William Morris

The Present Outlook of Socialism in England

The Whig revolution, which began on the fall of medieval society and culminated in the French revolution, on the one hand, and the establishment of the factory organization of production amidst the ruins of handicraft, on the other, seemed in the first half of this century to have stranded the civilized world on a period of academical coma, having some analogy to the great period of the classical civilization inaugurated by the accession of Augustus. In England at any rate a modus vivendi had been established between the employers of labor and their "hands," and free-trade and the abolition of the corn laws had so greased the wheels of factory production that, though profits were not made on the extravagant scale which obtained in the earlier years of the century, they were still very large, and the result was to increase enormously the wealth, numbers, and consequent power of the middle classes. In politics the Whigs, under the new name of Liberals, were marching on triumphantly, and of feudal survivals all but the semblance was abolished; and modern democracy, on the basis of irresistible, nay unquestionable, commercialism, seemed to be on the very point of being firmly established. It is true that in Britain religion lagged behind, and the "freethinking," which had long been accepted as an essential part of the Whig revolution on the continent, was here revolutionary and unrespectable, as an open and expressed opinion, though even then almost universal amongst intelligent persons. For the deep-seated hypocrisy of our nation (and perhaps race), which has often, wrongly as I think, been dignified with the historical title of "Puritanism," would not allow facts to be faced openly on this side of things.

As to literature and the fine arts, there had been for some time a stirring amongst the dry bones in the first, and the nonentity of the eighteenth century, of which the dullard Pope was the high-priest, had been invaded early in the nineteenth century by the men of genius of the dawning Romantic school. Poetry began again and it became once more possible to forget the miseries of real life by burying oneself in the idealities of the great inventors.

But literature, less than any of the arts, depends on its surroundings, and the imagination of those who have steeped themselves in the life of serious periods of history, as show us by their still existing works, can free itself from the ugliness and trivialities of to-day and produce something which is not alien in idea from the living art of the past. Art, in its narrower sense, is not so fortunate, and on all hands can be oppressed by its surroundings. On this side, when the whole world is sick, the men of special talent or genius share the sickness in one way or other; either their sense of beauty is deadened, or they seek for expression of it in fierce antagonism to the life and thought of the passing time, and the present public either corrupts or neglects them. In this period of Whig ascendency, therefore, art was, let us say, lying asleep, and its condition was not ill expressed by the stupidity and emptiness of the London Exhibition of 1851 - the first of the series of advertising shows which have since cursed the world with their pretentious triviality. Even the painters of pictures, the producers of art who approach nearer than others to the men of inventive literature, were sunk low indeed. Here and there was a man who rose above his fellows into something like genius, though even his aims were not high, nor his scope wide, as Turner for instance; here and there a man of unquestionable industry and conscientiousness, as Maclise; but, as for the general body of "artists" as they were called, they were about worthy of the somewhat vulgar contempt showered upon them in Thackeray's novels. In short, no man of sense ever troubled himself about "high art," exceptas a matter of officialism, or as a piece of affectation which his position in society forced upon him.

As for architecture and its kindred arts, people scarcely knew of the existence of such things. Stupid ugliness was worshipped under the name of simplicity or gentlemanly restraint. Beauty or incident was not so much as thought of. Even the active hatred of beauty, which the Philistine cultivates with such single-minded ardor to-day, implies a somewhat better position for the arts than the sordid dulness of the triumphant Whiggery of the "fifties."

Commerce, the only thing needful; politics, the slave of the markets; literature, existing only in rebellion; art forgotten, beauty dead: this, it seemed, was to be the ultimate gain of "The heir of all the ages in the foremost files of time."

Seemed - but, slowly as the course of events in modern times crawls along, a change has begun to show within the last twenty years. In economics the principle of laissez faire, which in the period above spoken of seemed to have been accepted as irrevocable by statesman and dustman alike, has been blown to the winds more in practice even than in theory, and collective action is admitted everywhere to be the machinery through which we must of necessity strive to make the best of our surroundings. In politics, if they have not become more democratic in the old sense of the word, the word itself has changed its meaning, and no longer signifies a consensus of the rich middle classes, but rather the gathering of opinion of the working classes, not, it must be admitted, for the purpose of enabling them to manage their own affairs ( i.e., the best method for the production of common utilities), but at least to let the governing or possessing class find out what steps may be necessary to be taken to make the only useful class of the community temporarily contented.

