Eduard Bernstein

William Morris: Impressions and Memories


Published in Der sozialistische Akademiker November 1896, pp. 668-673.
Translated by Graham Seaman for the Marxists’ Internet Archive
HTML markup: Graham Seaman.

William Morris: Impressions and memories
By Eduard Bernstein in London.

A street in the proletarian quarter. It is late autumn, and a damp, cold, foggy atmosphere makes the filthy houses look even uglier than they already are. Lounging in front of the public houses are repulsive figures, belonging to the lowest stratum of the dregs of the cosmopolitan city - they are looking for some "business" that will give them the means to enter the inner sanctum of the alehouse. Just as they themselves are clad in torn and greasy clothes, so are the majority of passers-by. In fact, the eye seldom falls on a person whose appearance does not give the impression that all sense of beauty has died in him. Tears in clothing that could have been mended with a few stitches, dirt that does not come from work, are casually displayed, and to show that it is not always the most extreme physical want that underlies this absolute neglect of all aesthetics, there are many sweetshops whose regular customers consist of children wandering around in torn rags. The influence of the filthy surroundings acts like the magician's curse: everyone who lives in these streets falls victim to it.

Around the time when the workers leave the workshops and factories—some rushing to catch the train that will take them from this area to the suburbs, others passing the time in front of or inside inns in the neighborhood until they go off to sleep in their dens—at the corner of an alley where it meets the main street of the district, there are a small group of people from whose clothes you can tell immediately that they are not at home here. They carry newspapers and leaflets with them, and as more people start to circulate they begin, one after the other, to persuade the few curious people to gather around them. The tone of their speeches, the gestures with which they accompany them, clearly show that they are not preachers for any church society. We step closer, and a man of mature years with a leonine head on a massive, squat body, simple and yet distinctive, casual but neatly dressed, offers us a copy from a bundle of newspapers for sale. Soon afterwards he gives the bundle to one of those who had come with him, who now offers the paper for sale in his place, and prepares to relieve the comrade who has just come to the end of his speech and who had been speaking till now. His heartfelt, vigorous words are only picked up by a few of the listeners, and of those who listen to them to the end, it is again only a small minority whose behavior shows that the message of a better time, of a paradise on earth that they are called on to build makes more than a glancing impression on them. In contrast, most of the people who notice the small group, whether they pass by immediately or stay for a few minutes, are obviously under the impression that their pennies are being targeted. They judge the over fifty-year-old with the bushy, silver-gray hair and the shining blue eyes, who speaks to them with such curious movements, no differently from any street begging busker, a hustler who wants to sell a commodity, or an Italian organ grinder. At best, with his denunciation of the drones of society, of the hell on earth which exploitation has created, and for the elimination of which the exploited have to join forces to fight, he is a hopelessly exaggerating fanatic.

A fanatic—yes. Only an enthusiast, only a person filled with an inner fire for an idea, could decide to engage in this kind of agitation in the circumstances of a William Morris. The sacrifices which the role of leader of a great popular movement entails are made up for by the fame or reputation which such an activity promises; the prospect of oratorical triumphs in large popular assemblies or in parliaments is so enchanting for some that it makes them indifferent to the persecution and privations that have to be accepted for it. But what did this arduous agitation, full of disappointments, offer William Morris, the poet already recognized by the leading publications of the nation, the highly respected artist and successful manufacturer? No laurels could be earned at those gatherings on street corners, no reporter sent dispatches to the press about the speeches held there, no roaring applause awaited the speech as he defied the wind and weather. On the contrary, often enough it was insults and curses he had to face. That Morris unreservedly professed himself a Social Democrat at a time when it was despised as madness by everyone in England, that he made great financial sacrifices and even greater sacrifices in terms of time and work for the young movement, that he gifted it with pearls of true poetry and thoughtful essays, that he put his person wherever danger was imminent, all secure to his memory the undying respect and love of his comrades. But that he, the poet and artist celebrated in the West End, did not think himself too good for the crudest and most thankless agitation work; that he, whose name would have been enough to attract the most select audience of the elegant world, should subject himself to all the hardships expected of a street agitator in a proletarian district in order to perhaps win one proletarian for socialism, that seems to me characteristic, such a loveable trait of this significant man, such impressive testimony to the depth of his socialist convictions, that it deserves to be kept in the memory of those who have outlived him. Although he had a name in the wider world, he did not consider himself too great to take his part in the lowly propaganda work among those on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

It is a captivating picture: the poet-artist by vocation, who knew how to realize his ideas for a rejuvenation of the artistic sense in highly valued and artistic commercial products, presents himself as modern Prometheus, as he tried to breathe a new conception of life into those who were physically deformed and mentally brutalized under the influence of coarse, monotonous, mechanical work and who had lost all sense of beauty in no less monotonous, ugly surroundings, and proclaimed the doctrine of a better future to be fought for, in which people would live and be active in strength, beauty and joy.

