William Morris. Commonweal 1890

Workhouse Socialism

Source: “Workhouse Socialism” Commonweal, Vol 6, No. 251, 1 November 1890, p.345-346;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

‘General’ Booth no doubt does deserve his title; his conduct of the ‘Army’ shows that he is a general of no mean order. But like other people, he has the ‘defects of his qualities’ as the French phrase it, and a good general is not likely to be a good citizen; for it is the business of a general to sacrifice everything to immediate success, and I cannot help thinking that the Salvation General does not fall behind others of his kind in this respect.

Anyhow, his ‘great scheme’ as it is called, seems on the face of it to be meant as a bait to catch those who are looking open-mouthed for something to happen in the way of the improvement of life in this world, the reduction of some of the misery of modern civilization. Indeed, there are plenty of well-meaning people with money to spare willing to impart it to the setting on foot of a ‘well-considered scheme’ for the easing of their consciences by means of the amelioration of the lot of the poor; especially if such a scheme seems likely to dull the discontent now so rapidly rising all round about us, and which we hope will one day, put an end to philanthropy by abolishing poverty. A safe scheme for the regeneration of society is likely to make rich people open their purses, and I think it is no injustice to the General to say that he knows this well enough. Otherwise he might have discovered any time these twelve years that before people can turn their attention to religion, or anything else than the satisfaction of their daily needs, ‘they must be helped out of their present social miseries’.

Meantime, since Mr Booth is being proclaimed a new Socialist, and a prophet at that in some quarters, it may be as well to look for a minute at his scheme and see what it is worth, bearing in mind that it is put forward confessedly as a sort of shoeing-horn for a peculiarly degrading form of a worn-out superstition, which sees in the struggling world of men with all its aspirations and every changing succession of deeds, little more than an appendage and plaything of an irresponsible master, who neither asks nor allows mankind to understand him or his arbitrary commands.

For such a scheme of the universe, this social scheme of Mr Booth’s for dealing with the world as it is, is perhaps good enough, but for anybody with manly hopes for finding himself one of a band of friends, with a God, if he has a God, who is also a friend, this scheme of reform is inexpressibly shabby and sordid.

Yet, in a way, we should thank him for the figure of speech under which he shows us the labour of modern civilization; or, to speak more plainly, the men who labour. Says he: ‘The cab-horse has its charter of two points; work is found for it, with food and lodging sufficient to enable it to get through its daily task — that is the first; the second is that when it falls down, whether it be by its own fault, or by that of others, it is helped up again — all questions as to who was responsible for its fall being deferred until it is set upon its feet again!’

We have said something like this ourselves from time to time, only we were looking on this state of things as a condition to be struggled out of, while to General Booth it is an ideal which has to be attained to. We must needs thank the General for showing us so clearly that we have not yet reached the cab-horse stage of prosperity.

It is natural that General Booth from the standpoint of this cab-horse ideal should sneer at those who venture to hope that civilized men may one day become as happy as savages and somewhat more wealthy. Natural also that as a ‘practical man’ he should declare himself unable to wait any longer than the time necessary for effecting the smallest and most miserable of improvements. This is an old story that we are quite used to by this time; for we have seen on the one hand useless palliatives and blind-alleys of political trickery gone in for with enthusiasm, and on the other foolish pieces of rashness elevated into principles to be adored through thick and thin, all on the ground that we ‘cannot wait'; when in good truth we must wait for all that is worth having till people’s minds are sufficiently impressed by the coming change to allow us to take definite action.

As for the ‘practical man’ in question, the General: his practical scheme does not come to much; on the whole, it comes to less than any evasion of the real question which has been before the public. Whatever in it is not sheer nonsense — ‘utilizing the waste of London’, and so forth — seems to be taken from Mr Herbert Mills’ workhouse colony plan, which itself was taken from the Dutch beggar-colonies scheme actually in operation.

In fact, this wonderful new scheme of Salvation Socialism will not save many bodies, whatever it may do for souls. It is a very low form of what may be called, for lack of a better name, Workhouse Socialism, which takes it for granted that the workers must be in the main paupers, and which casts about for devices at once to get them better rations and to lower the cost of keeping them to the capitalists. The professors of this kind of Socialism (save the mark!) can see only that part of the workers who have been so degraded by the vile system under which we live that they seem at least wholly unable to help themselves, and so are fit subjects to be trotted about and organized by those of the well-to-do who are afraid or ashamed of the huge mass of misery which they form. These gentlemen never take any count of whatever is self-reliant or thoughtful amongst the workers, believing them, perhaps, to be too respectable to be either unhappy or discontented — in short, dangerous to the stability of society. I think they are reckoning without their host, and that it is rather from the work-shops than the slums that the serious attack on ‘civilized society’ will come, though I admit it may come with sickening slowness. That is not so much our business as the making it sure, as we certainly shall.

Indeed, the real point of interest in General Booth’s cabhorse Socialism is that he should have found it necessary to take up the miseries of the disinherited in order to keep his Army going and to advertise it. A few years ago such a move would not have been thought of. Now nothing is of any interest in politics, sociology, or religion which does not manage to pin itself to the subject of the impending change which is certainly coming on the world. The failure of civilization is manifest to everyone who takes the trouble to think at all, to everyone who is not fossilized by party political warfare. That gain at least we have won, and it is no small one.