A Talk with Mr. William Morris on Socialism

Source: “A TALK WITH MR WILLIAM MORRIS ON SOCIALISM”, Daily News, Thursday, January 8, 1885; Issue 12088
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford
Proofing and HTML: Graham Seaman


Just before the prorogation the Earl of Wemyss and March got up in his place in the House of Lords and flourished a sort of revolutionary symbol in the faces of his meagre but distinguished audience. The symbol, or let me call it paper banner, was Justice, not the French journal of that name but the lively organ of the English Socialists. “Look at this and tremble,” was the meaning conveyed by his lordship’s attitude and brief speech. Some people define English Socialism to be, among other things, “an attempt to make grand dukes and people of that sort” live on three hundred a year—and work eight hours a day even for that! But on looking at the programme of the Socialists, what I find is a proposal for “cumulative taxation upon all incomes above a fixed minimum, not exceeding three hundred pounds a year.” However, even the bare suggestion of a squad of dukes working in their shirtsleeves on a tramway (one hour allowed for midday bread and cheese ; and half-holiday on Saturday) is so very dreadful (only Mr. Carlyle’s notion of a naked House of Lords can match it) that one is not surprised at Lord Weymss’s announcement of his intention to resume the subject when Parliament reassembles. Whether there are English Socialists ready to fulfil their enemies’ direst anticipations, or to what extent or in what manner I do not know. But it occurred to me to “interview” one who is not only a high priest of Socialism, but also one of the most finely gifted men of his time, and to hear what he had to say about it. William Morris, poet, all men know ; William Morris preacher of a new social gospel, poet and prophet (vates) in one, according to antique ideal, fewer know.

I called, found him among his pipes and books, and asked him for some of his own personal impressions and opinions. He promptly plunged in medias res—giving me to understand beforehand that he was speaking not in any official capacity, but purely and simply as an individual Socialist. “I do not care,” he said, “for a mechanical revolution. I want an educated movement. Discontent is not enough, though it is natural and inevitable. The discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force ; and for that reason it is all the more necessary that the revolution—for such the movement is even now—should not be not an ignorant, but an intelligent revolution. What I should like to have now, far more than anything else, would be a body of able high-minded, competent men, who should act as instructors of the masses and as their leaders during critical periods of the movement. It goes without saying that a great proportion of these instructors and organisers should be working men ; even this preliminary movement cannot be carried out except through them. I should look to these men to preach what Socialism really is—not a change for the sake of change, but a change involving a high and noble, the very noblest, ideal of human life and duty ; a life in which every human being should find unrestricted scope for his best powers and faculties. I should like to see two thousand men of that stamp engaged in explaining the principles of rational, scientific Socialism all over the kingdom.”

In advocating his cultured propagandism, Mr. Morris has of course the upper no less than the lower classes in view. Like a brother poet—though perhaps with an intention unlike his—Mr. Morris thinks that the rich classes stand in need of being preached to as well as the poor. He would if he could prepare Mr. Arnold’s “materialised” upper classes for the inevitable day of reckoning. As I have already said Mr. Morris is not hopeful that the upper classes—the capitalists, agricultural, commercial and industrial—will be moved by anything short of compulsion ; but on the other hand, much will be gained if the revolution, when it proceeds from speaking to acting, “can show that it is aiming at a change, the desirability and justice of which can be more or less seen even through the class prejudices of the possessing classes.” “When,” says Mr. Morris, “I go about the country I hear people say, ‘We are miserable; we are about as discontented as we can be ; we know the injustice and cruelty of the situation ; but tell us what is the best thing we can do.’ They cannot know the best thing unless they think clearly and seriously, and therefore I would help them to acquire right—that is to say scientific ideas—about the social movement.” One need not talk long with Mr. Morris before one discovers how he resents the impression which prevails in so many quarters that Socialism is an envious, malignant device for crushing out originality, for destroying all the colour and light and joy of existence, and dooming mankind to bovine toil in a hypochondriacal drab universe. The bovine toil, which is its own sole end, the joylessness, the drab hue and all the rest of it, Mr. Morris would say, exist now ; he aspires to relieve them ; whatever else he may be, he claims to be a leveller-up.

