William Morris

Socialism [*]


I think I may without offence assume that a large part of my audience knows no more of Socialism than the name, and that it will be convenient to look upon our wide, nay stupendous, subject from an elementary point of view; and this all the more as I shall be liable to the same criticism so treating it as I should be if I attempted something more elaborate: for this is a subject where the admission of the principle is the one important matter, nor ought it be so difficult for me to lay these principles before you; while at the same time if I can do so with any amount of clearness, there is nothing so abstruse in them, nothing so technical, but that any intelligent person could at once understand them.

Indeed it were strange if it were not so since Socialism has to do with all that is practical in our daily life.

But again even those of you who know that they know nothing of the principles of socialism may think that they understand pretty well those on which our present society is based, and that they have nothing to learn here: but this assumption I beg leave to deny: it is only by learning something of Socialism that we can understand what the present society is, what it aims at doing, and what are the means whereby it carries out its aims. Most of you I fancy never put to your selves the question: why am I in the position in which I am? Why is the workman, the beggar, the pauper, the criminal in his position; and why is the great capitalist, the land owner, in a word the rich man, in his position: few of you have ever doubted the necessity for the existence of the classes into which society is divided, or suspected that {2} the arrangement might not go on for ever. Even when you have felt most discontented with your own lot or that of your fellow men, you have supposed that it has been and will be necessary for the existence of society that there should be a rich class and a poor one; therefore you have never troubled your heads as to what makes some men belong to the poor, some to the rich class, but have supposed that it was a piece of accident, or say a provision of nature so deeply rooted and abstruse in its origin that it is no use enquiring into it.

We Socialists on the contrary believe that we know why these classes exist and how they have grown into what they are, a growth inevitable indeed, but so far from being eternal that it will itself destroy itself and give place to something else, a society in which there will be no rich and no poor.

Therefore before we look specially into the matter of what Socialism is let us consider how our present society is composed; since by the light of that contrast we shall see things clearly that might otherwise be obscure.

The society of the present day like all others is founded on the necessity of the human race for constant labour, for a ceaseless contest with nature who without labour gives us nothing:[1] when you hear people talking about the possibility of things being free; education, libraries and what not, you must understand that some person or persons have to pay for them, we don't and can't mean to say that they are given to us; we have made them and won them before we can use them.

{3} There is no question then as to whether man must labour in order to live, but there has always been a question as to how that labour shall be apportioned amongst the members of society, and also how its results shall be shared amongst them. I have no time to go into the history of the answer to these questions; I will only remind you that for ages both the work and the wealth won by it from nature have been unequally divided: there has always since the dawn of history in communities called civilized been a class which has had much work and little wealth living beside another class which has had much wealth and little work. Also during all this time those civilized communities have professed various religions which have inculcated justice and fair dealing, and have even sometimes bidden men to bear each others burdens, the strong to work for the weak, the wise for the foolish, the prudent for the thriftless; and yet these precepts of morality have always been thrust aside and evaded by class by-laws so to say, and today it is still a rule of our society amidst all our refinement, all our shrinking from violence and rudeness that those who work most shall fare the hardest, and that the reward of idleness shall be abundant wealth. Clearly then either those precepts of morality are mere foolish dreams and bid us to do what we recognize now to be impossible; or else those class by-laws which bid us evade them with a clear conscience are ruinously misleading, the foundation of continuous unhappiness and of future degradation and the downfall of civilization.

That to my mind is the alternative. Yet I admit that at the present day people do {4} try [to] evade the horns of the dilemma; the inequality and [undeserved?] misery of our class society they say are inevitable, nor can we apply the precepts of justice and love to them except that within those classes we can palliate the poverty on one side [and] the luxury on the other by our individual efforts towards kindliness and manliness: hapless and futile compromise! to fight feebly against the results of the very machine that we have made to uphold, conscious all the time of certain defeat: thus do we the well to do and prosperous dull the sting of conscience, and yield ourselves to the stream of class violence, our best hope being that joy may oppose itself to grief, health to disease, right to wrong, life to death for a little while, but that the sum of all is and must be irresistible evil.

With this modern pessimism which has taken the place of the stern hope of mediaeval pietism wherein the wretched slaves of this world were to be the joyous masters of the next; with the pessimism of the well to do of a luxurious age we Socialists have nothing to do: we say those precepts of morality were not and are not mere 'Counsels of perfection' the birth of dreamy fanaticism, but rather the principles of reasonable action, rules of mutual defence against the tyranny of nature, and that the society which acts on them will be far wealthier and infinitely happier than our present one; that the sum of its wealth will be so great, that even the rich men of the present day would find in it ample compensation for the loss of the riches which they cannot use [now?] for their own happiness but which, whether they will it or not, must be used for the unhappiness of their fellows.

