William Morris

Report on the talk 'Communism'

March 10th at Grafton Hall, Grafton Steet, W, in aid of the Freedom Publication Fund, William Morris delivered a lecture on Communism, of which we give the notes as follow :—

My friends, I perceive you have no chairman here, a good custom, when you can manage to do without him. I have no objection to begin straight off. Well then, as to the possible means by which Communism can be obtained. I have considerable doubt as to various things which have been done, and I really want to consider it with various groups. I am in point of fact in a rather puzzled condition. The real difficulty is as to what actual steps should be taken, for all sensible men must think Communism a right thing in itself. There are many measures towards this end which is advancing upon us, mostly honest and put forward with much ability. But I have doubts what would be gained by them. The question is whether the steps adocated would bring us further on the road. There is indeed a mass of things which the general public call socialism, but of this a great deal, it seems to me, is not of the essence of socialism, but merely machinery, which socialism must use in its militant condition—and perhaps afterwards. There is good in the scheme of business-like administration we have now in London as compared with the old Whig laissez faire methods, worked by corruption. The London County Council is a much more useful body than the Metropolitan Board of Works, and is instinct with a different spirit, a spirit which is promise of a better day. There is now an attempt to give a certain dignity to the life of London, as a whole, which did not exist before. No one can quarrel with the attempts to remove some of the sordidness of town life by the provision of parks, public libraries and so on. The advantages, however, are rather unequally distributed. Free libraries are gains for the middle rather than the working classes. Our socialist machinery must be pushed further. Why in Ancient Rome, under chattel slavery, more was provided for the public than we have to-day in London. Industry is now being carried on by the municipalities; the homes of working people are to be improved by being taken out of the hands of private speculators, and more time is to be given to education. These are indications that the public conscience is awakening.

On the other hand, great as is the gain, the amount of real progress depends very much on the spirit in which these things are done. For equality of condition is the thing to be aimed at, and a new standing-ground must be gained by the effort of sweeping away all privilege. The proprietory classes are suffering to some extent, and will struggle to minimise the movement. Power may be gained in this way by the useful class to overcome the resistence, stupidity and selfishness of the ruling classes. The non-working classes along with their parasites, it should be remembered, are, even numerically, very strong, and they hold the nine points of the law, i.e. possession. As soon as they begin to fear for their livelihood they will begin to resist to the utmost of their power.

The gains of municipal collectivism are to be considered in regard to their effect on the minds of the workers in arousing a pure longing for Socialism itself; a condition of somewhat less misery would be a costly gain were it to dull the hearts of the workers and make them indifferent to the hope of gaining a real society of equals. This consideration is not merely speculative, for a partial betterment of the people might become an obstacle; half a loaf might be better than no bread. Perhaps the useless might become to some extent a useful class—a fact which would enable them to keep their power over the commonwealth—and equality, in this way, become further off than ever. Bit I think myself that such a state of things could be possible only on the condition that the working-classes became satisfied with merely the machinery of socialism—supposing that there went with this extension of machinery some increased prosperity to the working-classes owing to the better organisation of labor. The change must be slow in coming, and we must all therefore cultivate a longing for it. It can perhaps only arrive through a period of great suffering and misery, through the absolute breakdown of our present civilization. The minimum of suffering is desirable. The Socialistic idea must be well planted. If the people reject Socialism as an ideal we may cease to trouble ourselves about the future. We shall in that case perhaps have to make terms with Tories and benevolent Whigs, and ask them to govern us as wisely as possible at to exploit us only in moderation.

Not by obvious violence, however, can we make an advance.

I must beg the workers to get rid of their intellectual slavery to the ideas of their masters. I hope that some spark of enthusiasm may vivify the masses. This might be done if a great crisis were close at hand. The question is—is capitalism coming off its hinges. Some, perhaps, myself included. did believe in the inevitableness of a speedy change in society, but alas! we must remember how hard other tyrannies have died, tyrannies which added palable violence to their other dark deeds. The impulse due to direct and open incitements and attsck is not likely to come, what then are we to do without the sting of hope and enthusiasm. We must use all means to draw the worker into Socialism. I am driven to the conclusion that the progressive measure of to-day are necessary to give form to the aims we desire to attain.