But not on what Mr. Carlyle calls the principle “Devil take the hindmost.” For competition, as practised in modern society, the poet of English Socialism entertains a profound contempt and loathing. Free Trade, meaning competition, he regards as the curse of society. In discussing this subject Mr. Morris will rap out some pithy compact sentence, such as the following—“Competition develops its contradictory,” that is to say Socialism. “For what,” he will ask, “is this competitive Free Trade but competition, not in the cause of use, but in the cause of profit-mongering? Free Trade is merely free trade in profits ; capitalists care for nothing else. The working classes now see this and have come to understand that their only salvation lies in work, not for the good of this class which cares for nothing but profits ; but for the equal good of the whole of society ; their ideal is universal use, not class profit, privilege, or monopoly.” I remarked to him that he was just entering on a subject about which some excellent people, by no means calling themselves Socialists in his sense would agree with him. “For example,” I said, “Mr. Thomas Hughes, who is a Radical, and is, or used to be, a good Free Trader, has just been telling Manchester—of all places in the world!—that competition has only resulted in bringing ‘the most unscrupulousrsquo; to the front ; while as for what you say about profit-mongering, how many have complained about the decadence which in consequence of the China-clay ‘loading’ has come about in our Eastern markets for cotton goods.” “Oh,” replied Mr. Morris, “there are many people who will admit the justice of the Socialistic criticisms of the present state of society, and are prepared to do all they can for the working classes that can be done for the working classes and not by them. In other words they will favour whatever can be done without altering the present system of capital and wages. In my opinion their hopes are amiable delusions. The maintenance of private property in the means of production—that is land, capital, machinery, &c.—will put a dead stop to any real elevation of the working classes to a higher level. At the same time the opinions of Mr. Thos. Hughes and the co-operators, and indeed of many other social reformers, all tend to show that confidence in the old system is shaken even among the capitalistic classes.” For instance, he remarked that Mr. Ruskin’s influence in the propagation of Socialism was far from small. This was an allusion to the great Art Critic’s teaching on the use and nobility of work, and the hatefulness of “profit-mongering” and usury. He told me he had found that, in this respect, as well as in others Mr. Ruskin’s influence was especially conspicuous in Edinburgh, where there is a Students’ Socialist Society. “Have Socialistic principles made any headway in the chief towns of Scotland?” I asked. ‘Yes,” replied Mr. Morris ; “they are making way in Glasgow, and in Edinburgh there is another besides the Students’ Society. Some of the most ardent Socialists are students of the University.” This last statement was new to me, but—I must confess—scarcely surprising; for I remembered how, in other days, I used to hear the most shocking doctrines uttered by my theological fellow men in the corner gallery of the old quadrangle. I was struck too, by what Mr. Morris said about the tone of Scotch-student Socialism—what there is of it. “They don't care anything,” he said, “about the merely political questions of Socialism—about legislative machinery and the like ; what they do care for is the moral side of it, the introduction of higher ethics into work and life.” Like, I should imagine, the perfervid race.

“Turning for the moment,” I said, “to the question of points of contact between your Socialism and political creeds that reject the name, it seems to me that you must find your natural allies in the Radical school of Liberals.” To this Mr. Morris replied:— “as Radicals they are hard to deal with, many so-called being only an extreme form of Whigs ; but of course to many Radicalism is the most progressive thing they have come across as yet and from these we expect to gain recruits, and do so, only they must give up their Radicalism before they can become Socialists.” From this it is not to be understood that Socialism has made no headway in England ; all that Mr. Morris meant was, I think, that English Socialism was of a somewhat sporadic nature, as distinguished from the centralised form of it that exists in Germany—in other words, that English Socialism is not yet properly organised. “So then,” I said, “the prospect of a return of Parliamentary candidates on the Socialistic ticket is just now distant.” “I believe it is,” replied Mr. Morris ; “that is, I cannot conceive of any constituency at the next election returning a Socialist as a Socialist, owing to the above mentioned want of organisation. It is possible that quasi-Socialistic candidates may be put up to make running for the Tory candidate.” And then he rapped out one of those pithy sentences to which I have already alluded : “The Reichstag is the only platform which the German Socialists have from which to assert themselves ; in England anybody can say anything anywhere.” And then Mr. Morris entered into an interesting discussion of the reasons why German Socialism has acquired a character so ordered, and rational, and scientific, as compared with some schools of Socialism in other European countries, especially France ; and he ended with an allusion to the Socialistic results of much of Bismarck’s policy. “The nationalising of the army,” said Mr. Morris “will produce universal Socialism in Germany, and it will prevent the unarmed and untrained people being kept down by a band of professional soldiers. The repressive laws in Germany have kept the Socialistic party together.”

