William Morris and the Socialist League


(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.


(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.


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



  • 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)


I’m going to start off my very first post on this blog by applauding myself for not using Pink Floyd lyrics in the blog title. I was very close, mind you, but as much as I love Wish You Were Here I resisted… and went for a line from Peter Gabriel’s Biko instead. Perhaps not that much resistance then.

Lucky word usage there though, because that’s exactly what I want to talk about: resistance. During our first lecture and seminar for London’s Burning (which I deeply enjoyed), I found myself thinking about my own family history and how it ties in with social movement theory. Both of my parents were activists – perhaps they still identify so, although the active activism of their youth has turned into careers heavily influenced by their politics. Not quite the ‘communitarian activists’ that Charles Tilly put forward in 1993/4, but not quite professional either – perhaps this case requires more complex and modern definitions, à la new social movement theory?

I want to focus on my mother specifically, though. She’s Filipino, and during the 70s and 80s she was heavily involved in student politics during the Martial Law era and later a member of the Communist Party and part of the National Democratic Movement. I grew up on stories of her activism in this period, some of which were (as you can guess) pretty terrifying – not only did she have to go underground to avoid arrest and execution, but many of her comrades were arrested and executed in that time. But this period is particularly famous for the People Power Revolution, which began in 1983 but was at its peak from February 22nd-25th 1986 when there was a series of popular demonstrations on Epifanio De los Santos Avenue in Manila. This revolution is particularly famous for being a successfully non-violent revolution.


Above is an image of people standing in EDSA cheering after hearing that Marcos had fled the country (taken on February 24th 1986).

So, reading Charles Tilly (specifically ‘Social Movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, 1993/4) got me thinking about my mum and the EDSA Revolution. I don’t know the complete history of the revolution or the period around it, so any attempt to categorise it properly would be inaccurate. But the question is – can Tilly be applied to it? If we disregarded the fact that Tilly’s theories are considered a bit simplistic now, there are still other issues with them.

Most pressing of all – can Tilly be applied to social movements outside the West? We claim that his theories are less applicable to movements after WWII because of the shift in social focus (i.e. power vs. masses/workers to identity politics), but is it the same in countries where WWII had a smaller/different impact? Where do dictatorships in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East fit into that? Of course I say this as someone who has only just started the course and probably has a rudimentary understanding of these theories, but it seems to me that modern revolutions against dictatorships outside the West can still be broken up into Tilly’s populations. In the case of the EDSA Revolution, you have:

  • Power holders – Ferdinand Marcos and his administration
  • Activists/claimants – my mother and her contemporaries, e.g. the activists of the National Democratic Movement
  • Subjects/beneficiaries – the rest of the population of the Philippines, who had suffered under Marcos during the Martial Law years and afterwards

However, this is a People Power Revolution. Millions of people gathered during the demonstrations against Marcos and his regime, which is what makes this period so unique. So is this a case of activists and subjects becoming one and the same, but with the subjects only being ad hoc activists, mobilised at one point in time? Then again, there was the Second EDSA Revolution in 2001. So were many of these ad hoc activists actually professional? What about the National Democratic Movement members like my mother, professionals for two decades who then mellowed over time, but still feel strongly about social issues and have the potential to be mobilised should the need arise?

Perhaps Tilly is a little too simple, even in this case. Sorry, Charles.