William Morris. Commonweal 1887

The Reward of Labour
A Dialogue


Source: “The Reward of Labour — A Dialogue 2” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 72, 28 May 1887, p. 170-171;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Persons: An Earnest Enquirer, an East-end Weaver, a West-end Landowner

SCENE: Outside a philanthropical meeting on Social Science.

E.E. (continuing to W.) But I am a stranger in London, and will you believe it, don’t know what the East-end of London is like; but I have heard of so much being done for the benefit of the East-end, People’s Palaces, Mosaic pictures, and the like, that I suppose by now it is quite a pleasant place; that small and squalid as your house is, you can get out of it at once into fresh air, pleasant gardens, roomy squares; and that it is well supplied with libraries, baths, and, in a word, all the benefits of civilization — (aside) whatever that may mean.

W. Well, sir, you suppose a great deal. What’s the use of building a People’s Palace in Hell, or putting up a Mosaic picture on the walls of the devil’s scullery. If the parsons are right about that job, and some of us do happen down there, we shall beat Old Scratch for he will scarcely be able to make it so nasty that we shan’t think we have got back again home. Excuse me, I told you that I was a bilious subject.

E.E. No excuse needed I must get on, and indeed make an excuse to you for what I am going to say. Perhaps both I and this frock-coated, shiny-hatted gentleman here were after all wrong in thinking you intelligent; perhaps that’s only a show — eh, Mr Landowner? — to cover that dangerous discontent of the inferior part of the lower orders, which is getting to be so prevalent; ain’t you perhaps stupid, unable to seize hold of your advantages; — there, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, I am only speaking of you as a type of a large body of men.

W. Never mind my feelings, I shan’t get in a rage; I'm used to you now. Well, I'll answer as a type, and say I am no stupider than other people, high as well as low; and at all events I am able to do my work — come!

E.E. (aside.) Well, the secret of the compensation to the working classes for their inferior position does rather elude my grasp, certainly; like trying to hold an eel when one hasn’t sanded one’s hand. Well, let’s try once more, and try the moral side of things. (To W.) As I understand, we have got so far: you are a skilled workman, not stupid especially, you produce useful things, and yet you are poor; for that is the word we use, Mr Landowner, to express a condition of life that you know nothing of, so that the word doesn’t carry much meaning in it for you; nor as much as it should for you either, Mr Weaver, because you don’t know what being rich is, or what a soft and comfortable life it means, in spite of the moralists. However, I will just tell you both what being poor means, so that henceforth you, Mr Landowner, may attach some meaning to the word, and you, Mr Weaver, may understand partly what the word rich means. To be poor is to live in perpetual anxiety about satisfying the very simplest wants, and to have all kinds of wants besides which you have no chance of satisfying. Do you understand that, Mr Landowner? — no scarcely yet, I am afraid. Well, it can’t be helped — he who lives will see. And now to my search for compensation again. You are, as it seems, skilful, industrious, useful — and poor. Yet, perhaps you may be compensated even for that for you know that according to the story, in ancient times the philosophers, whom you may look upon as a kind of reasonable parsons, were poor as well as useful, but they had their compensation in being much honoured and respected. Let us hope that it’s the same with you, and that you are looked upon with a sort of veneration because you add so much to the wealth of the community and take so little from it.

[A faint smile is observed to play on the features of the Landowner, who has been listening a little lately].

W. Yes, I thought we should get to the chaff again, or else where have you been dug up from to ask such a question? A working-man honoured and respected! Yes, when he’s a working-man representative. But look here, as to the respect I'm held in, I don’t want to be vague, so I ask you to take the trouble to notice the way in which a policeman (a public servant, mind you) speaks to an Eastender and a West-ender; that will enlighten you as to the respect paid to me as a philosopher; and as to those of ancient days, ‘tis hard to understand; and apart from it being as the old woman said, ‘a long way off and a long time ago’, I can’t help suspecting that some of them were dodgers. Excuse me again, I am but a weaver, and therefore ill-bred.

E.E. Well, it comes to this, then, that you're skilful, industrious, useful, poor, and despised — one of the lower class?

W. Just so — a working-man.

E.E. Why?

W. Why? Because I'm a working-man.

E.E. Well, well, can’t we get any further than that with our reason?

W. No, not yet. However, here is this gentleman, an educated man, an MP who has of course considered this sort of thing. Begin upon him now. And since he has stood by and listened to me, perhaps he won’t object to my doing the same by him.

E.E. By all means stay, and if you can set him a-going when he sticks by a word in season, I shan’t grudge you. Well, sir, now for it! And I like the prospect of questioning you. You are burly and healthy looking your step is firm, your eye bright, your features well cut. If it were still the old slave-times of the world and our friend the weaver and you were by the fortune of war offered me for sale, I think I should prefer speculating in you. You would last longer, for one thing. — Now, without further preamble, tell me what is your occupation?

L. I am a landowner.

E.E. Yes, I know that. What does that mean as to work of it? What do you do?

L. Do? Well — why — well, I manage my estates.

E.E. You manage them? And pleasant work too, since they are yours. But is your statement quite accurate? Come now, on your honour, as an English gentleman.

L. Well, you understand; my lawyer does, and my steward, and my bailiff, and -

E. Yes, I see. Well, what else do you besides — not managing your estates?

L. (with hesitation) Well, you heard what the weaver said, I sit in Parliament.

W. (sotto voce) O Lord! That’s what he does!

E.E. Well, I needn’t follow up the enquiry further on that line, as it’s clear that that trade, when successful, consists not of doing anything, but preventing things from being done. Do you do anything else?

