Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Another question, Mr Morris (2006)

Book Review from the February 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tony Pinkney, ed: We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris, 1885-96. Spire Books £19.95.

In the 1880s the interview was a fairly new journalist technique, and a range of publications, from Justice to the Daily News and Bookselling, wanted to have William Morris’s views on a variety of topics. Most of the thirteen interviews gathered here took place in Kelmscott House, his residence in Hammersmith. The result is an interesting view of Morris as a person (generally dressed in a blue serge suit and smoking incessantly) as well as an insight into his opinions on political and other matters.

In 1885, Morris gave his reasons for leaving the Social Democratic Federation to help form the Socialist League. The SDF had been run ‘arbitrarily’, and it was heading towards ‘political opportunism tinctured with Jingoism’. The League, in contrast, would ‘uphold the purest doctrines of scientific Socialism, and + educate and organize towards the fundamental change in society’. In an interview from 1890, Marx is given credit for starting off the Socialist movement on scientific lines, and for showing that Socialism is ‘the natural outcome of the past’. There is a pleasant image of Socialism having ‘a public library at each street corner, where everybody should read all the best books, printed in the best and most beautiful type’. An 1894 criticism of anarchism is backed up by the argument that it is important to get control of parliament rather than attempting an insurrection (a contrast with his earlier opposition to parliamentary methods).

But this same interview acknowledges ‘the wisdom of the S.D.F. in drawing up that list of palliative measures’, i.e. a policy of reformism, something which Morris himself had previously rejected. In 1885 he also talked of the need for leaders, though it is not entirely clear what they are to do other than explain Socialist ideas, so this can hardly be taken as support for a Bolshevik-style vanguard. An interview with a woman journalist reveals some views which, to put it kindly, show that Morris was a man of his time: ‘I feel very strongly that a working man’s wife is needed in her home, and it is a pity when she has to leave it to compete in the labour market.’ (Shades of News from Nowhere, where it seems to be the women who do the housekeeping.)

It helps to have some previous acquaintance with Morris’ ideas and writings, but this is a well-produced volume which shows him in an unfamiliar and revealing light.
Paul Bennett

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