William Morris

The Class Struggle, as reported in the Leeds Mercury



The CHAIRMAN said he accepted the position in which he found himself because he felt it was only right that any one who had sympathy with the great movement of the present day should express that sympathy in a public manner. Perhaps there might be many who looked with suspicion upon a Christian minister occupying such a position. but he should like to say that it was because he was a Christian that he occupied the chair. The motto of Christianity, as it related to our social life, was gathered up in the words of the Apostle, "Bear ye one another's burdens." That, as he understood it, was also the motto of the socialistic movement. He did not think that the time had arrived when we could formulate schemes for the renovation of society; this was the day when principles should be enunciated, and when people should be educated to recognise the social wrongs which undoubtedly existed, and also the great principles of truth and righteousness and brotherhood. If they could only get a grip of the principles which underlay the social problems, and of the great idea of human brotherhood, schemes would in due time be developed for righting the wrong and ushering in the true and the good. His presence did not commit him to any of the schemes formulated by any of the socialistic parties, but indicated his deep sympathy with those who were striving to bring about the day when injustice and wrong aid tyranny would be swept away, and when human brotherhood would not be a dream of the ages, but a realised fact. (Applause.)

Mr. Morris, who was received with applause, said that in the phrase "the class struggle" was involved not merely what was now called Socialism, but the whole of the progress of mankind from savagery to civilisation. Socialism was to-day in a very different position to what it was even seven or eight years ago. At that time, before Socialists began to make a stir, it was assumed that in this country at all events there were no grievances that could be called class grievances, it was supposed that the worker would progress from the condition in which he then was - that, in point of fact, he was progressing; but nobody seemed to have any idea that he might progress as a working man, because he was a working man, and because he belonged to a class that was in opposition to another class. At that time nobody, unless he had studied Socialism from a Continental point of view, had any idea that there was or could be any possibility of change in the economical relations of men. He dare say it was admitted by some people that amongst the workers there was a good deal of suffering, but, as a rule, the idea certainly was that whatever suffering prevailed was not owing to the essentials of their position, but to the accidental defects of some of the men themselves. It was supposed that it was possible for a painstaking, careful, and perhaps rather stingy working man to raise himself oat of the working class and become a member of the dominant class. But that implied an entire ignoring of anything like classes in the community. It was thought that society had at last crystallised into its present form - the capitalist employer and the propertyless wages-earning worker - and that not only was that the existing condition of things, but that there never had been any other condition. This view had been roughly shaken. It was now admitted, tacitly or otherwise. that the workers were a class apart, that they had definite claims on society, and that those claims involved the bettering of the whole class of workers as a class. It was becoming clear also that in the bettering of the working class society would be much altered, and that alteration was necessarily in the direction of Socialism. It was beginning to be seen that the crystallisation into the condition of capitalist employer and wages-earner was not a crystallisation to endure for ever, but that it must take another form - that the division of classes must be altogether got rid of. He was inclined to think that there would come another stage in the evolution of Socialism, in which those very people who admitted that Socialism was inevitable would do their best to resist it. As Socialism drew near, and as it began to seem to have some practical bearing upon life, so evasions of the direct consequences of those admissions became more the rule amongst those classes who thought they had any reason to fear the change. Evasions were even now diligently sought for by the classes who lived on the misery of the workers. The practical form which those evasions took was to try and push another class between the propertyless workers and their employers, to get more and more people interested in the present rights of property, so that there might be a broader basis for property to stand upon. Evasion was spoken of as the amelioration of the lot of the workers. There was the attempt to promote peasant proprietorship. An attempt was to be made to turn the present tenant-farmers of Ireland into peasant proprietors - to burden them with a debt which would increase their misery, for the peasant proprietor invariably got into the grasp of compound interest, and when he did that he was ruined horse and foot for ever more. The allotment system was another mean evasion. It was founded on the idea that when an agricultural labourer had been working as hard as he could all day he would be fit to give the dregs of his bodily capacity to cultivating a little plot of land tor himself, and it was supposed that would stop his mouth. The next evasion was the limitation of the hours of labour. That was a good thing in itself, but if they put forward a limitation of the ordinary workman's labour day as a substitute for the actual rights that he could claim as the producer in society, they were simply dragging a red herring across the track of Progress. Then there was co-operation - not a bad thing in itself - and efforts such as those of the young gentlemen who were setting to work to teach art and history to the starvelings of the East of London. Again, there was their old friend the preacher of thrift. It was a strange thing to preach thrift to people who could not thrive. What was meant, however, was that such people should pinch and starve themselves, It was hoped that the result of these and similar things would be a prosperous class of workers who would be the tools of the dominant class, and who, having a