Wm. Morris and E. Belfort Bax 1885

The Socialist Platform. – No. 1

The Socialist League

Source: Address to Trades’ Unions, Issue by the Council of the Socialist League, London, Socialist League Office, 27 Farringdon Street, E.C., 1885, London;
First Published: by William Morris and Joseph Lane, at 27 Farringdon Street, EC.;
Transcribed: by Pat Byrne.

The Socialist Platform

It is designed by the Socialist League to issue a series of pamphlets in exposition and illustration of the principles of socialism. The series will be partly historical, that is to say, noteworthy periods of history which form epochs in social evolution will be dealt with, while the direct statement of the economic principles upon which that evolution rests – together with the action and reaction of those principles upon politics, ethics and religion – will receive due attention. The anomalies in the present system will thus be pointed out as the result of an historic development and are earnest of a change for the better will be shown to lie in the issue of the development itself.

These publications will to some extent assume the form of commentary on the original manifesto of the Socialist League, as it is hoped in the course of the series to devote one or more numbers to the subject-matter of each of its paragraphs; although it may not always be possible to do his in their order.

The pamphlets will be of a uniform size of pages, with a view to their ultimately forming a compact volume. They will, as a rule, consist of sixteen pages and be published at one penny, but the editors do not bind themselves to either of these conditions, as it may be found desirable on occasion to issue double or even treble numbers at a somewhat higher price.

In conclusion, the editors trust to have the support of the public interested in Socialism in this venture; since, to judge by the numerous applications received for instructive literature on the subject it is really likely to meet a want felt by many persons unable to read French or German with ease.’

Ernest-Belfort Bax & William Morris – Co-Editors

Address to Trades’ Unions Issued by the Council of the Socialist League
(Written by E. Belfort Bax)

Fellow Citizens,

We address you as Socialists. That is a reason, many of you will think, for not listening to us. Socialists, such will say, are unpractical visionaries with foreign notions in their heads, on whom they as practical British workmen have no time to waste. You distrust theories. “Theories are all very well, but they don’t raise wages or lower the price of the necessaries of life.” You forget that you all of you hold a theory – if not your own, that of the newspaper you read – as to the causes, for instance, of the present depression in the labour market. One will say it is the “ wicked foreigner” competing with native workmen; yet another, it is over-population that is to blame; yet another (a little nearer the mark), that it is over-production. So, after all, the most practical of us does not get on without a theory. The only question is whether our theory shall be adequate, or whether, even though it contain an element of truth, it shall not, by reason of that element being torn from the whole to which it belongs, be a false, useless and misleading theory. And we maintain all theories must be this which merely take into account the immediate aspect of a question, without tracing its relation to other aspects – how they act upon it and how it reacts upon them – and vice versa.

Now Socialism claims to be an adequate explanation of the present economical facts (and for that matter, of a great many other things beside, though we are not concerned with these at present), and also to show the only way out of the present situation. Very unpractical, you will still think; but before you make up your mind to this, we ask you to consider how much your own practical English methods have done for you; how much, take things all in all, the working classes are the better for unionism.

In order to appreciate trades-unionism at its true value, it is necessary to consider the historic development of the economic relations of which it is the outcome. Let us glance at the condition of the labourer in the second period of the middle ages, when an industrial system proper first became general throughout Europe – the period of the guild industry. This was the time when the journeyman or fellow-craftsman was the social equal of the master – sat at his table, flirted with his daughters, had the certainty before him, by good work, of becoming a master in his turn. The journeyman was but the middle stage in the life-career of every workman in those days. He entered the workshop as apprentice; after having served his time, became the journeyman, fellow-craftsman, or “companion”; ultimately attained the freedom of the City as the master. Apprentices and “companions” lived together as part of the master’s family. Sundays and the many other holidays the Church allowed them were spent in healthy social sports and pastimes, in which masters, journeymen and apprentices of all trades – the whole body of the citizens – took part. Then our modern distinctions of classes did not exist; capitalism did not exist; work was honourable and pleasurable – men produced for use, and not for profit.

It is true that the privileged classes of those times, the feudal lords, carried on their exploitation in their particular fashion: that is by arbitrary force, whether it took the form of taxation or of open plunder in the field or on the highway; but exaction by the fraudulent system of wages, which conceals from the victim the fact that he is plundered, was unknown.

But a change which was doomed to alter the whole face of society began to creep into the craft guilds in the fifteenth century. The proletarian appeared in the form of the unprivileged workman, who, though compelled to affiliation with the guild, could never become a privileged guild master.

