Art, Work and Communism: The Vision of William Morris
From New Interventions, Vol.10 No.2, 2000
WE ARE told that there is no alternative. This glib phrase, however, is too easily dismissed. The left today has lost its vision of what humanity is and what follows from this in terms of social organisation. Without a vision of a social alternative, we cannot oppose capital, and we must continually succumb to its logic. A vision is a catalyst, not a blueprint; it is not a matter of reform, but of fundamental desirable change. Struggle is a condition of existence laid down by capital; the question is what to struggle for.
William Morris’ work is important and addresses serious and fundamental questions in a way that few have done since Marx: the nature of work and its relation to art; how work is to be organised and by whom; what is to be produced and how: what it is to be human what our real needs are anyway. Morris’ importance lies not in having given unimpeachable answers to these questions, but in that he managed to formulate the questions in ways that were both illuminating and suggestive. Central to Morris’ thought is the question of what it is we are fighting for, and it is his vision of an alternative future that informs his whole approach. Like Marx, Morris saw the need for free creative activity, for work, as a fundamental human need, every bit as basic as the needs for food, clothing and housing. By addressing his vision, we can take a step towards recovering the communist perspective.1
Morris elaborated his vision of a communist organisation of work, not only in the prose romances like News from Nowhere, but also in the course of numerous lectures. Although these each lecture rarely offered more than a fragment of his vision at any one time, these fragments add up to a wider vision which has much in common with the critique of alienated labour in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. This was Morris’ real contribution to the left.
In what follows I intend to focus on the vision of communism expressed in Morris’ published lectures and articles. A more rounded account would examine News from Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball, but that would require more space than is available here. News from Nowhere, in particular, is full of ambiguities which require careful discussion and elucidation, not to mention some things – Morris’ attitude to women, for example – which are questionable. News from Nowhere has been extensively discussed elsewhere. Rather than add to this literature, I would prefer to address aspects of Morris’ writings which are less well known.
Interpretations of Morris
A typical and influential modernist approach is that offered by Nikolaus Pevsner. In Pioneers of Modern Design, Pevsner attempts to assess Morris’ influence on design in abstraction from many of his other concerns. He focuses primarily on Morris’ attempts to reform the product. Morris, he argues, was the first artist to recognise how precarious the social foundations of art had become as a result of the division between the ‘fine’ and the ‘lesser’ arts. Morris wanted to revive the handicrafts and to make the most humble objects of everyday use once more expressions of beauty: ‘We owe it to him that an ordinary man’s dwelling-house has once more become a worthy object of the architect’s thought, a chair, a wallpaper or a vase a worthy object of the artist’s imagination.’ While not himself a modernist, Morris helped initiate a process that culminated in modernism. In all this, Pevsner argues, he was a prophet of the twentieth century.
However, Pevsner also argues that Morris’ commitment to handicraft production trapped him in the nineteenth century. Defining art as ‘the expression by man of his pleasure in labour’, Morris was drawn to socialism. As a consequence of his commitment to the handicrafts, however, ‘all his work was expensive work’, beyond the reach of most workers: ‘In an age when practically all objects of daily use are manufactured by the aid of machinery, the products of the artist-craftsman will be bought by a narrow circle only.’ Although Morris wanted art for everyone, he actually produced élite art for what he had himself described as ‘the swinish luxury of the rich’. It was only with the formation of the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, Pevsner argues, that real steps were taken towards realising Morris’ dream of reuniting artist and craftsman, and this was possible only on the basis of the machine.
There are a number of omissions in this account. Contrary to Pevsner’s claim, the firm of Morris & Co did use machinery. It was not that the technical process of production made Morris’ products too expensive for working-class consumption; it was rather the separation of the producers from the conditions of production by the mediation of money that necessitated the segmentation of consumption into separate markets. Concern for the end-product was a crucial stage in Morris’ evolution, but it was not the final stage. Morris went further, developing a concern for work in its social totality. His view of work was part of a wider social vision: he was concerned with essential change. Unlike Morris, the modernists never challenged the mediation of needs by money. Morris was a pioneer, not so much of modernist design, but of communism.
