William Morris

What we have to look for

I do not mean by this what the ideal of Socialism has to offer to us when we have got people's heads turned in the right direction, but rather what our present movement may reasonably expect to come across in its progress towards Socialism; it is not prophecy that I am about to-night but a reasonable forecast of the few next moves deduced from the experience of the last few. I consider this a dull job, a dispiriting job because it must necessarily deal with failure and disappointment and stupidity and causeless quarrels, and in short all the miseries that go to make up the degrading game of politics. Still I think it has to be done, in order that we may get on to the next step, and the next and the next, till we reach the one when the end of all politics will be clear to us.

Within the last five years or so the movement which represents the change from the society of so called free-contract to that of communal organization has undergone a great change. In the early days of our movement we had nothing to think of seriously except preaching Socialism to those who knew nothing of it but the name, if indeed they knew that, in the hope that amidst those we addressed our words might touch a few who were sympathetic with the movement, and were capable of learning what we had to teach; or indeed a good deal more. In that hope we were not disappointed. The greater part of the public indeed from the depths of their ignorance thought us mere visionaries, from the depth of their muddling impracticality thought our views were impractical. It must be admitted that behind this propaganda of preaching lay the thought that the change we advocated would be brought about by insurrection; and this was supposed even by those who were most averse to violence; no other means seemed conceivable for lifting the intolerable load which lay upon us. We thought that every step towards Socialism would be resisted by the reactionaries who would use against [it] the legal executive force which was, and is, let me say, wholly in the power of the possessing classes; that the wider the movement grew the more rigorously the authorities would repress it. And we were somewhat justified by their treatment of us; for while the movement was yet quite young the said authorities began to think that we were not only foolish but dangerous, which latter we may yet turn out to be, though not in the way which they meant by the word: hence all the stupid police interference with harmless meetings, and Black Monday and Bloody Sunday and the rest of it. Now there is another thing; we gained, as I said, adherents, and good ones, and that more speedily than might have been expected, because the spirit of Socialism was alive, and on the way, and only lacked, as it does now, the due body which would make it a powerful force. But for a long time we did not touch the very people whom we chiefly wanted to get at: the working-classes to wit. Of course there were many working-men amongst us, but they were there by dint of their special intelligence, or of their eccentricity; not as working-men simply. In fact as a friend of ours once said to me, We are too much a collection of oddities. Anyhow the great body of working-men, and especially those belonging to the most organized industries were hostile to Socialism: they did not really look upon themselves as a class, they identified their interests with those of their trade-union, their craft, their workshop or factory even: the capitalist system seemed to them, if not heaven-born, yet at least necessary, and undoubtedly indefeasible. I don't know if we expected this, but I do not think it dispirited us, partly perhaps because we would not admit it, being sanguine to the verge of braggadoccio. Well now much of this is changed: the idea of successful insurrection within a measurable distance of time is only in the heads of the anarchists, who seem to have a strange notion that even equality would not be acceptable if it were not gained by violence only. Almost everyone has ceased to believe in the change coming by catastrophe. To state the position shortly, as a means to the realization of the new society Socialists hope so far to conquer public opinion, that at last a majority of the parliament shall be sent to sit in the house as avowed Socialists and the delegates of Socialists, and on that should follow what legislation might be necessary; and moreover, though the time for this may be very far ahead, yet most people would now think that the hope of doing it is by no means unreasonable.

Next it is no longer the case that the working-classes are hostile to Socialism, they even vaguely approve of it generally, and from time [to time] take action, through strikes and other agitation, which amounts to a claim to be recognized as citizens, and not looked upon as merely part of the machinery for profit-bearing production; and the number of those [who] can vaguely be classed as Socialists has increased enormously, besides a very considerable increase in those who definitely profess Socialism; and all this has produced so much impression on the possessing classes, that they are beginning to think of making some concessions in the direction, as they think, of Socialism, so long as it can be done "safely."

