William Morris was acutely aware of one way in which his greatest strength disabled him as the would-be leader of an activist movement (page 496):
Morris saw how day-to-day political commotion was damaging his intellectual concentration: ‘my habits,’ he explained, ‘are quiet and studious and if I am too much worried with “politics” ie intrigue, I shall be no use to the Cause as a writer.’ He saw his real value as his capacity to stand back and take the broader view.
There was another side to this coin though (page 497):
. . . neither May [his elder daughter] nor later commentators with a vested interest in promulgating the ‘dear old Morris’ legend make proper allowance for his streak of ruthlessness. He did not seek the quarrel [with Hyndman, the President of the Federation, and his followers]. But once the quarrels were upon him Morris could pursue them with a strength of purpose and a weight of anger . .
Morris pursued the split to breaking point. Writing to his wife he said (page 500):
The question only is now whether we shall go out of the SDF or Hyndman: we are only fighting for possession of the name and the adherence of the honest people who don’t know the ins and outs of the quarrel.
His ambivalence is revealed later in the same letter (ibid.):
All this is foul work: yet it is a pleasure to be able to say what one thinks at last.
I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t more than a touch of Gwendolen here:
On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.
(The Importance of Being Earnest: Act II)
In the end, though he won the vote against Hyndman, Morris left the SDF to form the Socialist League (page 502-503):
The SDF membership could only suffer damage when Morris formed a rival body, the Socialist League. Morris acted as he did because he felt an urgent need to redefine Socialist policy: Hyndman was pursuing policies of notoriety and intrigue that were giving Socialism, already, a bad name. Morris was reluctant to embark on a long programme of obstruction, tabling motion after motion, amendment after amendment.
According to Shaw there was a streak of the dictatorial in Morris. What is very clear is that the Federation offered him no hope that he could see of consulting his way towards a principled unity of thought.
In the late 1960s this was still the problem I had with the Socialist/Communist cause. Violence had been added to the lies by that stage, making a mockery of the humanitarian rhetoric. I needed something that offered a more attractive and convincing route towards radical social change. The Bahá’í Faith turned out to be that something.
It is worth mentioning that in the aftermath of my conversion experience some close friends took me to one side and warned me that if I continued to attempt to bludgeon into submission everyone I met with my absolute conviction I’d soon have no friends left. I knew that I was prohibited from using a sword to change someone’s mind so I’m afraid I fell into the trap of sliding the ‘s’ to the back and used words as my weapon instead. I learned from humbling first hand experience that the human tendencies towards schism, personal advantage and the dogmatic imposition of deeply felt views upon the unconvinced have to guarded against with unremitting vigilance.
The core beliefs of the Faith are clearly antithetical to any use of force or compulsion in belief and this is explicit in the Writings of its Founder.
Consort with all men, O people of Bahá, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and good-will. If it be accepted, if it fulfil its purpose, your object is attained. If any one should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding . . .
Also vigorous measures are taken to prevent splits and disunity while preserving freedom of thought and individual investigation of the truth.
In these days when the forces of inharmony and disunity are rampant throughout the world, the Bahá’ís must cling to their Faith and to each other, and, in spite of every difficulty and suffering, protect the unity of the Cause.
None the less, untrammelled enthusiasm can easily erupt into milder variants of these disruptive and divisive ills, and the supreme governing body of the Bahá’í community spells out in many places very clearly the standards of conduct we must adhere to. For example:
Apart from the spiritual requisites of a sanctified Bahá’í life, there are habits of thought that affect the unfoldment of the global Plan, and their development has to be encouraged at the level of culture. . . . . [The friends] are called upon to become increasingly involved in the life of society, benefitting from its educational programmes, excelling in its trades and professions, learning to employ well its tools, and applying themselves to the advancement of its arts and sciences. At the same time, they are never to lose sight of the aim of the Faith to effect a transformation of society, remoulding its institutions and processes, on a scale never before witnessed. To this end, they must remain acutely aware of the inadequacies of current modes of thinking and doing – this, without feeling the least degree of superiority, without assuming an air of secrecy or aloofness, and without adopting an unnecessarily critical stance towards society.
(Universal House of Justice: 28 December 2010, paragraph 36)
Combining highly motivating conviction with this degree of humility and tolerance of others is a difficult trick not often consistently mastered in a lifetime. It’s hard to see, though, how we could build a more humane and genuinely united society without learning it.
Someone as warm, generous and creative as Morris found it was beyond him, even though he grumbled about it. One hundred and fifteen years after his death the same task he grappled with from his perspective confronts us still in our situation. We each have to learn the best way we can how to combine compassion with conviction in a world-transforming fusion.
I haven’t found a way better adapted to the conditions we are currently facing than the one described in the Writings of Bahá’u'lláh, not because His core Message was essentially different from or superior to that of the other great Faith Traditions but because the way the spiritual insights they all hold in common are translated into patterns of practical action is not bettered anywhere else that I can find.
So, this is my choice, the path along which I am navigating my way through the complex jungle of modern materialism. We each are free to choose our own way through. What we are not free to do without dire consequences, it seems to me, is to ignore the need to choose. For all his errors and his frailties, no one could accuse Morris of ducking that challenge, and if I had his energy and courage I’d be a better human being, I believe.