In the previous article in this series, we showed how the authentic socialists of the end of the 19th century had envisaged the way that a future communist society would tackle some of mankind’s most pressing social problems: the relationship between man and woman, and between humankind and the nature from which it has sprung. In this issue, we examine how the late 19th century revolutionaries foresaw the most crucial of all social transformations – the transformation of “useless toil” into “useful work” – in other words, the practical overcoming of alienated labour. In doing so, we will answer the charge that these visions represent a relapse into pre-marxist utopianism.
In a London of the future, much has been dismantled and replanted; you can pass from Kensington to Trafalgar Square by way of a woodland path. But some familiar buildings are still there: the old Houses of Parliament, now mainly used for storing manure, and the British Museum, which still retains many of its ancient functions. It is here that William Guest, time traveller from the late nineteenth century, meets old Hammond, a former librarian who has a profound historical knowledge and is thus best placed to explain the workings of a communist society which has been established for several centuries. After discussing several aspects of “the way things are managed”, ie the methods of social organisation, they turn to the question of work:
“The man of the nineteenth century would say that there is a natural desire towards the procreation of children, and a natural desire not to work”.
“Yes, yes”, said Hammond, “I know the ancient platitude – wholly untrue; indeed, to us quite meaningless. Fourier, whom all men laughed at, understood the matter better”.
“Why is it meaningless to you?” said I. He said: “because it implies that all work is suffering, and we are so far from thinking that, as you may have noticed, whereas we are not short of wealth, there is a kind of fear growing up amongst us that we shall one day be short of work. It is a pleasure which we are afraid of losing, not a pain.”
“Yes”, said I, “I have noticed that, and I was going to ask you about that also. But in the meantime, what do you positively mean to assert about the pleasurableness of work amongst you?”
“This, that all work is now pleasurable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable excitement, even when the actual work is not pleasant; or else because it has grown into a pleasurable habit, as is the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly (and most of our work is of this kind) because there is conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists.”
“I see”, said I. “Can you now tell me how you have come to this happy condition? For, to speak plainly, this change from the conditions of the older world seems to me far greater and more important than all the other changes you have told me about as to crime, politics, property, marriage.”
“You are right there,” said he. “Indeed you may say rather that it is this change which makes all the others possible. What is the object of Revolution? Surely to make people happy. Revolution having brought its foredoomed change about, how can you prevent the counter-revolution from setting in except by making people happy? What! Shall we expect peace and stability from unhappiness? … .And happiness without happy daily work is impossible”.
Thus William Morris, in his visionary novel News From Nowhere, seeks to describe the attitude to work that might exist in a developed communist society. The poetic method of this description should not blind us to the fact that he is only defending a fundamental postulate of marxism here. As we have shown in previous articles in this series (see in particular International Reviews 70 and75), Marxism begins with the understanding that labour is “man’s act of self-genesis” as Marx put it in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, where he credited Hegel with having recognised this, albeit in a formal and abstract way. In 1876, Engels was able to make use of the most recent discoveries in the field of physical anthropology to confirm that “labour created man himself” (‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’). The powerful human brain, the dexterous human hand, language and the specifically human consciousness of self and world, are born through the process of tool-making, the shaping of the external environment; in short, through labour, which is the act of a social being working in common. This dialectical approach to human origins, which can only be defended consistently by a labouring class, is opposed both to the idealist view (humanity either as the product of an external supernatural being, or of its own intellectual powers conceived in isolation from practice) and the vulgar materialist view which reduces human intelligence to purely mechanical factors (the size of the brain for example).
But Marx also criticised Hegel because “he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour. Labour is man’s coming to be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man”. (EPM, ‘Critique of Hegelian Philosophy’). Under conditions of material scarcity, and in particular of class domination, the labour which creates and reproduces man has also resulted in man’s own powers escaping his control and ruling over him. Engels again confirms this standpoint in ‘The Part Played by Labour’, showing that despite man’s unique capacity for purposeful and planned action, the material conditions under which he has laboured so far have led to results very different to his plans. The dimension of alienation in this text is covered in Engels’ references to the ecological catastrophes of past civilisations, but also to the emergence of religion, “that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind”.
Man’s estrangement from himself is situated first and foremost in the sphere through which he creates himself, the sphere of labour. Overcoming the alienation of labour is thus the key to overcoming all the alienations that plague humanity, and there can be no real transformation of social relations – whether the creation of new relationships between the sexes, or a new dynamic between man and nature – without the transformation of alienated labour into pleasurable creative activity. Old Hammond thus stands by Marx – who in turn also defended Fourier on this point – when he insists that happiness is impossible without happy daily work.