Another change has taken place outside socialism amongst the ordinary politicians which has surely some relation to the movement; this is that the old political parties and their watch words are losing their importance. When we first began our socialist work in London the two orthodox parties of Tories and Liberals were so completely prominent that no other possible party was thought of, and it is true that election times were the very worst times for our propaganda: no one with any political bias could disentangle his thoughts and aspirations from the great party dog-fight which was going on at such times. Now on the contrary it has become a common-place that there is little difference between the two parties except that of ins and outs, and many think even that more in the way of the concessions above said [may come] from the Tory party than the Liberal, which possibly may be the case, though I dont think it will turn out so. On the other hand at present the Liberal party is losing ground and even tending towards break up, perhaps because it includes as nominal members men who may be called semi socialists. If it does actually break up, the result will obviously be a coalition of the whiggish Liberals with the Tories, which would make a party strong enough to snap their fingers at socialism, and refuse any concessions, and on the other hand the Radical tail setting itself up as a parliamentary party, which would be a very weak party while it lasted, and would tend to melt into the general advance of socialism. Again whatever else has happened, or failed to happen the old Manchester school, the utilitarian Laissez faire business has fallen a very short time after its entire acceptance as an indisputable theory by all would-be intelligent people. Doubtless all this apart from whatever advance in the prospects of labour on which it is founded means a great stir in thought and aspirations apart from the actual Socialist movement. It means that everywhere people are shaken as to their views of the eternity of the present system which was once as undoubted a fact to them as the existence of the sun in the heavens. But what next? There cannot be a great upheaval and ferment in men's minds without something coming of it. But what has come of it as yet? In the first place has any increase in the material prosperity of the workman come of it. I do not think so. The strike war taking it widely is necessary certainly, but it has to be paid for. It has been necessary to call attention to the mass of unemployed amongst us. But there are the unemployed. Nothing has been done for them in the mass, and nothing will be done for them, because nothing can be done while the present system lasts. That there should be periodically people out of work who can work, is a necessity of the competition for employment under out present system; and surely if it should come to be the case that [it] is understood that they who fail in the competition shall have places provided for them by the State, there will be a tendency for wages to fall amongst those who are generally employed.

Now you will find that generally speaking this is the case with all those measures for improving the material condition of the working classes without altering their position; it all means more or less feeding the dog with [pieces] of his own tail; you better the condition of one group of workers at the expense of the others: and thereby you make partial content out of general discontent, and hoodwink the people, and prevent their action: "divide to govern" being a very old maxim of Scoundrel-craft. Now I gave you no reason when I said just now that I did not believe that you would get more out of the Tories than the Liberals; but here is the reason ready to my hand; it is just this sort of concession which the Tories will give you: it is their instinct to make a showy benevolent present (which in the long run will be of no use to you) rather than yield a right however small. Of course from neither party can you expect any measure really socialistic, that is an impossibility, but by pressure you may get from the Liberals certain improvements in the present creaky and clumsy electoral machinery which will be of some use to you when you want to get M.Ps. to do your dirty work for you in Parliament. No I say you are not to expect from the time of the battle [for] Socialism any serious improvement in the material condition of the working classes; you can only have that from Socialism; while the battle for Socialism is going on you can only have the hope of realizing Socialism. Indeed meantime I believe that the very upward movement of labour, the consciousness amongst working men that they should be citizens and not machines will have to be paid for like other good things, and that the price will be no light one. I have thought the matter up and down and in and out, and I cannot for the life of me see how the great change which we long for can come otherwise than by disturbance and suffering of some kind. Well, since battle also has been made a matter of commerce, and the God of War must now wear a mantle of bank-notes and be crowned with guineas, since human valour must give way to the longest purse, and the latest invention (which I do not much complain of, since it makes it more difficult to exercise the accursed art of destruction and slaughter); since war has been commercialized, I say, we shall as above said not be called upon to gain our point by battle in the field. But the disturbance and the suffering — can we escape that? I fear not. We are living in the commercial epoch of the world; and yet it would appear since I am talking for a Socialist Society, and to [an] audience mainly Socialist, in an epoch where commercialism has not all its own way, in an epoch in short when there is combat between Commercialism, or the system of reckless waste, and Communism or the system of neighbourly common sense. Can that combat be fought out again I say without loss and suffering? Plainly speaking I know that it cannot. The rise in condition of life, if not in position of the working-classes must disturb the smooth going ways of the market, must reduce the profit of their employers, must reduce therefore their employing power, must reduce their spending power, and injure many forms of the production of useless articles, on which the working men largely live. What harm in that? you may say; none; it would be a gain if we were living in a socialist condition: but as we are now, it would mean the throwing out of work of numbers of industrious men, the greater part of whom it would be difficult to find employment for. Take a straw to show which way the wind blows. A few days ago I had a long letter from a lady whom I knew something of, once very rich, and the wife of a very rich manufacturer in Manchester: the drift of the letter was two-fold, 1st complaining of competition, and how they who once made a large profit on their works are now carrying on at a loss; 2nd expostulating with me for stirring up the men to cry out for higher wages and the like, which injured the power of employment of the masters: the remedy for all being that the men should withdraw their demands [and] work with the employers who loved them so — and so forth and so forth. Well at first when I read the letter I was angry; then I laughed, and thought how true was the old saw: other peoples troubles hang on a hair: and felt it as difficult to weep for this ladys troubles, as she did for the lowered wages of her husbands hands and their diminished comforts. But do you know, at last I said to myself: after all she is right from her point of view; yes and perhaps from her men's point of view also; for I should like to ask them, before I say anything about your tactics and your demands what it is that you really want.

