William Morris

The Depression of Trade

What is the essence of the society which took the place of feudalism: free competition - that is in other words a desperate war in which every man fights for his own hand; the aim of the struggle being to live free from labour at the expense of those that labour. This struggle results necessarily in the formation of two great classes, the successful and the unsuccessful, which in spite of minor divisions among them, have now taken the place of all the elaborate castes of feudality: the struggle therefore proposed for everyone born into the world of civilization is the getting, or the keeping of a place in the class which lives on the labour of others: the getting or the keeping; because there are some who are born privileged to be useless, and others who win that privilege by industry, talent, good-luck, and unscrupulousness: accordingly one solemn duty is recognized tacitly by all people who live under our present system of commercialism the formation of a family who shall become a group in the class of the non-producers: observe once more how entirely the necessities of the system which rules us flies in the face of the morals which, we, whatever our creed profess to believe: in all codes of morals it is thought wrong to take away from an unwilling fellow-man the means of subsistence or enjoyment; this is commonly called stealing; and when practised by an individual in an unorganized manner if we catch him we think ourselves justified in torturing him in various ways in order to frighten others off from the like courses: for we call him a thief and his unorganized interference with other people's livelihood and pleasure we call stealing: nevertheless there is no man in any of the creeds so pious, there is none in any of the philosophies of such rigid morality that he does not with the approbation of all men do his very best to raise (as we call it) himself or at least his children into the class of non-producers, that is to say of those who by force or fraud take away from their unwilling fellows the means of livelihood or pleasure: it [is] only the commonness and the organization of it that prevents this class from being called the class of thieves; so you see in spite of all our religion and all our morality we consider it a sacred duty to put those whom we love best, ourselves and our children into the position of thieves.

