William Morris. Commonweal 1888
Source: “What 1887 Has Done” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 104, 7 January 1888, p.4-5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
The year 1887 is come to an end, a year in many respects eventful; what will it be chiefly known by in the future, when it has become mere history? To some it will be the jubilee year; to some the central year of the great Tory ascendancy; to some, it may be, for a little while, the last of the thoroughly bad years of the depression of trade. Yet again it may be known hereafter as the last year of the European armed truce; and to others it will be remembered as the great year of Coercion. Which will it be? Another question can be our only answer. Is our future to be that of patient slaves bearing their hard lot apathetically, and idle and vacant lords who live by their labour, with no thought but for the follies and toys with which they kill the dragging and unhappy hours of their dull lives? Is the knowledge of the world still to bring us degradation, its wealth misery, its power slavery? If that is to be so let us remember the past year as the year of the Queen’s jubilee, and be mildly satisfied at the thought of the hundreds of thousands of slaves and slave holders who turned out into the streets to witness the symbolic procession of the triumph of Official Dishonesty, and let us note the year as the first of a new epoch of ‘Resolute Government’, the rule of tyrannous fools and pedants over helpless and unthinking cowards. But if, on the other hand, our future is to be the struggle of slaves to free themselves, however intermittent it may be; although that struggle be irresolute and unorganized, at whiles timid, at whiles rash — as, alas! the rebellion of slaves is but too apt to be, — if rebellion be our future, then we must look back at the past year with hope as one of the noteworthy landmarks on the road to revolution.
Let us briefly review the events of 1887, then, and see whether anything in them points to the conclusion that we shall be driven to forget our hopes, and accept the prospect of the immediate future as one of apathy and despair.
From the ‘political’ point of view the Irish Question has been the only one of the past year; and no doubt there will be many in these last days of 1887 who will both say and think that the Irish are further from reaching their goal than ever; that Resolute Government will keep the excitement under till from sheer weariness and despair people yield, and sit still in sullen discontent, and that the hopes of the Home Rulers, which were brightening in the early part of the year, are now clouded over. This opinion is not without some foundation in reason, and would be amply justified if the only point in the Irish Question were the establishment of an Irish Parliament in Dublin with more or less real authority over the Irish people; but, as has often been pointed out in these columns, the question goes much deeper than that, and necessity will compel either or both the political parties to act in a way more or less evolutionary, and to do some things which the Dublin parliament if established would have to do. For the question rests on the livelihood of the Irish peasants, and whether their landlords should be allowed for ever to squeeze their incomes in the shabbiest possible manner out of the poverty of these poor people, so that shelving the question is impossible; nor is it of any moment to Socialists or sensible people which of the two parties in the game of politics gives way and yields some practical measure of home rule as a step towards the attempt to deal with the question. Between a ‘dishing’ Tory measure and a compromizing Gladstonian one there will be little if any difference.
Meanwhile the Tories, in following out their natural course of upholding the shabby landlord tyranny in Ireland, have passed the Coercion Bill usual in dealings with that country. Under ordinary circumstances such a measure would have received little notice in England; but with the present revolutionary feeling that is in the air, its results have been much more telling than the results of such measures are used to be. Although the Gladstonians resisted it feebly enough in Parliament, and no determined protest was made against it except by the Socialists and extreme Radicals, yet the carrying out of its provisions in Ireland itself have as it were raised aloft the sufferings of the poor as a banner for all revolutionary-minded people to rally to. The imprisonment of Irish members and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and the arrest of Mr Blunt, merely as a piece of arbitrary high-handedness, and the quashing of the case against the police murderers at Mitchelstown, have forced the dullest to see that Ireland is in rebellion against the Government, not the people, of England; and if anyone goes further to seek the cause for the rebellion, he cannot fail to find out that it is with the Irish landlord, as with the French seigneur before the Revolution, according to Carlyle’s epigram: The widow is gathering three nettles for herself and her children, and two out of every three she has [to] yield up to the lord as rent. Is it too much to hope that the enquirer who has thus got to the bottom of the Irish question will follow the enquiry up as to the condition of the workman throughout civilization, and will get to know the meaning of rent, profit, and interest, and the way in which the proprietary class work them? Thus the Irish question will educate many in revolution, and the events of 1887 will certainly help on his education in this direction.