If the modernists have appropriated only part of Morris, so too have the left. Whether the left claims Morris or rejects him, it usually assesses his political conclusions against some preconceived standard and in abstraction from the totality of his thought. By far the best Marxist account of Morris, one that tries to examine Morris’ work as a whole, is that offered by E.P. Thompson. Thompson’s thesis is that in becoming a Marxist, Morris did not break with romanticRomanticism, but rather revitalised and transformed the tradition of Keats and Ruskin. Thompson locates Morris in the context of the defeat of the romanticRomantic revoltRevolt. He argues that in his youth Morris was inspired primarily by people like Carlyle and Ruskin; from Carlyle he derived the idea of labour as the basis of life, and from Ruskin the idea that labour must be creative labour if it is to be fit for human beings. Thompson argues, moreover, that although Morris recognised the defeat of romanticRomanticism, he never reconciled himself to it. Indeed, ‘this youthful protest, still burning within him’, brought him into contact in 1882 with the pioneers of socialism: ‘And when he found that these pioneers not only shared his hatred of modern civilisation, but had an historical theory to explain its growth, and the will to change it to a new society, the old fire flared up afresh. Morris, the Romantic in revolt, became a realist and a revolutionary.’ Thompson compares Ruskin’s critique of the modern labour process with Marx’s critique of alienated labour and argues that when Morris came to the study of Capital 30 years later, he was already prepared to accept its arguments because of his basis in Ruskin.
Thompson has provided a marvellous and exciting account of Morris’ political evolution. His thesis, summed up in the title, William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary, is fundamentally correct. What is at issue is what kind of revolutionary Morris became. While Thompson is right to stress Morris’ closeness to Marx, and his independent road to Marx’s conclusions, he does not really prove his point. To a certain extent, the sheer detail that Thompson offers obscures his own argument. About two-thirds of the book is devoted to discussion of Morris’ day-to-day political activity as a socialist, making it a wonderful source of information about the early socialist movement in England and essential reading. But Morris’ real contribution, his critique of the separation of art and work under capitalism, and his vision of their reunion under communism, gets lost amidst the detail. In a lengthy work, somehow the various strands never quite get tied together.
It is not, however, merely a matter of not being able to see the wood for the trees. The problem lies deeper, in the political assumptions that Thompson brought to bear on his study of Morris. Despite his critical distance from Stalinism and social democracy, Thompson shares many of the statist and gradualist assumptions of both parties, and it is these assumptions and his lack of theory that undermine his ability really to get to grips with Morris. Thompson was probably the first writer to draw attention to Morris’ critique of alienated labour and his vision of the communist organisation of work, but he failed to address these concerns with sufficient depth to emphasise their centrality. Indeed, they disappear from view as he settles down to discuss Morris’ day-to-day political activity. As a result, he can only dismiss Morris’ critique of parliamentarism and reformism as a ‘purism’ which he later abandoned. Concentrating on Morris’ daily political activities, Thompson examines Morris’ positions on parliament, the trades unions, reformism and so on in abstraction from his vision of the final goal. At the point where he might have learned something new from Morris, he steps back into the framework of inherited ideology.
The left today, in dealing with Morris, typically overlooks the strengths of Thompson’s study, and compounds the weaknesses. Writing in Workers Liberty, Nicholas Salmon, for example, illustrates this tendency. Salmon notes that Morris’ lectures on the nature of post-revolutionary society ‘are still fresh and relevant today’. He then makes a crucial observation, the importance of which he leaves undeveloped: ‘Nowadays we do not talk about what is going to happen after the revolution. We’re always talking about how it is going to be achieved, whereas Morris was always talking about a vision of the future.’ He throws this insight away, mentioning only those aspects of News from Nowhere, which he finds to be ‘a bit dodgy’, and goes on to examine Morris’ day-to-day political activities. Salmon concludes by arguing that socialists must ‘rediscover Morris’ socialism’ and ‘must stop looking at his designs’. He argues that Morris’ designs are designs for the nineteenth century, in contrast with his ideas, which are ‘ideas for the twenty-first century’. This dismissal of Morris the designer is too quick, too easy. Separating Morris’ politics from his work as a designer impoverishes both aspects of his work.
Morris’ activities as a designer were integral to his politics. You cannot assess Morris the designer merely by looking at the finished products; just as, if not more important, is the process of design itself. As a designer, Morris investigated actual processes of production, and struggled to rediscover techniques that had been abandoned in the course of industrialisation. This active interest in the revival of the handicrafts informed his politics; in investigating the processes of weaving, printing, organic dyeing and so on, Morris developed a respect for the process of production that informed his opposition to the capitalist organisation of work. He was different from many people who crossed from the side of the bourgeoisie to that of the proletariat. He could talk about the work of the craftsman as someone who had taught himself craftsmanship; he understood the relation of employer to worker not just abstractly, but as someone who had had the misfortune to have been an employer.
Morris was one of the few people of bourgeois origins whose commitment to the proletariat was thoroughgoing and genuine. If there was an awkwardness resulting from his awareness of his position as a representative of the social power of capital, he nevertheless had a remarkable ability to identify with the needs of others, a quality normally absent in people of his class. He assumed that people would respond to things in much the way that he did. If, for example, he could not bear to work 12 hours a day in a factory, he could not see how anyone else could bear to do so either.
