William Morris

Socialism up-to-date

I want to begin at the beginning, and in order to do so will ask you first if you think any thing needs setting right in our modern Society. You living in one of the great centres of industry will hardly answer that question in the negative. Let us look at it. You here present I may assume mostly live by doing work of some kind; but whatever that work may be I may further assume that that work does not procure for you a life as full of opportunities for enjoyment, for the satisfaction of your manly and reasonable desires as the work of many others, which is not more useful than yours. Still stranger the idleness of many procures them more enjoyment, more refinement of life than your work procures for you. In short men's share of the necessities comforts, luxuries of life is by no means proportioned to the share they have had in producing those good things. Those who produce nothing are often, nay most commonly, in a position of ease and comfort, while those who produce at least something most commonly lead a hard life; a life in which refinement is almost impossible, and in [which] self-respect can can only can only be attained by the exercise of moral qualities above the average, by resolute and painful struggle; so that those who are not above the average must be said to live a life of degradation; and I must add that these, the average producers of wealth, are immensely more numerous than those who live pleasant and dignified lives either because of the accident of their birth or because of their special and peculiar merits.

Now this is not a state of things to be contented with, unless it can be proved to be irremediable. It is impossible for those who suffer by it to be contented, unless their natural human feelings are blunted by habit and ignorance. It is impossible again for those who look on this suffering to be contented with it, if it can be remedied unless their feelings are blunted by habit or ignorance, or unless the fear of the consequences of a remedy makes them consciously unjust and tyrannical. Indeed though it is necessary for my argument to state all this, it is not necessary for me to dwell on it, because it is practically admitted nowadays, and remedies for it are being sought for both by those who suffer from it, and those whose position inflicts that suffering. Now a days it would take a bold man (and a stupid one) to assert that it is right and convenient that the average producers of wealth, the great mass of the workers should live a painful and degraded life. Even the owners of mere chattel-slaves have in recent times thought it necessary to cover their monstrous position by asserting that those slaves lived lives that were happy if not dignified; and the blessings of irresponsible poverty have been sung and said in verse and prose for many a year by rich men and their dependents, who if the said blessings had been showered on their own heads would have thought them little better than a violent death. And as you well know while I speak 'the amelioration of the lot of the working classes' is, or seems to be if we may trust [their] words, the main object of our statesmen, clergy and employers of labour. —If it were only the main object of the working classes themselves there would be nothing lacking to the equipment of modern society for building its own funeral pyre which shall transform it into a society of useful and happy persons unoppressed by any wrongs, and without opportunities for arranging others.

The evils then (or some of them) of our present society are recognized by all classes of men more or less; surely less by the workers themselves than by any other class or they would soon cease to exist as I have just hinted. Are any remedies for these evils proposed? Are there any commonly received suggestions for putting the useful part of society in the way of gaining the due heritage of useful men, of which they are at present deprived? There are many such suggestions afloat, put forward with more or less sincerity; of which the following may serve as types: working-men should have fewer children; they should spend less money on such pleasures (poor enough I admit) as may be within their reach; they should join a certain class of joint-stock commercial undertakings, technically known as cooperative societies; they should emigrate to other countries, where (until they largely take this advice) there is more room for them; they should be more industrious; they should spend more time in educating themselves or they should furnish their houses with taste and refinement — and so on and so forth. Now of these things some are good if they could be done; some most workmen do already do perforce; and some they by no means ought to do — But good bad or indifferent these kind of proposed remedies have one quality in common they all mean the expenditure of energy, none can be done without expense, and the expense of them is to fall upon the working men themselves; from their poverty is this new wealth to be drawn; from their toilsome days is the new leisure to be won; from their sordid lives is to spring the refinement of a new world; from their degradation is to come heroism unsurpassed before — Vain dreams! The crimes of civilization cannot be atoned for on such easy terms. Or to put it in another way all the remedies of this kind assume that the useful classes who are oppressed by our system of society shall still go on serving the useless classes who oppress them. They shall be thrifty, self-restrained, refined, educated in a word heroic — and slaves — a preposterous contradiction. Indeed I fear that when I said these remedies are put forward with any sincerity, that sincerity is not of the hard-headed ones; they surely must know that the serious decrease in the population of this country would ruin our capitalists whose profits are essentially the result of there being more workers than work: that a labouring man must be niggardly, which with a very significant misuse of the word, they call thrifty. That if the mass of working men got any benefit from so called cooperation, competition for employment would cause a fall in wages about proportionate to that benefit; that taste and refinement in our surroundings cost time labour and thought, i.e. wealth. These things they cannot fail to know if they think of them, and knowing them must be well aware if they do not shirk the question that these remedies for poverty are futile when they are not impossible for poor men to seek. Yet I suppose some men of the richer classes looking at the growing discontent have an indistinct hope that it may be possible to create another class below the present middle-class, but above the mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, which shall serve as a rampart for the present society with its inequalities and injustices — and that this may be done mainly at the expense of the producing classes. I hope that it will turn out to be impossible; but there is a danger that it may succeed: but alas if it does it will be no remedy for the vices of our society, since the burden of oppression will only be shifted, not destroyed. Well these would be remedies the proposal of which is but mere evasion, consciously so on the part of some, unconsciously so on the part of more, are not real remedies; is there any other remedy proposed. Yes a change in the basis of society which would make all people useful and all people wealthy. This change has been called and well called Socialism, because those who wish to bring it about understand that it means the organization of mankind into a true society beneficent and all-embracing; whereas at present the greater part and more useful part are as we have seen outcasts from society. Now as to the change in the basis; the present society is based on privilege, while true society will be based on equality. These two words are soon said, but need some explanation of the sense in which they are used — Privilege which once meant the hereditary right to a certain position of trust in the state involving certain duties to the citizens, has since the complete abolition of the feudal system and the establishment of the commercial system of capitalist and wage-earner on its ruins a changed and extended meaning. It now means the legal right of any one who by skill cunning or chance has organized more wealth than he can spend on his personal necessities or pleasures to the absolute ownership of a portion of the raw materials and implements through which alone labour can be made fruitful. And this privilege, unlike that of the feudal period which it has superseded, involves the privileged person in no responsibility whatsoever. This modern privilege will be seen when looked into to confer on the rich classes the monopoly of the means of the production of wealth. Now no man, be he never so deft a workman can produce anything without raw material and the instruments of labour or to particularize, without the land, rendered fertile by countless generations of labour, and the machinery and means of transit, the cost of which our elaborate civilization forces upon us. Therefore the man whose sole wealth consists in the power of labour inherent in his own body, including the brain, and is therefore forced to labour in order to live, must get leave from the privileged class to use some part of the aforesaid raw material and instruments of labour before he can strike a single stroke for his livelihood. This leave the privileged will grant him, but only on certain conditions, to wit that he shall produce by his labour more than is necessary for his own livelihood, and that all that he produces beyond his livelihood shall be the tribute of privilege. Thus therefore a man must always be poor: he has full leave to prosper if he can but not as a mere producer; in order to prosper he must become part and lot in[1] the privilege which has oppressed him, and in some degree or other oppress others by the same process.