However [if] it were only a matter of a conflict between our professions of morality and our practice of it it would be no great matter perhaps; we should, as men always have done, make our morality square with our necessity; that we have not systematically done so no doubt points to the very transitory character of our present system, so that even almost as soon as it has been developed fully it begins to show signs of disruption: and no wonder for it is clear that the greater part of men cannot belong to the successful classes: obviously every one person who refuses to do his share of production must have attached to him at least one person who does his share of work; at least one; but as a matter of fact he has many more, because since he does no work and is served by others he considers himself a superior person above those who keep him by their labour, and claims successfully to live at a higher rate than they do; he eats and drinks, is clad and housed more expensively than they; although they do something and he does nothing: he keeps them toiling at making wares which they have no chance of using, if they cared to use them, their labour is forced from them to amuse and beguile the stupidity of his idleness: the result of all which is that many thousands of skilled and should-be useful hands and lives are utterly wasted and all the time the work that is absolutely necessary for sustaining the lives of men has inexorably to be done, and so both the burden of it falls on few people comparatively, also it is much worse done than it should be: indeed many matters that reasonable people would think of the first utility, to be done before anything else were attempted are never even set about at all: as for instance while I speak to you London is practically undrained; a huge mass of sewage, which should be used for fertilizing the fields of Kent and Essex now and especially the latter actually passing out of cultivation, a wall of filth is accumulating at the mouth of the Thames garnering up for us who knows what seeds of pestilence and death. While here in Lancashire you have allowed yourselves to be so hoodwinked and enslaved that you are forced to live amidst squalor and wretchedness which men of an earlier age could scarcely have conceived of in order that you may make wares of whose sale you are now beginning to have doubts, while at the same time you don't know what to do, what to turn your hands to save making ever-fresh relays of unsaleable wares: like the miserable debtors that one has heard of who have no resource for staving off importunate creditors than ordering more luxuries which cannot be paid for. Or take a last instance; with all the lines of competing railways that score the land like crackling on a leg of pork tons upon tons of fish wholesome, nay dainty food, if it could only be brought to the consumer are scattered for manure over the fields of Suffolk and Norfolk while people in the East End of London are becoming scarcely human for lack of decent food, and the fishermen of East Anglia risk their lives in cockle shells of boats on the sea living roughly and precariously for the noble reward of 12/0 a week: or yet again one last instance of the folly of slaves and slave-owners. Did you ever hear of the Irish famine? that found 8 millions of human beings in Ireland and left 5 million there? a famine we call it: but what is a famine? a great scarcity of food: now do you know that while all those people were dying of starvation, were clemming in Ireland quantities of food - butter, eggs, and bacon were being transported to England to be sold at a profit there. And what came between those starving people of Ireland and the food which their labour had produced? remember every one of those Irishmen that died, or went across the sea bearing with him a bitter load of hatred against those who to him represented the system of the civilization of the 19th century, was capable of producing more than he needed for his own subsistence if he had only been allowed to work on his own land and to have for himself the produce of his own labour: what came between him and the victuals he and his had produced and so slew him or drove him from home? the class system, the system of landlord and tenant, of capitalist and workman; in other words the system which has for one pillar a propertied, non-producing class and for the other a property-less, producing class, which as a class has no hope save revolution, which same revolution is staved off only so long as the members of the working-class can buoy themselves up with the hope of rising from the class of the employed into that of employers: this of course only a few of them can do even at the best, leaving behind them the great mass of hopeless labour, which has no choice or chance save to work tomorrow as today at a task which is a mere burden, and so always regarded, and the reward for which is precarious; subject at the best and in the epochs when trade is briskest to those periodical stagnations which mean diminished profit to the employer and diminished necessities to the employed: but in a period like the present when all trade is chronically stagnant what can we say of the worker's hope if he can see no further than a continuance of the present relations of employer and employed; if the system of capital and wage-earning is to go on? That system means, as I have been trying to show, a wasting of the worker's labour-power, his only possession, in the free competition of war which has for its object the securing a position of deedless ease for a lucky few - if indeed they can be called lucky. Let us for a few minutes see how that war is waged. In the first place this war is the chief, almost the only occupation of the possessing classes: just as the slave-owners of Greece and Rome used the leisure which the possession of slaves gave them to fight endlessly for the aggrandizement of their tribe or city, just as the ownership of lands tilled by serfs gave the Medieval baron leisure to fight ceaselessly for honour (and more land and serfs) so does the possession of capital, or the power of compelling unwilling labour from poor men, enable the modern monied man to fight ceaselessly in the markets of the world for his share of the profits wrung by his class from the labour-class; and this I say is almost his only occupation - his other ones being various forms of the less harmful occupation of obvious busy idling - amusements - such as yachting, travelling, shooting, or electioneering and legislation. Now in this war as in others the weakest goes to the wall, so that each combatant must of necessity be quite unsparing of all kinds of waste or else he will be beaten: understand that when I was speaking just now of the waste of the class system I was thinking chiefly of the waste of wealth consumed in the idle life of the rich, and not so much of the waste caused by the war for profits, that is the waste caused by the necessity of the capitalist to make money breed money: this necessity of course makes him quite careless of what kind of goods he gets produced; it is enough that there be a market for them; and a market he mostly ensures by means of cheapness: this cheapness he uses as a weapon against his fellow competitors and also he uses it as a petard, a charge of dynamite if you will, to open to him the markets of the world: now you will often have people preaching to you the beauty of this cheapness, and how easy it is to live because of it now-a-days especially if working men will only be `thrifty', as the said preachers call it, meaning thereby pinching and niggardly: well well thrift is often not a difficult virtue for the poor to exercise if it means, as it should not, the living on a little: but let that pass: for as to this cheapness there is another way to look at it than that of the enthusiastic praisers of the present system: for you see after all cheap goods as far as the workers are concerned means cheap labour - and do you like cheap labour? more about that presently, suffice it now to say that the capitalist can by means of the aforesaid cheapness force populations both at home and abroad to live a certain kind of life, the life namely which suits the profit-maker best: dare I venture to say in Oldham that there are places in the world that buy our cotton cloth, not because they want it but because they can't help it: of course you all know that there are some places where we have done this - well rather coarsely: I mean we have said "buy this or - take a bayonet in your belly!" That is undoubtedly part of the process, and is getting now-a-days to be nearly indispensable if commerce is to be kept alive: Mr. Goschen and the Pall Mall Gazette will tell you all about that; and they chuckle not without some reason at the conversion of the once peaceful `Manchester School' to the doctrines of `your money or you life!' which to them seem so eminently sensible and patriotic at one and the same time: but this coarser part of the process I will not say much of at present, because even without Lord Wolseley and his machine he can manage to force our wares on the natives of the countries we long to benefit by means of the weapon cheapness: people don't want the goods we offer them, but they are poor and have to buy something which [will] serve their turn anyhow, so they accept cheap and nasty, grumbling; their own goods made slowly and at greater cost are driven out of the market, and the metamorphosis begins which ends in turning fairly happy barbarians into very miserable half-civilized people surrounded by a fringe of exploiters and middle-men varied in nation but of one religion `Take care of number one'. Well, you may say "we are really sorry for them but we must sell our goods somewhere or we shouldn't get work and therefore we shouldn't be able to live." Truly if you don't raise your own victuals you must make something which people will take in exchange for victuals: but wait a bit we haven't done with this cheapness, the sword of commerce, yet; and the case of our workers at home as far as their conquest by the capitalists is concerned is much nearer to that of the Arab or Zulu or South Sea islander than seems at first. You also British workmen are forced by cheapness into a certain manner of life: for look you, the capitalist must needs sell as cheap as he can or as I said he succumbs; a fraction of a penny more of price in a yard or a pound will ruin him, will land a district in a crisis: now in order to turn out goods at their cheapest he must have the newest and best machinery and the most perfect organization in his great machine, the factory; and he must make himself as independent as he can of that part of his machinery which gets hungry twice or thrice every 24 hours; skilled work must get less and less necessary to him; women and children and labourers must replace the skilled workman: in short he must by all means reduce the expense of his wages, as compared with his other expenses. As you know his capital, the money which breeds money for him is expended first in raw material, machinery, rent, and the like and secondly in the labour or power of labour supplied by the bodies and minds of working people; I don't know whether I need tell you that the first part of this capital is always increasing at the expense of the latter half as manufacture gets more complex and capital rolls up into bigger balls, but so it is: and all this time the war goes on, and the capitalist has to provide for sudden emergencies of great bursts of trade and for that end must have ready to his hand more power of labour, men, women, and children that is, than can be employed in average times, let alone bad times; if he had not when the big orders came he would be out of the game which would be played out by his foreign competitors: for here I will say once for all that besides the war between the capitalists of our community there is also a constant war going on between country and country which sometimes takes the shot and gunpowder form: for please to understand that all wars now waged have at bottom a commercial cause: nor forget that in this struggle of nations for commercial supremacy natural circumstances and historic also complicate matters: for instance in some nations the workers are much thriftier than in others, or say can for various reasons live upon less, a circumstance much to the benefit of the capitalists of that nation because it gives them an advantage in the race for cheapness, but not at all for the workers who have their wages lowered and their hours lengthened exactly in proportion to their thriftiness and industry.