Many artists since Morris’ day have adopted revolutionary attitudes, but later made their accommodation with the status quo. It was often a case of youthful rebellion relapsing into conformity. Morris’ case is quite different. His communism was not a matter of youthful revolt, but something to which he came in middle age after having exhausted the alternative possibilities. He first became active politically in his mid-40s, and so had many years of wider experience to draw upon, and a firm foundation of achievement beneath him. Although he himself talked about his ‘hopes’ for the future, in reality it was not a matter of youthful hope, but of many years of accumulating despair which had stripped him of illusions.
Morris’ approach to aesthetics was unique amongst communists. Despite the centrality of art to his concerns, he did not have a fully worked-out theory of aesthetics. His approach was instinctual, intuitive. It would not be easy to extrapolate from his writings a whole theory of art, and such an attempt might be ill-advised. He had his likes and his dislikes. He liked Chaucer, Dante, Malory, the Icelandic epics that he helped to translate, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens. He liked scenes of action and struggle, and he abhorred the modern, introspective, psychological novel of Dostoevsky, for example. Turned into a theory, such a list of likes and dislikes could easily come close to the paradigm of socialist realism laid down by Stalin and Zdhanov. What is crucial, however, is Morris’ belief that having emancipated themselves from the tyranny of capital, people would produce objects that were not merely useful, but useful objects that were infused with beauty. In essence, he saw communism as a society in which art and work had ceased to exist in abstraction from each other, and had achieved a higher unity.
The nature of Morris’ contribution has been obscured by his reluctance to step into the language of Marx’s critique of the law of value. This has left his writings open to recuperation by elements that he would have found abhorrent. Morris came to revolutionary politics through the reworking of the romanticRomantic tradition. He took Ruskin’s thought to its logical conclusion, and in doing so transformed it. What he took from Ruskin and from his own experience, infused his reading of Marx, enabling him to appropriate aspects of it that have remained alien to apparently more ‘orthodox’ thinkers. Some have been confused by his statement that ‘whereas I thoroughly enjoyed the historical part of Capital, I suffered agonies of confusion of the brain over reading the pure economics of that great work’. This should not be taken to indicate a failure of understanding, but rather the seriousness of purpose with which he approached the task.
The Defeat of the Romantic Revolt
Morris recognised the defeat of the Romantic Revolt, but as Thompson has argued, he did not accept it. Within the late Romantic milieu, in the poetry of Tennyson for example, the sphere of imagination, which had once been the basis of critique, had become transformed into a sphere of compensation. For Morris, by contrast, as Thompson argues, ‘the world of art and imagination was both a palace of refuge and a castle in revolt against the philistines’. This enabled him to confront directly, not just the contradiction between dream and reality, but the defeat of the dream. His first volume of poetry, The Defence of Guinnevere, published in 1858, dealt with the defeat of high and noble aspirations and ideals in the face of the dreary reality of bourgeois society. ‘Sir Gallahad: A Christmas Mystery’, for example, concludes with recognition of this defeat:
Although cast within a framework of romantic Romantic and chivalric love and the myth of the Holy Grail, Morris was really commenting on the impasse of his own times.
Morris’ immersion in Romanticism had led him to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – indeed, his wealth enabled him to become a patron before he became an active participant – but he was soon drawn beyond this narrow sphere of art into the wider realm of the handicrafts. Art was for him the creation of beauty, but an artist could create beauty only in the midst of beauty, and so Morris set out to beautify his surroundings. Finding that nothing commercially available met his standards, he therefore set out to create everything himself – his studio, his furniture, his house. This, and increasing financial insecurity, eventually resulted in the formation of the firm of Morris, Marshall & Co in 1861.
Having become a businessman, however, Morris was ultimately to become an opponent of the world of business. There was always both a social dimension to his thought, and an ethical dimension to his sense of design. As an employer, inspired by Ruskin, he attempted, with difficulty, to offer his workers only what he considered to be ennobling work. Only in the mid- to late-1870s did a more overtly political dimension develop, firstly through his involvement in the Eastern Question Association, and later the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments. Participation in the EQA disillusioned him with the Liberal Party and especially with Gladstone; recognition of the independent role of the working-class radicals in the EQA led him towards socialism. He had already learned from Ruskin the importance of work: before he became a socialist he had already developed a critique, not just of the products of modern industry but of the processes of modern industry, that is to say, its effects upon the worker. It was the recognition of the independent role of the workers in the EQA, together with the later emergence of the modern socialist movement, that impelled him to cross the ‘river of fire’ and become a socialist.
