William Morris

The Promise of May.

Certainly May Day is above all days of the year fitting for the protest of the disinherited against the system of robbery that shuts the door betwixt them and a decent life. The day when the promise of the year reproaches the waste inseparable from the society of inequality, the waste which produces our artificial poverty of civilisation, so much bitterer for those that suffer under it than the natural poverty of the rudest barbarism. For it is undoubtedly true that full blown capitalism makes the richest country in the world as poor as, nay poorer than, the poorest, for the life of by far the greater part of its people.

Are we to sit down placidly under this, hoping that some blessing will drop down from heaven upon us which will bring content and self-respect and a due share of the beauties and joys of the earth to the classes that produce all that is produced, while it will bring no lessening of the dignity and ease and sweetness of life with which the possessing (and wasting) classes are now endowed?

Most of you will smile at that question, but remember that this opinion was not long ago universally held, and is still held by many.

They think that civilisation will grow so speedily and triumphantly, and production will become so easy and cheap, that the possessing classes will he able to spare more and more from the great heap of wealth to the producing classes, so that at least these latter will have nothing left to wish for, and all will be peace and prosperity. A futile hope indeed ! and one which a mere glance at past history will dispel. For we find, as a matter of fact, that when we were scarcely emerging from semi-barbarism, when open violence was common, and privilege need put on no mask before the governed classes, the workers were not worse off than now, but better. In short, not all the discoveries of science, not all the tremendous organisation of the factory and the market will produce true wealth, so long as the end and aim of it all is the production of profit for the privileged classes.

Nothing better will happen than more waste and more, only perhaps exercised in different directions than now it is. Waste of material, waste of labour (for few indeed even of the genuine wage earners are engaged in the production of utilities). Waste, in one word, of LIFE.

But again there are some who will say "Yes indeed, the capitalist system can come to no good end, death in a dust-bin is its doom, but will not its end be at least speedy even without any help of ours?" My friends I fear not. The capitalist classes are doubtless alarmed at the spread of Socialism all over the civilized world. They have at least an instinct of danger; but with that instinct comes the other one of self defence. Look how the whole capitalist world is stretching out long arms towards the barbarous world and grabbing and clutching in eager competition at countries whose inhabitants don't want them; nay, in many cases, would rather die in battle, like the valiant men they are, than have them. So perverse are these wild men before the blessings of civilisation which would do nothing worse for them (and also nothing better) than reduce them to a propertyless proletariat.

And what is all this for? For the spread of abstract ideas of civilisation, for pure benevolence, for the honour and glory of conquest? Not at all. It is for the opening of fresh markets to take in all the fresh profit-producing wealth which is growing greater and greater every day; in other words, to make fresh opportunities for waste; the waste of our labour and our lives.

And I say this is an irresistible instinct on the part of the capitalists, an impulse like hunger, and I believe that it can only he met by another hunger, the hunger for freedom and fair play for all, both people and peoples. Anything less than that the capitalist power will brush aside, but that they cannot; for what will it nean ? The most important part of their machinery, the “hands” becoming MEN, and saying, “Now at last we will it; we will produce no more for profit but for use, for happiness, for LIFE.”

Bibliographical Note

Title

The Promise of May

Publication History

Published in Justice, organ of the SDF, for May 1st 1896. Reprinted in 1896 in the pamphlet Why I am a Socialist following Morris's death, without the penultimate 3 paragraphs. This page is taken from the original article.