Sunday, 27 September 2009

William Morris: the first Green Socialist?

(This is a modified version of a paper I originally gave at the Socialist History Society)

"Our cities are a wilderness of spinning wheels instead of palaces; yet the people have not clothes. We have blackened every leaf of English greenwood with ashes, and the people die of cold; our harbours are a forest of merchant ships, and the people die of hunger."

RUSKIN; The Crown of Wild Olive.

I have made the title of this paper into a question rather than a statement,since what I want to investigate is the extent of the Green movement's debt to Morris. Some research on this topic has also been done by Florence Boos, who has also edited Morris's Socialist Diary.

I want to suggest that many of the ideas and practices which we advocate today in the Green movement owe their origins to Morris - perhaps indirectly. (footnote 1*)

He seems to have been one of the first Victorians to address himself consciously to the question of our relationship with Nature, the natural world - i.e. rather than just write about it, or paint it, he suggested concrete steps that might be taken to preserve and enhance the beauty of the natural world and of the countryside. Some of his major interests are those which are still very much central concerns of the Green movement today - for instance his concern with THE NATURE OF WORK. His discussion of the Nature of Work develops from ideas first discussed by Carlyle and Ruskin.

We will first of all consider the final paragraph of A DREAM OF JOHN BALL

But as I turned away shivering and downhearted, on a sudden came the frightful noise of the "hooters," one after the other, that call the workmen to the factories, this one the after- breakfast one, more by token. So I grinned surlily, and dressed and got ready for my day's "work" as I call it, but which many a man besides John Ruskin (though not many in his position) would call "play."

This is a point that Morris develops at greater length in NEWS FROM NOWHERE. Because Morris enjoyed his work and was self-employed - indeed, was an employer - many people would have thought of his work as play, because it was enjoyable. It seems as though the section on Workers' Rights in the Green Party's Manifesto for a Sustainable Society
WR101 We define work in the full sense, not the traditional limited definition as employment in the formal economy. Green thinking recognises the latter as one part of the whole - a large part, but not the only one. Work exists in a variety of forms, each related to and often affecting others, like species in an ecosystem. Work covers all the activities people undertake to support themselves, their families and communities.

I referred to Carlyle because he perhaps stimulated Morris's examination of the Nature of Work. Carlyle himself never really tries to define what work IS, and he certainly has no truck with the idea of Pleasure in Work - in fact he more or less dismisses the idea of happiness as an irrelevance; he almost seems to advocate 'useless toil' as being at least preferable to 'idleness' - however you define idleness. Certainly Carlyle, writing in 1843, was in a position to observe the Industrial Revolution at first hand, and to see the degradation of the worker from an 'artisan' to a 'hand', the appendage to a machine. But the remedies he proposed were vastly different from those proposed by Morris - not only is Carlyle vague about the definition of work, but he sees restoration of feudal authority as the only true remedy for the evils of laissez-faire capitalism. In fact both Carlyle and Ruskin seem to hold the view that if everyone remained content in their stations, and the workers worked and their 'natural superiors' recognised and lived by the principle of noblesse oblige everything would be fine and there would be no need for revolution.

Perhaps Morris's concept of The Nature of Work should be seen as a reaction against the Protestant ethic expressed in Ruskin's writings, and the dour Calvinism of Carlyle" [Footnote 2*] I think the problem with Carlyle and Ruskin was that they never quite came to terms with the fact that work basically consists of the production of commodities, or more properly the production and exchange of commodities; Morris had grasped this even before he read Marx, and he discusses:

(a) what commodities should be produced.
(b) how they should be produced.
(c) by whom they should be produced.
(d) for whom they should be produced.
(e) how they should be distributed.

A related theme is the question of how Morris's expression of his love of nature, of landscape, of the English countryside, (a) is expressed in his poetry and later prose works; how it changed and developed as he travelled the road to Socialism - I think it can be convincingly demonstrated that it did change. Look at these excerpts from the Prologue to The Earthly Paradise:

Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;
Think,that below the bridge green lapping waves
Smite some few keels that bear Levantine staves,
Cut from the yew-wood on the burnt-up hill.

(this introductory stanza continues with images of a thriving medieval port).

The discussion therefore involves two main themes, following on from the above quote.

1) Morris developed from a poet who claimed to be a 'Dreamer of Dreams' and asked the rhetorical question, "Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?" into someone who took action to set the crooked straight, both literally and metaphorically. In fact I could almost have taken 'Setting the Crooked Straight' as my title. The 'crooked' meaning - the injustices of laissez-faire capitalism, which he wanted to set right. In all the early poems we can clearly see his love of nature and of the English countryside - and some of this is in the tradition of pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry doesn't necessarily lead to a Green Socialist position - the point being that in order to write pastoral poetry you need to know about the tradition of pastoral poetry, not to be aware of the realities of sheep farming - this may in fact detract from the idyllic nature of the landscape described in pastoral poetry.

