William Morris

Socialism: The Ends and the Means

It is good, however much we may plume ourselves on our practicality, that is, I suppose, on our setting out towards an end which we are likely to attain, to set before us the actual end at which we aim. It is true that it is the custom of very practical people to taunt those whose end is or seems to be a long way off with being idealists: nevertheless I venture to think that without these idealists practical people would be in a much worse plight than they now are; they would have but a dull history of the past, a poor life in the present, and no hope for the future; on the other hand the idealists in their turn would make a great mistake if they were, in their vision of better things, to despise the `practical people,' even the narrowest of them. Indeed so much of the necessary work of progress is so dull and discouraging that it requires people of somewhat blunted sensibilities to carry it out, and even perhaps people short-sighted to the verge of blindness. Yet again it is not a good thing to be blind or blunt; and moreover there are doubtless some people who are sensitive enough, apt to be discouraged by the roughness, incompleteness and dullness of their fellows who are not necessarily far-sighted or steady as to the end to be reached through all this weary struggle: if any of these can be shown the glorious end and made to feel it in their hearts, will it not transfigure for them that dullness and weariness aforesaid, change its relative proportions, at least make it seem small and easy to bear? Nay enduring steadiness of purpose is surely impossible without some high ideal to aim at, nor will a wise man consent to take pains and trouble, to sacrifice his leisure or his pleasure unless he can see and feel that he has set before him something worthy of all that sacrifice. Nevertheless the end does seem to elude even far-sighted and earnest men in this way, that none of us can see clear enough: so that what all men are to-day sure is that an end turns out only to have been some halting-place on the road, which when we have reached it shows us the road stretching along still toward the new perspective blue in the distance. Doubtless with such vision incomplete and even vague we must be content; and it is indeed of the nature of idealists and their necessary defect to be somewhat vague in their views, while on the other hand those practical people aforesaid are apt to try to limit the vision not only of themselves but also of others and to see finality in the first short stage between them. Now I think that we who wish to further the progress of the race, should both try to see as far as we can, and also to look to everything that is at hand which may help us to move forward; and meantime the end and the means will always be harmonious to those who have insight and patience, though at first sight they may not seem so. The violence from which we may suffer in the present may indicate to us the freedom and energy of the time which is to come; the hum-drum toil that we labour through with no apparent result except the exercise of endless patience in the present may indicate to us the order and thrift and quiet pleasure of the future. And necessity, the evolution of man's life, is the bond that unites these struggles and troubles to the peace and success of the new order that we aspire to. And I must say that since this is so, though I shall have in the course of this lecture to speak strongly against the conditions of life which surround us all to-day, I blame no man merely for the position into which he has been thrust by those conditions: neither to me is any epoch wholly repulsive or worthless; I only attack the conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious blindness of the man who will not see that his position is hurtful to others (and therefore to himself). I only wish to see and to get others to see that the old order changes giving place to new, the new order which the old has long carried in its womb.

And now I will say of these present days in which we live that all thoughtful people and many unthoughtful are deeply discontented with the conditions of modern life; only those who are at once well-to-do and thoughtless and perhaps rather stupid are `contented.' From John Ruskin to the Dock-labourer at a meeting of the League or the Federation: from the ultra-radical artisan to the last pessimist prig who has written a bad novel to prove that some new and vague form of Toryism is the only thing that can save us, all are discontented, all are taking it for granted that something is going to happen. In short while constant change is the condition of man's society, there are some periods in which men are conscious of the changes of the world, both those which have lately happened and those that the present time of change points to in the future; such a period was that immediately preceding the French Revolution, and such a period is that in which we live. In spite of the disappointed hopes of the early part of the century we are forced to hope still because we are forced to move forward: the warnings of the past, the tales of bloodshed and terror and disorder and famine, they are all but tales to us and cannot scare us, because there is no turning back into the desert in which we cannot live, and no standing still on the edge of the enchanted wood; for there is nothing to keep us there, we must plunge in and through it to the promised land beyond.

