William Morris

What we have to look for, as reported in the Oxford Times


William Morris on the Future of Socialism1

The inaugural address in connection with the Oxford and District Socialistic Union was delivered on Wednesday by Mr. William Morris, at the Central School, Gloucester-green. There was a crowded attendance, which included many undergraduates and ladies. Professor York Powell took the chair, and briefly introduced the lecturer.

Mr. Morris chose for his subject the words "What we have to look for", and said he did not mean by this what the ideal of Socialism had to offer to them when they had got people's heads turned in the right direction, but rather what their present movement might reasonably expect to come across in its progress towards socialism. Within the last five years or so the movement which represented the change from the society of so-called free contract to that of communal organization had undergone a great change. It must be admitted that behind their propaganda of preaching lay the thought that the change they advocated would be brought about by insurrection, and this was supposed by those who were most averse to violence. But now almost everyone had ceased to believe in the change coming by catastrophe. To state the position shortly, as a means to the realization of the new society socialists hoped so far to conquer public opinion that at last a majority of the Parliament should be sent to sit in the House as avowed Socialists, and on that should follow what legislation might be necessary. Another change had taken place outside Socialism amongst the ordinary politicians which had surely some ralation to the movement, which was that the old political parties and their watchwords were losing their importance. When they first began their Socialist work in London the two orthodox parties of Tories and Liberals were so completely prominent that no other possible party was thought of, and it was true that election times were the very worst times for their propaganda. Now, on the contrary, it had become a commonplace, that there was little difference between the two parties, except of "Ins" and "Outs". At present the Liberal party was losing ground, and even tending towards a break-up, perhaps because it had included as nominal members men who might be called semi-socialists. If it did actually break up, the result would obviously be a coalition of the Whiggest Liberals with the Tories, which would make a party strong enough to snap the fingers at Socialism and refuse any concessions. On the other hand, the Radical tail was setting itself up as a Parliamentary party, which would be a very weak one while it lasted, and would tend to melt into the general advance of Socialism. Everywhere people were shaken as to their views of the eternity of the present system, which was once as undoubted a fact to them as the existence of the sun in the heavens. But what had come of it as yet? In the first place, had any increase in the material propserity of the workman come of it? He did not think so. The strike war, taking it widely, was necessary, but it had to be paid for. It had been necessary to call attention to the mass of unemployed; but there were the unemployed, nothing had been done for them, because nothing could be done while the present system lasted. They would find that, generally speaking, all the measures for improving the material condition of the working-classes meant more or less feeding the dog with his own tail. They bettered the condition of one group of workers at the expense of others, and thereby they made partial content out of general discontent, hoodwinked the people, and prevented their action. He did not believe that they would get more out of the Tories than out of the Liberals, and the reason was ready to hand. It was just this sort of concession which the Tories would give them — it was their instinct to make a showy, benevolent present, which in the long run would be of no use to them, rather than yield a right however small. Of course from neither party could they expect any measure really Socialist, that was an impossibility, but by pressure they might get from the Liberals certain improvements in the present creaky and clumsy electoral machinery which would be of some use to them when they wanted to get M.P.'s to do their dirty work for them in Parliament—(laughter and applause). They could only have any serious improvement in the material conditions of the working classes from Socialism; while the battle for Socialism was going on they could only have the hope of realizing Socialism. He had thought the matter up and down, and he could not for the life of him see how the great change they longed for would come otherwise than by disturbance and suffering of some kind. Since battle had been made a matter of commerce, and the god of war must wear a mantle of banknotes and be crowned with guineas, since human valour must give way to the longest purse and the latest inventions, since war had been commercialized, they would not be called upon to gain their point by battle in the field; but could they escape disturbances and suffering? He feared not. The rise in the condition of life, if not in the position of the working classes, must disturb the smooth-going ways of the market, must reduce the profits of their employers, must reduce therefore their employing power, must reduce their spending power and injure many forms of the production of useless articles on which the working man largely lived. What harm in that? It would be a gain if they were living in a Socialist condition, but as they were now it would mean the throwing out of work of numbers of industrious men, the