In short, the end of this state of society, as of all other social formations, was destined to come. With the commencement of the seventeenth century the change had become apparent, although, as we have just said, it had begun long before. The old guilds then either broke up altogether, or else lost all real significance, like those of London, sinking into meaningless monopolies of wealthy merchants, who guzzle and drink. The mystic symbolism and archaic craft-lore were forgotten.

The mediaeval town organisation implied the later mediaeval agricultural organisation, the attachment of the peasant to the soil under a modified feudal tenure. The decline of the guild-industry is largely traceable to the expropriation of the people from the land which threw them in vast numbers upon the towns without means of subsistence. But the enormous wealth which the opening up of new markets and, the rise of colonies, enabled individuals to acquire, by the exchange of home produce, combined with the decay of old habits of thought, old beliefs, and old customs, to help on its dissolution.

This dissolution was the negative aspect of the rise of capitalism The capitalistic farmer – the farmer who produced mainly for profit, and employed hired labourers to help him – appeared upon the scene. Labour became sub-divided. In towns the manufacture system sprang into vogue. The merry journeymen of old now gave place to the prototype of the modern proletarian. The landless, helpless class were ready to serve the needs of the capitalist alike of town and country. Without such a class the capitalist could make no profit, for profit consists in the increase gained in the exchange of the produce over and above its cost of production. But a system like this is impossible so long as the means of production are more or less within the reach of all, as was the case in the simple life of the middle ages.

Capitalism – production for profit – presupposes a class of property-holders, who monopolise the means of living, and a class who have only their labour-force to offer in exchange for the necessaries of life. Given this, and you have the conditions of a capitalistic mode of production at hand. With a capitalistic mode of production is given the antagonism of capital and labour so-called, or rather of the capitalist and the labourer. The capitalist, as capitalist, must seek to lengthen the working day and to keep down wages, in order thereby to increase his share in the product of labour – his profit. The labourer has to defend himself against the capitalist; and he soon finds that the only way he can do this is by organisation. Hence the trades union. But with the manufacture system capitalism is, as yet; not fully developed. For this machinery is requisite, and the period of the first introduction of machinery on a large scale – of the transformation of the manufacture system into the great industry – a period which falls toward the end of the last and beginning of the present century, affords the material for one of the saddest chapters in the world’s history. Every new machine invented has meant, and must mean, the flinging of thousands of men upon the pavement. The action of the “Luddites,” in destroying machinery, so far from being a mere irrational outburst, the result of popular misapprehension, as the bourgeois economists assert, was perfectly reasonable and justifiable. Had an insurrection, having for its end the annihilation of these beauty-destroying, man-enslaving agents, been successful, it undoubtedly would, for a brief period, have staved off the extreme misery of the workers. But the ultimate issue must have been the same in any case. Economic evolution must have had its course. Steam, machinery was the necessary outcome of the phase at which production had arrived. The “great industry” meant the final stage in the development of the capitalistic system.

Against the iron rapacity of the capitalist, now completely equipped, labour opposed its organisation, opposed it in the teeth of overwhelming legal obstacles, and to some extent successfully. Trades’-unions became a power. But their power was mainly limited to this country, the source and centre of the economic movement. Distinctions now arose within the capitalist class itself. The factory lord took the place of the old working capitalist, who was either driven into the ranks of the proletariat, or became a middle-man or overseer. The hosts of displaced skilled workmen and small capitalists who thronged the labour-market helped to form a reserve army of labour which was continually forcing down the price of labour by means of competition.

The factory-owner now took to the wholesale production of shoddy wares “for the consumption and enslavement” of the poor. Against this the unions could, of course, do nothing, but their success, as above remarked, was at first not inconsiderable, in enabling the workers to make headway against the more direct forms of capitalistic encroachment. This led to the belief that in the removal of the laws against combination, and the further development of unionism lay the hope of the workman for the future. Has this belief been justified? The laws against combination have been virtually abolished. Unionism is respectable, patronised by Lord Mayors and members of Parliament. Yet are the working classes the better off? Is unionism a greater force now than it was thirty years ago? Does it touch more than the aristocracy of labour? We think every unbiassed unionist must answer these questions with an unqualified negative.