little property of their own, would be able to keep down the propertyless proletariat - Bright's residuum; that was to say, the foundation of the whole of modern society. All that was a very hopeless business as far as regarded the improvement of the lot of the working class. There was an old proverb, "Dear is the collop that is cut from one's own flesh." The working class could not be raised at their own expense any more than one could give one's self back the watch that had been stolen by the highwayman. All that sort of thing did not mean Socialism. nor any approach to it, because Socialism was this, that people shall work for themselves and administer for themselves, and that every State shall include the whole people, and not be composed of two classes, the governing and the governed. Those evasions were really the last resource of the monopolists; and would that stand of monopoly in its last ditch succeed? He said no; it was too late. A hundred years ago some of those things might have staved off Socialism, but now they would be nothing more than an additional bait and attraction for carrying Socialism through. Moreover they would the better enable the working class to carry Socialism through. All such attempts to dish the Socialists would, he said, come to nothing. Let them look at Germany. The Emperor was becoming a sort of State Socialist; but what had been the result of his "dishing" process ? An increase of the Socialist party in the Reichstag. How could the working men of this and all other countries be as well off as it was possible for them to be? By carrying this class struggle, which had been going on for centuries, to the bitter end - by abolishing all classes whatsoever. At present widespread misery sat side by side with an enormously improved standard of life, which the whole of society could rise to if society were only properly organised. In order to affect a remedy for the evils prevailing it was necessary that the raw material and the tools of labour should change owners; that instead of being owned by a certain portion of the population, which he would take the liberty of calling the useless class, they should be owned by the useful class - that was to say, by the whole population turned into useful members of the community. Throughout the whole class struggle there had been an oppression of the useful class by the useless, and also a resistance of that oppression. What was the function of the workers? To labour for production. And what was the function of the masters, the privileged class? To waste the labour of the producers. Would that condition of things exist any longer than the useful class could help it? The useful class would find out one of these days that they could prevent it, and that would mean that they would prevent it. Every gain by the workers could only be effected by the destruction of a piece of privilege. Privilege meant the useless living on the useful and keeping them poor; and that could only be done by a set of men usurping the functions of government, and governing, not for the benefit of all, but for the benefit of the few; and so long as that was the case he said the business of all honest men was rebellion against the governing class. Who had won all we were so proud of in this country? the respectable men, the people who sat at home and were contented with things as they were? He thought not. They were won by those who were called rebels. He said let us praise those famous men and the fathers that begat us. There was more than one way of rebelling. He was not so stupid as to advise them to knock their heads against a stone wall. He did not mean that they should go into the street and create a riot, or anything of the sort. In spite of the intricacy and cultivation and refinement of society, it was guarded on every side by unadulterated brute force. The rougher ways of the old time were not so possible as they were; and as far as the working classes were concerned, if they ever did rebel in that sense of the word, they would be driven to do so; they would not begin using brute force, but their masters would use it, and the people would be obliged to defend themselves, and he hoped they would do it well. Many people might think "the longest way round the shortest way there." The attacking of privilege at all points, the constant harassing of the monopolist capitalists by strikes and Trades Unions, the sacred boycott, bold speech where necessary, and the endurance of a fine and imprisonment - those things perhaps might do what musketry could not do. They had this advantage, that they could not be met by mere brute force. The spirit of a man who was prepared to undergo everything in the cause of freedom could not be subdued. Let them remember this, that however that rebellion was undertaken, two things must necessarily go with it. In the first place, there must be discontent with the wrong which they knew could be remedied; and in the second place there must be the union of all the intelligence of the useful classes. The Chartists had a plan for proclaiming a universal strike. In these days anything approaching a universal strike would be absolutely impossible. What was the hinge that labour depended upon at present? Coal-mining. They therefore knew how they could enforce their claims - that was to say, by a strike of the coal-miners of the United Kingdom. backed by all the intelligence of labour. That was one of the possible instruments of the rebellion which was perhaps not so far ahead of us (Applause.)

A number of questions having been asked and answered, a vote of thanks was accorded to the lecturer and the Chairman, and the proceedings terminated. There was not a very numerous attendance.


The Class Struggle (as reported by The Leeds Mercury)


  1. 13th October, 1889, to the Hammersmith Club (scheduled)
  2. 10th November, 1889, at the Lower Concert Hall, Lord Nelson Street, Liverpool
  3. 30th November, 1889, to the Manchester Social Democratic Club at the Secular Hall, Rusholme Road, Manchester
  4. 11th March, 1890, to the Leicester Branch of the SL at the Co-operative Hall, High Street, Leicester
  5. 25th March, 1890, to a meeting sponsored by Leeds socialists at the Grand Assembly Rooms, Leeds (this version)


The Leeds Mercury, Wednesday 26 March, 1890, p.8

Morris's own notes for this talk have not been preserved.

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, July 2020.

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