Communism is not ‘anti-work’
Certain modernist sects, not least those like the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste who used to enjoy displaying their knowledge of Marx, have taken this critique of alienated labour to mean that communism means the abolition not only of wage labour – the last form of alienated labour in history – but of labour as such. Such attitudes to labour are typical of the disintegrating petty bourgeoisie and declassed elements who look down on the workers as mere slaves and think that the individual “refusal of work” is a revolutionary act. Indeed, such views have always been used to discredit communism. This charge was answered by August Bebel in Woman and Socialism, when he pointed out that the very starting point of the socialist transformation is not the immediate abolition of work but the universal obligation to do it:
“As soon as society is in possession of all the means of production, the duty to work, on the part of all able to work, without distinction of sex, becomes the organic law of socialist society. Without work society cannot exist. Hence, society has the right to demand that all who wish to satisfy their wants shall exert themselves, according to their physical and mental faculties, in the production of the requisite wealth. The silly claim that the Socialist does not wish to work, that he seeks to abolish work, is a matchless absurdity, which fits our adversaries alone. Non-workers, idlers, exist in capitalist society only. Socialism agrees with the Bible that ‘he who will not work, neither shall he eat ‘. But work shall not be a mere activity; it shall be useful, productive activity. The new social system will demand that each and all pursue some industrial, agricultural or other useful occupation, whereby to furnish a certain amount of work towards the satisfaction of existing wants. Without work no pleasure, no pleasure without work” (chapter VII, p275).
In the initial stages of the revolution, the universal obligation of labour, as Bebel implies, contains an element of restraint. The proletariat in power will certainly rely first and foremost on the enthusiasm and active participation of the mass of the working class, who will be the first to see that they can only rid themselves of wage slavery if they are prepared to labour in common to produce and distribute life’s necessities. Already in this phase of the revolutionary process, labour has its own reward, in that it is immediately seen as socially useful – work for a real and observable common good and not for the inhuman demands of the market and of profit. In such circumstances, even the hardest work takes on a liberating and human character, since “in your use or enjoyment of my product I would have the immediate satisfaction and knowledge that in my labour I had gratified a human need … In the individual expression of my own life. I would have brought about the immediate expression of your life, and so in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my authentic nature, my human, communal nature” (Marx, ‘Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy’). Nevertheless, a gigantic social and political upheaval will at first inevitably call for very great material sacrifices, and such feelings alone would not be enough to convince those used to idling and living off the toil of others to voluntarily submit to the rigours and discipline of associated labour. The use of economic constraint – he who will not work, neither shall he eat – is thus a necessary weapon of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Only in a more developed socialist society will it be plain and obvious to all that it is in the interests of every individual to play his full part in social production.
At the same time, it is not at all the goal of the communist movement to remain at a stage where work’s only reward is that it is benefiting someone else. If it does not become pleasurable in itself, the counter-revolution will indeed set in, and the proletariat’s willing sacrifices for the common cause will become sacrifices for an alien cause – as witness the tragedy of the defeated Russian revolution. This is why immediately after the passage cited above, Bebel adds:
“All being obliged to work, all have an equal interest in seeing the following three conditions of work in force:
First, that work should be moderate, and shall overtax none;
Second, that work shall be as agreeable and varied as possible;
Third, that work shall be as productive as possible, seeing that both the hours of work and fruition depend upon that”.
In distinguishing between “Useful Work” and “Useless Toil” William Morris makes a very similar threefold definition:
“What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not …. What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing?
It is threefold, I think: hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality; rest enough and good enough to be worth having; product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic; pleasure enough for all of us to be conscious of it while we are at work” (‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’, Political Writings of William Morris, London, 1973, p 87)
Hope of Rest
In Morris’s definition of useful work cited above, and in Bebel’s three conditions for work being made pleasant, the element of rest, of leisure and relaxation, is elaborated very concretely: they insisted on the possibility of reducing the working day to a fraction of what it then was (and still is). This is surely because, faced with a capitalist society which stole the best hours, days and years from the worker’s life, it was an elementary duty of revolutionaries to demonstrate that the very development of capitalist machinery made this theft historically unjustifiable. This was also the theme of Paul Lafargue’s sardonic pamphlet The Right to be Lazy,published in 1883. By then it was already abundantly evident that one of the most striking contradictions in capitalism’s development of technology was that while it brought with it the possibility of freeing the worker from drudgery, it seemed to be used only to sweat him more intensively than ever. The reason for this was simple: under capitalism, technology is not developed for the benefits of humanity, but for the needs of capital:
“Our epoch has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages, and of those machines we have as yet made no use.
