William Morris

Art and Labour

I must first tell you what I mean by the words Art and Labour; and first, by art I mean something wider than is usually meant by the word, something which I fear it is not very easy to explain to some of you born and bred in this great manufacturing city, and living under conditions which I will say would have made art impossible to be if men had always lived so.

Well you must understand that by art, I do not mean only pictures and sculpture, nor only these and architecture, that is beautiful building properly ornamented; these are only a portion of art, which comprises, as I understand the word a great deal more; beauty produced by the labour of man both mental and bodily, the expression of the interest man takes in the life of man upon the earth with all its surroundings, in other words the human pleasure of life is what I mean by art.

This clearly is a serious subject to consider, and should by no means be treated as though no one but a professional artist could understand it or deal with it: we are all interested in it whether we know it or not: because unless we have this peculiarly human pleasure of life we cannot be happy as men: and men cannot be happy as beasts, which would be the next best thing to being happy as men: they can only have such happiness as incomplete men can have; incomplete that is to say degraded men; which happiness arising as it does from mere ignorance and habit is at best ignoble and scarce to be desired.

So much by what I mean by the word art; now as to the word Labour without which art could not exist: understand then that the labour I am thinking of is the labour that produces things, the labour of the classes called the working-classes; I am not thinking of what one might call accidental labour, that for example of the soldier, the thief, or the stockjobber, but I say of the maker of things: I would say of goods but I am sorry to say I cannot say that just at present since the question whether or not goods are always the result of this labour of the workman is just what I have to deal with.

Now you must know the questions I have to ask and try to answer tonight are these: what are the relations of the Labour of man on the earth the labour which produces all the means of human life to Art which is the pleasure of man living on the earth? or rather I must expand that question and say what have been, what are, and what should be the relations of Art to Labour?

Now further in order to let you know at once in what spirit I am speaking to you, and, to avoid anything like mystification I may as well say from the first that I in common with a good many others of the educated class am quite discontented with the condition of the Arts under the present system of labour, and that this discontent is what brings me before you tonight. But I differ from some of those who are as discontented with the present state of the arts in one important point: namely that they think that the matter is past hope and beyond remedy, whereas I believe that there is a remedy for that state of the arts which so arouses my discontent, and that the remedy lies in improving the condition of those who produce or ought to produce art, or the pleasure of life, that is to say of the people, as those who actually work with their hands are most properly and accurately called: let me repeat this statement of my hope, the remedy for that sickness of the arts which I in common with many others feel so deeply must be the giving of a new life to the people.

Now in answering the question what were the relations of art to labour, I must of necessity turn back to past times, and even times a very long while passed; and you must believe that I do so with the distinct purpose of showing you where lies the hope for the future, and not in mere empty regret for the days which can never come again. Let us then as briefly as we can glance at the history of art and labour in very early days. Yet we will not go back further than a time when art was in a very flourishing and highly developed state, the days of the classical civilization of Greece. From that time until now the labour of the people has been exercised under three conditions; chattel slavery, serfdom, and wage-earning. The two first conditions have passed away from civilized communities, the third wage-earning remains still in force.

In the days when the art of ancient Greece was flourishing, all society was founded on chattel slavery: agriculture and the industrial arts were carried on by men who were bought and sold like beasts of burden, and as a consequence all handicrafts were looked down on with contempt, and what of art went with them was kept in the strictest subjection to the intellectual arts, which were the work of the free citizens in other words of a privileged oligarchy: in most times this would have been a fatal obstacle to the healthy development of art taken as a whole: but in those days the world of civilization was young: the Greek race was beautiful, vigorous, and highly gifted; and had an intense thirst for the knowledge of facts; furthermore the climate was genial, and did not call on men to provide elaborate shelter for themselves, or tempt them into effeminacy or luxury, ever the worst of all the foes of art; lastly though as I have said there was a world of slaves below that oligarchy of the free citizens, those citizens were free from the petty individual and family selfishness which in modern times habit has made a second nature to most of us; their lives and hopes were to them but a part of the life and hope of the city or community to which they belonged, and they reverenced it with a true religious devotion.

From this beauty, simplicity of life, and greatness and unity of aim sprang up that glorious art of Greece whose influence all civilization feels yet, and will feel for ever; and yet I must ask you to remember that though under these circumstances it was the rule rather than the exception for the free citizen to love and understand the higher forms of intellectual art, there was scarce any art of the people: the slavish handicrafts of the time produced things which were certainly not ugly, nay, which may in a sense be considered beautiful; but there was no delight of life in them, they were treated as works of the lower arts wrought by the lower classes, in those days called slaves.

