William Morris. Commonweal 1888

The Reaction and the Radicals

Source: “The Reaction and the Radicals” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 121, 5 May 1888, p.137-138;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The other day a friend was remarking to me that the ordinary Liberal and Radical of the Parliamentary type was very slack in his resistance to the Tory supremacy in these days; and in spite of the brags of the Gladstonian press, it must be admitted that this is true, after making all the allowances that can be made for the apparently brisk conflict over Irish matters: for that conflict is really in the hands of the Irish themselves; Mr Parnell’s causing the Irish vote to be cast in favour of the Tories in 1885 forced Mr Gladstone’s hand. Up to that time the Liberals had reckoned on the general support of the Irish Parliamentary Party, but after it they understood that that support must be bought by the yielding to Irish demands; that is in the main the plain story of the Gladstonian conversion. And the terms of the bargain so made have to be kept, as the Irish are at hand to enforce them, and Mr Gladstone himself as usual puts considerable energy into the work which lies ready to his hand. Hence the appearance of a stout battle between the Ins and Outs in Parliament, which, however, as has often been said, is by no means to the taste of the greater part of the Liberal Gladstonites. They will be heartily glad when it is over, especially if, as is probable, and as Lord Randolph Churchill’s conduct the other night indicated, it ends in a compromise.

But the Irish matters shelved for a time and the Liberals set free from their bargain, what is to follow as the immediate future of that respectable party? Who can answer that question that believes in the continued existence of a Liberal party in Great Britain? Mr Gladstone has in all probability taken his last forward step in politics; and Mr John Morley, who is considered (Lord help us!) to be the leader of the advanced (respectable) party, has already pretty much declared himself for the sign-post of democracy as it was understood twenty years ago. In fact the future, or indeed the present, of the Liberal party is now prefigured by those uninteresting sea-shores on the south coast of England, where the land having grown wheat and mangold and turnips, and having fallen into inferior pasture, is at last nothing but a flat waste of sand with a few tufts of useless herbs dotted here and there upon it, and so goes dwindling down into the sea in an undramatic inglorious fashion. Having performed mechanically the part that has been forced upon it in the Irish struggle, there is an end of it in mere barren officialism and the hopes of another term or two of do-nothing government. The great obstructionist party will swallow it up, regretted by no one.

Meantime, what about the few Radicals who at present hang on to it, and can hardly be called a party, since so many of them have gone through the same proceedings with the Liberals as the latter have done with the Tories, and been swallowed up by them? Well, the few that can still be called Radicals — that is, men who really wish to move forward if they only knew how — are being paralysed by the approaching death of the Liberal party, the tail of which they have hitherto formed. Their hope in that direction has vanished, and their occupation has gone with it; what have they to turn towards? Whether they are conscious of it or not, they are waiting for Socialism to take up the work of progress. They are not convinced Socialists; many of them probably have never taken the trouble to understand what Socialism means; but they are nevertheless waiting for its approach, and that is the reason why they are so unenergetic in the face of the Tory reaction, which reaction — a real thing enough — means the absorption of the Liberals into the party of obstruction: an obstruction which is modern and suitable to its date, and therefore does not put persons of cultivation and intellect, ‘superior persons’, to shame; which differs by the compulsion of surrounding conditions from the old compulsion, but not at all in spirit.

Well, these Radicals turned languid in action because of the circumstances in which they find themselves, are very decidedly waiting: they are still Radicals, and in theory can see no further than the old shibboleths; but they instinctively know that in practice all that is no longer of any use, and they are consequently expecting orders from Socialism. Their position is, that they wish to go on being Radicals, and to do Socialist work if they can only find out what is, without declaring for Socialism.

In short, the old democracy, whose watchword is the fullest liberty of ‘free contract’, is finding out that before its theory could be worked out to the utmost, Socialism has come upon it and thrown it out of date, although the obstructionists of the old type are still making a show of attacking it, as if it were yet alive. Radicalism proper can live no longer than the life of Toryism proper; when the obstructionists cease to attack ‘the freedom of contract’, or rather when they make it their own standing-ground, as they are now doing, the Radical loses his reason for existence — his function is at end.

The obstructionists or Tories represent personal and political slavery, which was once, but a very long time ago, a necessity for progress; the Radicals represent the economical slavery of a class, joined to political freedom, which was also once a necessity for progress, but not so long ago; the Socialists represent progress itself with no temporary veil distorting its features.