Morris' gospel was the gospel of joy, of healthy beauty. His poetry was strongly romantic, but in order to be able to portray a world that came closest to his ideal of society, he had to fall back on an age where the sense of commerce had not yet made its mark on the whole community, the pre-capitalist era. If his romanticism was anti-capitalist, it was not as a result in the slightest anti-democratic. We find no trace in him of that modern aristocratic romanticism, that romanticism of decay, of excess, of over-refinement. He loved art, but the simple, not the refined, its democratic, not its aristocratic side.

"First I must ask you," he says in one of his lectures given in Oxford in 1883, "to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of the things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must be either beautiful or ugly, either elevating or degrading to us, either a torment and burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure and a solace to him." And in the same lecture, he continues the last thought very nicely further on, saying: "Art is man's expression of his joy in labour. If those are not Professor Ruskin's words they embody at least his teaching on this subject. Nor has any truth more important ever been stated; for 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! For since all men not dishonest must labour, it becomes a question either of forcing them to lead unhappy lives or allowing them to live unhappily. Now the chief accusation I have to bring against the modern state of society is that it is founded on the art-lacking or unhappy labour of the greater part of men; and all that external degradation of the face of the country of which I have spoken is hateful to me not only because it is a cause of unhappiness to some few of us who still love art, but also and chiefly because it is a token of the unhappy life forced on the great mass of the population by the system of competitive commerce."

Morris believed that every task should have an artistic element which brings out the worker's mastery of his material. In consciousness of real creation, the free treatment of the material, he saw the flavour that makes work a pleasure. Hence his particular attitude towards machines, which leave no room for the worker's creative power, but instead kill the creative sense in him. That he perhaps in some ways exaggerated this aversion should not be denied. If he for example had his Kelmscott editions of choice works of poetry produced on the hand press, the objection could be made that the printing press today prints better or at least not worse than the hand press, and the time-consuming work of printing on this press was wasted for the same quality of result. But Morris had his own opinions about what was necessary and what superfluous. The first requirement for him was not purely technical economy, but, if I may put it that way, the economy of pleasure in labour. "All work which would be irksome to do by hand," he has a representative of the society of the future say in his Utopia, “is done by immensely improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without.“ The machine should only save pain, not work as such. At first glance, the thought seems really utopian, boiling down to immeasurable waste. But according to Morris, and he was certainly right, there is immense waste of work taking place today, the most pointless toil, the most absurd division of labor between man and machine. A large part of mankind toils to create what is actually superfluous, which brings joy to no-one, and another part does nonsensical stuff in order to escape the deathly boredom of doing nothing. To make productive work become enjoyment again—Fourier's attractive work—is what he saw as one of the main tasks, the main task of socialism: every worker in his own way an artist, every piece of work a document of the pleasure and love with which it was made, that was his future ideal.

Despite, or rather because of, his highly artistic mindset, Morris loved simplicity, for all true art is simple. And as in the fine arts, so in literature. With almost all great men he shared a love for legend and traditional tales, for simple narration, as he himself was mainly a poet of traditional tales. His manner was also highly simple. It would be untrue and not even a compliment to claim that he was not conscious of his worth. He knew very well how to keep away people who were antipathetic to him. But there was nothing affected about it, no false pathos, no feigned pomp. He always spoke to the point, rarely for long, and only the restlessness of his movements indicated that something was working inside him. Even his clothes, distinctive as they were, were unobtrusive. Nothing immediately drew attention to him. Only to the attentive onlooker did the blue shirt and the casual short jacket say that the wearer had chosen them for a reason. In general, Morris loved to suggest rather than to announce boastfully. As one of his friends, the "always paradoxical" but thoroughly honest Fabian, George Bernard Shaw, told us in the "Saturday Review", he thought very little of modern theater, and when he had to play the Archbishop of Canterbury in a socialist farce he had written, he found a pair of knee-breeches perfectly sufficient to show the character of the role.

