William Morris. Commonweal 1886
Source: “Our Policy” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 14, March 1886, pp. 17-18;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
The recent ‘disturbances’ as the word goes, the stir in the dry bones of labour, is a strange phenomenon to most people, and even to us, who have been working towards a change in the basis of Society, is unexpected; amidst the routine of our ordinary educational work we have been surprised, as it were, by something which, whatever else may be said of it, does look like the first skirmish of the Revolution.
The riot, or whatever it may be called, of February 8th, though a small matter in itself, became of importance because it has got to be a fixed idea in the heads of — well — most men, men of all classes, that the English workman had at last been brought to the point of incapacity of expressing his grievances by anything more threatening than an election riot; which expressed nothing at all except a certain pleasure in a ‘rough and tumble’, joined perhaps to the irritation which comes of the indigestion of the ‘lower classes’, an indigestion bred of garbage-eating, and want of fresh air and leisure.
But here was a crowd composed in the main, in spite of the watch-stealing, which was the work of professional thieves on the look out for plunder, of genuine workingmen, who were angry, or excited, or miserable enough to cast off their habitual fear of consequences for an hour or two, and indulge in a threat to the Society which had made them the lower classes; as to the details of that threat I will not say much. I have no doubt that the shoeing-horn to the riot was the ‘truly gentlemanly’ behaviour of the fools at the Carlton Club, who took for granted the axiom above stated, that a crowd of the English ‘lower classes’ will stand anything, and threw jeers and milk-cans at them accordingly. However, let that pass. Apart from what actual plunder there was, the wrecking of shops to carry the contents away, the proceedings of the crowd seemed like a sort of gigantic practical joke against the tyrant — Sham Society. A joke mingled with threatening, embittered by anger and contempt; characterized by the English tendency towards brutality masked by good humour, which is so apt amongst our countrymen to accompany the first stages of a great tragedy. These seem to me to have been the outward aspects of this strange, and, in spite of all drawbacks, most memorable scene.
What was the meaning of it? At bottom misery, illuminated by a faint glimmer of hope, raised by the magic word Socialism, the only hope of these days of confusion. That was what the crowd represented, whatever other elements were mingled with it.
What has come of it? The first outcome was on the Tuesday and Wednesday following, a panic at first sight quite inexplicable. There were no mobs in the streets, no placards threatening revolution, no processions — ‘no nothing’ in short, — and the respectabilities were terribly afraid. Such abject cowardice has perhaps seldom been so frankly shown as was shown by the middling bourgeoisie on those two days. Whatever were they afraid of? Of nothing? No; they were afraid of their own position, so suddenly revealed to them as by a flash of lightning; their position as a class dominating a class injured by them, and more numerous than they. No doubt this insight into the depths of Society will be of service to the dominated class; who will also remember the terror it caused, after their masters have forgotten it.
As another result: the money which was coming into the Mansion House Fund very slowly, is now coming in in sacksful. I would wish to be as fair as possible to the richer classes; and I must say, therefore, that I think this comes partly from people’s consciences being touched by the distress now at last become visible to them; yet partly also, I think, from fear. ‘Let us show them how kind we are, it may keep them quiet!’
What will come from these ‘disturbances'? First, some palliative measures. That is the regular course of events in England of late years; every reform has been blindly resisted till obvious violence has been brought to bear upon the question. Witness the Irish ‘difficulty’, which has made great steps since I heard John Morley in St James’s Hall, before the Westminster electors in 1880, declare that Home Rule was a subject inadmissible of discussion. Well, furthermore, these palliatives must necessarily take the form of an interference with the sanctity of the labour market; an artificial raising of wages by authority, which in its turn will be a spoke in the wheel of our commercial system, will hasten its disruption, in other words, will tend to bring on Revolution.
