William Morris

The Present Outlook in Politics

It is good to review the state of political parties from time to time and to try to get an idea of what our relations as socialists are to the general mass of political opinion, whether we are advancing, or retro[gressing], or standing still: in fact we cannot help speculating on the influence ordinary parties may have upon our movement and in what direction they are pushing us as to tactics in carrying on that movement: there are dangers as well as hopes for us in the welter of political life so that it behooves us to look at the prospect with as clear eyes as we can lest we fall into traps. Perhaps however some of you may say that unless to the eyes of an electioneering agent the prospect is so clear that it doesn't need thinking about or looking into closely: but then there will be more than one set of people who will think this, and the prospect will be very different to the different sets of people. The Gladstonian Liberal e.g. thinks he can see quite clearly a speedy end of the present Tory Government, and his own hero in power again, carrying with a triumphant majority a home rule bill without a flaw: Ireland contented and prosperous: trade recovering in England, those tiresome, worrying, pertinacious Socialists shut up not by police attacks (unless on the sly) but by the good sense of the political working men who clearly understand that they are only sustained by Tory money, which by the [bye] accounts for their being so overburdened with the latter commodity; and in short the Great Liberal Party united or not settling down, Irish matters being arranged, to doing - I'm sure I don't know what - looking about them I suppose from the official benches. Then there are the Chamberlainites; they also have a vision of success it seems: limited however, as far as I can note it, to the keeping of Gladstone out of office till he is good enough to die, and meanwhile to have the noble reward of plenteous flattery from their Tory allies for their patriotism and freedom from faction. Again there are the definite Whigs belonging to the same party or semi-party, whose hopes are perhaps the clearest of all and the likeliest of fulfillment, for they hope and believe that parliament will do nothing at all in any direction whatever. Again there is the Irish parliamentary party who believe that they are within a measurable distance of a parliament (sham or otherwise) in Dublin. I wish I could hope that there were many of them who had any idea of what they can do in case they get the said parliament to utilize the steady heroism of the Irish people. Then there is the great Tory party who seem to be quite as clear that all is going on well with them as the Gladstonites are of the contrary, although to their confusion there is arising a Torier-than-Tory party among them who have taken down the old banner of protection from the dusty, mouldy, chaff-littered cock-loft where it has lain so many years, and for their parts also are very clear that it will lead them to victory.

It is clear that all these parties except the Irish are offering some bait to that part of the public which each one thinks is at once the most powerful, and the most easily influenced by their special dogma (if they have any). I say that this [is] clear because they are all of them so confident of success, or at least deem it politic to seem so. But of course the bait[s] offered by those parties which [have] any pretext to be considered as popular should be the clearest and biggest though I am not sure that they are. The Gladstonite party e.g. offers some relative extension of the franchise, in the hope that the new electors will vote for them, besides a half promise to disestablish the State Church as a bait to nonconformists. The Unionists offer some vague hope of progressive measures if they can succeed in keeping the Tories in office. The fair traders offer the working men higher and steadier wages; nay the very Tories throw out hints about dishing the Liberals with more Liberal measures in order to catch votes from the working men discontented with the party they have mostly supported; and on the look-out for some opportunity of bettering themselves and serving-out their misleaders at one and the same time.

Of course this has always been more or less the state of things in a country nominally governed by a party majority in Parliament; so far there is nothing much to differentiate the present condition of parties from other times; all the more since though there is an extra number of groups, there are still as regards the game of Ins and Outs but two parties; the Salisbury Tories and the Gladstone Liberals: the group of blended Whigs and Chamberlainites that call themselves Unionist Liberals whatever they may call themselves will vote Tory till the crisis is over, and mostly to the end of the chapter: and the protectionist Tories have no intention of rebelling against their leaders who on these fiscal matters have accepted the opinions of Cobden and Bright. For voting in Parliament and for parliamentary candidature there are but two parties only I repeat, and if the great Liberal Party ever comes together again, it will find that as far as numbers are concerned the coming together will not help it much, as the greater part of the dissentients will have declared themselves Tories or will stand out as Whig allies of the Tories. However it is probable that even this outward show of coming together will never take place: because (if I may leave this formal word-chopping about these contemptible factions for a minute) one must remember that glibly as people talk of the settlement of the Irish question it is not going to be settled by any Home Rule Bill big or little that Mr. Gladstone may succeed in carrying through parliament: the two sections can only come together by the Gladstonites abandoning every rag of principle that they yet hold; I don't say that it's impossible for them to do that: but then that will complicate the matter by losing them their Irish support. So I say there are the Ins and Outs: and if you say, but this is only a matter of the shifting groups of the M.P.s, I must remind you that the political public, the ordinary voters, follow the lead of these men with quite remarkable docility, and in fact they do represent the political public whatever they do for the people at large in that respect.

