William Morris

Speech Seconding George Lansbury

This speech was reported in both Justice (paper of the SDF) and The Labour Leader (paper of the ILP). The report in Justice gives more context, while the report in the Labour Leader, under the title 'William Morris's Confession', is more complete. Both are given below.


George Lansbury moved:- "That this meeting of Social-Democrats, assembled at the beginning of the New Year, send fraternal greetings to their fellow-workers in the cause of humanity in all lands; enter their earnest protest against the efforts of filibusters and financiers to stir up strife among the people of the different countries; and pledge themselves to work steadfastly forward for the overthrow of the infamous capitalist system, and the realization of that time when international concord shaqll replace competition and strife.". He said it seemed to him that we had middle-class cant and humbug in excelsis in the Transvaal just now. In the name of British patriotism and of England's honour they have been invited to save a set of filibusters who were there to make money, He hoped that if there were any conscience at all left in England the workmen of England would, at any rate, not allow the jingo fever to seize them again as in the past, and that they would remember that all the cant and humbug about expansion only meant expansion for the benefit of capitalists. The Chartered Company had practically massacrd Lobengula's people, and now that they had attacked people who could stand up to them, a howl was going up from the capitalist press that they hoped the Boers in the moment of victory would have mercy. (Laughter.)

William Morris, who was received with tremendous applause, seconding the resolution, said that he had to congratulate those present on their meeting and on the work which the Social-Democratic Federation had done and was doing. This at any rate they of the S.D.F. had always done: they had always kept the revolutionary principle before them, had always made it clear that they understood that no amelioration was any good, that no patching up was possible, that nothing could be accomplished till the workers were really free, until they had control of their own means of life. The condition of things into which the present Government seemed to have got itself was due entirely to the general position of labour and capital throughout civilzation. (Cheers.) As far as America was concerned they were in that position that at any time a quarrel might arise, and we could not face it because we chose to hang on with such desperation to the colony we happened to have over there. If it were not for Canada what should we care about America? He had never believed in any solid danger with reference to America at the present moment. In some way or another we should "back down," and they would do the same, because we were each other's customers, and we could not afford to go out and buy "shooting-irons" to kill our own customers. (Cheers.) As far as Africa was concerned, there was a kind of desperation egging on all the nations to make something of that hitherto undeveloped country; and they were no doubt developing it with a vengeance. (Laughter and cheers.) When he saw the last accounts about the Transvaal he almost wished he could be a Kaffir for five minutes in order to dance around the "ring". He thought it was a case of a pack of thieves quarrelling about their booty. The Boers had stolen their land from the people it had belonged to; people had come in to help them develop their stolen property, and now wanted to steal it themselves. (Laughter and cheers.) The real fact, however, that we had to deal with was that we lived by stealing—that was by wasting—all the labour of the workmen.




WILLIAM MORRIS, speaking recently in the Holborn Town Hall at a meeting convened by the Social Democratic Federation, said the condition of things into which the English government had got itself was, in his view, due entirely to the general position of labour and capital throughout civilisation. So far as America was concerned, they were in the position that at any time a quarrel might arise which they did not dare to face because they choose to hang on to a colony they had there. If it were not for Canada, who would care anything for America?

He did not believe in any solid danger at the present moment. In some way or another, both America and England would back down, because they were each other's customers, and they could not afford to buy shooting-irons and go shoot their customers.

As far as Africa was concerned, there was a state of desperation among all the nations to "make" something of that "undeveloped" country. And they were "developing" it with a vengeance. When he saw the last account about the Transvaal he almost wished he were a Kaffir for five minutes, so that he could dance round the ring. The position was just that of a pack of thieves quarrelling about their booty. The Boers first stole the land from the people to whom it belonged, then they set about getting somebody to help them to "develope" what they had stolen, and, if they could manage it, they (the English) would steal from the Boers in turn.

But so long as individuals and nations practised stealing for a living those matters were comparatively trifling. What they had to realise and deal with was the fact that all "civilised" States now lived by stealing — i.e., by wasting the labour of all other workmen. If Society were properly organised for labour and the products of that labour fairly and justly divided — i.e., if the workers had what they produced — they would all be able to live a really good life, for by that time they would have pretty well conquered nature, and there would be practically no limit to their power of production if they were working in the only reasonable way — all for each and each for all.