This I say is the general feeling which has taken the place of the smug satisfaction in existing society, the tacit belief in its finality, which were general a few years since. Now I hope that the cause of this stir and aspiration lies deeper than the passing events of surface economics; yet it would be idle to deny that the present condition of trade and manufacture, its immediate condition, has something to do with it. For the greater part of this century people have been used to expect periodical crises in commerce about every ten or eleven years, and have so to say underwritten such crises, averaged them and been contented that the good years should pay for the bad; but as we stand now for five or six years at least we have been passing through a depression in trade, and during that time there have been many hopes of recovery about, which have been all disappointed one after the other; and if there is to-day, as I am told there is, a fresh hope springing up, I cannot find that it is based on anything more reassuring than the vague idea that since things have been bad for so long they must now begin to mend. There is doubtless a depression of things commercial which those of our generation have not experienced before; that is admitted on all sides, though people for a long time struggled against the admission. And I say this evil has no doubt a great deal to do with the widespread discontent I have mentioned: doubtless also, if things were to mend, as some hope they will shortly, and as for a short while they are likely enough to do, the discontent would be a great deal damped down: the opportunity for open and popular agitation would be deferred, because for the time we could not point so easily to the obvious evil fruits of our system and be so easily understood as we can now. But apart from the fact that such recovery would be and could be but temporary, I think once more that the discontent lies deeper than that, that it does not depend merely on the irritation of men who are feeling that they are getting poorer than they should be, and who feel vaguely that there is a remedy for this. There was an intellectual movement that preceded this political one, and which would go on working even if the discontent of poverty were lulled by a recovery of commerce. Indeed it would be strange if it were not so; for you must remember what that political discontent springing from the approach of poverty means: it is the discontent of the powerful part of the working-classes, of those who in roaring times of trade do not feel their inferior position of want of education and refinement, because they live well according to their standard of livelihood in material matters, have enough to eat and drink and wear, and are housed in a way which they think comfortable, however intolerable their sordid philistinism might be to a man of real refinement, and the roaring trade, the results of which content this upper part of the working-classes, leaves the lower part `contented' only because they have no power to make their voices heard or their hands felt: and it is with this discontent, which will always exist as long as our society of rich and poor exists, with which that discontent of thought is in sympathy, and consequently it is not affected by a rise in wages or a diminution of the hours of the working-day. The discontent of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, of the men of the Commune of Paris, of Karl Marx and Peter Kropotkin is a protest against the whole system of modern Society and manifests itself even amidst the roaring trade of the period of leaps and bounds that only a short while before our present crisis began made those who were not thoughtful and who shared in the `prosperity' of those days so sure that there never had been any real system of society save the one under which they were living and never would be another.

Therefore I say that the discontent of the present times, which, having been long felt by the lowest workers and the highest thinkers is now enveloping all classes and conditions of men, is founded on a consciousness of the approaching break up of the present system, a system which has lasted since the end of the feudal period; and that with that discontent has been developed an insight of something which is to take the place of the old order. In times long past the break up of the old classical religion and the society which it betokened at last set men's aspirations towards primitive Christianity. The break up of the Roman Empire under which Christianity grew into youth and early manhood, set them a-longing for the hierarchical order of Medieval Feudalism, and the realization of the kingdom of God upon earth which the Middle Ages strove to sustain. The decrepitude of Feudalism made men see the would-be freedom in the enterprise and movement of the Commercial period; and now at last that that in its turn is breaking up, the vision of the New Order is again before us, the maxims of the competitive market no longer seem to us divine and eternal, and we grow impatient under the artificial famine which they would create for us; because we see that the conditions of human life under which they arose have fulfilled or nearly fulfilled their functions, and must give place to new ones. The Commercial order of Society now decaying under our eyes was born out of feudality from men's impatience of the narrow limits of a system which assigned to everyone his appointed place in the Kingdom of God upon earth, which was but a part of his Kingdom in Heaven and which forbade the questioning of that divine order, and so checked the thirst for knowledge and the lust for conquest over material nature, which man began with in the earliest days of his intelligence upon the earth. The new age after its first beginnings lived fast, and amply rewarded the aspirations of its founders; after the kingdom of God left the earth for the heavens, and its kings and princes who were once officers of the King of Heaven became masters of estate-offices and captains of police, the freedom which the richer classes had won blessed the world with wonderful discoveries and inventions: on all sides nature was conquered and had to yield her treasures to men without stint; so that where one man once lived hardly, a thousand may now live well, or might do if they would. All that the Commercial Period has won for us, nor can what it has won be lost any more; but now itself it has fallen into a snare that in the beginning no one could have forseen. It has won the treasure but it cannot use it. In bygone times men suffered from the scarcity of commodities; they are now suffering from their super-abundance. How the folk of the times who prayed (I can believe in sad earnest) `Give us peace in our time, O Lord!' would have stared astonished if they had been told that the time would come when those words though still used in the churches had lost their meaning, and that the real prayer among Commercial people was for war and destruction! Strange indeed, but true that the bounty of nature and the energetic ingenuity of man must under our system produce famine amongst us, let alone the waste of that bounty and energy in war or murder and rapine on a national scale. Yet it is true if there is anything in the cry of overproduction now so current, and there is truth in it under our present system of rewarding labour: if the stock of manufactured articles now in English warehouses could be diminished by one half there would be joy in many a household in Great Britain out of all proportion to the number of the households that would lament it. Or to give you an illustration more in detail, if in some country which you here supply with tools some accident or another should render all their stock of tools useless, their misfortune would `employ' many a man at Sheffield and make him and his wife and children happy. Here then you see the word I used just now, `artificial famine,' was not used lightly; nor is it easy on our present terms to see our way out of this frightful mess we have got into. For suppose the stocks lowered by war or other calamities all of which are `good for trade' as the phrase goes; what happens? All hands employed and good wages and easy livelihood at first. Yes and then? more energy produces more wares: the markets begin again to be glutted, prices fall, but production is not checked suddenly, for people hope that the crisis will soon be over, and in the period of fuller energy they have built more factories, increased their machinery, invented new machinery; they will not slack off until the last moment. And then? then it will all come on again; only worse than before because the markets will have been yet more exhausted than before by the last period of roaring trade, the competition of all the huge commerce of the world will have thrust our civilization just so much nearer to the edge of the pit. This then has come of the full development of the Commercial period, its elimination of all the old disturbing elements when it shall finally have eliminated them: perhaps it has not quite done so yet outside of England: most people seem to think that there will be a great European war before long; that the great armed powers of the continent driven by the survival of old instincts, acting, mind you, on their present commercial necessities, will fly at each other's throats: surely if that happens it will be the last of such monstrosities. It may well be indeed that among the clash of arms the hope of the people will be hushed and disregarded; but when it is over and the nations draw apart from each other with their wounds grown cold, exhausted by the waste and disgusted at the murder, surely the last rags of feudalism and absolutism will have disappeared, and the populations of Europe will be face to face with the great question, `What are we to do with the wealth which we civilized people produce in such huge quantities? it seems we cannot refrain from producing it, shall we waste it or use it?'