They are called ‘labour saving’ machines – a commonly used phrase which implies what we expect of them; but we do not get what we expect. What they really do is to reduce the skilled labourer to the ranks of the unskilled, to increase the number of the ‘reserve army of labour’ – that is, to increase the precariousness of life among the workers and to intensify the labour of those who serve the machines (as slaves their masters). All this they do by the way, while they pile up the profits of the employers of labour, or force them to expend those profits in bitter commercial war with each other. In a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be for the first time used for minimising the amount of time spent in unattractive labour, which by their means might be so reduced as to be but a very light burden on each individual. All the more as these machines would most certainly be very much improved when it was no longer a question as to whether their improvement would ‘pay’ the individual, but rather whether it would benefit the community” (‘Useful Work. . .’, p106).
In a similar vein, Bebel cites contemporary calculations by bourgeois scientists that with the technology already existing in his time, the working day could be reduced to one and a half hours! Bebel was particularly optimistic about the possibilities being opened up by the development of technology in that period of startling capitalist expansion. But this optimism was not a blanket apologia for capitalist progress. Writing about the enormous potential contained in the application of electricity, he also argued that “only in socialist society will electricity attain its fullest and most widespread application” (Woman and Socialism, ch. VII, p286). Even if today capitalism has ‘electrified’ most (though not all) of the planet, the full significance of Bebel’s qualification can be grasped when he remarks a little further on that “our water courses, the ebb and tide of the sea, the winds, the sunlight – all furnish innumerable horse-powers, the moment we know how to utilise them in full” (ibid). The methods that capitalism has adopted for generating electricity – the burning of fossil fuels, and nuclear energy – have brought forth numerous harmful side-effects, notably in the form of pollution, while the needs of profit have led to the neglect of ‘cleaner’, and ultimately more abundant sources – such as the wind, the tides and the sun.
But the reduction of the working day for these socialists would not only be the result of the rational use of machinery. It would also be made possible by eliminating the gigantic waste of labour power inherent in the capitalist mode of production. As early as 1845 Engels, in one of his ‘Speeches in Elberfeld’ , had drawn attention to this reality, pointing to the way capitalism could not avoid squandering human resources in its employment of profiteers and financial middlemen, of policemen and prison guards to deal with the crimes it inevitably provoked amongst the poor, of soldiers and sailors to fight its wars, and above all in its forced unemployment of millions of labourers denied access to all productive work by the mechanisms of the economic crisis. The socialists of the late nineteenth century were no less struck by this wastefulness and showed the connection between overcoming it and ending the drudgery of the proletariat:
“As things are now, between the waste of labour-power in mere idleness and its waste in unproductive work, it is clear that the world of civilisation is supported by a small part of its people; when all were working usefully for its support, the share of work which each would have to do would be but small, if our standard of life were about on the footing of what well-to-do and refined people now think desirable” (‘Useful Work … ‘, p 96). Such sentiments are more true than ever today, in a decadent capitalism where waste production (arms, bureaucracy, advertising, speculation, drugs etc) have reached unprecedented proportions, and where mass unemployment has become a permanent fact of life, while the working day is for the majority of employed workers longer than it was for their Victorian ancestors. Such contradictions offer the most striking proof of the absurdity that capitalism has become, and thus of the necessity for the communist revolution.
Hope of pleasure in the work itself
Describing the pleasures of work to his nineteenth century visitor, old Hammond did not lay much emphasis on the need for rest, for leisure; and yet the subtitle of the novel is ‘An epoch of rest’. Evidently, after several generations, the rigid separation between ‘free time’ and ‘labour time’ has been superseded, as Marx said it must. For the aim of the revolution is not simply to relieve human beings of unpleasant work: “labour is also to be made pleasant” as Bebel puts it. He then elaborates some of the conditions for this to be the case, echoed by Morris on each point.