{5} For what is the composition of society at present, this society founded on so called freedom of contract, on labour and capital, cash payments, and the supply and demand of the markets?

It is simple; far simpler than that of past ages and especially of the last age, the feudal period, which was based on a hierarchy wherein each from the highest to the lowest had (in theory at least) his rights and his duties to those above and below him: all these elaborate groups have since the full development of the Commercial period been resolved into two great classes, those who possess all the means of the production of wealth save one, and who those who possess nothing except that one, the power of labour. The first class, the rich, therefore can compel the latter, or the poor, to sell that power of labour to them on terms which ensure the continuance of the rich class, and therefore properly speaking own the poor class and indeed are called their masters: only as the latter are very numerous and the former but few, the masters dare not drive them into a corner for fear they should rebel against them: indeed in one way or another they have rebelled even in our own times and are organized for rebellion (though but badly and loosely) into trades unions, at least in England.

If it were not for this fear of revolt, this continuing struggle on the part of the workmen to get more out of the employers all workmen would only get as much as would supply them with bare necessaries, that is would enable them to live work and breed; but as it is a proportion of the workmen do get more than this bare subsistence wage: these are the skilled workmen, especially {6} in those crafts where women and children cannot be employed to reduce the wages of adult males, and those protected by trades unions[2]; of the rest few of them can be said to have more than a bare subsistence wage, and when they grow sick and old would die if it were not for the refuge afforded them by the workhouse, which is purposely made as prison-like and wretched as possible, for fear that the lower paid workers should in their despair take refuge there before their time, of industrial death so to say, comes on them.

This then is the first distinction between the two classes, that the one possesses nothing but the power of labour inherent in their own bodies, and the other possesses everything necessary to make that labour fruitful; so that the labourers cannot work until they have obtained leave from their masters to do so, which the latter will only grant on the condition that the workers will yield up to them all the produce over and above their livelihood, which as I have said above is mostly only just enough to live on and seldom or ever rises much above that. Unless they rebel the workers must accept these terms, since they must live from day to day: moreover owing to the ever increasing productivity of labour helped by the wonderful machines of our epoch, and organized for production with so much skill, and owing also to the long hours of labour, and the employment in most trades of women and children to whom it [is] not even pretended that a subsistence wage is given, there are, taking one year with another, more workers than there is work for them to do, so that they compete with each other for employment, or in other words sell their labour-power in the market at Dutch Auction to their masters, so that the latter are able now-a-days to dispense {7} with the exercise of visible force in compelling them to work which in earlier days of the world masters used towards their slaves.

Besides this distinction between the classes of one possessing wealth, and the other lacking it, there is another to which I will now draw your attention: the class which lacks wealth is the class which produces it, the wealth owners only consume it. If by any chance the whole of the wage earners or "lower classes" were to perish or leave the community, production of wealth would come to a standstill unless the masters were to descend to the level of their former slaves and have to learn to work for their livelihood: if on the contrary the masters were to disappear production of wealth would go on pretty much as before, though we might reasonably hope that its method of distribution would be altered.

I will here meet an objection which will probably occur to most of you: you will say do not the masters or what you call the possessing class work? Undoubtedly a large part of them do work, but for the most part their work is unfruitful or sometimes directly harmful. There are some useful occupations, chiefly physic, education, and the fine arts which are exercised by members of the privileged classes: of whom one can say nothing worse than that they are paid too high in proportion to their workmen, so that they partly earn their livelihood and partly fleece it from the workers: but these are but a small part of the possessing classes as to number, and as to the wealth they hold it is insignificant compared with that held by those who do nothing useful. As to these last some of them do not pretend to do anything but amuse themselves, and these probably {8} do the least harm; of the rest some are engaged in work which only our complicated system of compulsion and inequality, or injustice in short, makes necessary. They, as lawyers or clergymen for instance are the parasites of the system: but the rest are engaged in gambling or fighting for their individual shares of the tribute which their class has compelled the working class to yield to it; they are never producing wealth hard as they may work.

