William Morris & Edward Aveling

Socialist Meeting in Oxford

As reported in the Oxford Journal

Source: The Oxford Journal, 28 February 1885, page 8. The following letter, On the late Socialist meeting is on the same page.
Note: Morris later wrote that this was his "first long speech without book", and that in spite of the hostile (undergraduate) audience "Aveling began very cleverly and won their ingenuous hearts, so that they listened to him better than they did to me" (Collected Letters of William Morris vol. II, letter #1062).
Transcription: by Graham Seaman for MIA, October 2022


The newly formed "Socialist Society" in Oxford held a Meeting in the Music Room, Holywell, on Wednesday evening last. It had been intended to hold the meeting in the Assembly Room, Clarendon Hotel. but fearing a disturbance permission to do so was withdrawn on Wednesday, but the proceedings, although very noisy at times, passed off without damage being caused. Mr. Faulkner, Fellow of University, presided, and there were also on the platform Dr. Aveling, Mr. W. Morris (of London), &c, and on these gentlemen making their entry were received with mingled cheers and groans, the latter being given by some undergraduates. The greatest care was taken that none but ticket holders should be admitted.

The CHAIRMAN, in opening the proceedings, addressed the audience as friends, and said the object of the meeting was to explain the principles of socialism. They wished to avoid all debate upon the socialistic mode of living generally, and to confine it to how life could be carried on under their principles. The newspapers lumped socialists, communists, and dynamitards together—(cheers)—but whether they did that out of unsympathetic malice or not he did not know. After addresses had been delivered any gentleman would be at liberty to formulate a question upon any difficulty which presented itself, and he hoped that questions would be limited strictly to questions.

Mr. MORRIS, in commencing his address, termed his hearers friends and comrades, and said there were four questions for them to consider, namely, the condition of society under which they lived at the present day, what was it produced the state under which they lived and what was the machinery which brought it about, could that machinery be altered, and in what direction could this machinery and condition of life it produced be altered. On the one hand there was in society abundant luxury, and on the other abundant over-work; on the one hand ease and luxury, and on the other poverty and pinching; and on the one hand, again, there was education, and on the other ignorance. He thought they must all condemn the present inequality of condition, which was a condition of injustice and waste, for some must be crushed down, and that condition of society was by all thoughtful people admitted, while others who were pessimists thought it was necessary. There were some who were pessimists through sheer despair. The aristocracy, as they knew, were ignoble money bags—(uproar)—and the superiority of caste was now replaced by the superiority of capital. However brutal a man might be he was thought to be a fit and proper master over the man who had not capital. By the aid of his craft and machinery a worker could always produce more than was necessary for his subsistence, and the margin between the product of his labour and what he got for it was broadly called profit. The serious question for civilization was how much of this extra product of his labour should the workman get for himself, none of it, some of it, or all of it. There were some who did produce and some who did not, and these latter lived on the product of those who did labour. The machinery which produced these terrible inequalities of society was simply this, on the one side non-producers and consumers, and on the other producers consuming as little as they consented to consume, and this machinery being bad required to be altered. The French Revolution had for its object the abolition of aristocratic privilege, and in this it succeeded, and the outcome of it was the heroic attempt of the Commune. (Uproar.) For a long period, during the time of Chartism, this country was in a state of chronic revolution, and then a wave of prosperity passed over, and Chartism was forgotten. Trade unionism then sprang up, and if any of these movements failed it was only because they were partial in their object. The spirit of the battle was changing. The very introduction of the great machines into industry had brought together the working classes, and had made them feel their oneness and solidarity, and had made them understand that the interests of all workmen were in common. Their object was to transform society, and there was much to encourage Socialists in this. In France socialist ideas wore rampant, as also were they in Germany. What was the cause of the filibustering expeditions which this country had engaged in of late? It meant that we had lost our monopoly of trade. What they wanted was for the people to look at the root of the matter, and they would find that their principle would produce more regulation of labour and production, instead of gambling with the product of labour, the shortening of the hours of labour, a great improvement of men's faculties, an improvement of the means of knowledge even in this University, and that life should not longer be a blind stumble from the cradle to the grave, with a seeking on the one hand for useless riches and on the other a miserable struggle for life: in short, one man for all, and all for each. They required that the workers should be society, and that outside the workers there should be no society whatever. (Applause.)