Meantime to the cultivated Greek citizen there seemed nothing wrong or burdensome in chattel slavery, and all that it gave birth to: to him it was part of the natural order of things and the greatest minds of the day could see no possibility of its ever ceasing.

I can imagine what a free citizen of the time of Pericles, a cultivated Athenian gentleman would have said, if the question had been pressed on him of the right or wrong of keeping his fellow-man in subjection to the supposed necessities of a few: he would have formed an answer readily enough to extinguish any tendency towards revolutionary ideas, and to strengthen his conviction that the order of things under which he lived was eternal: I think he might have said: "In the first place it is impossible to do away with chattel slavery which is obviously founded on the moral nature of man: but apart from that, a society founded on the equality of freedom would be poor in all the elements of change and interest which make life worth living: such a change would injure art and destroy individuality of character by taking away due stimulus to exertion; at best in a State where all were free, there would be nothing but a dull level of mediocrity."

So might our citizen have argued, not without the agreement of many cultivated men of the present day, who, I observe, do think, and not unnaturally, that the cultivated gentleman of Greece or England is such a precious and finished fruit of civilization, that he is worth any amount of suffering, injustice, or brutality in the mass of mankind below him.

But also I must say that our Greek gentleman might sustain his argument in favour of chattel slavery in a manner rather embarrassing to us of these days of progress and wide-spread political rights. For he might say: "Are you so sure that you will better the condition of the slave by freeing him? at present it is [in] the interest of the owner to feed him and keep him in health: nay if the owner be a benevolent or good-tempered man he will even do his best towards making his slaves happy for his own pleasure: but I can conceive of your state of free labour as leaving the greater part of your citizens free indeed - free to starve: I can imagine a state of things in which the sour faces of underfed and over-worked wretches, would have no chance of making their masters, the rich, uncomfortable since the rich would do their best to forget their very existence and at least would steadily deny the fact of their misery." "Nay believe me," our gentleman would say, "you had better trust for the amelioration of Society to the humanizing influence of the philosophical simplicity of the noble and free citizen of our glorious state, which, as you well know, in spite of all the tales of the poets, is the real God which we worship, and which we may hope may prove to be immortal."

Thus might our Greek gentleman have argued, mixing up things true and false, reasonable and unreasonable, into a sedative to his conscience: thus might he have gone to work to elevate the rules of successful tyranny into irrevocable laws of nature.

But what followed? This; the worship of the city found its due expression at last in the growth and domination of Rome, the mightiest of cities, whose iron hand crushed out the bickerings of ambitious clans and individuals, and cast over the world of civilization the chains of enforced federation under the rule of the tax gatherer: at last this system took the form of an inflexible central authority idealized into a religion and symbolized in the person of the emperor, the master of the world enthroned in an Italian city; such was the outcome of the worship of the city, that first took form in so-called free Greece.

Under this Roman tyranny chattel slavery still made good its claim to be considered the effect of eternally natural laws for some time to come; although the condition of the slaves, now largely working for the profit of the great Roman landowners was more dangerous to the state than it had been under Greek civilization.

But time passed, and the so-called eternal order of things changed again: the hideous greed of the capitalist landowners of Rome, whose slaves were in a worse condition than even the agricultural labourers of Great Britain are today, discounted the fertility of Italy: the hugh, half-starved population of the city of Rome itself depended on supplies of foreign corn for their bare subsistence, and the enervating influence of rich men, had sapped all public virtue even to the extent of destroying military qualities so that foreign war made the foreign supply of food precarious; Rome was at last in an obviously dangerous condition; and at last the change came again; this time a tremendous one, and involving a change in the conditions of labour.

The huge crowd of starving slaves in whose minds a `revolutionary Eastern Creed' was fast planting ideas quite foreign to classical civilization were by no means bound by the religion of city-worship, which had once put such irresistible might into the hands of the Roman legionaries: on all sides they recruited the bands of brigands and pirates whose exploits became so familiar to the civilization of later imperial Rome: and they were always present as an element of disorder ready to the hand of the foreign invader. Thus hunger, the child of class greed, did its work within the empire, while without it hunger in another form pressed on the tribes of so-called barbarians that surrounded the empire and so allied itself as a destroyer to the corruption of its internal society: the tribes of the north and the east fell upon Rome, and found no serious resistance since as aforesaid the gross individualism of a corrupt society had eaten out all public spirit.

Thus attacked on all sides by slaves, Christians, and barbarians, classical civilization fell, and to the eyes of all people then, and of most historians since mere confusion took its place, from which as people used to think grew up in a haphazard way the collection of independent states which form modern Europe.