Morris had initially wanted to train for the Church. Having lost his faith, he could not reconcile himself to bourgeois existence. A world that reduced everything to the rule of money and utilitarian calculation was not one worth living in:
’Think of it! Was it all to end in a counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap, with Podsnap’s drawing-room in the offing, and a Whig committee dealing out champagne to the rich and margarine to the poor in such convenient proportions as would make all men contented together, though the pleasure of the eyes was gone from the world, and the place of Homer was to be taken by Huxley?’
He had tried to take refuge in the world of art, but was impelled beyond this standpoint, recognising its hollowness. Finally, he was led to communist politics. The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.
John Ruskin: The Nature of the Gothic
Ruskin’s understanding lay at the core of that of Morris. Indeed, in a talk entitled ‘The Lesser Arts’, given in 1877, Morris acknowledged this debt, saying that it was in Ruskin’s The Nature of the Gothic that ‘you will read at once the truest and the most eloquent words that can possibly be said on the subject’; Morris’ own words could ‘scarcely be more than an echo of his’. When, in 1892, Morris published The Nature of the Gothic at the Kelmscott Press, he described it as ‘one of the few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century’, one which had, when he first read it, ‘seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel’. To understand Morris, we must therefore first look at Ruskin, and try to see what it was that Morris got out of Ruskin.
For Ruskin, the Gothic was the highest form of architecture. He was drawn to its savage beauty, its variety, its naturalism and other attributes which flowed from the spiritual values of medieval Christianity. Because Christianity recognised ‘the individual value of every soul’, it was able to recognise the soul in all its imperfection, to accept these imperfections, and to incorporate them in the production of beauty. It was thus that it was able to ‘receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole’. The spirit of gothic architecture allowed the master-craftsman to give free reign to the imperfect creativity of his workmen, thus enabling them to contribute in their own individual way, according to their abilities, to the whole.
For Ruskin, something had been lost in the transition from medieval to modern. The products of modern industry represented the enslavement of the worker. The worker had no pleasure in his work. He was reduced from an operative to a machine, a mere tool. The problem was not that ‘men are ill-fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread’, not ‘that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but that they cannot endure their own’. All joy in work had been destroyed, and the only joy in life was now only to be found outside work:
’All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must be given to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger-point, and the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last – a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned: saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over into fireside humanity.’
Modern society had studied and perfected the ‘great civilised invention of the division of labour’ but, Ruskin argued: ‘It is not, truly speaking the labour that is divided, but the men.’ Men were reduced to ‘mere segments of men’, fragmented such that ‘all the little intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail’. The division of the division of intellectual and manual labour, moreover, compelled ‘one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working’. One was called ‘a gentleman, and the other an operative’, and each existed in antagonism to the other. Ruskin, on the contrary, urged that ‘the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense’. It was ‘only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy’; their separation resulted in a society of ‘morbid thinkers, and miserable workers’.
Ruskin argued that even under the lordly despotism and arbitrary rule of feudalism, there might have been more freedom than in modern society. In the Middle Ages, the worker was left alone in his work to express himself as he would, whereas in modern society the worker was controlled in every aspect of his work by the machine. He urged his reader to:
’Go forth again to gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be the first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.’
Ruskin’s critique can be understood as a response to, and even a protest against, the real subsumption of labour under capital. In this respect, it is the precursor of the critiques of progress and stages of historical development popular among many anarchists and radical greens. The feudal peasant had to give up a surplus to his lord, whether in kind or in the form of labour duties, but the feudal lord did not actually intervene directly into the work process itself. This was organised by the peasant community. The transition to capitalism changed this. Initially, the capitalist left the labour process itself in its traditional form. As capital took over society as a whole, however, it seized hold of the process of production and revolutionised it, transforming it into a form adequate to its own needs. In doing so, it abolished whatever freedom there had been for the worker. This is the process of the real subsumption of labour under capital.
Ruskin’s solution was paternalistic; he saw workers as children who needed guidance and encouragement. There had to be a nobility. While he wanted to abolish distinctions between thinkers and workers, he also believed that ‘there should still be a trenchant distinction of race between nobles and commoners’. The problem was not that men had to work for other men, but that the work they were offered was mechanical and degrading, and resulted in the great outcry against wealth:
’And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, that we manufacture everything there except man; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, & shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.’
Ruskin looked to reform from above, and in his later writings, such as Unto This Last (1862), this paternalism was developed yet further. Yet within The Nature of the Gothic there was also a wealth of material which castigated the alienation and fragmentation of Victorian society which could very easily be developed in a different direction. The understanding of work as a form of self-expression, developed to its logical conclusion, requires the abolition of all external discipline. If the worker must have room to express his or her creativity, imagination, emotions and thought in the work that he or she does, this sphere of freedom must not be circumscribed within bounds set from without. William Morris found in Ruskin’s vision of ennobling work the inspiration of a more radical approach, one which required the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order. There is, then, in Ruskin, a real clash between the desire for ennobling work and the social conditions that he thinks are necessary and adequate for the fulfilment of that desire. The Nature of the Gothic is shot through with a fruitful and creative tension that points towards more than one possible resolution.