Dr. AVELING, who addressed the meeting as gentlemen and friends, at which there were loud cries of "No," said that the circumstances that had preceded that meeting and the very constitution of the meeting had a distinct bearing upon the consideration of the question of socialism. It was within the knowledge of the whole of them that this meeting was to be held in another hall; it was equally within the knowledge of them that difficulties arose with respect to it, and that brought them face to face with the fact that socialistic opinions were unpopular to-day. (Loud cheers.) And there was all the more credit to gentlemen like them for listening so patiently to what was unpopular. Why was the hall that was engaged before denied to them? Because it was quite clear that socialism was in a sense antagonistic to the received ideas of society, and was in a sense antagonistic to what was commonly called authority—(derisive cheers)—but he had yet to learn that undergraduates of any University were particularly anxious always to uphold authority. (Cheers.) What was the basis of this society of which they and he were products? Was it not commercialism, and was it not because of that basis of commercialism that they so often misunderstood the signs of the times and the arguments that were put before them. By commercialism he meant the question of production for profit, and was not that the basis of all modern society. They believed that profit could never be produced, under any circumstances whatever, without somebody being exploited, that was being wronged. The central position of socialists was this—that all profit in this or any other society wee due to unpaid labour, and if they analysed the question property sooner or later they would come back upon somebody who had worked without being paid for it. They were often told that their ideas were chimerical, revolutionary, and unscientific, but they tried to impress that they had a scientific basis for the economical faith that was in them. ("Oh, oh.") How many gentlemen who said "oh" had ever read a single work upon economics of any kind, and how many had read what they called the economics of socialism. It was because they had a scientific basis for socialism that he asked them to suspend their judgment when it was inclined to carry them away in a wholesale condemnation of socialistic ideas as purely unscientific. What Darwin had done for biological science they believed that Marx and his school had done for economical science—precisely the same kind of genius had been at work in the one science as in the other. The contention of the Marx school was that all profit and all capital were due to unpaid labour, and that society was based upon this unpaid labour. (Cries of "No.") He was only stating a conclusion, and did not ask them to endorse it. As he said, the statement of the school called Marx was that all profit and all capital were due to unpaid labour, and that society being based upon this idea, if profit and profit mongering was to give way, it would inevitably give way in the hereafter to another form of society in which profit would be as dead as serfdom and slavery were at the present time. The confusion that existed between socialistic economy and the ordinary economy was mainly in respect of the use of the word "value." Socialists held that there was a great distinction between what was called "use value" and what was called "value." It was upon that word "value" that the whole of their economic faith rested. They meant by "value" whatever was put into any product by human labour. Value was embodied human labour. Now what did they say about capital and labour? They said that for the last three or four days in the week every labourer in England was working absolutely for nothing as far as payment to him was concerned, and that all these last days of the week were put into his work and were the property of his employer. How was it that they were the property of his employer and not his? Because there were two classes in society—one, the possessing class, and the other the producing class. There were only two classes—those possessing the means of production all but one, and those who had only one means of production, viz., their own inherent body-power. The majority of them belonged to the so-called privileged class, in whose possession was all the means of production—capital, machinery, land, and so forth—but there was a larger class, who represented the labouring class, having nothing but their labour-power, and the contention of Socialists was that the labouring class was bound, inevitably bound by starvation staring in its face, to sell its labour-power to those who exploit it, that was the other class, and that everything that was produced, the whole wealth of the country, without any exception whatever, came from the labouring classes, in whose hands little or nothing of that wealth was at the present time. (Great uproar.) Where did their dividends come from, their profits, and their interests on investments? Where did all the emoluments of every college in Oxford come from? (Much interruption, and a voice, "They come from work.") That was right enough, everything came from the work of the working classes; but they also know well enough that the men, women, and children, who made the wealth of this country, could not hope to get the advantages of such an education as they had in Oxford. They might ask what was the remedy of the Socialists for this frightful state of things? He found that—friends and enemies alike—came to them, and expected when they had exposed the real cause of the evil that they should instantly produce out of their pockets a ready-made remedy. They should never believe that. He did not believe in any man who on any platform said that he had a ready-made remedy for all the evils in this world. The only remedy was to impart one of knowledge, and of education as to the cause of things; that was what they, as Socialists, were trying to drive home to them. They believed that all the means of production would have to get into the hands of the State—not the State as at present constituted: but what they wanted was a State that should be the organised capacity of all the workers of the country. The State of to-day was the organised tyranny of the idlers of the country. (Great uproar.) They believed that there would come a time when the organised capacity of the workers would be the State, and then they held that all the means of production would be the property, not of any private individual, but of the community at large. It was said that the Socialists wanted to abolish private property; they did not want to do that, but what they wanted to abolish was private property in the means of production. They believed that the happiness of the community would be better served by all the means of production being in the hands of the State, and that great accumulations of capital or land in the hands of any individual was an evil to be protested against, and ultimately to be fought against. They wanted, therefore, the nationalisation of the land; they wanted beyond that, ultimately, the nationalisation of all the means of production. Were they going to raise barricades in the streets, or do anything of the revolutionary blood-thirsty things that had been done in the past? Assuredly that was not their work now. Their work was to educate, educate, educate. This was, indeed, a very great movement—small in England he would admit—but those of them who knew the signs of the times on the Continent knew how it was growing there. (A voice, "Dynamite.") That was not their cry here, as they had the right of speaking in public meeting. He had been wandering through their marvellous City that day and one thing had been borne upon his mind. He had been thinking, as every man must think who passed through their colleges, who produced them first, and for whom were they to be ultimately. Those exquisite buildings of theirs, those quadrangles, those meadows, those marvellous chapels, those stained windows, those magnificent piles, he asserted, were the product of that labouring class that to-day did not even catch the sound or scent of them afar off. That was their past history—built by the workers, and to be owned in good time by all workers of the community, for that day was coming when every man and woman throughout the civilised world would be a worker, and when profit-mongering and exploiting would be a thing of the past. (Loud yells and hooting.)

