William Morris. Commonweal 1887

‘Common Sense Socialism’

Source: “'Common-Sense Socialism'” (review) Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 75, 18 June 1887, p. 197;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The first word of the above title is usually a sort of danger signal to the wary reader to avoid boredom and confusion. ‘Common-sense’ as applied to knotty questions usually meaning the ignoring of the main issue, or the putting forward of a remedy difficult to apply and useless when applied. This is so well understood by persons with not more than the average amount of time for throwing away on futile and foolish literature, that the title of this book will probably prevent many people from looking into it at all. This is a pity, although before the end of the book the author justifies this well-grounded fear — a pity, because two-thirds of it or more, which is devoted to the criticism of the present state of things, and the remedies proposed by non-Socialists and semi-Socialists, is on the whole clearly put and well reasoned. The author points out the growing discontent, the insufficiency of the reward of labour; the futility as remedies of thrift and temperance, of preaching Malthusianism, of land nationalization, peasant proprietorship, etc. But then having condemned capitalism by showing its inevitable results, and having condemned all the ‘tinkering’ methods of reform which we Socialists know so bitterly well, he puts forward his own nostrum, which, after all this labouring of the mountain, turns out to be one of the smallest and feeblest of mice every brought forth. The competition, which he sees very clearly to be producing a condition of industrial production which will end in a dead-lock, is to be checked artificially; and how? By regulating the hours of labour in factories where machinery is used!

For he expressly excepts field labour, the building trades, etc., which etc., by-the-by, must include at present at least, the labour of the coal-hewers and our hapless friends the chain-makers.

It is true he adds to this ‘remedy’ some sort of semi-Georgite land-tax (having argued well and clearly against Mr George in an earlier chapter), and the restriction on heritage usually advocated by those who take up that form of tinkering, as also a tax on speculation; but he does not seem to set any great store by these latter remedies, his great invention being the limitation of the day’s work in machine-using factories and workshops.

What lies at the bottom of this curious aberration seems to be an ingrained tendency in the author to utopianism. Mr Kempner seems incapable of conceiving of the class-struggle, or the historical evolution of industrialism, or of understanding that the real point at issue is when and how the workers shall emerge from their condition of pupillage and be masters of their own destinies.

In spite of all this the book may be recommended to young Socialists, as the destructive part of it is, once more, clear and well-reasoned, and the would-be constructive part so feeble that it is scarcely possible that anybody could be misled by it, or attracted to it.

It is worth while to note apropos of the attempt some persons make to draw a hard and fast line between Socialism and Communism, that Mr Kempner uses the latter word in the sense that it is used in the ‘Manifesto’ of Marx and Engels, of 1847. A Communist is with him one who advocates the communization or nationalization of the raw material and instruments of labour and distribution.

Common-Sense Socialism, by H. Kempner. (Swan Sonnenschein and Co.)