But the new order of things was really forming under this confusion; the manner of its formation has become very obscure, and in fact little emerges from that obscurity save the relics of the art which was produced at the time, and which bears with it evidence of a change in the condition of labour which can be read by the light of the wider knowledge which we have of the art and labour of later days. I must ask you to allow me to say a few words about that art, which perhaps may be difficult for some of you to follow who are not familiar with the art of past ages; but which I will at least clear from all mere technicalities.

When Rome became mistress of the civilized world, she adopted as far as she could the arts of conquered Greece: but those arts had by that time already fallen from their best days, nor was the adoption of them by a people far from sympathetic with them likely to inspire new life into them: the tendency therefore of the purely intellectual arts, those taken by Rome from Greece, was ever downward: but influences, whose origin is most obscure, were at work in Italy which produced forms of art on the less intellectual side which had little or nothing to do with Greece: from these sprang the architecture of the civilized world: now in the earlier part of the decline of Rome that architecture shared the general sickness of the arts and changed indeed, but ever into something worse than before; its changes seemed at any rate to be towards death and not life: it still however retained a certain majesty of form if any new spirit could have breathed life into its form.

Now that new spirit came to it in the midst of the confusion and disgrace I have been speaking of, and its origins partakes of the obscurity that veils most things worthy of consideration in the period that followed the degradation of Rome; the period during which Constantinople took the semblance of the domination which Rome once really had.

But the spirit which was to breathe new life into the dead classical forms and [which] produced the new art which almost suddenly blossoms in the days of the Byzantine emperors, and bears with it something which the old classical art never had; that something is the very breath of life to it: and that something is nothing less than the first signs of freedom: this art neither expresses the exclusive, rigid, rational intellect of Greek art, nor the exclusive, academical pedantry of Roman art, but it has another quality which makes us forgive it all its rudeness, timidity, and unreason, that quality is its wide sympathy: it has become popular art, the art of the people.

Now I feel sure that whatever obscurity may enwrap the origins of this Byzantine art, this mother of Gothic art, this quality is really a token of the labour which produced it, having thrown off some of its chains at least; and I believe that what follows in history bears me out in this view. It seems to me that this new art was the token and effect of the rise of that condition of labour which may be briefly described as serfdom struggling towards freedom by means of cooperation for the protection of trade and handicraft.

Serfdom is the condition of labour in the Early Middle Ages, as chattel slavery was that of the Classical period: the chattel-slave, who was absolutely the property of his master was fed by him and kept by him in just such a condition of comfort as suited the convenience of the master. Sometimes as in the days of the huge Roman farms or Latifundia, the master hoping for exorbitant profit, fed the slaves so low that he was obliged to allow them to supplement their short commons by the additional industry of brigandage; but generally the master would find it better to keep his slaves in fair condition.

So much for the slave; now the serf on the other hand had to perform certain definite services for his feudal lord, generally to give him so many days work in the year, and for the rest of his time was free to work for himself and feed himself.

So doing he was living in harmony with the general arrangement of Society in the Middle Ages, a time in which every man had legal, definite, personal duties to perform to his superior, and could in turn claim certain degrees of help and protection from him.

This was the idea of the hierarchical Society of the Middle Ages; which was founded on a priori views of divine government, and under which every man had his due place which, theoretically, he could not alter or step out of: personal duties for all, personal rights for all according to their divinely appointed station was the theory of Society in the Middle Ages, which took the place of that of classical times in which indeed all the citizens were equally parts of the supreme city and lived in her and for her, but were served by men turned into mere beasts of burden.

Now it seems to me quite natural that this Medieval or hierarchical system should have been looked upon as eternal and inevitable with at least as much confidence as that which preceded it.

But revolution was in store for it no less than for the classical system. For as the half-starved slave of the Roman latifundia was driven to strive to better himself by brigandage first and then by service with the invaders; so the medieval serf was driven by the compulsion of labouring to feed himself after his compulsory work was done, into trying to better his condition altogether: he began at last to try to slip his neck out of his lord's collar and become a free man: and this struggle resulted in combination for freedom among the workers.

Apart from the religious houses, which in a way afforded protection to labour, and even gave working-men a chance of rising out of their caste on condition of their accepting the ecclesiastical yoke; apart from these combinations of ecclesiastics, there arose in the Middle Ages other bodies which grew to be powerful and far-reaching: these bodies are called the guilds.

The tendency of the Germanic tribes towards cooperation and community of life, a survival probably from former days, began to show itself quite early in the Middle Ages. In England even before the Norman conquest this tendency began to draw the workmen and traders into definite association: the guilds which were thus formed were at first of the nature of benefit societies: from this they grew into what are called the Merchant Guilds, bodies, that is, formed for mutual protection in trading; and lastly these developed the craft-guilds or associations for the protection and regulation of handicrafts.