Again to answer another possible objection: the tribute taken from the workers is no trifle, but amounts in all to about two thirds of all they produce: but you may say such profits as that are seldom made by the employer who has to be content with 10 per cent perhaps, or perhaps even less in bad times. Well I have just said that it was the rich class that took this tribute not the individual employer only; besides his tribute, which in all cases is as much as he can get amidst the competition or war with other employers, the worker has to pay taxes for payment amidst other things of the interest of the national debt which the privileged classes take to themselves and remember that all taxes are in the long run paid by labour, since labour only can produce wealth: rent also he has to pay, and much heavier rent in proportion to his income than rich people; the commission of middle-men, who distribute the goods he has made, and who instead of doing this distribution simply and for a moderate payment, form a system of wheels within wheels, and make monstrous profits from their busy idleness: lastly if he is fairly well to do he has to pay to a benefit society or a trades Union a tax for the precariousness of his employment brought about by the gambling of his masters, he has to help them to pay their poor rates and {9} thus actually enables the master to shut his factory gates on him when there is an open trades dispute between employers and employed; since otherwise the master would be taxed for his subsistence in the workhouse. In short besides the profit on unpaid labour that he yields to his immediate master, he has to give back to the employing class to which his master belongs a great part of the wages which he receives from his immediate master.

Now it is clear that there is a class struggle always going on between the employers and employed, though neither party may be conscious of it: the interests of the two classes are opposed to each other: it is the object of the employing class to get as much as it can out of its privilege, the possession of the means of production, and all it makes can only be made at the expense of the workers, any increase in the fertility of the possessions of the rich must come from the labour of the poor: on the other hand if the workers succeed in raising their standard of life they can only do so at the expense of the rich; what one gains the other loses[3]; there is therefore constant war between them, and yet it is a war in which the capitalist must always win until the workers resolve to be an inferior class no longer.

Meantime observe that the privilege of the possessing class consists in their power of living on the unpaid labour of others: if the capital of the rich man consists of land, he forces his tenant to improve his land for him, exacts tribute from him in the form of rent and still has his land improved generally when the transaction has come to an end, so that he can begin the game over again, and carry it on for ever, he and his heirs. {10} If he has houses on his land, he has rent for them, also often receiving the value of the buildings many times over, and at the end house and land once more: not seldom a piece of barren ground or bog becomes a source of huge fortune to him from the growth and development of a town or district, and he pockets the results of the labours of thousands of men and calls it his property. Or the earth beneath the surface is found out to be rich in minerals, and he is paid enormous sums for leave and license to labour them into marketable wares. And all the while in each case he has been sitting still doing nothing, or it may be worse than nothing; devising means perhaps in parliament for strengthening and continuing his pernicious domination. Or again if his capital consist in cash, he goes into the labour-market, and directly or indirectly buys the labour-power of men women and children and uses it for the production of wares which shall bring him a profit, keeping down their livelihood to as low a point as they will bear in order that the profit may be greater; which indeed the competition or war with his fellow capitalists compels him to do. Nor does he do anything to earn this profit, nothing useful in any case, and he need do absolutely nothing; since he can buy the brain power of managers and foremen on terms a little higher than he buys the hand-power of the ordinary workmen; mostly he does seem to be doing something and receives this pompous title of an 'organizer of labour', but what he does even then is nothing but organizing the battle with his enemies the other capitalists who happen to be in the same way of business as himself, and so both his idleness and his industry do but serve to make {11} life hard and anxious for all of us.

Thus then I have told you briefly what the composition of our society is in this age of Commerce. Let me recapitulate before I go further:

There are two classes, a useful and a useless class: the useless class is called the upper, the useful the lower class: the one class having the monopoly of all the means of production except the power of labour can and does compel the other to work for its advantage so that no man of the workers receives more than a portion, the lesser portion too of the wealth he creates; nor will the upper class allow the lower to work on any other terms: I must add that as a necessary consequence the rich class having great superfluity of riches withdraws many of the workmen from the production of wealth and forces them to minister to its idleness luxury or folly, and so by waste makes the lot of the labourer harder yet.

This is I say the constitution of our present society; and surely you will not deny that if I have stated the matter truly, it is but a sorry result of all the struggles of man towards civilization. You may admit that, yet think the misery of it inevitable and eternal and that nothing can be done but to hope that the good nature and kindliness of individuals may more or less palliate the evils the source of which can never be dried up. Or you may perhaps hope that some new religion will arise which will take such hold of the hearts of men that those who have the opportunity will forego the excitement of gambling with other peoples property and the pleasure of living luxuriously at other peoples expense, and will live justly and {12} austerely considering themselves as nothing more than trustees of the wealth which the people have made and entrusted to their care[4]. I will not say that this will not happen but I am sure that when it does those leaders of humanity will at once manifest their newly gained moral sense by begging their fellow men to relieve them from their position of dignity and authority which will for ever tempt them or rather compel them to live in that very way which they have found out to be degrading to themselves and oppressive to their fellows. In sober earnest I say that no man is good enough to be master over others; whatever the result to them, it at least ruins him: equality of fellowship is necessary for developing the innate good and restraining the innate evil which exists in every one.