“Do you think,” I asked, “that one at least of the motives for the foreign adventures (possibly ending in war) to which foreign States are now committed is the desire to keep down Socialism and other popular movements at home?” “It may be so,” replied Mr. Morris. “I have no doubt whatever that all popular movements on the Continent are forms of Socialism. But then the social movement is not merely national ; it is international, cosmopolitan, and the instant the masses recognise that wars for ‘expansion’ are anti-international, anti-cosmopolitan—that, in fact, foreign wars are got up by profit-mongers for the good of profit-mongers—the device to which you refer would fail.— Mr. Morris went much farther even than that, and he described the Federation cry now heard in England as having been got up in the interests of competition, for the propagation of the gospel of “Devil-take-the-hindmost.” “In Cobden’s time,” continued Mr. Morris, “we did not care for intervention—the Freetraders scouted it, nor did they trouble themselves about Imperial Federation. The reason was that they had the command of all the markets of the world ; they had no rivals ; but now other nations are becoming manufacturing and exporting communities, our markets are becoming smaller and fewer ; therefore we now intervene here, there and everywhere, and we suggest a gigantic union of all the English colonies and dependencies with the mother country. But patriotism has nothing to do with it. The professed patriotism is all a sham—the Federation is solely and simply a refuge for the class of exploiting profit-mongers. You would be surprised to hear,” he said, “how audiences of working men applaud when I declare these my opinions about the commercial aspects of expansion and our present international politics. The working class are not Jingoes, whatever persons belonging to other classes may say about them. When the masses in all the European States think consciously together, the end of these market wars will come.” “What then,” I said, “about barbaric races?” “I would leave them alone,” he replied ; “on this point I think with the Positivists ; I do not see that conquest by civilized nations has done these races any good—it has spoiled them—they have been merely exploited.”

This is only a rough and abbreviated summary of my conversation with Mr. Morris. In the condensed form in which I am obliged to put it, it necessarily loses all the fire and eloquence of the speaker’s own words. His countrymen may regard his doctrines as impracticable and visionary, but there can be no doubt as to the purity and loftiness of the aspiration. “I hold,” he says, “that the abolition of classes would tend to the general elevation of all society ; would be for the good of the upper as well as the lower ; would destroy the precariousness of life now felt by the middle classes as well as others.” Whoever wishes to understand Mr. Morris must bear this in mind : his Socialism is an educational instrument. He would subject every man, woman, and child to the highest, the widest, and the most liberal culture which society could supply, and of which the recipients were capable. Though, as you may think, his views are good only for the world of ideas, there can be no doubt that he is wholly in earnest about them. During the two years which have passed since he declared himself a Socialist, he has been lecturing about the country, in public halls, pot-houses, barns, stables, wherever he can find room to stand in, and anybody to listen to him. His lecture hall at home—3 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, a quiet half-rustic spot, within a few yards of the placid, turbid Thames—is an old stable, which he has comfortably fitted up and completely transformed for its novel purpose. There is more room there for an audience than elsewhere on the premises. Having undertaken his social task, he enters into it with all his might. Not only is he an indefatigable lecturer, he is an omnivorous student of his subject. He has the literature of Socialism at his finger ends. He is the Socialist even in such formalities as the disuse of merely conventional titles. For instance, if you or I should ever become members of some Socialistic society we should drop the “esquire” in writing to him through the penny or half-penny post, and address him simply as William Morris. In the Socialistic system there is no room for esquires, or barons, or grand dukes, but only for “citizens,” “brothers,” “comrades.”

Referring to a report that a schism had just taken place in the Social Democratic Federation, I asked Mr. Morris if it was correct. “Yes,” he replied, “there has been a split, I am sorry to say. Some of us felt that there was an attempt to rule the Social Democratic Federation arbitrarily and to drag it towards political opportunism tinctured with Jingoism. The rent in the body produced by this could not be plastered over, and very unwillingly I have been compelled to take sides and turn one of the seceders. We have formed a new body called the Socialist League, and shall have a paper of our own. We uphold the purest doctrines of scientific Socialism, and shall educate and organize towards the fundamental change in society of which I have spoken. Once more, let me impress this upon you : The working classes must understand that they are not appendages of capital. When the change comes it will embrace the whole of society, and there will be no discontented class left to form the elements of a fresh revolution. This is what I meant when I began by saying that I did not want a mechanical revolution—such as would happen if only a small minority were to overthrow the established government, and attempt to rule by the permanent exercise of mere brute force.”