Now these Ins and Outs form two parties and no doubt the struggle between them is exciting enough to those engaged in it though somewhat dull to onlookers, but what real difference is there between them? Well on ordinary occasions none. In matters of administration none; in the leading of opinion, in the helping of that lame dog the working public over the stile of livelihood none. It is however necessary to find something or other which will serve as a bone of contention, and this function falls as a matter of course to the Liberal Party as progressists. It is their business to find something that can be fought over and which will not commit the progressive party too much if they carry the day; something also on which a compromise is possible and the fight over which will last long enough: such a subject has been found by the Gladstonites in the Irish question and in many respects the invention has been a useful one for parliamentary purposes: in the name of all patience it will last long enough: it needs not, to all appearance involve the Liberal party in revolutionary measures, and compromise was possible in the case of victory in the early stages at least, and that was enough since as you know no statesman ever looks six months ahead: so the Irish question was taken out of the "difference bag" and chosen as the bone to fight for, and I admit has not turned out well; being contrary to expectation too serious a subject to be played over by the two sides to the game. But we must not be too hard on Mr. Gladstone for this, or think that he acted recklessly: it would in fact have been a safe subject enough if it had not been for the growth of Socialism in some form or other in this island, and it would have been too much to expect of any statesman that he should have taken any account of an intellectual movement in an early stage. Besides he could not take anything else out of the difference-bag except the disestablishment of the Church, and after some hesitation he put that back; partly because he was afraid of his followers and of offending the respectability with which the establishment is so closely interwoven, and partly also I believe from a genuine personal love which he has (like Charles I) for that curious bundle of subterfuges and compromises the Anglican Communism. Also his last attempt at governing discontented Ireland was not a very happy one, and as of course he hoped to have a good long spell of office he did not want to start again on that tack: so in a way he was forced to make the battle over the Irish Question probably without foreseeing the serious split which followed, and which certainly was brought about by the Whigs and the more knowing of the advanced Liberals perceiving that the question was not a safe one but involved danger to property, threats against which were already in the air in other parts.

Of course the result of all this has been something which the English parliament never intended; it has been to land them in a real quarrel over Ireland; a quarrel too in which the Liberals are led by the Irish who are receiving real support from the democratic and socialist element in Great Britain. I don't mean to say that this latter element has done much if anything to further the matter in parliament, except so far as it has made the opposition to Home Rule more stubborn on the part of the Tories and their allies but it has certainly much embittered the reactionary feeling generally, of which more hereafter.

This then is the position in which we are landed as far as the parliamentary parties are concerned: the Ins and Outs game is being carried on as usual, though there has been a good deal of shuffling about of persons: but the cause of quarrel beyond the general agreement of both sides to fleece the people having been found has turned out to have a dangerous element of reality in it, partly because the Irish people is in deadly earnest to establish its practical independence, and partly because there is a gathering feeling towards revolution about which has been able to fix itself on the simple cases of exploitation by rack-rent going on in Ireland.

As a consequence of the Liberal party having stumbled on a revolutionary question it has weakened itself very much and has not only lost a great number of adherents but also great prestige, because under the grievous circumstances of its having to push forward a side of the popular cause it is compelled to fight soft and so encourage its foes and discourage its friends; and at present as far as ordinary parliamentary events go it is not easy to see anything which will unseat the present Tory majority.

