William Morris and the Executive Council of the SDF

The Meaning of Socialism

Source: To-day, No. 13, January 1885, pp.1-20
Note: The text is signed by the full Executive Council of the Social Democratic Foundation, but it is clearly based on Morris's talk Misery and the Way Out, which had been his stump speech for the SDF during 1884.
Transcription: by Graham Seaman for MIA, May 2022


We come before you as Revolutionists, that is, as men and women who wish to see the basis of society changed.

Why is this?

Because in the society which now exists the majority of the people is miserable and oppressed. Often as it has been done, sickening as the task of doing it again is, we must, in order to make our meaning clear, lay before you a statement of the condition of those who live by labour in the present state of society.

In these Islands, as generally throughout civilized countries, a vast part of the workers, the "labourers," including all those who are engaged in the necessary work of producing food for the community, are scarcely raised above starvation, or are punished for the crime of being born poor, by being compelled to accept the cruel relief of the workhouse.

A step above these come the artisans, the inheritors of the hoarded skill of so many generations, who earn a poor livelihood, a pleasureless existence, by hard and constant toil at dull, mechanical work which is but a burden to them. The surroundings of their life are miserable and squalid; for if they live amidst the excitement of great cities, they have to pay for this by being forced to lodge in mere hovels and hutches in the midst of such sordidness and disorder, that it would almost seem as if it had been the aim of men to make the workmen's quarters of such cities as loathsome as possible: and this livelihood, such as it is, is at the best but precarious, because a shift of the markets, a change in machinery, a hard winter—or a soft one, some accident in short over which the workman neither singly nor collectively has any control, may throw him out of work and, after months of anxiety and wearing trouble, may land him among the crowd of unskilled labourers, as a competer for their wretched pittance.

Then there is the class of small tradesmen, whose lives are harassed by desperate anxiety and overwork; these are driven into despicable shifts for the earning of their narrow incomes, since the aggregation of capital into great masses makes it harder every day for the small distributor to live, driven as he is to make his prices square with those of the great capitalist with his huge transactions. There is also the army of men and women employed in direct slavery to commerce, wholesale and retail, as clerks and shop assistants, also most miserably paid and living most precariously, many of them shamefully overworked; absolute slaves although they are compelled to keep up a decent appearance.

In short, we assert without fear of contradiction that the mass of the people have to work hard day by day to earn for themselves a hard life full of anxiety, without leisure, without the bodily pleasure which it is in the nature of all animals to desire, without the mental pleasure which it is the glory of all human beings to desire, and finally without hope of escaping from this slavery.

Think of a person coming to England from some place where all lived in decent equality, and seeing nothing but such people and their homes; would he not think that he had got into an exceedingly poor country, where at the best people lived a dull, careworn life, and at the worst were below the lowest savages? What would be his astonishment when he was told that he was in the richest country in the world?

Strange to say that would be nothing but the truth. Street after street you may go through in London where there are no houses but those of the rich, even of the very rich: here dwell those who do no work at all, or who work excitedly, if not for very long hours, at fleecing their fellow- citizens; while in houses more modest, yet still supplied with every desirable luxury and many undesirable ones, live the professional men, or hangers-on of the rich, who minister to their caprices. Hardly any of these well-housed people, even those of the latter group of this rich class, produce any real wealth for the service of the community.

Why is this then? How does it happen that in rich England the majority of the people is poor?

The word class we have used above is the key to the riddle. Those poor persons we have been mentioning are not so many accidental individuals scattered amidst the population; they are a class, necessary, with all its poverty and misery, to the existence, as a class, of that other class of rich men: for all society is based upon labour and could not exist without it; and those of its members who do not produce wealth must necessarily live on the labours of those who do produce it. Those poor people we have been mentioning do, we repeat, form a class which amidst all its multifarious occupations has one interest common to all its members, the enjoyment of the fruits of its labour, and one enemy in common, namely the class of rich men who produce nothing, and if they work, work only at fleecing the poor class.

So then there are two classes; one producing and governed, the other non-producing and governing; one the means of wealth, the other the consumers of wealth: one Rich, the other Poor.