All these guilds aimed at freeing the individual from the domination and protection of the feudal lord, and substituting for that domination the authority and mutual protection of the associated guild-brethren; or to put it in another way the object was to free labour from the power of individual members of the feudal hierarchy, and to supplant their authority by that of corporations, which should themselves be recognized as members of that hierarchy, out of which indeed the medieval mind could not step.

Of course all this took a long time, and was by no means carried out without very rough work; as the merchant guilds resisted tooth and nail, especially in Germany, the changes which gave the craft-guilds their position. In the process of the struggle the merchant guilds became for the most part in England at least the corporations of the towns, and the craft-guilds fully took their place as to the organization of labour: by the beginning of the 14th century the change was complete, and the craft guilds were the masters of all handicrafts: all workmen were forced to belong to the guild of the craft they followed.

For a time, only too short a time, the constitution of these guilds was thoroughly democratic: every worker apprenticed to a craft was sure if he could satisfy the due standard of excellence to become a master; there were no mere journeymen.

This state of things however did not last long: for as the population of the towns grew because of the freeing of the serf field-labourers, these latter began to crowd into the craft guilds, and the masters who at first were simple, complete workmen helped by their apprentices or incomplete workmen now began to be employers of labour. They were privileged members of the guild and besides their privileged apprentices employed journeymen, who though forced to affiliation with the guild did not become masters or privileged in it.

Now this, which was the first appearance of the so-called free-workman, or wage-earner in modern Europe was at the time felt as a trouble: some attempt was made by the journeymen themselves to form guilds of journeymen beneath the craft-guilds just as the latter had done beneath the merchant-guilds: in this revolt against privilege they were unsuccessful, and the craft guilds went on getting more and more aristocratic so to speak, although at first the power of their privileged members over the journeymen was limited by laws made in favour of the latter.

The labour of the Middle Ages therefore was carried on amidst a struggle, partly an unconscious one, for freedom from the arbitrary rule of aristocratic privileges: before looking at the results of this struggle, let us briefly consider the relations of art to labour during this period of the fully-developed Middle Ages.

From all we can learn of the condition of labour in England during this time, and the materials are ample, we are driven to the conclusion, that however rude the general conditions of life may have been; the struggle for livelihood among the workers was far less hard than it is at present; considering the prices of necessaries at the time the earnings both of labourers and skilled artisans were far higher than they are now: I repeat that for the workers life was easier, though general life was rougher than it is in our days: that is there was more approach to real equality of condition in spite of the arbitrary distinctions of noble and gentle: churl and villein.

But further as the distribution of wealth in general was more equal than now so in particular was that of art or the pleasure of life; all craftsmen had some share in it to begin with: this is illustrated by the fact that the pay of those who superintended labour, such persons as we should now call builders, architects, and the like, was very little higher than that of the workmen under them: nor were those who were doing what we should now call more intellectual work, artists we should now call them, paid more than ordinary craftsmen; the knowledge of art, and the practice of producing it were assumed to be the rule among craftsmen, and really were so.

The system of exchange also was simple: there was little competition in the market, goods were made equal to the demand which was easy to ascertain: there was no work for mere middlemen; people worked in the main for livelihood and not for profit: so that the worker had but one master, the public, and he had full control over his own material, tools, and time; in other words he was an artist.

Now it was this condition of labour which produced the art of the Middle Ages, and nothing else could have produced it: people have sometimes supposed that the motive power for it was religious enthusiasm, or the spirit of chivalry, whatever that may be, but such theories are now exploded: history has been illuminated since then by careful research: we have counted our forefathers' pots and kettles and chairs and pictures, we know what their clothes and their houses were [like]; we have read not only their books, but their family letters, their bills and their contracts, in short we have followed them from the church, the battlefield, and the palace to their houses and workshops and tilled fields, and we find that these men of the same blood as ourselves, speaking the same tongue, connected with us by an apparently unbroken chain of laws, traditions, and customs, were yet amazingly different from ourselves, far more so than any religion, and spirit of chivalry, romance, or what not could have made them.

And I am sorry to say that one of the main differences between us is that whereas when goods are made now they are always made ugly unless they are specially paid for as things containing beauty, in which case they are not uncommonly uglier still, in the Middle Ages everything that man made was beautiful, just as everything that nature makes is always beautiful; and I must again impress upon you the fact that this was because they were made mainly for use, instead of mainly to be bought and sold as is now the case. The beauty of the handicrafts of the Middle Ages came from this, that the workman had control over his material, tools, and time.

