Crossing the 'river of fire'

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Hassan Mahamdallie, Redwords, £7.99

William Morris is best known as an artist and a prolific writer on arts and crafts. Hassan Mahamdallie's portrait of Morris shows him also as a dedicated socialist and activist who illustrated the role of the arts in the enrichment of human life.

This book gives a clear picture of how Morris turned to revolutionary socialism as a means of resisting the barbarism of 19th century capitalism, having been inspired by the Chartist and anti-slavery movements. For Morris, changing the world was necessary and working class organisation crucial.

Morris fought against war, racism and imperialism. He also ardently supported women's liberation and led the way in developing Karl Marx's ideas regarding the destructive effect of capitalism on our environment.

Similarities with the modern world are inescapable. Morris recognised the plight of Chinese labourers and the effect of a massive economic crisis, Black Monday, which led to a state assault on civil rights. He was at the heart of the movement for civil rights, joining protests in Trafalgar Square despite such actions being banned.

It was after these experiences that Morris - a man who was "quiet and afraid to speak" - felt the need to address large gatherings. The ruling class reaction to the crisis and experience of state violence influenced him.

On Bloody Sunday in 1887 Morris witnessed 2,000 police and hundreds of troops crack down on men and women protesting in Trafalgar Square, an account of which later appeared in his News from Nowhere, a "creative counterblast" against reformist ideas.

What shines through in this book is Morris's journey from his days at Ruskin College, wanting to enrich the way people live to his pursuit of socialism.

In his book, Useful Work versus Useless Toil, Morris imagined a world where machinery frees up human time for leisure and culture, and factories become useful buildings adorned with art.

Morris's view that the majority of us must toil for "articles of folly and luxury" for the rich and "put up with miserable makeshifts...with coarse food that does not nourish" could not be more true in an age of war, champagne bars and supermarkets.