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R. C. K. (Robert Charles Kirkwood) Ensor.

Modern socialism, as set forth by socialists in their speeches, writings, and programmes; online

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Online LibraryR. C. K. (Robert Charles Kirkwood) EnsorModern socialism, as set forth by socialists in their speeches, writings, and programmes; → online text (page 9 of 35)
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to break its promises, French reformist Socialism will be able
to assume every responsibility ; it will not decline any of the
burdens imposed on it by its deep feeling of duty towards its
ideal and towards its country.



VIII

THE LABOUR QUESTION FROM THE
SOCIALIST STANDPOINT

By William Morris

This lecture was one of a series delivered in Scotland in the
summer of 1886, in which the Secretary of the Amalgamated Society
of Engineers, the London Manager of the Co-operative Wholesale
Society, Professor Foxwell, Professor Patrick Geddes, and Dr.
Alfred Russell Wallace, also took part.

William Morris's definite accession to Socialism may be dated
from the beginning of 1883. He then joined the Social Democratic
Federation ; but in December, 1885, founded the Socialist League,
whose organ, the " Commonweal," he edited till 1889. In 1890 he
left the League, which soon afterwards collapsed.

His work represents the first revival of Socialism in England
through the importation of the Marxist doctrine. It also derives a
large element from his personal genius, which, while missing the
mass of workers at which it was aimed, has left its mark upon
nearly all the leaders.

I HAVE been asked to give you the Socialist view on the
Labour Question. Now, in some ways that is a difficult matter
to deal with — far beyond my individual capacities — and would
also be a long business ; yet in another way, as a matter of
principle, it is not difficult to understand or long to tell of, and
it does not need previous study or acquaintance with the works
of specialists or philosophers. Indeed, if it did, it would not
be a political subject, and I hope to shew you that it is pre-
eminently political in the sense in which I should use the word ;

65 1-



66 MODERN SOCIALISM

that is to say, that it is a matter which concerns every one, and
has to do with the practical everyday relations of his life, and
that not only as an individual, but as a member of a body
corporate, nay, as a member of that great corporation —
humanity. Thus considered it would be hard indeed if it
could not be understood readily by a person of ordinary intelli-
gence who can bring his mind to bear upon prejudice. Such
a person can learn the basis of the opinion in even an hour's
talk, if the matter be clearly put before him : it is my task to
attempt this; and whether I fail or succeed, I can at least
promise you to use no technical phrases which would require
explanation ; nor will I, as far as I can help, go into any specu-
lative matter, but will be as plain and practical as I can be.

Yet I must warn you that you may be disappointed when
you find that I have no elaborate plan, no details of a new
society to lay before you, that to my mind to attempt this would
be putting before you a mere delusion. What I ask you to
consider is in the main the clearing away of certain obstacles
that stand in the way of the due and unwasteful use of labour
— a task not light, indeed, nor to be accomplished without the
most strenuous effort in the teeth of violent resistance, but yet
not impossible for humanity as we know it, and, as I firmly
believe, not only necessary, but as things now are, the one
thing essential to be undertaken.

Now, you all know that, taking mankind as a whole, it
is necessary for man to labour in order to live. Certainly
not all things that we enjoy are the works of man's labour ;
the beauty of the earth, and the action of Nature on our
sensations, are always here for us to enjoy, but we can only do
so on the terms of our keeping ourselves alive and in good
case by means of labour, and no inventions can set aside that
necessity. The merest savage has to pluck the berry from the
tree, or dig up the root from the ground before he can enjoy
his dog-like sleep in sun or shade ; and there are no savages
who have not got beyond that stage, while the progressive races
of mankind have for many ages got a very long way beyond it, so



WILLIAM MORRIS 67

that we have no record of any time when they had not formed
some sort of society, whose aim was to make the struggle with
Nature for subsistence less hard than it otherwise would have
been, to win a more abundant livelihood from her.

