William Morris. Commonweal 1889

The Lesson of the Hour

Source: “The Lesson of the Hour” Commonweal, Vol 5, No. 191, 7 September 1889, p.281-282;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The labour revolt in the East-end, whatever the result of the dock-labourers’ strike may be, will leave a lasting impression behind it, at least on the working men. The wiseacre Norwood, in his speech of Tuesday last, made the very remarkable discovery that ‘the strike was aimed at capital and employers generally’, and seemed to think that this discovery was a set-off against his other shortcomings.

As matter of fact, it is just this element of conscious or semi-conscious attack on the slave-drivers generally which distinguishes this strike from the ordinary trades-union bickerings. These latter, as individual struggles, have been usually little more than business disputes between the two parties to a contract, recognized as such by both parties to it. But this is a revolt against oppression: a protest against the brute force which keeps a huge population down in the depths of the most dire degradation, for the benefit of a knot of profit-hunters; and there is no doubt that nothing except the physical force of the executive which is, as it were, keeping the ring in this fight between the public and the shareholders, prevents the revolt from achieving far more success than the attainment of its immediate and declared aims.

In short, other strikes have been, on the surface, strikes of the business-accessories of the factory against its financial managers; this is a strike of the poor against the rich.

Let us hope that those of the respectable classes who have so loudly expressed sympathy with the strikers understand this: because if they do, it gives us a dawning hope that they will be prepared to meet us half-way when the crisis comes, when the workmen have come to understand definitely their full claim. For indeed they may be sure that this will be the only way to prevent those terrors which haunt the dreams of the useless rich; it will be worth more to the pleasure of their lives than all the array of brute force, which they will certainly not always be able to depend upon; since, after all, that force is necessarily made up of men who are workmen forced by ill-luck into the ranks of the soldiery and the police.

As Burns hinted when the Guards passed the meeting on Tower Hill the other day, they who are now hapless tools of the rich will presently become their hapless slaves once more, as they were before they put on their livery-coats.

Meantime, do not let us deceive ourselves as to the amount and quality of this respectable sympathy. We will not be ungenerous; we are quite sure that with many of the well-to-do the sympathy is genuine; that the horrible poverty of the East-end workers (and how many thousands outside the East-end) has touched their hearts; and these people will become Socialists of some kind before the end. But I fear they are in the minority among the respectables (or rather I know it) and that the rest have been rather cowed into silence, or into venting their irritation against the strike, by falling foul of Norwood and his gang; who, after all, are only following the necessary custom of the whole gang.

If this were not so, why do not the subscriptions to the strike fund amount to 20,000 or 30,000 instead of what they amount to now? They are workmen’s pennies, somewhat eked out by contributions from a few of the better off; mostly those who can least afford it.

One word about the withdrawn manifesto of the Strike Committee. It was to have been expected that it would be attacked furiously by the capitalist press, but it was not to be expected that any calling themselves Socialists should have attacked it; and it is most lamentable that they should have done so, as they may perhaps see by the avidity with which their opinions were recorded by the capitalist press. For us surely the mere fact that it was thought possible to bring about a general strike in London remains the central point in the history of the strike; let us hope that the aspiration toward the use of such an effective weapon against Capital may remain in the minds of the more considerate of the workers and bring forth fruit before long.

‘A good man will be contented fast enough if he be fed and clothed sufficiently; but if a man be not well fed and clad, he is a base wretch to be contented.’ So says William Cobbett, and certainly the strikers might have one more banner with this inscription written on it. We have learned a good deal since William Cobbett’s time, and some of us have become very ‘refined’ indeed; but still on this foundation of victuals and shelter without anxiety must you build ‘refinement’ and all.

Those who are ‘discontented’ on the grounds given by Cobbett, know all about the meaning of that phrase so often used, ‘insufficiency of food and shelter'; and I am afraid it says little for the keenness of imagination at the present day, that those who have not suffered the insufficiency have so very little an idea of what it means. From that unimaginative content of the well-to-do comes all that covert hatred of the poor as inconvenient people, which is so common amongst us, and will one day (who can doubt it?) be so bitterly revenged.

This is the cause of the filling of the jails with manufactured criminals, a sort of criminal capital to be used for the production of more criminals; the preaching of thrift to people earning precarious starvation wages; the horrors of the workhouse, where poverty is punished for being poor; the horrors of the slum, which mocks the beauty of the earth outside the city, and the attempt to get rid of which is thrust aside as an insoluble problem; while all sorts of miracles, chemical, mechanical, and what not, are being invented for the benefit of capitalistic man, each one of them a million times more difficult than the due feeding and housing of all industrious persons. — If we could but once have the wits to cease oppressing others for our own discomfort.

One thing is to me certain, that anyone of the well-to-do class whose imagination is sufficiently touched for him to have a vision of poverty and to gain an inkling of what it means, must either become a Socialist of some sort, or else join Mr Justice Stephen’s Religion of Inhumanity; and rather than that they had better, for their own sakes, have been knocked on the head while they were young enough to be innocent of cynicism at least. I say to all rich men, ‘Once feel what poverty is, and you must either be a socialist or a cruel tyrant conscious of your tyranny’. Are there such men? I should hope only a very few, and that the rest who sin against the people do so out of sheer stupidity.

The Great Strike does seem (as such things sometimes will) to have enlightened these last a little, to have touched their sluggish imaginations. If that could last, it would be something of a gain if there were no other. Yet I cannot help thinking that fear was an element of that enlightenment, at all events with many.

Meantime, surely a man of any imagination must have felt both puzzled and disgusted at the sentences on the men for intimidation. Here was the public sympathizing with the efforts of the men to gain a better livelihood, and scolding at their immediate tyrants the Dock Companies; and yet through their magistrates and police-courts these very same sympathizers were punishing the strikers for doing what was necessary to carry on the strike. And this although the capitalist papers — eg., the Daily News — admitted that the intimidation was probably merely formal, and that the men were quite willing to accept the intimidation as an excuse for coming out. Certainly hypocrisy is a very useful — virtue — and one cannot wonder that it is so sedulously cultivated in the first commercial country, the most practical people in the world.

The recovery of trade, the cessation of depression, has been crowed over considerably of late; and some persons, both foes and friends, have seen in it the herald of the disappearance of Socialism; a most stupid assumption, and on the part of friends most cowardly, as has been pointed out in these columns a week or two back. But in any case a full recovery of trade to the period of Mr Gladstone’s ‘leaps and bounds’ is a very unlikely event. Even now in the full flush of the ‘recovery’ we find the cotton-trade in a disastrous condition; Blackburn, e.g., which but less than a year ago, was, as I was told when there, doing as brisk a business as might be, now shutting up mills on all hands.

By all means no fatalistic folding of the hands for Socialists! Let us go on with our work as briskly as possible, whatever temporary discouragements we may meet with. But this we may be sure of: first, that modern capitalism is doomed to destroy itself; and secondly, that no new form of capitalism can arise from its ashes: that nothing but Socialism can arise from them.