Well now I have been trying to show you how hard and consequently wasteful the battle is between the employers for their share of profit; and this battle they are able to keep up because there is another one going on between the workmen for their share of wages, of livelihood: and these things I have just been mentioning: the proportionate increase of plant and machinery as compared with wages; the increased productiveness of the unskilled labourer; the increased frequency of crises in trade, its increased precariousness, the huge reserve [of labourers] and lastly the continuous development of foreign countries containing populations hardy, industrious, and thrifty, combined with the international character of capital which will seek for employment wherever it can best be found all these things the civilized world over and especially among ourselves have made the competition of the workmen keener and bitterer than ever.

Now you may say is it not the office of Trades Unions and strikes or threats of strikes to deal with this competition and modify it in the interest of the workers? In answer I cheerfully admit that Trades Unions and strikes have done much in this direction; but that was under different conditions to those now existing: Let us look at the matter, it is pretty simple: England has been especially the country of Trades Unions, and why? Because she had some forty years ago and up to some 10 years ago the decided pre-eminence in trade, a pre-eminence unchallenged: that means that the capitalists were making large profits, and sooner than lose them or lose a month of them they would give way and consent to the terms of the workman: whereby the standard of life was raised for a certain part of the workers, notably for the factory hands: which they have not yet lost: but that is now a thing of the past: large profits are no longer made: if capitalists get rich it is because of the great aggregation of money and the great scale of the dealings; there is no longer a margin to give up to the demands of the workmen: the Trade Union revolt which in England has been during the years of prosperity the expression of that contest of classes which has existed all through the Commercial period has come to an end defeated by its own success: as all attacks of the workmen on capital must in the long run be defeated that are not international in their character.