greater part of whom it would be difficult to find employment for. He must own that sometimes when he was dispirited he thought the labour movement did not mean Socialism at all, it only meant improvement in the condition of the working classes. They would get that on some terms or another—till the break-up came, and it might be a long way ahead. And yet the workmen of this country seemed to him to be going very far from the right road to winning the slavish peace he had been speaking of that he could not think they meant nothing but that. Imperfect, erring, unorganized, chaotic as that movement was, there was a spirit of antagonism to their present foolish, wasteful system in it, and a sense of the unity of labour as against the exploiters of labour, which was the one necessary idea for those who were ever so little conscious of making towards Socialism. One think alone would make him think that more was aimed at than the stereotyping of a would-be tolerable condition of servitude for the working classes, and that was the success of their comrade Blatchford's Merrie England—(applause). The thousands who had read that book must, if they had done so carefully, have found out that something betterwas possible to be thought of than the life of the prosperous mill hand. For what, after all, was that something more than a low form of workman's prosperity, constant work to wit, and a fair day's wages for a fair day's work. Surely it was nothing less than that which made life worth living, Self-respect, happy and fit work, leisure, beautiful surroundings, in a word, the earth our own and the fulness thereof. The question was, what was to be done—a question all the more necessary to ask, since at present they were doing very little. They must take it for granted that the first means, so to say, were, as already stated, to conquer the general opinion of the country, and gradually to get the majority in the House of Commons, and they must remember that before that could be done the thinking part of the population would have gone Socialistic so that nothing but the last act of the play would remain to be played. Well, that was the end, a long way off doubtless, but in no wise an impossible end. What was to be done to get there? First, what were the Socialistic forces in this country. Two or three—say two—bodies, partly propagandistic, probably of no great strength as to count of noses. More of them he would not say at present, as he did not want to get into controversy, so he would but note that there was at least rivalry between them, and sometimes dissension. Besides these two bodies, there were no doubt many pronounced Socialists not attached to either, and there were also many who tended towards Socialism, and were certain to be absorbed by it when it took more definite action than it had yet done. His hope was that if people really cared for Socialism enough it would be realized, that they would do so much propagandist work and convert so many people to Socialism, that they would insist on having a genuine Socialist party, which should do the due work, and they would not allow the personal fads and venalities of leaders, so-called, to stand in the way of real business, He thought they had, above all, to point out to the working-man who felt Socialist sympathies that there were many mesures which might be for the temporary good of their class, which were both temporary and experimental, and adapted only for the present state of things, and that these were not for the genuine Socialist to push forward. Let, then, Liberal and Radical, and, if they would, their Tory friends, make their experiments and take all the reresponsibility for their failure; for in the long run fail they would. Their present system would admit of no permanent change in their direction. Unlimited competition, the laissez faire of their old Manchester school, the privilege of the possessing class, modified if they would be by gifts of the improved workhouse kind, in a word, once more the machine-life of the useful classes made as little burdensome to them as could be; that was all that could be got out of the present system. If that was their ideal, let them not fight against their employers, for they would but waste their livelihood by doing so. But, on the other hand, those who had a wild fancy to be free men, to have their affairs under their own control, those who wished to work happily and unwastefully, to enjoy rest and thought and labour without fear or remorse, those in a word who wished to live like men, let them say, good wages or bad, good times or bad, good masters or bad, let them use them now as best they might, yet not so much for the present profit they might get out of them as for hastening the realization of the new society— the time when at last they would be free because they would be equal—(applause).

Questions were then invited and replied to, and the proceedings terminated with a vote of thanks to the chairman and Mr. Morris, proposed by Mr. Grenfell2 and seconded by Mr. W. Hines.

Title

What we have to look for (as reported by the Oxford Times)

Notes

1. Printed in the Oxford Times, Saturday November 2, 1895. The notes for the first version of this talk are only partially preserved, and the content here may fill some of the gaps in that version.

2. Grenfell was the Secretary. He wrote the following letter to Justice (published 9th November, 1895):

William Morris' address was a brilliant success in all ways. Crowded room, excellent lecture, earnest and full of sound advice, a brisk fire of questions answered with much point and brilliancy. I send Oxford Chronicle with report.

J. Grenfell, Sec. Oxford and District Socialist Union