I must now go back to the condition of the workman as we left it at the period when the guilds were beginning to be corrupted by the beginnings of capitalism at the end of the 14th century: I must say first that you must remember however that the distinction between the privileged guildsmen and their journeymen was after all an arbitrary one; the master craftsmen all worked: there were no such people as `manufacturers' them [or] `organizers of labour'; that is people paid very heavily to do nothing but look on while other people work: nor was there any division of labour in the workshop. Throughout the 15th century also the condition of labour remained much the same as in the 14th indeed wages rose on the whole throughout that century.

But somewhat early in the 16th century things began to change seriously; the Middle Ages were coming to an end: the body of men available for journeymen or `free workmen', working for the profit of a master increased greatly and suddenly.

Commerce was spreading all over Europe which was shaking off the roughness and ignorance of the Middle Ages: America had been discovered also, and Commerce was tending ever westward; Europe was the master now and Asia and the East the servant. In these islands the bonds of personal feudal service had been much shaken by the wholesale slaughter of gentlemen in the Wars of the Roses, and the landlords impoverished by that long struggle saw before them a chance of recovering their position by throwing themselves into the market of new-born Commerce.

Then began in England the great change, the death of the Middle Ages and Feudalism: hitherto men had produced for a livelihood, they now began to produce for profit; in England the raising of raw material was the first step towards this profit-grinding, and it led as a matter of course to depriving the yeomen and workmen of the land; it was more profitable to raise wool for the foreign market than grain for home consumption, sheep were more profitable animals than men.

It was not difficult even at the time to see the danger of this step; in Henry VII's time legislation tried to check it, but the impulse toward Commerce was too strong: force and fraud applied without scruple soon did their work, and England from being a country of tillage interspersed with common land for the pasturage of the people's livestock, became a great grazing country raising sheep for the production of wool for a profit.

Two representative Englishmen have left in their writings full tokens of how bitterly this spoliation of the people was felt: Sir Thomas More, one of the most high-minded and cultivated gentleman of his period, a Catholic and a martyr to his honesty in that cause was one: Hugh Latimer, a yeoman's son, the very type of rough English honesty, a protestant, and a martyr to his honesty in that cause was another: both say much the same thing and in words which leave the deepest impression on those who have read them, [and] give a terrible picture of the results of Commercial greed in their days: it is no idle word to say that such men never die; and now once more it seems as though the axe of More and the faggot of Latimer had still left their spirits with us to produce fruit which they in their life-time, no not even More himself could ever dream would come to pass.

Henceforth Commerce went merrily on her destructive way: the direct spoliation of the people by driving them off the land was followed by their indirect spoliation in the form of the seizure of the lands of the religious houses: the pretext being (if any was thought necessary) that they no longer performed the public function for which they were held, and so were incapable of being used for any public function, and therefore had better be stolen by private persons.

This fresh robbery of the people apart from the hideous brutality with which it was carried out had on more than one side woeful enough immediate results; but as to our subject the thing to be noted about it is that it added to the army of mere have-nothings already produced by the driving off the people from the land.

So that in one way or other there had been created a vast body of people who had no property except the power of labour in their own bodies, which in consequence they were obliged to sell to anybody who would buy on the terms of keeping them alive to work. Thus was established the class of free labourers, of whom our Athenian friend warned us, men who were (and are) free - to starve.

Well this was the material ready for the use of the plague of profit-mongering politely called Commerce, then newly let loose on the world: at first the material was rather embarrassing by its abundance, and was hanged out of the way by the thousand by Mr. Froude's pious hero Henry VIII and other law makers of the time. However things shook down again at last, and the market for labour, that is men's bodies and souls, adjusted itself: in Elizabeth's reign a poor law was enacted to take the place of the almsgiving of the monasteries, and the new order of things was established founded on Commerce, and tending ever more and more toward complete freedom of competition in the markets of the world, among the various manufacturers, now so called and their slaves the free workmen.

Thus had the struggles of labour to free itself from feudal arbitrariness succeeded: feudalism was overthrown, and commercialism was taking the empty place in its old throne.

The worker had entered into his kingdom then? all was straightforward justice and a good life for him from henceforth?

Strange to say not at all; the worker was the worker still, starved, despised, oppressed: a new class had been formed, that was all: it had grown up out of those elements of freed serf, corporate trader, privileged guild-craftsman, and yeoman and become a middle-class, which grew speedily in wealth and power, being fed by the very misery created by the dawn of the age of profit-grinding, which also produced the middle-class itself.

Well certainly they were a stout and vigorous set of men, those early middle-class people, their lives interesting enough, dear to the romance writer and the poet. Keen scholars, excellent poets, not bad musicians, the bravest pirates and among the greatest liars whom the world has ever seen: rough-handed and unscrupulous they pushed on against privilege with all the old traditions behind them of men who were struggling under different circumstances and with different aims, and probably were no wise conscious of that difference of aim: so they struggled and at last towards the middle of the 17th century they began to aim at supremacy in the state and not merely freedom for Commerce.