Yes, I should above all things like to have a genuine answer to this question; setting aside all convention, all rhetoric and flummery, what is it that you want from the present labour-movement? Higher wages; more regular employment? Shorter working hours, better education for your children; old age pensions, libraries, parks and more? Are these things and things like them what you want? They are, of course; but what else do you want? If you cannot answer the question straightforwardly I must say that you are wandering on a road the outcome of which you cannot tell; you cannot have any helpful politics or tactics. If you can answer it, and say Yes, that is all we want: then I say here is the real advice to give you: Dont you meddle with Socialism; make peace with your employers, before it is too late, and you will find that from them and their Committee, the House of Commons, you will get such measure of those things as will most probably content you, and at any rate all that they can give without ruining themselves as they phrase it. If this is all you want work with your employers [and for that to your best][1] consider their interests as if your own, be careful not to try the markets too much, make sacrifices so that they may do well, compete your best with foreign nations; pay the greatest attention to producing exactly what your markets demand and at the price they demand, and I think you will do well. I cannot indeed promise you that you will bring back the prosperity of the country to the period of leaps and bounds, but you may well stave off the break down, which in these last years does really seem to be drawing near, and at any rate you will make the best of whatever prosperity there is left us as workmen and according to their standard of life.

If that is all you want how can we who are not workmen blame you? In these matters I always think what should I do myself; and I find it difficult to answer the question here, What should I do? Wherefore I must own that sometimes when I am dispirited I think this is all that the labour movement means: it doesn't mean Socialism at all, it only means improvement in the condition of the working-classes: they will get that in some terms or another — till the break up comes; and it may be a long way ahead. And yet the workmen of this country seem to me to be going so very far from the right road to winning the slavish peace I have been speaking of, thus I cannot think that they mean nothing but that: imperfect, erring, unorganised, chaotic as that movement is, there is a spirit of antagonism to our present foolish wasteful system in it, and a sense of the unity of labour as against the exploiters of labour which is the one necessary idea for those who are ever so little conscious of working toward Socialism. One thing alone would make one think that more is aimed at [than] the stereotyping of a would-be tolerable condition of servitude for the working-classes, and that is the success of our comrade Blatchford's Merry England; the thousands who have read that book must if they have done so carefully have found out that something better is possible to be thought of than the life of a prosperous mill-hand. For what after all is that something more than a low form of workman's prosperity[:] constant work, to wit, and a 'fair days wage for a fair days work'. Surely it is nothing less than that which makes life worth living. Self-respect, happy and fit work, leisure, beautiful surroundings in a word, the earth our own and the fullness thereof, and nobody really dares to assert that this good life can be attained to, till we are essentially and practically socialised.

So I will indulge my hope that all who call themselves Socialists, labour party, and even the fringe of all that would not be contented to make peace with the possessing classes on the terms that 'all labour questions should be thoroughly considered', that 'the interests of the working-man should be the first thing sought for', and so on, and that they really want to bring about socialism, and are ready to face what may well be the temporarily disastrous effects of the rise of wages and all the detail that goes to make up the present labour war. And then comes the question; What is to be done? A question all the more necessary to ask since at present we are doing very little.