Now note carefully about this bargain between monopoly and labour 1st that it is a forcible one, that it is a bargain between irresponsible riches on one side and hunger on the other. 2nd That the weight of its burden on the shoulders of the worker has been somewhat lightened in the course of time in some cases by the fact that the standard of livelihood does sometimes imply something more than mere base necessaries. But 3rd note further that this higher standard has been attained by the strenuous struggles of the useful classes against the useless; and yet 4th in spite of that struggle the standard of livelihood is generally lowest in those groups of labourers who are engaged in the usefullest labour; as e.g. the field labourer and the fisherman are forced to put up with a lower standard than the cabinet-maker and the jeweller. And I wish you to note this that you may the better appreciate the iron tyranny of the machine of modern commerce, which turns aside for no sense of cruel unfairness; is shaken by no monstrosity of unfitness — Those above-mentioned groups are not worse paid than the producers of luxuries because they are less useful; for they are more useful; not because they are less skilled; for they are not — but because of the accident of their not being able to combine so effectively as the town workmen: because in short they are ill-armed and ill organized parts of the army which is carrying on the labour war. Let the workmen remedy this shame and see that men like these and the coal miners of these islands shall be the best organized and not the worst of the labour-army. I hope etc.[2] Meantime note again that the reason why the workers cannot at once compel better terms from the privileged, is that since they are so poor and must at once work if they are not to become mere paupers, and since their number is so great, they compete for the labour offered them on the terms above-stated, and this competition for daily bread enables the privileged who employ them to carry on the commercial war with each other which is almost their only occupation. This is an explanation of what I said just now of the bargain being between hunger and riches; this competition for daily bread is the weapon which hunger has forged for the use of the privileged. Another point I wish especially to dwell on before I sum up the case of the socialists against the society of [the] privileged. I want you to be quite clear about this, that the extra wealth which the privileged wring from the un-privileged classes goes no good road. The capital, or wealth used for the reproduction of wealth in their hands is not only used alas for the continued thralldom of the unprivileged but a great part disappears in the waste caused by various forms of commercial war. E.g. advertisements, clerks, ticket-collectors lawyers and the like. But you may well ask, that part of this riches which they spend on their own personal comforts and pleasures, is not that harmlessly spent? I must needs answer no. Once more the greater part of the riches so consumed is not used, but wasted. I ask any man of sense who knows the life of the wealthy middle class and upper class in civilization if it is not true that beyond a certain point all their expenditure is on things that give them no pleasure at all: that the wealth so spent adds nothing to the refinement, to the dignity or the pleasure of life: that it is simply got rid of because it must be got rid of somehow. Just as if it were burned on a great bonfire. But perhaps some of you may think that this waste though undoubtedly injurious to the wasters is of some advantage to the producers who are 'employed' by it. There is just this amount of truth in that view, that this waste of the rich is necessary grist to the great profit-grinding mill, and under the system of commercial privilege the workers would not be employed unless the mill ground. The workers are too poor to employ the workers, and the rich must do that or employment will fall very short indeed. Thus we go round the vicious circle, 1st employment for the production of useless things; then production of useless things in order that employment may not fall short. Is not this of the very essence of waste? Tell me I pray you what is more precious, what is more necessary to the progress of the world than the skill and force of the workman, the craftsman which is most truly the heritage handed down to us by countless years of tradition. Yet this precious heritage our society of commercial privilege wastes light heartedly as if it were a part of the nature of things to make the worst of that which is the best of things, the token and rewards of the world's progress, the hope of its future.