We cannot deal at any length with the historical develop-
ment of society ; our object is simply to inquire into the con-
stitution of that final development of society under which we
live. But one may first ask a few questions : — ist. Since the
community generally must labour in order that the individuals
composing it may subsist, and labour harder in order that they
may attain further advantages, ought not a really successful
community so to arrange that labour that each capable person
should do a fair share of it and no more ? 2nd, Should not a
really successful community — established surely for the benefit
of all its members — arrange that every one who did his due
share of labour should have his due share of the wealth earned
by that labour ? 3rd, If any labour was wasted, such waste
would throw an additional burden on those who produced
what was necessary and pleasant to existence. Should not a
successful community, therefore, so organize its labour that it
should not be wasted ? You must surely answer " Yes " to each
of these three questions. I will assert, then, that a successful
society — a society which fulfilled its true functions — would take
care that each did his due share of labour, that each had his
due share of wealth resulting from that labour, and that the
labour of persons generally was not wasted. I ask you to re-
member those three essentials of a successful society through-
out all that follows, and now to let me apply them as a test of
success to that society in which we live, the latest development
of so many ages of the struggle with Nature, our elaborate and
highly organized civilization.

In our society, does each capable person do his fair share
of labour ? Is his share of the wealth produced proportionate
to his labour ? Is the waste of labour avoided in our society?

You may, perhaps, hesitate in your answer to the third
question ; you cannot hesitate to say " Xo " to the two first. I



68 MODERN SOCIALISM

think, however, I shall be able to show you that much labour
is wasted, and that, therefore, our society fails in the three
essentials necessary for a successful society. Our civilization,
therefore, though elaborate and highly organized, is a failure ;
that is, supposing it to be the final development of society, as
some people, nay, most people, suppose it to be.

Now a few words as to the course of events which have
brought us to the society of the present day. In periods
almost before the dawn of continuous history, the early pro-
gressive races from which we are descended were divided into
clans or families, who held their wealth, such as it was, in
common within the clan, while all outside the clan was hostile,
and wealth not belonging to the clan was looked upon as prize
of war. There was consequently continual fighting of clan
with clan, and at first all enemies taken in war were slain ; but
after a while, as man progressed and got defter with his hands,
and learned how to make more effective tools, it began to be
found out that, so working, each man could do more than
merely sustain himself ; and then some of the prisoners of war,
instead of being slain on the field, were made slaves of; they
had become valuable for work, like horses. Out of the wealth
they produced their masters or owners gave them sustenance
enough to live on and took the rest for themselves. Time
passed, and the complexity of society grew, the early barbarism
passed through many stages into the ancient civilizations, of
which Greece and Rome were the great representatives ; but
this civilization was still founded on slave labour ; most of its
wealth was created by men who could be sold in the market
like cattle. But as the old civilizations began to decay, this
slave labour became unprofitable ; the countries comprised in
the Roman Empire were disturbed by constant war ; the
Governments, both central and provincial, became mere tax-
gathering machines, and grew so greedy that things became
unbearable. Society became a mere pretext for tax-gathering,
and fell to pieces, and chattel slavery fell with it, since under
all these circumstances slaves were no longer valuable.