Morris: The Separation of Art and Work
In ‘The Lesser Arts’, for example, Morris argued that in the Middle Ages there had been no division of art into the ‘higher’ arts and the ‘lesser’ arts. Artists were simply craftsmen who turned their skills to different tasks as the need arose – painting, sculpture, architecture, pottery, etc. With the separation of the arts into the greater and the lesser, both had suffered. Art had been separated from the people, and the crafts had gone into a decline. The workshop system of the eighteenth century had initiated this decline, and it had been made worse by the factory system of the nineteenth century, and especially by the use of machines. This had robbed the worker of all joy in labour. Art had been expelled from the production process, and shoddy workmanship and design was the result.
The decorative arts, he argued, ‘are part of a system intended for the expression of man’s delight in beauty’; they ‘are the sweeteners of human labour, both to the handicraftsman whose life is spent in working in them, and to people in general who are influenced by the sight of them at every turn of the day’s work; they make our toil happy, our rest fruitful’. To restore the decorative arts to their former glory required enormous change in social organisation. The decorative arts were in a state of anarchy and disorder, and ‘the only real help’ for them ‘must come from those who work in them; nor must they be led, they must lead’. For Morris, an artist was merely ‘a workman who is determined that, whatever else happens, his work shall be excellent’. It was necessary that ‘the handicraftsman, left behind by the artist when the arts were sundered, must come up with him, must work side by side with him’. There were ‘stupendous difficulties, social and economic’, hindering this task, but they had to be overcome.
What was needed was leisure ‘from poverty and all its griping, sordid cares’. Once that was achieved, ‘we should have leisure to think about our work, that faithful daily companion, which no one will venture to call the curse of labour’. We would then be happy in our work, ‘each in his place, no man grudging at another; no one bidden to be any man’s servant, every one scorning to be any man’s master: men will then assuredly be happy in their work, and that happiness will assuredly bring forth decorative, noble, popular art. In such condition of society, ‘every man will have his share of the best’.
This was written in 1877, before Morris crossed the ‘river of fire’ and became a socialist. Yet we can see the core of a critique of capitalism. Morris had taken Ruskin to the verge of socialism. He was to elaborate on this perspective and develop it. He did not abandon it.
Art and Socialism
The degradation of the arts was not the product of industrial society as such, but of ‘the system of competition in the production and exchange of the means of life’. The system of laissez-faire was ‘bringing to birth out of its own anarchy, and by the very means by which it seeks to perpetuate that anarchy, a spirit of association founded on that antagonism which has produced all former changes in the condition of man, and which will one day abolish all classes and take practical and definite form, and substitute association for competition in all that relates to the production and exchange of the means of life’. This change would ‘give an opportunity for the new birth of art, which is now being crushed to death by the money-bags of competitive commerce’.
Art, for Morris, was ‘man’s expression of his joy in labour’, and ‘if pleasure in labour be generally possible, what a strange folly it must be for men to consent to labour without pleasure; and what a hideous injustice it must be for society to compel most men to labour without pleasure’. The pleasure of labour was composed of three elements – ‘variety, hope of creation, and the self-respect which comes from a sense of usefulness; to which must be added that mysterious bodily pleasure which goes along with the deft exercise of the bodily powers’. There could be no pleasure in work which condemns you to repeating the same actions over and over again for the rest of your life; work must be varied to be pleasurable. Work must also validate our creative instincts, giving us the opportunity to create artefacts which are uniquely our own. The work must be not merely creative, however, but also useful, producing artefacts which meet genuine needs. Finally, work was sweetened also by ‘the unreasoning, sensuous pleasure in handiwork’. Morris claimed that such pleasure in handiwork is ‘the birthright of all workmen’, and argued further that insofar as men lacked any part of this ‘compound pleasure’ their work was degraded and they would be unhappy.
Like Ruskin, Morris argued that even under the oppressive feudal system the craftsman did not suffer such degradation. There was little division of labour within a guild, and ‘a man or youth once accepted as an apprentice to a craft learned it end to end, and became as a matter of course a master of it’. Indeed, during the handicraft period, ‘the unit of labour was an intelligent workman’:
’Under this system of handiwork no great pressure of speed was put on a man’s work, but he was allowed to carry it through leisurely and thoughtfully; it used the whole of a man for the production of a piece of goods, and not small portions of many men; it developed the workman’s whole intelligence according to his capacity, instead of concentrating his energy on one-sided dealing with a trifling piece of work; in short, it did not submit the hand and soul of the workman to the necessities of the competitive market but allowed them freedom for human development.’
