Utopia and the Way Thither

Source: “Mr W. MORRIS’ ‘UTOPIA’ AND THE WAY THITHER”, The Pall Mall Gazette, Issue 5622, Thursday, March 8, 1883
Transcribed: by Graham Seaman.
Proofing and HTML: Graham Seaman


The address that Mr. William Morris delivered to the Literary Club, Manchester, on Tuesday evening was remarkable for much else than its impeachment of Bournemouth with its “blackguardly villas”. It was an arraignment of modern civilization and its dominant force, “competitive commerce.” It was the competitive system, he declared, that degraded craftsmanship and extinguished art, and against it, mightiest power in the world though it was, he declared himself a resolute rebel. Here is his sketch of the world as it is and the way in which he would mend it :—

It was the destruction of wealth of which he accused competitive commerce. Wealth or the material means for living a decent life was created in spite of that system, not because of it. To his mind real wealth was of two kinds—the first kind, food, raiment, shelter and the like ; the second, matters of art and knowledge. The first of these competitive commerce largely wasted, the second she largely destroyed. She wasted the first by unjust and ill-managed distribution of the power of acquiring wealth, which we called, shortly, money, by urging people to reckless multiplication of their kind, and by gathering population into unmanageable aggregations to satisfy her ruthless greed. Mental wealth she destroyed in many ways, but the two ways which most concerned their object that night were these— the reckless destruction of the natural beauty of the earth, and the turning of almost all handicraftsmen into machines. It was not wealth our society had created, but riches, with its necessary companion poverty, for riches could not exist without slavery ; under the dominion of riches we were masters and slaves instead of fellow-workmen as we should be.

What was to amend the grievances of which he had spoken? He wanted all persons to be educated according to their capacity, not according to the amount of money which their parents happened to have ; he wanted all persons to have manners and breeding according to their innate goodness and kindness, anfd not according to the amount of money their parents had. As a consequence of these things he wanted to be able to talk to any of his own countrymen in his own tongue freely, and feeling sure that he would be able to understand his thoughts according to his innate capacity, and to be able to sit at table with a person of any occupation without a feeling of awkwardness and constraint being present between them. He wanted no-one to have any money except as due wages for work done, and since he felt sure that those who did the most useful work would neither ask nor get the highest wages, he believed that this change would destroy that worship of a man for the sake of his money, which everybody admitted was degrading, but which few indeed could help sharing in. He wanted those who did the rough work of the world—sailors, miners, ploughmen and the like—to be treated with consideration and respect, to be paid abundant money wages, and to have plenty of leisure. Handicraftsmen proper—those who made wares—he wished to be able to refuse to make foolish and useless wares, or to make the cheap and nasty wares, made by and for slaves. He would have division of labour restricted within reasonable limits, and men taught to think over their work and to take pleasure in it, and the wasteful system of middle-men restricted, so that workmen might be brought into contact with the public, who would thus learn something about their work, and so be able to give them due reward of praise for excellence. Furthermore he wanted the workmen to share the good fortunes of the business which they upheld, in due proportion to their skill and industry, as they must in any case share its bad fortunes, to which end it would be necessary that those who organized their labour should be paid no more than due wages for their work, and should be chosen for their skill and intelligence, and not because they happened to be the sons of money-bags. Under these conditions he wanted that these islands should no longer be treated as here a cinder-heap and there a grand preserve, but as the fair green garden of Northern Europe, which no man on any pretence should be allowed to befoul or disfigure ; and under all these conditions he would certainly get his last want accomplished, which was that all the works of man’s hand should be beautiful, rising in fair and honourable gradation from the simplest houshold goods to the stately public building adorned with the handicraft of the greatest masters of expression which that real new birth and the dayspring of hope come back would bring forth for us.

These were the foundations of his Utopia, a city in which riches and poverty would have been conquered by wealth ; and however crazy they might think his aspirations for it, one thing at least he was sure of, that henceforward it would be no use looking for popular art except in such a Utopia, or at least on the road thither—a road which, in his belief, led to peace and civilization, as the road away from it led to discontent, corruption, tyranny, and confusion. Yet it might be that we were more nearly on the road to it than many people thought ; and however that might be, he was cheered somewhat by thinking that the very small minority to which he belonged was being helped by every one who was of goodwill in social matters. Every one who was pushing forward education helped them; every one who was striving to extinguish povert was helping them ; all who asserted public rights against private greed were helping them ; every foil given to common-stealers, to railway Philistines or smoke-nuisance breeders, was a victory for them ; every one who tried to keep alive traditions of art, or who tried to bridge the gap between the masses by helping the opening of museums and galleries and gardens and other pleasures which could be shared by all, was helping them ; every one who tried to stir up intelligence in their work in workmen ; and more especially, every one who gave them hope in their work, and a sense of self-respect and responsibility to the public in it, by such means as industrial partnerships and the like, was helping the cause most thoroughly. These, and such as these, were their helpers, and gave them a kind of hope that the time might come when their views and aspirations would be no longer considered rebellious, and when competitive commerce would be lying in the grave with chattel slavery, with serfdom, and with feudalism.