William Morris

Socialism in England in 1884

Some three years ago anyone who had predicted the new birth of Socialism in England would have been looked upon as a dreamer, if not crazy; whatever hopes democracy had were centred on the more advanced wing of the Liberal party, which had just carried that queer composite body to victory almost in spite of itself: many words need not be wasted in the columns of "JUSTICE" in talking of the speedy disappointment of any hopes for the party of the people which had been founded on that Liberal victory, and to those of us who had most faith in progress as an idea, the outlook seemed to be nothing better than a dreary waste of perpetual Whig-Liberal rule, feeble and pedantic, except where coercion was dealt out with a liberal hand to the Irish, desperate at the new disappointment which fell on them with the accession to power of the "great Liberal party." This seemed the outlook, I say, only relieved by the helpless grumblings of a few Radicals who really meant what they had said while the Tories were still in power, and a still fewer irreconcilables, who were at heart Socialists.

That the outlook is now so different may be partly due to the disappointment caused by the cool way in which the Liberal leaders swallowed all their promises; the party of the people could not be looked for in that direction, among the men (and they were Radicals too) who cheered coercion to the echo, and seemed rejoiced to find that they had not deserved the jeers of their Tory opponents, but could be as good jingoes as the best when occasion served. But though this disappointment might have taken some men out of the Liberal camp, it would have but landed them as disgusted non-politicals, if there had not been forming another party for them to join and in which they might be actively useful; Socialism was not dead in England in spite of all appearances to the contrary, and the Democratic Federation by its outspoken resistance to coercion in Ireland and later by its courageous, though abortive, protest against the abolition of the right of asylum in England, had earned the right of being considered the one organisation, which cherished the rights of the people. With that object in view it was impossible for it to stop short of a direct declaration of adhesion to the principles of Socialism, which declaration it made by the publication last year of the manifesto "Socialism made Plain," which has since been so widely distributed.

It does not seem too much to say that the consequences of this step will be of the greatest importance; it is true that many thoughtful middle-class men were turning to Socialism in this country as the only scheme that gave any hope of escaping from the corruption of society which they have felt so bitterly, and that no blindness of our rulers or carelessness of our literary leaders would long have kept them from the serious study of Socialism; but such a school of thinkers might long have remained a school of cultivated thinkers only, to whom the social revolution would have been but a happy dream.

The hope of the speedy advent of that Revolution is now being instilled into thousands by the action of the Democratic Federation, and Socialism is rapidly becoming something more in this country than a speculative philosophy; its practicability is being tested by our propaganda, by the preaching of this real gospel to those that do indeed in their own persons need a new gospel, if their children are not to sink lower in the scale of humanity than any generation of Englishmen yet born. True it is that their very need for revolution, the depth to which the slavery of competition for subsistence wages has eaten into them so to say, makes it harder for them to conceive of any possibility of a change; yet undoubtedly the hope is spreading, and even far more speedily than some of us would have thought possible a little time ago; and it is clear that when the hope is once received into the hearts of the mass of our people, the beginning of the new day is at hand.

Here then is a very different state of things from that which existed in the first days of the present Parliament. The Tory party destroyed; the Liberal party a mere set of groups only held together by a more than half hypocritical respect for Mr. Gladstone; the foundations of a European war carefully laid by the contending factions, neither of which have any other idea of policy than simply drifting; an agitation against the Constitution set agoing as a piece of political tactics, which may be found more difficult to manage than some at least of the Liberal leaders think - that is the outlook of ordinary politics.

Meantime Society is permeated by an uneasy feeling that all is not quite right; if it were not so serious it would be ludicrous indeed to note the feverish anxiety of our philanthropists both personally and as a body to prove that their nostrums are really of some use. "Society" is sick, and like the devil under like circumstances, would fain be a saint.

It is not wonderful that intelligent middle-class men should be deeply struck by all this and should find themselves Socialists almost without knowing it. As I have said, if their adhesion to the cause were all, there would be little chance of a speedy and orderly Revolution in England; it would come indeed, but most probably with spasms of mere misery and starvation emphasised by hunger riots; the intelligent determination of the workers to put an end to wage-slavery and capitalism by nationalising all the means of production and exchange is the one thing necessary for carrying on a civilised revolution.

There are cheering signs on all sides that this will not be lacking to us in England. Those whom Socialism once gets hold of show a real devotion to the cause which may well be called "religious." One thing they have to add to that devotion, and we shall be on the road to victory; that one thing is organisation. I hope our comrades will excuse me giving this one hint on the occasion of the Democratic Federation commemorating its fourth year of existence.


Justice, 9th August 1884, p. 4.