Philip Webb: Architecture and Socialism

Philip Webb and William Morris

Forget, The Magna Carta, the Battles of Agincourt and Waterloo and other ruling class celebrations; 2015 marks the anniversary of the death of Philip Webb, primarily known for the Red House he designed for William Morris at Bexley Heath, London in 1859 but lesser known as a member of The Socialist League and the Hammersmith Socialist Society.

W R Lethaby, in his biography of Philip Webb described him as “so great a man that no one has heard of him” (PHILIP WEBB AND HIS WORK). This was in 1935 and although it no longer remains the case in the field of architecture, Webb is still largely unknown in socialist circles because he has remained so long in the shadow of his friend and colleague William Morris.

Webb joined the Democratic Federation (soon to become Social Democratic Federation) with Morris in 1883, and then helped form the Socialist League in 1884 becoming Treasurer. He then became a member of the Hammersmith Socialist Society in January 1891, which had been established a year earlier in 1890 following a split within the Socialist League.

Webb’s attraction to socialism was dismissed as peripheral and unimportant by E.P. Thompson in William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1859) and by Florence Saunders Boos in William Morris’s Socialist Diary (History Workshop, Issue 13 Spring 1982) but recent scholars have shown that he was neither just a loyal and passive follower of Morris nor someone “whose politics may have been rather simplistic… “ (Boos loc cit note 87). The architectural historian Mark Swenarton noted that:

From February 1886 onwards virtually all Webb’s leisure time was given over to the League, as his life assumed the pattern of the political activist. Monday evenings were spent at the League Council, Thursday evenings were spent at the Ways and Means Committee and Saturdays at the League offices working in the books with the secretary. In addition there were weekly meetings of the branch and monthly meeting of London members, which Webb took his turn at chairing, and lecture to other branches: in June 1886 he lectured to the Clerkenwell and Hoxton branches on “The Necessity for Socialism” and in September to the Bloomsbury branch on “Foreigners and English Socialism”. In November he attended a meeting of the Oxford branch (run by Charles Faulkner) which prompted some reflections on present and future society, published in Commonweal the following month (Artisans and Architects, p. 50 1989)

Morris stated that Webb was “the man who taught me socialism” (Morris quoted by W R Lethaby loc cit p.241 1979). His adult working life was based on creative work and social comradeship embracing the principle “to be” rather than “to have”. It was Webb who introduced Morris to the condition of the working class in Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton through his own practice as an architect while Webb was also an anti-imperialist and opposed war long before Morris (Sheila Kirk, Philip Webb: Pioneer of Arts and Crafts Architecture p.204). Webb gave as much money as he could to the Social Democratic Federation and to the Socialist League even though it was to leave him living a life of poverty in retirement. Webb also gave talks and lectures and was on the Committee of the Socialist League. He played no greater or lesser role than any other person in the organisation.

In a socialist party where there are no leaders and there are no followers there is, of course, those who have different talents; some write articles, others make excellent propagandists but most just carry on indispensable party work as treasurers, general secretaries, committee members, literature sellers and so on. A socialist party is not a party of personalities and theorists; the love of academics and biographers. A socialist party is not a collection of individuals but members of the working class formed by capitalism and the class struggle around a common political interest and socialist objective. There were workers from various backgrounds in the Socialist League but what mattered for the members was the making of socialists and the building up of a socialist organisation.

From Ruskin to Marx

Webb’s initial disgust at the social and artistic cost of commerce, competition and “the bottom line” was an aesthetic and moral criticism associated with Pugin and Ruskin. Pugin and Ruskin disliked the way in which commodity production forced craftsmen to become mere appendages to machines rather than to take pleasure in their work and have control over what is produced and for whom. The Gothic past became the model for a critique against commercially driven machine production.

In 1836, Pugin published Contrasts, a polemical book which argued for the revival of the medieval Gothic style, and also "a return to the faith and the social structures of the Middle Ages" The book contrasted a utopian medievalism of craftsmanship and social cohesion with the brutal and fragmented utilitarian commercialism of early capitalism. In a series of influential illustrations Pugin contrasted a pre-reformation architecture with the buildings and towns of a developing capitalism. A romanticised feudal monastery where monks are shown living a life of comradeship and tendering to the sick is juxtaposed with a panoptican workhouse where the poor are depicted being beaten, half-starved and sent off after death for dissection.

Another non-socialist critique of early capitalism was John Ruskin, the author of the Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3). For Ruskin the ideal model was the Gothic architecture of the Cathedral and the social conditions under which such architecture was constructed. The Guild system of the cathedral builders were seen as preferable to the division of labour of mid-19th century capitalism.