We have to inspire the trade-union leaders with the notion that the system in which the masters live upon the labor of the workers is not a necessary one.

We have also to raise the standard of life of the workers. At present they are desperately lacking in the power of organisation. Education in this respect must be supported by efforts to inspire a longing for the complete change. Social Democratic measures may be either mere shifts or they may be means for leading us towards a new country of equality. The Socialistic spirit should vivify the use of such machinery. The enemies of the public, if we work under the impulse of the true social instinct, may after all be defeated in their efforts to use public machinery for the purpose of exploiting the worker.

I shall now try to explain what to my mind is Communism, but briefly, for the subject is very large. Perhaps Socialism and Communism are names as good as one another, but I call Communism the completion of Socialism. The Socialist is clearly willing to aim at a true society. Communism comes in when Socialism is triumphant. The resources of nature, land and other things, which can be used only for the reproduction of wealth, must be owned by the whole people for a common benefit. Nowadays the owners of the means of production do practically own the workers, inasmuch as they dictate to them what life they shall live. The land, the plant, the stock of a country should be communised, and in this way the accumulation of riches would be checked; for no man can become very rich unless by force or cajolery. The utmost that a most acquisitive man could gain would be the higher salary he might exact from his fellow-citizens. But the producers of specialities will not presently be able to exact any such enormous remuneration. Under socialism, again, there would not be the waste there is now. The labor that is thrown away in the making of fashionable luxuries would be diverted to what is useful. The market price now gives us no standard of value. In a society of inequality the standard of usefulness is necessarily utterly confused. In such a society the price is fixed by the necessities of the poor and the cravings of the rich, for these last must spend their accumulations some way or other. In a society of equality the demand for an article would be based on its utility. Look up and down the London shops to-day and see what wastefulness there is in producing the fripperies exhibited; while, on the other hand, what sordid makeshifts are produced for the supply of the poor as a set-off to the waste in making the luxuries of the rich. What waste there is in the mere process of business, the buying and selling of Commerce; in the endeavour of each to get the monopoly of the market. A society only tending towards equality would make us all wealthy. Genuine well-made articles would then be available for others than those who can buy them now. Beautiful objects would be produced, beautiful houses built for the public use. For a wealthy society, such as a Communist one woule be, would demand the erection of fine buildings.

When all are living comfortably the keeness of competition will abate. Many men get rich nowadays, not because they wish to do so, but because they are anxious to escape the chance of being poor. When no one is allowed to defile the natural beauty of the earth, the sky, or the rivers, there will be no advantage for one man to be nominally richer than his neighbour. If we made the means of industry common property we should soon reach conditions of complete equality.

By Communism, or course, I do not mean what so many silly people suppose, the communal use of clothes and toothbrushes. Most sure I am that every state of society but that of Communism is grievous to all that belong to it. Most anti-socialists and some Socialists confuse Communism with what is the machinery of the socialistic state. Take a ship, with its captain and sailors, there you have an instance of a social body acting under a leader, in which each will do his work for the benefit of each and all, instead of trying to make a profit on his own account.

You sometimes hear people commiserating the unemployed, and the general publisc, when it thinks about them, would like to see them absorbed. But each employer really knows it would be against his interests if this were the case; for the employer and capitalist to-day are necessarily, through their economic position, the enemies of society. Time will teach reasonable men to submit, when necessarry, without demur. The unreasonable man must find consolation by damning the nature of things.