In literature and the arts again there has been some stirring of the dry bones, though I cannot think it has been either deep or widely spread. Yet we have seen a man, whose poetry was once thought the very acme of wild eccentricity, dying a peer of the realm without having to make any considerable recantation; and the Romantic school so successful that it is now rather rebelled against than rebelling. In the arts, owing chiefly to the energy and genius of three young men - Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Millais, - it is at least possible for painters of pictures to live by giving their genius free scope, if they have it in them, however sore the struggle may be against their isolated position which denies them the support of a reasonable unbroken tradition. Furthermore, owing to the genuine instinct for the study of history which is a birth of these latter days, there has grown up some appreciation of the great architectural works of the Middle Ages, and a certain number of highly educated and refined men have now for some time been struggling against the hideousness of our modern streets by designing buildings which they have striven honestly and not without success to make at once beautiful and useful: though it is true that these buildings must of necessity be more or less imitative of the work of past ages; and also that the movement that has had its rise in the study of historic art has born with it the disadvantage that the public looks with favor on the preposterous attempt to "restore," as it is called, our ancient monuments, which have suffered so much from the neglect and ignorance of the post-medieval period, to their (supposed) original state; for though we may have learned history enough to cease to look upon our ancestors as a set of savages whose lives and deeds sprang from no visible causes in the past, and led to no consequences in the future, we have not yet grasped the knowledge that these monuments of art sprang from the conditions of society amidst which they were produced; that the art of a people, as distinct from a few ingenious and gifted men living isolated from the people, must of necessity be an essential growth from the life of the epoch.

Indeed, it is because I have so thoroughly learned this lesson myself (as I think), that I must needs look upon the art and literature of these days as but matters by the way, and something without root or organic growth. I believe that they will flourish again, rising maybe from the scanty tradition left us, or maybe from a new birth, - which we now cannot so much as conceive of, - when a new society has been realized, the hope of which (as I deem), is the one bright spot in the century and is now growing clearer to us.

For even now at the bottom of the change above said in economics and politics, in literature and art, lies a great change in opinion, which has produced the visible new birth of Socialism; a new birth dimly foreshadowed at the time of the French revolution by the opinions and attempts of such men as Babeuf and the Utopists. The public opinion points toward a new society founded on equality of condition, and the association of equals. The first of these has been mainly in abeyance since the time of the poverty of tribal society: the second, after playing a principal part in the development of society from the beginning of the great energy of the Middle Ages, fell with them under the triple attack of bureaucracy, political nationalism, and the lust for material advancement. But, unless they are once again to become the root principles of a true society, I for my part can see nothing for it but a continuous degradation of our false society until it disappears in a chaos caused by greed and suffering.

But I repeat that the assertion of these principles is already being made, not merely by small knots of Socialist preachers, but by the working-classes generally. Trades Unionism is losing its old narrowness, and is learning that it must not champion this or that trade or occupation against the general public; that it must no longer be the carpenters against the public, or the miners against the public, - but the whole body of producers against the non-producers who exploit them; that, in short, the producers must claim the right to manage their own affairs. When this lesson is learned thoroughly, I cannot see how the claim can be resisted; and that more especially in a country like Great Britain, the very existence of which depends upon highly organized industries.

Meantime, I say, the lesson is being learned, doubtless in a rough and unsystematic way enough; yet no one who is conversant with working-class politics can dispute that the attitude of the workmen toward Socialism has quite altered within the last twelve years, and that a claim for recognition as citizens has been put forward by them, to which all classes of society have been forced to pay some attention. Both the theory and practice of even ultra Liberals as to the relation of the workmen of the organized industries in Great Britain to their employers, in the days when John Bright was regarded by the prosperous middle class as a dangerous democrat and tribune of the people, was that the workman, as workman, was a part of the machinery of profitable production, that there were certain laws of nature that governed the action of the machine, - always in the interest of those who owned and controlled it, the successful middle class to wit, - and that the members of the machine must submit patiently to any suffering which resulted from the action of those natural laws. There was little for the workmen to complain of in this, it was thought, because it was not difficult for any of them who were above the average to rise at least into the lower middle class, and most probably into the higher ranks of it; to become in short from a mere "hand" a foreman, the manager of the department, or often enough of a factory itself. As for what was below the average that was its lookout, and its complaints would not do anything to turn the course of the "natural law." This, I say, was the theory or practice of such men as John Bright and his party; but the machine for the production of profits has protested against the action of the natural law - which must of necessity degrade every man who could not struggle up into the comparatively few places which were to be had amongst the superintendents of labor, - and by various revolts, strikes and so forth, the claim of citizenship has, as aforesaid, been made by working-men as living on weekly wages, and not as workingmen whose savings gave them some share in the privilege of capital.

For a long time the struggle was blind and narrow, but within the last few years it has become a conscious strife for at least some recognition of the social rights of citizens on behalf of all workmen willing to exercise their labor power; and, on the other hand, the possessing classes have practically admitted the necessity of a "living wage" for the workmen, even though that must be taken from the profits of the employers. A higher standard of comfort, more leisure, less precarious employment; these things at least, it is admitted, must be granted by the present system to the working-classes, - if the present system can do it - but can it? The answer to that must be found in the answer to another question: Are the interests of the employers and the employed the same? No, must be the answer, they are opposed. And if that be the case, how can the vital questions be discussed and settled with the mutual assent of the two parties to the quarrel? It is clear that they cannot be. When I mentioned the struggle of the working classes for citizenship I meant to use the word literally and not metaphorically. The battle must be fought out between the privileged and the useful classes, before the latter can win any solid or lasting benefits for the whole mass. And I have no doubt that it will go on with ever-increasing stress. The concessions made by the privileged classes to the useful ones will grow greater and more important, as the working-men see clearer into their position, and know what it is essential for them to claim; the privileged will concede these with much the same amount of pressure as forces them to yield to present and unimportant demands, some of which at any rate are now used for little else than banners to which to rally those who are yet purblind to the necessities of a real new society. So it will go on till it will be found at last that everything essential has been yielded by privilege, and probably the last opposition will be feeble and formal, and will be easily thrust aside.

