William Morris. Commonweal 1887
Source: “Facing the Worst of It” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 58, 19 February 1887, p. 60-61;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Though we Socialists have full faith in the certainty of the great change coming about, it would be idle for any one of us to attempt to prophesy as to the date of the realization of our hopes; and it is well for us not to be too sanguine, since overweening hope is apt to give birth to despair if it meets with check or disappointment. Although the oppression and robbery of the past and the present is preparing a certain revenge in the future, yet history has shown us over and over again that retribution is halt-foot; or perhaps, to put it with as little metaphor as language will allow of, great revolutions have to wait till the force which is to destroy the old order and create the new is so overwhelming that there is no chance of any real or serious reaction marring the effects of the hopes and necessities which make great revolutions.
There are two streams of the force which is creating the new order of things, and which, already visible to thoughtful persons, will one day rise into a great flood-tide of change visible to every one, and make a new world. On the one hand the system under which we now live and which is, we are firmly convinced, the last development of the oppression of privilege, is of its own weight pushing onwards towards its destruction. The energy and ceaseless activity which made its success so swift and startling are now hurrying it towards its end; there is no turning back possible, no pausing for the tide of that commerce which bears all life with it in the present; it is not only that its goal is ruin, but the goal is now within sight. Yet though the energy which is now sweeping onward to the sea of destruction cannot falter, yet it may itself create checks — eddies, to keep up the metaphor — in which we now living may whirl round and round a long time. So, that we may not be disappointed and be taken unawares, it is well to consider what these may be.
At the same time, although commercial ruin must be the main stream of the force for the bringing about revolution, we must not forget the other stream, which is the conscious hope of the oppressed classes, forced into union and antagonism by the very success of the commercial system which their hope now threatens with destruction. The commercial or capitalistic system is being eaten out by its own energy; but that energy may on the one hand create partially new conditions for it, yet, on the other hand, in doing so it will stimulate the energy which is consciously attacking it; and these attacks will be more powerful than its struggles to resist its coming fate, the eddies in the stream above said.
As for these, let us look a little closer to see what form they are likely to take.
First, the downward tendency of commerce may and probably will be checked by recoveries something of the nature of the rebounds from depression which were the rule for the last forty years before the depression of the six or seven years just passed set in, but far less complete and much shorter lived. We are threatened with such a recovery at present, and there may be some foundation for the threat, of course if it is realized we shall have plenty of discourses addressed to us of the ‘I told you so’ kind, and the advocates of the capitalists who have any power of pen or tongue will be jubilant and noisy. We Socialists, however, need not trouble ourselves much about their joy, because such a period is sure to be fruitful of disputes between the trades’ unionists and the capitalists; and it will be our business to stimulate and support the claim to a higher standard of livelihood which the brisker business and consequent bigger profits of the manufacturers will enable the workmen to make with success. The period of recovery will certainly be followed by another depression, and the discontent of the workmen will be much increased by their losing, or their dreading to lose, the advantages gained in the better times; so that after all even this apparent check to the progress of the disintegration of the present system will but lead us so much nearer to revolution by making clearer to the workers the antagonism which exists between them and the thief-class — the employers.
Such recovery as above mentioned would come in the ordinary condition of things, and would mean simply an emptying more or less of the shelves of the salesman. But recovery may come from another and more dramatic cause — to wit, the great European war with which we are now threatened. Such a war would give a great stimulus to trade while it lasted; just as if half London were burned down, the calamity would be of great service to those who were not burned out, — all this, of course, applying only to the idiotic system of rewarding labour under which we now suffer, and having nothing to do with a system in which work means production or service of some sort to the community.
But ‘good’ as the war might be for trade, it could not last for ever; and quite apart from the more specially political results which might come of it, the time would come when some one would have to say, as Owen said after the end of the great war of the beginning of the century, ‘the war, our best customer, is dead’.
Then would come the inevitable reaction, and what between falling prices, and crowds thrown out of employment, and the certain disappointment and disgust which would attend the exhaustion of the finish of the struggle, our present thief-society would receive a rude shake, which one might hope it would scarcely recover. But whether that were so or not, at least the inflation of the war-time would be far more than counterbalanced by the depression of the following peace. Only the most shortsighted of the capitalists can pray for war in the times we are now in, one would think, because behind the brilliant ‘respectable’ war stands its shadow, revolution.
And yet though they may dread war, still that restless enemy of the commercial system, the demon which they have made, and is no longer their servant but their master, forces them into it in spite of them; because unless commerce can find new capacities for expansion it is all over, or will be in a very few years; the partial and brief recovery of trade before mentioned is too insignificant to be worth much notice; the one thing for which our thrice accursed civilization craves, as the stifling man for fresh air, is new markets; fresh countries must be conquered by it which are not manufacturing and are producers of raw material, so that ‘civilized’ manufactures can be forced on them. All wars now waged, under whatever pretences, are really wars for the great prizes in the world-market. And certainly if the countries, the chances for whose monopolization (distant chances too) are now leading Europe into a war the end of which no one can foresee, can be opened up to commerce, and when opened up satisfy the expectations of the national pirates who are ‘on the account’ in this matter, the dissolution of our present system may be somewhat checked. Yet, on the other hand, this very success would stimulate the cut-throat competition of the commerce-gamblers; and once more, since of their plunder they would only yield to the workers as much as the latter compelled them to yield, whatever ‘prosperity’ might follow such enterprises, would, now that the idea of Socialism has taken root amongst the workmen of Europe, be accompanied by fresh demands on their part; and these demands again would necessarily act as a spur to the competition of the gamblers, and make the pace faster and more furious; so that perhaps even the glorious hope of flooding Central Africa and China with trade ‘goods’ which nobody wants, will turn out when attained but Dead Sea apples to the capitalist.
These three chances of checking the onward course of capitalistic commerce to its annihilation, are the only visible ones I think: — 1st, The lessening of stocks and consequent slight temporary recovery; 2nd, A great European war, perhaps lengthened out into a regular epoch of war; and 3rd, The realization of the hopes of important new markets, which hopes are the real causes of hostility between nations. How far they might act as checks on Socialism it is not possible to foretell; but that they will not be unmixed advantages to Capitalism is, I think, certain nor is there anything about the possibility of their happening which need discourage us. Probably none of them would have much influence in checking the growing tendency towards the union of the workers in England. Certainly they would have no power to break that spirit of union which already exists among the great nations of the Continent.
Besides these obvious resources of the system we are attacking, there are less obvious possibilities about which one may speculate, perhaps with some profit; these more speculative possibilities point to attempts of Capitalism at avoiding its doom, which would lead to more ruin and suffering than are likely to be involved in even those above-mentioned. I have not space to call our reader’s attention to them at present, so I will end by saying that our part as acknowledged and organized Socialists is, while we watch keenly the development of the causes which would lead to the destruction of the present system, even if there were no acknowledged Socialists at all, to do all we can to aid the conscious attacks on the system by all those who feel themselves wronged by it. It is possible that we may live to see times in which it will be easier than now for the labourer to live as a labourer and not as a man, and there is a kind of utilitarian sham Socialism which would be satisfied by such an outcome of times of prosperity. It is very much our business to meet this humbug by urging the workers to sustain steadily their due claim to that fullness and completeness of life which no class system can give them. The claims of non-Socialist workmen go little beyond the demand for a bigger ration, warmer coat, and better lodging for the slave; and even Socialist workmen, I think, are apt to put their claims too low, at least in this country; for, indeed, one must say with a sense of shame in ones own better luck not possible to express, that the conditions under which they live and work make it difficult for them even to conceive the sort of life that a man should live.