But indeed I do hope for the rise of a new religion, nay with all earnestness I preach to you now, for it is called Socialism.

It proclaims the necessity of association among men if the progress of the race is to be anything more than a name; society it says must be the condition of man's existence as man: and the aim of that society is something higher than the greatest happiness of the greatest number: it is to offer a chance of happiness to every one, that is to say an opportunity for the full development of each human life: it denies the title of society to any system which degrades one class to exalt another; nay more it asserts that if we injure any one member for the benefit of all the rest, we have poisoned and corrupted our society: an injury to one will be an injury to all, and will so be felt in the long run.

Instead of that system {13} now existing which exacts a tribute from one class in order that another may be freed from the necessity of labour, it asserts that each should pay his tribute of labour to nature, and each in turn receive his share of the wealth which each has done his best to create: so only it says shall we avoid the waste of the few and the want of the many: so only can we rise above that perpetual condition of war in which indeed the beasts live not unhappily, since their memory is so limited that they are not conscious of abiding fear, of anxiety, or of aspirations: whereas with us anxiety and hope deffered [sic] and all the self inflicted miseries of our civilization form a terrible burden the sense of which is deeply impressed on the art, the literature, the religion of mankind.

Combination for livelihood therefore and the assurance of equal chance for everyone are what we socialists want to bring about, and probably most of those here present will agree in thinking such an aim is good: but I suppose some will say the thing is impossible; a little knot of people preaching certain utopian doctrines cannot bring about such a stupendous revolution as this. Well, no set of people knows that better than socialists: at no time can a part of a society existing change the basis of that society unhelped by those of past ages: but we socialists claim that the progress of mankind has really been steadily in this direction, and that all we have to do is to help in developing the obvious and conscious outcome of this progress. I have not time now to go into the historical side of the question: I prefer to lay before [you] the {14} aims of socialism in as much detail as possible: but I am obliged to remind you that there have been since the beginning of definite history three conditions under which industrial production has gone on: mere slavery under the classical peoples; serfdom in the Middle Ages, and wage labour and capital today: to suppose that when this [sic] former systems have passed away this latter one must necessarily outlast the world is manifestly absurd, and there are abundant signs of the approaching change for those who can read them. There has always been a double thread running through the history of mankind; contention for individual gain has been visible always but so also has the tendency towards combination for [?] gain, the two have been always visibly contending with one another, and whenever the latter has appeared, it has always done so with renewed force and wider scope: and in these later times combination for the production of wealth has progressed immensely with the result that the productive powers of labour have so increased as to become at last an absolute evil under the present system; of that more presently. It was discovered ages ago that one man working with tools could produce more than was necessary for his own subsistence, and on this discovery class society was built; tribes when they went to war took prisoners and made them slaves instead of killing them, because the slave could live on less than he produced: but to jump over a long interval of various transitions the change from mere tools to machines as auxiliaries of man’s own powers has quite enormously increased the margin between the necessary livelihood of a man and his capacity of production, especially since an elaborate system of cooperative organization has gone along with the invention {15} of the machines: the increased wealth so produced has notoriously not gone to the labourer but has enriched the classes who live upon his labour, and especially has almost made a rich middle class where life is not distinguishably less easy or luxurious than that of the territorial nobility: so that though there was theoretically more difference between the slave of ancient Greece and Rome and his master the gentleman citizen, or between the serf and the baron of the feudal period than there is now between the workman and the capitalist, there is really more difference in the manner of life and the refinement attainable between these two classes than between the employer and employed of earlier times: in fact there is so much real difference that there is now no necessity for making those arbitrary and legal distinctions which once drew the line of demarcation between rich and poor: the upper classes can now with a cheap generosity afford to declare all classes equal before the law; since they well know that they cannot avail themselves of that sham equality; a sham equality I say, so long as men have not economical equality, so long as they are not on equal terms in disposing of their labour-power: for we have seen that the whole of the working class is compelled to give an hours work for less than an hours just pay that is for less than the amount of wealth produced by that work.[5]

Now the upshot of all this [is] that the contest of classes which has always gone on, is now limited to a narrow issue and simplified by being cleared of all by-issues. It was necessary for the supremacy of the {16} commercial classes, the capitalists, that political and legal freedom should be established, since they on the one hand needed the working class as allies against the aristocracy of hereditary privileges, and on the other needed the workman free from all bondage and all support which would hinder his labour power from being a mere commodity saleable in the market like other wares. Therefore two classes the employers and employed, that is the sweaters and the sweated are now face to face; and though it is true that the ashes of the old struggle are not quite burned out, and in England the working classes are not fully conscious of this antagonism between the classes, yet the consciousness of that struggle which has so long been going on cannot be much longer delayed.

