Book Review from the November 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Our Country Right or Wrong. By William Morris. Edited by Florence Boos. William Morris Society, 2008. 95 pages. £7.50.
Before he became a socialist in 1883, Morris had been a Liberal, towards the end on its Radical wing. As such he was in favour of trade unions, reforms to help the working class and a non-aggressive foreign policy. As this is the text of a talk given in January 1880 he was then still a Liberal, as can be seen from his praise of Gladstone as “a great statesman” and his raising of the Liberal slogan of the day of “Peace, Retrenchment and Reform” (“retrenchment” being what today would be called “cutting back on government spending”, a policy the modern Liberals have recently re-adopted).
Basically, this is a plea for opposing your country’s foreign policy if it is “wrong”. So, not “my country right or wrong”, but only “my country if it is right”, by which Morris understood anti-imperialist and anti-war. For him, Britain, under the then Tory government of Lord Beaconsfield (Disraeli), was wrong to support Turkey against Russia in the Balkans, to attack the Zulus in South Africa and to invade Afghanistan (which ended in disaster). Incidentally, in saying that Britain should oppose Turkey (because of its massacre of Christians) Morris was taking up the exact opposite position to that taken by Marx (who thought Turkey should be supported against Russia), not that Marx is a model to be followed here.
Later, after he had become a socialist (partly from disillusionment with the Gladstone Liberal government that came to power later in 1880), Morris argued that war and imperialist adventures could not be avoided by a change of foreign policy – a moral or ethical foreign policy was impossible under capitalism, a lesson the “Stop the War” movement of today has yet to learn.
Florence Boos, in her introduction (which is as long as the text), argues that Morris’s position at the time was influenced by the 19th century peace movement, whose origin and history she outlines. She seems to exaggerate the extent to which Morris could be regarded as a pacifist. After all, the chapter “How the Change Came” in News from Nowhere does envisage violence even if started by the ruling class. But she does quote from a lecture on “Communism” that Morris gave in 1893 in which he argues:
“The change effected by peaceful means would be done more completely and with less chance, indeed with no chance of counter-revolution . . . In short I do not believe in the possible success of revolt until the Socialist party has grown so powerful in numbers that it can gain its end by peaceful means, and that therefore what is called violence will never be needed.”
That’s not a bad way of putting it.