William Morris

Misery and the Way Out

As reported in the West London Observer

Source: The West London Observer, Saturday 25 October 1884, p.5
Note: See the full text
Transcription: by Graham Seaman for MIA, May 2022


In connection with the Hammersmith branch of the Social Democratic Federation a lecture was delivered on Sunday evening at Kelmscott House, Upper Mall, Hammersmith, by Mr. William Morris, "On Misery and the way out of it.” Mr. Hooper occupied the chair.

Mr. Morris commenced his lecture by asking what was the condition of society under which they lived? Did it quite please those who were listening to him, so that there was nothing they wanted to alter in it? If that was the case, then none of his hearers were poor, and none had any fear of becoming poor. He was speaking to a crowd of rich men who were quite sure they would always be rich. Well, he saw that was not quite the case; some of them were poor; some of them were afraid of becoming poor; some of them had to do very unpleasant work: all of them had to work more than they liked: and they knew of people who woe worse off in all these matters than they were, so that they did want to alter things if they could. They were not contented. He should wonder if they were contented, for when they looked the present state of society they found that the majority of people had every reason to wish to be better off than they were, that in point of fact they were living in misery.

Let them look at the various conditions of life and see what proportion of the whole people had good reason to be pleased with their share of the wealth, ease, good living, in a word, the happiness of this most highly civilised country.

First, the greatest part of them had to work, that was all those who were not very rich. It is true that what was usually thought the lowest stratum of society is generally supposed not to—the criminal population, the vagabonds, loafers, and so forth. They at least had good right to be discontented. Perhaps his hearers would say they had made their bed, and must lie on it; that it was there own faults. He was not sure whether it was worth while arguing on the matter, but he thought he should be able to show later on that it was not their own faults as a class, that their lives with all their horrible sufferings, and still more horrible degradation, were made by the present state of society and were an essential part of it.

Mr. Morris went on to speak of the condition of the lower order of labourers; of women who had no protectors or bread earners to help them; of ordinary labourers, the unskilled, including in that class the agricultural labourer; of the skilled artisan; of clerks and shop assistants; of the small shopkeeper, the farmers, and the professional classes, all of whom were discontented.

Now came the question, what hope of salvation from this misery was there? The misery he had been speaking of was to a great extent admitted, but there was much diversity of opinion to the nature of the hope which might cast a ray of sunlight on it. Some had a vague sort of idea that general progress, the spread of liberal ideas, the growth of education, and the rest would little by little raise the condition of the lower classes as they too truly called them. Nor could he say that they were wrong otherwise than being vague.

Then there were others of o sterner mould who hod got involved in those lies about thrift and industry, who would tell them that it was possible, if not easy, for any working man by practice of the said thrift and industry, to raise himself out of his class. Of course that was no answer to the question as to how the miserable classes could escape from their misery. Under the present system there woe no hope of the working class bettering their condition as a class. Whatever partial amelioration they had gained had been in spite of the system, in its teeth. Their present society was based on the perpetual servitude and misery of the wage-earning classes. Their welfare lay in their own hands if they only knew. This earthly hell was not the ordinance of nature, but the manufacture of man, made, he would believe, not by their malice but their stupidity, and it was their business to destroy it.

The privilege claimed by a few to own the means whereby labour became fruitful, and through that ownership to own the very lives of the labourers was the cause of all that misery he began by speaking of. Was it not at least conceivable that they might be their own masters and their own employers? In that case they themselves would bargain with themselves, and the bargain would be that all should work and every man should have the fruits of his work, that was to say his share of the profits of the collective labour of the community, each for all and all for each. Remember again that no approach to this obvious injustice could be gained as long as they were ruled by the monopoly of capital.

In concluding his lecture. Mr. Morris urged upon his hearers, hard as it would be to bring about, above all things to do their very utmost to combine to shake off the economical slavery of to-day, which did not differ so much many might think from the slavery of the older world. He knew that they were moving onward. Everywhere they saw the apathy of the last 25 years breaking into hopeful discontent, and if it be true, as Mr. Giffen said it was, that the condition of the workers was improving, then so much the more hopeful was that discontent.

The lecturer having briefly answered several questions, a debate followed, in which Mr. Craig, Mr. Herbert Burrows, and Mr. Winwood (delegate of the Staffordshire miners out on strike) took part.

Mr. Morris having been thanked for his lecture, the meeting ended.