On the defeat of chartism, itself a political movement on the surface, though at bottom it meant revolution, the Trades Unions became the visible token of the class struggle in this country: they gained during a period of great commercial prosperity all the success they were capable of gaining, to wit an improved position for the better off of the workmen engaged in the more consolidated industries: but they can no longer be considered as fighting bodies, partly perhaps because they have been lulled asleep by their very success, but chiefly I believe because the issue has been changed since the time when they were most vigorously at strife with the masters: the Trades Unions claimed a mere rise of wages when the selling price of the article they made rose, admitting the necessity of their accepting lower when if fell: only in their palmy days the general tendency of the market was {17} to rise as it now is to fall, so that they appeared to sustain the class conflict much more than they did, as their strikes were then often successful, and of course were so at the immediate expense of the capitalists: in any case a rate of wages roughly proportioned to the rate of profit made by the masters was what they strove for: all classes are now feeling that that point is won so far as it goes, though there may be a little bickering on individual cases, and that the real question now is whether the masters have any claim to profits at all, that is in other words whether the masters are necessary, and accordingly the Trades Unionists and their leaders who were once the butt of the most virulent abuse from the whole of the Upper and Middle Classes are now praised and petted by them because they do tacitly or openly acknowledge the necessity for the masters existence; it is felt that they were no longer the enemy; the class struggle in England is entering into a new phase, which may even make the once dreaded Trades Unions allies of capital, since they in their turn form a kind of privileged group among the workmen: in fact they now no longer represent the whole class of workers as working men but rather are charged with the office of keeping the human part of the capitalists machinery in good working order and freeing it from any grit of discontent.

Again look at the change which has come over the world of politics: the boundaries between the old parties are thrown down, the differences between the programme of the Tories and the Liberals is so small that no one but a mere party man can take any interest in the contest between them; nay the very radicals whose name was once used for frightening babies with, are at this moment finding it difficult to get out a programme {18} which shall distinguish them from the Tories, and have to rely on the hope that the chapter of accidents may force their opponents into a position reactionary enough for them to attack safely: without the fear of their lending themselves to the progress of Revolution.

For you see the explanation of this is that the real movement of today is quite outside the conception of political parties: it is true that those parties are conscious of the existence of the great class of the workers, but they look upon them merely as an instrument to be played on for the 'good of society', instead of what they really are: a great force slowly but surely developing into a new society, but only needing completer organization of their scattered elements to become that society. Such a contingency as that our Parliamentary system does not recognize and cannot recognize: it can see nothing but the relation of master and servant repeated in various forms throughout all society: it is driven indeed into trying to make those relations bearable to a large portion of the servants, for it has to admit that on its success in so doing depends the very existence of our present Society: further than this it cannot go: when it is discovered as it is beginning to be that the relation of master and servant is unbearable and produces misery and suffering that cannot even be largely palliated its function will be gone and it will find itself face to face with revolution, that is to say the New Birth of Society. When that day comes all that is progressive in it will melt into the Revolution, while its reactionary part will openly oppose the happiness of mankind: most vainly certainly, and one {19} may hope so feebly, that it will have to yield to the mere threat of force, and that the waste and misery of civil war may be avoided: but remember that it can only be avoided by the combination and organization of all that is most energetic, most orderly, most kindly, most aspiring among the working-classes: a moments thought will show you that the Upper and Middle Classes who are divorced from useful production could not resist the union of the Useful, the Lower Classes for a week. Take note then, working men, that the Revolution, the change in the basis of Society, must come, and choose whether there shall be a transition period of violence confusion and chaos, or whether we shall glide into the society peaceably because obviously irresistibly.

It may be news perhaps, as a further sign of the times, to some of you that though in England the consciousness of the necessity for revolution is only dawning, the populations on the Continent are fully awake to it: nothing but mere brute force of armed men or abject poverty now prevents the outbreak of the last stage of struggle: or perhaps we may rather say that they are only waiting for one thing – the awaking of England, the great Country of Commercialism, and consequently in spite of all appearances to the contrary the Country where the opposition of classes is most trenchant.

