Translation: “William Morris” by Karl Kautsky

Rida Vaquas



This article by Karl Kautsky was published in October 1896, following William Morris’ death on the third of the month. Kautsky held a long-running interest in William Morris’ work. In 1893 under Kautsky’s editorship, Die Neue Zeit ran a serialisation of chapters of News From Nowhere as Kunde von Nirgendwo, translated by Clara Steinitz and Natalie Liebknecht (Wilhelm Liebknecht’s wife). One may view the claim of William Morris being among the greatest English poets of his generation as an unjustifiable exaggeration, but it was doubtlessly Kautsky’s sincere perspective.

Kautsky had extensive correspondence with Morris’s compatriots in England, especially Eleanor Marx, as well as having some correspondence with Morris himself. The admiration and interest was mutual, shortly after founding the Socialist League in 1885, William Morris wrote to ‘Comrade Kautsky’, saying he ‘should be very grateful if you could send us any literary contributions to our paper’.

Nonetheless, despite the deep mutual respect, the account of William Morris’ attitudes suffers from some misinterpretation and simplification. Contrary to Kautsky’s claim that ‘the machine itself’ was anathema to Morris, William Morris showed a much more nuanced understanding of ‘the machine-system’. In his 1888 article ‘The Revival of Handicraft’, Morris summed it up quite well: ‘As a condition of life, production by machinery is altogether an evil; as an instrument for forcing on us better conditions of life it has been, and for some time yet will be, indispensable.’ Machinery could be a helping hand to the realisation of the fullness of human life, but its destruction of the intelligent quality of human labour in the commercial system, turning us into ‘dull drudges or duller pleasure-seekers according to our class’, rendered it an evil.

While the death of William Morris signified a deep personal loss, Kautsky concerned himself with demonstrating the depth of the political loss. It was also a moment to take stock of the growth of the English socialist movement, judged from afar as somewhat backwards and stunted. Hence it presents an interesting perspective into how Kautsky understood advances of the socialist movement to happen and weaknesses in that view.

Although it’s unwise to treat Kautsky as ‘always’ having been a renegade, it’s possible to discern the political problems he found impossible to solve under his schema and which later proved pivotal to his estrangement from the left, namely that of the ‘lumpenproletariat’, regarded as practically synonymous with the unemployed in the below piece. As Kautsky presents them here, the lumpenproletariat’s struggles lack dignity and honour, ending in brawls and looting, even of gold and silver. In his later articles about the street demonstrations, he criticised the involvement of the ‘unorganised’ as bringing an ‘unpredictable’ element into political life for which one could not make prior tactical provisions. Organisation and discipline have long been watchwords of socialist workers movements. But when faced with a crisis of mass unemployment, a strategy which centres the organised and employed as necessarily the most politically advanced section runs into a roadblock. The possibility of creating a disciplined and organised unemployed proletariat does not seem to strike Kautsky as plausible, but it’s all the more necessary in an age of the Covid-induced economic collapse, where many of us have been made unemployed or teeter on the brink.

Yet, despite the article’s shortcomings, it represents something especially beautiful about the socialist movement as a cultural movement, as a movement that makes us capable of experiencing the world beyond ourselves with heightened sensitivity. As Leon Rosselson put it in his song about William Morris, he was one who came ‘in the passion of a vision’. While Kautsky is too frequently derided as a dogmatist writing dry historical formulas, we can still identify that same vision in him.

William Morris by Karl Kautsky


A few days ago, the English socialists carried one of their best and most significant comrades to the grave, a man who was one of a kind, the poet William Morris. Not conforming to any template of a man, unique in every respect and defending his uniqueness decisively, yet he never appeared repulsive, but rather always exceptionally kind and wholly harmonious. A socialist through-and-through, he was an artist above all else. As an artist he learned how to hate the entirety of bourgeois civilisation, even the aspects of it which create the preconditions for a higher form of existence for humanity. His ideal was the handicraft of the free artist. Not only the capitalist use of the machine, no, the machine itself was anathema to him.

And he was equally appalled by the narrowmindedness of trade, the one-sided division of labour. He himself belonged to the most versatile of men. Morris was not merely a poet. Like the cultural heroes of the Italian Renaissance, he worked in the most different fields with success. Nothing less than an unworldly dreamer, he proved himself to be a very clever organiser and administrator, a passionate agitator, a perspicacious cultural historian and a highly subtle fine artist.

His poetic imagination drew its inspiration from the pre-capitalist era, from antiquity, but especially from Germanic prehistory, Edda and Icelandic mythological circles.