For do not deceive yourselves: the Depression in Trade in this country is not accidental or transitory, nor is its cause hard to find: the overweening hopes of our capitalists 30 years ago were founded on the assumption that England was to be for ever the one serious manufacturing country in the world, supplying all other countries with manufactured goods and receiving from them raw materials for the non-human machines and food for the human ones to be constantly worked up into fresh goods: the market was to be unlimited, the expansion of production unchecked; changes had happened in the constitution of society before but could never happen again: the heaven of the well-to-do middle class was realized here in England.

You cannot need to be told at length how that hope has been deceived? a hope I will frankly say as base as any set of men ever held: other nations have as I said developed their resources for production, and England has to contend with them in the world-market on something like equal terms, to the terror of the more foreseeing of our rich middle-class, we are howling for fresh markets through the trumpet of patriotism, and are trying to persuade themselves that Australia and Canada will consider themselves one country with each other and with England so as to give weight to any attempts at Burglary which it may be convenient for us to make.

I cannot express better the desperate condition of those who see nothing before us but ever fresh development of our capitalist system than by quoting the words of the great Socialist economist F[rederick] Engels from the March [1885] number of the Commonweal: "Here is the vulnerable place, the heel of Achilles for capitalist production: its very basis is the necessity for constant expansion, and this constant expansion is now become impossible. It ends in a deadlock; every year England is brought nearer face to face with the question; either the country must go to pieces, or capitalist production must: which is it to be?"

Which indeed, for my part I think England, meaning by that much abused word the men and women of this community instinct with all the history of their fathers who have gone before them, will before long find out what the whole trick means and will refuse to sacrifice themselves to so base an end as the upholding of the idleness of the non-producers.

For it is of the nature of a system founded on mere war, which is always destructive, to wear itself out, to perish through its own endeavours to keep itself alive; and there are signs of this approaching end visible not only in England but all over the civilized world: I say the commercial system itself will kill itself: for instance, it could never have reached its present state of perfection in the organization of labour for the purpose of making a profit out of it without bringing the workers together in great masses, and making them feel that they are a class with interests of their own as a class: the necessities of capitalism have consolidated the workers and so fashioned a force which will do away with capitalism itself by taking its place; furthermore its necessities have compelled it to the invention of almost automatic machines which, though they are now wasted on the grinding of profits for individuals, will when the worker-class, the proletariat, is full-grown by the instrument which will make Socialism possible by making possible the equalization of labour as applied to the necessities of life, and will thereby leave open to men the higher field of intellectual effort full of opportunities for individual excellence and generous emulation. And this indeed it is on which the hopes of all reasonable revolutionists are founded; the certainty, for it is no less, that the process of evolution is building up with one hand while it pulls down with the other, so that revolution does always mean reconstruction.

It is this reconstruction which Socialism aims at, which we believe firmly is coming either with our help or without it. I have hinted at the present constitution of society - it is composed of two classes propertied-non-producers, and propertyless producers; and its motive power towards industrial production is competition or the struggle of each individual to get more than his share of what is produced, that is to say to advance himself at the expense of his neighbour: to put the matter shortly I should say of modern society that its aim is robbery and its instrument is war.

That is the firm believe of us Socialists: are you astonished that a body of men who hold that belief should turn their thoughts toward revolution, which as I have told you implies reconstruction? Will you blame them since this is their belief that they find themselves compelled to work actively towards a change in the basis of that society which they believe is founded on robbery and war? will you find it strange that they are willing to sacrifice their ease, their time, their money, their lives in short for that hope of revolution which shines before them like a candle in the dark. You must I am sure say no to all these questions.