Now as to the claims of that socialism which is advancing upon us certainly, though possibly slowly, I have in a way stated them in putting before you a sketch of the tyranny and folly of our present conditions; but I {20} will now try to state them positively instead of negatively, which I feel to be all the more necessary since though the word Socialism is now in every body’s mouth I believe that the ideas of most people as to what it is or aims at are very vague.

The aim of Socialism is to make the best by man's effort of the chances of happiness which the life of man upon the earth offers us, using the word happiness in its widest and deepest sense, and to assure to every one born into the world his full share of that chance: and this can only be assured to him by men combining together for this benefit: if we fight with each other for it it is certain that some will gain it at the expense of others and in the struggle will waste as much as they gain.

We want to make people leave off saying this is mine and that is thine, and to say this is ours.

[In other words we look forward to a Society in which all wealth would be the property of the Community, would be held collectively][6]

But do not misunderstand this assertion as you easily may by not being clear about the use of the word property: property at present means the power of preventing other people from using wealth; as for instance a man may and often does refuse to cultivate a tract of land himself or to allow others to do so: but as we understand property it means the possession of wealth which we can use ourselves: it is necessary to explain this because with present ideas of property when one talks of the community possessing all property you may have the idea of a government or State holding the property and only granting the use of it to people on certain arbitrary conditions; that is to certain privileged persons. {21} But a socialist community would hold wealth only to use it, and it could only use it as a community by satisfying with it the needs of all its members, since a community consists of each and all the individuals composing it: there is none left out, or it has no right to call itself a community, a Commonwealth.

Everyone's reasonable needs must be satisfied therefore first for food and shelter, and next for pleasure bodily and mental, which would include the full development of any individual according to his capacity, an aim which is rendered possible by the great variety of capacity existing in the individuals of the race, and which Socialism would foster as sedulously as the present system depresses it.

I have said that no arbitrary conditions would be imposed on the members of a true Commonwealth for the satisfaction of their reasonable needs: but there is one Condition which is not arbitrary and which all must accept: they must all work for the Commonwealth or there will be in the long term no wealth: but their needs need not be estimated conventionally by the supposed value or dignity of the work which they do; because that would at once give rise to a fresh system of classes, that is of privileged people tormenting the unprivileged: and why should labour be divided into privileged [and unprivileged]? all kinds are necessary to the Commonweal; nor is the difficulty and labour of exercising a specially excellent capacity at all proportioned to its excellence. The man who can do the higher work does it as easily as he who does the lower: and neither again is the expensiveness of the workman’s needs necessarily proportioned to the excellence of his work; nay the man who does the rougher work may need the more expensive livelihood, and if he does he ought to have it: In short the maxim which true Socialism would carry out is 'From each what he can do; to each what he needs.'[7]

{22} And if that seems to you an impossible maxim to carry out, pray consider what goes on in a well conducted family which is above the pressure of mere poverty: the sick, the weak, the old, the infants are not stinted of food or shelter or such pleasures as they can enjoy simply because they add little or nothing to the wealth that the family subsists on: they do what they can and have what they need: and if it be the rule in a decent family to bear one another's burdens, tell me I beg of you why it is that in the bigger family called Society the rule should be for each to do his best to snatch the meat out of his fellows mouth as starving wolves are used to do?

You may still say but is it possible on this larger scale? I have alluded before to the fact that every man working with due combination of his fellows in a civilized society can produce more than is absolutely necessary to his own subsistence: this [is] the basis of all industrial society; but in these latter days mans productivity has increased enormously because of the invention of machines and general improvement of organization, while his necessities remain what they always were. Now of the difference between what the workman needs to live on and the value of the wealth he produces a very small portion goes to him, the main part being claimed by his masters as profit, rent, and interest; and the increase in that surplus value has in our days grown so enormous that nobody ever dreamed of the workman receiving a proportionate share of it: it seems to me that increase has gone to create a rich middle-class whose occupation is to fight with each other for their shares of the surplus value of labour. This occupation cannot be necessary to the production of wealth, but unfortunately a {23} large part of the working classes (whose occupation obviously is necessary to the production of wealth) is still under the influence of the superstition that these 'employers of labour' so-called are necessary to their employment: there is no wonder in that, they are ignorant, hard driven by need, and without leisure for thought, and moreover have been habitually hoodwinked by the writings of the intellectual part of the employing class, themselves probably unconscious or but half conscious of the fraud which class instinct compels them to commit.