So far as ordinary parliamentary events go indeed; but outside of those there are events brewing which though they do not directly threaten the present Tory government, the Tories will yet have to reckon with. Although the putting forward of Home Rule has not answered the purpose of the Liberal party, it has served another purpose than merely consolidating the Tory party and winning it the open alliance of the Whigs. It has changed and is changing the aspect of the Radicals and has given them something to hope for beyond the narrow circle of a few reforms scarcely any of which could be looked on as possible means to an end very vaguely foreseen by the great mass of radicals; of course it has acted on them as a solvent as it has on the Liberals and has turned some of them into Whigs, but those of them that are left are quite different from the radicals of a few years back; as they will find out after the first measure of Home Rule is passed and they are face to face with their old radical programme of electoral reform, peace, disestablishment, and what not. They will find all that very dull after the Irish campaign, and will no longer be content with it; for they have practically committed themselves to the attack on property which has scared the Tories into acting in their ancient manner, made the Liberals - well over-cautious - and petrified the Whigs, if that were necessary. In fact the spirit of the Radicals, where they remain Radicals, is getting to be much more like that of the Chartists than what we have known them; they have taken a step towards revolution, and consequently have pretty much lost all the importance they had, if ever they had much, in parliament, and their old allies are preparing to throw them off for good and all when they have squeezed the last drop of use out of them. This is what they must always expect: the constitutional or non-revolutionary game of play must in a cons[titutional] country be fought out between the respectable Tory reactionaries and the moderate Liberals: the latter will have nothing to do with the extreme progressive politicians except on the terms that they shall be their humble followers with no will of their own. The Radicals as a parliamentary party can never be strong, because at every advance in opinion the timid ones of their party drop off from them, and the genuine ones who have accepted the advances get further and further from anything that is likely to be put forward in parliament and as aforesaid become political outcasts: their true function we shall see presently.

Well I mentioned all the recognized groups of politicians, if indeed the last group the extreme radicals or democrats can be said to be recognized. Above this group all are engaged as aforesaid in playing the game of Ins and Outs; but this they only use for a cat's paw now and then. There remains another party lower even than the democrats, which party we are probably all of [us] much interested in, I mean the Socialists. As to their position we must all admit that it has much changed from what it was a few years ago, when there were in England but a few remains of the earlier school of Utopists, a certain number of foreign refugees, and a very few English people who were intimate with them. This made up what there was of socialism in England, and the influence it had upon general thought and politics was almost nil. I[t] was the common thing to say that in a country so advanced in political freedom as England socialism had no standpoint: that it was [the] disease of the absolutist countries where freedom of speech was unknown, or one of the forms of Chartism which was killed by the reform-bill and the repeal of the corn laws - And now what is it? Feeble enough numerically you may say if you count all the heads sheltered by the socialist organizations, but then see how the phrases about it have altered. `We are all socialists now', is the common phrase today: or `to a great extent I agree with your criticism of existing institutions but -' and so on and so on. In short socialism is permeating all society, and consequently following the analogy of the political position of the radicals stirring up furious enmity as well as attracting friendship and curiosity. Let us for a little consider its relations to the various groups of thought and political action, none of which venture quite to ignore it. First there are the declared reactionists, the pure Tories. They you see are beginning to pay it the compliment of persecution, which means they are growing afraid of it; partly because they at last have begun to see that they, once the old sham-feudal absolutist-bureaucratic party who were attached to that expiring system, have tacked themselves on to another system that is waning the commercial monopolist-bureaucracy; that is the essential and enduring part of their fear; the passing part of it is that unlucky business of Ireland which Gladstone has lugged into the parliamentary arena, and with which also they see that socialism is connected. So much for the Tories we frighten them. Next come the Whigs pure and simple, and perhaps one may have to withdraw the statement that no group ignored socialism, and [say] that the Whigs pure and simple do so. But then that's a way they have with everything outside the four walls of Mr. Barry's Gothic hall at St. Stephens: that as far as discussion is concerned is their world.