Whence, then, the cause of the original success of the union movement, and of its subsequent failure to make good its promises? We answer, the original achievements of the unions were entirely due to the fact that British capitalists had the fresh run of the foreign markets, and that the British labour displaced in the production of commodities was, to a large extent, employed in making machinery, not alone for home use, but also for exportation. But foreign competition has entirely changed the face of things. There are two well-marked stages in the development of foreign competition. In the first stage, whilst trade was brisk and wages high, the foreign labour displaced by cheap British goods was utilised in this country to keep down the price of labour. The second stage, which dates from the general introduction of machinery on the Continent and in America, is characterised by universal competition for markets, a competition which has become keener year by year. As a necessary result of the scramble, over-production takes place all round, the recurrent commercial crises are more frequent and more prolonged; the earthly heaven of the middle-class world threatens to become realised in a never-ending crisis, were that possible. An enormous increase in surplus labour, owing to the intensified competition, is the necessary result. To stem this competition trades’ unions have shown themselves less and less capable; the pressure increases in spite of them. And, be it remembered, the success of unionism lies in its ability to limit competition. So long as trades’ unions can effect this they are successful. Their failure to effect it proclaims their rapid decline.

The increase in the employment of women and children due to the introduction of machinery, and the consequent displacement of men, has now reached a point that threatens to break down all but the most powerful unions. To maintain the same nominal wage a greater and greater disbursement has to be made for provident and out-of-work benefits* (Vide Statistics.)

The ratio of unemployed and precariously employed members shows an alarming increase. In many trades the unions are unable to grant continuous relief to their unemployed members. Numbers are forced, therefore, to compete for work at non-society workshops, and so keep down the average rate of wages. The general result, we repeat, is that trades unions do not grow in strength and numbers, but appear to have reached their zenith and to have achieved all they are capable of under present conditions. On the other hand, there is a vast increase in the number of labourers, hucksters, canvassers, etc., etc., who are driven to all sorts of shifts to get a living, and who, from the necessities of the case, cannot become unionists. The unchecked competition amongst these classes reacts upon the organised bodies and presents an insuperable barrier to any solid advantage being gained by trades’ unions.

The question then now arises, What useful function can unionists still fulfil? We would, in reply, urge upon all unionists to direct all their energies towards consolidating and federating with the distinct end of constituting themselves the nucleus of a Socialist commonwealth – -a commonwealth not alone national, but international as well. We urge them to unite themselves with a view, at the earliest possible date, of laying hands on the means of production, distribution and exchange, in this and every other civilised country, and organising society in the interest of all. To do this, it is needful that political power should be in the hands of those who intend to employ it for the overthrow of the present system, understanding by political power not merely the power of voting, but the possession of the whole administrative system – the complete control of all executive functions. This, then, is the immediate object to be striven for; no mere reforms, be they offered by Tory, Whig, or Radical, will ever permanently benefit the workers. They will but “skin and film the ulcerous place, while rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen.”

Space will not admit of our dwelling on the entire modification of human life generally – habits of thought, beliefs, customs, institutions – which the reconstruction of society on a Socialist basis would carry with it. Suffice it to say that this great movement, primarily economical, is no scheme cut and dried; it is a necessary development of society. The Socialist movement is not the coinage of one man, of one body of men, or of one nation; it is the expression at once of a necessary phase of economic evolution, and of a yearning which fills the hearts of the people of all countries and nations throughout the civilised world to-day – a yearning which individuals may formulate, but which no individual can create.

In the general secretary’s remarks to the current report of one of the principal unions (the Amalgamated Engineers’) a common objection to Socialism is brought forward when it is hinted that under a Socialistic regime the workman might become the slave of the State. But friends, we ask you to consider that the great aim of Socialism is the abolition of this bogey – the State, the transformation of the Civilised or state world into a Socialised or communal world.

To those immersed in the antagonisms of the current Social formation, living its life and breathing its atmosphere, we are aware it is difficult to tear them themselves away from them even in thought; we know it requires a mental effort to look forward to that future in which they will have lost all meaning. Yet, without this, Socialism must remain a sphynx-riddle, and Socialists appear the maddest of mankind. If you contemplate the Socialist Republic as an accomplished fact, you must remember you are contemplating a society in which all are rulers and all are subjects, all are rich and all are poor, all are free and all are bound, and finally in which all relations are religious and all are secular. How shall these things be? you will say.

The good-natured reformer would fain lull such antagonisms to rest by palliatives, make of governing and governed, rich and poor, capitalist and labourer a united happy family, by smooth talk and practical measures. His efforts are vain. We tell you that these antagonisms will never sleep. But though they will not sleep, yet they shall all be changed. And the change will be accomplished by the very severity of their conflict. A completely collective ownership of the means of production and of distribution will necessarily deprive these distinctions, so important in our present social order, of all validity whatever. All will be rulers, since the community will rule itself, the depositaries of the popular will differing in no respect from ordinary citizens, and being revokable at pleasure. On the other hand, all will be subjects, since each will be conditioned by the welfare of the whole. Again, all will be rich, inasmuch as every individual will have the enjoyment of the entire stored-up wealth of the community; all will be poor, since no individual will have the possession of aught but the equivalent of his own labour, and the temptation to hoarding will be removed. All will be free, for the artificial restraints of convention and of law which now rule us will have ceased to be operative, yet all will be bound to an extent little recked of to-day – bound by a nobler sense of public duty, of devotion to the common weal. Lastly, all relations will be religious, in so far as they have a social bearing, for the old word which meant devotion to the ancient city will regain its original meaning, though with a new light, won through a development of two thousand years; while all will be secular, for there will be no class set apart to inculcate the observances and dogmas of a special creed.

