The hopes of civilisation by William Morris (1885)

‘Hope’ is Morris’s key word, a central concept in his writings. It occurs 58 times in this essay, a fact which might give the impression the text is a wishy-washy set of liberal hopes for the amelioration of the wretched state of the Victorian working classes. In fact, this is by far the toughest-minded, theoretically advanced and historically grounded of Morris’s essays. He has been reading Marx and Marx has colonised his thought with a vengeance.

This lecture was delivered to the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League at Kelmscott House on 14 June 1885. In the preceding months he had been reading Marx and other advanced socialist economists – some of his other essays and lectures of the time go out of their way to explain Marxist concepts such as surplus labour in great detail: ‘On the whole tough as the job is you ought to read Marx if you can: up to date he is the only completely scientific Economist on our side.’ (Letter to J Carruthers, Feb 1885)

The hopes of civilisation amounts to a long and detailed recapitulation of the claim from The Communist Manifesto that all history has been the history of class struggle and proceeds to describe these class struggles in great detail. Early on there is some of the old medievalising Morris we’re used to:

Not seldom I please myself with trying to realize the face of mediaeval England; the many chases and great woods, the stretches of common tillage and common pasture quite unenclosed; the rough husbandry of the tilled parts, the unimproved breeds of cattle, sheep, and swine; especially the latter, so lank and long and lathy, looking so strange to us; the strings of packhorses along the bridle- roads, the scantiness of the wheel-roads, scarce any except those left by the Romans, and those made from monastery to monastery: the scarcity of bridges, and people using ferries instead, or fords where they could; the little towns, well bechurched, often walled; the villages just where they are now (except for those that have nothing but the church left to tell of them), but better and more populous; their churches, some big and handsome, some small and curious, but all crowded with altars and furniture, and gay with pictures and ornament; the many religious houses, with their glorious architecture; the beautiful manor-houses, some of them castles once, and survivals from an earlier period; some new and elegant; some out of all proportion small for the importance of their lords. How strange it would be to us if we could be landed in fourteenth century England; unless we saw the crest of some familiar hill, like that which yet bears upon it a symbol of an English tribe, and from which, looking down on the plain where Alfred was born, I once had many such ponderings, we should not know into what country of the world we were come: the name is left, scarce a thing else.

The middle ages which epitomised everything he felt was good about life. But the rest of the essay is tough-minded and merciless in its Marxist analysis: all eras, of Elizabeth, the Stuarts, the civil wars and Restoration and Glorious Revolution etc are seen through the lens of the class struggle between landowners and the nascent businessmen on the one hand, and the propertyless journeymen labourers on the other, who will form the basis of the capitalists and industrial proletariat of his own day.

Now, in all I have been saying, I have been wanting you to trace the fact that, ever since the establishment of commercialism on the ruins of feudality, there has been growing a steady feeling on the part of the workers that they are a class dealt with as a class, and in like manner to deal with others; and that as this class feeling has grown, so also has grown with it a consciousness of the antagonism between their class and the class which employs it, as the phrase goes; that is to say, which lives by means of its labour. Now it is just this growing consciousness of the fact that as long as there exists in society a propertied class living on the labour of a propertyless one, there MUST be a struggle always going on between those two classes–it is just the dawning knowledge of this fact which should show us what civilization can hope for–namely, transformation into true society, in which there will no longer be classes with their necessary struggle for existence and superiority.

His previous lectures cared very little about the situation on the Continent. With his new, post-Marxist cosmopolitanism, this lecture has sections giving precise Marxist analyses of the French Revolution and the Commune, the situations in Germany or Russia, more or less copied from Marx and his epigones.

The defeats and disgraces of [the Franco-Prussian] war developed, on the one hand, an increase in the wooden implacability and baseness of the French bourgeois, but on the other made way for revolutionary hope to spring again, from which resulted the attempt to establish society on the basis of the freedom of labour, which we call the Commune of Paris of 1871. Whatever mistakes or imprudences were made in this attempt, and all wars blossom thick with such mistakes, I will leave the reactionary enemies of the people’s cause to put forward: the immediate and obvious result was the slaughter of thousands of brave and honest revolutionists at the hands of the respectable classes, the loss in fact of an army for the popular cause: but we may be sure that the results of the Commune will not stop there: to all Socialists that heroic attempt will give hope and ardour in the cause as long as it is to be won; we feel as though the Paris workman had striven to bring the day-dawn for us, and had lifted us the sun’s rim over the horizon, never to set in utter darkness again: of such attempts one must say, that though those who perished in them might have been put in a better place in the battle, yet after all brave men never die for nothing, when they die for principle.

Here we can hear the true Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the vaunting vainglorious rhetorical style which came to characterise communist regimes in the twentieth century. It is strange that it’s an essentially Victorian rhetoric, one which had to be abandoned by even its most jingoistic supporters in the West after the Great War, and yet lived on in the world’s communist regimes, sounding with ever-more ludicrous hollowness, enduring into the 1970s and 80s in the Eastern bloc, and still surviving in bizarre anachronisms like North Korea even today.

The essay ends with a detailed critique of all the possible responses to the current political crisis, as Morris sees it: he itemises the possible responses and then witheringly explains how every one is inadequate, short of full-scale Revolution and the overthrow, probably by violence, of the besieged Capitalist classes, before the new day of freedom can dawn.

Once he had taken the plunge, once he had joined the Socialist League, Morris wrote to all his friends, writers like Swinburne or his mentor, Ruskin, his artist colleagues Burne-Jones et al strongly suggesting they also join. It was the only way he could see out of the artist’s indefensible isolation from his fellow men and the guilt of living a fulfilled happy life in a society based on slavery. It would be interesting to anthologise the apologetic and sheepish replies he had from his correspondents as, one by one, they backed away and failed to make the great leap forward which meant so much to Morris.

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A meeting of great beards!

A meeting of great beards!

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