William Morris

The Dull Level of Life

One of the chief terrors, real or affected, which afflicts the middle-class man in thinking of the chances of that "Coming Slavery," which Mr. Herbert Spencer so bewails, is a fear of the suppression of individuality. Our Socialist lecturers are all familiar with this objection which seldom fails to be raised at question time in meetings where those are present who have any claim to be considered educated. To us Socialists looking round on the present state of society the anxiety when genuine seem not a little ridiculous, considering the manner in which individualism founded on the gospel of commerce has guarded this precious jewel of individuality. Truly the mill-hand who is as much a part of the machinery of the factory where he works as any cog-wheel or piece of shafting is, need nor be very anxious about the loss of his "individuality" in a new state of things; the work-girl passing days and nights over her sewing-machine might be excused perhaps if she were willing to barter the said "individuality" for the chance of a "square meal" a-day: nay the banker's or lawyer's clerk, "educated" as he is supposed to be, may be mean spirited enough to find little solace for his life of mean drudgery in the contemplation of the theoretical "individuality" secured to him as a prime blessing by the system of free contract. These and such as these pay a very heavy price indeed for that "eager life of the world" that freedom from a "low level of life" which the cant of the smug well-to-do man so glorifies nowadays; it does not need many words to show that the fear of death by starvation, which is the only motive to exertion that the anti-socialist can see, does certainly destroy individuality among the millions of ordinary workers; but it must be furthermore asserted that what breaks down their spirit, and reduces them to a dead level indeed, does also injure men of more exalted minds and rarer gifts. It is indeed the fashion to say that genius will break through all encumbering circumstances, and will even be bettered by struggling out of them: but is it really so? We know of those who have broken though the adverse circumstances, and have gained fame and honour and done useful work for the world, though their minds too often have been narrowed and their hearts soured in the bitter combat; but of those whom adverse circumstances have utterly crushed, of these and the loss to the world which has come of their misery, we know and can know nothing.

So much for men of genius, while as to men of good ordinary gifts, those who may be called men of talent, it is the commonest thing for their special gifts, their "individuality" to be thrust aside by the hideous waste of commercial war: which gifts if they were really considered and wisely organised would by means of due co-operation change the whole face of civilisation and create happy lives to themselves and others. As it is what is their condition if they belong to the working classes? We know very well that they are born and bred drudges, that they have just so much education bestowed on them as will not hinder them from drudgery profitable to their masters; that is their fate in the lump: and so besotted are we with the cant of individualism that the condition of even the prosperous working men is thought a fair result of all the thousands of years of the world's life: or if there is any further ideal about amongst the well-to-do, it aims no higher than a gradual improvement of these better off workers, which improvement is still to stop short of emancipation from drudgery; while below the better off must still be the terrible gulf of the residuum. It is strange while this ideal satisfies people, that Socialism, aiming as it does at the total extinction of drudgery, should seem to anyone to be a threat against the development of individual talent or genius, which at the best at present is only possible to a few exceptionally lucky persons. The fear of this threat is of course in many places not genuine at all, and is only another way of putting the determination of the rich to keep down the poor; with such people argument is impossible: but to those who genuinely feel the fear, we may say finally that it is scarcely too bold to hope that in a state of society to which a class of drudgers is no longer necessary, education will not only be universal, but will be both more liberal, and wiser for all than it is to-day for a few; and that it will be its function to develop any gifts which children of older people may have towards science, literature, the handicrafts, or the higher arts, or anything which may be useful or desirable to the community: furthermore that as it will be pleasant for those who possess such talents to use them they will not deprive themselves of this pleasure merely because they are not driven to the exercise of their faculties by the fear of death by starvation.

It is a matter of course that these opportunities for the development of the higher faculties of the whole people will be founded, as hinted above, on the social use of that socialised labour aided by machinery which is in operation at present for the service of individual profit: how far machine production may be carried; to what extent it may at some time or other be limited by the increase of leisure, and ease of life, and the pleasure in useful work which we may expect to result from the development of Socialism, these are matters of speculation, on which different minds will have different hopes; but one thing is certain, that it will be one of the chief aims of a socialised state to limit pleasureless labour to the uttermost. The crushing weight of this pleasureless labour laid with such cruel indifference on our lives by the present anarchy is what individuality is languishing under; from Socialism it has nothing to fear, but all to gain.

To use the forces of nature by means of universal co-operation for the purpose of gaining generous and equal livelihood for all, leaving them free to enjoy their lives, and to emulate each other in, producing pleasure for themselves and others is what Socialism aims at: the aim of middle-class individualism, to judge by the state of society which it defends so eagerly, would seem to be the creation of a shabby average of dull discomfort for a large class of the community, relieved only by a mass of dire misery on the one hand, and by idle and insolent waste on the other.


Justice, 26th April 1884, p. 2.