As to the division between these two classes of the wealth produced by one of them, it must be said that the poor class possesses nothing but the power of labour inherent in the bodies of poor men, and the inherited skill in handicraft which former generations of men have acquired; nothing in short but that which cannot be taken away from it. On the other hand the rich class is in possession of the land, on the surface and below it, of the machinery, which is the result of centuries of the toil and invention of the poor class, of the capital, or hoarded labour of past generations of the poor, and consequently of the credit and the means of transit: that is to say the rich class possesses all the means of using the power of labour which is the sole possession of the poor.

No member of the poor class can even put a spade into the ground without the leave of the rich class: the smith, the potter, the weaver, though they have at their fingers' ends the gathered skill of thousands of years, must sit idle until some rich man grants them leave to work.

What then are the men of the poor class to do in order to make their possession, the power of labour, useful to them, in order to go on living?

The rich class needs them, since its members' aim is to live without working, which they cannot do without a poor class to work for them, in other words, without slaves: it allows the workers therefore to work and live, on condition that after they have produced as much as they can live on, the balance of their production shall be the property of their masters; which balance of value produced by the workers, the masters, or capitalists, call their profit; and when they can no longer gain this profit out of the workman, they cease to allow him to work: as the working-class has learned by many and bitter experiences.

As to the livelihood earned by the worker before he begins to produce profit for his master, it is, as we have seen, wretchedly poor, and, if the master had his own way fully, would be only just enough to support life in tolerable health, and to allow the worker to beget children, to be in their turn used as machines for the production of profit. But although the workers of modern society have been everywhere and always compelled to compete against each other for subsistence on these hard terms, they have in these latter days felt some sense of their common interest and common antagonism to the rich. This antagonism has given rise to openly expressed discontent, which has driven the rich classes, afraid of rebellion, into granting concessions to the workers. Thus in England the workers have forced the right of combination from the rich, and so gained a legalized position for the Trades' Unions, and by that means and others have gained a standard of life, for the skilled workers at least, somewhat above that mere subsistence which would have been imposed upon them if they had not striven bitterly enough with their masters, the capitalists. This standard of life, however, as long as the present capitalist system lasts, can never rise above a certain point, that namely at which there would be a risk of wages eating up the profit of the master, who will only employ the workman as long as he can fleece him for his own individual profit; and as combination among the workers, until it has for its aim the abolition of the class of masters, must always be weaker than competition for wages among them, the masters have it in their power to overwhelm this feeble opposition in various ways; as by using new labour-saving machines, by the introduction of workers from countries whose standard of life is lower than ours, or by investing their money in countries where the workers offer no resistance to capitalist fleecing.

Thus do the nobility and middle-class, now combined into one class, use the workers against the workers, as the middle-class formerly used them against the nobility. Thus they have the whole of the poor class in their power, and will have them so long as the latter is contented to try to palliate the evils of that subjection instead of determining to make an end of it.

Therefore it is clear there is no hope of permanently amending the condition of the workers as long as the present system of capital and labour exists. As long as it lasts the majority of the people must always be poor and degraded; sometimes brutally servile, sometimes brutally rebellious, but always slaves, always miserable in the midst of the plenty which they have created. We say slaves for although the persons, the bodies of the workers are no longer obviously owned by the rich, as in times gone by, yet their lives, as we have seen, are utterly in their power; that is to say, that though they are not slaves to certain individuals, they are slaves to a class.


Is it necessary that this miserable state of things should last for ever? Is it doomed to be eternal and irremediable?

There are plenty of people who will say "Yes" to this question. The politicians who rule you, and the professors who are paid to teach your rulers, often spend time and pains in telling you that this state of things is the only one possible, while at the same time they contradict themselves by bidding you note the gradual amelioration of your class which is taking place, and which will, they vaguely hint, finally almost destroy poverty, or at least make it an accident of life avoidable by all but the vicious and incapable.

Do not be deceived by them: the end they aim at is vague and worthless, and the means to the end futile. At the rate at which they would have things move, we and our children and our children's children will be dead and forgotten, while the workers will be still a class of inferior beings living only such lives as their masters allow them to live. These men cannot even conceive of the existence of a Society which is not founded on a miserable class.

But poor as their ideal is, their means for realizing it are useless. They bid you look to the gradual attainment of political rights; to the effects of the spread of education; to your acquiring habits of thrift, sobriety, and industry. But consider this: the poor, whose lives are in the power of the rich, who depend on their assent for leave to work for their livelihood, until they understand that they should be and can be their own masters, will never dare to use their political rights against them lest they should be starved by them.