Now we must take it for granted that the first means so to say is as above noted, to conquer the general opinion of the country and gradually to get a majority in the House of Commons: and you must all remember that before that can be done, the thinking part of the population will have gone Socialist, so that nothing but the last act of the play will remain to be played.

Well that is the end, a long way off doubtless but in nowise an impossible end, a dream without form. What is to be done to get there? Well first what are the socialist forces in this country? Answer: two or three — say two bodies partly propagandist partly with electoral views probably of no great strength as to count of noses. More of them I wont say at present as I dont want to get into controversy as to their relative [merits]; so I will but note that there is at least some rivalry between them and some times dissension. Besides these two bodies, there are no doubt many pronounced socialists who are not attached to either, and there are also many who tend towards Socialism, and would be certain to be absorbed by [it] when it takes make definite action than it has yet done; but there is of course no means of finding out how many these unattached socialists and semi-socialists are.

Now what is to be done with these recruits, who are at present not generally acting together, and are for the most part pretty much undrilled? Well are we to be a sect or a party? That is the next question: in that early time I spoke of we were a sect and had no pretence to be a party, and did not need to be one. And mind you I don't mean the word sect to imply any blame or scorn. Sects have before now done a good deal towards forming the world's history: but you see we have settled that we want to go into parliament, and for that it seems to me a party is definitely necessary; that declaring ourselves socialists we shall formulate our immediate tactics toward that end: such a party once formed which would not break up any existing bodies but include them, would, it seems to me, have a claim on all genuine socialists, and one thing at least I am sure of that until it is formed, though we may do good propagandist work we shall do nothing worth speaking of in the political way. My hope is, and if people really care for Socialism enough, it will be realized, that we shall do so much propagandist work, and convert so many people to Socialism that they will insist on having a genuine Socialist party which shall do the due work, and they will not allow the personal fads and vanities of leaders (so-called) to stand in the way of real business.

Well it may be some time before we can have that party, because we shall have to wait till the general body of socialists see the futility of mere sections attempting to do the work of the whole mass properly organized. Meantime what should be our own tactics? I think that until we can do our party-work effectively, we had better leave off the pretence of doing it at all; that we had better confine ourselves to the old teaching and preaching of Socialism pure and simple, which is I fear more or less neglected amidst the said futile attempt to act as a party when we have no party. I think we have above all to point out to the working-men who feel socialist sympathies, that there are many measures which may be for the temporary good of their class, which are but temporary and experimental, and adapted only for the present state of things, and that these are not for genuine Socialists to press forward. Let our Liberal and radical, and if they will our Tory friends make these experiments, and take all the responsibility for their failure, for in the long term fail they will. Our present system will admit of no permanent change in this direction. Unlimited competition, the laissez-faire of the old Manchester school, the privileges of the possessing class, modified if you will by gifts of the improved work-house kind — in a word once more the machine-life of the useful classes made as little burdensome to them as can be; that is all that can be got out of the present system. And again and again I say if that is your ideal, don't fight against your employers, for you will but waste your livelihood by doing so.

But on the other hand, those who have a wild fancy to be free men, to have their affairs under their own control; those who wish to work happily and unwastefully, to restore [that part] of the earth's surface which is spoilt and keep that which is unspoilt, to enjoy rest and thought and labour without fear or remorse, those in a word who wish to live like men, let them say, good wages or bad, good times or bad, good masters or bad, let us use them now as we may, yet not so much for the present profit we may get out of them as for hastening the realization of the new society, the time when at last we shall be free because we are equal.

March 30 1895


1. In this paragraph Morris added extra points between the lines while editing. I was unable to fully decipher the words in square brackets. GS.

Bibliographic details


What we have to look for


  1. 31st March 1895, at a meeting of the Hammersmith Socialist Society. Notes by Morris on the reverse side of his text list some of the topics raised by the audience:
  2. 30th October 1895, at a meeting sponsored by the Oxford and District Socialist Union at the Central School, Gloucester Green, Oxford.


  1. The original manuscript (BM Add Ms 45333[8]), which is complete
  2. Parts were first published in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (Vol II) ed. May Morris