Now it seems to me that the time when the answer to that question can no longer be evaded is growing so near, that we should bestir ourselves at once to answer it. It is the question which those thinkers I have mentioned put to themselves; those persons who did not forget the poor at a time when the prosperity of the rich and the well-to-do was not threatened as it is now. It is the question which the artisan class are now beginning to ask, and which one day they may ask in a very preemptory fashion: nay it may be that the downright poor, dumb and unconsidered generally, recruited from the ranks of the once comparatively prosperous workers, will ask the question first in their fashion: and if they do it will make terrible times for the rich and well-to-do.

Shall we waste our wealth or use it? Why do we waste it now? Because we are cowards and therefore unjust. The wealth was made by all and should be used for the benefit of all; but we in our fear have forgotten what is meant by all. In this respect we have not gained but lost on the system we supplanted, the Feudal system of the Middle Ages: men did then feel themselves to be members each one of them of the great corporate body, the Church on earth and in Heaven. When we freed ourselves from their superstitions, we were not careful enough of the freedom of all men: the freedom that we claimed and got was the freedom of each to succeed at the expense of other people if only he were stronger and cleverer than they; that is, in other words, the freedom to enslave others. In our present society those who make the commodities are not those who get them; they are kept poor by those who have managed to make themselves their masters, and that is, very shortly, the cause of our not being able to use the wares we produce: they are too abundant to be used by slaves who have nothing to give in return for them when they have once bartered away the power of labour in their own bodies at a cheap rate to their masters. If you want to do a steady and safe business you must have many wealthy customers; but the customers for our wares are poor for the most part, only a small class is wealthy, so that we have to scour all over the world and try to make markets artificially, to force people to buy our wares, whether they will or not, often at the cannon's mouth. To such base courses has our one-sided freedom, our freedom to injure others brought us.

I must put this matter clearer before I go further lest you should think I am using some mere figures of speech; and I must do so at the risk of repeating myself, and though I daresay some of you have heard me say what I am now going to say on other occasions.