And further remember how practical this question is: it is no matter of abstract rights, of speculative belief, of titles, of imaginary possession of things which do not exist: it might perhaps gall me sometimes that I were unable to vote on a question which [I] could understand as well as other people; but after all I could if I felt strongly about a subject find some other way of making my opinion felt besides voting for a member of parliament: it might annoy me to be scolded and denied access to heaven because I can't believe the literal truth of certain legends and historical documents; but I could live well and do my duty in spite of scolding and curses: and lastly I might in moments of ill temper resent being called plain Mister, while people no better than myself are called my lord, your grace, or your majesty; yet if that were all it doesn't matter, so long as I am as well educated as my lord is, and can satisfy all my reasonable requirements bodily and mental. But it is another matter if I am really of a different class: if I have no leisure which my lord has too much, if he is refined and I am degraded; if whatever my chances of heaven may be earth at any rate is to be a hell for me: if though I have a vote I tremble lest I may lack bread for myself and my children. I say then it is quite another matter, and I must see to it myself and try to amend the state of things, or brand myself as a helpless slave.

In short what I want you to understand is that it is not as some people think, and as some people who know better say, that Socialists envy rich men because they are rich and live in enjoyment: if a man could be rich and do no harm with his riches it wouldn't matter: nay even if he had stolen his riches once for all we could put up with it and pass him by with no more active feeling than contempt: but unhappily riches always do do harm because they go on stealing day by day: riches on one side imply poverty on the other: the rich man has taken from the poor, and daily takes from him in order to be rich; what he gains we lose: therefore he is our enemy and cannot help being so in spite of any personal good will he has towards us or some of us; nor while the present system lasts can we relieve him of his false position: the rich man like the King never dies; another takes his place at once, and we can only change the tyrant and not the tyranny as long as the system of capital and wages lasts: it is the class, understand, that is our enemy and not the individual; although most unhappily these class divisions do create and cannot help creating vices in the individuals composing them which we cannot help noticing.

This class division therefore is what Socialism attacks; and mind you the individuals of the rich class will not really suffer for its realization; we don't want to ruin and render unhappy a group amongst this class, though to my mind some of the semi-socialistic remedies now proposed would have that effect: what we want is that the rich, who as things go now are not necessarily happy should melt into the great community of labour and take their fair chance of happiness which Socialism would ensure to everyone: could they possibly complain of this as an injustice?

'Tis said that a man named Saul of Tarsus once said `If a man will not work neither should he eat.' This saying has been preserved in a book considered holy by many, and it will do to start with as a motto for Socialism: only you must remember that there is work and work; some work is destructive, other, and if you will believe me a great deal, useless: now you know saying that work is destructive or useless is another way of saying that nature won't reward such work: and if nature won't neither can we: the man who works uselessly must be fed, clothed, and housed by others who are working usefully: so we will extent Saul of Tarsus' motto and say `If a man will not work usefully neither should he eat.' Because in that case he can only live by stealing the wealth produced by others.

So you see what we socialists want to bring about is a state of society in which as all must consume wealth so all shall produce wealth: that I am sure cannot seem unreasonable to you, and it is only by carrying out this principle that we can avoid the Depression of Trade into the causes of which Lord Salisbury and his mates are going to enquire so diligently and - I hope - so successfully. Nevertheless reasonable as that proposition is, it will usually be considered a dangerous one, as indeed it is, since all reason must be dangerous to a Society founded on an unreasonable basis: and I freely admit that the realization of this Socialist hope can only be brought about by a change in the basis of society. Dangerous as it is it is surely a fair proposition, and mind it is the only condition of things under which we can have peace: because clearly men in general will only work for their own advantage unless they are compelled to work by other men: therefore it is that under the Commercial system constant war is necessary to keep the machine going: a war in which even quakers are compelled to take a part. But in a condition of things where all produce as all consume peace is possible, and war would at least be the exception and not the rule and only in a condition of peace can we make the most of the gifts of nature, instead of wasting them as we do now.

Now what must we do in order to realize this condition of things, a steady flow of wealth resulting from the labour of each and all, in the advantages of which each and all should share? We have been competing, we must combine - that is the revolution: we have been making war with each other: we must make peace - that is the revolution.