Now then to sum up against the society of Privilege the Society of today. It divides the whole population into 2 classes, the useful and the useless: it makes the useful the slaves of the useless: as must always be the case in a society in which there are slaves. Not only that, but it has a tendency to make all people useless by wasting the labours of the workers; which once more must always be the case in a society which includes nonworkers, since the measure of labour must be taken from the production of real necessities for all and be expended on the production of luxuries for the few worse than useless men for them.

And the machinery by which this system is built up and sustained is the monopoly by riches of the means of production of wealth. That is the producers must pay tribute before they are allowed to produce.

I bring this indictment against the society of today, that it is no real society but a band of robbers brooding on the wealth produced by others determined to make and keep the useful as outcasts from society. A false society which reverses the use of true society whose aim is to make the most of the earth's resources. A false society which needs artificial famines in the richest countries in the world.

Thus far then I have tried to explain to you the meaning of that word privilege, which expresses the evil the terrible human blunder on which our society of inequality is formed. Now let us explain what that equality means which Socialism proposes as the basis of the future society and which will be its basis.

Here doubtless I shall be met on the threshold by the objection that men are not and cannot be equal. True, or else I should not have to explain the word Equality as a political word the very opposite of the word privilege. Men are very various, but certain needs they all have in common. All men need food clothing and shelter, all men have an instinct towards the satisfaction of a desire for pleasure and a desire for knowledge. Every man therefore who does not have ample and agreeable food, good clothes and good house-room, and in addition good education and innocent and uninjurious leisure, either wrongs himself or is wronged by others. If he wills not to have these things he wrongs himself, but unless he be sick or mad such a man is not to be found, and we may say plainly that all men in their right minds desire these things and it is only by the will [of] others that they fall short of them.

Socialists therefore declare that the will of neither one person nor many of one group or the whole of Society should be so exercised as to deprive any member of society of the satisfaction of his genuine needs so far as the resources of nature duly handled by Society can give him that satisfaction. In a true Society all mens needs must be satisfied in return for their due labour, since their duly labouring is the necessary test of their healthy membership of Society. Equality therefore must be called Equality in Society, and means finally that every member of society shall have the opportunity of satisfying his genuine needs according to the average of the wealth produced by and for Society. That this can be done I am clear because every man not diseased can be used for the general good: if diseased he must be treated and restrained from injuring the Community; and I am also sure that a society of equality would gradually extinguish disease and make all life healthy.

This equality of opportunity therefore is above all things to be sought for: how is it to be obtained? The answer is clear: by abolishing Privilege. At present as aforesaid by means of skill luck or cunning a man can buy himself into privilege: or the monopoly of the resources of nature. That must be made impossible, the land the public [??][3] the means of transit must be unbuyable by private persons. They must be nationalized as the phrase goes — we shall then be on the high road to the Society of Equality. Huge fortunes for one thing are impossible unless you can invest your gains in monopoly, and receive by means of it the result of the labour of others which ought to go to them and not to you the private person. This would wrong no man, everybody would have his due share of obvious necessaries and other matters he by himself or in combination with others could procure for his personal uses by his own extra labour either by himself or in combination with others. Whereas a rich man can now cease to work and force others to satisfy his inordinate desires.

How to do this / make people want it / get them to combine — the new labour party — agitation now in the hands of the workers — must learn to understand true combination aim not at mere addition to wages — capitalists will find their profits going and want to sell up then workers must take their own business in hand including all responsibilities — [4]

MIA Notes

1. A biblical phrase: Acts 8:21 Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God., though here Morris seems to be using 'part and lot in' as an equivalent to 'part and parcel of'.

2. The text is literally I hope &c., followed by a short gap. Presumably this hint was enough for Morris to fill in the gap on the fly.

3. The word is illegible, Morris having run out of space at the right hand side of the page. It appears to be 'confidence' which makes no sense in the context: the usual trilogy is land, means of production, and means of transport.

4. The document ends abruptly here with this list of notes.

Bibliographical Note


Socialism up-to-date


4th October 1891 at a meeting sponsored by the Ancoats Recreation Committee at the New Islington Hall, Ancoats, Manchester


Morris's manuscript notes in BL Additional Manuscripts 45,334, made available online by the University of Iowa Morris Archive. A short extract from this text was published in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (Vol II) ed. May Morris

The transcription has kept as close as practical to the original, including Morris's lack of commas in lists, and his occasional use of capital letters in unexpected places. Words in [square brackets] are guesses at words apparently omitted by Morris. Words and phrases crossed out by Morris have been ignored.