William Morris and the Socialist League

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(William Morris from Prose and Poetry, published 1913 by Oxford)

Artist, poet, textile designer and novelist, William Morris was a major figure in mid to late 19th century England. Early in Morris’s career he had been part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who defined themselves in opposition to existing ‘mechanistic’ approaches to art and instead favoured naturalistic work. In the late 1870s, he began to become a vocal political activist, and was heavily involved in the Social Democratic Federation in the early 1880s, before splitting off with several other members and founding the Socialist League in 1884. They believed in Revolutionary International Socialism, advocating a world revolution rather than confining it to single countries. Morris was known the travel around the country and spread the word of the Socialist League in workingmen’s clubs and parks, giving public lectures and speeches, particularly in London’s East End. He was also the editor of their weekly paper Commonweal. He believed that the conditions and experiences of workers in the East End meant that they had lost any faith or interest in the labour movement, and it was therefore the duty of socialists such as the league to enter these communities and encourage workers to participate.

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(Cover of the Manifesto of the Socialist League, 1885)

The inclusion of artists such as William Morris meant that the Socialist League and the labour movement overall gained significant artistic and creative talent. The design of the Manifesto of the Socialist League is a perfect example of how Morris’s artistic talent was used in the socialist cause. The beautiful emblem on the title page uses natural and classical imagery to present the league’s name, familiar themes to Victorian readers (the leaves are particularly Morris-esque). Aesthetically it is clear and beautiful, but it also incorporates the famous words ‘educate, agitate, organize’, first used by George Bernard Shaw in 1884 to describe the mission of the Fabian Society.

A clear manifesto with artistic merit was important to the repertoire of the Socialist League. It exhibited worthiness as explained by Charles Tilly, as it was well-presented, clearly thought out and explained, and had the name of an authority figure like Morris attached to it (although his ‘authority’ stemmed from his position as a famous and respected artist and poet). Although it is difficult to express unity in a written manifesto, the use of the league’s beautiful emblem would have made it recognisable. It also contributed to the visual culture of the movement, using existing ideas from the ‘residual’ cultural reservoir (the classical and natural imagery) to present the league’s political beliefs and slogan.

Morris’s involvement in the League was not all design and rhetoric. He was arrested once during a demonstration, and was arrested and fined on a second occasion for ‘public obstruction’ while he spoke about socialism on the street in July 1886. The Black Monday riots had only occurred 5 months before this, and there had been a spate of violence between activists and police for some time. Morris felt particularly passionate about this issue, condemning the ‘bullying and hectoring’ that Socialists experienced at the hands of the police. Whether this was entirely justified or partially hyperbolic is debatable, but there is certainly evidence that the police in this period were not particularly accountable for their actions, and could use more coercive strategies (to intimidate activists at best, and physically detain and/or harm them at worst).

Most famously, Alfred Linnell was trampled to death by a police horse during a demonstration on the 13th of November, 1887. Although it’s highly likely that this was simply an accident and he wasn’t even involved in the demonstration itself, his death was used by socialist groups at the time (particularly by Morris himself) to engender sympathy for and interest in their cause. The Repression-Protest Paradox, whereby an increase in police force can result in either an increase in activist response or the decline of the movement, can be applied here. The best explanation in this case is the Rational Individualist theory by Mason & Crane, because while the police had used increased force during demonstrations, the specific (if unintentional) targeting of the movement membership by killing Linnell meant that the involvement in the cause increased in response. There was a large and highly-publicised funeral for Linnell, with a huge demonstration of tens of thousands. As well as writing a poem on Linnell (whose proceeds went to his non-existent orphans), Morris famously spoke at his funeral, referring to him as ‘our brother and our friend’. The few police who attended were heckled with cries of ‘that’s your work’ by activists present. Although it does not appear that anyone knew Linnell before his death, the symbolism of that death was used by the Socialist League and a host of activists from across the country in their specific movements and general condemnation of the police force.

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(The poem dedicated to Alfred Linnell, written by William Morris)

 

References:

  • Cover of ‘the Manifesto of the Socialist League ‘(1885), digital image from the Tim Davenport collection
  • ‘William Morris’, Southgate Green Association (2012-2017), <http://southgategreen.org.uk/christ-church/william-morris/&gt;
  • ‘Walter Crane’, Working Class Movement Library <http://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/creativity-and-culture/art/walter-crane/&gt;
  • Foot, Paul, ‘Blair: Our Brother Our Friend’, in Socialist Worker (1979)
  • Krane, David, and Mason, Dale, ‘Political economy of Death Squads’, in International Studies quarterly (1989)
  • McAdam, Doug, ‘Culture in Social Movements’ in Buechler and Cylke, Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues (1997)
  • Porta, Donatella della, and Reiter, Herbert, Policing Protest (1998)
  • Taylor, Rosemary, ‘”The City of Dreadful Delight”: William Morris in the East End of London’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 18 (2009), 9-28
  • Tilly, Charles, ‘Social movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1993), 1–30
  • Vallance, Aymer, William Morris: His Art, His Writings and His Public Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1897)
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