Ruskin, in his romantic criticism of capitalism wrote:

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilised invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: - divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life…And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, - that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages (The Stones of Venice, 1853 vol. II, in Ruskin Works 10, pp. 193-4 loc cit pp 27-29).

Compare this comment with the one by Marx on the division of labour in a capitalist factory:

...when analysing the production of relative surplus value, that within the capitalist system all methods of raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the juggernaut of capital (ch. 25 The General Law of Capital Accumulation p. 799 Capital vol. 1 Penguin 1996)

Ruskin wanted to encourage “enlightened” consumers who were willing to pay more for commodities produced by craftsmen as well as the breaking down of the division of labour into “thinkers” and “labourers”. It was not only utopian but showed no understanding of the profit imperative driving capitalism; “naked self-interest” and “cash-payment” as Marx and Engels were to remark in the first section of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (The Communist Manifesto and the last Hundred Years: Centenary Edition Socialist Party of Great Britain 1948 p. 62).

Capitalism, for Marx, with its division of labour and competition had destroyed the guilds and the individual craftsman. The issue was the social relations as a whole not just the effect of capitalism on individual workers which reformers mistakenly believed could be resolved either by social reforms or changes to the conditions of the working class within capitalism. For Marx the problem was the commodity itself not whether a commodity was made by craftsmen working under conditions of simple production or alienated workers in a capitalist factory under condition of extended production where labour power had become a commodity to be bought and sold for a wage.

As Marx put it:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists…simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the product of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart and from outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities…It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things (Capital Vol. 1, The Commodity, Section 4, The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof, p. 165 Penguin 1996).

There was no going back. If the working class was to become free to develop creatively it could only do so by setting itself free consciously and politically from the chains of capital; the exploitation of the wages system and the private ownership of the means of production and distribution. Only then would “the different forms of labour-power” be expended “in full self-awareness as one single social labour force” (loc cit p. 171). Production in a socialist society would be social; there would be an “association of free men, working with the means of production in common” and the proper proportion between the different types of creative work to be done and the various needs to be met maintained through a conscious and democratic social plan.

Although, William Morris and Phillip Webb were initially influenced by Ruskin, this influence fundamentally changed when they came across the works of Marx in the early 1880’s; the alienation of labour within the factory and industrial production of commodities as a place of exploitation from which to extract surplus value. Morris, for example, was not opposed to the use of machinery only to the use of machinery under capitalism.

I do not (believe we should aim at abolishing all machinery; I would do some things with machinery which are now done by hand, and other things by hand which are now done by machinery; in short, we would be the masters of our machines and not their slaves, as we are now. It is not this or that…machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us (ART AND IT'S PRODUCERS, 1881).

What of the building industry in which Webb worked? Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) gave a fictional but largely accurate snap shot of the conditions under which construction workers worked at the turn of the twentieth century. The commercial building industry with its division of labour, use of technology to de-skill and cheapen labour and its profit driven imperative was a far cry from the Arts and Crafts workshops set up by C. R. Ashbee at Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds producing largely luxury commodities for the rich. It was not to last. The Jewellers and silversmiths could not compete with the semi-machine-made methods of other firms in London and Birmingham who produced almost identical goods cheaper. The guild went bankrupt in 1907 (Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy and beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 2014 p.137).

Webb himself could only make a living by designing buildings for his wealthy and privileged friends. The steam trains taking Webb to his country-house commissions in Yorkshire and Sussex passed by the drab and utilitarian reality of what the rest of society had to pass for as “homes”. For creativity to exist in the lives of all men and women as a human and social need, capitalism first has to be replaced with socialism.

Webb and the Socialist League

What would Webb be signing up to when joining the Socialist League? It would have been an organization informed by Marx’s political concept of the class struggle and his theory of surplus value something conveniently ignored by both Swenarton and Kirk. There has been a concerted effort to play down or ignore the impact of Marx’s influence on both Morris and Webb although Morris’s own copy of Capital, in French, had to be rebound through overuse. Webb gave at least one lecture, entitled the Source of Capital to the Horton branch of the Social Democratic Federation in 1883 which would have meant an acquaintance with and understanding of the works of Marx (loc cit p.205).

And the Socialist League was heavily influenced by Marx’s three interrelated theories: the materialist conception of history, a labour theory of value and the political concept of the class struggle. The Manifesto of the Socialist League explicitly states:

As the civilised world is at present constituted, there are two classes of Society - the one possessing wealth and the instruments of its production, the other producing wealth by means of those instruments but only by the leave and for the use of the possessing classes.


We have spoken of unpaid labour: it is necessary to explain what that means. The sole possession of the producing class is the power of labour inherent in their bodies; but since, as we have already said, the richer classes possess all the instruments of labour, that is, the land, capital, and machinery, the producers or workers are forced to sell their sole possession, the power of labour, on such terms as the possessing class will grant them.