2) HOWEVER, in works such as News from Nowhere, is he any less a 'dreamer of dreams'? I think not - and in many ways this dreams resembles his vision of the Middle Ages, certainly in the way people dress and the style of their houses and gardens. (I shall return to the topic of gardens later). His vision of the world as it had been (or as Morris thought it ought to have been!) is similar to his vision of a harmonious socialist society in News from Nowhere.

I should also like us to examine the following passage from SIGURD THE VOLSUNG, which appeared in 1876. [Footnote 3*].

Now sheathed is the Wrath of Sigurd[footnote 4*]; for as wax withstands the flame,
So the kings of the land withstood him and the glory of his fame.
And before the grass is growing, or the kine have fared from the stall
The song of the fair-speech masters goes up in the Niblung hall.
And they sing of the golden Sigurd and the face without a foe,
And the lowly man exalted and the mighty brought alow;
And they say, when the sun of summer shall come aback to the land,
It shall shine on the fields of the tiller that fears no heavy hand;
That the sheaf shall be for the plougher, and the loaf for him that sowed,
Through every furrowed acre where the son of Sigmund rode.

Now this does demonstrate at the very least a concept of Victorian philanthropy, and also contains Biblical references or echoes. [Footnote 5]. SIGURD is actually full of Biblical references, for reasons which need not detain us here, but I think we may remind ourselves that the development of Socialism in England owes something of a debt to the Methodist church, although this is something in which Morris himself had no interest.

Thus we could say that Morris's vision of the Middle Ages as a time of artistic excellence (he regarded the Renaissance as the beginning of degeneracy and decay in the arts) functioned as a blueprint for what the world might be like after the Socialist revolution. He did not idealise the medieval period in the way Ruskin did, or the way the Pre-Raphaelites did in their paintings, but he was aware that the art/craft of the medieval period was an expression of some creative spark that (he felt) the Victorian period had lost. Thus in some ways Morris could hardly be said to have idealised the medieval period at all. He admired the art of the period, which is not quite the same thing.

I did say that his expression of his vision changed - but the vision itself did not change all that much. He saw Socialism as the means to achieve his vision of an integrated, whole society, in which the landscape was not damaged, and in which the stark division between town and country was abolished - expressed most elaborately in News from Nowhere, of course. The idea of the abolition of the division between town and country (i.e. the abolition of large manufacturing districts such as, in the 19th. century, Leeds, Manchester, etc) was a common feature of Utopian writing. [Footnote 6*] - and Marx had stated that one of the tasks of Socialism would be to end this division. Again, this is something that most environmentalists regard as a priority, even if they may not have heard of Morris and don't approach the question from a Marxist perspective. Note, for instance, these extracts from the Green Party's MANIFESTO FOR A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY

:CY201 We believe that is is a fundamental human right and obligation for people to live in a style that ensures the can hand on to their descendants an environment that is at least as rich in wildlife and attractive landscapes as when they inherited it.

CY202 Rural and urban communities meet the many different needs of people in a healthy society. They are not separate from each other and one should not dominate the other. In a green society, towns will not grow beyond the ability of the countryside around them to provide fresh and healthy water and food, recreation, timber and wildlife habitats. There will be a constant flow of environmental, social and cultural information between them. Towns will return compostable materials to the countryside. These urban communities will integrate into all their decisions the impact on a vital, thriving rural community.

The germ of these ideas can be found in Morris's Useful Work versus Useless Toil and Art and Socialism. In Useful Work versus Useless Toil, a talk given at the Hampstead Liberal Club on January 16, 1884, Morris said;

'There are few men, for instance, who would not wish to spend part of their lives in the most necessary and pleasantest of all work - cultivating the earth. One thing which will make this variety of employment possible will be the form that education will take in a socially ordered community.'

Art and Socialism was a talk given to the Secular Society of Leicester, Jan 23, 1884, in the course of which Morris asks,

What are the necessaries for a good citizen? First, honourable and fitting work¦.
The second necessity is decency of surroundings, including
1. Good Lodging. 2. Ample space. 3. General order and beauty. That is:

1. Our houses must be well-built, clean and healthy. 2. There must be abundant garden space in our towns, and our towns must not eat up the fields and natural features of the country. Nay, I demand even that there be left waste places and wilds in it, or romance and poetry, that is Art, will die out among us. 3. Order and beauty means that not only our houses must be stoutly and properly built, but also that they be ornamented duly; that the fields be not only left for cultivation, but also that they be not spoilt by it any more than a garden is spoilt; no-one for instance to be allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape; neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.

