By the early 1880s, Morris was beginning to perceive the threads that connected the “swinish luxury of the rich” to urban destitution and imperial brutality. In 1883, he joined Eleanor Marx, H. M. Hyndman, and others in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain’s first socialist party. For the rest of his life he threw himself wholeheartedly into revolutionary agitation—even after he and other disgruntled SDF members defected in 1885 to form the Socialist League. He also entered the most prolific phase of his career, writing essays and pamphlets as well as his utopian masterpiece, News from Nowhere (1890). Having apparently embraced Marxism, Morris, it seemed, had repudiated his old “master” Ruskin, the radical Tory. In Thompson’s neat formulation, he had completed the ideological metamorphosis “from romantic to revolutionary.”
But was Morris a Marxist? To make his case in 1955, Thompson had to finesse or evade some fairly obvious counterevidence. As Thompson himself noted, Friedrich Engels considered Morris “a sentimental socialist”—decidedly not the “scientific” variety. Moreover, Morris himself disclaimed the theoretical prowess that Thompson attributed to him. In “How I Became a Socialist” (1894), his own account of his political transformation, Morris admitted that while he “put some conscience toward trying to learn the economical side of Socialism”—he “even tackled Marx” and his “great work,” Capital—he experienced “agonies of confusions of the brain.” Besides, Morris wrote, he “had no transitional period”; while the SDF afforded “a hope of the realization of my ideal,” that ideal itself had already been formed.
Indeed, the wellspring of his socialist commitment, he asserted, was the medievalism of “Carlyle and Ruskin,” especially the latter. Through Ruskin he had “learned to give form to [his] discontent” which was “not by any means vague.” For all his eagerness to align himself with “scientific socialism,” Morris remained a revolutionary Romantic. (In an appendix to the 1977 edition of his book, Thompson conceded curtly that his original argument had been marred by “some hectoring political moralism as well as a few Stalinist pieties.”)
Morris’s revolutionary Romanticism was most evident in his writing on work and technology. It’s important to remember that, for Marx, the dehumanization of production is a tragic but ultimately liberating objective. In his dialectically promethean account of “machinery and modern industry” in Capital, the dispossession of artisans and craftsmen from control over the means of production and their conversion into wage laborers—in short, their proletarianization—are the necessary conditions of both technological innovation and socialism. Driven to lower costs by gaining mastery over the social and technological processes of production, capital introduces mechanization—what we now call automation. While the relocation of human skill in machinery enhances the power of capital over labor, it also creates the material basis for socialist and communist society. Now, machinery increases the exploitative intensity of capital; after the revolution, it will relieve human beings of drudgery and allow them the pleasures of free time. This is Marx’s “realm of freedom” adumbrated today in briefs for automation such as Frase’s Four Futures (2016) and Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2019).
But there is a price for this emancipation, one that Morris thought exorbitant: the degradation and monotony of labor. “Labor cannot become play,” Marx observed; the realms of necessity and freedom are forever divided by an impenetrable wall. This demarcation was of a piece with Marx’s disdain for “utopian socialism,” his epithet for any radical politics he considered disconnected from the Forces of History, among which was capitalism’s “progressive” technological development of productive power. Just as he was unwilling to accept the separation of the “lesser” from the “higher” arts, Morris devoted his career as a socialist to the joyful reunion of labor and play—a reversal, not a culmination, of the alleged trajectory of history. In a series of essays—“A Factory As It Might Be” (1884), “How We Live and How We Might Live” (1887), “The Society of the Future” (1887), and “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” (1888)—as well as in News from Nowhere (1890), Morris transformed his “desire to produce beautiful things” into a revolutionary project, turning Ruskin’s Tory Romanticism into a template for Romantic communism.
Marx and Morris agreed that the problem of work and technology was a political one. But for Marx it was quantitative (automation reduced the amount of necessary labor and increased the amount of free time), while for Morris it was qualitative. Promulgating “the semi-theological dogma that all labor, under any circumstances, is a blessing to the laborer,” capitalism both keeps us “terrified for our livelihood”—servile and harried as we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of shareholder value—and shifts our attention to the length of the workday and away from the way it damages us, eroding our manual and imaginative dexterity by the progress of mechanization. Against the inferno of busywork enforced by stockholders, managers, and technicians, Morris posed the ancient ideal of poiesis and upheld the medieval icon of the artisan who “stamped all labor with the impress of pleasure.” Rather than demand higher wages—“improved slave-rations,” in Morris’s view—workers should demand the abolition of wage labor and the full delights of production and leisure: “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself.” In a world of artisanal communards, the slavery of the Protestant ethic would yield to a new freedom in labor, not from it.
Morris did not oppose all mechanization; some machines were indeed “miracles of ingenuity,” but they should be used only to minimize “unattractive labor.” The point, for Morris—as one would have thought it was for his Marxist comrades—was that workers, not a class of technical and managerial specialists, should control the design of production technologies and their deployment in the workplace. If workers think that “handicraft is better than machinery for production and pleasure”—and Morris clearly believed they would—then “they will certainly get rid of their machinery.” Machines may be efficient in some strictly technical way, but in a new world of playful labor, “people will be able to use them or not as they feel inclined.” (The same principle would conceivably apply to the labors of care—doctors, nurses, teachers, janitors, and others should determine the practices and technologies they employ.) Morris’s insistence on what Lewis Mumford would later call “democratic technics” stemmed both from his socialist convictions and from his lifelong commitment to the hallowing of labor.