Let us pass to the Liberals: if we frighten the Tories I think we make the Liberals uneasy; for they note that the thing is spreading and wonder what the deuce it means, and are nervous lest perhaps they may have to learn something new, and perhaps have to shift their ground once more: I don't mean to say that they have begun to learn anything about it: Lord Roseberry e.g. said the other day that Socialism meant sharing up all wealth, and that if it were shared up it would soon become unequally distributed again. A favourite theory with some of these bold politicians, whose watchword is for God's sake don't break up the party, is that Socialism is a faddist theory made use of by the Tories to injure the Liberals at elections: in short they seem to confound us with the Kelly and Peters lot: and scent fair trade and sugar bounties in the wind when they pass by our meetings.

Then comes our relation to the true radicals: I think most of these will agree with me when I say that they are being very seriously permeated with Socialism; the old radicalism has become Whig-Liberalism, the new is fast becoming undecided socialism. When it becomes more decided the reactionists and the Whigs (stationaries) may perhaps cull a few more of the timider of the radicals, but there will be a democratic party instructed if not led by the socialists, indeed that is fast happening now, and perhaps it only needs a Liberal Bloody Sunday to complement the Tory one for such a consolidation. Meantime our radical friends will I hope pardon me for looking upon them chiefly as affording a recruiting ground for socialists, since I believe that almost all the present genuine radicals will soon become socialists: yet as a party in spite of their parliamentary weakness they have another function viz. that of pushing forward measures which will help forward the disintegration of society, but which are not really socialistic in principle: again more of this hereafter.

But we have something else to deal with outside all these political parties, to wit all that very large part of the public that is not political in any sense: with the upper-class portion of it we need not concern ourselves much, since the greater part of these people only want to be let alone to thrive on the privilege of robbing labour and are willing instruments in the hands of the reactionists. However there are here and there a few who have not troubled themselves about politics because they have supposed the Gladstonite creed to be the ultimatum of progress, and have not seen in it anything like salvation to the human race from its realization, and who are really ready for the reception of socialism when they come across it. I say a few, because I fancy most of those who are worth anything have been touched by Ruskin's writings and converted into Socialists of some kind.

The other non-politicals belong to the working classes and must I fear be set down as the majority of them: and these again can be divided into people fairly well off for workmen yet so harassed by the struggle for life that they are consciously rather on the side of the masters who rob them and relive them of responsibility, and those still more beaten down who are scarcely conscious of anything except that they are weary and hungry and cold: what can be done with these latter save feeding them in a miserable, hopeless way, before the social revolution comes to offer them useful work and due livelihood, makes men of them in short, I know not, nor does anybody else. But one thing I wish to say here that if you suppose you will find all the intelligence among the better-off workmen, and all the lack of it among the unemployed, the fringe of labour, you are deceived and that this is by no means the case: don't let anybody hug himself with the comforting notion that in the struggle for existence which the propertyless workman has to carry on, deftness, industry, thrift even ensure a man from falling into lack of employment and the lowest misery; that is by no means the case. Moreover it is quite as common to find that lack of intelligence which servile dependence on masters implies among the better-off workmen, and when you remember that even the Trades Unions are somewhat tarred with this stick (so far as they are not political) you must admit that this is a difficult element to deal with: in point of fact it is just this element which is what we mean when we speak of the apathy of the working-classes to their interests, and this slaves'-apathy really is analogous to the slave-holders' apathy among the well-to-do classes, and until it is thrown off it is little good abusing the latter for their apathy which is but an agreement with their comfortable position considering there are so many who acquiesce in their miserable position when they could alter it if they would but shake off their apathy. One cannot leave this subject without saying that amongst the most apathetic to their own interests are the workers who are usually assumed to be the most complete workmen, the hands in the great factory districts; it is easy to see why this should be; they are most under commercial drill, and are made to feel more than other workers that they are a mere part of the machinery of production for profit, and that if that machinery stops for a minute they are undone: therefore they refuse to take any responsibility on their own behoof further than helping the owners of the machinery not to strain the human part of it to the bursting-point or deprive it of fuel calculated according [to] the most economical scale: it is difficult to see any remedy for this slavishness until the workers find out that they are a part of the public as well as a part of the profit-grinding machine, and that the said machine is villainously ill-adapted to their welfare in the latter capacity.