Current antagonisms are thus reduced by their own exhaustion to the shadows of their former selves, only to receive a new significance, in which their opposition vanishes. They are destroyed in their preservation, and preserved in their destruction. They are superseded. We earnestly entreat you, in conclusion, not to be turned aside by superficial objections, but to read our literature and judge for yourselves what Socialism really means, to think over the subject, and when once you feel convinced, to lose no time in educating, agitating, and organising for the common cause – the cause of Humanity.

Extract from Iron Founders’ Society’s Report for February, 1885.

“We now present to your notice a very interesting table, which we hope will be instructive and useful to our members. It is a very good reply to the professional accountants, who are very desirous-to impress upon the general public that the working-class incomes have so largely increased during the last twenty years. It would, perhaps, be folly to deny that our order has not benefited by the rapid strides made in the increased wealth of the country at large.. It is, therefore, interesting to know, from actual figures and facts, how much increase, if any, has actually come into the pockets of the mechanics and labourers. The answer, so far as our own particular trade is concerned, is given in the table printed in this issue; the accuracy of the figures can be vouched for as gathered from our past annual reports, which are no supposition, but absolute facts. Really, in a monetary sense, we are no better paid than we were twenty years ago, when the cost of rent is taken into consideration. Then, again, look at the increased speed we are compelled to work at. The moment any work comes into a shop the pressure is put on and men are compelled to hurry on, and what for? – why, to hasten our discharge. We can remember the time when employers considered how men were to live when work got slack, and it was a great concern to them what the men-would do when discharged from their employ. It is otherwise-now with the large majority; they have no care or consideration for the men, very often thinking no more of them than a shovelful of coals or a piece of pig-iron, or hardly as much, because they feel that so much money has gone with the loss of the raw material; but human labor is a thing of very small account in their estimation. It is this feeling and acting on this principle that largely helps to make trade bad. Quantity, quantity is the cry. Quality is getting to be a thing of the past. What is the issue? The name for good work, which made our trade in the past, is fast leaving us; hence one of the reasons why the cry is ever raised, ‘The trade is leaving the country.’ They have only to thank themselves. Reckless competition is doing its fell work. Riches and wealth will never compensate for the decay of Men.

(Signed) Wm. Henry Key, A.C.S.
Edward Wood, C.S.
Edward Watkins, Chairman.

I herewith extract three averages of ten years, namely – 1855 to 1864, 1865 to 1874, and 1875 to 1884, though in the report the figures are also given for each year : –

 Yearly average number of members in decadeAverage number of unemployed membersProportion of unemployed members to every 100 members in the SocietyApproximate weekly wages when at workHolidays and unemployed time deductionsNet average wages per week of members
 £   s. d. £   s. d.
1st 10 yrs.7,459.2941.312.61   9  015.61  4  6
2nd 10 yrs.10,251.21,257.312.21 11  616.71  6  3
3rd 10 yrs.11,883.41,775.814.81 13  019.81  6  6

There are also reports for Feb., 1885, from 113 branches in the different manufacturing towns in Great Britain. In all except four trade is described as very bad; these four are described as improving.

As our friends the iron founders, according to their report, see with us so plainly the cause of slack trade, and the decay of men; also that hitherto their trade societies have been unable to bring about improvement, they should now reconsider their position; it is a case of cause and effect. The cause is monopoly and competition. The effect that all surplus wealth goes to the monopolists and exploiters of labour, (the idle), while those who produce all the wealth get in return just sufficient to keep them in working order and to beget children to take their place when worn out, just as in battle. We trust that they will now join hands with us for the removal of the cause as the only way to alter the effect, and that in place of the present struggle for a miserable existence we may so alter the conditions of that existence that everyone shall work, and in return shall get all that he can require, not only food, clothes and shelter, but leisure and means of enjoyment This can be done by associated effort only – call it Communism, Socialism, what you will.

Joseph Lane.
(Reprinted from THE COMMONWEAL, June, 1885.)