William Morris. Commonweal. 1889

Whigs Astray [1]

Source: “Whigs Astray” [1] Commonweal, Vol 5, No. 158, 19 January 1889, p.18-19;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A Dialogue Between Owen Marx Bakounine Jones, an architect (unsuccessful), and — the Rev. Swain Stride, a Nonconformist parson, and Mr Jeremiah Brown, a business man — advanced Radicals.

Scene — A comfortable batchelor-looking room in Mr Brown’s house, with tobacco and pipes and grog to the fore. Mr Stride and Mr Brown sitting on either side o f the fire, looking important and self-satisfied. Enter to them Mr Jones with an ill-concealed grin on his face; after the usual greetings he sits down and says:

Jones. Well, Mr Brown, here I am, ready to hear what you have to say to me, and eager to know what puts you into such good spirits this evening, as you obviously are in.

Brown. Well, we are; we have been talking about matters that make us hopeful.

J. I am glad of that. I see so many doleful faces nowadays, that it does me good to see two cheerful ones, especially as finials to two such pinnacles of the temple as a parson and a man of business.

Stride. I don’t like you to call me a parson, Jones. I am none of your priests; and really I think you know me well enough not to set me down as a relation of Chadband. You know very well that what I'm really interested in is politics, and practical at that; and that I want them to be discussed without fear or favour; so knowing you for a cantankerous Socialist, I asked Brown to ask you to come here to-night.

J. Thank you for the compliment — and also for your company: you want to cheer me up, which is kind of you. But you know how curious I am; what can it be? It can’t be politics, for things are looking rather blue for your side of the house. Is business beginning to boom, Brown? Have you been speculating in a gold-mine which is turning up trumps, Stride?

B. Well, perhaps business is a thought better. But that’s nor it. You see-

S. (interrupting.) It so happens that you are out about it’s not being politics. Brown and I think matters are looking much more hopeful of late.

J. Indeed! And now I look at you, there is something portentous about your cheerfulness. What’s up? Are you going to turn Tory-Democrats, the last refuge for the desperately hopeful? Or does the Salvation Army raise your spirits? Have you got another Gordon on hand to put a stop to war by cutting down the fruit-trees on which potential warriors live, and to put a stop to slavery by killing the niggers before they can be made slaves of? Are you civilizing Africa?

S. Now don’t you be offensive about Gordon: you know I'm dead against the whole nigger-slaying business.

J. Yes, but somewhat in favour of the Christian-hero pest. But let that pass. Is Lord Salisbury dead? Don’t be too glad of it; it won’t do you Liberals much good. Vic can truly say with King Harry in ‘Chevy Chase’,

‘I trust I have within my realm
An hundred good as he.’

S. (laughing.) Hear the spite of the Tory-Democrat!

J. (severely.) Don’t call bad names, Stride!

B. (anxiously.) No, but ain’t you a Tory-Democrat, Jones? Stride always calls you one.

J. Yes, that comes of his innate wisdom, that does not need vulgar information. I am not a Tory-Democrat, Brown.

B. What are you then? Because -

S. (interrupting.) Come, let’s be serious, Jones. You know I'm really a practical Socialist.

J. Indeed I did not know it. May I ask -

S. (interrupting.) No, please don’t interrupt me! I say I am a practical Socialist; and yet I cannot be one of your hard-shell Socialists, with your impossible nostrums of the abolition of capital and railways, and your preposterous ideals of communism and equality; and your false political economy, dead in the teeth of all the accurate thinkers of the day, such as Mill and Tennyson and Ricardo and Swinburne, and — and — Lord Rosebury and Auberon-Herbert. But yet, you see, I was bothered that there should be no true Socialist party that I could work with heartily; and now I really think that we are getting one, and I've got out a sort of manifesto of it: indeed, there it lies on the table now.

J. And you have asked Brown to ask me here to cheer me up with it? How kind of you. Is it in print?

S. No; but any Radical paper will print it.

J. Well, well, things are getting on fast. And is Brown a member of the new party? Are you a Socialist, Brown?

B. Well, where’s the harm of a name? Stride and I thought-

S. (interrupting.) We don’t call ourselves Socialists, of course.

J. No, of course not.

S. We call ourselves Advanced Liberals or Radicals.

J. (with preternatural gravity.) Hah! But is that such a great invention in the way of names?

S. That’s just the beauty of it.

J. I grant you the beauty of it must be there — or nowhere.

S. Pray be serious, and don’t interrupt!

B. I assure you, Jones -

S. (interrupting.) We are Socialists who don’t set class against class, which I think is downright wickedness.

J. (softly.) Let the galled jade wince, my withers are unwrung! The ages have done all that for me.

S. (taking up a paper from the table.) Nevertheless we have a clear, definite Creed, which I will now lay before you, Jones

J. Ah, now I see what makes you look so happy! You are Radicals who have been searching for the planks of your platform, and you think you have discovered the necessary timber — (sotto voce) all out of your own heads.

