William Morris

Equality [portions]

It is usual when a Socialist is addressing an audience of those who wish to know what his Socialism means, to touch lightly on the aim that Socialism has in view and to dwell chiefly on the means by which that aim is to be reached. The speaker assumes (usually I am glad to think with reason) that his audience are sufficiently with him to sympathize with his wish to better the present condition of affairs, and are eager to know what process he purposes to them as the means for the bettering of the life of the great mass of the population; it is natural for people to say to an earnest reformer, Tell us what it is that you wish to have done at once, and then we will look at the matter; and all the more natural perhaps when the aim of the speaker is far-reaching and all inclusive, when in fact he is preaching a change in the basis of society and not a mere palliation of its worst evils: because people say, and reasonably, we cannot be expected to change that basis suddenly, to go to sleep on Saturday night in our present condition and wake up on Monday with the revolution accomplished and everything going smoothly with a contented population round about us. There must be a long period of half-formed aspirations, abortive schemes, doubtful experiments, and half and half measures interspersed with disappointment, reaction, and apathy before we get anywhere near the beginning of the obvious and dramatic change which people know as revolution, and it is a matter of course that people should ask the would-be revolutionists what the first step is to be, and that Socialist lecturers generally spend a great part of their lecturing time showing what the first step may be and hold keen argument about it with their audiences.

You cannot however fail to agree with me when I say that not even the first step can be taken until the advocates of a complete change have managed to persuade a sufficient number of people that it is necessary, and should be a change of a certain kind. It is true that there are some people of a timid or very opportunists mind who press on us the necessity of leading people on by little and little, concealing the object they have in view, until people are so far committed to the steps to be taken towards it that they cannot draw back again. We are told, for instance, not to use the word Socialism, but rather to tell people that what we want to lead them into is a kind of advanced democracy and so forth: nay, one quite ingenuous author has even started the curious paradox that it is possible to be a good Socialist and a good Tory at one and the same time.

Now passing by the question whether or not this is quite honest I do not think it is very effective strategy. If you want to convert people to a new and unpopular creed that obviously has no immediate material advantages, no loaves and fishes, to offer, you must not expect at first to get hold of persons whose intelligence is not somewhat above the average; and to such extra intelligent persons your opportunism will be too transparent for deception; so I think it is always best to face the matter from the first, and to say right out that Democracy or Radicalism is not incipient Socialism although the two things have something in common; that it is not a small change in life that we advocate, but a very great one; that Socialism will transform our lives and habits, and leave the greater part of the political social and religious controversies that we are now so hot about forgotten, useless and lifeless like wrecks stranded on a sea-shore...

But remember before I go on that I have just admitted that there must be a transitional period before this ideal can be realized; a transition during which democracy or radicalism will work itself out by performing its ultimate function of getting rid of the fag end of the idea surviving from the epoch before this, the feudal epoch, of a hierarchy of divinely appointed government, which idea takes refuge now in places quite unexpected by the Radicals of 50 years ago in the form of the claim of an aristocracy of intellect to govern the average man for his own good even if he suffers by it...

Having said so much I must now tell you what I mean by equality, so that we may not begin by a misunderstanding. I have advisedly used the phrase equality of condition; for of course I admit that it is [no] more possible that men should be equal in capacity or desires or temperament than that they should be equal in stature or weight: but in fact if there were not this inequality in this sense I doubt if we could have equality of condition; I think in that case we should begin again to create artificial inequalities and so get back to something like our present condition. But the variety of capacity and gifts and to a certain extent of desires is just what will enable us in the long run to live without competition, that is to say without forcibly taking from others to aggrandize ourselves; since if our labour were properly organized it would be easy to produce enough of all ordinary objects of desire to satisfy the needs of all; and as for extraordinary objects of desire the innate variety of disposition would prevent competition when life was easy enough to allow each man to sacrifice something he desired little for something he desired much without forcing someone else to forgo his desire...