This farce, or, to use the name chosen by Morris, this 'interlude', "The Tables Turned, or Nupkins Awakened", was written in 1887, and his "hero" Nupkins is the London judge Peter Edlin, who finally retired a few months ago, and whose practice of punishing the tiniest misdemeanours of small people with long-term imprisonment and penal sentences did not provoke the indignation of the socialists alone. The play was performed in the Socialist League's meeting place, a simple storage room on the third floor of an office building not far from Smithfield Market. It consists of two parts: a trial against a swindler, a poor woman and the socialist Jack Freeman, which shows the judge in his capacity as a representative of scandalous class justice and is interrupted at the end by the outbreak of a popular uprising, and a scene after the victorious revolution, where Nupkins is condemned to work productively for a living. In the court scene, Morris describes one of those agitational gatherings on the street we sketched above. “I confess that I was disappointed with the extreme paucity of the audience,” he has the archbishop witness, whom he played himself, testify. “To the best of my remembrance, there were present at the commencement of your discourse but three persons exclusive of yourself. That fact is impressed on my mind from the rude and coarse words which you said when you mounted your stool or rostrum to the friend who accompanied you and had under his arm a bundle of a very reprehensible and ribald print called the Commonweal, one of which he, I may say, forced me to purchase. You said 'I say, Bill! damned hard lines to have to speak to a lamp-post, a kid, and an old buffer'—by the latter vulgarity indicating myself, as I understand.". As the speech went on, a wandering ice cream dealer opened his stand there, two policemen approached, and by the end of the speech about ten people had turned up. Another witness - the poet Tennyson, whom Morris cites as a representative of art and gently parodies - reports on a Socialist League meeting, which consisted of almost 17 people: “They sat and smoked; and one fool was in the chair, and another fool read letters; and then they worried till I was sick of it as to where such and such fools should go to spout folly the next week; and now and then an old bald-headed fool and a stumpy little fool in blue * made jokes, at which they laughed a good deal; but I couldn’t understand the jokes—and I came away."**)

The joke is bitterly serious. Such was the situation of the socialists in London at the time when Morris devoted his whole personality to the movement. And in addition to the opposition to trade union organization, the deadly indifference of the unorganized workers, came the disagreements in their own ranks, the conflicts in the camp of the small group of socialists who had the Herculean task of defeating that opposition and indifference facing them. It would be inappropriate to return today to the circumstances which led to the split in the socialist camp and the founding of the "Commonweal". This much can be said, however, that the personal bitterness among those involved, among whom Morris was first and foremost, was very deep. But despite the fact that there was no lack of material, you can search his paper, the “Commonweal”, from beginning to end in vain for one of those hateful personal attacks on the other side that are otherwise so popular even over purely factual differences. In this respect the example given by Morris cannot be overstated. In general, I do not know that the "Commonweal", as long as Morris had influence over it, ever contained an attack on socialists of any other shade.

The Socialist League gradually drifted into anarchist waters. They had become so obsessed with anti-parliamentarism that the logic of things ultimately drove them into the same camp as the anarchists. One part of the members of the League resigned, another went completely over to the anarchists, still others tried to take a middle position. Morris was one of these. But soon there was little more to mediate. Morris himself was disappointed and behaved more and more passively. Shaw attributes his disappointment to the flight of the London workers in the confrontation with the police in Trafalgar Square (November 13, 1887), and it is quite believable that this must have been very depressing to Morris, who behaved extremely courageously at the time. Another kind of disappointment came from within the movement itself. Morris finally felt compelled to withdraw entirely from the "Commonweal," which was now being edited in a purely anarchist way. This separation, however, also took place without any public scandal. And later, when the anarchist Mowbray as editor of The Commonweal was arrested for a foolish article the paper had published, it was Morris, thoroughly cured of Anarchism, who immediately forgot all the injustice that had been inflicted on him and put down a rather large bail in order to set Mowbray free.

Morris remained loyal to socialism to the end. His conviction was too deeply rooted to give way to a mood. He was not a fanatic for a system, and that is why nothing is more absurd than to argue now after his death about whether he was ultimately closer to Fabian tactics or the tactics of the Social Democratic Federation. He probably saw that both here and there were able and honest people who, in their own way, were promoting the cause of socialism, and in any case he had personal friends in all the camps into which the struggling social democracy of England is now disintegrating. In a word, he was not a sectarian. He certainly had very definite views on many points; he could even be very stubborn, when it came down to it, but he saw that a movement as comprehensive as the socialist movement is, cannot be modelled in one head, least of all in a country like England, and that the unity which it is striving for cannot be forced. The extraordinary tolerance which William Morris showed in the socialist movement arose not from a lack of firmness of character, nor from a desperate need for common brotherhood. It was rooted in his artistic sensibility, his fine spirit, appreciating every capable individual, rejecting all stereotypes. It also corresponds to the spirit of the history, the climax of the development of his country. The well-taught continental socialist needs time to understand this spirit. Only once he has understood it, will he learn to understand a man like William Morris.


* Morris himself

** When asked whether he at least understood the socialists when they were in earnest, Morris had Tennyson, who was still alive at the time, answer: “No, I couldn’t: I can’t say I tried. I don’t want to understand Socialism: it doesn’t belong to my time.” The political side of the natural scientist Tyndall is also very nicely parodied. Morris lets him attribute all the mischief in the world to Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill, which had indeed turned poor Tyndall's head. In general, "Nupkins Awakened" is probably the best and certainly the most delicious socialist agitprop farse ever written.

Last updated on 1st October 2020