As to education, that which the anti-Socialists mean to offer to you is class education : that is, enough education to make you good machines for profit-grinding ; nor can you as long as you are mere slaves of profit get more than this as a rule, for the long hours of your dull daily work will deprive you of leisure and inclination for the education fit for men not for machines.

Again, if the poor classes by means of thrift, sobriety, and industry get to make 3d. go as far in sustenance for their lives as a shilling does now, you may be sure that the capitalists will take care that it goes as far in paying them wages; this they can ensure, because they hold in their hands the land, machinery, and capital by which alone your labour can be made productive. By means of competition among the workers, and competition in the markets of the world, you will be driven into making cheap wares only meant for the use of poor people, so that your labour also may be cheapened for the production of profit for your masters.

Fellow-workers, do not be deceived by these false hopes of a scarcely perceptible gain. We hold out to you another and a brighter one, which you yourselves when you once come to understand it will realise, and with you also it rests whether you will realise it early or late.

We bid you hope and hope confidently for the establishment of a new order of things, the Social Order, in which there will be no poor and, therefore, no rich; in which there will be no classes.

Understand that there is enough wealth created in civilised countries for all to live happily if the waste bred of oppression were once at an end ; for every man working in a civilised community helped by machinery and the co-operation of his fellows produces more than enough to sustain himself; of this overplus the greater part is at present confiscated for the gain of individuals by the privileged class, that is to say the landlords and capitalists, who, as we have said before, will only allow the workers to exercise the power of labour which is inherent in their bodies on these terms.

In a state of social order this robbery would be impossible; Work, endurable and even pleasant would be found for all, would lie ready to their hands, and not only would every worker enjoy the whole fruits of his labour, but, as it would be employed collectively, it would be so organised and directed that none of it would be wasted ; whatever work a man did would benefit the whole community as well as himself.

Furthermore as there would be no classes, as they would all have melted into one great living society in which no one member would be sacrificed for the benefit of another, everyone would have equal opportunities of education, refinement, and leisure, nor would a people so circumstanced endure over-toil for insufficient reasons ; life would be easy among them.

In this Society, the State, which at present is something outside ourselves and our lives, and is mostly, and not without reason looked upon by us as an enemy, or at best as a necessary evil — an interference with the true business of life — would then be ourselves; It would be the whole community in its corporate capacity united and organized to gain for itself, that is for each and all of its members, the greatest amount of good that could be wrung out of material nature by the co-operative efforts of man.

In such a State the means of production, transit and exchange would belong to all alike and be organised for the good of all.

The land would be common property to be cultivated or built on as organised Society should determine; the machinery, the gradual invention of hundreds of generations, carried out by millions of toilers, would be used by all without their being taxed for its use for the benefit of individuals; there would be an end of usury of money which means the forcing of living labour to pay a tax to dead labour for the sake of individual gain. Commerce would lose its gambling nature, and would mean a distribution of products which would not involve the making of profits.

Thus being freed from slavery to profit-grinding, labour could be easily organised so as to put an end to waste; for machinery could really be used for saving labour and not as now for multiplying it for the sake of profit; while in the markets foresight and wise regulation would take the place of recklessness and haphazard, so that the loss and confusion of gluts and stagnation would be avoided. This organization of labour by and for the whole of society is by no means what is often understood by "State Socialism," which would not abolish class rule at all, but intends more or less paternally to force the workers into such an organisation as some class, group, or autocrat, might arbitrarily conceive was for their good.

Furthermore, in such a Society as this which we propose to you, while all men would live untormented by anxiety for their livelihood, while no one could advance himself by pushing back his neighbour, there would still be plenty of room for emulation ; for those who had any special capacity would have leisure and opportunity to develope it, instead of being, as they now are, crushed into uniformity and stupidity by the necessity for haste and ceaseless dull work; the scientist, the artist, the man of letters would no longer have to sell himself at Dutch auction for the pleasure of the idle and incapable, but sure of his livelihood, not driven to earn special profits by the exercise of his talents, would be able to devote himself deliberately to science and the arts, and satisfy all the requirements of his genius; nor can we doubt that under these happier conditions the number of people able and willing to exercise special talents for the good of the community would much increase; so that the destruction of the so-called individualist system would result in a prodigious development of individuality.


this is the hope we hold out to you; we bid you put in the place of the present life of mingled poverty, luxury, and confusion, a Social Order under which the wealth created by all should be shared by all, in which all alike should partake in the refinement, ease, and elevation of life which all would work together for heartily and without grudging. This, fellow-workers, is what we mean by Socialism; is it not worth your striving for? And if you but knew it, it lies within your grasp.