As the standard of livelihood rises the difficulty of satisfying its needs by no means rise with it; on the contrary, co-operation gradually increasing, as it makes new objects of desire so it makes it easier to attain them: the savage can keep himself poorly; the civilized workman working under a system of co-operation so involved and elaborate that it is a standing miracle, and aided also by miraculous machinery, besides keeping himself almost as well as the savage, can also keep a queen, a landed aristocracy, a house of lords and commons, an army and navy, annual piratical wars against harmless people capable of being robbed, an Irish constabulary, a Parnell Commission, a great population, in short, of harmful or useless persons, a mass of corruption, luxury, waste and confusion such as the world has never seen before. In sober earnest all these artificial wants and wastes our labour produces, and no man who has ever thought about the matter at all can doubt that a man working in civilization with co-operation and by means of machinery and workshop organization can produce more than enough to keep himself in mere necessaries, or that if his labour were properly organized toward the production of useful things there would be enough wealth produced to enable everyone to live comfortably except those who were criminally idle. If this is the case it is clearly owing to some huge blunder that our present gross inequalities exist; it is owing to the fact that our society has missed the aim of true society, which I must now again assert to be the satisfaction of the wants of everybody in the community in return for the exercise of their faculties for the benefit of the community. Or as the formula of us Communists has it: To every one according to his needs, from everyone according to his capacities.'

... If the present state of society merely breaks up without a conscious effort at transformation, the end, the fall of Europe, may be long in coming, but when it does, it will be far more terrible, far more confused and full of suffering than the period of the fall of Rome...

The inequality of our days differs chiefly in two respects from that of the ancient world: In the first place it is more real and trenchant than that of the ancient and still more of the medieval world: the ancients lived simply, the medievals rudely, but we live delicately and luxuriously: there is far more comfort or luxury to be shared between us all than there was in times past. But this extra wealth is not shared at all amongst the lower classes; the ordinary labourer is in a worse position than a savage living in a good climate; and consequently he is an inferior animal to that savage. On the other hand as far as material advantages go the well-to-do man has advanced enormously on his fore-runners, the citizen of the ancient world and the noble of the medieval world. For the well-to-do man the world has progressed; for the labourer it has not. We have exaggerated inequality; that is the first difference. The second is that the inequality of the older world was arbitrary on the surface. Ours appears at first sight to be the result of natural causes. There is no legal arbitrary obstacle to a labourer raising himself into the privileged class, and this fact is the safety-valve to our society of inequality, which without it would at once explode in mere violence. But this safety-valve is the creation of the ideal of commercial society which puts forward the acquirement of riches as the one aim of life; i.e., bids every man struggle to attain a position of social usefulness as the reward of labour: which means in plain terms that our society ignores all society but that of club law:

That those shall take who have the power

And those shall keep who can.

Now this safety-valve, called in the ignorant illogical sham scientific jargon of the day, the law of the selection of the fittest applied to society, is being at present attacked by the two great forces which rule the world, Necessity and Morality. And I say once more that if we pay no heed to the matter and give it up into the hands of necessity, Society will explode volcanically with such a crash as the world has not yet witnessed.

... where would be all those clevernesses, gifts and virtues on which you much pride yourselves? Among those poor people were, I know, many and many who might not perhaps have been made into great men, but who certainly might have been made into happy and useful ones...

Or do you think, as some do, that it is not ill that a hundred thousand harmless people should be boiled down on the fire of misery to make one single glorious great man? I honestly believe that there are people who are fools enough to think that. I answer plainly, great men are nourished on no such soup, though prigs may be; it is the happiness of the people that produces the blossom of genius. But even if it were so I should say that I would rather have a hundred thousand happy persons than one genius made up of murder...

Necessity on the one hand is as I have said turning the competition of the privileged into combination against the interests of the public, and at the same time in turning the competition of the worker into combination for interests of labour, i.e., all honest men: and on the other hand morality, her eyes cleared by the advance of necessity, is beginning to remember the ancient legend of the first murderer, and the terrible answer to his vile sneer, Am I my brother's keeper?

Bibliographical Note




  1. 30th September 1888 at an open-air meeting of the Clapham Common Branch of the SDF near the millpond on Clapham Common
  2. 18th November 1888 at a meeting sponsored by the Nottingham Socialist Club at the Secular Hall, Beck Street, Nottingham
  3. 25th November 1888 at a meeting sponsored by the Fulham Branch of the SL at the Branch Rooms, 8 Effie Road, Walham Green
  4. 23rd December 1888 at a meeting sponsored by the Hammersmith Branch of the SL at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith
  5. 13th February 1889 at a meeting sponsored by the Edinburgh Branch of the SLL at the Queen Street Hall, Edinburgh
  6. 31st March 1889 at a meeting sponsored by the Southwark and Lambeth Branches of the SDF at the Nelson Coffee Tavern, Westminster Bridge Road, London
  7. 14th April 1889 at the Fulham Liberal Club at Walham Green, London
  8. 9th February 1890 at a meeting sponsored by the Hammersmith Branch of the SL at Kelmscott House