William Morris's Socialism

William Morris always felt uneasy about the disparity between his comfortable lifestyle and the conditions endured by most of the British working classes. In the 1880s he began working towards overthrowing the system that enabled the rich to profit from their labour, going on marches, writing articles and lecturing all over the country.

A Summary of the Principles of Socialism (1884) by William Morris and Henry Mayers HyndmanWilliam Morris Gallery

William Morris first became involved in the British Socialist movement when he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) at its inaugural meeting in June 1881.

Morris was very active in the group and wrote this pamphlet with SDF leader Henry Hyndman in 1884. Morris also designed the title page for the pamphlet in his distinctive style.

However, in reality Morris and Hyndman had a strained relationship as Morris disagreed with Hyndman’s obsession with parliamentary politics to the detriment of trade union organisation.

The Manifesto of the Socialist League (1885) by William Morris, Ernest Belfort Bax, and Walter CraneWilliam Morris Gallery

Morris broke from the SDF later in 1884 and went on to establish the Socialist League, a more radical group that sought a revolutionary overturn by the mobilised working classes.

Morris wrote The Manifesto of the Socialist League with Ernest Belfort Bax on New Year's Day 1885. The manifesto explained how the group sought ‘the realization of complete revolutionary Socialism’.

The Socialist League logo featured on this pamphlet was designed by Walter Crane. Crane also produced illustrations for membership cards, invitations and posters for the group.

William Morris's satchel (c.1850-1880) by UnknownWilliam Morris Gallery

During this period Morris carried this simple, sturdy satchel around with him containing books and political pamphlets. He attended lectures and demonstrations, and was arrested on two occasions.

The Commonweal, The Official Journal of the Socialist League, Vol. 2, No. 12 (1885/1886) by William Morris and Socialist League OfficeWilliam Morris Gallery

As well as being one of the leaders of the Socialist League, William Morris also helped to finance the group and edited its socialist magazine, the Commonweal.

Morris was the editor of the Commonweal from February 1885 until May 1890. He wrote much of the content of the early editions. Other contributors included including Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

Kelmscott Press edition of 'News from Nowhere' (1893) by Kelmscott Press, William Morris, and Charles March GereWilliam Morris Gallery

Morris's utopian novel News from Nowhere was first published in serial form in the Commonweal. The story describes a Socialist League member waking up in a future society based on common ownership.

The book provides an insight into Morris’s politics and his hopes for the future. In the future society there is no monetary system and society succeeds because individuals find pleasure in their work.

This is the Kelmscott Press edition with an illustrated frontispiece showing Kelmscott Manor, Morris's country home. He named both his house in Hammersmith and the Press itself after this property.

Kelmscott Press edition of 'A Dream of John Ball' (1892) by Kelmscott Press, William Morris, and Edward Burne-JonesWilliam Morris Gallery

Morris's A Dream of John Ball was also first published in the Commonweal. The story involves a protagonist from Morris’s time visiting medieval England at the height of the Great Revolt of 1381.

The book featured an engraved frontispiece by Edward Burne-Jones which illustrates a speech delivered by John Ball, one of the leader's of the revolt.

John Ball believed all people were created equal and disagreed with the class system. He famously asked 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?'

Socialist banner (c.1890s) by UnknownWilliam Morris Gallery

This image of Adam and Eve was reused on other Socialist materials including this banner from the 1890s. Banners were carried by socialists like Morris to identity their political allegiance at rallies.

Throughout the decade of his most strenuous political engagement, Morris’s continued to run his business. He regretted that his products were so expensive and wanted to create a better society for all.

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