William Morris. Commonweal 1890

Development of Modern Society (Part 5)

Source: “Development of Modern Society” Commonweal, Volume 6, Number 240, 16 August, pp. 260-261; the last of five parts.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofing and HTML: Graham Seaman

THUS fell the Society of the Middle Ages, by Capitalism establishing itself on the ruins of Feudality, and the rise of a middle-class who were either parasites of the nobility, themselves become commercial, trading on the grossest monopolies, and exacting rack-rent, and practically doing the state no service—partly parasites of the nobility, or partly employers living on the profit wrung out of workmen employed at a very low rate of wages. I have been giving the story of the change as it happened in England. On the Continent the divorce of the people from the land was not so sudden or complete, I think because there was less resistance possible to the centralised bureaucracy here than on the Continent. There, on the other hand, the rise of definite nations with stiff political demarcations gave rise to most horrible wars, which reduced the peasants to the last stage of misery, hampered new-born commerce, and in the long run ruined the land-owning aristocracy, and at last made the French Revolution both possible and necessary. It is no exaggeration to say that Germany is only now within the last twenty years recovering from the Thirty Years War which went on at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries.

But with the birth of capitalism and the world-market, the relative importance of agriculture and manufacture began to alter; and that again especially in England, a country so rich in coal and minerals, and so well furnished with harbours on all sides. The new-born power of making profit out of the employment of handicraftsmen had to be exercised and developed. The craftsmen were in a changed position; they had been completely masters of their own work with other resources, which forbade the work mastering them; they were so no longer; they were working for other people, driven by competition to sell themselves at a poor price in the market. In short, they had become wage-slaves; but they were still handicraftsmen working in an isolated way. They were not being made the most of, and could only be the instruments of a timid scanty commerce. If they could have remained thus I think that they would have been less degraded then they became afterwards, and are now; but then the last word of progress would have been said, the hope of revolution would never have arisen.

What happened was very different. Capitalism was no sooner born than she was forced to sow the seed of her decay and final destruction; she was forced to develope [sic] the power of Labour to the utmost; that was indeed her work. The mechanical invention of man had lain dormant since the early days that had invented the plough, the cart, the row-boat, and the simple machines that help man's labour and do not supersede it, such as the grist-mill, the potter's wheel, the lathe, the simple loom, the crane, etc.; that invention was now to wake up, but not very suddenly; the fuller organisation of handicraft was to precede its abolition. I say when Capitalism began to grow towards manhood at the end of the sixteenth century, production was wholly by handicraft little organised.

The work of the seventeenth century was that gradual organisation by means of the division of labour. In handicraft (supposing a man to take no pleasure in his work, to be no artist) the single worker's whole intelligence is wasted on a piece of commonplace goods; a small part of that intelligence will suffice, if the whole of some one else's intelligence is employed in organising. Therefore, set him, the single man, at doing one small portion of that work, and you can soon dispense with almost all his intelligence, while at the same time you will quicken the habit of his hand, his mechanical power, prodigiously; in short, you will at last make of him a very delicate machine, or part of a machine, for performing the small piece of work you apportion to him; but you must take care that the whole machine of him and his fellows must be properly built up. This was the work of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth it was complete, and the unit of labour was no longer a single man but a group of men.

Commerce was now, one would think, as well provided as she needed to be; but happily she could not stop there, or there would still have been no revolution possible for us. Now, indeed, she stirred up the sleeping invention of man, and with the latter half of the eighteenth century began that marvellous series of inventions, which one would have thought should have set mankind free from the greater part of his labour, but which, as it is, has done, on the face of it, little more than make a new and enormously rich middle-class, and multiply the working population many times over in order to provide them with due wage-slaves, who work not less, but more than they did in the days before the organisation of labour, and get not higher wages, but lower for their more burdensome labour.