As to the condition of the free workers that had grown up under them it was poor enough, and the very character of the labour they did was changing: here and there indeed the form of the old individual work of the middle ages survived, though not for the benefit of the worker; but generally division of labour had begun under the rule of the capitalist masters: the men were collected into large workshops, their simple machines such as the loom, the lathe, and the potter's wheel though not altered in principle were lightened and improved: the employment of labour for profit necessarily stimulated the organization of the division of labour, which reached at last such a pitch that an intelligent man who once would have schemed and carried out a piece of work from first to last, was now forced to concentrate his skill and strength on a very small portion of that work; he was turned into a machine for the cheapening of market-wares.

As to the art which was produced in the early period of commercialism a very few words will suffice: in places where goods were turned out in a kind of domestic manner popular art lingered in a rude form, but was a mere survival of medievalism; elsewhere under the direct grip of profit-mongering it kept on sinking, and subsisted almost wholly on attempts to perpetuate the products of the great minds of the specially individualist artists of the beginning of the [16th] century: division of labour extinguished even this poor remnant as it advanced step by step, and as more and more those who produced anything with a claim to beauty were divided into workmen who were not artists, and artists who were not workmen.

The 18th century saw the perfection of the division of labour system which was begun in the 17th and therewith for a time at least the end of all art worth considering: all goods now were made primarily for the market, and all so-called ornamental art had become a mere incident of these market wares, something which was to help force people to buy them, a thing which would be bestowed or withheld according to the exigencies of profit: whereas once the beauty which went with all men's handiwork was bestowed as ungrudgingly as nature bestows her beauty: the workman could not choose but give it, his withholding it would have meant his depriving himself of a pleasure. But now you see he had no voice in settling whether he should have any pleasure in his work; he had become a `free-workman', and therefore it seems a machine at the beck and call of the master who was grinding a profit out of him.

So much for popular art, that is of real art: there was a sort of gentleman's art left, done entirely by `artists' so-called and showing sometimes in the best of the pictures painted at the period a certain flippant cleverness as to invention and an amount of low manual dexterity in the execution which made the said pictures quite good enough for their purpose, the amusement namely of idle fine gentlemen and ladies.

As to this artists' art you may expect me to say something of its exploits and its prospects today; but I won't say much: I can't help thinking that it does produce something worthier than was turned out in the 18th century; but I know that if it does, it is because of the revolutionary spirit working in the brains of men, who at least will not accept conventional lies in anything with which they are busied: and whatever it is I fear it produces little effect on the mass of the people, who at present, since popular art lies crushed under money bags, have no share in the pleasure of life either in their work or their play.

Now if I shared the opinion of those who think that art is a thing which can be produced by the conscious efforts of a few cultivated men apart from the work of the great mass of men, if I thought it was a thing that could be shuffled on and off according to convenience like Sunday religion and family morality, if this were my view of the matter I should not have another word to say; but as I think pretty much the contrary of this I must trouble you with a few more words.

As far as history has gone we have come to the end of art properly speaking, but for labour there was another change in store. The Division of labour system as perfected in the 18th century produced an enormous amount of goods for the markets, but the markets kept on growing beneath the adventurous spirit of profit-making, and mere machine workmen could not work fast enough to satisfy their demands; it became necessary to supplement their labour by the invention of machines, which did not fail to take place and labour once more entered into a new phase: for all the greater industries the workshop with its groups of workmen was turned into the factory which is one huge group, one machine in fact of which each individual workman is only an inconsiderable part, and in which the skill of the individual even his subdivided skill as a division-of-labour workman is supplanted by the social organization of the whole group.

This last great revolution in labour was effected in the most reckless manner, and consequently entailed terrible sufferings on the workers. Before it though England had had her share in the general increase of commerce, she was still in the main a quiet agricultural country; 50 years passed and she became what she is now, or at least what she has been till quite lately, the workshop of the world.

How do we stand now as regards the present and the future? is the question we have to ask ourselves, and I plead with you to ask yourself the question in a wide and generous spirit, and not to be contented with an answer which will put an aim before you scarce worth aiming at. There are some who will tell you that we are going on very well now on our present lines, and that the condition of the people has much improved during the last fifty years; and they imply by this that the progress will be steady and uninterrupted on its present lines. Now remember that 50 years will carry us back to the time when the utter confusion caused by the revolution of the great machine industries had scarcely begun even to settle down: shall we then make it a matter of exultation that we have improved a little on the very darkest period of the history of labour in England? Is the improvement, I say, from that welter of misery of which the Chartist revolt was a token to be made a standard of our future hopes; and on the other hand can we venture to hope in the face of all that is going on in all our great centres of labour today that this improvement will be steady and permanent unless some real change from the root upwards is made in Society? I say no with all the emphasis I can.

