William Morris. Commonweal 1886

‘The Reward of Genius’

Source: “The Reward of ‘Genius'” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 37, 25 September 1886, p.204-5-206;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is a very common incident at a debate on Socialism for an opponent or doubter to take up the cudgels on behalf of ‘brain-work’ as opposed to hand-work. Even before you avow yourself a Communist (as I have to do), such a questioner is anxious about the future of brain-work in the transitional stages of Socialism. Though this subject has been ably treated before in these columns, I will nevertheless venture on a few plain words in addition to what has been said; which I hesitate to do the less because I have had some small experience of hand-work, though not of the most laborious kind, and abundance of experience of ‘brain-work’, so-called.

Our objectors dwell upon diverse aspects of their anxiety for the future of the brain-workers. Some, for instance, seem most exercised on the question of what is to become of the men of genius when Socialism is realized; but I must beg them not to let this anxiety destroy their appetites or keep them awake at night, for it is founded on a perhaps popular, but certainly erroneous, conception of that queer animal the man of genius, who is generally endowed with his full share of the predatory instincts of the human being, and can take remarkably good care of himself. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that even under a Socialistic condition of things he will pull such long faces if he doesn’t get everything that he wants, and will make matters so uncomfortable for those that he lives amongst if he falls short of his ideal of existence, that good-natured and quiet people will be weak enough to make up a purse (or its equivalent) for him from time to time to keep him in good temper and shut his mouth a little. I must further say, though, that they will be exceedingly weak if they do so, because they will be able to get out of him all the special work he can do without these extra treats. For the only claim he has to the title of a ‘man of genius’ is that his capacities are irrepressible; he finds the exercise of them so exceedingly pleasant to him that it will only be by main force that you will prevent him from exercising them. Of course, under the present competitive system, having been paid once for his work by getting his livelihood by it, and again by the pleasure of doing it, he wants to be further paid in various ways a great many times more. Neither under the circumstances can I blame him much for this, since he sees so many people for doing nothing paid so much more than he is, except in the matter of pleasure in their work. But also of course, he won’t venture to claim all that in a Socialist society, but will have at the worst to nibble at the shares of those who are weak enough to stand it. So I will in turn dismiss my anxiety, with the hope that they will not be so weak as to coddle him up at their own expense, since they will have learned that so-called self-sacrifice to the exactions of those who are strong in their inordinate craving and unmanliness does but breed tyrants and pretenders.

But furthermore, I do not see, and never could see, why a man of genius must needs be a man of genius every minute of his life. Cannot he work as well as ordinary folk in some directions, besides working better than they in others? Speaking broadly, all men can learn some useful craft, and learn to practice it with ease. I know there may be exceptions; just as there are cultivated people who cannot be taught to write (the late Dean Stanley was one, for instance); but they must be considered as diseased persons, and the disease would die out in a generation or two under reasonable conditions of life. In short, the ‘man of genius’ ought to be able to earn his livelihood in an ordinary way independently of his speciality, and he will in that case be much happier himself and much less of a bore to his friends, let alone his extra usefulness to the community.

As to the comparative wear and tear of ‘brain-work’ — the work of the man, for instance who is occupied in the literary matters — the theory of our objectors, apart from their strange ideas of the usefulness of this craft, is that he works hard — harder, they will often say, than the handworker. Well, if he works under bad sanitary conditions, doesn’t get fresh air or exercise enough, no doubt that does exhaust him, as also if he works too long or is harassed in his work by hurry and anxiety. But all these drawbacks are not special to his craft; all who are working otherwise than in the open air work under the first of these disadvantages, and all wage-earners work under the last of them. There is any amount of humbug talked about the hard work of the intellectual workers, which I think is mostly based on the fact that they are in the habit of taking regular and, so to say, socially-legalized holidays, which are supposed to be necessary to their health, and we may admit are so, but which the ‘non-intellectual’ workers have to forego, whether they are necessary to them or not. Let us test the wear and tear of this intellectual work very simply. If I have been working at literary work for, say, eight hours at a stretch, I may well feel weary of it, although I have not felt it a mere burden all along, as probably I should have done if I had been carrying a hod of bricks up and down a ladder; but when I have knocked off, I can find relaxation in strong physical exercise — can, for example, take a boat and row for a couple of hours or more. Now let me ask is the hodman after his eight hours’ work fit for a couple of hours mental work as a relaxation? We very well know he is not so fitted, but rather for beer and sleep. He is exhausted, and I am on the look out for amusement. To speak plainly, I am only changing my amusement, for I have been amusing myself all along, unless I have added disadvantages to my work which are not essential to it.

And again, has not the hodman’s work dealt in some way with his brain? Indeed it has. I have been using my brain, but not exhausting it; but though he has not been using his, he has been exhausting it by his hand-work done at a strain, or else he ought to be able to take the mental relaxation corresponding to my bodily relaxation. In truth, whereas at present the hours of the intellectual worker are really always shorter than those of the hard-worker, the very reverse ought to be the case, or in other words the wear and tear of the hand-labour is far greater.

But our objectors have not as a rule got so far as to consider this matter from the wear and tear side of it. They think that the superior workman should have extra reward because he is superior, and that the inferior must put up with being worn and torn in the service of this divine right. That is their superstition of divine right in this business; but also from the economical point of view they consider that it is necessary to bribe the superior man, for fear that you should lose his talent. What I have said of the man of genius being compelled to work by his genius applies to all superior workmen in greater or less degree, and disposes of the need of a bribe. You need not bribe the superior workman to be superior, for he has to work in any case (we must take that for granted), and his superior work is pleasanter, and indeed easier, to him than the inferior work would be: he will do it if you allow him to. But also if you had the need you would not have the power to bribe, except under a system which admitted of slavery — ie., tormenting some people for the pleasure of others. Can you bribe him to work by giving him immunity from work? or by giving him goods that he cannot use? But in what other way can you bribe him when labour is free and ordinary people will not stand being compelled to accept degradation for his benefit? No, you will have to depend on his aptitude for his special work forcing him into doing it; nor will you be disappointed in this. Whatever difficulties you may have in organizing work in the earlier days of Socialism will not be with the specialists, but with those who do the more ordinary work; though as regards these, setting aside the common machine-work, the truth of the matter is that you can draw no hard and fast line between the special workman and the ordinary one. Every workman who is in his right place — that is, doing his work because he is fit for it — has some share in that ‘genius’ so absurdly worshipped in these latter days. The genius’ is simply the man who has a stronger speciality and is allowed to develop it; or, if you please, has it so strongly that it is able to break through the repressing circumstances of his life, which crush out those who are less abundantly gifted into ‘a dull level of mediocrity’. It is a matter of degree chiefly.

I am afraid therefore, that our anti-Socialist objectors will have in the future — I mean under a social arrangement — to put up with the misery of not having more than they need forced on them in return for their occupying themselves in the way which pleases them most, and with the further misery of seeing those who are not so intellectual as themselves doing their work happily and contentedly, and not being deprived of their due food and comforts because their work is less pleasing and exciting than that of their luckier fellows. No doubt this will be hard for the geniuses to bear (though harder still, I suspect, for the prigs or sham geniuses); but if there be any truth in the old proverb that ‘other peoples’ troubles hang by a hair’, the rest of the world — ie., all except a very few — will bear it with equanimity. Indeed they well might, if they consider in those happier days what enormous loss the world has suffered through the crushing out of so much original talent under the present system; for who can doubt that it is only the toughest and strongest (perhaps the highest, perhaps not) of the geniuses that have not been crushed out. The greater part of genius, shared in various proportions by so many millions of men, has been just wasted through greed and folly.