But now at last their eyes are slowly opening to the real state of the case: the course of events is compelling them to feel if not to see that they must no longer depend on people to employ them who will very naturally make them pay for the fulfillment of that function: it is actually now being proved that the middle-class occupation of fighting for the share of the surplus-value wrung from the workers is useless and wasteful: trade is said to be suffering a depression caused by over-production: over-production of what? of wealth?[8] That should mean that every person in the country has more than he needs to eat, more than he needs to wear, more and better house-room than he wants, well that would be a curse we might soon modify into a blessing: but indeed it seems it does not mean that, and whatever it means it strikes people as a real evil to be abated at any cost: at Manchester lately I was told that it was the personal opinion sustained by one of the economical lights there that the one thing needed to amend the Depression of Trade was a great European war and that some of the surplus wealth might be destroyed. One's brain whirls at the enormity of the confession of helplessness or stupidity in the present system which this involves.

{24} What! you have created too much wealth? You cannot give away the overplus; nay you cannot even carry it out into the fields and burn it there and go back again merrily to make some more of what you don't want; but you must actually pick a sham quarrel with other people and slay 100,000 men to get rid of wares which when got rid of you are still intent on producing with as much ardour as heretofore: O lame and impotent conclusion of that Manchester school which has filled the world with the praises of its inventiveness its energy its love of peace! Strange that the new Atilla, the new Ghengis Khan, the modern scourge of God, should be destined to stalk through the world wrapped in the gentlemanly broadcloth of a quaker manufacturer!

In short my friends what this depression of trade really means, this overproduction, is that for the time at least the middle-class who live on our labour and fight among themselves for their share of what it produces are finding that their warfare does not even pay them: and if they the plunderers must teach us this surely we the plundered should not be slow to learn the lesson, which is simply that they are not needed. The remedy lies in the hands of the workers; their masters as a class cannot see it, will not tell us how to get rid of them.

The way how to get rid of the useless classes is to abolish the profit of the individual, to let the producer have in one way or another all that he produces: when this takes place, the land, capital, the machinery, the plant and stock in short, will naturally fall into the possession of the producers, since it would be useless to any one else: nay there would soon be nobody else to possess it, for there would be no surplus value available to keep {25} an idle class, a non-producing class, upon: our class society would cease to exist.

I do not say that this would at once bring us to that condition of collective or communal holding of property which I have already put before you: much would have to [be] done first, troublous times, partial failures even would have to be met before we could quite shake off that old fear of starvation which our present competitive or plundering system has imposed upon us: before we got to see quite plainly that the loss to one involved loss to all: before we got instinctively to consider it a disgrace unendurable to an honest man to shoulder off our burden, now grown so light, on to another man’s back; before the ease of livelihood, leisure, and simple refinement of life allowed us to look upon work, the useful exercise of our special energies, as a daily recurring pleasure and not a daily recurring curse.

Yet all these good things we should I am sure gain in time when we had once taken that first [step] of insisting that all shall produce as all consume, which means the abolition of classes.

And lastly if this revolution seem to you a prodigious one, as surely it is, I say once more it lies in the hands of the workers, of the useful classes to bring it about: what ever they demand must be yielded if reason backs them.

When the complaint of the poor which has ever been heard dimly or less dim amidst the excitement of life rouses people at last to definite organization they gain what they claim; yes even when that organization is partial and imperfect. The Chartists {26} claimed[9] political freedom: it is now yielded. The Trades Unions claimed some share in the increase of the profit of the capitalists; that also had to be yielded, how ungraciously accompanied with what unmanly complaints, what base slander of the workers at the hands of their masters some of you may forget but I remember: and now this last claim for final freedom; freedom to work and live and enjoy as it is infinitely greater and more important than the others so surely will be claimed more widely with greater intelligence and if possible greater determination. With what amount of resistance it may meet none can tell, but this is certain that it must meet with no forcible resistance unless the upper classes can delude some part of the workers [to] take their part in defence of their unjust and pernicious position: nor less certain, I believe, that when the mask falls from the face of this huge tyranny of the modern world, and it is shown as an injustice conscious of its own wrong to the honest and just of the upper classes themselves the risks of devastation will seem light compared with the degradation of championing an injustice.

Yes I believe that if the intelligent of the working-classes and honourable and generous of the employing class could learn to see the system under which we live as it really is, all the dangers of change would seem nothing to them and our capitalistic society would not be worth 6 months purchase.

It is in this belief that I am here tonight preaching to you the new good tidings of Socialism.

MIA Footnotes

*. This text is taken from Morris's manuscript. This is generally clear, but had not been edited for print. Morris's punctuation has been kept but sometimes supplemented with commas. Any guesses at apparently missing words have been inserted in [square brackets]. Illegible words (generally later additions by Morris between lines) are in square brackets with question marks. Numbers in parentheses are the manuscript sheet numbers.