Do not let us fix our standard of endeavour by the misery which has been but rather by the happiness that might be: do not let us suppose that labour has seen its last revolution: if it has I do not quite know what to say in favour of civilization but I know something to say against it; this namely that for the mass of mankind it has destroyed art, or the pleasure of life.

I have been trying to show you how owing to the rise of producing for profit the workman has been robbed of one pleasure which as long as he is a workman is perhaps his most important one: pleasure in his daily work: he is now only part of a machine, and has indeed little more than his weariness at the end of his day's work to show him that he has worked at all in the day. Beauty, the pleasure of life then has nothing to do with his work: has he not some compensatory pleasure in his life outside his work? Where does it lie then? In his home? Why in these manufacturing districts not even a rich man can have a decent dwelling, much less a poor one, since it has been thought a little thing to turn the rivers into filth and put out the sun, and make the earth squalid with the bricken encampments, I won't call them houses, in which those who make our wealth live such lives as they can live: yet I have heard that even your hovels in the manufacturing districts are better than our London ones, where a nation of the poor dwells beside a nation of the rich, and both are supposed to call each other fellow countrymen.

Or does leisure compensate the workman for his dreary toil? not what I should call leisure, though for a middle-class man I work pretty hard; not sufficient and unanxious leisure; such leisure as he has, the workman has pretty much to steal; he knows that competition will punish him and his wife and children for every hour's holiday he takes.

Or high wages? if indeed they could be any good to a man condemned to live all his days in a toiling hell. No, his wages can't be high; as long as profit has to be made out of his labour they must be kept down to the point which a long series of struggles has made him think just necessary to live on; and mind you in spite of all past struggles he can't depend on keeping his wages up even to their present level.

Shall he be recompensed by education then? Some people think he can be: I do not. I wish him educated indeed in order that he may be discontented; more education than that he cannot have as things go - why education means reasonable, pleasant work, and beautiful surroundings, and unanxious leisure, these are essential parts of it.

Quite plainly therefore I say that the modern workman, the poor man can have no art that is none of the beauty of life: his work will not produce it, and he has neither money to buy it with or leisure and education, that is to say refinement to relish it.

I fear that there are some people who will say that all this doesn't matter at all: they think, the man is well enough fed, housed, clothed, educated to make him a good workman - for making profits for other people, and he is contented with his lot - as yet. After all I don't care what such people think so long as I can get the workman himself to think that it does matter to him whether he is robbed of the pleasure of life: it is to him therefore to the workman, that I turn and tell him what I think he ought to claim for himself.

Well first he must claim to live in a pleasant house and a pleasant place; a claim which I daresay many people would be inclined to allow for him - till they found out wh[at] he meant by it, and how impossible it would be to satisfy it under the profit-grinding system: until for example we consider what time, money, and trouble it would take to turn Glasgow into a pleasant place.

Second the workman must be well-educated: again all people at least pretend to agree with this claim till they understand what I mean by it; namely that all should be educated according to their capacity, and not according to the amount of money which their parents happen to possess: less education [than] this means class education which is a monstrous oppression of the poor by the rich.

Third the workman must have due leisure: which claim I know numberless benevolent men agree to till they know what it involves; namely the prevention at any cost of overwork for profit; which further implies that there must be no idlers, and that the duration of the day's work must be legally limited.

You will see I daresay that what these three claims really mean is refinement of life for all; what is called the life of a gentleman for all; a preposterous claim doubtless to make for a workman; but one which they will get satisfied when they seriously claim it; and if they don't claim it and get it, surely the hopes which this last period of the world began with the revolutionary hopes of the last hundred years will fade out: and then conceive what the worker's life will be when he has no longer any lurking hope of revolution.

So far I have been speaking of the conditions under which the workman should work, I must say an express word or two on the work itself, though I have indeed implied it before.

There must be no useless work done, which follows as a matter of course on the claim to limitation of the day's work; but of course few well-to-do people can agree with doing away with useless work, as in one way or other almost all of the richer classes live upon it.

All useless work being abolished whatever of irksome work is left should be done by machines used not as now to grind out profit, but to save labour really: this I know involves what to some will seem the monstrous proposition that machines should be our servants and not our masters: nevertheless I make it without blushing.

No useless work being done and all irksome labour saved as much as possible by machines [being] made our servants instead of our masters, it would follow that whatever other work was done would be accompanied by pleasure in the doing, and would receive praise when done if it were worthy, and it is most true that all work done with pleasure and worthy of praise produces art, that is to say an essential part of the pleasure of life.

