Friday, July 06, 2012

The Ideas of William Morris

William Morris is very interesting. His politics were always evolving. We can bandy around various quotations from various time-lines. His critique of parliamentarianism is often over-simplified. One has to be reminded that he was in constant dispute with various anarchists within the Socialist League and then at other times in conflict with reformists of the Social Democratic Federation. It would be a bit inaccurate to describe him as a pure and simple “anti-Parliamentarist”, and he certainly was not an anarchist. Morris’ arguments against parliamentary action can be summed up as (1) that Parliament was a capitalist institution; (2) that reforms obtained through Parliament would strengthen capitalism and would only be passed with this end in view; and (3) that campaigning for reforms would corrupt a socialist party.

In The Policy of Abstention Morris declared:
“The Communists believe that it would be a waste of time for Socialists to expend their energy in furthering reforms which so far from bringing us nearer to Socialism would rather serve to bolster up the present state of things.”

However his arguments were against the policy of using Parliament to try to get reforms rather than against socialist parliamentary action as such and in fact, even during his “anti-parliamentary” period, Morris was not opposed to socialists entering Parliament in the course of the socialist revolution, on condition that they went there not to try to get reforms but ”as rebels”.

“I did not mean that at some time or other it might not be necessary for Socialists to go into Parliament in order to break it up; but again, that could only be when we are very much more advanced than we are now; in short, on the verge of a revolution; so that we might either capture the army, or shake their confidence in the legality of their position”

“I believe that the Socialists will certainly send members to Parliament when they are strong enough to do so: in itself I see no harm in that, so long as it is understood that they go there as rebels, and not as members of the governing body prepared by passing palliative measures to keep ‘Society’ alive. ”
“I admit, and always have admitted, that at some future period it may be necessary to use parliament mechanically: what I object to is depending on parliamentary agitation. There must be a great party, a great organisation outside parliament actively engaged in reconstructing society and learning administration whatever goes on in parliament itself. This is in direct opposition to the view of the regular parliamentary section as represented by Shaw, who look upon Parliament as the means…” (His emphases)

He recognised the necessity for socialists to gain control of political power before trying to establish socialism: “We must try. . . and get at the butt end of the machine gun and rifle, and then force is much less likely to be necessary and much more sure to be successful.” and that “it is necessary somehow to get hold of the machine which has at its back the executive power of the country”

In later life he reviews his early ideas – “We thought that every step towards Socialism would be resisted by the reactionaries who would use against it the legal executive force which was, and is, let me say, wholly in the power of the possessing classes, that the wider the movement grew the more rigorously the authorities would repress it. Almost everyone has ceased to believe in the change coming by catastrophe. To state the position shortly, as a means to the realization of the new society Socialists hope so far as to conquer public opinion, that at last a majority of the Parliament shall be sent to sit in the house as avowed Socialists and the delegates of Socialists, and on that should follow what legislation might be necessary; and moreover, though the time for this may be very far ahead, yet most people would now think that the hope of doing it is by no means unreasonable.”

He describes his vision of a socialist organisation “The organisation I am thinking of would have a serious point of difference from any that could be formed as a part of a parliamentary plan of action; its aim would be to act directly, whatever was done in it would be done by the people themselves: there would consequently be no possibility of compromise, of the association becoming anything else than it was intended to be; nothing could take its place: before all its members would be put one alternative to complete success, complete failure, namely. The workers can form an organisation which without heeding Parliament can force from the ruler what concessions may be necessary in the present and whose aim would be the total abolition of the monopolist classes and rule.”

Elsewhere he states “getting the workmen to organise genuine revolutionary labour bodies not looking to Parliament at all but to their own pressure (legal or illegal as the times may go) on their employers while the latter lasted”

An outline that obviously is not reflected by the run of the mill workers organisations of his time.
Morris clearly understood that a change in society could only be brought about with a change in the consciousness of the majority of people. “Practical socialism”, as he called revolutionary socialism, was a question of “making socialists” and therefore it was necessary to “educate the people in the principles of socialism”. Which clearly separates him from the Leninist vanguard concept of The Party. leading the workers.

Nor was he proponent of state ownership – “No better solution would be that State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called”. 

Morris, although not opposed to using Parliament as such, believed that concentrating on these elections would have directed the League away from the essential task of “making socialists” and instead into advocating reforms. The differences led to the Parliamentarists breaking away, leaving Morris and his associates at the mercy of anarchists, who soon dominated the League. When this happened Morris and his socialist friends withdrew to form the Hammersmith Socialist Society.
Morris was quite clear: a socialist organisation should not campaign for reforms or “palliatives” but should concentrate exclusively on socialist propaganda and education. In the beginning, in 1885 and 1886, this was based on a belief that capitalism was soon going to collapse (“when the crisis comes”) and the consequent urgent need to have a strong body of socialists to ensure that socialism would be the outcome. But, after a while, Morris came to question whether his opposition to campaigning for reforms (and campaigning to get elected to Parliament and local bodies on a programme of reforms) was justified. By 1890 this had developed to a full and clear understanding that the establishment of socialism was impossible without there first being a mass of opinion in favour of it and he never wavered on this crucial point.

The problem which Morris had been grappling with was the problem of reform and revolution. In his Socialist League days he had clearly seen the futility and danger of campaigning for reforms, but had linked this with a virtual rejection of parliamentary action. This was because in his mind parliamentary action and campaigning for reforms were inseparable. So, later, when he came to recognise the need to gain control of political power through the ballot box and Parliament before trying to establish socialism, this was coupled with an acceptance of the policy of campaigning for reforms.

Later proponents of the “Impossiblist” tradition such as the Socialist Party of Great Britain adopted a policy of trying to gain control of the machinery of government through the ballot box by campaigning on an exclusively socialist programme without seeking support on a policy of reforms; while supporting parliamentary action they refused to advocate reforms.

The views of William Morris is worth debating for its relevance for today.

I think we can all accept Morris’s caustic opinion of politicians when he said, “the business of a statesman is to balance the greed and fears of the proprietary classes against the necessities and demands of the working class. This is a sorry business, and leads to all kinds of trickery and evasion; so that it is more than doubtful whether a statesman can be a moderately honest man.”

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