Since the full development of our present system the distinction between the classes of society has in the main merged itself into that of one class owning all the means of the production of wealth, and the other owning nothing but the labour power inherent in their bodies: so that the one so-called upper class need not produce at all, and does scarcely at all; the non-possessing class works for it for such wages (over and above what is necessary to keep the men and women alive and allow them to breed) as they can manage to force their masters to give them by violence or threats of violence direct or indirect, or by strikes, i.e., by destroying a certain part of the master's property. Now this arrangement differs little from that of the relation between the feudal lord and his serf; and the real reason why it has not been noticed to be a condition of serfdom is because the master-class is not necessarily an hereditary one; whoever by the exercise of special faculties or by accident can obtain money enough to employ others to produce instead of producing himself is protected by the laws in his privilege of mastership: and indeed the main business of all authority at present is just this protection of privilege. Now you may think that this privilege is less harmful than the old privilege of birth and race, and it may be so, though I doubt it: but the point of it is that it is a privilege, that is to say that the whole power of the state is put in force to enable anyone who by accident had become possessed of a certain amount of wealth to use that wealth for the purpose of compelling others to yield up to him a portion of what they have produced: or if you like to put it in another way, the authority of the state supports him in the monopoly of the means of production. Now I am prepared to go further into this matter in case you doubt this statement; but first I want to say something about the word `property' and see if we can come to an understanding as to what we mean by it; and I don't know that I can do better than quote John Ruskin on this point: property, he says, is something which is good in itself, which you have acquired justly, and when you can use rightly. Now we may accept this as the Communist view of property in the good sense: you must have worked towards its production or you will have injured the rest of the community by thrusting on them your share of work as well as their own: neither can you use it unless you use it personally, as indeed Ruskin goes on to point out by various familiar examples. Now on the contrary the view of property under our present system is that it is something which you can prevent other people from using, that is to say a monopoly. For instance a man owns a hundred acres of land: he cannot possibly use more than a small corner of it himself, but since he has got it the law supports him in preventing other people from using it; therefore he uses it not as land, to raise produce from it or to build a house for him to live in on it but as a means of compulsion for other people to work for him: for they cannot do without the land; they must have it; and if he were not arbitrarily protected in his monopoly they would make short work of it by using it in spite of him: but since the state will provide him with policemen and soldiers to put them in prison or kill them if they attempt to use it against his will, they cannot use it unless he gives them leave to do so, and he won't do this unless they give him a part of the results of their labour: this enables them to live indeed but it impoverishes them for the benefit of a man who has not done a stroke of work to help them. This comes of the monopoly of the land, the prime necessity for all production; and be sure that if the air or the sunlight or the rain could have been bottled up and monopolized for the profit of the individual it would have been. Well, the land is but one of the instruments of production; the man of property is allowed to monopolize past labour in the selfsame way whether it be embodied in money or in buildings or machinery: he can but use a small part of these things for his personal service; used as his property in our present sense they do but represent so much compulsion of others to work for a day for less than the produce of the day's work. They are means for enabling people to live without producing. And now it has come to this point that the claim to call this `property' in any good sense is manifestly absurd; the land, the machinery, the capital are used for the same purpose as those picturesque castles on the Rhine were used when `capitalists' were clad in plate and mail instead of broadcloth.

Or - will you tell me, when you hear that a man has been sentenced to 5, 6, 8 years penal servitude for stealing, have you not sometimes wondered why the poor devil had to be subjected to that terrible torture? What is he punished for? since I will suppose he has not used violence in his theft. Let us take a case: suppose I have been working hard and usefully all the week, and as I am taking the cash home and thinking of the necessary or pleasant things it will buy, a thief picks my pocket of two-thirds of it. Now that's hard on me: the next week I must work ever so much more, a great deal more than is good for me or go short; and if the thief does this often he causes much suffering by impoverishing people, all of which he might have avoided by working to produce things useful, for in that case there would have been more wealth produced and it would have been better distributed. Therefore we punish the thief to prevent others from inconveniencing us in the same way; if it is the first time he has done it we punish him lightly; if he has done it many times, i.e., if he is obviously living by this industry we punish him heavily. Now what is his offence? Simply living without producing: but I have said or hinted that the possessing or monopolizing class make it their business to live without producing, and consider it one of the holiest duties of man to put their children in the same position; and those that by this proceeding, for which they put thieves according to law in prison, manage to amass great fortunes, are much respected, are praised for giving back part of their ill-gotten wealth to those who ought to have had it all except the due livelihood of the worker that amassed it, and if they get rich enough have a title given them, and found a family of hereditary law-givers. For my part I think that the thief according to law is treated very unjustly since our legal society itself is founded on legal robbery.

