William Morris. Commonweal 1886

Socialism in Dublin and Yorkshire

Source: “Socialism in Dublin and Yorkshire” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 17, 8 May 1886, p.43;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I have to say a few words of another lecture tour, which I hope may be of some interest to our readers. I started on the night of Thursday 8th April, made memorable by the introduction of the Home Rule Bill and Mr Gladstone’s speech, which more by token I found awaiting us on our landing next morning at Kingstown. The next day I addressed an audience mostly of ‘ladies and gentlemen’ at the Molesworth Hall, on the ‘Aims of Art’. There were a few workmen scattered among the audience, and our comrades of the Dublin Branch put in an appearance, and two, I think, spoke in the discussion which followed. I fear that the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ were disappointed with what I was forced to lay before them, which, as a matter of course, included advocacy of Socialism as a necessity for the new birth of art.

The next day I attended the ‘Saturday Club’, and opened a debate on ‘Socialism: what it is’. The audience, mostly of working men, was a large one, and naturally somewhat excited by the affairs of the week. I had no reason, however, to complain of my reception. Plenty of assent and dissent was expressed, with cheering vigour on both sides. I spoke for some forty-five minutes, and was well listened to. One slip I unwittingly made by mentioning Sackville Street, which is popularly known as O'Connell Street, a name which the authorities refuse to accept. A great to-do followed this blunder, which, on a hint from the chairman, I corrected with all good will, and so was allowed to go on, with cheers. A rather poor debate followed my speech, for the attackers of Socialism didn’t know anything about it and the first would-be defender claimed it as the ‘crystalisation of Christian ethics’ which opened the door to a great deal of rather rampant theology. This in its turn seemed to excite the audience considerably, and brought out the bigotry which one certainly expects to find in an Irish audience. An incident finished the evening, which, as it was magnified by some of the papers into a ‘riot’, I may as well mention. The chairman closed the debate by calling on me to answer, but the audience had not had enough, or some one was wanting to speak out of whom they expected some sport, so they got out of hand, and made some noise for 600 people; but after singing ‘God Save Ireland’, and finding the chairman firm, they quieted down in about a quarter of an hour, and listened peaceably enough to my answer, which was shorter than it otherwise would have been. Whatever disturbance there was, it was not directed against the representative of Socialism.

On the Sunday I met the members of the Branch at comrade Schumann’s rooms, and had a very satisfactory evening. It is clear that at present the religious matter is the difficulty; but I cannot help thinking that when Home Rule is established the Catholic clergy will begin to act after their kind, and try after more and more power, till the Irish gorge rises and rejects them. The Protestant religious feeling being dogmatic and not political, is hopeless to deal with. Meantime, open-air meetings are not possible for us in Dublin — at least till we are much stronger in numbers. The Branch has taken action very judiciously, through comrade Schumann, in the glass-blowers’ strike and the importation by the masters on false pretences of Danish workmen, who have behaved very well in the matter, and show all appreciation of the solidarity of labour.

On the Saturday I lectured in the hall of the Branch on the ‘Political Outlook’. The audience mostly working men again, seemed for the most part heartily with me, and the meeting turned out quite a success.

Of course, though I saw many people in Dublin (and many of them, by the way, not far from Socialists), my short stay in one place in the country could not add much to my power of judging of our chances of success there. It is a matter of course that until the Irish get Home Rule they will listen to nothing else, and equally so that as soon as they get Home Rule they must, deal at once with the land question. On the whole, I fear it seems likely that they will have to go through the dismal road of peasant-proprietorship before they get to anything like Socialism; and that road, in a country so isolated and so peculiar as Ireland, may be a long one. On the other hand, it will lead them straight to ruin unless they can keep out of the world-market — which they can scarcely do. Undoubtedly the Irish are bent on doing all they can to further Irish manufactures, however artificially, and to that end are sure to drive new railways through the country, and so to stimulate that production for profit which throws the peasant into the hands of the usurer, and makes peasant-proprietorship a miserable make-shift — a piece of reaction leading nowhere, save down the hill. So that after all things in Ireland may go quicker than we now think.

So much for the Irish journey. On Saturday the 17th, I went by invitation of the Leeds and Bradford Branches to Shipley, and there lectured at the Co-operative Hall on ‘The Political Outlook’. The hall was not so full as it should have been, considering that Shipley is a very Radical place; I was unlucky, probably, in tumbling into the middle of the Bradford election; amidst such an audience also, a rational view of the Parliamentary system was not likely to be popular. However, I was well listened to, and with a good deal of assent. I gave myself up as a stalking-horse to some Radical rhetoric at a ‘free-and-easy’ after the lecture, not much to anybody’s edification I fancy, flowery vagueness being the staple of these gentlemen’s remarks; nor where they so anxious for any information that I could give them as for the enunciation of the venerable platitudes that make the stock-in-trade of a Radical becoming a Whig by the force of circumstances.

The next day, Sunday, I lectured at the Temperance Hall In Bradford to a full audience very attentive, and who caught the points well, and seem pleased by the attack on Bourgeoisdom. A few questions were put, but, as usual clearly not by those who were thinking most of the lecture. In the evening we had a meeting of the Leeds and Bradford Branches, partly convivial and partly business, where I had to try to clear up a few difficulties as to principles and tactics which had occurred to two or three members, though everything went in the friendliest manner possible.

On the Monday I lectured in Leeds, and found the audience rather heavy to ‘spring’, partly, perhaps, because though there were a great many people present, over 600 I should think, the hall was too large for the audience, who were, however, very attentive at least, and cheered heartily at the necessary expulsion of one gentleman (said to be an employer of labour) who (or rather the alcohol in whom) tried to prevent my being heard. Once more those who really wanted to ask questions were prevented by vague or cavilling speeches, quite outside the four corners of the lecture.

I took leave of the Branches in the committee-room here, and had no difficulty in accepting the assurance that though they had not a very numerous membership, their members were all real, and did actual work; indeed, they were clearly working very hard, and in spite of all drawbacks with much success.

In dealing with these centres of the great industry, one is apt at first to be disappointed with the reception of Socialist principles, but it is to be remembered that those that one comes across personally in a hurried visit are the would-be progressive leaders who generally belong to the aristocracy of labour in its most limited sense, foremen and the like, who as to their material needs are comfortably off, and suppose that it will last for ever; such men, unless they have special intelligence and aspirations, are generally the narrowest of Whigs. Again, the constant weight of drill in these highly organized industries has necessarily limited the intelligence of the men and deadened their individuality, while the system is so powerful and searching that they find it difficult to conceive of any system under which they could be other than human machines. Nevertheless, the average intelligence is high, and when they once find time to understand what the stealing of labour means, that very drill will make them move in a mass, and then, then, Mr Self-made Man, you must turn to and work once more, an equal amongst equals.

Meantime, we are really getting on in these places. Two years ago, when I lectured at Bradford, the place seemed hopeless to me; the one or two concerts whom I — I will not say made, but perhaps helped on that occasion, in conjunction with one or two at Leeds [I managed] to make, must be congratulated on the results of their steady courage and hard work.