Some questions were then put. Comrade Wess asked: Was a leader to enforce his orders by authority? To which Morris replied, Nature will compel men to obey, otherwise they might starve. Some State would then be established, pursued Wess, and would not that be a hindrance to the development of the individual? But Morris declared we must emancipate ourselves from the tyranny of words: administrative entities will be necessary which people will find themselves generally compelled to obey and Philip sober will, if need be, have to be protected from Philip drunk. Man's will, when ordered to be carried out, will require the full consent of the society to which he belongs. As to the complaints against Board School and South Kensington Art school teaching, it is in all probability poor enough, but is that any reason for doing without teaching at all? such teaching as the State gives to-day is as good as you are likely to get in a commercial society such as ours; for the object of our teaching is, unfortunately, to make a man a fit slave for the purposes of commercialism.

Morris was then asked, What line do you advise us to take? and replied: Upon my word, I don't know. I came here to see if I could learn myself what to do. People must go their own road. It is no use asking me to become a vestryman. There are some people I know who can be vestrymen, and who can be nothing else. The intention of a movement is, after all, the most important thing: the actual development of a thing is always very different from our conception of it. Ten years ago, to talk big about Socialism was the necessary thing. Now as to what people ought to do today, I am not altogether unsanguine. As to what some working-men leaders propose to do, if their parliamentarism turns out well, well and good; I should be pleased, although it goes against my own theories to urge Socialists to become M.P.'s.

Comrade Leggatt then asked why a few believers did not go out from the present society and combine to prove a communistic state possible. Morris said, he thought communistic societies are impossible to-day, because of the money power. Small communistic societies are apt to become monasteries. Besides, to withdraw from the struggle—is that not to give up the struggle?

Another comrade having asked, should not each man do what was good in his own eyes, Morris said that he thought the Anarchists have done very much that was wrong with their “this or nothing.” The working-people of this country are prepared only for constitutional action. At one time there were no working-men in the socialist movement. Now it has become a working-class movement. As a movement spreads, however, people become less certain about its meaning. As working-men become better circumstanced they will feel themselves to be in an inferior position through no fault of their own, they will resent being slaves. We have to withdraw ourselves out of the present condition of social war into a condition of social peace. “I am not a practical socialist,” he went on, “I am not fully satisfied with all this talk about statistics and progress. I have simply an honest desire to bring about a happier state of things.

H. Samuels then rose indignantly to express his disappointment at Morris's coming to lecture without having anything really definite to say, and maintained that the force that kept the workers enslaved could only be removed by force. Morris, in reply, said: Anarchism was a negation of society and, it seemed to him, but the present condition of things with the present authority removed—practical war. In answer to Merlino he said, he objected to the revolutionary movement as being necessarily a movement by force, as this could not always be done—that is, as movement which proposed to alter the whole basis of society. Anarchists were pedantic in their demands, and are apt to set private misery over against public misery. W. Wess asked, should not the workers be taught to depend upon themselves rather than to work through parliament, to which Morris replied: he thought there should be some form of organisation, although he had no desire to lay down the law as to what its particular form should be.

Morris was next asked, if the expression of private misery did not sometimes call attention to the misery of the class to which the individual belonged, which otherwise might have gone unheeded for centuries. This he admitted to be the case, but added “we don't want any martyrs now, but common-sense practical people.” To a question by A. Henry, Morris replied: “What is Anarchism? Many folks in the Socialist League were merely disturbandist. Your Anarchist proper is a man like Tucker, who wants the dissolution of all society. Socialism, on the other hand, says that all our acts should be directed towards the welfare of society. He did not agree with the negation of government, though the question of how to minimise the interference of society was a difficult question, but to the end of time there must be some friction between the individual and society. Anarchism, it seemed to him, made Communism impossible. As to the hatred of force expressed by Anarchists, we cannot get rid of force in society. To denounce majority rule is a mistake: the advantage of a majority is that it simply declares where lies the greater force.

Bibliographical Note


Report on the talk 'Communism'


Supplement to Freedom, a Journal of Anarchist Socialism, May 1893. The original talk was printed by the Fabians.


Graham Seaman, May 2019