William Morris


As the word "philanthropist" is pretty often used in the columns of Justice, it may be worth while to write a short chapter on the natural history of this species of man, with as little bitterness or even grumbling as may be; though it must he admitted that "their ways and their manners" are often not a little trying to those who are doing their best to get the "poor" to understand the real causes of their poverty, so that they may themselves attack the disease instead of sitting hopeless while others feebly palliate its worst symptoms.

Well, the Philanthropists may, first of all, be broadly divided into two kinds, the old and the new, or the uneconomical and the economical; the first give, I think, with some pleasure in the act of giving, with pity also, and perhaps are able to imagine the transient pleasure which their gifts may confer on the poor wretches that receive them; they have of course no other hope than this transient good done to individuals; for the bitter words of the Judaeo-Christian chronicler, "The poor ye have always with you," convey to their minds no taunt against their own privileged comfort, but are accepted in all good faith as a statement of a providential fact, at which neither the poor nor the rich have any right to repine. These good souls are clearly survivals from the alms-givers of the medieval Church, and sometimes have a share of the imaginatively pious generosity of the days before the rise of Capitalism drove both Catholics and Protestants into mere hypocrisy; doubtless, if ever they have heard of Socialism it has only been shudder at its wickedness; nevertheless we have no call to class them as enemies, and may pass by them easily, if for no other reason, yet at least because they are nearly extinct and have no principles to impress on society, and no power to impress them if they had them.

The other kind of Philanthropist, the economical kind, may again be sub-divided into two varieties, the first may be called the preaching Philanthropists and are the money-bags of the species, giving sums which, though not very large relatively to the profits which they have squeezed out of labour, look comfortable enough to a man of moderate means; but it seems to me that they take it out in preaching: unlike the almsgivers of past times to whom suffering was suffering and to be alleviated however it had been incurred, these men are stern moralists, and from amidst their luxury preach the virtues of Stoic philosophy to the artizan and the labourer, the minute and:(individually) helpless portions of the great profit grinding machine of Labour; temperance and thrifts are the gods which they set up to be worshipped by the wage-slaves whose hard earnings they themselves waste in vulgar ostentation and aimless degrading luxury. From the unfathomable depths of their stupidity they have fished up the idea that the "lower classes" can be "raised," that is, made permanently serviceable as machines to be depended upon, by holding out to them the hope of comfort founded on thrift and temperance, by which they mean if they knew it, as they probably do not, a life degraded by the meanest, pinching niggardliness. It is almost incredible that these preachers should venture to preach to working-people and expect to be believed; but it is thought by some that they are mostly not so much conscious hypocrites, as very specially callous and stupid rich men soaked through and through with middle-class prejudice.

There remains the second variety of the economical kind of philanthropists, who might be called philanthropists proper. I am sorry to have to say of them that they to a great extent accept the doctrines of the preacher philanthropists; sorry, because they often work hard and disinterestedly at their wizened scheme for the regeneration of Society: as a rule they would do anything towards raising the condition of the workers which would not involve an encroachment on the profits of the capitalist; they have made up their minds that the basis of society cannot be altered; and this, coupled with the fact that their well-intentioned work brings them face to face with the wretchedness of our society, drives them into a despairing callousness which not seldom places them in an attitude very like hostility to the people whom they mean to help: in short their desperate efforts to ignore the great fact of the antagonism of classes makes that fact the clearer to those who have eyes to see. Their ideal of comfort and decency is so low that they are ready to accept as tolerable a state of things that would be intolerable except to a slave class; their making the best of it sometimes goes so far (to my certain knowledge) as to praise as rather pleasant places those parts of Stepney and Bethnal Green which are not quite the worst: their self-satisfaction at the minute palliatives of the misery which they work is absolutely sickening to a Socialist, who knows what kind of a life the workers might obtain for themselves, if the hope of the destruction of profit-mongering could once take a hold of them.

We many of us have experienced the bitter hostility of these philanthropists to Socialism, which in point of fact they realise as the foe doomed if successful to make are end of their occupation; a foe which would quite change that class on which they try their benevolent experiments, and which they look upon meantime as a necessary appendage of capital, would convert it into an all-powerful organisation that would at last absorb all society, and become nothing less than the State.

And yet, though these well intentioned people look upon us as their enemies, I don't think we need accept the position; we must at least take what we can get from them; take for instance as an instalment of a decent London - the parks and gardens which their efforts have done much to get for us. What we would press upon them is that they should set a higher ideal before them than turning the life of the workers into that of a well conducted reformatory or benevolent prison; and that they should understand that when things are done not for the workers but by them, an ideal will present itself with great distinctness to the workers themselves, which will not mean living on as little as you can, so as not to disturb the course of profit-grinding, but rather living a plentiful, generous, un-anxious life, the first quite necessary step to higher ideals yet.

Let the philanthropists think of this and allow some foresight to pierce their armour of callousness, and then we think many of them, those of them who are not mere 'orderers about' and busy bodies, would look towards Socialism as a faith which would give them a fresh and more hopeful career; we could find plenty for them to do.


Justice, 20th December 1884, p. 2.