This system ‘produced the art of the Middle Ages, wherein the harmonious cooperation of free intelligence was carried to the furthest point which has yet been attained, and which alone of all art can claim to be called Free’.
With the development of the system of commerce from the Renaissance onwards, the craft system of labour was gradually destroyed, and with it the basis of a truly popular art. The division of labour was taken to the highest point possible, ‘and the unit of manufacture is no longer a man, but a group of men, each member of which is dependent on his fellows, and is utterly useless by himself’. Initially, the capitalist manufacturer allowed his workers to retain their skills, but with the further development of commerce, all skills were driven out. With the rise of the factory system, moreover, the worker was actually replaced by a machine. This system had produced ‘the death of art and not its birth; in other words, the degradation of the external surroundings of life, or simply and plainly, unhappiness’.
The system could not be reformed, for ‘the very essence of competitive commerce is waste; the waste that comes of the anarchy of war’. The destruction of craft organisation, and the transformation of the crafts into the workshop system and thence into the factory system, had destroyed all pleasure in labour for the worker. By doing this, however, it had also welded the workers into one great class whose oppression was breeding feelings of solidarity between workers and a growing antagonism towards the capitalist system as a whole. Workers looked towards association as their natural tendency, just as capitalists looked to competition. In the workers ‘the hope had arisen, if nowhere else, of finally making an end of class degradation’.
The Communist Organisation of Work
Morris’ socialism sprang from the idea that no work should be done which is not ennobling. By contrast with Ruskin, however, he recognised that what work is ennobling and what work should be rejected as useless toil could only be decided by those who actually had to do the work:
’The present position of the workers is that of the machinery of commerce, or in plainer words, its slaves; when they change that position and become free, the class of profit-makers must cease to exist; and what will then be the position of the workers? … I will tell you: they will be society, they will be the community. And being society – that is, there being no class outside them to contend with – they can then regulate their labour in accordance with their own real needs.’
The question of needs and how they could be made conscious was central to Morris’ communism. He believed that should people ever be in a position to decide what ought to be produced, they would get rid of a vast amount of the work that they were actually called upon to perform. In Useful Work Versus Useless Toil in 1884, for example, Morris argued that modern society was based on the production of vast quantities of waste – of trifling luxury goods for the rich, and poor, shoddy, substandard products for the poor. It required all sorts of other kinds of work, too, such as that involved in the whole legal system, courts, judges, prisons and police; an army and a civil service; banks; servants for the rich. If people were producing to meet needs and not because they were compelled to sell their labour for a wage, there would be whole categories of work which would not have to be done. If there were no divisions of rich and poor, there would be no need for luxury goods for the one and shoddy goods for the other: ‘Again, as people freed from the daily terror of starvation find out what they really wanted, being no longer compelled by anything but their own needs, they would refuse to produce the mere inanities which are now called luxuries, or the poison and trash now called cheap wares.’
By improving the quality and durability of everyday products, we would be able to reduce the need for work. We would not have to be continually churning out goods in ever increasing quantities. Without the external discipline of surplus value, there would be no compulsion to stimulate new needs simply in order to make money. There would be ‘no compulsion on us to go on producing things we do not want, no compulsion on us to labour for nothing: we shall be able calmly and thoughtfully to consider what we shall do with our labour power’. Indeed, ‘when all were working usefully’, Morris argued, ‘the share of work which each would have to do would be but small’.
Morris’ vision of communist work presupposed that the separation of work from other aspects of life had to be overcome. Factories, for example, were dirty, dangerous places to work. In the future, however, the factory system: ’... would at least offer opportunities for a full and eager social life surrounded by many pleasures. The factories might be centres of intellectual activity also, and work in them might well be varied very much: the tending of the necessary machinery might to each individual be but a short part of the day’s work. The other work might vary from raising food from the surrounding countryside to the study and practice of art and science.’
Such a factory would be situated ‘in a pleasant place’; it would stand ‘amidst gardens as beautiful (climate apart) as those of Alcinous’, in which the people using the factory would relax during breaks. The factory buildings themselves ‘will be beautiful with their own beauty of simplicity as workshops’. The work done in such factories would be ‘useful and therefore honourable and honoured’; machinery would ‘be used simply to reduce human labour’, and in no factory would ‘all the work, even that necessary four hours, be mere machine-tending’. Any burdensome work ‘would be taken turn and turn about, and so distributed would cease to be a burden, would be in fact a kind of rest from the more exciting or artistic work’. Such a factory would have ‘ample buildings for library, school-room, dining hall, and the like; social gatherings, musicals or dramatic entertainments will obviously be easy to manage under such conditions’. Nor does he see any reason why ‘the highest and most intellectual art, picture, sculpture, and the like should not adorn a true palace of industry’.