Now I must remind you that I have said that the work of all handicrafts in the Middle Ages produced beauty as a necessary part of the goods, so that some approximation to the ideal above stated was realized then; I have also said that the workman produced this beauty because he was in his work master of his material, tools, and time, in fact of his work: therefore you will not be astonished to hear me say that in order to produce art once again the workman must once more be master of his material, tools, and time: only I must explain that I do not mean that we should turn back to the system of the middle ages, but that the workman should own these things that is the means of labour collectively, and should regulate labour in their own interests; also you must bear in mind that I have already said that all must work therefore the workmen means the whole of society; there should be no society outside those who work to sustain society.

Now I know well enough that this means altering the basis of society, putting Socialism, that is universal cooperation, in place of competition or universal war: but if that startles you I can only say that I am quite sure that those claims for the well-being of the workers which I have made are necessary to be carried out, and that it is simply impossible to carry them out in a condition of universal war, which I repeat is in truth the condition under which we are living: our present state of sham peace and real war is the outcome of many centuries of the war of classes, in which the oppressed class was ever striving to raise itself at the expense of the oppressing class: always in the process of this struggle at every stage of it the issue has been wider and wider: I have said a few words about that stage of it which produced the present middle classes of civilization whose struggle was crowned at last with success by the French Revolution and the years of triumphant Commerce which have succeeded it: but the very triumph of the commercial middle-class has strengthened and solidified the working-class, has collected them into factories and great towns, has forced them to act together to a certain extent by the trades unions, and has given them a certain amount of political power: what they need now to enter on the last stage of the modern revolution of labour is that they should understand their true position, which is in short that they are the real necessary part of Society, and that the middle and upper classes which now rule them are but hangers-on, who have been forced into usurpation of the governing power of the community; they must understand that the division into classes which for so many hundred years has been a curse and a burden to the earth is a system which is wearing out, and that the sign of its approaching end is to be found in the fact that the division is sharper and simpler than it has ever been; that it is no longer consecrated by religion and sentiment, but stands out in its naked hideousness dependent on nothing more sacred than the possession of money. On the one side are the rich: on the other the poor: and the rich possess not only more wealth than they themselves can use, but also the power of allowing or forbidding the other class, the poor, to earn themselves a livelihood; since they possess all the means whereby labour can be made fruitful and the poor possess nothing but the power of labour inherent in their bodies: now I say that when the working-classes once understand this, and that it [is] necessary for their happiness nay for avoiding their degradation into the condition of brutes that they should assert their true position of being themselves society, when they understand that they themselves can regulate labour, and by being absolute masters of their material, tools, and time they can win for themselves all that is possible to be won from nature without deduction or taxation paid to classes that have no purpose or reason for existence; when this is understood, the workers will find themselves compelled to combine together to change the basis of Society and to realize that Socialism the rumour of whose approach is all about us.

What resistance may be offered to this combination by the present dominant classes who can say? but I know that it must be futile: I address one last word to my middle-class hearers who are really interested in the condition of the people, who are amazed and grieved at the corruption and misery which civilization founded on a Society of classes has brought us to.

You are not bound by your class to the futile resistance which your class as long as it remains a class must oppose to the advance of Socialism; with your leisure and opportunities it ought to be easy to you to study this question which it is now obvious cannot be suppressed. When you have gone into the matter, and have found, as you must do, that there are but two camps, that of the people and that of their masters, and that you must take your choice between them, will you hesitate then? To shut your eyes against reason then, and to join the camp of the masters is to brand yourself as an oppressor and a thief: you did not mean to be either before you knew what Socialism was; you meant to be just and benevolent; be no worse now when you know what Socialism is, and what it asks of you and throw in your lot with the workers at every stage of the struggle.

So doing you will be part of a great army which must triumph, and be hoping to bring about the day when the words rich and poor, that have so long cursed the world, shall have no meaning, when we shall all be friends and good fellows united in that communion of happy, reasonable, honoured labour which alone can produce genuine art, or the Pleasure of Life.

Bibliographical Note


Art and Labour


British Library Manuscript B.M. Add. Mss. 45334(2), as published in Eugene LeMire, Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, Wayne State, 1969, pp. 94-115


  1. 14 December 1884: before the Glasgow Sunday Society at St Andrew's Hall, Glasgow to an audience of around 3,000
  2. 3 March 1885: at a meeting sponsored by the Bristol Branch of the SL at the Bristol Museum and Library
  3. 12 May 1886: at a meeting sponsored by the Clerkenwell (Central) Branch of the SL at Farringdon Road, London


This is the second version of the talk Art and Labour. For a full list of deliveries of the three versions, see the Introductory page.