In the world Morris envisioned, workers would labor (and rest) in conditions worthy of their human nature. As Hammond, the narrator’s guide in News from Nowhere, explains, because the utopians are no longer driven by the consumption of goods, “we have time and resources enough to consider our pleasure in making them.” Morris imagined the factories of the future as both workshops and community centers, with libraries, schools, dining halls, and venues for theatrical and musical performances. Rather than specialize in one trade or profession, people would vary “sedentary occupation with outdoor” (everyone, he believed, should learn at least three crafts), while instruction in the liberal arts and sciences would be open to people of all ages. And while Morris focused (too much) on work, he thought four hours a day sufficient for all necessary, reasonable production—as Hammond tells him, “we have now found out what we want, so we make no more than we want”—to be followed by idleness, or the free pursuit of interests, or the manifold forms of love and conviviality. (The subtitle of News from Nowhere is “an epoch of rest.”) The spirit of the post-revolutionary world would be gentle, lighthearted, and voluptuous, with a love of the earth “such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves.”
It’s not clear that Morris grasped just how profoundly incompatible his views on technology were with those of Marx. (Thompson certainly didn’t: Soviet factories, he wrote, were “the poet’s dream already fulfilled.”) While Marxists often denigrate the ideal of craftsmanship as a “regressive” or “petty-bourgeois” fondness for a vestigial mode of production, the craft ideal enables us to ask questions about automation that its current enthusiasts seem disinclined and even unable to pose. If industrial technology under capitalism is designed not only to increase productivity, but also to give capital untrammeled control over the social as well as material processes of production, isn’t that technology marked ineradicably by the politics and sensibility of domination? For all its legitimate uses in eliminating dangerous and tedious labor, doesn’t automation deprive human beings of the pleasures of agency, ingenuity, and tactility? While writers such as Richard Sennett, Matthew Crawford, Wendell Berry, and Nicholas Carr have addressed these unfashionable concerns, anarchists have long envisioned the reconciliation of craftsmanship and automation, from Peter Kropotkin’s forecast of “industrial villages” to Murray Bookchin’s vision of “liberatory technology” that blends cybernetics with artisanal fabrication. By contrast, today’s left-wing votaries of robotics seem content to take whatever comes from Silicon Valley.
Perhaps even more significant, Morris challenges us to rescue socialism, even communism, from what Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity.” Before the Bolshevik Revolution, there was considerable debate on the left over the meanings of “socialism” and “communism”; the Marxist vernacular was only one among many. But whatever else they meant, “socialism” and “communism” meant the abolition of property in the means of production, and thus the overthrow of the aristocratic and industrial elites who exploited workers and peasants. Both words denoted the achievement not only of equality but also of freedom: from landlords, bosses, and stockholders. It meant the freedom of workers—like Ruskin’s imperfect artisans—to arrange their own affairs and design their technology without the supervision of managers or technocrats. Bringing property and production under workers’ control, socialism and communism represented not the bureaucratization of tyranny, as its critics claim, but rather the consummation of democracy.
Thus Morris helps us remember that socialism is not the sum of reforms to capitalism. Conservatives will usually vilify any restriction on the power of capital as “socialism”; liberals—“the more democratically inclined part of the ruling classes,” as Morris rightly perceived them—constitute a more complicated opposition. Because conservatives mock them for their oversensitivity, while socialists deride their moderation, liberals tend to see themselves as sensible pragmatists. And they are, within the horizon of capitalist rationality: they want wage slavery “somewhat ameliorated” (higher wages and benefits, a welfare state, perhaps even a universal basic income) as long as the imperatives of capitalist property remain the fulcrum of society. Contemporary liberals comprise the left wing of the neoliberal ruling class.
To be sure, Morris did not oppose reforms; what mattered was “what else is being done, while these were going on.” Unless reforms were part of a broader effort to overcome capitalism, they would turn out to be only “makeshift alleviations” that capital would terminate at the first opportunity. Indeed, if the history of the welfare state in the North Atlantic democracies offers any lessons on this score, it’s that New Deal liberalism and social democracy flourished only as long as business put up with them; always chafing at taxes and restrictions, capital threw them off as soon as they became politically vulnerable. (Accordingly, many liberals and social democrats morphed into business-friendly neoliberals.) What Morris would emphasize now to Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other self-avowed “democratic socialists” is that the reformist political imagination will always be circumscribed by the imperatives of capital.
Which is why we need utopia back, leavened by the Romantic desire for beatitude with which Morris endowed it—and more. Christians in particular have been warned about the seductive dangers of utopian hope, chastised with Augustinian platitudes about the intractability of human imperfection. But we might also think of utopianism as a form of realized eschatology, a proleptic politics rooted in a faith that the future can pay a visit to the present. Though a prodigal son from orthodoxy, Morris the Romantic captured something of this sacramental imagination; he praised (and, one suspects, envied) those medieval men and women “to whom heaven and the life of the next world was such a reality, that it became to them a part of the life upon the earth, which accordingly they loved and adorned.” If, in the Kingdom, we live as a beloved community of godlike beings—akin to those haymakers in Oxfordshire, but manumitted from oppressive toil—why not insist on flourishing, to the extent that we can, on this damaged side of the eschaton? Turn the page, I say.