His poetry placed him in the first rank of English poets of his time. Had he not been a socialist, he might have been counted after Tennyson’s death among the candidates for the vacant post of Poeta laureatus, the Poet King, a dignity which is still tastelessly conferred in England as a court office. But even before he was a socialist – and Morris was a famous poet before he was a socialist – he would not have been a good fit for this position. In his simple rectitude and recklessness, in his love for the oppressed and his hatred of all oppression, he was always the opposite of a courtier.

As a fine artist, his individuality corresponded the most with the art of the end of the Middle Ages. In a community of like-minded artists he worked to elevate English taste again, which the dictatorship of capital had brought down entirely, in a revival of the Middle Ages and the early renaissance. With his comrades, he founded a workshop in 1861, that later became a large factory, for the interior decoration of living spaces, for the production of wallpapers, furniture, carpets and the like.

The enterprise found great artistic and commercial success, it turned Morris into a rich man and contributed a lot to the improvement of architectural taste in England. However Morris thought no better of the bourgeoisie because they had temporarily made his taste their fashion. It was only fashion and there was no deeper artistic feeling at play. He liked to joke about it: “There are no bigger fools than the people who buy my wallpapers – except the people who don’t buy them.”

In his preference for the past mixed with hate for bourgeois civilisation, he had a lot in common with Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired up until the publication of The Kreutzer Sonata. However, this showed him that a big difference persisted between them. In his hatred of the present, in his idealisation of the past, there was no trace of Morris turning away from life. Love of life and life force pulsed mightily in him and pushed him into the marketplace of life and into participation in the struggles of the day, participation in the fight of the present for a better future. And so Morris, despite his medieval inclinations, did not become an ascetic and mystic like Tolstoy, but a socialist.

England, the motherland of the capitalist means of production, also witnessed the first powerful socialist labour movement, the Chartists. The defeat of 1848 brought this movement, just like the democratic movement in the rest of Europe, to a temporary end. But when socialism raised its head everywhere at the beginning of the sixties, there was not a similar resurrection in England. To address the causes of this would go too far. It suffices to point out that this phenomenon is partly linked to England’s monopoly on world trade, partly to the successes of the trade union movement and the granting of voting rights to a section of the workforce, which split the workforce in two, one privileged and one apparently hopelessly impoverished.

Due to these influences, modern socialism in England succeeded in developing two decades later than on the continent. The crisis that raged in the second half of the seventies and brought an end to the golden age of English industry once and for all, the inability of trade unions to face every calamity which this crisis imposed upon even the better-placed sections of the workforce, and finally the political and social awakening of the lower working classes, all this meant that in the early eighties the traditional Manchester wisdom went bankrupt in many circles and socialism also began to find supporters in England.

One of the first to follow this new teaching was William Morris, one of the first and one of the most ardent. Although already in his fifties, he threw himself into the movement with the zeal of a youth, placing his money, his pen, his entire being at its disposal.

Everything that we needed so desperately! As ever, the bourgeoisie and the government (namely the Tories, who had become a pure capitalist party) recognised early on what a dangerous enemy socialism was, just as the proletariat understood what a true friend it had in it. There was no lack of persecutions, while the socialists lacked in both strength and resources. The small troop of enthusiasts exerted all of their energy in order to be able to execute their propaganda work successfully. In view of the difficulty of developing their own press and finding meeting places – both of which require great resources in England – open-air propaganda was of particular importance to the Socialists. And it was here that the opposition of the government and the police began. Throughout the eighties, the struggle between the socialists and the police for the right to hold a meeting in any open space, on any street corner where traffic allowed. This right had to be wrested from the police for each individual locality through tireless opposition to their orders. It was a welcome help that not only unknown proletarians, whom nobody cared about, took part in these fights, but also people like Morris, who were highly respected even by the Philistines. Of course, the police treated him just as roughly as his comrades, but the public placed themselves firmly on the side of the poet.

Just as indefatigably, despite the police and in all weathers, like in the struggle for the right of assembly, Morris participated in a second important activity which fell upon the English socialists in the eighties, the organisation of the demonstrations of the unemployed in order to impel the public authorities to support them. Unemployment reached alarming levels in those times of the deepest economic depression, but neither governments nor local councils concerned themselves with relieving the misery. It was the socialists who assembled and organised the unemployed in order to make the public pay attention to the horrifying conditions.