Well now I will recapitulate as briefly as may be the way our movement looks at all these elements of the present of the present political outlook: First the definite reactionaries, people who instinctively feel that it is their business to resist all progress and will only yield when they are forced to do so. Their political representative is parliament generally but especially the Whig-Tory party therein. Their intellectual representatives for strange to say they have such are the prig litterateurs who once posed as advanced men, but are now shocked at the advance drawing near which they encouraged when it was a long way off: they are very superior persons. Next there is the party of the moderates who call themselves Liberals in parliament who, blinder than the definite reactionists, believe that the advance will go just as far as them and stop there - perhaps forever; but at any rate as long as they live: these are wholly parliamentary and are (justly) much despised by the intellectual prigs, who indeed despise all things good and bad.

Next come the Democrats with whom we must class the Irish party who are their only representatives in parliament. These include the mass of politically-minded working-men.

Next come the non-political, well-to-do, almost-entirely reactionaries. Lastly come the non-political working-men, mere slaves, and part of the profit-machine; whether they be `intelligent working-men' or the unhappy drudges of the fringe of labour.

Of these the first two, the reactionaries or Whig-Tory and the sham-progressists or Liberals, are our declared enemies and there is not a pin to choose between them; we can get nothing from them except under the influence of fear of immediate consequences: add to this that we are wholly governed by them - by our enemies in short. The democrats on the other hand although we differ from them and though they sometimes through ignorance oppose us are our allies; they are working for us whenever they are not dragged along by the left wing of the enemy, the sham-progressists.

The non-political well-to-do are but a part of the reactionary party. The non-political working men are material for us and circumstances to work on.

Now what is going on amidst these various groups is that the revolution is preparing, a fact which we and the reactionaries know, and which the other groups ignore. It is a commonplace to say that the economical situation is the chief factor in this approaching change, but it is well to remember this if we feel discouraged at the stupid and unsympathetic attitude of the workmen of Lancashire e.g. As time goes on the eyes of these men will be opened to the fact that they must accept their share of responsibility in the system of production and they will then have to admit that the system must be changed. Also it must be remembered that the disintegration of the old system will possibly be slow, and probably will be apparently interrupted by periods of "prosperity" and that during such periods the movement will have to depend on the face of it entirely on the intelligence of the workers and those who understand what `society' really means.

Well at present the economical situation has had more obvious influence on the political than it has had for many years, since the Chartist times, say: and consequently, (to set aside for a little the direct efforts of the socialists) our enemies, our governors, are growing afraid on the one hand, and on the other our allies, the democrats, are learning that there is something beyond what is known as mere political freedom; they are learning to know the difference between the means and the end; and just in proportion to their learning of that lesson will they become formidable really although they may appear to be weaker than they were; because whereas when their demands were for "political" reforms they were really helping our governors to govern, but now as their demands are assimilating to ours they are asking what our governors cannot yield without compulsion, and are therefore embarrassing our governors in their governing. This is in short the explanation of the Tory reaction so much crowed over by the Tory newspapers; the Liberals are melting into mere reactionaries, the democrats are preparing to accept Socialism; so that the Tories are not really attacking their parliamentary opponents, or the Liberals defending political progress; but the former are attacking the great social change, and the latter are - letting them do so.

As a result for the time the Tories are very strong and venture on proceedings which a few years ago they durst not have done. They know e.g. that if their conduct in London is called in question when Parliament meets that it will [be] a hollow affair; and that they will gain rather than lose votes by letting loose the police to attack peaceful citizens in the streets and imprisoning them afterwards for the crime of being bludgeoned and ridden down. Again as to the Irish question, although it is the fashion for speakers of either party to regret the waste of time that it causes, and though they both profess to be very anxious to get through it so as to deal with British matters: we all know that this is a most transparent piece of humbug, and that both parties will spread out the Irish question as far as it will go like scanty butter over sturdy bread, so as to prevent if possible any other question being dealt with, until the Liberals can pull out of that difference bag a good safe party question which will be of no importance at all to the general public.

