uring the 1870s Morris, who had previously made a strenuous effort to avoid political entanglements of any sort, made a commitment to increasingly radical political activities which would dominate the rest of his life. It was not so much that he abandoned his previous artistic activities and commitements, but that he extended them: in a real sense his plunge into Socialism was a new attempt to resolve, or at least to provide a framework which would permit the eventual resolution, of the enormous disparities — disparities which he found he could no longer ignore — which he had always perceived as existing between things as they were and as they should be. He put it very simply: "nothing can argue me out of this feeling," he wrote, "which I say plainly is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured by either rich or poor."
He was provoked into action by Disraeli's handling of the Bulgarian Atrocities in 1876: he believed that the incident demonstrated that the government's foreign policy and predeliction for Empire were contrived solely for the benefit of the upper classes. Once embarked upon his new course of political activism, Morris flirted briefly with Ruskinian socialism and with Gladstonian Liberalism, but became more and more radical, and more and more inclined to view capitalism itself, with its use of machinery to exploit and dehumanize the laboring classes, as the primary cause of the evils which he saw about him: in part this was due to his continued involvement in attempts to preserve Britain's architectural heritage in the face of concerted opposition from men in positions of power. Capitalism, as Morris saw it, had rendered bourgeois culture spiritually sterile. By 1889 he was secretary of the National Liberal League, but he found that its middle-class consituency had its own political program which was quite different, and far less radical, than anything he had in mind.
By 1882 he was deep in socialist literature, which he had always avoided in the past, and in 1883 he joined H. M. Hyndman's Democratic Federation (again a middle-class organization attmepting to introduce theoretical rather than practical socialism to the working classes from above), which would become the Social-Democratic Federation. Morris saw his task as an educational one, and plunged into things, lecturing on street-corners in England and Scotland. At the same time he began reading Marx's Das Kapital in a French translation, and soon declared himself a Marxist. In 1884 he himself founded the Socialist League, and became its first treasurer as well as editor of Commonweal, the official party organ. By this time he was a dreamer of a new kind of dreams: he was calling openly, in lectures and in print, for a Socialist Revolution in England, which would, he believed, eventually transform a Victorian Britain which had been physically ravaged and spiritually drained by the Industrial Revolution into a communal mediaeval agrarian society filled with happy, healthy people who would enjoy their work.
The brutal governmental response to the Trafalgar Square riots which occurred on Bloody Sunday in 1887, however, shocked and saddened Morris (hundreds of workers were wounded and three were killed) and he became convinced that the forces of repression were so entrenched in Victorian society that the longed-for Revolution would not come to pass during his lifetime. The following year he published his remarkable socialist prose romance The Dream of John Ball, and in 1890 his famous utopian romance News From Nowhere was published.
By 1890 anarchists had gained control of the Socialist League, and the aging Morris was removed as editor of Commonweal. He broke with the League and led the Hammersmith Socialist Society, a precursor of the Fabian Society, until he and his followers were reconciled with the Social-Democratic Federation in 1894. Thereafter he devoted much of his time to his prose romances and his beloved Kelmscott Press, but he never abandoned his Socialist ideals. We have noted that he was a man who hated the world he had been born into: his socialism itself he saw only as means to an end, as a means of transforming the ugliness that was into the beauty that could be.
In his News From Nowhere he would write
The earth and the growth of it and the life of it! If I could but say or show how I love it!
In a very real sense his entire life was an attempt to share the meaning of those lines with others, to say and show how much he meant them, and how much he meant by them.
Written 1987; last modified 15 December 2002