Another thing may happen, at first sight very unpleasant to us of the Socialist League. We may be suppressed; practically at least, if not formally. It is true that just now cool-headed people of the middle-classes rather smile at the ravings of the Telegraph. And yet I think that those ravings are prophetic. Already something or other, probably the Leicester strike riots, has forced the government to turn back on its resolution of letting the speakers at the Demonstration alone, and they are now on their trial.
Well, what will be the result of that attempt at the suppression of opinion? Of course, opinion cannot be suppressed; we shall find means of disseminating our opinions; but repressive interference with us will make those opinions a kind of mystery, a thing to conjure with. The upper-classes will, of course, look upon that mystery as a hateful but also a fearful thing; on the other hand the lower-classes will be eager to know what this Socialism is, which professes to be altogether in their interest, and which the upper classes think so dangerous that no man must know anything about it if it can be helped. Repression will attract the working-classes to us. Opinion which must be suppressed is Revolutionary; under such conditions fear and hope are abroad, the mere dramatic situation forces people into enquiry, action is dreaded and is hoped for; the Socialist Party will become a political force when all these things happen
Now I should like to say few words with the utmost seriousness to our Comrades and supporters, on the policy of the Socialist League. I have said that we have been overtaken unprepared, by a revolutionary incident, but that incident was practically aimless. This kind of thing is what many of us have dreaded from the first, and we may be sure that it will happen again and again while the industrial outlook is what it is; but every time it happens it will happen with ever-increasing tragedy. It is above all things our business to guard against the possible consequences of these surprises. At the risk of being misunderstood by hotheads, I say that our business is more than ever Education.
The Gospel of Discontent is in a fair way towards forcing itself on the whole of the workers; how can that discontent be used so as to bring about the New Birth of Society? That is the question we must always have before us. It is too much to hope that the whole working-class can be educated in the aims of Socialism in due time, before other surprises take place. But we must hope that a strong party can be so educated. Educated in economics, in organization, and in administration. To such a body of men all the aspirations and vague opinion of the oppressed multitudes would drift, and little by little they would be educated by them, if the march of events should give us time; or if not, even half-educated they would follow them in any action which it was necessary to take.
To forge this head of the spear which is to pierce the armour of Capitalism is our business, in which we must not fail.
Let we ask our comrades to picture to themselves the consequences of an aimless revolt unexpectedly successful for the time; we will even suppose that it carries with it a small number of men capable of government and administration, though that is supposing a great deal. What would be the result unless the people had some definite aim, however limited?
The men thus floated to the surface would be powerless, their attempts at legislation would be misunderstood; disappointment and fresh discontent would follow, and the counter revolution would sweep them away at once.
But, indeed, it would not even come to that. History teaches us that no revolts that are without aim are successful even for a time; even the failures (some of them glorious indeed) had a guiding aim in them, which only lacked completeness.
This educational process, therefore, the forming a rallying point for definite aims is necessary to our success; but I must guard against misunderstanding. We must be no mere debating club, or philosophical society; we must take part in all really popular movements when we can make our own views on them unmistakably clear; that is a most important part of the education in organization.
Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be; towards that New Birth of Society which we know must come, and which, therefore, we must strive to help forward so that it may come with as little confusion and suffering as may be.
One word to Socialists who do not belong to the League. I think there is a tendency abroad towards holding aloof from union on insufficient grounds. I do not urge formal union between those who really disagree as to principles, or the tactics which follow from them, since this results in quarrelling instead of the friendly difference which might otherwise be. But when the principles and tactics held are practically the same, it seems to me a great mistake for Socialist bodies to hold aloof from each other. The present is no time for the formation of separate societies, whether central or local. Habitual and organized intercourse is necessary to the education I have been speaking of; no independence is sacrificed by this intercourse, and propaganda is made much easier by it. I appeal, therefore, to all who agree with us, individuals, local bodies, or central ones, to give up the mere name of independence in order to attain its reality, and to join our League so that we may show a firm front to the common enemy in these troublous yet hopeful times that our coming on us.