The first condition is that work should be carried out in pleasant surroundings:
“To that end practical and tastefully contrived workshops are required; the utmost precautions against danger; the removal of disagreeable odours, gases and smoke – in short of all sources of injury or discomfort to health. At the start, the new social system will carry on production with the old means, inherited from the old. But these are utterly inadequate. Numerous and unsuitable workshops, disintegrated in all directions; imperfect tools and machinery, running through all the stages of usefulness – this heap is insufficient both for the number of the workers and for their demands of comfort and of pleasure. The establishment of a large number of spacious, light, airy, fully equipped and ornamented workshops is a pressing need. Art, technique, skill of head and hand immediately find a wide field of activity. All departments in the building of machinery, in the fashioning of tools, in architecture and in the branches of work connected with the internal equipment of houses have the amplest opportunity” (Woman and Socialism, ch. VII, p284). For Morris, productive activity might be carried out in a variety of surroundings, but he argues that some kind of factory system would “offer opportunities for a full and eager social life surrounded by many pleasures. The factories might be centres of intellectual activity also”, where “work might vary from raising food from the surrounding country to the study and practice of art and science”. Naturally Morris is also concerned that these factories of the future would not merely be clean and pollution-free, but aesthetic constructions in themselves: “beginning by making their factories, buildings and sheds decent and convenient like their homes, they would infallibly go on to make them not merely negatively good, inoffensive merely, but even beautiful, so that the glorious art of architecture, now for some time slain by commercial greed, would be born again and flourish” (‘Useful Work … ‘, p 103-4).
The factory is quite often described in the marxist tradition as being a true realisation of hell on earth. And this is true not merely of the ones that it is respectable to abhor – those of the dim distant days of the ‘industrial revolution’ with its admitted excesses – but equally the modem factory in the age of democracy and the welfare state. But for marxism, the factory is more than this: it is the place where the associated labourers come together, work together, struggle together, and is thus an indication of the possibilities of the communist association of the future. Thus, against the anarchist prejudice against the factory as such, the late nineteenth century marxists were quite correct to envisage a factory of the future, now transformed into a centre of learning, experiment, and creation.
For this to be the case, it is evident that the old capitalist division of labour, its reduction of virtually all jobs to a mind-numbing and repetitive routine, would have to be done away with as soon as possible. “To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning life into a prison-torment” (‘Useful Work. . .’, p 101I). Thus our socialist writers, again following Marx, insist on work being varied, changing, and no longer crippled by the rigid separation of mental from physical activity. But the variety they proposed – based on the acquisition of a number of different skills, on a properly established balance between intellectual activity and bodily exertion – was much more than a mere negation of capitalist over specialisation, more than a simple distraction from the boredom of the latter. In its fullest sense it involved the development of a new kind of human activity which is finally in conformity with mankind’s deepest needs:
“An aspiration, deeply implanted in the nature of man, is that of freedom in the choice and change of occupation. As uninterrupted repetition renders the daintiest of dishes repulsive, so with a daily treadmill-like recurring occupation; it dulls the senses. Man then does only mechanically what he must do; he does it without swing or enjoyment. There are latent in all men facilities and desires that need but to be awakened and developed to produce the most beautiful results. Only then does man become fully and truly man. Towards the satisfaction of this need of change, socialist society offers the fullest opportunity” (Woman and Socialism, ch. VII, p288).
This variation has nothing in common with the frenetic search for innovation for its own sake that has become more and more a hallmark of decaying capitalist culture. It is founded on a human rhythm of life where disposable time has become a measure of wealth: “we have now found out what we want, so we make no more than we want; and as we are not driven to make a vast quantity of useless things, we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them” (News from Nowhere,London, 1970 edition, p82).
Working with swing and enjoyment; the awakening of suppressed facilities and desires. In short, as Morris put it, work as consciously sensuous activity.
Morris did not have access to Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,but his use of this phrase shows that the late 19th century revolutionary movement was familiar with the basic conception of free human activity which Marx developed in these early texts. They knew, for example, that Marx had endorsed Fourier’s insistence that labour, to be worthy of human beings, had to be based on “passionate attraction”, which is surely another term for the “Eros” later investigated by Freud.
Freud once remarked that primitive man “made his work agreeable, so to speak, by treating it as the equivalent of and substitute for sexual activities” (General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, New York 1953, p 175). In other words, in the first forms of primitive communism, labour has not yet become what Hegel defined it to be in The Phenomenology of Mind: “desire checked and retrained “. In Marxist terms, the alienation of labour does not fully begin until the advent of class society. The communism of the future thus achieves a generalised return to erotic, sensuous forms of labour which in class society have generally been the privilege of the artistic elite.