The fact is that neither party knows what to do at present: the Liberals have reached the end of their tether, and the time has not yet come for the Tories to take their stand on mere commercial absolutism, although there are ominous signs that they will before long be able to do so: but that will mean the revolution (as people generally use the word) in full swing.

Meantime accidents may or rather will happen to confuse the logical development of events, which certainly does seem to point to the gradual building up of a great labour party. I have been only speaking about politics in Great Britain and Ireland, but continental Europe is not standing still to speak very mildly. It is possible that a system of oppression that depended wholly on armed force for its support might last as long as the world if you could shut out economical influences; but since you clearly cannot, the time will come when even the German Army will not be able to ride rough-shod over all the necessities and desires of a huge population: at the very worst when it has conquered all the world, all the world will conquer it. But to the worst we shall not come. Meantime in Germany at any rate reaction is going on merrily and it is a curious spectacle for civilization to see the most intelligent people in the world allowing themselves to be muzzled by one cynical old man. Well, you may be sure that the muzzle is clapped on because 'tis needed, and that when we need it we shall have it if an unlikely thing I admit we develop a Bismarck amongst us. The new Socialist law is no doubt a sign of progress; and may be a sign of approaching European war, though I decline to be any longer moved by war scares which are probably got up by statesmen-thieves or stockjobbing d[itt]o; however a European war is a possibility at any rate; and since England couldn't go to war unless at the last extremity such an event would no doubt make the Jingos very bold, and also would make for us a short period of factitious `prosperity' by dint of drawing off more labour from production of utilities: both of which in turn would help to strengthen the temporary reaction.

In any case we have got to remember this, that neither war scares, nor war, nor the shabby oppression of cowardly shopkeepers, nor the rigging of the markets, nor even the unconscious shifting of them under the influence of desperate competition for profits, will, or can get rid of the fact that the present system of production no longer suffices for the needs and aspiration[s] of the present population. That in spite of growing cooperation for production, and growing mastery over the forces of nature, in spite of all the elaborate organization of commerce, we are poor when we ought to be wealthy, because labour is not organized and wealth not distributed in the interest of the whole public but in the interest of a privileged class, who not only produce nothing themselves, and tax the whole people to support their idle lives, but also waste the greater part of the labour of those whom they idly live upon. That is one side of the situation, and the other is that the knowledge of this stupidity can no longer be kept from those that suffer from it: you shall hear sometimes a reactionist saying that people are better off now than they were and more discontented and therefore all is well: you need not argue against his premises, because if it is so it is a sure sign that the change is at hand.

It is this that makes such a strange jumble of politics today; that makes refined and superior persons set mere brute force on a pedestal to be worshipped, so that we seem to be going back to the days of Peterloo; and it is exactly this which we as socialists have to deal with: if we can but make it clear to the workers that they cannot live on comfortably as slaves even according to their present wretched standard, and that the first step that a slave must take in order to become a free man is to assume responsibility with all its attendant troubles, politics will have entered into a new phase: nothing will be allowed to pass current because it is `necessary to the stability of society', because it is `not within the scope of practical politics', and so on. We shall look our present system in the face and see what it is fit for, and shall not think it necessary to spend nine-pence on the mending of sixpence because it is called reform. It is certain that even now while we speak politics of the old kind, the shuffle of Ins and Outs, are waning away, and the new politics that are taking the place of the old mean a struggle against stupidity for the reconstruction of society on a tolerable instead of intolerable basis, so that at last we may be led into the happy days when society shall be what its name means, and politics will be no more.

Bibliographical Note


The Present Outlook in Politics


  1. 18th December 1887 at a meeting sponsored by the Hammersmith Branch of the SL at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith