04 March 2018

Morris, the Eastern Question and socialism

William Morris

I’ve spoken a bit briefly on the topic of the great William Morris, having read and enjoyed The Wood Beyond the World earlier this year. But the question of how Morris went from being a relatively apolitical artist and antiquarian into political activism and advocacy for a sort of guild socialism is an interesting one. In fact, it was a question of foreign policy which first made William Morris turn his attentions to questions of politics and œconomy. And, at that, a question of foreign policy involving Russia.

William Morris’s interest in social questions had already been somewhat roused by an interest in the preservation of old buildings, and particularly old churches. By the same token, the preservation of the ancient communities which inhabited those churches was a matter of keen interest to him. The news of the atrocities which the Ottoman Turks had committed in the Balkans against the Christian populations of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia caused Morris to set his face solidly against them, and to take an almost automatic position of sympathy with Russia in their disputes with the Ottomans. Add to that, that he had already been taken with some admiration for the Russian government for its abolition of serfdom and for its stance on the liberation of slaves in other areas of the world. Here is what he said in a letter to a friend, Charles Joseph Faulkner, in 1876:
As to the Russians, all I say is this: we might have acted so that they could have had no pretext for interfering with Turkey except in accordance with the unanimous wish of Europe: we have so acted as to drive them into separate interference whatever may come: and to go to war with them for this would be a piece of outrageous injustice… I know that the Russians have committed many crimes, but I cannot accuse them of behaving ill in this Turkish business at present, and I must say I think it very unfair of us, who freed our black men, to give them no credit for freeing their serfs: both deeds seem to me to be great landmarks in history.
Interestingly enough, this stance on the ‘Eastern Question’ came to heighten Morris’s sympathy and concern for the English working class, and for a reason which – particularly for a man who came to be so renowned for his socialism – may seem striking for its conservatism. In the English working class Morris saw an admirable inertia, particularly on questions of war and peace, similar to what the arch-reactionary Pobedonostsev observed among the Russian peasantry. The workingmen of London proved a more sympathetic audience to the anti-interventionist message than any other, and Morris began to address them with gusto:
Who are they that are leading us into war? Greedy gamblers on the Stock Exchange, idle officers of the army and navy (poor fellows!), worn-out mockers of the clubs, desperate purveyors of exciting war-news for the comfortable breakfast-tables of those who have nothing to lose by war… Shame and double shame, if we march under such leadership as this in an unjust war against a people who are not our enemies, against Europe, against freedom, against nature, against the hope of the world.

Working men of England, one word of warning yet: I doubt if you know the bitterness of hatred against freedom and progress that lies at the hearts of a certain part of the richer classes in this country: their newspapers veil it in a kind of decent language; but do but hear them talking among themselves, as I have often, and I know not whether scorn or anger would prevail in you at their folly and insolence. These men cannot speak of your order, of its aims, of its leaders, without a sneer or an insult: these men, if they had the power (may England perish rather!), would thwart your just aspirations, would silence you, would deliver you bound hand and foot for ever to irresponsible capital. Fellow-citizens, look to it, and if you have any wrongs to be redressed, if you cherish your most worthy hope of raising your whole order peacefully and solidly, if you thirst for leisure and knowledge, if you long to lessen these inequalities which have been our stumbling-block since the beginning of the world, then cast aside sloth and cry out against an Unjust War, and urge us of the middle classes to do no less!
Note the last part especially: Morris sees vanishingly little hope within his own middle class even at this early date, but instead finds it incumbent on himself to ask the working class to act out of its own patriotism for the salvation of the country from embarking on a grave injustice in a foreign adventure against Russia. He had little trust in Gladstone or in the Liberals’ interest in anything but their own pocketbooks. The dithering of the Eastern Question Association in the light of prevailing public opinion soured Morris on bourgeois politics for good, and he threw himself instead into the cause of liberating the working man from the shackles of capitalism – the logic which pinned together the entire imperialist war machine which Morris despised. His shift from a kind of Cobbett-like radicalism toward full-fledged socialism was gradual, but complete by 1882.

We may also assume that he imbibed some of this friendliness toward the working class and sympathy for socialism from his colleague and mentor, the Tory socialist art critic John Ruskin. However, the influence of the foreign-policy debate and the ‘Eastern Question’ of the time on Morris’s evolving political and œconomic views cannot be easily ignored or explained away in other terms.

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