What are the means, then, you will say, by which we may attain this happy order of things?

It is necessary for you to understand first, that this hope and effort towards a Social Order is no scheme devised by a few sanguine men within the last few years, no dream of what might be, born in the brains of philosophers sitting in their studies, but that on the contrary it is a necessary outcome of the changes that have gone on in society for many hundreds of years. Labour has from the first been in subjection to brute force wielded by cunning greed in various forms; it has now known three periods of servitude: the first was the personal slavery of the ancient world, under which the worker had no more rights than a horse or an ox; the second was the serfdom or villeinage of the Middle Ages, wherein the worker was bound to give a certain definite amount of labour to his lord; the third is the wage-earning or economical slavery of modern times under which, as we have seen, the worker is forced to give an indefinite amount of labour to his master, the dominant class.

From this last slavery labour is as certain to emerge as from the other two; and there are abundant signs that the new revolution is at hand. On the one side society has been compelled, in the teeth of the maxims of its holy books, the works of the middle-class economists, to palliate the disastrous effects of Capitalism by such enactments as the Factory and Employers' Liability Acts, and to give elementary education to the whole people, though the workers are still forced to pay for education which should be as free to them as the air they breathe; on the other, the commercial system, which has created the middle-class, and given all power to them, has also brought the working-class together into great cities, has socalised labour by means of the factory system, and has enabled the workers to claim and obtain a certain amount of political power one day to be used as an instrument for the freeing of labour.

Thus the way has been paved towards the first practical step of the new Social Order, since the organised society of which we have spoken can without making any break in the conduct of life at once step into the place of the capitalists by taking over all the means of production and distribution, and administering them for the public good instead of private gain without destroying the forms which they have taken.

The business, therefore, of such organisations as the Social Democratic Federation is not to create revolution, for that is impossible, but to help to regulate and thereby hasten it ; and this has to be accomplished by a three-fold method. First, by showing sympathy with all popular revolutionary movements, by spreading and deepening the vague discontent which is now simmering all through civilised countries. Secondly, by turning that discontent into an assured hope by teaching the people what are the real causes of their misery; what the material facts of the development of society; what they can claim with a certainty of ultimate success; in short, by teaching the people to be wiser than those who have usurped the place of rulers over them. Thirdly, by organising the workers into bodies with the definite single aim of realising Socialism or the freedom of labour, those bodies to form an obvious visible brotherhood instinct with devotion to the cause and the sacrifice of self, and determined to attain their end in spite of any obstacles that may be thrown in their way.

Fellow-workers, thus we have laid before you the aims of the Social-Democratic Federation and the means it proposes to take towards those ends. We have still a few words of appeal and encouragement to say.

First, we especially address ourselves towards those who in these latter times of the supremacy of so-called Liberalism have been in the fore-front of political progress. We call on the Radicals to beware lest by keeping their eyes too much fixed on what at the best can be but an instrument of progress, they lose sight of progress itself. To perfect the political machinery in the democratic sense, and to leave the power of manipulating it in the hands of the only class possessed of executive power, would result either in the forging of fresh fetters for the oppressed workers, or would be the preparation for a terrible period of confusion and violence. The middle-classes have now gained all that they want; they have all political power, they have nothing left to strive for, and are growing conscious of the fact that Democracy is entering into a new phase and is turning into Socialism, the necessary result of this will be that before long the Liberals and Tories must coalesce, and form a determined repressive Toryism, a party of reaction, between which and Socialism all Radicals must decide. This is no prophecy; the coalition is even now taking place, and already the two factions differ only in name.

Working-men Radicals, you have only two choices before you; you must either go backward or forward, become either Tories or Socialists.