At the same time, in the Grundrisse, Marx criticises Fourier’s idea that work can become play, in the sense of “mere fun or amusement”. This is because scientific communism has understood that utopianism is always dominated by a fixation on the past. A man cannot become a child again, as Marx notes in the same work. But then he goes on to emphasise that man can and indeed must recapture the spontaneity of childhood; the labouring, future seeing adult must learn to reintegrate the child’s erotic connection to the world. The awakening of the senses described in the EPM requires a return to the lost kingdom of play; but the one who returns is no longer lost within it, like children are, because he has now acquired the conscious mastery of the fully developed, social human being.
A utopian vision?
We can no further in examining the vision of socialism elaborated by the late 19th century revolutionaries without facing the question: was their strenuous effort to describe the society of the future merely a new variety of utopianism, a kind of wish fulfilment unconnected to the real movement of history?
In the previous article in this series we considered the charge made against Bebel by the feminists – that his approach is indeed utopian because it fails to make the link between the socialist future, where the oppression of women has disappeared along with other forms of oppression and exploitation, and the struggle against this oppression in present day society. We can also hardly ignore the fact that Morris subtitled his News from Nowhere “a utopian romance”. Nevertheless we rejected this charge, at least in the manner formulated by the feminists. The idea that any attempt to describe communism in anything but negative terms is equivalent to utopianism is common to most forms of leftism, which is always anxious to conceal the fact that its vision of socialism is nothing but a rejigging of present day exploitation. Of course it’s true that communists cannot repeat the error of Fourier, drawing up day to day, even hour to hour prescriptions for what the future society will be like and how life will be lived. But as Bordiga once remarked, the real difference between utopian and scientific socialism resides not so much in the latter’s refusal to describe and define communism, but in its recognition that the new society can only come about through the unfolding of a real movement, a real social struggle that is already taking place at the heart of bourgeois society. While the utopians dreamed up their “recipes for the cook books of the future” and appealed to benevolent philanthropists to provide the kitchen space and the cookers, the revolutionary communists identified the proletariat as the force that alone could bring the new society into being by taking its unavoidable struggle against capitalist exploitation to its logical conclusions.
The feminists, in any case, have no right to pass judgment on the 19th century socialists because for them the ‘real movement’ that leads to the revolutionary transformation is not a class movement at all, but an amorphous, interclassist alliance which can only serve to take the proletariat away from its own terrain of struggle. In this sense there is no utopianism at all in Morris, or Bebel, or the social democratic parties in general, because they based all their work on the clear recognition that it would be the working class and no other social force which would be compelled, by its own historic nature, to overthrow capitalist relations of production.
And yet a problem remains, because in this period, the apogee of capitalist development, the mountaintop that preceded the downward slope, the precise contours of this revolutionary overthrow began to get blurred. The late nineteenth century socialists were certainly able to see the communist potentialities revealed by the tremendous growth of capitalism, but since this growth removed the revolutionary action of the class from the foreseeable horizon, it became increasingly difficult to see how the existing defensive struggles of the class would mature into a full-scale onslaught on capital.
It’s true the Paris Commune was not very far away in time, and indeed the socialist parties continued to celebrate its memory every year. The organisational forms that Bebel envisaged for the new society were certainly influenced by the experience of the Commune, and when Morris, in News from Nowhere, describes the transition from the old society to the new, he makes no bones about portraying it as the result of a violent civil war. The fact remains that the lessons of the Commune began to fade very quickly, and while Bebel’s great work contains many important elaborations about the socialist future, there is very little clarification about the way that the working class would move towards taking power, or about the initial phases of the revolutionary confrontation with capital. As Victor Serge noted, during this period an “idyllic” vision of the socialist revolution began to take hold of the workers’ movement:
“At the end of the last century, it was possible to entertain the great dream of an idyllic social transformation. Broadminded people went in for this, scorning or twisting Marx’s science. They dreamed of the social revolution as the virtually painless expropriation of a tiny minority of plutocrats. Why should the proletariat in its magnanimity not break up the old blades and the modern firearms and grant an indemnity to its exploiters of yesterday? The last of the rich would peaceably die out, at leisure, surrounded by an atmosphere of healthy distrust. The expropriation of the treasures accumulated by capitalists, together with the rational organisation of production, would instantly procure well-being and security for the whole of society. All pre-war working class ideologies were to some degree penetrated by these false ideas. The radical myth of progress dominated. In the Second International, a handful of revolutionary marxists alone discerned the great outlines of historical development …” (What Everyone Should Know about State Repression, chap 4, XI, first written in 1926)
This over-optimistic vision took different forms. In Germany, where the social democratic party grew into a mass party with a commanding presence not only in the trade unions but also in parliament and local councils, this notion of power falling like a ripe fruit into the hands of a movement that had already established its organisational bases inside the old system became more and more prevalent. The revolution was less and less seen as the old mole that erupts to the surface, the act of an outlaw class that has to bring down all the existing institutions and create a new form of power, and more and more understood as the culmination of a patient work of building, consolidating and canvassing inside the existing social and political institutions. And as we shall see when we look at the evolution of this conception in the work of Karl Kautsky, there was no Chinese Wall between this ‘orthodox’ view and the openly revisionist one of Bernstein and his followers, since if socialism can come about through gradually accumulating its forces inside the shell of capitalism, there may be no need for any final revolutionary overthrow at all.
