William Morris. Commonweal 1886

Misanthropy to the Rescue

Source: “Misanthropy to the Rescue” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 33, 28 August 1886, p.172;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A paper read by Mr Wordsworth Donnisthorpe at the Fabian Conference has been printed in the Anarchist. It excited much interest at the time when it was read, and aroused no little indignation in the minds of some of the Socialists that heard it; but printed, it does not seem a very remarkable piece, being simple an example of the ordinary pessimistic paradoxical exercises which are a disease of the period, and whose aim would seem to be the destruction of the meaning of language. Thus Mr Donnisthorpe declares himself an evolutionist, but his evolution simply runs round the circle; and in fact what he really means is the ordinary assertion that no condition of things but the present one is really natural and enduring; or, to put it in another way, that slavery is a necessity and that the latest development is the best, as it is the most veiled and therefore the safest for the slave-holder. This is indeed the due conclusion for the secretary of the Liberty and Property Defence League to arrive at; but it is a little curious that some people should have been ensnared by his not very ingenious fallacies, and supposed that he was covertly supporting some advanced doctrine or other. To these I commend his concluding sentences: ‘The best system that I could bethink myself of if my opinion were asked would be the system of private property. To every man the fruits of his labour. If this view was adopted a state of things would arise exactly like what we have now,’ etc. ‘To every man the fruits of his labour.’ Might one make bold to ask Mr Donnisthorpe what are the fruits of the labour of a duke, a shareholder, or a lawyer? The worst enemy of the non-producing classes would scarcely grudge them the fruits of their labour — nothing, to wit. If Mr Donnisthorpe is not misreported, this sentence is a curious one to come from a man who affects such exactness of thought.

But indeed all these abstractions of Donnisthorpe’s are but Politics in the Moon. In spite of his dyspeptic pessimism, human beings will always take interest in one another, and will have some sort of common aspirations; even, what doubtless will be a frightful word to Mr Donnisthorpe, some religion, some bond of responsibility to each other. It is impossible for no other relations between men to exist long save those between the bester and the bested, the slave and the slave-holder; society will arise and grow in spite of all calculations founded on a one-sided view of men’s struggles for self-preservation: nay, it exists now outside the world held together by those arbitrary rules which are sustained for the upholding of private property, and which Mr Donnisthorpe really means when he speaks of liberty; and indeed it is just that rudimentary and as yet vague society of well-wishers, into which people are attracted by the interest in each other as human beings, which holds the world together until it shall be forced into a completer society by the march of economical events. It is true, as Mr Donnisthorpe says, that the working-classes are degraded, though whether they are more degraded than their degraders is another matter; but it is not because they produce that they are degraded, but because they are kept poor by arbitrary rules in favour of property. But poor as they are, they now have before them the prospect of getting poorer, while at the same time they are growing less ignorant; or say the luxury of keeping masters to employ them is getting so expensive that it threatens to ruin both master and man, and that while the masters have no way of escape, the men have a simple one to wit, the getting rid of their masters. This they are beginning to learn and when they get more perfect with their lesson, and come to understand that they can produce without the help of the lookers-on who pocket so large a part of their product, in spite of all abstractions, and in spite also of misanthropical prophecies they will insist on having ‘the fruits of their labour’. Nay, they will be forced to take steps to having them from the breakdown of that very slave-system of which Mr Donnisthorpe is such a sedulous supporter. That slave-system is at best preparing widespread commercial ruin, and thereby is performing the last action that it is capable of; it is expending the last force that it has in giving force to the new order of things, it is putrid, but still useful — as dung.

Let us, then, take to heart some of Mr Donnisthorpe’s taunts, and use them for what they are worth. He tells us in a great many words, considering the simplicity of the statement, that if the workers can take over the artificially protected property of the useless classes they have a right to do so, and sarcastically cheers them on in the attempt. It is our business to accept the challenge; and we may at least thank him for not hypocritically deprecating the use of force as a wickedness and immorality in the ordinary fashion of the day. But though the day of change will come at last, surely it will come the quicker if we take to heart those taunts aforesaid. True it is that it is the surroundings of the workers acting on exactly the same material as that of the useless classes which has produced their degradation; but it is possible for men who have once had a religion implanted in them to make that surrounding overcome the others — at least for the practical purposes of revolution. It has been seen over and over how a religion, a principle — whatever you may chose to call it — will transform poltroons into heroes, by forcing men to make the best of their better qualities and making the excess of what they have got in them that is good supply the defects of their lacking qualities. So I think we may, in spite of Mr Donnisthorpe, each one of us make ourselves good enough for revolutionists, though in this generation we may fall short of perfection. Yet I admit that it is a difficult thing to do, for it means giving a sense of responsibility in greater or less degree to a great many people; so once more let as take warning by the enemy, and remember that the Religion of Socialism which our manifesto speaks of does call us to be better than other people, since we owe ourselves to the society which we have accepted as the hope of the future.