It must be remembered that, on the one hand, the tokens that this great change in society is on the way are no longer merely the spread of academic discussion, or the setting forth of Utopias with their roots in the air, but the attempts to deal with "practical" questions concerning the present daily life of the greater part of the population; while, on the other hand, the ideas of a Socialist society are pretty much accepted by those who can by any stretch of language be called thinking people (among whom I do not include the professional politicians). Almost the only opposition offered to them comes from sheer pessimists, or those who are not ashamed to confess their adherence to the sordid cynicism of greed. How can the new society founded on equality and association be brought about? is the real question which is asked by all those who wish for conditions of life in the civilized world which will enable all groups of society to live with self-respect and manly pleasure.

Now I have practically said that, broadly speaking, the change must come about by the useful classes getting gradually educated to a sense of their due claims and responsibilities, and, as a result, going on steadily beating down commercial and economic privilege, as their forerunners the Whigs, whose day culminated in the French revolution, beat down the survivals of feudal privilege.

As to what is going on obviously at present in the world of politics, a few words will be enough on that subject, as I cannot deem it to be of so much importance as many people think. We have recently gone through a general election in Great Britain, the results of which have made the grossest reactionists (the Tories) jubilant, and I suspect have given some pleasure, even amidst their defeat, to the ordinary Liberal politicians.

The overwhelming Tory victory has indeed seemed to some of our party to mean rather a defeat of the Whigs than of the Progressives; but, though this seems plausible in view of some of the incidents of the contest, I should rather put down the victory to a strong rally of all that is reactionary against everything which seems progressive to the reactionists, from mere Whig Liberalism to definite Socialism, - which rally, if properly organized, was sure to be successful: so that it was rather the Liberals who were defeated along with the Socialists than the Socialists along with the Liberals. In other words there was, and is, an instinct amongst the reactionaries that the Socialists have been leading the Liberals and are the real enemies, and it is a true instinct, though politics, like poverty, makes strange bedfellows, and it is rather amusing to see some of our Whig friends dismissed from their seats on the ground of their being the allies of dangerous revolutionaries.

For the rest it was clear that whenever the reactionaries chose to administer such a check to Socialism they could do so with certainty of success, since there is no Socialist party in England; it has indeed ceased to be merely a sect or a "church" as it was some fifteen years ago, but has never gained any organization; its strength, as well as its weakness, lies in its being an opinion rather than a party. Yet it was largely the fear of the reactionists that it was becoming a party which caused the successful attack of the election on progress generally. And to my mind the answer to that attack should be to organize a real definite Socialist party, and, for the sake of the necessary gain, to accept the probable dangers of such a position. It is true that a wide-spread opinion cannot be defeated, and need not fear the temporary decision of the ballot-box; but to such a decision it must come at last, unless it is contented to act indirectly through other parties, which may throw it over at any political exigency, and must always be doing hesitatingly and blindly.

To sum up therefore as to the Socialist outlook: There is no progress possible to European civilization save in the direction of Socialism; for the Whig or Individualist idea which destroyed the medieval idea of association, and culminated in the French revolution and the rise of the great industries in England, has fulfilled its function or worked itself out.

The Socialistic idea has at last taken hold of the workmen, even in Great Britain, and they are pushing it forward practically, though in a vague and unorganized manner.

The governing classes feel themselves compelled to yield more or less to the vague demands of the workmen. But, on the other hand, the definitely reactionary forces of the country have woken up to the danger to privilege involved in those demands, and are attacking Socialism in front instead of passing it by in contemptuous silence.

The general idea of Socialism is widely accepted amongst the thoughtful part of the middle classes, even where their timidity prevents them from definitely joining the movement.

The old political parties have lost their traditional shibboleths, and are only hanging on till the new party (which can only be a Socialist one) is formed: the Whig and Tories will then coalesce to oppose it; the Radicals will some of them join this reactionary party, and some will be absorbed by the Socialist ranks. That this process is already going on is shown by the last general election. Socialism has not yet formed a party in Great Britain, but it is essential that it should do so, and not become a mere tail of the Whig Liberal party, which will only use it for its own purposes and throw it over when it conveniently can.

This Socialist party must include the whole of the genuine labor movement, that is, whatever in it is founded on principle, and is not a mere temporary business squabble; it must also include all that is definitely Socialist amongst the middle class; and it must have a simple text in accordance with one aim, - the realization of a new society founded on the practical equality of condition for all, and general association for the satisfaction of the needs of those equals.

The sooner this party is formed, and the reactionists find themselves face to face with the Socialists, the better. For whatever checks it may meet with on the way, it will get to its goal at last and Socialism will melt into society.

The Forum [US], April 1896, pp. 193-200.