William Morris

Communism, - i.e. Property [portions]

... The privilege of birth has waned to such a poor shadow that an outcast tribe scarcely tolerated in Medieval Europe does now practically rule Europe; and one of these people in our country managed but a few years [ago] to persuade the extra-rich men who perhaps think (very mistakenly) that [they] are the lineal descendants of the baronage of our Plantagenet Kings, the he was marshalling them in triumph to the sure defence of their ancient position. The privilege of birth has gone, and the privilege of riches has taken its place.

... the long course of the centuries, therefore, whatever gain they have brought us otherwise, in development of man's intellect, or his power over material nature they have brought us no improvement in our social organization; as far as our actual condition, we are not in a better, but in a worse state than men were in the ancient or medieval periods. What is left us then if we are not to fall back upon mere despair of improvement? This, that in the present period we have become conscious that in our miserable society of inequality lie the seeds of change, and that things are tending towards a new society, the basis of which will be equality of condition. In the ancient world, a society without slavery was inconceivable to the best and wisest of philosophers. In the medieval epoch, especially towards the close of it, there was indeed a rumour of communism in the air, which even now and again took form in action, and produced such demonstrations as the community of the Munster Anabaptists; but all this was hopeless, in the face of the political condition of affairs, the growing desire for the enfranchisement of men's intellect from the fetters of religious tradition, and the development of men's power over the mechanical side of things.

But now in the first place, a society of equality has been at least conceived of as an ideal; while it has become a commonplace that men ought to be equal, and in this country are supposed to be free. And in the 2nd, we have so much achieved our conquest over material nature that our victory is turning sour in our hands, now that we are beginning to find out that we cannot use it to our happiness while we are hampered by the evil organization of Society and that it rather worsens then betters our life by exaggerating the contrasts between rich and poor.

Religious tradition also hampers us but little; or need not, save the double-faced hypocrisy has now another double-face, and can look at the same time east & west as well as north & south; for atheism stands by its old foe orthodoxy to strike a blow together with it, against true freedom & in favour of monopoly.

Lastly the political conditions are so changed, and again especially in our country, that the old parties are all confused, and the confessedly reactionary party finds it has no real function except trying to keep in power, and annoying its enemy, the party which professes democracy, but which does not understand that the democracy which refuses fully to recognize the citizenship of the whole of the working classes is but Toryism masquerading in the cast [off] clothes of Oliver Cromwell.

To sum up the change that has come over us, we know that our inequality is not a blessing but a pest. The power over nature which we have gained we now want to use for our enjoyment. Religion is gone down the wind, and will no more cumber us unless we are open fools. Middle-class democracy can go no further; the proletarians must form part of it, and both the old parties are crying out to them for help: each one by turn is the true "working-man's friend."

Now let the working-man be his own friend ... if all the intelligence, all the inventive power, all the inherited skill of handicraft, all the keen wit and insight, all the healthy bodily strength were engaged in doing this and nothing else, what a pile of wealth we should have!

... Well, you have heard many praises of property from Aristotle to Mr Mallock; and I also am now going to praise it; perhaps to your surprise: so for fear you my Socialist friends should refuse to hear me any longer allow me to remind you, that William Cobbett asks this pertinent question: "What is a slave?" and answers it thus, a slave is a man without property. In that I wholly agree. What are you to do if you have no property? You cannot get up when you will, go to bed when you will, eat and drink as you will, marry as you will, amuse yourself as you will - in all that you must be at another man's beck and call ... in order even to live till next week, unless some benevolent person takes you by the collar and sells you, you must go out and sell yourself as Esau did; who I take it was the very first example of the Free labourer.

Now how are you going to get this property? No doubt your first untutored view as to that matter is the education which you have received by the society of the present, is that you had better steal it - that in fact there is no other way of getting it. This view is I must say, the favoured one: and has been held from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the late Mr Brad[laugh], from the D[uke] of W[estminster] to the shiftiest of small tradesmen compelled by hard need to sell adulterated wares. But we Socialists have found out that it won't do; and really we need not crow over the discovery; for the fact lies patent before everybody's eyes. For many and many a century it has been tried, with small success indeed: as we may judge from the last results of it from the ethical side being the Liberty and Property Defence League and the Positivist Society. For this process of gaining possession of property by means of stealing, and then qualifying the glorious name of property by calling it private property (an ingenious but I should hope now exposed fraud) has this disadvantage, that you must find some definite and unchanging body of men who will consent or submit to be stolen from, and in these latter days that body is not so definite and is changing fast; so fast that it is beginning to state clearly its objections to its position in the creation of private property, and to call aloud for a share in property. I must here turn aside, in case there are some non-socialists here, to explain that in order to steal, it is necessary to find some one who has something to steal; and that in considering social matters, it is a body or class that steal, and a body or class that is stolen from. Now in this relation therefore it is clear that you cannot steal from those who have no property of their own; that is you cannot make a livelihood from that occupation. You can indeed take from a man on Saturday evening what he may have in his pocket then, but if he does not work all the next week what has he to be stolen the next Saturday?