The vision of society in NEWS FROM NOWHERE is one that is close to the vision of a possible future society expressed in many green/environmental manifestos and blueprints. For instance, the Thames is so clean - due to a lack of industrial pollution - that there are again salmon in the river near Hammersmith. The society has no money, it is a barter economy, people produce (a) what they need (b) what they LIKE. Piccadilly is a market, but one 'ignorant of the arts of buying and selling' - beautiful hand-made craft goods are exchanged and donated. The whole of London has reverted to being villages and parks. All the houses have gardens and (of course, this being Morris's dream!) all the buildings are well-built and attractively ornamented, but NOT VULGAR.

Morris repeated over and over again his hatred of the ugliness caused by rapid industrialisation; poisoning of the atmosphere by sulphurous emissions from factories, pollution of rivers, cutting down of trees - in short, the wholesale destruction of what we should now call the environment. The following examples are taken from Art Under Plutocracy, delivered at University College, Oxford, November 14, 1883. The meeting was chaired by Ruskin: Morris's lecture caused a furore, especially at the point at which Morris declared his adherence to the Socialist cause and asked his audience to support it, at least financially if in no other way.

a.To keep the air pure and the rivers clean, to take some pains to keep the meadows and tillage as pleasant as reasonable use will allow them to be; to allow peaceable citizens freedom to wander where they will, so they do no harm to garden or cornfield; nay, even to leave here and there some piece of waste or mountain sacredly free from fence or tillage as a memory of man's struggles with nature in his early days; is it too much to ask of civilisation to be so far thoughtful of man's pleasure and rest, and to help so far as this her children to whom she has most often set such heavy tasks of grinding labour? Surely not an unreasonable asking. But not a whit of it shall we get under the present system of society. That loss of the instinct for beauty which has involved us in the loss of popular art is also busy in depriving us of the only compensation possible for that loss, by surely and not slowly destroying the beauty of the very face of the earth.not only have whole counties of England, and the heavens that hang over them, disappeared beneath a crust of unutterable grime, but the disease which, to a visitor coming from the times of art, reason and order, would seem to be a love of dirt and ugliness for its own sake, spreads all over the country¦.

b.And why have our natural hopes been so disappointed? Surely because in these latter days, in which as a matter of fact machinery has been invented, it was by no means invented with the aim of saving the pain of labour. The phrase labour-saving machinery is elliptical, and means machinery which saves the cost of labour, not the labour itself, which will be expended when saved on tending other machines.

c.I tell you that the very essence of competitive commerce is waste.

Morris owed something to Ruskin, who certainly had an instinctive hatred of the ugliness and pollution of industrial landscapes, but whose expression of this hatred failed to reach as far as an attempt to analyse the causes - Morris did try to analyse the causes, once he became an active Socialist. And the actual pollutants were d -ifferent; that is, pollution didn't to any great extent result from the use of pesticides on agricultural land this is more of a 20th and 21st century phenomenon - it resulted from the production methods in the manufacturing towns, and though Morris was unable to suggest solutions himself, he did suggest that research should be done to find solutions, as in this extract from THE LESSER ARTS, (originally entitled THE DECORATIVE ARTS), which was the first lecture he gave; it was given to the Trades Guild of Learning, April 12 1877.

Is money to be gathered? Cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it's nobody's business to see to it or mend it. That is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

And Science - we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting-house, the counting-house and the drill sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of black silks, or the biggest of useless guns.

It is as well to recall here that the terminology we now use was not used by Morris and his contemporaries, although I am suggesting that he gave the impetus to many of our own environmental concerns. At certain points Morris still used vocabulary such as "conquering Nature", "our struggle with Nature" and so on, which indicates that, though he did his best, he could not entirely free himself from the mind-set that saw Nature as a hostile force to be conquered and subdued, or the Conquest of Nature as something desirable - although his awareness of humanity as a part of Nature is usually to the fore. It is possible that he used this terminology as an initial point of contact with his audiences.
 For most of the 19th century, "environment" [Footnote 7*]was a neutral term meaning "the surroundings", "where we live" - it didn't have the emotive weight it carries today. Similar, the word "ecology" (first recorded in English in 1893 according to Ecology for Beginners, but used by Thoreau in 1856, according to the OED) was not used with any positive or negative connotations - the general public were less aware of what an ecosystem was and how it could be damaged. [Footnote 8*]

I want to add here something about public awareness - Morris at least was very aware of potential, indeed actual, damage to the environment, even if he did not use this terminology. This contradicts the claim made by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his Critique of Political Ecology (New Left Review, 84, pp. 3-32, 1974). He was obviously totally unaware of Morris's writings when he claimed that "Industrialisation made whole towns and areas of the countryside uninhabitable as long as a hundred and fifty years ago -.the ecological movement has only come into being since the districts which the bourgeoisie inhabit and their living conditions have been exposed to those environmental burdens that industrialisation brings with it. What fills their prophets with terror is not so much ecological decline, which has been present since time immemorial, as its universalisation".[Footnote 9*]