A word or two to the men of the middle-class. We well know that this class, as a class, cannot be converted or persuaded; it cannot yield to anything save force, however that may be applied ; it would no longer be a class if it did not struggle against its approaching dissolution. But we also know that there are men among it of insight and generous instincts, who see and loathe the misery and injustice of the system on which their position rests, and who are more or less conscious that the only possible way out is in the direction of Socialism. To them we now appeal, urging them to renounce their class, and throw in their lot with the workers, using what influence, wealth, or educated intelligence they may have to bring about the inevitable change as speedily and as peacefully as possible. This is a solemn duty for them, for with them, it may be, it rests to determine the manner of the Revolution which is advancing upon us. Their defection from the class of greed and robbery will inspire doubts in the timid, shake the faith of the bigots of middle-class economy, and strip the veil from the hypocrisy of the sham middle-class morality, so that when the final "must be" has been spoken by the oppressed class, the oppressing class will not dare to light up the flame of war and violence, as it will not fail to do if it is strong and coherent, but will smoulder out in the ignominious end which its dull tyranny so well deserves.

Finally to Socialists of all classes we have one thing, and, a most necessary one, to say: Unite, combine under one common discipline; it is not enough to feel and know together, we must also act together.

We call on you to join the Social-Democratic Federation, which with its affiliated bodies forms the only Socialist organization in this country.

The consciousness of belonging to a definite brotherhood working for the cause will give you a confidence which will be contagious to those who are inclined to agree with you, and will confound those who differ from you.

If you hold the principles of Socialism, you are bound to do what you can to make those principles active.

Join us, therefore, if you understand those principles ; teach what you have learned, or you will be doing nothing when you ought to be doing everything.

Or, if you have but an uninformed instinct that our cause is right, join us still, that you may be educated in various ways, and so turn your just instinct into a certainty, founded on the knowledge of facts.

If you are full of hope for the freedom of the world, join us, and give us that encouragement which those who are working in matters of detail often so sorely need. If you are discouraged and hopeless, join us, that we may encourage you by pointing out to you the signs of the times and the hope which they bear with them.

For these things are not being done in a corner; this Socialism, this Party of the People, is not merely a national movement but an international one. The civilised world is shaken by the advance of the coming Revolution.

If it were otherwise our hope would be small indeed: for remember, that however it may be with labour, capital knows no country, but is international indeed, and with a hideous instinct for disorder uses the national jealousies bred from centuries of misrule to enslave the people in all countries; we therefore must be thoroughly international. To a Socialist the word foreigner means but a friend who lives in another country, and speaks, it may be, another language, but has no opposing or different interests.

In this universality of our cause then lies our hope, and the hope is no longer doubtful. Look around at the civilized countries of the world. In Germany the rise and spread of Socialism has been extraordinarily speedy and steady. Of all the figures which might be quoted to show this, it may be sufficient to mention that in 1871 only 1,135 socialist votes were cast for the Reichstag election in Berlin, whereas in 1884 they amounted to 68,275. The total gain in Germany, on the elections of 1881, has been this year (1884), 200,000. And this in the teeth of the bitterest, and most determined legal repression. In France the whole of the artizan class is touched by Socialism; for instance the socialist vote cast for the Municipal Elections in Paris was in 1881 17,895, in 1884 it was 38,729. Intelligent Holland, intelligent Scandinavia have widely accepted the doctrines of Socialism. The world rings with the fame of Russian men and women who have dared in the face of torture and death to resist the grossest tyranny that ever existed. Across the Atlantic America with her many workmen combining for social purposes and expressing their discontent in no doubtful voice, is proving to demonstration the impossibility of progress resting on mere Radicalism.

English fellow-workmen! consider the encouragement you will give to your foreign brethren by attacking commercialism in this country, its stronghold above all places, and do not hang back from joining us. Decent and happy life for all lies ahead of us, while all around is mere squalor, disorder, discontent, and the failure of all the hopes of civilization. Come out from these dreary ruins of decaying systems, and march with us toward the new Social Order of the World.

(Signed) The Executive Council of the Social-Democratic Federation.

Edward Aveling. H.M. Hyndman.
Eleanor Aveling. J. Lane.
Robert Banner. J.L. Mahon.
E. Belfort Bax. S. Mainwaring.
John Burns. William Morris.
Herbert Burrows.(Treasurer.)
H. H. Champion. J.F. Murray.
(Secretary.) H. Quelch.
R.P. B. Frost. J.E. Williams.
Amie Hicks.