So that if you take from all the screw-makers and all the Dukes what they possess you have not stolen to purpose; you will have to keep them in the workhouse ever afterwards. But with the working-man it is different, because as a matter of fact he has property if he were allowed to use it; you can steal from him every Saturday evening, one after the other; if he be a golden-egged goose, as I fear he is, his owners have long ago learned that it won't do to kill him. Therefore the class of people who can be stolen from and who are stolen from is the working or useful class, simply because they produce; and doubtless if they could be kept in the goose condition for ever, the present condition of private property would last for ever. But can they be? It seems to me that the answer to that question is now before your eyes; there are hundreds of people who are speaking at this moment all over England and Scotland at least in the same way as I am; people who in one way or other are urging their hearers to consider whether property shall remain private or become common; whether all people should have property or only a few. Whether the united labour of the millions of civilization should be wasted in producing rations for slaves and toys for masters, or enjoyment and a wholesome and happy life for all men and women. These I say are really the questions which we Socialists are asking, and unless I and the others are wholly deceiving ourselves they are being answered in the most practical way. All over the country opinion amongst the working-men is changing: and they are beginning to understand that they, the indispensable class, are being made to pay for all the waste and disorganization of our system of inequality; and they are claiming certain advantages which, all put together, mean that they insist on some consideration, that they are to be treated not as mere necessary machines, but as citizens. I say the working men generally are making this claim. But besides this, they are getting more and more touched by definite Socialism and large and ever increasing numbers amongst them understand that it is not wages they want; not the mere portion of the fruits of their labour which they can manage to wring out of the profits of their masters, but the fruits of their labour themselves; that is the plentiful life which their unwasteful organization would insure them, and the self-respect which would necessarily come from their due management of the said organization, and the acceptation of that responsibility for the common good which all free men must accept, but which slaves cannot...

These men I say, whose numbers are growing every day and whose principles are approved of instinctively and tacitly by the great mass of working-men, are determined that our Society shall be real, the society of citizens living in equality, and not the society of a robber's cave: and they know also that they have at hand a machinery which will enable them when their opinions become general to compel their recognition at the hands of the inert mass of non-producers, who will find their life of useless work or no work will no longer earn them the position and ease that it has done and that their rule is slipping away from them. I confess I am no great lover of political tactics; the sordid squabble of an election is unpleasant enough for a straight-forward man to deal in: yet I cannot fail to see that it is necessary somehow to get hold of the machine which has at its back the executive power of the country, however that may be done, and that the organization and labour which will be necessary to effect that by means of the ballot-box will, to say the least of it, be little indeed compared with what would be necessary to effect it by open revolt; besides that the change effected by peaceable means would be done more completely and with less chance, indeed with no chance of counter revolution. On the other hand I feel sure that some action is even now demanded by the growth of Socialism, and will be more and more imperatively demanded as time goes on. In short I do not believe in the possible success of revolt until the Socialist party has grown so powerful in numbers that it can gain its end by peaceful means, and that therefore what is called violence will never be needed; unless indeed the reactionaries were to refuse the decision of the ballot-box and try the matter by arms; which after all I am pretty sure they could not attempt by the time things had gone so far as that. As to the attempt of a small minority to terrify a vast majority into accepting something which they do not understand, by spasmodic acts of violence, mostly involving the death or mutilation of non-combatants, I can call that nothing else than sheer madness. And here I will say once for all, what I have often wanted to say of late, to wit that the idea of taking any human life for any reason whatsoever is horrible and abhorrent to me.

... Well, you see to-night I have only been talking round about Communism. The subject of the organization of a communal life is too weighty a one for me to deal with at present: besides our ideas on that subject must necessarily grow clearer as we advance towards the first stages of Socialism; the steps to which seem to me chiefly these:

1st. The recognition of the citizenship of the great working-class, which will be betokened by their attaining to a far higher standard of livelihood than that which is now considered enough for them, but which I think means a life of degradation, only endurable by them on the grounds of their aiming at very much better conditions.

2nd. Their organization as the controllers of production and the markets: and

3rd. The abolition of the private monopoly in the raw material and tools necessary for the production of utilities.

This gained, as we may fairly hope it will be after a lapse of time, as makes it no dream to-day, we shall be in the first stage of Socialism, and the possession of property will even then be general. From that stage [to] equality of condition, I believe, will not be a long journey, and as I have said here we shall find ourselves insensibly lapsing into it: men's desires will be turned toward its, instead of being turned as they are now toward establishing each man for himself an isolated position of superiority; and this set of men's minds will make nothing of objections which now seem insurmountable to us. The threats of ruin to certain groups and moods which now frighten people so much, will turn out to have been mere turnip-lanterns. The sun will shine for everybody, the heavens will be blue and the grass green; cakes and ale shall not be forbidden us; and though we shall have our troubles then, they will seem as the troubles in a tale compared to the grovelling anxieties that now beset us; we shall find life worth living; we shall not be afraid to die, or, worse still, ashamed to live.

Talk delivered on 21/8/1892. Incomplete manuscript notes are B.M. Add. Ms. 45333[12]. These portions published by May Morris in William Morris - Artist, Writer, Socialist