As a result of the growth of Socialism, and of the fringe which always hung about the skirts of a great idea, they must expect to come across a fringe-people who wished to stop at small things. Such were exceedingly lacking in that on which they prided themselves — reason.

The most important political event of last year had been the rout of the Liberal party. He did not regard it altogether as the defeat of Whiggism, but rather as a general rally against all the forward movement, because the defenders of privilege were beginning to see something really serious in the Socialistic movement. It was perfectly natural that the result should be a success for the reactionary party, because those who had the greater part of the money had also the greater part of votes. But so far from being the least disappointed at the result, they ought to look upon it rather as the beginning of Socialism in action as opposed to Socialism in theory. In time gone by, he (the speaker) was not very anxious to see the political side of Socialism pushed forward. Some might consider that an indefensible theory. With him it was merely a matter of tactics. He now distinctly thought the time had arrived for political action. Hyndman's candidature at Burnley he considered a remarkable event, and evidence of the movement forward their ideas were making. But after all he was of opinion, and always had been, that the main thing Socialists had to do was to make other Socialists. There should be no surcease in that direction until the cause was won.

In the meantime they must hit out, and show they were alive. Certain things were talked about, and would be done; but if done altogether, they would not make Socialism in the least. Of course they wanted to "raise the condition of the workers" - like their friends on both sides in the House of Parliament; but suppose that condition raised far above the possibility attainable under the present system. Supposing wages were increased four-fold the present standard, the workers would still be what they were then - slaves, and slaves they would remain until they had their own immediate destinies in their own hands.

Much was talked about the necessity for studying the "ins" and "outs" of Socialism, but he assured them that was not necessary. If they liked the study it was good as an education, and some found it interesting, but after all, what they had to do, if they would be free, was to make up their minds that they would destroy waste, which was poverty. They were all in the grasp of an artificial poverty. Even in England, the richest country in the world, they were obliged to say that so and so could not be done because it was a question of money. They could not make their houses homes, and lives beautiful, they lived in squalor and disorder - why? - because they were so poor. And as a nation they were so poor that even the rich man among them could not have what they desired - self respect.

As he, the speaker, was not a member of the S.D.F. he could praise them for holding aloft the real flag of revolution. They were determined not to stop half way. They knew that whatever efforts they might put forth in the way of amelioration, until the day when Socialism would be realised no true solid gains would or could be won for the workers. Let them try any of the half measures - and to a certain extent they were obliged to countenance such to make the thing go - and they would find that it would mean merely bettering the conditions of one group of section of the workers by worsening that of other groups. It could not be helped, because, after all, the workers were not regarded as men, but as machinery to be used for capitaiist production.

The workers were thoroughly and entirely disinherited. Notwithstanding their "vote" they were not citizens of their country; they were as far from that as could be. They were not men but machines. They managed to rub along in a fashion from day to day, but they had not the real lives of people working for their own livelihood,

It was their business to get to be citizens although he did not altogether like the word, for they did not all live, or want to live in cities, and people should be free to live where they liked. The only possibility of getting into that position was to see that they were masters of their time, their tools, and the raw material they had to use. When they had those in their hand they would find that it would be impossible to prevent the civilised world from entering upon a system of society based upon equality. And that was the last word. There were two possible conditions of life for the workers - slavery and equality. Whatever might be said, or however, it might be masked, that was the fact. In one age the slavery was a matter of quite obvious force - the iron hand everywhere. At present the force was hidden under a velvet glove, but it was so much the worse for that. They were now under the grasp of a system of capitalistic economy which would beat them and their masters - even if they were so willed - to put them on a better level,[sic] save by destroying the system itself.

In conclusion he would urge upon them the necessity for ever keeping before the people the broad, deep, reasonable side of the question, otherwise it would one day come upon them all with suffering, misery and violence, in ways which would be worst instead of best.

Let them gain their cause by reason, i.e., the forces of principles and the force of intelligence.


Speech Seconding George Lansbury


  1. Justice, 11 January 1896
  2. The Labour Leader, 25th January 1896, p. 34


George Lansbury's motion was to the Annual New Year's Meeting of the Social-Democratic Federation, held in Holborn Town Hall. He was at the time the full-time National Organizer for the SDF. The resolution was 'carried with acclamation'.

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, May 2020.