In Britain, where out and out reformism, ‘nothing but’ trade unionism and parliamentary cretinism had in any case been more endemic within the workers’ movement, the reaction of revolutionaries like Morris was rather one of retreating into a purist sectarianism that poured scorn on the fight for “palliatives” and insisted at all times that socialism was the only answer to the proletariat’s problems. But since the defensive struggle was effectively dismissed, all that was left was the task of preaching socialism: “I say for us to make socialists is the business at present, and at present I do not think we can have any ·other useful business” (‘Where are we now?’, Commonweal,November 15, 1890), as though revolutionary consciousness would spread through society simply by more and more individuals being won over to the logic of socialist arguments. In fact towards the end of his life, Morris began to rethink his reservations about the fight for reforms, since the inability of his Socialist League to deal with this question helped bring about its demise and disappearance; but the sectarian vision continued to weigh heavily on the revolutionary movement in Britain. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, sterile from its very birth in 1903, is a classic embodiment of this trend.
Utopianism emerges in the workers’ movement whenever the connection between the present-day struggles of the class and the future communist society disappears from sight. But we can’t reproach the revolutionaries of this period too harshly for this. It was above all the objective conditions of the late nineteenth century which interfered with their vision. In the period that followed, the period in which capitalism began its descent down the mountain-side, changes in these objective conditions, and above all in the methods and forms of the class struggle, allowed the best elements in the social democratic movement to see the perspective more clearly. In the next articles in this series, we will therefore examine the debates which animated the social democratic parties in the 1900s, and particularly after the 1905 revolution in Russia – debates which were to centre not so much on the goal to be obtained, but on the means to obtain them.
(1) We cite this passage partly to refute the oft-repeated charge that Morris was ‘anti-technology’, which was raised as early as 1902, by Kautsky in his book The Social Revolution. Morris certainly thought that socialist society would witness a return of many of the skills and pleasures of handicraft production, but for him this would be a choice made possible by the fact that advanced machinery would substantially free the producers of repetitive and unattractive forms of labour.
Morris as a revolutionary militant
William Morris had many political weaknesses. His rejection of parliament as a vehicle for socialist revolution was also accompanied by a refusal to apply any tactic of intervention in the parliamentary arena, which at that time was still on the historic agenda for workers’ parties. Indeed, the Socialist League’s lack of clarity on the problem of the immediate struggles of the working class led it towards a sectarian dead-end, where it was fully exposed to the destructive intrigues of the anarchists who entered it and soon interred it, with more than a little help from the bourgeois state.
Nevertheless, when the League was constituted, the result of a split with the Social Democratic Federation led by the ‘Jingo Socialist’ Hyndman, it had been supported by Engels as a step towards the development of a serious marxist current in Britain – and thus as a possible moment in the formation of a class party. And it is this aspect of Morris’s socialism that the bourgeoisie most wants us to forget. Here it becomes plain that the attempt to reduce Morris to a kind of ‘designer socialist’, a harmless purveyor of art to the masses, is itself far from harmless. For Morris the socialist was not an isolated dreamer, but a militant who courageously broke with his class origins and willingly gave the last ten years of his life to the difficult labour of building a revolutionary organisation within the proletariat of Britain. And not only in Britain: the Socialist League saw itself as part of the international proletarian movement which gave birth to the Second International in 1889.
In his own day, Morris’s devotion to the cause of socialism was ridiculed by the bourgeoisie who branded him a hypocrite, a fool and a traitor. Today the ruling class is even more determined to prove that committing one’s life to the communist revolution is the purest folly. But the ‘foolish’ revolutionaries, the ‘crazy’ communist organisations, are the only ones who can defend – and have the right to criticise – the political heritage of William Morris.
Amos (extract from ‘The many false friends of William Morris’ in World Revolution 195)