S. (hurriedly, and not listening.) Yes, that’s it. Now look here, this is the preamble. (Reads.)It is always foolish and wicked to set class against class, but the time has come for a resolute forward movement in favour of the toilers of our streets and fields. Legislation cannot do much to make the weak strong, to make the poor rich, to make the miserable happy; but it can keep off the greedy hand, and shield the helpless from oppression. It can help the poor to help themselves. It can break down legalized monopoly. It can clear the road by sweeping away many hindrances in the path of men without influence. It can give the poor “the benefit of the doubt.” It can help the wage-earner to give his child a chance. 1t can provide something better than the workhouse for old men and women whose strength is spent and whose friends are gone.’

J. It is nicely written, Stride, and I'm sure that you mean well, so far as you know how to; but you are deceiving yourself. How can legislation do all these things with one hand, while with the other it is engaged upholding that very monopoly (do you know what monopoly is, my friend?) of which the poor and their terrible needs are a necessary result? It exists to support the greedy hand; it exists for oppression, and when ceases to oppress will cease to exist. This is a riddle you cannot rede till you know a little more.

S. Well, well, that’s only the preamble. Wait a bit! Our first plank is, ‘Government by the people, for the people, in the interests of the people’.

J. If the people govern themselves for themselves and in their own interest, there will be nothing but themselves: is that so? Can it be so while the present system lasts, reformed or not? Your first plank is not a plank, but a phrase, and a phrase without meaning. As long as there are rich men nursed up at the expense of the people they will govern us for their interest, whatever the machinery of their government may be. Meantime the people is but the material for the feeding of the rich.

S. Well, this next is a plank, at all events: ‘The State should as far and as fast as possible delegate to each locality the rights of self-government, and should encourage and protect them in the use of such rights.’ There!

J. County Councils, eh? A Tory measure; and properly so. Bodies with feeble administrative powers in themselves; mere machinery in the hands of the central government; good to strengthen that by doing its dirty work and appearing responsible for it, while in reality they are responsible for nothing. That is what you mean by self-government. If you were to mean more your plank would be a plank to be walked by the present society; for when the State has delegated all its powers what is the good of it, and what shall we do with it?

S. Hilloa! Since when have you turned Anarchist?

J. Don’t use words you don’t understand. But go on.

S. ‘We should lift the burdens as far as possible from the shoulders of the struggling classes’ -

J. Stop a bit! That’s good! as far as possible is a good phrase. No Tory could object to that plank so far. Well, where are you going to put these burdens when you have lifted them as far as possible? I suspect back again.

S. We would ‘put them to a greater extent on the shoulders of those who toil not, but without toiling have enough and to spare’.

J. Well, that I call a great invention; only it smacks somewhat of going about to get something out of nothing. For how the devil can those who toil not (ie., produce nothing) have enough and to spare — unless they steal it? In short, your struggling classes are too poor to pay taxes; that you admit (and by the admission admit also that the whole of the middle-classes or well-to-do are thieves). So you are going to set the other classes to steal from the poor, in order that the taxes may be duly paid. That will bring about no new blessing for the struggling classes; they enjoy it already.’

S. You needn’t talk nonsense! ‘We believe in a graduated income-tax and graduated death-dues.’

J. Just so: to be paid by those who have no income but what they steal. Here is a pretty outcome of ‘the career open to talent’, which I believe is still the great maxim of the Radicals. Certainly I need not talk nonsense.

S. Now listen! ‘We are in favour of a reform of the poor-laws.’

J. Gently, gently!

S. ‘It is of course necessary to watch carefully lest the path to the poor’s purse or the poor’s house should not become too easy.’

J. Stop! Do you know why it is necessary?

S. No.

J. Of course, no. Why (also of course), because the share of the national purse which the poor get by working hard is only just enough to give them a most miserable life. So that if you did not make the path to that palace of bliss, the poor-house, a hard one, that kingdom of heaven would be taken by storm.

S. Well, ‘At any rate that is no reason why the hopelessly beaten in the battle of life should be penned up like criminals’.

J. Excuse me: it is the reason.

S. ‘In any case the neglect of poor old people in England is almost our greatest sin and shame.’

J. The sentiment does honour to your heart: but you are too sensitive: there are plenty of sins and shames quite as bad; the neglect of worn-out workers is a natural consequence of the career open to talent according to the doctrine of private property.

S. Well, now I have begun, I suppose I must go on. But how cantankerous you are!

J. I flatter myself I am. But go on, pray.


1. The portions of this dialogue between the single ‘quotes’ are taken from a genuine document — ‘A Radical’s Creed’, by John Page Hopps, in the Pall Mall Gazette of Dec. 10th, 1888.