William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up


Socialism Its Growth & Outcome


In offering this book to the public, we have to say that we thought it useless to go over the ground covered by so many treatises on Socialism, large and small, hostile and friendly, that have appeared of late years. We have dealt with our subject from the historical point of view ; this, we are aware, is a less exciting method than the building up of "practical" Utopias, or than attempting the solution of political problems within the immediate purview of the Socialist struggle of to day. On the other hand, a treatise on abstract economics, furnished with a complete apparatus of statistics, would have been more congenial to another class of mind. Nevertheless, a continuous sketch of the development of history in relation to Socialism, even as slight as it is here, should have its value if efficiently done. Our plan also necessarily deals with the aspirations of Socialists now living, toward the society of the future.

We have only further to add that the work has been in the true sense of the word a collaboration, each sentence having been carefully considered by both the authors in common, although now one, now the other, has had more to do with initial suggestions in different portions of the work.


In one of Edgar Allen Poe's tales he recounts how a little group of wrecked seafarers on a water logged vessel, at the last extremity of starvation, are suddenly made delirious with joy at seeing a sail approaching them. As she came near them she seemed to be managed strangely and unseamanly as though she were scarcely steered at all, but come near she did, and their joy was too great for them to think much of this anomaly. At last they saw the seamen on board of her, and noted one in the bows especially who seemed to be looking at them with great curiosity, nodding also as though encouraging them to have patience, and smiling at them constantly, showing as he did so a set of very white teeth, and apparently so anxious for their safety that he did not notice that the red cap that he had on his head was falling into the water.

All of a sudden, as the vessel neared them, and while their hearts were leaping with joy at their now certain deliverance, an inconceivable and horrible stench was wafted to them across the waters, and presently to their horror and misery they saw that this was a ship of the dead, the bowing man was a tottering corpse, his red cap a piece of his flesh torn from him by a sea fowl; his amicable smile was caused by his jaws, denuded of the flesh, showing his white teeth set in a perpetual grin. So passed the ship of the dead into the landless ocean, leaving the poor wretches to their despair.

To us Socialists this Ship of the Dead is an image of the civilisation of our epoch, as the cast away mariners are of the hopes of the humanity entangled in it. The cheerfully bowing man, whose signs of encouragement and good feeling turn out to be the results of death and corruption, well betokens to us the much be praised philanthropy of the rich and refined classes of our Society, which is born of the misery necessary to their very existence. How do people note eagerly, like Arthur Gordon Pym and his luckless fellows, the beautiful hope of the softening of life by the cultivation of good feeling, kindness, and gratitude between rich and poor, with its external manifestations; its missionary enterprises at home and abroad hospitals, churches, refuges, and the like; its hard working clergy dwelling amidst the wretched homes of those whose souls they are saving; its elegant and enthusiastic ladies sometimes visiting them; its dignified, cultivated gentlemen from the universities spreading the influences of a refined home in every dull half starved parish in England; the thoughtful series of lectures on that virtue of thrift which the poor can scarcely fail to practise even unpreached to; its increasing sense of the value of moral purity among those whose surroundings forbid them to understand even the meaning of physical purity; its scent of indecency in Literature and Art, which would prevent the publication of any book written out of England or before the middle of the 19th century, and would reduce painting and sculpture to the production of petticoated dolls without bodies. All this, which seems so refined and humane, is but the effect of the distant view of the fleshless grinning skull of civilisation seeming to offer an escape to the helpless castaways, but destined on its nearer approach to suffocate them with the stench of its corruption, and then to vanish aimlessly into the void, leaving them weltering on the ocean of life which its false hope has rendered more dreadful than before.