The labour of every man properly directed and helped by the inventions of centuries will more than supply him and his family not yet come to working age, or past it with all the necessaries of life: it is on this undeniable fact that all industrial society is based: and yet you see in all civilized countries a vast proportion of the population supplied with nothing more than the barest necessaries of life, and all except a few comparatively supplied with little more than those necessaries: as long as this lasts you cannot have peace: nay you ought not to: peace under such circumstances means the denial of the very nature of man, for it means unhappiness for most men, and all men must of their very nature strive for happiness.

Therefore when I bid you combine I know well that the first act of combination must be that of a class, when I bid you make peace I know that the first peace made must be between the individuals and the groups of a class; and that that combination and that [peace] will seem to many people like the beginning of war and not the ending of it as it really will be.

I say I bid you to class combination - but what class: the class of labour all over the world, the class which is the only necessary element of Society: if that class combines and combines for justice and reason, and for nothing else can it combine, who can resist it? The monopolists who now live on the labour of the rest of mankind could never have sustained their position by their own mere force: Divide to Govern has been their rule: they have always by means of the instinctive cunning of an organism resisting destruction pitted one section of the workers against another, and so have held on precariously, depending always on the continued ignorance of those that they ruled over.

But the time for the end of this ignorance is drawing near: the workers have seen the wonderful effects of combination in increasing the productivity of labour, it remains for them only to shake off a few superstitions about the necessity of their retaining masters of a higher class of beings than themselves, and then they, the workers, will stand out as what they are - society itself - the old masters of society will also be recognized as what they are, mere useless hangers-on and clogs to life and the progress of humanity: and what will they, what can they do then to uphold their separate existence as a class? It is possible that they may attempt resistance to the inevitable and by no means hard fate of their forming a part, on terms of absolute equality, of a happy and mutually helpful community; but remember if they do they can only do so as supporters of a conscious injustice; and when it comes to that and they feel the conscience of the world against them, it will avail them little that they have the resources of civilization on their side; arms, armies, and long-standing organization will turn to nothing in their hands before the irresistible force of opinion, and the last act of the revolution which is now preparing will have come.

Even now that opinion is growing and gathering: you shall hardly meet a thoughtful and unprejudiced man who will not accept the indictment which we socialists bring against society as it now exists: how prodigious the change of opinion is from what it has been some of you are scarce old enough to know: but I have lived through and noted the most degrading epoch of public opinion that ever happened in England and have seen the triumphant rule of the swindler in private and public life, the rule of hypocrisy and so-called respectability begin to shake and totter; I can see the existence of the miserable millions of the poor forcing itself on the conscience and fears of the rich, and I know that the song of triumph of almighty Commerce over the perfection of a civilization in which so many thousands of men of the same blood as ourselves live a life of mere starvation and hopelessness has even in the last few years sunk quavering into a trembling silence and a hope that it will last our time at least.

Yet Friends, it is no time to be sluggish and hope to let the last dregs of the old system trickle out of themselves: true the change is inevitable: true the old political parties are breaking up and are striking out wildly on the empty air: yet all we who are thoughtful and kindly and orderly have a part to play, lest mere violence and disorder be the only remedy for hypocrisy and tyranny: the new order of things has to grow up from the disrupted elements of the old, and every reasonable man's help will be needed that we may get out of the troubled waters speedily and with as little suffering to humanity as may be: therefore I call upon you all to look into these matters and judge of them without fear or favour, in the firm belief that when you have once learned and understood what the present system of Society is, and have considered what the power of man in dealing with nature for his benefit may be you, the intelligence of labour, must one and all become Socialists and revolutionists: and then I repeat who and what can resist you: you will see to it that every man in this vast community shall have a fair chance [of] gaining ease and happiness, which, believe me is the birthright of every man, only to be taken from him as long as men are blinded by tyranny and slavery.

Bibliographical Note


The Depression of Trade


  1. 12th July 1885 at a meeting sponsored by the Oldham Branch of the SL at the Large Hall, Cucumber Gardens, Royton, Manchester
  2. 9th September 1885 to the North London branch of the SL at Camden Hall, King St, Camden Town
  3. 18th October 1885 before the Hammersmith branch of the SL at Kelmscott House