short. What we want to do is to add to our wealth without diminishing our pleasure. Nature will not be finally conquered till our work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives.

And in News from Nowhere we see vivid examples of how this new relationship of Man to labor is concretely. And Morris also sets forth his views on the topic in a conversation between his character William Guest and an older member of the future society (Hammond) [Chapter 15]:

“Now, this is what I want to ask you about – to wit, how you get people to work when there is no reward of labour, and especially how you get them to work strenuously?”

“But no reward of labour?” said Hammond, gravely. “The reward of labour is life. Is that not enough?”

“But no reward for especially good work,” quoth I.

“Plenty of reward,” said he – “the reward of creation. The wages which God gets, as people might have said time agone. If you are going to be paid for the pleasure of creation, which is what excellence in work means, the next thing we shall hear of will be a bill sent in for the begetting of children.”

“Well, but,” said I, “the man of the nineteenth century would say there is a natural desire towards the procreation of children, and a natural desire not to work.”

“Yes, yes,” said he, “I know the ancient platitude, – wholly untrue; indeed, to us quite meaningless. Fourier, whom all men laughed at, understood the matter better.”

“Why is it meaningless to you?” said I.

He said: “Because it implies that all work is suffering, and we are so far from thinking that, that, as you may have noticed, whereas we are not short of wealth, there is a kind of fear growing up amongst us that we shall one day be short of work. It is a pleasure which we are afraid of losing, not a pain.”

This emphasis on the qualitative difference between life under capitalism and life in a future society is one of the characteristics of Morris’s understanding of socialism. And I think it is something that socialists today need to bear in mind. Too often socialism is viewed today simply as an improved version of capitalism — with shorter working hours, higher wages, better social welfare, cheaper education, etc. 

The power of Morris’s logical imagination is also apparent in his view of the role of money in a future society; or I should say his view that there would be no role for money in a socialist world. Here, too, is far ahead of, and far more profound than, the average socialist today, who can may imagine a “redistribution of wealth” but can only think of that in terms of “fairer” wages or higher taxes on the rich. In other words, the average socialist cannot fathom a world without money. 

In News from Nowhere, the character William Guest soon discovers that money has no place in the future world in which he has awakened. When a man takes him across the Thames River in a boat, Guest tries to pay him with a coin [Chapter 2]:

“I put my hand in my waistcoat-pocket, and said, “How much?” . . . 

He looked puzzled, and said, “How much? I don’t quite understand what you are asking about. Do you mean the tide? If so, it is close on the turn now.”

I blushed, and said, stammering, “Please don’t take it amiss if I ask you; I mean no offence: but what ought I to pay you? You see I am a stranger, and don’t know your customs – or your coins.”

And therewith I took a handful of money out of my pocket, as one does in a foreign country. . .

He still seemed puzzled, but not at all offended; and he looked at the coins with some curiosity. . .

Therewith my new friend said thoughtfully:

“I think I know what you mean. You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don’t know how to manage it. And you see this ferrying and giving people casts about the water is my business, which I would do for anybody; so to take gifts in connection with it would look very queer. Besides, if one person gave me something, then another might, and another, and so on; and I hope you won’t think me rude if I say that I shouldn’t know where to stow away so many mementos of friendship.”

It is not so much a question of “abolishing” money in a socialist society, but that there is really no longer any basis for it to exist. This idea of a money-less society was a common one among the early socialists, but it largely disappeared in the twentieth century. As in so many other cases, the existence of a supposed “socialist society” — the Soviet Union — in which money (and wages) continued to exist, led many socialists to alter their views. The fact should have led them to ponder whether the USSR was in fact a socialist society (or rather some state-centered capitalism), but they were unable to give up their illusions about that country. 

The same is true of views about the “state” in a socialist society. Whereas before it has been assumed that the state would “wither away,” to borrow Marx’s expression, the twentieth century socialists came to view socialism as a society in which the state was at the core of everything to do with production and distribution. 

And this view of socialism as a state-centered society remains the common view of socialism today among both its advocates and its enemies. 

For a different view we can, again, look to News from Nowhere. In it, Morris puts forth his views on the lack of government in another conversation between Guest and Hammond [Chapter 11]:

What kind of a government have you? Has republicanism finally triumphed? or have you come to a mere dictatorship, which some persons in the nineteenth century used to prophesy as the ultimate outcome of democracy? . . . 

Now, dear guest, let me tell you that our present parliament would be hard to house in one place, because the whole people is our parliament.”

“I don’t understand,” said I.

“No, I suppose not,” said he. “I must now shock you by telling you that we have no longer anything which you, a native of another planet, would call a government.”

“I am not so much shocked as you might think,” said I, “as I know something about governments. But tell me, how do you manage, and how have you come to this state of things?”

Said he: “It is true that we have to make some arrangements about our affairs, concerning which you can ask presently; and it is also true that everybody does not always agree with the details of these arrangements; but, further, it is true that a man no more needs an elaborate system of government, with its army, navy, and police, to force him to give way to the will of the majority of his equals, than he wants a similar machinery to make him understand that his head and a stone wall cannot occupy the same space at the same moment. 

These are just a few examples of how Morris presents a view of a post-capitalist world that challenges some of the common sense of socialists today. On top of this, News from Nowhere contains a brilliant description of the ups and downs and the triumph of a revolutionary movement in the chapter titled “How the Change Came.”

His view of social change in that chapter is quite different from the twentieth century notions of an elite “vanguard party” masterminding a revolution. Rather, Morris emphasizes the importance of the working class arriving at an understanding of the limits of capitalism and the possibility for a radically different society. 

As interest in socialism is on the rise, the time seems ripe to look “backward” to the common sense of Morris and the early socialist movement for hints on our path forward. 

Tags: moneyless society, News from Nowhere, William Morris

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