Morris, like Engels, (and even Ruskin and Carlyle, as we have seen), was perfectly well aware of the dehumanisation of work and of the degrading, cramped and unsanitary conditions in which the working class lived. And he did set out to campaign against all this. He did visit industrial towns and saw how ugly and dirty they were, and was indignant at the conditions in which the workers lived. My point throughout has been that Morris's ideas on the environment have had a great influence on the environmental movement, and Morris never denied that he was a member of the bourgeoisie - what is true is that has taken a century or more for some of these ideas to be taken up by large numbers of people. Unfortunately, it has to be conceded that the Green movement is still perceived in some quarters as something of a middle-class hobby, at least in the UK and the USA.

It should also be observed that Morris's interest was also - indeed primarily - in the BUILT ENVIRONMENT - his first overtly "political" act (According to E.P. Thompson in his biography of Morris) could be seen as the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. (Still in existence today).

One of the contradictions in Morris's own working life, of course, is that his own dictum of "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful", could not be universally applied, and one of his major complaints was that much of the work of the Firm of Morris & Co.consisted of "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich". He wanted his art to be available to everyone - and, perhaps more importantly, he wanted everyone to be able to practice ART, and for ART to have the widest definition possible. This is another field in which the Green Party's Manifesto for a Sustainable Society seems to have taken Morris's advice to heart:

AT101 We respect individual and group creativity in all its diversity and value freedom of expression. A list of examples of the type of activity to which this statement relates would include painting, sculpture, drama, music, dance, photography, film, writing, crafts and design, and other types of creative activity not specifically mentioned here.

AT102 We value participation as well as excellence in the arts: we do not value hierarchy.

AT103 Artistic expression permeates all human activity and can be thought of holistically as part of, not separate from, people's lives.

Morris would obviously have given pride of place to craft and design, and he himself was not interested in the performing arts, so drama is not specifically mentioned in NEWS FROM NOWHERE, but this is probably just forgetfulness rather than anything more sinister!

So perhaps I could sum up by saying that Morris has influenced the Green movement in ways which he could not have anticipated, but would surely have been happy to know about. I think, though, that it was his perspective as a Socialist activist that enabled him to develop ideas and theories that could have practical application; as a young man, his poetry celebrated the beauty of Nature, but it is in his prose writings and lectures that we see a development towards an active 'Green Socialist' perspective.



[1] It is also vital to acknowledge Morris's own debt to Ruskin - he himself never tired of reiterating that he owed a great deal to Ruskin in the field of aesthetics,though he soon parted company with him on the subject of 'Political Economy'.But what they shared was a love of the countryside - what we should now call the environment - and a dislike of the ugliness and pollution brought about by the industrialisation of the early to mid-nineteenth century. This is why this paper starts with a quote from Ruskin, rather than from Morris himself - the difference being (as you are no doubt already aware!) that Ruskin was reluctant to contemplate any solution to this problem that could have been described,however loosely, as Socialist.

[2] Although it is always possible that none of the social criticism of the 19th. century would have been possible without Carlyle

[3]I will briefly observe here that the date 1876 is not without significance; it is the year that Wagner's RING was first performed at Bayreuth. I have argued elsewhere that SIGURD THE VOLSUNG is an anti-RING. (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, 1993).

[4] His sword

[5]'The lowly man exalted and the mighty brought alow' is a reference to The Magnificat; 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.'

[6] Although not universal - Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD is a very urban (or suburban!) Utopia,and NEWS FROM NOWHERE developed at least partially as a response to this. (It's also very American, though - did Morris take this sufficiently into account?) [

7]It appears that it was Carlyle who first used the term 'environment' in the sense in which we now use it, although we are accustomed to think of Morris, rather than Carlyle, as the 'proto-Green'.Sadly, Carlyle is more deserving of the term 'proto-Fascist' than either 'proto-Green' or 'proto-Socialist'. Of course the term Fascist had not been coined during the lifetimes of Carlyle and Morris,but it is true that some of Carlyle's idea contained the germ of what became Fascism - which presents itself initially as anti-capitalist and in tune with Nature. It cannot be denied, however, that he did have some influence on the development of Morris's Socialist thought.
[8] Also, now we practice and discuss Organic Gardening, but the Victorians gardened organically anyway, as the use of chemical fertilisers was in its infancy, and pesticides were almost unknown, so they didn't use the term 'organic', at least not in the way we use it today, because there was no NON-organic horticulture or agriculture to oppose it.

[9]Although for all I know this claim of Enzensberger's may by now have been refuted - or just dismissed as obviously rubbish. It was written in the 1970s, and may not still be current.

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