William Morris: Visionary Communist

WILLIAM MORRIS: VISIONARY COMMUNIST

Although Britain is the country where industrial capitalism first arose and where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels spent most of their lives it has not produced many notable thinkers in in the Marxist revolutionary tradition. In this respect Lenin commented on “the English distaste for theory”. A notable exception to this depressing trend was William Morris (1834-96). Morris remains an outstanding revolutionary Marxist activist and thinker and his writings are still worth studying.

As a young man William Morris became interested in and a practitioner of the design of household furnishings and objects. His designs for wallpaper and fabrics in particular became popular and remain so to this day. Morris found much of the surroundings and objects being produced by industrial capitalism to be aesthetically repellent, i.e. ugly. He aimed to reverse this negative trend by means of his design work and he inspired others to do so and this led to the founding of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris thought that living in an ugly man-made environment diminishes people’s morale.

He also thought that people who had to produce unattractive artefacts did not experience a sense of satisfaction from carrying out their work but on the contrary found such work tedious and frustrating. This was the case with mass production factory-type work. Not only were people materially impoverished by the low wages they received but additionally their creative impulses were stifled by being forced to carry out such work. Morris considered that most work carried out under capitalism prevented human beings giving full expression to our natural creative urges. It dehumanises us. His analysis of the part played by work in our lives is very similar to Karl Marx’s analysis of alienation although Marx’s writings on this essential topic were not available at that time.