Let us then go through some of the forms through which this universal hypocrisy of modern society, which is its special characteristic, manifests itself. Our present family of blood relationship, based on assumed absolute monogamy, recognises feeble responsibility outside itself, and professes to regulate the degrees of affection to be felt between different persons according to the amount of kinship between them, so that, for instance, the brotherhood of blood would almost extinguish the sense of duty in that other brotherhood of inclination or of mutual tastes and pursuits, and in fact scarce admit that such ties could be real. Or again, in cases when, as sometimes happens, the sham blood family is broken into by the adoption of a strange child, the proceeding is cloaked by change of name, assumption of mystery, and abundance of unconscious ceremonial; and all this time, though doubtless there are plenty of examples of disinterested affection between the members of a family, as between those outside of it, yet the rule is, and our satirists are never tired of playing on this string, that though to a certain extent the bond of obligation is felt, it is burdensome none the less, and is utterly powerless to prevent the wrangling and hatred caused by the clashing of the discordant dispositions of persons doomed always to pose before the world as special friends. Another point to be noticed is the different way in which family bonds are looked upon amidst different nations even in the circle of modern Europe. In England it is true, as we have said, that all virtue, honour, and affection are supposed to be embraced within the pale of the family; this superstition is by no means so strong in France: nevertheless there is a conventional bond, there, apparently a survival of the tyranny of the civil law of the Roman Empire, that is much stronger than any family tie in England.. The family council is submitted to by all Frenchmen and Frenchwomen as a piece of unwritten law which is inexpugnable: a Frenchman cannot marry without leave of his parents before the age of twenty five; the relationship of mother and child, which with all exaggerations is more or less natural in England, is almost sacerdotal in France, and is illuminated by a curious kind of conventional sentiment in literature, which sometimes fairly degrades for the time even the greatest authors into the rank of twaddlers. We do not say that a certain amount of sentiment bred by the family system is not genuine it is reasonable to feel tenderness for the persons who have taken the pains and trouble of cherishing us in our helplessness, and to wish to pay them back with some little kindness when we no longer need that care, even when time has shown us to have no special sympathy for them: not unreasonable too to look with some special sentiment on brothers and sisters, even when manhood has drifted them away from our lives and their aspirations, since in years past we were living with them in such familiarity when they and we were innocent and undeveloped. But what relation does this light and easy yoke of sentiment bear to the iron chain of conventional sham duty which all of us, even the boldest, are oppressed by so sorely: a chain too that is broken amidst various circumstances of real and conventional disgrace whenever necessity, as to day understood, that is, commercial necessity, compels it? In short, the family professes to exist as affording us a haven of calm and restful affection and the humanising influences of mutual help and consideration, but it ignores quietly its real reason for existence, its real aim, namely, protection for individualist property by means of inheritance, and a nucleus for resistance to the outside world, whether that take the form of other families or the public weal, such as it may be.

But this shows after all but the best side of the modern conventional family, as it works in the middle classes. In the lower classes, where the family of blood-relationship might afford some real protection and help to its members, it is completely broken up by the action of the factory system, under which father, mother, brothers, sisters, husband, and wife, compete against each other in the labour market, the end of which is to provide a profit for the capitalist employer; and this "family," which as now constituted exists for middle class needs, being useless to the working classes, they have nothing to turn to to supply the lack of a true social unit.

To most men it will be more obvious that similar charges may be brought against the religion of modern society: most intelligent persons will allow that it means nothing more than mere sets of names and formulas, to one or other of which every reputable man is supposed to be attached; in one or other of which he will be sure to find a conventional solution of the great problem of the universe, including our life and its aspirations. If he fails in his duty to society in this respect he suffers accordingly; and indeed few men of any position are bold enough to avow that they are outside all such systems of ecclesiasticism; the very unorthodox must belong to some acknowledged party they must be orthodox in their unorthodoxy. But as a fact the greater part of cultivated men dare not go so far as that, and are contented with letting society in general feel happy in believing that they subscribe to the general grimace of religion that has taken the place of the real belief, not as yet become a superstition, which allowed practice to be deduced from its solid dream.

Meanwhile it is common, and especially in the more reactionary circles, to find men who privately admit a cynicism that to their minds relieves them from any ethical responsibility, while in public they keep up the farce of supporting a religion that at least professes to have an ethic of its own.

Yet even now it is necessary that a certain code of morality should be supposed to exist and to have some relation to the religion which, being the creation of another age, has now become a sham. With this sham moreover its accompanying morality is also steeped, although it has a use as serving for a cover of a morality really the birth of the present condition of things, and this is clung to with a determination or even ferocity natural enough, since its aim is the perpetuation of individual property in wealth, in workman, in wife, in child.

The so called morality of the present age is simply commercial necessity, masquerading in the forms of the Christian ethics: for instance, commercial honour is merely the code necessitated the by needs of men in commercial relations which without it could not subsist, and which has au fond nothing in common with the Christian "do unto others as thou wouldst," etc., maxim, in the name of which it is on occasion invoked. The only connection that current commercial ethics has with the Christian is, as we said above, a purely formal one. The mystical individualist ethics of Christianity, which had for its supreme end another world and spiritual salvation therein, has been transformed into an individualist ethic having for its supreme end (tacitly, if not avowedly), the material salvation of the individual in the commercial battle of this world. This is illustrated by a predominance amongst the commercial classes of a debased Calvinistic theology, termed Evangelicalism, 1 which is the only form of religion these classes can understand the poetico mystical element in the earlier Christianity being eliminated therefrom, and the "natural laws" of profit and loss, and the devil take the hindmost, which dominate this carnal world, being as nearly as possible reproduced into the spiritual world of its conception.

It may surprise some to be told that politics share this unreality to the full, since it is generally supposed that democracy has at last really triumphed and is now entering into its kingdom. Doubtless the political events of this century have convinced every one that change in the relations of men to each other is at hand; but before that change can come, it must be understood that the development of the people must be on other lines than politicians now dream of. It is true that political freedom is thought to have been gained, but what is the nature of the gain? What is the end and aim of that political freedom which all parties in the State profess to be striving to accomplish? Once more it is a sham, designed really to keep the mass of men helpless and divided, so that they may still be the instruments of the strong and successful. It takes various forms: for example, the land is to be freed from the last remains of feudality and so become more completely a mere portion of profit-breeding capital, thus helping the monstrous aggregation of riches that is reducing all life to a misery. Parents and parsons are to be free to teach children what they will, thus depriving the unfortunate creatures of the most necessary aids to human development. Trade and manufacture are to be freed from all trammels, so that the mass of the people may be compelled to serve the needs, both as producers and as buyers, of those who have but one object, to sell at a profit.