This task was much less dangerous yet more unpleasant than the fight for the right of assembly. There was always something inspiring, often magnificent about the latter struggle, such as the “Bloody Sunday” of 13 November 1887 in Trafalgar Square, where almost the entire police force of London, including the military, infantry and cavalry, were brought in, it was the struggle of the politically most advanced section of the working class. In contrast, most of the demonstrations of the unemployed were depressing. On these occasions, the East End spits out its most depraved lumpenproletarians, not those elements who will lead the proletariat to victory and liberate it, but those who cling to the working class like a lead weight and who have already been broken by misery to such an extent that they sell themselves to anyone for a Schnapps.

The struggles for the right of assembly often ended unhappily, but always honourably. In contrast, the demonstrations of the unemployed ended in the most desolate scenes, once with looting and theft, not only of basic essentials, but even gold and silver.

Nevertheless, Morris did not hesitate to contribute his share of responsibility and work to provide bread for these unfortunates.

All this work, together with countless propaganda speeches and discussions of the small flock of socialists of the eighties, bore good fruit and paved the way for socialism in the masses of the English proletariat. But it did not achieve what the socialists had hoped. They had expected to be finished with the old society in no time at all; it was the underestimation of difficulties that is characteristic of every young socialist movement. A certain blow to this optimism was inevitable.

It was precisely at the time when socialist ideas were spreading and taking root among the masses that a kind of moulting began to take place among the majority of English socialists, and as so often happens, they now turned to the opposite extreme. Whereas before the greatest concern was how to establish the state of the future, now there was a widespread desire to forcibly turn a blind eye to any further development and to consume themselves with whatever was most immediate.

Morris did not take part in this moulting. But he did not remain completely unperturbed by it. This may have been helped by personal experience.

Initially, he had joined the Democratic Federation, founded in 1881, which adopted the name Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1883, which it still has today. In 1885, a split came about in the organisation. A section of its membership, including Morris, the Aveling couple, Belfort Bax, Scheu and others, left and founded the Socialist League. The causes of the split were partly personal, but also partly of an objective nature. The majority of the Social Democratic Federation under Hyndman sought to transfer the tactics of German Social Democracy without further ado and namely wanted to participate in parliamentary elections.

For a variety of reasons, this was a beginning that was as hopeless as it was dangerous, as was evident soon after the split in that year’s elections. The two London candidates of the SDF obtained 27 and 32 votes and in order to achieve this pathetic result, they had prostituted themselves and used money from the Tories to cover election costs. Nothing could have harmed the cause of socialism more than this election.

Morris and his friends were completely correct in this. But by presenting as an unconditional truth what was only a conditional truth, they fell into the opposite error; opposition to immediate participation in elections became opposition to elections and political activity in general. Hence access to the Socialist League was opened up for anarchists.To the extent that the anarchist influence increased, Morris’s old friends distanced themselves from him. The Avelings, Bax and Scheu left the Socialist League and this became a stomping ground of enthusiastic councils of confusion and rugged crooks who vied to plunder Morris’s pocket for the greater glory of anarchism.

The highpoint of these activities came at the end of the eighties, simultaneously partly as a consequence of disappointments and partly as a consequence of the effects of the economic upturn, namely the rise of new unionism, a large part of English socialists turned themselves to new tasks. All this did not remain without influence on Morris. He withdrew from the League, which had survived only from and through him and which soon folded, and from then on essentially restricted his activities to the socialist association of his home town, the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

However, his literary creations show us how little this signified a cooling of his socialist enthusiasm. In the final years of his life, he gifted us some of his most beautiful socialist fiction: in 1888 his Dream of John Ball, a colourful representation of an episode from the English Peasants’ War, with views into the present and future, and in 1891 his utopia full of enchanting charm News from Nowhere. In 1893 he published a summary of the history of socialism with Belfort Bax: Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome.

His last activity as a socialist consisted in the attempt to unite the splintered and mutually antagonistic socialist fractions of England. Sadly this endeavour was doomed to failure from the outset because the personal and tactical conflicts that had to be overcome were too deeply rooted. Just like in France, the unity of socialists in England will also not be the product of the intervention of well-meaning mediators, but rather only of the force of conditions.

However, if someone were able to unite the socialist fractions, it would have been William Morris. He had some opponents but no enemies. There was no one in the entire flock of socialists in England who enjoyed as much general respect and honour as Morris; no one, with such brilliant achievements, who combined not only complete selflessness but also complete modesty, no one in whom the fortitude of character of a man went so hand in hand with the serene tolerance of an elder and the fierce devotion of a youth.

He was made to picture a more perfect society for us men. He only had to reach into his own heart.