Now since that is the case how can we wonder at the waste of wealth which we produce? We have seen what the nature of robbery is, how it means that he who produces does not get the produce of his toil, which goes to someone who has not worked for it; so that the worker is too poor to be able to use the things which he has created; and as he is the numerous class, it all means that our system must in the long run produce not more than it can consume, but more than it will consume. Clearly to an unprejudiced person industrial society should take care that the producers should also be the consumers or there will be waste and wrong.

Now then we come at last to what our end is: the end as far as we can see it of those who have not forgotten the poor even in days of roaring trade. It is very simply to bring Society to a basis of common honesty in the ordinary daily transactions of life; and if you think that is no such exalted aim, pause and consider: consider what a society founded on robbery means: how the meanest and most miserable vices flourish under it. I have said that our present system compelled us into cowardice and therefore injustice. Is not that the natural consequence of a society wherein each who would thrive must do so at his neighbour's expense; must live in short by stealing? Under such conditions there is nothing stable: for look you, it does not avail us that we have good capacities, that we are industrious, deft with our hands or our brains, well developed human beings, all that is no use to us unless others are worse than we are; unless we can conquer them they will conquer us, and in spite of our good qualities we shall be condemned to be their slaves, and thereby the greater part of our good qualities be wasted and lost. So that we live in daily terror lest we should lose, some of us our domination over others, some of us our leisure, some of us our decent livelihood; and that fear forces us, I say, to deal hardly with our fellow men, lest they should rise above us and take our places. Have you never thought any of you what a changed world it would be if this fear, the basest of all passions, were absent from our lives? how full the streets would be of pleasant faces instead of those worn and dragged and anxious features which are our wear now-a-days; how merry we should be over our work; how kind would be our intercourse with each other; how delightful, how rich with beauty and pleasure our contemplation of the past and the present, and our hopes for the future? And but one thing is needed to bring all that about, the society should be based on helpful honesty and not a wasteful robbery. This then is the end which I propose to you, a society whose basis is honesty: nor can you have such a society without a sense growing up in you of your unity with humanity; of that corporation you will feel yourself a member, and you will shrink from doing anything which may be an offence against it. Nor will this be an artificial matter, you will come to that with little consciousness of it on the road: for indeed your attempts to escape the consequences of the sham society of robbery will lead you to it whether you will or not, for you will find co-operation in labour and life and mutual goodwill the only road of escape from the fear and waste of robbery.

Now what are the conditions of an honest society? Surely to start with that every member of it should have a chance of a happy life, that is of a life which will develop his human faculties to the utmost, a chance which only his own will and not the will of anyone else can take away from him: and in order to have that chance he must be allowed to enjoy the fruits of his own labour; in which case he need have no fear for his livelihood, since every person not too young and not too old for productive work or not sick can produce more than is necessary for his own subsistence: if he be sick or otherwise incapacitated from work, it will be a sacred duty for his fellow men to sustain him in all comfort, as also before he is too young to work or after he is too old; since the debt which he will incur to the community in his youth his manhood will more than pay back and the community in its turn be indebted to him, which debt it will pay him back in his old age.

Let us again then look at the end: it is a Community striving for the happiness of the human race: each man striving for the happiness of the whole and therefore for his own through the whole. Surely such a community would develop the best qualities of man, and make such a world of it as it is difficult to conceive of now: a world in which sordid fear would be unknown and in which permanent injustice defended by authority would not exist, and in which acts of wrong would be but the result of sudden outbursts of passion repented of by the actors, acknowledged as wrongs by all.

Is that a vain ideal? If that be so and it is but an empty dream, then there is nothing to be looked for at all on this earth; and the business of each one must be to stave off pain and grasp at passing pleasures as well as he may without regarding others. I know that there are people who think that that is all we can do: and others who think that all our endeavours must be to secure a good position each for himself in a future life of which we know nothing. And I think that these two views are really pretty much the same, since each means despair of our life upon the earth.

Bibliographical Note


Socialism - the Ends and the Means


  1. 27th September 1886 at a meeting sponsored by the Manchester Branch of the SL at the Ardwick Temperance Hall, Pin Mill Brow, Aston Old Road, Manchester
  2. 28th September 1886 at a meeting sponsored by Sheffield socialists at the Lower Albert Hall
  3. 11th October 1886 at a meeting sponsored by the Norwich Branch of the SL held at the Victoria Hall, Norwich
  4. 15th October 1886 at a meeting sponsored by the North London Branch of the SL at Milton Hall, London
  5. 17th October 1886 at a meeting of the Hammersmith Branch of the SL at Kelmscott House


  1. Printed by the Norwich Daylight, 16th October 1886