The nature of the relation of art to work is central to Morris’ communism. While he attacked the degradation of the detail worker, he also rejected the fine artist as a paradigm for future social being. He did not look forward to the abolition of work through an automation that would set us all free to become fine artists. His view was more profound. Unlike those within the romanticRomantic movement who saw art as a realm of creative fulfilment and self-expression, and which existed in opposition to the world of work, Morris believed that in its abstraction from work, art was every bit as much as sphere of degradation as the work performed by the unskilled factory hand. What Morris looked forward to was the reintegration of aspects which had become separated, abstracted from each other, and thereby diminished.
Morris did not want to take over industry as it actually existed and organise its further development. Although he acknowledged that people might initially want to extend the degree of mechanisation after the socialist revolution, he thought that this desire would be short-lived. Ultimately, people would want to reduce the use of machinesmachinery, perhaps limiting it to certain tasks – for example, coal mining. Socialism was not a question simply of material needs in the narrow sense of the term, but had a spiritual and active dimension. The most important need was to think about our needs. We would have to decide which of the needs we had inherited from the old world we still required in the new. A central need would be free creative work through which we would be able to express our abilities and our imagination, work which demanded attention, and challenged us to develop our skills in the exercise of which we could find satisfaction.
Morris and Machinery
Initially, Morris had taken a very negative view of machinery. Thus, for example, following John Stuart Mill, he argued that ‘labour-saving machinery’ did not save the worker any labour at all; it saved the capitalist the cost of labour, and enabled him to extend the duration of labour so as to expand profits. He argued that if machinery was used to lighten men’s labour and to relieve them of the burden of labour that was merely painful, ‘the utmost ingenuity would scarcely have been wasted on it’. But he noted that in fact the opposite occurred. Later, however, he began to take a more positive view, arguing that machinery could and should be used to do dangerous and dull work, leaving men free to perform more pleasant tasks.
Think about the machinery developed by capital in the nineteenth century. Its purpose was to impose control from above, to regulate the very movements of every worker in a factory, to force the worker to work at the rate set by the capitalist. This was built into its very design. Such machinery could not provide the basis for the free, creative labour that Morris saw as the need of every human being. It could not be the basis for creative self-expression. While Morris believed that machinery could be used to lighten men’s work in certain areas, he argued – rightly – that no one should have to spend all his or her time in minding a machine. Such a life could not be bearable.
Modernists, such as Pevsner, are concerned primarily with the product and not with the process of production, and tend to think that Morris was merely confused and inconsistent. In fact, Morris had a firm grasp on the contradictory nature of machinery under capitalism: ‘As a condition of life, production by machinery is altogether an evil; as a condition for forcing upon us better conditions of life it has been, and for some time yet will be, indispensable.’ Morris argued: ‘We do most certainly need happiness in our daily work, content in our daily rest, and all this cannot be if we hand over the whole responsibility of our daily life to machines, and their drivers.’ Morris argued for a revival of ‘intelligent handicraft’, not just a return to previous conditions, but a development to a higher level: ‘It is my firm belief that we shall in the end realise a society of equals, and also that when it is realised it will not endure a vicarious life by means of machines, that it will in short be the master of its machinery and not the servant , as our age is.’ The revival of handicrafts does not require that we do without machinery altogether; by handicraft, Morris meant work in which the worker was not subordinated to the machine. In the medieval period, for example: ‘There was little or no division of labour, and what machinery was used was simply of the nature of a multiplied tool, a help to the workman’s hand-labour and not a supplanter of it.’
In The Socialist Ideal in 1891, he refined this argument. Art had to become ‘the common property of the whole people’, and could only become such ‘if it comes to be recognised that art should be an integral part of all manufactured wares that have definite forms and are intended for any endurance’. Goods were to be produced directly for use: ’Furthermore, in the making of wares there should be some spirit of the handicraftsman, whether the goods be made by hand, or by a machine that helps the hand, or by one that supersedes it. Now the essential part of the spirit of the handicraftsman is the instinct for looking at the wares in themselves and their essential use as the object of his work.’
Morris was not ultimately against machinery as such; he was not committed to the revival of the handicrafts per se, but in infusing machine production with standards of craftsmanship and a spirit of self-expression that had been present in an earlier historical epoch. Work could itself be a pleasure; indeed, ‘the pleasurable exercise of our energies is at once the source of all art and the cause of all happiness’. In producing goods for use, therefore, the producer will be ‘making the goods for himself; for his pleasure in making them and using them’.
