William Morris. Commonweal 1888

On Some ‘Practical’ Socialists

Source: “On Some ‘Practical’ Socialists” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 110, 18 February 1888, p.52-53;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The study of economics is no doubt necessary for militant Socialists; the more a man knows of them in all their details the more able he is to meet not only the sophistries of the ‘educated’ anti-Socialist, but, which is still more important, the awkward and hard-to-be-answered questions which people who have never thought of these matters at all sometimes stumble on.

Of course, that he should be able to make his knowledge of any use depends on whether he has understood what he has learned, especially in dealing with enquiring ignorance. The ‘educated’ man will sometimes be floored by a phrase, will retire abashed before ‘surplus value’, and refuse to tackle the iron law of wages, on the same grounds that the Oxford undergraduate declined to give his examiner any information about King David for fear he should he lugged all through the Kings of Judah and Israel; but the ignorant man may require information after he has got over the first shock of the unaccustomed enunciation of the big-worded dogma. So that our student of economy had best be careful to look to it that he can translate his phrases into a language ‘understanded of the people’. But when our learner has really got to know something about economics; nay, when he has them at his fingers ends, he still has to beware of another trap, or rather of two more. He has (for as old a Socialist as he may be) to take care that he does not read the present into the future, to suppose that when the monopoly in the means of production has been abolished, and no one can any more live on the labour of others, but must do some recognized service to the community in order to earn his livelihood, yet, nevertheless, people’s ways of life and habits of thought will be pretty much as they are now. The other trap generally besets the way of the same kind of Socialist who is apt to fall into the first-named; it is the too entire absorption in the economic view of Socialism, and the ignoring of all its other aspects.

The kind of Socialist who is most likely to be caught by these traps is he who considers himself as specially practical; although the due deduction from the last one at any rate would be the abstention from action of all kinds, and the acceptance of the position of an interested but helpless spectator. Your ‘practical’ man is (very naturally) anxious that some step towards Socialism should be taken at once, and also that it should be taken under definitely Socialist auspices, therefore, he really addresses himself to people who would be likely to be frightened into mere hostility by any apprehension of a large change in the life of Society; he is thinking entirely of the conservative side of human nature as the thing to be won over, and ignores that which exists just as surely, its revolutionary side. The result is that the wolf of Socialism gets clad in the respectable sheeps-skin of a mild economic change; yet not with much success. I have been present on several occasions when this experiment has been tried, and have been much amused by the demeanour of the respectables, who trying to be convinced, or at least to appear to be, have nevertheless showed uneasiness, as if they detected the disguised animal, and noted his glistening teeth and red jaws peeping out from under the soft woolly clothing of moderate progress. Also, though it was less amusing, it was as instructive to note the look of those convinced but not fully instructed Socialists who were present, on whom the sight of the transmogrified sham amiable monster produced nothing but blank disappointment and dismay. Altogether, these occasions have been to me hours of humiliation and discouragement; and I think also that there was no gain in the humiliation; neither I nor the other comrades needed to undergo it. The opponents were not won over by it, they were only confused and puzzled, and made feel as if they had been laughed at.

But I do not mean to say that these one-sided Socialists are generally acting disingenuously, or merely trying to smooth down a hostile audience. I believe, on the contrary, that they do not see except through the murky smoked glass of the present condition of life amongst us; and it seems somewhat strange, not that they should have no vision of the future, but that they should not be ready to admit that it is their own defect that they have not. Surely they must allow that such a stupendous change in the machinery of life as the abolition of capital and wages must bring about a corresponding change in ethics and habits of life; that it would be impossible to desire many things which are now the main objects of desire; needless to guard against many eventualities which we now spend our lives in guarding against; that, in short, we shall burn what we once adored, and adore what we once burned.

Is it conceivable, for instance, that the change for the present wage-earners will simply mean hoisting them up into the life of the present ‘refined’ middle-classes, and that the latter will remain pretty much what they are now, minus their power of living on the labour of others? To my mind it is inconceivable; but if I could think such a prospect likely, I should join with Mr Bradlaugh (whose idea of the aims of Socialism is probably just this) in a protest against the dull level of mediocrity. What! will, eg., the family of the times when monopoly is dead be still as it is now in the middle-classes, framed on the model of that of an affectionate and moral tiger to whom all is prey a few yards from the sanctity of the domestic hearth? Will the body of the woman we love be but an appendage to her property? Shall we try to cram our lightest whim as a holy dogma into our children, and be bitterly unhappy when we find that they are growing up to be men and women like ourselves? Will education be a system of cram begun on us when we are four years old, and left off sharply when we are eighteen? Shall we be ashamed of our love and our hunger and our mirth, and believe that it is wicked of us not to try to dispense with the joys that accompany procreation of our species, and the keeping of ourselves alive, those joys of desire which make us understand that the beasts too may be happy? Shall we all, in short, as the ‘refined’ middle-classes now do, wear ourselves away in the anxiety to stave off all trouble, emotion, and responsibility, in order that we may at last merge all our troubles into one, the trouble that we have been born for nothing but to be afraid to die? All this which is now the life of refined civilization will be impossible then.

