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William Morris (1834-1896)

Argued for the rights of the craftsman and the worker

William Morris is probably best remembered as a craftsman, artist and designer, famous for his floral motifs and highly ornate wallpapers which have influenced house design and decoration for generations since.

But he was also a political activist. The Arts and Crafts Movement, with which he was deeply involved, took as its starting point a desire to celebrate the integrity of English art and design and the honest craftsmanship of beautiful objects.

Morris believed this had been spoiled by the mass-production of objects d’art and items of decor, so loved by Victorian Britain. His regard for the humble craft-artist led him to become a political activist, joining the Social Democratic Federation and, later, the Socialist League. He sought to raise the profile of the rights of the worker to happiness, freedom and a sense of worth.

Morris saw little point in working in a job which provided limited satisfaction to the worker and limited happiness. Of course, he was incredibly rich so perhaps had more freedom than most, but his theories of the rights of a worker are notably irrespective of income.

He questioned how, after thousands of years of human experience we, the ‘civilised’ people of the Western world, have managed to create a society where there is still enormous poverty, idleness and so many people are employed in unproductive jobs –a world where we can almost create unhappiness for ourselves.

It is important to remember that Morris was writing at the time of workhouses and factories, when Victorian businessmen became rich at the expense of the toil of many hundreds or even thousands of factory workers.

In order to try and overturn this circumstance, Morris claimed, society needs to free people from the compulsion to labour needlessly. This will, in the long run, make us happier as a society.

Morris was concerned with productivity and fairness. He suggests that each person, whatever their social standing or occupation, should be able to share in the fruits of their own success – a fairness of economics if you like.

In such a fair society, where labour and profit are shared amongst all, everyone gets a good rest after a hard day’s work and we all become much happier. But for his plan to work, he points out, whatever labour workers perform needs to be ‘attractive’ – in others words, enjoyable.

How do we make labour attractive?

“The first step of freeing people from the compulsion to labour needlessly will at least put us on the way towards this happy end; for we shall then have time and opportunities for bringing it about. (1)

Morris suggests the answer lies in employees feeling a sense of well-being in the workplace. Workers should feel that their contribution is useful; that they have a variety of tasks as part of their job; that they don’t have to work excessively long days, and that they work in pleasant surroundings. Importantly he also highlights peace as being important in securing a path to happiness.

“We have seen that the work of the world might be carried on in hope and with pleasure if it were not wasted by folly and tyranny, by the perpetual strife of opposing classes. (2)

Notes:

(1) Morris, William Useful Work versus Useless Toil, lecture given to Hampstead Liberal Club, 1884, (first published 1888 ) From Useful Work versus Useless Toil, (Penguin Great Ideas, London, 2008), p.13

(2) ibid, p.28

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