My briefly told tale is over now, for I need not go through the often-told story of the fly-shuttle, the spinning jenny, the steam-engine, the power-loom, and the rest of it. I will only remark that the last development of machinery is to make the factory itself the machine, of which these wonderful machines, and the men that manage them (the most wonderful of all) are only parts. There remains only on this side of human life, production to wit, one thing to do as long as machine production lasts (which I prophecy will not be for ever). That one thing is this: The machines were invented that some men might work harder and others softer than they used to do, and they have well fulfilled their purpose; but though they have in that process seized hold of the bodies of the hard-working ones, the wage-slaves, though the factory has their bodies in its grip, it has not got hold of their intelligence, and does not want it, nay, sedulously keeps it out. Suppose that intelligence to wake up and to say, The hard work and the soft work, let us no longer keep these two separate for two classes of men, but throw them together and divide them equally amongst all, so that there should be no classes! In that case would not life in general, the only holy and sacred thing we know, be purified and made far holier by taking away from it the sorrow and misery that come of anxious seeking for toil, and the need for accepting the sickening burden. Surely that is so. Surely there is nothing in the machines themselves and the invention of man which created them, that they should forbid the true use of them, the lightening the burden of human labour.

That is what we Socialists under the machine and factory system are striving for at present, leaving the consideration of what is to be done to the machines and factories to future ages, who will be free to consider it, as we are not. Freedom first at any price, and then if possible happiness, which to my mind would be the certain result of freedom. Or are we free? I have told you what was the condition of the civilised world in the days of the late Roman Republic, and the Absolutist Empire which followed it. What is its condition now that we have gone through chattel-slavery and serfdom to wage-slavery? It can be told in nearly the same words.

A privileged class partly composed of a landed nobility, partly of a money-bag aristocracy; a parasite class, ministering to their pleasures and their corruption, drinking of their cup, eating of their dish, flattering them and flattered by them but despised by them, and (woe is me!) sharing in their crime of living on the misery of the poor. And those by whose labour they live? A huge population of miserable and hopeless labourers, to whom are superadded a crowd of paupers, far less joyous than the old Roman ones, fed by the fears, the remorse—the charity we call it—of the rich; and a few, a very few, free workmen, who as they work not for the workers, but the idle, must be turned back again to herd with the crowd of parasites aforesaid. Who can dare to say that this is not true of our society? And how does it differ from that of Roman corruption? Can its end be otherwise then—or worse?

Remember this, that in the days of that Roman corruption there was valiancy outside it which was ready to help the then world by destruction and new life combined; its enemies were the friends of the world, and were as good in their way as the early classical peoples had been in theirs, and I say they were outside that society, but at hand for its regeneration. All that the last two thousand years have used up; there is nothing outside civilisation that we can turn to for new birth; whatever there is to help us must come from within.

How are we to get at that? you will say. The answer to that question is the fact that we admit that the workers of to-day are wage-slaves. Those that feel themselves slaves must have been driven to desire freedom. But, again, what is the freedom which we desire? For the word has been used so often that men have forgotten its meaning. I think the answer is the freedom to develope our capacities to the utmost without injuring our neighbours. And how can that be done? By each of us working for the welfare of the whole of which we each form a part, and feeling sure that only so can we each of us fare well. Shall we not then have to give up a great deal in order to reach this point? Yes, we who are trying to bring people to that point will have to, but when people have reached it, they, when Socialism is realised, will turn round and find that their loss has only been imaginary. The rich man will have lost riches, i.e., dominion over others, and find that he is happy; the intellectual man will have given up his claim to be worshipped by the masses, and will find that he is understood by them and loved by them—and the poor man, what has he to give up? He will have to give up his chance of becoming rich—a valuable possession truly—and he will find that he is not rich, but wealthy; that is, that he has whatever a man healthy in mind and body can wish for, and that poverty has become an evil dream but half remembered.

In short, even now, while the realisation of Socialism, though it is already going on, is neither desired nor understood by most men, the mere breath and rumour of its coming can at least hold out to true men who will join our ranks one gift at least—that they shall be glad to live and not afraid to die. And is that not a wonderful contrast to the spirit of the life of those who are still living placidly, because ignorantly, amidst the dishonesty of our present society? wherein how many there are, and those not always the poorest or most ignorant, but men of culture, men of genius, who do at once hate life and fear death. Friends, join us in helping to throw off this bugbear, so that you may be no longer wage-slaves or their masters, or their masters' parasites. So shall we be our own Goths, and at whatever cost break up again the new tyrannous Empire of Capitalism.