William Morris

Uncrowned Kings

Most people who profess Liberal opinions doubtless please themselves by thinking that the reign of absolutism is at an end in this country, that for us kings are done with, since the live image or puppet of a so-called constitutional Monarchy is capable of performing no more dreadful function than that of boring itself and all those with whom it comes into contact, and of providing a constant centre of hypocrisy and corruption for the rich classes, if indeed any thing could make that corruption worse which seems now rapidly approaching its climax, and carrying us on toward revolution.

Nevertheless though the old kingship may be dead, at least in England, we may perhaps have in these latter days fashioned a new kingship, not the less dangerous because it is not so obvious and brutal as the old one. Some of our Positivist friends not long ago were hugging themselves on what seemed to them, not so wrongly, the tendency of modern democracy to personal government; of modern democracy, that is, under class domination - a morally corrected essence of which is the political ideal of Positivism. In truth we Socialists may well take note of three kings who have ruled the sheepish multitude within the last thirty years of more or less reformed parliamentary government, and bear in mind how futile its boasts of reasonable freedom have been within our own immediate knowledge. Palmerston, Beaconsfield and Gladstone; when one failed, another must be chosen, we could not do without a king: the two first are dead, and we may pass them by, the first with merely the sense of shame which the mere mention of Palmerston's name calls up to us at the thought of the disgraces we let him drag us through as to the second, we Radicals or ex-Radicals can scarcely escape another touch of shame at the memory of our helplessness as we watched the moves of his fantastic game, doubtless as amusing and profitable to him as it was bewildering and fruitless to us. However let that pass, since both these two are dead; the one who is alive, Mr. Gladstone, is as a personality a more complicated problem than either of the others, I mean for the study of the dramatist or novelist: with which study we need not trouble ourselves, for to us as people who want to get on he simply represents a certain amount of obstruction, not so much because of his genuine Conservative instincts which lead him to make for ever just such concessions as may seem to serve to bolster up our present system of slavery, not so much for this, because the course of events will inevitably reject such concessions and force on the real demand for revolution; rather he is obstructive because of the stupefying influence of his kingship; which stops people's qualms of conscience, relieves them of their sense of responsibility, and gives them just one duty to fulfill - shouting out for their leader; a leader too who for many years past has been careful of one thing at least - not to lead.

Surely Mr. Gladstone's hearers of last Saturday must have been as one is in a dream, when one sets out to see some great cathedral or temple of the Gods, and finds it nothing but a jerry-built Little Bethel; but then (so strange is the compulsion of dreams) has to persuade oneself that after all it is all right. In sober earnest this clinging to the personality of a mere politician; a man by his very profession bound to humbug at least his followers, and often, as in Mr. Gladstone's case, himself also - it is this refinement of flunkeyism which makes one almost despair of getting anyone who bears any party name to look at realities, and try to deal with them himself.

I have appealed to Radicals in these columns before, I do so again now, and beg them to lay aside this worship of names; to accept themselves a little responsibility for themselves, for the dreary wretched lives which they and their brethren lead to ask themselves if they have all they want except the franchise; all that a man ought to want, and how they are going to get it; to ask themselves if they really think that a reformed House of Lords, whatever that may mean, or an Elected Second Chamber, with the First Chamber to help them, would or could give them anything of what they want. I entreat them to ask themselves why they are dirty, ignorant, ill-fed, ill-clad, ill-housed, and when they have found out, or rather when they have gained an inkling of it, or even before, let them ask Mr. Gladstone why they are all this, why they are slaves, and if he can't tell them, let them try to do without him, and go elsewhere for leading. Only I warn them let them have plenty of leaders, all knowing the way, all with one tale in their mouths, and let them take care that these said leaders lead. I think they will then take the road towards Social Revolution.


Justice, 6th September 1884, p. 4.