WILLIAM MORRIS 69

Then came, another change. A new society was formed,
partly out of the tribes of barbarians who had invaded the
Roman Empire, and partly out of the fragments of that empire
itself; the feudal system arose, bearing with it new ideas,
which I have not time to deal with here and now. Suffice it
to say, that in its early days mere chattel slavery gave place to
serfdom. Powerful men, privileged men, had not forgotten
that men can produce more by a day's labour than will keep
them alive for a day ; so now they settled their labourers on
certain portions of land, stocked their land with them, in fact,
and on these lands they had leave to live as well as they might
on the condition that they should work a certain part of their
time on the land which belonged to their lords. The average
condition of these serfs was better than that of the chattel
slaves. They could not be bought and sold personally, they
were a part of the manor on which they lived, and they had as a
class a tendency to become tenants by various processes. In
one way or another these serfs got gradually emancipated, and
during a transitional period, lasting through the two last cen-
turies of the Middle Ages, the fourteenth and fifteenth cen-
turies, the labour classes were in a far better position than
they had been before, and in some ways than they have been
since, suffering more from spasmodic arbitrary violence than
from chronic legal oppression. The transition from this period
to our own days is one of the most interesting chapters of
history ; but it is impossible for me to touch on it here. All I
can say is, that the emancipated serfs formed one of the
elements that went to make up our present middle class, and
that a new class of workers grew up beneath them — men who
were not owned by any one, who were bound by no legal ties
to such and such a manor, who might earn what livelihood
they could for themselves under certain conditions, which I
will presently try to lay before you, and which are most
important to be considered, for this new class of so-called
free labourers has become our modern working-class.

Now it will be clear to you, surely, how much and how



70 MODERN SOCIALISM

grievously both the classical period, with its chattel slavery,
and the feudal system, with its serfdom, fell short of the
society which we have set before us as reasonably successful.
In each of them there was a class obviously freed from the
necessity of labour, by means of the degradation of another
class which laboured excessively and reaped but a small
reward for its excessive labour. Surely there was something
radically wrong in these two societies. From the fact that
labour is necessary for man's life on the earth, and that
Nature yields her abundance to labour only, one would be
inclined to deduce the probability that he who worked most
would be the best off ; but in these slave and serf societies the
reverse was the case : the man of leisureless toil lived miser-
ably, the man who did nothing useful .lived abundantly.
Then, again, as to our third test, was there no waste of labour ?
Yes, indeed, there was waste most grievous. I have said that
the slave-owner or the lord of the manor did nothing useful,
and yet he did something — he was bound to do something,
for he was often energetic, gifted, and full of character — he
made war ceaselessly, consuming thereby the wealth which his
slaves or his serfs created, and forcing them to work the more
grievously. Here was waste enough, and lack of organization
of labour.

Well, all this people found no great difficulty in seeing, and
few would like, publicly at least, to confess a regret for these
conditions of labour, although in private some men, less
hypocritical or more logical than the bulk of reactionists,
admit that they consider the society of cultivated men and
chattel slaves the best possible for weak human nature. Yet
though we can see what has been, we cannot so easily see
what is ; and I admit that it is especially hard for people in
our civilization, with its general freedom from the ruder
forms of violence, its orderly routine life, and, in short all, that
tremendous organization whose very perfection of continuity
prevents us from noticing it, — I say it is hard for people under
the quiet order and external stability of modern society to note



WILLIAM MORRIS 71

that much the same thing js going on in the relations of
employers to the employed, as went on under the slave
society of Athens, or under the serf-sustained baronage of the
thirteenth century.

For I assert that with us, as with the older societies,
those who work hardest fare the worst, those who produce the
least get the most ; while as to the waste of labour that goes
on, the waste of times past is as nothing compared with what is
wasted to-day.

I must now justify this view of mine, and if possible get
you to agree with it, by pointing out to you how society at the
present day is constituted.

Now, as always, there are only two things essential to the
production of wealth — labour and raw material ; every one can
labour who is not sick or in nonage, therefore every one,
except those, if he can get at raw material, can produce
wealth ; but without that raw material he cannot produce any-
thing — anything, that is, that man can live upon ; and if he
does not labour he must live at the expense of those that do ;
unless, therefore, every one can get at the raw material and in-
struments of production, the community in general will be
burdened by the expense of so many useless mouths, and the
sum of its wealth will be less than it ought to be. But in our
civilized society of to-day the raw material and the instruments
of production are monopolized by a comparatively small
number of persons, who will not allow the general population
to use them for production of wealth unless they pay them
tribute for doing so ; and since they are able to exact this
tribute they themselves are able to live without producing,
and consequently are a burden on the community. Nor are
these monopoUsts content with exacting a bare livelihood from
the producers, as mere vagabonds and petty thieves do ; they
are able to get from the producers in all cases an abundant
livelihood, including most of the enjoyments and advantages
of civiUzation, and in many cases a position of such power
that they are practically independent of the community, and



72 MODERN SOCIALISM

almost out of reach of its laws — although, indeed, the greater
part of those laws were made for the purpose of upholding this
monopoly — and wherever necessary they do now use the
physical force, which by one means or another they have under
their control, for such upholding.