For the sustaining of this glorious "freedom," otherwise spoken of as the "sanctity of contract," government by party is a recognised and effective instrument. In this arrangement the members of Parliament are divided into two sides, much as lads about to play a game at football; the two sides do not differ much in their principles, though there is sometimes a violent faction squabble as to the amount of concession that it is safe to give to or withhold from the demands of the people: not seldom even this difference does not exist the legislation proposed by both parties is almost identical, and some safe excuse for quarrel has to be sought for before the game can be played. Thus is carried out the crowning sham of modern politics under the absurd title of Representative Government, and the name of democracy is used to cloak an oligarchy more or less extended, while once more all decent people who may profess an interest in politics are expected to range themselves under one or other of the great political parties, now become almost less than mere names, the very shadows of shadows.

When all life, domestic, religious, moral and political, is thus fallen into mere pretence, when all these branches of men's energy have come to professing aims which, when they have any, are not their real aims, and on which they will not and cannot act, when they do not know what they really are and are blind to their real destiny, how can it be possible that Art, the expression of the life of society, can be otherwise than a sham also? Here and there indeed the irrepressible genius of an individual expresses itself by dint of toil and anxiety undreamed of in better days, and produces works of art that are beautiful and powerful, however damaged by the souring effects of a desperate struggle against monstrous surroundings, and by the restlessness that comes of the over-exertion even of great powers. But otherwise the fine arts no longer exist for the people at large. How could they? The one reality of modern society is industrial slavery, far reaching and intimate, supreme over every man's life, dominating every action of it from the greatest to the least; no man and no set of men can do anything that does not tend towards the support of this slavery unless they act as conscious rebels against it. Men living under such conditions cannot produce social art or architecture (with all that grasp of the decorative cycle of the arts which that word means, or even desire to do so; they have lost all understanding of what it is ; the mass of the people have nothing to do with Art architectural except so far as they are compelled to produce the sham of it mechanically as a trade finish to wares, so as to give them a higher marketable value. Space fails us here to contrast this condition of things with that of the epochs that produced Art, or to show the consequences of the difference. Suffice it to say once more that, except for the very few works produced by men of exceptional genius, which works the general public does not relish or understand in the least, Art is for the most part dormant.

In this brief review of the various phases of modern life, its family relations, morality, religion, politics, and art, the reader who has not yet studied socialism may see nothing but pessimism. For until recently amongst cultivated people, enjoying whatever advantages may be derived from civilisation, there has been an almost universal belief, not yet much broken into, that modern or bourgeois civilisation is the final form of human society. Were this the case we should be pessimists indeed, but happily we know that civilisation is only a stage in the development of the human race, just as barbarism was, or the savagery of the progressive nations. Civilisation must of necessity develop into some other form of society, the tendencies of which we can see, but not the details; for it is now becoming clear that this new state of society can only be reached through the great economic, moral, and political change which we call Socialism; and the essential foundation of this is the raising of the working classes to a point that gores them a control over their own labour and its product.

In order that our readers may get a correct view of this, it is necessary to use the historic method that is to say, to trace the development of society from its early times up to the full expression of the commercial period, which has created and is now creating such a vast mass of discontent, not only amongst the working classes who suffer directly from the oppression that is a necessary part of it, but also in various and sometimes discordant forms amongst the well to do, who on the face of things are benefited by its working. We propose to finish the book by goring our own impressions both of the immediate issue of the present stir and commotion in socio political life, and also of what may be reasonably expected from the new society when it has at last supplanted the ever increasing confusion of the present day. Only it must be premised that this last part can be nothing more than the expression of our own individual views, and that we do not claim any further weight for it. Although it has been often attempted, it is impossible to build up a scheme for the society of the future, for no man can really think himself out of his own days; his palace of days to come can only be constructed from the aspirations forced upon him by his present surroundings, and from his dreams of the life of past, which themselves cannot fail to be more or less unsubstantial imaginings.

At least we can boldly assert that those who think that the civilisation of our own time will not be transformed both in shape and in essence, hold their opinion in the teeth of the witness of all history. This cannot be set aside by taking refuge in platitudes about "human nature," which are really deduced from orthodox theology and an obsolete view of history. Human nature is itself a growth of the ages, and is ever and indefinitely moulded by the conditions under which it finds itself.

1. If it be said that Evangelicalism is no longer flourishing that is true in the Church of England ; but the large and exceedingly influential body of dissenters still remains intact. back