William Morris

What is our present business as socialists?

This question can easily be answered. In the first place, by saying—to make more Socialists, and yet more, and yet more. But, then the next question comes: How shall we make more Socialists, till we make so many that we actually begin to sap the foundations of our false society, and prepare for laying those of true society? And, no doubt, the question must receive a different answer from time to time.

The special reason for asking the above question now is, that our position is much changed within the last five or six years. The change can be put simply thus, that Socialism has begun to take hold of the working classes, and is now a genuine working man's movement. That is a fact, the importance of which it is impossible to overrate. But, on the other hand, the movement is taking a different form from what many, or most, of us supposed it would: a thing which was, in fact, inevitable, and which is so far encouraging that it is one of the signs of the genuineness and steadiness of the movement. I mean, there is nothing in it of conscious and pedantic imitation of methods of former changes—the French Revolution, for instance. Abstract theories are not much in favour; less than they should be, perhaps, though time will mend that. As yet there is no formulated demand for a great, sudden, and obvious recasting of society; a demand which could not be complied with by a society which has slowly grown up to satisfy demands pretty much the opposite of socialism; but there is a steady set towards a road which will infallibly lead us to a society recast in a Socialistic mould.

The instinct towards Socialism is awake, and is forcing the working classes into what we now see to be the right, because it is the only, course. And though as yet it may not be more than an instinct with the great mass of workers, yet we must remember that it is headed by a great number of men (I am not speaking of those technically called “leaders”) who are declared Socialists, and who understand at least what may be called work-a-day Socialism. All this makes our advance much greater than we had any right to expect to come out of the then condition of things ten years ago. I repeat, at last the nation is on the road towards Socialism. The first act of the great Class War has begun, for the workmen are claiming their recognition as citizens, and to be treated as such, whatever the consequences may be to those who have hitherto called themselves their masters.

But great as the gain is, our responsibilities as Socialists have increased in proportion to it. In the earlier stages of the movement they were simple indeed. Socialism was a theory in this country, an ideal held by a little know of enthusiasts and students, who could give little reason for their hope of seeing it realised, save the irresistible force with which its truths had taken hold of their minds and hearts. The working classes were not in the least touched by it; they seemed incapable of conceiving any better state of society than that which allowed them to live in a condition of inferiority, in return for keeping that society alive by their labour. They did not even understand that they were a class, but practically accepted the position assigned to them by the well-to-do, of their being the fortuitous dregs of industry successful in competition for riches.

I say our duties were simple—so simple that the only mistake we could make therein was slothfulness in their performance. To preach Socialism, in season and out of season, where we were wanted, where we were tolerated, where we were not tolerated, that was all we had to do. It is true that there were some of us who, with what I now see to be a true political instinct, had put forward proposals that they called practical; but at the time there was no more chance of any one of these being looked on with favour by the possessing classes than Socialism in the lump. No other action was possible to us than trying to convince people, by talking, that Socialism was right and possible.

This has still to be done, and will always be necessary, till the life of true society is our unquestioned condition. But now, instead of other action being impossible for us, it is forced upon us by the growing acceptation, the practical acceptation, of the theory of Socialism. The workers have started to claim new conditions of life which they can only obtain at the expense of the possessing classes; and they must therefore force their claims on the latter. The means by which they will attempt this are not doubtful. To speak plainly, there are only two methods of bringing the necessary force to bear; open armed insurrection on the one hand; the use of the vote, to get hold of the executive, on the other. Of the first method they are not even thinking; but the second they are growing more determined to use day by day; and it is practically the only direct means. And it must be said that, if they are defeated in their attempt, it means the present defeat of socialism; though its ultimate defeat is impossible.

While therefore, it is as above said, still necessary to preach Socialism as straightly as possible, it is also necessary to further the practical struggle of the workmen for gains which will lead them along the road. To falter in the setting forth of the theory would mean the abandonment by Socialists of their obvious duty of directing the movement. To withdraw from the furtherance of the “labour” struggle, with all that it involves of capturing Parliament and the Municipal and other local bodies, would be rejecting the necessary means towards the end.

It is clearly our business, then, to make that struggle as strenuous as possible, while we at the same time hold up before the workers the ideal that lies ahead of the present days of conflict.

But the period of transition from mere preaching to this troublesome and wearisome action is a difficult one, and we are now in the midst of its difficulties. In spite of the Belfast declaration[1] and other very hopeful signs, the number of declared and instructed Socialists is small in proportion to the general movement.

Nor is that all. The tendency of the English to neglect organisation till it is forced upon them by immediate necessity, their ineradicable personal conceit, which holds them aloof from one another, is obvious in the movement. The materials for a great Socialist party are all around us, but no such party exists. We have only the scattered limbs of it; we are divided into various organisations, which, as they are now, stand in the way of organisation, since they are all afflicted with some degree of narrowness. Nay, there are many Socialists who evade belonging to these bodies, which at least have some immediate practical purpose in view, by enrolling themselves in societies which have no such definite purpose, and which allow sentiment (a necessary thing in itself) to occupy the whole of the ground, which it should share with action and business.

All this wants rectification. And to sum up, our business at present seems to me to preach Socialism to non-Socialists, and to preach unity of action to Socialists. Locally, I believe, there is much mutual work going on between the different bodies; but in order to gain considerable success, it ought to be more than local, it ought to be universal; adherence to the Socialist party should be made a test of membership with all sub-bodies, since it may be too much to expect that these latter should give up their names and sub-corporate existences; if this last were advisable, which perhaps it may not be.

In any case we assume in every Socialist the sentiment of Socialism; but we call on him to go further than mere sentiment; we want him to understand that certain things must be done before we get to the stage where his speciality in Socialism can be aired. That stage can only be reached by a great party embracing all genuine Socialists united in the course of action which seems necessary to the general body at the time. Such a party, it is clear to me, can have nothing to do with either of the existing parties in politics. If anything is to be got out of either of these, it will be got out of them much more easily and on better terms than by tacking the new party (of course a small minority to begin with) to the skirts of an old one. The minority that allies itself to a majority in order to use it, infallibly gets used by it.

One last word of caution. Especial care should be taken by Socialists engaged in politics to avoid even the shadow of a suspicion of alliance with declared and ticketed reactionists. No one will offer us “Liberal money”; let it be considered a deadly affront to be accused of taking “Tory money”.

MIA Notes

1. In September 1893 the Belfast Trades Union Congress passed (by 137 votes against 99) a resolution proposed by John Burns which stated that all Labour candidates, if assisted by the party, "must pledge themselves to support the principle of collective ownership and control of all the means of production and distribution."


What is our present business as socialists?


The Labour Prophet, Vol. III No. 25, January 1894, pp.1-2

Transcription, notes and HTML

Graham Seaman, June 2023.