1. This is close to the argument of Marx at the start of Capital:

So far therefore as labour is a creator of use value, is useful labour, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and Nature, and therefore no life.

However, in this period Morris replaces Marx's idea of 'material exchanges' with nature with that of his contemporary positivists, the struggle to dominate nature. 'The conquest of nature' was a phrase used in Morris's political writings throughout the 1880s.

2. The general argument here (that the 'iron law of wages' is moderated by the ability of the working class to fight for higher wages) is that of Marx, but the specific points about male dominated industries and the Trades Unions are inspired by the article Engels wrote for the Commonweal in March 1885, which introduced the term 'labour aristocracy': England in 1845 and 1885.

3. Morris at this time still sometimes took a zero-sum view of the division of the value created in production. The Marxian counter-argument is that one result of increased wages may be the introduction of new machinery which raises productivity and at least temporarily allows higher wages to coexist with greater profits (see in particular Marx, Value, Price and Profit). In modern terms, a growing 'cake' may give bigger shares to everyone, at least for a time.

4. This concern about the possibility of a new, positivist, religion based on the 'moralization of capital' was repeated in another of Morris's talks of the period: Commercial War.

5. Morris seems to have paused in his writing here; he left a note to remind himself of the topics still to cover: how can it be changed. Signs of the times Trades Unions Politics

6.This passage was marked off in square brackets by Morris himself.

7. Although now associated mainly with Marx's use of the phrase in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, that had not yet been published when Morris was writing. Marx was in fact referring to a principle of the earlier utopians Saint Simon ('À chacun selon ses capacités, à chaque capacité selon ses œuvres'), Louis Blanc ('De chacun selon ses moyens, à chacun selon ses besoins') and Cabet ('A chacun suivant ses besoins; de chacun suivant ses forces'), as is Morris here.

8. The period from 1873-1896, sometimes called the Great Depression, saw steadily falling wages, and within this general period of downturn there was a sharper depression between 1884-5, the cause of which was widely believed to be over-production. See First Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor: Industrial Depressions, March 1886, Chapter 1: Great Britain (available on archive.org).

9. The words "though those who first claimed it" are added at the top of the page, but it is not evident where in the text Morris meant them to be inserted.

Bibliographical Note




The reference list of deliveries of this lecture is Lemire, Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, No. 66 (p.303). The list below is based on that list, with the addition of some previously misclassified deliveries (based on the text in newspaper reports), and removal of the lecture given on 11/8/1887 in Huddersfield, reallocated to What Socialists Want.

  1. 29th March 1885 before the Mile End branch of the Socialist League at 110 Whitehorse St, Whitechapel
  2. 9th June 1885 before the Oxford branch of the Socialist League and the Marx Club
  3. 28th June 1885 before the Northampton branch of the National Secular Society at Cow Meadow, Northampton
  4. 10th October 1885 before the Working Men's College at Great Ormond St, Bloomsbury.
  5. 10th November 1885, advertised as Rise of a New Epoch but actually Socialism, before the Oxford branch of the Socialist League in the Music Room, Holywell, Oxford.
  6. 15th November 1885 before the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League at Kelmscott House - text read out by May Morris.
  7. 12th January 1886 before the Peckham and Dulwich Radical Club at 144 Rye Lane, Peckham.
  8. 24th January 1886 before the Hackney and Shoreditch branches of the Social Democratic Federation at Goldsmith Row, Hackney Road.
  9. 14th February 1886 [scheduled] before the Patriotic Club in London.
  10. 2nd March 1886 before the Worker's Brotherhood in the Concert Hall, Lord Nelson St, Liverpool.
  11. 8th March 1886 before the Norwich branch of the Socialist League in the Victoria Hall, Norwich
  12. 13th April 1886 before the Dublin branch of the Socialist League at 30 Great Brunswick St, Dublin
  13. 16th May 1886 before the Birmingham branch of the Socialist League at the Baskerville Hall, The Crescent, Birmingham
  14. 28th June 1886 before the Glasgow branch of the Socialist League at the Temperance Institute, James St, Bridgeton.
  15. 27th September 1886 before the Manchester Branch of the Socialist League at Ardwick Temperance Hall, Pin Mill Brow, Aston Old Rd, Manchester. Listed by LeMire under Socialism: the End and the Means


Original manuscript: BM Add. MSS. 45333, kindly made available online by the the Univrsity of Iowa William Morris archive.

Transcription and footnotes

Graham Seaman for MIA, October 2022