I have often thought with a joyful chuckle how puzzling, nay inexplicable to the generations of freedom, will be those curious specimens of human ingenuity called novels now produced, and which present with such faithful detail the lives of the middle-classes, all below them being ignored except as so many stage accessories; amongst them all, perhaps, Dickens will still be remembered; and that because of what is now imputed to him as a fault, his fashioning a fantastic and unreal world for his men and women to act in. Surely here again all will be changed, and our literature will sympathize with the earlier works of men’s imagination before they learned to spin out their own insides like silkworms into dreary yarns of their sickly feelings and futile speculations; when they left us clear pictures of living things, alive then and for ever. We shall not desire and we shall not be able to carry on the feverish and perverted follies of the art and literature of Commercialism.

I wonder that those who will insist in reading the life of the present into a world economically changed, do not see how they start wrong from the beginning; and I wonder all the more as they are often clear-headed and capable persons.

The competition of the profit-market forces us under our present system to turn our attention overmuch to producing wares with the least possible labour; our epoch is compelled to sacrifice everything to this necessity. Considering the aspect of London and our great manufacturing centres, for instance, it seems that if it were possible for us to go on for long at our present rate of sacrificing to this tyrant of cheap production, the time would come when having to choose between the greater part of us living in cellars and never seeing the sun again, and foregoing the cheapening of cotton cloth by a halfpenny a yard, we should be compelled to choose to submit ourselves to the former — inconvenience. This I say is our necessity at present, because the competition for profits, which is the master of production, is a system of mere waste, first as a war and next as a bonfire, so to say, for the consumption of the product of labour merely in the interests of the power of the proprietary classes. Or may we not say that the gentilities, the luxuries, the pomp of these classes in an ascending scale, from the small villa dweller to the great territorial magnate, are the necessary baits held out to the producing classes to ensure their ‘content’ with the present state of things. ‘It is true’, they proclaim, ‘that you are in an inferior position now, because you belong to the useful class; but there is no legal disability preventing you from rising out of that class; by means of thrift, self-denial, and clever rapacity, you may attain to this nice stuccoed villa with its ‘art objects’ and nick-knacks, its smiling obsequious servants, and vacant wife and daughters dressed up to the nine; next, as you grow older and colder and stupider, this mansion awaits you with all the ‘refinements of civilization,’ flunkies, libraries, parties, seats in Parliament and the rest of it; and at last, when you have really come to believe in yourself as a benefactor to the human race because you, once the robbed, have become a robber on the very largest scale, here is your park with its surrounding acres, and the state and majesty of a landed gentleman amongst the toilers afield who have even less than you began with when you were a useful man. There shall you found a family, take a peerage, and die universally respected.’

Expensive baits these! Yet necessary while classes last, since the lapse of time has evolved us out of the simpler systems of chattel slavery and serfdom.

I won’t go into figures as to the cost of these two gulfs of waste necessary to the stability of our present system, the waste of commercial war, the waste of the supporting a proprietary class with all its camp-followers and hangers-on; nor do I suppose that we shall ever know how prodigious a waste we have saddled ourselves with in this matter; but it is clear that it is prodigious. Well, under the new conditions of Society commercial war will have died out, and with it the wasteful occupations that support it; and class-rule will have disappeared, so that its waste will have gone; labour will no longer be directed in the interest of the profit-grinder or the idler, and the task of the producers will be so easy, that the dogma which our pessimist friends now hold that men will always do their work in the way which gives them least trouble (understood whatever sacrifices they have to make for it), will cease to have any meaning; because there will practically be no longer any compulsion to work.

Mark Twain says, apropos of Tom Sawyer’s whitewashing, that work is labour that we are compelled to do, and pleasure labour that we choose to do, which we beg our economico-pessimist friends to remember.

Meantime, I hold that we need not be afraid of scaring our audiences with too brilliant pictures of the future of Society, nor think ourselves unpractical and utopian for telling them the bare truth, that in destroying monopoly we shall destroy our present civilization. On the contrary, it is utopian to put forward a scheme of gradual logical reconstruction of society which is liable to be overturned at the first historical hitch it comes to; and if you tell your audiences that you are going to change so little that they will scarcely feel the change, whether you scare any one or not, you will certainly not interest those who have nothing to hope for in the present Society, and whom the hope of a change has attracted towards Socialism. It is a poor game to play (though so often played in politics) to discourage your friends in order to hoodwink your foes for a brief space. And certainly the Socialists who are always preaching to people that Socialism is an economic change pure and simple, are very apt to repel those who want to learn for the sake of those who do not.