The CHAIRMAN then invited questions to be put upon the statements which had been made.

Mr. WEATHERLY said it was no new thing to be told of the inequalities of class education and so forth, and he wished to ask how it was proposed to define stock or capital, and how it was it existed?

Dr. AVELING said that capital was the result of part labour set aside for use for future labour, and every piece of capital was the result of unpaid labour which was used in producing further profits.

Mr. WEATHERLY instanced the case of a shoemaker making a pair of boots for which he received 10s., and he asked if he spent 5s. of it and thereby lived, and kept the other 5s. of it to get more leather with, was that not the man's capital?

Dr. AVELING said that what was more particularly alluded to by the Socialists was the enormous capital of some men which had been got from the working classes, such for instance as Mr. Chamberlain-(groans)-which capital should be devoted to the benefit of the community as a whole rather than to one individual's self-aggrandisement. They contended that capital in the present day was a selfish aggrandisement by individuals of money, instead of its being used for the general good.

Another gentlemen enquired of Mr. Morris whether he allowed his workmen to share in the profits of his business in the manner he had advocated.

Mr. Morris's reply was of an evasive character, as, although he believed in such a principle, he asked "how he was to begin to adopt it." If he parted with his capital it would go into the hands of others, but he could tell them this, that there was a Socialist Society among his workmen.

The CHAIRMAN intimated that no questions of a personal nature could be put. This led to some interruption, in the course of which an undergraduate in the middle of the room spilt some liquid having a most offensive odour upon the door, and a great many persons left.

The CHAIRMAN characterised the proceeding as disgusting, and when our reporter left a resolution had been carried to the effect that the meeting disagreed with the views which had been expressed, and the National Anthem was being sung with great heartiness.



Sir,-The Oxford Socialist League directs me to ask your permission to lay before your readers the following facts as to the late meeting which was held on Wednesday the 25th last, and was addressed by Messrs. William Morris and Edward Aveling, Delegates of the Socialist League, London.

The room originally engaged for the meeting was the Clarendon Assembly Room. On Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 24, however, Mr. Attwood, of the Clarendon Hotel, gave written notice that he refused the use of the room for the purpose of the meeting, alleging that there existed "an organized conspiracy to create a disturbance and wreck the room." The League fortunately secured another place—the Music Room, Holywell; there the meeting was held, and Messrs. Morris and Aveling were listened to with attention in their exposition of the meaning and aims of Socialism. The main business of the meeting being thus concluded, the evident sense of the immense majority of those present was that the proposed process of putting questions to the lecturers and hearing their answers should be gone on with; but this was soon stopped by a "secret act' committed by a small knot of persons. There is nothing to show, nor is it worth inquiring, whether this was the act of an "organized conspiracy," If the actors are not ashamed of what they did they are to be pitied.

I am, Sir, yours obediently,
A. S. ROBINSON, Secretary.

February 20, 1885.