L. Well, I suppose you won’t call shooting doing anything?

E.E. Well, it does’t do much service to others — even the partridges.

L. Or horse-racing? At any rate that’s as useful as stockjobbing.

E.E. I am happy to be able to agree with you.

W. And stock-jobbing isn’t so bad as sweating.

E.E. Hilloa, my friend! That subject would lead us further, before we have done with it: let me stick to the honourable member’s usefulness.

W. Like the breeches to the legless man!

E.E. (To L.). Well, all this — shooting, horse-racing yachting, and the like — we had better not trouble ourselves as to its details it can all be called by one generic name can’t it?

L. Yes; you mean amusement, I suppose.

E.E. You have said it. So that your work consists in your amusing yourself.

L. Yes (sadly) — or boring myself.

E.E. What are you paid for it?

L. Eh what’s that? — paid for it ?

E.E. Yes, paid for it: you can’t feed and clothe yourself on the game you shoot; it wouldn’t pay powder and shot, I doubt. Shall I put it in another way? Who keeps you?

L. Keeps me? I keep myself, or course. My father used to keep me; he couldn’t get a decent Government place for me.

E.E. Well, never mind your family history: we can guess at it. I must put my question another way, since you will be so obtuse. What do you get?

L. Oh, you mean my income? Well, my rent-roll is ten thousand a-year; but it doesn’t come to much after all outgoings. First there’s -

E.E. Excuse me; never mind those details, I am not a tax-gatherer. What’s your income, all deductions made?

L. (blurting it out). Six thousand a-year — there!

E.E. Well, and what do you think the reward for doing nothing ought to be?

W. (eagerly). Nothing.

E.E. Yes, but I didn’t ask you. What do you say, Mr Landowner?

L. Nothing.

E.E. Well, well, this is sad. You get 6000 a-year for doing nothing, for which our friend here thinks you ought to have nothing, and you have nothing to say to it. Your position is a strange one. Where does your 6000 a-year come from?

L. From my property, of course.

E.E. Where does that come from?

L. Come, come! You want to know too much. Suffice it, the property is mine, and that I came by it legally.

E.E. Well, I might press you on that point; but as I know that you are your father’s son as the saying goes, I had rather ask the questions I might ask you, as to where the property comes from, of a self-made man — that is a man who has made money; which means he has ‘collected’ it. But now, suppose me to be a man from another world and answer me this: You live softly and comfortably can have everything you want, even to the point of the satisfaction of your desires boring you, and you do nothing useful.

L. (interrupting.) Does any one?

E.E. What, not the men who supply you with food? Well, perhaps they don’t, if that’s all they do.

L. Well, you know what I mean.

E.E. No, I'm damned if I do — unless ‘tis ‘nothing’ once again. But you interrupted me with your meaningless pessimism. I say you do nothing, and for that you have and spend the livelihood of a hundred silk-weavers. You take a great deal out of the stock of wealth of the world, and put nothing into it. As an inhabitant of another world, allow me to ask, don’t people look down upon you, jeer at you for this?

L. Certainly not; I am much respected, looked up to — liked even.

E.E. Why?

L. Well, I'm a good-natured sort of fellow.

E.E. You should be that at least, considering your easy life. But I wonder are you very clever? Perhaps a poet; — no, of course not: you would have let me know that long ago — but are you very clever?

L. Certainly not a poet, not even an inarticulate one; and not specially clever, I admit. But look here, if I were, I shouldn’t be respected any more: I am respected because of my property, my position.

E.E. Well, I haven’t much else to ask you; but tell me this: If you were employing two workmen and one did his day’s work well and straightforwardly and ate workman’s victuals, and the other you had to feed on venison and champagne, and his day’s work came to nothing, would you respect the second workman more than the first — as his employer, you know?

L. Of course not; but you see I'm not in the same position as the second workman. You see, my dear sir, the complexity of civilized society — in short, your question is quite wide of the mark.

W. Oh, oh!

E.E. I must put the case otherwise, then. Here is a man (pointing to Weaver) who works hard and usefully and is paid for it with 60 a year and contempt; and here is another (pointing to L.) who does nothing at all and is paid for it with 6000 a year and respect. As an earnest enquirer, I ask if you can tell me why?

L. These inequalities are necessary for the maintenance of society.

E.E. But it seems to me that it is an injustice, a gross one. Don’t you really think so too? Come, try to throw away caste prejudices, and answer me like a man.

L. Well, perhaps it is — in the abstract.

E.E. Then injustice is necessary to the maintenance of society — why?

L. Because there must be rich and poor or there would be no society.

E.E. That is saying the same thing in other words. Again I ask, why?

L. I know it always will be so, that’s all.

W. Then it’s a bad look-out — that’s all.

[While they have been talking, a small crowd has gathered about them, under the impression that an open-air meeting is going on. Enter to them a policeman, under the same impression, who pushes through the ring, and, seeing the Weaver, catches hold of him and gives him a rough shake, and says, ‘Come, YOU get out of this’. Exit Weaver, hurriedly, glad to get off so lightly. Then policeman turns round to Landowner, who is very nicely dressed, touches his helmet, and says, ‘Shall I get you a cab, sir?’ Landowner nods and moves off to meet the cab, and the small crowd disperses. Earnest Enquirer walks off slowly, soliloquising.]

E.E. I must try to find out why; for as the weaver said, ‘tis a bad look-out. Society should mean something else than organized injustice; and somewhere there ought to be the germs of a society of which no one need ask the question, ‘Why does it exist?’