There is another series of events in which the past year has been rich, which must be lumped together as interference with the right of public meeting. In the beginning of the year these events seemed to most people to be of little importance except to the small body of men against whom they were immediately directed — the Socialists, to wit; and they have been for years accustomed to have their meetings attacked by the police on the specious grounds of public convenience. But the special point of all the attacks made on us this year had been their obvious malignity and vindictiveness, shown by the sentences on the men who fell into the power of the authorities. The game began with justice Grantham’s sentence on our comrades Henderson and Norwich, in which, as usual in such cases, the judge made himself an advocate for the prosecution. The came the sentences on the members of the SDF and other men (not Socialists) who got entangled in the police-manufactured riot at the gates of Hyde Park in March. At this the general public kicked somewhat, and the magistrates sentences were impossible to be wholly upheld on appeal. But as the days wound round to the autumn, and it became clear that we were to have the usual unemployed demonstration in greater force than ever, the respectable classes took the alarm, and the police were set on to make the attacks on peaceable citizens who had committed the crime of being poor, which culminated in the shameful day of November 13th, and the still more shameful scenes in the police and law courts which followed it. This time the Socialists found themselves in alliance with the extreme Radicals, as in the affair of Dod Street. But the allies were deserted by everybody else, even by the Irish party (with the single exception, as far as I know, of Michael Davitt), although they are suffering from the same tyranny themselves. In fact this time the affair, as far as it has gone, has been an ominous flash from the smouldering volcano of class war which underlies modern sham-society. This has been so well felt that all respectability promptly sided with the attack on elementary political rights, and outside the definite Socialist organs we have had the whole of the press against us except the Pall Mall Gazette and Reynolds; while on the other hand no one who witnessed the sympathetic demeanour of the huge crowds that accompanied or looked on at Linnell’s funeral procession could venture to deny that the masses in London are on our side.
To turn to the struggle of the workers in the net of capitalistic production. The year began with the abortive strike of the Lanarkshire miners, in which our comrades at Glasgow, took a part at once bold and considerate and thereby did much to forward the work of propaganda. This was followed by the strike of the Northumbrian miners which again was taken advantage of by Socialists, with most encouraging results These have been the most typical instances of the direct labour struggle; but the whole year has been full of labour disputes, which is the more remarkable since up to the present time it has been a year of great depression; though just now there seem to be signs of a revival of business to several trades, which, if it turns out to have any endurance, will no doubt be hailed as a token of the stability of our present system of production, and the lasting glory of the British Empire which is not ashamed to live on the ruin of the Celtic peasants, and the desperate misery of the London slum-dwellers.
Abroad the American middle-classes have relieved their fear or satisfied their cold and stupid malice by the consummation of their revenge on the revolutionists who had the temerity to be actively on the workmen’s side in a bitter Chicago labour struggle — nor will they know till the revolution is upon them how dearly their revenge will cost them.
Bismarck has had one or two triumphs: won a huge majority in the spring; carries his army bill easily now; he has reduced the number of Socialist members to five, but has not succeeded in reducing the number of Socialists, which still goes on growing. He is engaged in strengthening the law against the Socialists, as a counterstroke to the international congress which is to come off this year.
France having disappointed her enemies and the enemies of progress by avoiding a political revolution which could have been but political only, is still busily engaged by means of her bourgeoisie in contributing her share to the embroglio of corruption which must end at last in deadlock and the fateful outbreak and change.
In Russia the universities are closed in order to damp down the revolutionary fire spreading so swiftly among the students, and everything grows more and more unbearable.
And with all this the year has ended as it began with the terror of a great European war, concerning which Lord Salisbury, wishing to make the best of it, could say little more than that he didn’t think it would come just yet.
Certainly it must be said that the past year has of such a kind as to give confidence to the upholders of the stability of the present system. Democratic ideas tending towards Socialism have been evolved from the Irish struggle, and men’s minds have been familiarized thereby with resistance to authority; the precariousness of livelihood under the capitalist has been brought home more and more among the workers, and the preaching of Socialism has inspired them with hope to change all that; the special tyranny of the last two months has embittered the Radicals against the Government, and also shown them how little they can depend on their so-called leaders among the Liberals, and how powerless they are as an affix to the Liberal parry; it has shown them that they as working men must be true to their class or be of no account in politics at all; the sentences passed on the so-called rioters, after evidence which one would have expected even a lawyer to reject, have shown the ‘lower classes’ that the boasted equality before the law is a gross sham; that the law is made for the rich man and the master and against the poor man and the worker, and that when the class-war rises to its height, no more mercy will be shown by the ‘moral’ smug British bourgeois than by any tyrant of modern or ancient times; that law and civilization are no protection for those who may frighten the proprietary classes, and that the strong arm only will help them. All this has been speedy education towards revolution, and will sink deep into the mind of the people. Doubtless the past year has been a landmark on the road to revolution, and the reaction of which the stupid Tories and their allies the pessimistic prigs of ‘culture’ make so much of is but a measure of the advance of the tide of the new social life. Progress’ no longer means a political game in which these high personages could take a part without any danger to their position or offence to their sensibilities: the ‘common people’ have now to be dealt with as real persons threatening real things, and respectability shrinks back before them, partly in fear, partly in hatred. This explains recrudescence of Toryism, the apparent victories of reaction. Once again the class-war is becoming obvious to all, and 1887 has done a great deal to make it so.