These terms are, that after they have produced enough to keep them in working order, and enable them to beget children to take their places when they are worn out, the surplus of their products shall belong to the possessors of property, which bargain is based on the fact that every man working in a civilised community can produce more than he needs for his own sustenance

The Socialist League had many deficiencies and contradictions, particularly around the question of the vote and the revolutionary use of Parliament by a socialist majority in order to secure the machinery of government including the armed forces. These issues were not to be resolved until the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904. The Socialist Party of Great Britain also had no need for the services of “the enlightened middle class”; a role Webb had seen for himself and Morris within the Socialist League, nor for a list of “palliatives” or social reform proposals (see MANIFESTO OF ENGLISH SOCIALISTS, 1893) of which Morris was a signatory for the Hammersmith Socialist Society). There was and is only the socialist objective; the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

In 1901 Webb commented:

…by the herding of labouring men like herrings in a barrel it has been found out that a class of rich people could be produced whose greed could grasp more “than the dreams of avarice” had forecast. Well, is there any sign in this new-born century that the greed-god is about to be knocked off its pedestal? (W. R. Lethaby loc cit p, 11)

Unfortunately the only sign of optimism “in the new-born century” was the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The remainder of the century was one day of carnage and destruction after the next; capitalism’s wars killed an average of over a hundred people an hour throughout the 20th century (Jonathan Glover: HUMANITY 2003). Nevertheless, the Socialist League was right to insist that initially the principle task is to “make socialists” by “convincing people that socialism is good for them and is possible” (COMMONWEAL, 6, 238 2 August 1890 p. 246 and 6, 253 15 November 1890 pp. 361-2). And it something Socialists, under very difficult circumstances, are doing today.

Socialism and Architecture

What characterises architecture under capitalism? The writer Richard Dienst believes that architecture in a society where the means of production and distribution are privately owned can be defined an act of “enclosure”; an atomised world of visual and physical private and state property. Dienst writes:

… in its earliest form “earliest form, “enclosure” produced the topography of capitalist agriculture by throwing people off the land and erasing the commons. At its most basic and brutal stage, enclosure has a long history, legible in hedgerows, property deeds, reciprocal borders and exclusive legal jurisdictions THE BONDS OF DEBT 2011.

Architecture as an act of enclosure is therefore a typology of control, power and coercion; the prison cell, the schoolroom, the assembly line, the head office, the bureaucratic district, the parks, and the houses containing individuals lacking social empowerment; a mass daily movement to create surplus value; the never-ending imperative to expand and reproduce capital from one economic cycle to the next..

Dienst goes on to remark:

…architecture has always provided the best visualisations of this regime of social power, from the Panoptican itself, through the various modernist programs for urban autonomy, self-sufficiency and total planning… (pp 122 - 123).

If the production of architecture under capitalism can be seen as an “enclosure” of power and exclusion then a socialist architecture would be a building of social openness and inclusion within the framework of common ownership and democratic control. It does not matter whether an “open” architecture unbounded by private property ownership takes its model from either the Guilds of 14th century England; the one favoured by Morris and Webb, or from the Arts and Craft of Lethaby and the Guild of Handicraft or the machine aesthetic of the Bauhaus; what matters is that, as Webb knew, a socialist architecture has to be formed by human considerations not ones driven by commerce, capital and profit; an architecture of liberation fit for a society of free men and women. Architecture style is unimportant; what is important are the social needs being met and how building are constructed and under what conditions.

What will a socialist architecture be like? We cannot know since the socialism following revolution will not be the same a century later. What we can say is that a socialist architecture would come out the needs and aspirations of a socialist society.

What would a socialist architecture be like? We cannot know since the problems and opportunities facing socialism following revolution will not be the same a century later when the rhythm of social life of truly free men and women has changed society beyond all recognition. What we can say is that a socialist architecture would come out the needs and aspirations of an open and democratic socialist society producing buildings of beauty to rival the architecture of the past. Architecture for everyone rather than for the consumption of a privileged few.

In the early stages of socialism, a socialist society will inherit a building portfolio from capitalism and the urgent need to plan, organise and construct a new architecture reflecting the needs in production, distribution, transport, and housing of a socialist society at the time. Solving the problems of poor housing and lack of shelter would be the main priority but out solving these problems would develop a socialist aesthetic and the very different way buildings would relate to the environment and the way people wanted to live and work.

The Swiss architect Le Corbusier finished his book “TOWARDS A NEW ARCHITECTURE” with the aphorism “Architecture or revolution? Revolution can be avoided”.

However, revolution cannot be avoided. Socialism has to be established if an open and libertory architecture meeting society’s needs is rise within the framework of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.