The point of socialism was not, for Morris, a more efficient way of organising mass production, but was rather to abolish the need for mass production. Morris opposed the reduction of the worker to a mere appendage of a machine, forms of production which denied the worker any kind of freedom of self-expression. The machinery necessary for mass production, of which the assembly line is merely the highest form, could never have permitted the free creativity necessary for communism. Insofar as it denied the needs of the worker in production, it required external discipline of one kind or another. Ideally, Morris would have automated all work that was unpleasant or mere drudgery, leaving us free to carry out tasks that were more congenial. He also suggested that we might want to think whether we really needed to perform such work as was not intrinsically fulfilling.
Final Goal and Immediate
In his early socialist lectures, as we have seen, Morris tended to dismiss the struggle for immediate reforms through parliamentary activity as a struggle for ‘temporary palliatives’. Such measures would not be granted by the bourgeoisie; if they were, they would make little or no difference to the condition of the vast majority of the working class. Sometimes he takes this to the point of standing aloof from the movement of the class itself. Notoriously, he initially ignored the dock strike of 1889.
In his later writings, he began to reassess his position. By 1893, in an article entitled ‘Communism’, he had come to recognise that capitalist society already was implementing reforms of various kinds, the effects of which could not simply be dismissed. He saw in the new London County Council a definite advance on the old Metropolitan Board of Works, and asked who could quarrel with the provision of public parks and free libraries. At one stage, he went so far as to argue that the ‘socialist machinery’ that had implemented these reforms: ’... may be used much further: it may gain higher wages for the working men themselves: industries may be worked by municipalities for the benefit of both producers and consumers. Working people’s houses may be improved, and their management taken out of the hands of commercial speculators. More time might be insisted on for the education of children; and so on, and so on.’
For E.P. Thompson, such statements indicate a turn away from the ‘purism’ of Morris’ early socialist years, and the development of what he calls a ‘mature theory’. They ‘mark a definite stage in the evolution of his thought’; Morris ‘at last retracted his anti-parliamentary position’. As a result, Morris was now ‘prepared to acknowledge the importance of the fight for limited gains, of "steps" on the road to socialism, provided they were fought for with a revolutionary aim kept steadily in views’.
Such an assessment is one-sided. It is true that after his split with the anarchists of the Socialist League at the end of 1890, Morris began to work within the wider socialist movement, sharing platforms with speakers from the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society, taking an active part in the Arts and Crafts movement, which he had previously dismissed, and even giving support to the fledgling Independent Labour Party, whose aim was parliamentary reform. But it was not so much that Morris had ‘matured’ politically, but that he had begun to reassess the political situation. When he joined the socialist movement in 1883, he had, like many others, expected a rapid end to the capitalist system. By 1887, it had become clear that the struggle would be longer and harder than he had anticipated. On the eve of his split with the Socialist League, in the last article he wrote for Commonweal, he had begun to express a very sophisticated understanding of the process that was at work. The very difficulties the socialists faced was were due in part to their own limited successes: ‘Our very success has dimmed the great ideals that first led us on; for the hope of the partial and, so to say, vulgarised realisation of socialism is now pressing on us.’ In the article entitled ‘Communism’ referred to above, he took these thoughts a step further.
Various reforms won through parliament were making conditions of life better for many people, and could not be easily dismissed. At the same time, however, Morris expressed reservations. In itself, improvement was good, but ‘it would be a heavy evil, if it did anything towards dulling the efforts of the whole class of workers towards the winning of the society of equals’. He asked his readers to consider:
’How far the betterment of the working people might go and yet stop at last without having made any progress on the direct road to communism. Whether in short the tremendous organisation of civilised commercial society is not playing the cat and mouse game with us socialists. Whether the Society of Inequality might not accept the quasi-socialist machinery above mentioned, and work it for the purpose of upholding that society in a somewhat shorn condition, maybe, but a safe one.’
In the light of the evolution of the socialist movement since Morris’ death, this insight must strike us as a profound one. Social democracy became incorporated into the state apparatus as a means of administrative regulation. Not only has social democracy held back the struggle for communism, together with its offspring in the Soviet Union, it has effectively discredited it. It is difficult to argue for partial reforms because no one will put up with them. Social reform has been tried and found wanting: all classes of modern society agree on this. No amount of formal intervention into needs and no amount of art-consumption can compensate for the denial of the active creativity of human individuals.
More than ever is it necessary to get back to fundamentals and ask what it is that we are fighting for. This means that the question of the final goal – the emancipation of creative/productive activity from the fetters of the value form – must be at the centre of our day-to-day activity: ’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 outr work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives.’