William Morris. Commonweal 1888

In and About Cottonpolis

Source: “In and About Cottonopolis” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 153, 15 December 1888, p.396;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

On Sunday the 2nd, I delivered my annual lecture to the Sunday Society at Ancoats to an audience larger than usual. These lectures are not followed by questions and discussion, so there was not much opportunity for finding our what the audience thought about Socialism. The audience seemed, as usual, much made up of the ‘lower middle-class’ and the ‘aristocracy of labour’. But there was sprinkling of our comrades of the SDF, with whom to help I engaged in a good private discussion at tea (which followed the lecture) with enquirers and carpers, which is also a usual feature of these gatherings. In the evening I went with comrade Hunter Watts to the rooms of the Manchester Branch of the SDF, where I addressed our comrades. The members of the branch were almost all of the non-aristocracy of labour, but many of them were as eager and earnest as could be desired. I take it that the above-said aristocracy of labour in Manchester are very shy of Socialism, though it is making very good progress among the labouring class even in Manchester itself. There is also a good deal of sympathy (as it is called) from the definitely well-to-do, who say here as elsewhere: ‘We agree with you, but-.’

On Monday the 3rd, I went to Bolton and lectured (by request) on ‘Art and Socialism’. The audience was fair only, the room not being full. The chairman was a middle-class man who really seemed in sympathy, and I think the audience was in the main socialistic. The condition of labour in Bolton is very instructive; business is brisk there, very brisk; but there are among the spinners at least 4,000 out of employment, and with no hope of it. Moreover, a great deal of the ‘employment’ that there is, is at starvation wages; the ‘piecers’ often fathers of families work for the noble reward of from 12s. to 13s. a-week! I was told that the engineers here were in a very depressed state of mind after last year’s strike, with all its excitement, and were in an attitude of abject humility before their masters; which, dismal as it is, seems to be a natural consequence of defeat in a struggle which had no ideal in it, whose aim was the usual narrow one of strikes in this country.

On the 4th, I went to Blackburn and lectured in the Spinner’s Hall, which was not quite filled; our comrade Sharman took the chair. The audience were very eager, and took up all the points well. One or two of the questions asked were to the point, but it seems that these were asked by Socialists. The others were of the usual type, questions asked by persons who expect the lecturer to say so-and-so, and are perhaps put out by his perversity, but nevertheless ask the question they had intended to ask before they heard him.

The open-air meetings have been very brisk in Blackburn, where there is a good open space in which no meetings are interfered with. The branch of the SDF is good here, and there is a strong branch of the SDF at the neighbouring town of Darwen.

On the 5th I had to address a very different audience to these; to wit, the ladies and gentlemen gathered together for the rather mild amusement of listening to artists talking about art. I was not able to get to Liverpool in the morning, and so missed hearing Walter Crane’s address; but I was told that he spoke very plainly in condemnation of the present system of production. I myself had a large audience (in the Rotunda), and of course spoke nothing but Socialism. I challenged opposition, as I had heard that some of the capitalists were going to ‘smash me up'; but I am sorry to say that they thought better of it; and the little that was said turned out to be of a discouraging feebleness, turning on the village-industry and technical education. The next day I heard a paper of Cobden-Sanderson on Craft-Ideals, in which he preached Communism pure and simple. Also an architect, not a Socialist, received applause for asking the question, What was the use of museums and art education if the social condition of the people remained what it is now? I shall have a few words to say about this same congress next week, so I will say no more now.

The evening of the 6th I went to Rochdale and lectured to an audience fair in numbers and otherwise good. It was followed by a long conversational debate, the questions being, as a matter of course the usual ones, but, by the working men present, asked and stuck to with the pertinacity and in the good-natured bullying manner with which I am familiar in Lancashire and the North generally. Two or three middle-class opponents were of great use to me in enabling me to state my position again and again. One of these said that as far as Rochdale and the neighbourhood generally was concerned I had exaggerated the poverty of the workers! But this I conclude to be a conventional tradition, the birth of the history of the sham co-operation which began with the good intentions of the Rochdale Pioneers, and has now by the confession of very moderate people become a reactionary force, ‘Divi’ being the one thing looked to, and jobbing in ‘Co-op’ shares being a favourite occupation among the small capitalists created by the system.

Anyhow our comrades gave me a very different view of the ‘prosperity’ of the workers of Rochdale, and told me that wages were very low and hours very long there, and that in short the masters had it pretty much their own way. The branch of the SDF is strong in numbers, and has in it some very strenuous and sincere propagandists.

Altogether, except in Liverpool, where there is nothing doing, the SDF branches are doing well in S. Lancashire; the drawback to their usefulness is that they are giving so much attention to electioneering matters; a course of action which, whatever else may be said about it, must trench upon the time which they ought to be giving to learning Socialism thoroughly, so as to be able to hold their own in argument with the non-Socialists around them. I say this in spite of the fact that I talked with some of our comrades who had mastered the subject by dint of very hard work done in the ‘leisure’ which their slavery allows them.