These monopolists, or capitalists, as one may call them
broadly (for I will not at present distinguish the land capitalists
from the money capitalists), are in much the same position as
the slave-owners of ancient Greece and Rome, or the serf-
masters of the thirteenth century ; but they have this advantage
over them, that though really they sustain their position by
mere compulsion, just as the earlier masters did, that com-
pulsion is not visible as the compulsion of the earlier times
was, and it is very much their business to prevent it be-
coming visible, as may be well imagined. But as I am
against monopoly and in favour of freedom, I must try to
get you to see it ; since seeing it is the first step towards
feeling it, which in its turn is sure to lead to your refusing
to bear it.

I have spoken of the tribute which the capitalists exact as
the price of the use of those means of production which ought
to be as free to all as the air we breathe is, since they are as
necessary to our existence as it is. How do they exact the
tribute ? They are, to start with, in a good position, you see,
because, even without any one's help, they could use the labour-
power in their own bodies on the raw material they have, and
so earn their livelihood ; but they are not content with that, as
I hinted above — they are not likely to be, because their
position, legalized and supported by the whole physical force
of the State, enables them " to do better for themselves," as
the phrase goes — they can use the labour-power of the dis-
inherited, and force them to keep them without working for
production. Those disinherited, however, they must keep
alive to labour, and they must allow them also opportunity for
breeding — these are necessities that pressed equally on the
ancient slave-owner or the mediaeval lord of the manor, or,



WILLIAM MORRIS 73

indeed, on the owner of draught cattle ; they must at least
do for the workers as much as for a machine, supply them
with fuel to enable them to work ; nor need they do more
if they are dealing with men who have no power of resist-
ance. But these machines are human ones, instinct with
desires and passions, and therefore they cannot help trying
to better themselves; and they cannot better themselves
except at the expense of the masters, because whatever they
produce more than the bare necessaries of life the masters will
at once take from them if they can ; therefore they have
always resisted the full exercise of the privilege of the masters,
and have tried to raise their standard of livelihood above the
mere subsistence limit. Their resistance has taken various
forms, from peaceful strikes to open war, but it has always
been going on, and the masters, when not driven into a corner,
have often yielded to it, although unwillingly enough; but
it must be said that mostly the workers have claimed little
more than mere slaves would, who might mutiny for a bigger
ration. For, in fact, this wage paid by our modern masters is
nothing more than' the ration of the slave in another form; and
when the masters have paid it, they are free to use all the rest
that the workers produce, just as the slave-owner takes all that
the slave produces. Remember at this point, therefore, that
everything more than bare subsistence which the workers
make to-day, they make by carrying on constant war with their
masters. I must add that their success in this war is often
more apparent than real, and too often it means little more
than shifting the burden of extreme poverty from one group
of the workers to another ; the unskilled labourers, of whom
the supply is unlimited, do not gain by it, and their numbers
have a tendency to increase, as the masters, driven to their
shifts, use more and more elaborate machines in order to dis-
pense with the skilled labour, and also use the auxiliary labour
of women and children, to whom they do not pay subsistence
wages, thereby keeping down the wages of the head of the
family, and depriving him and them of the mutual help and



74 MODERN SOCIALISM

comfort in the household, which would otherwise be gained
from them.

Thus, then, the capitalists, by means of their monopoly of
the means of production, compel the worker to work for less
than his due share of the wealth which he produces, — that is, for
less than he produces ; he must work, he will die else, and as
they are in possession of the raw material, he must agree to
the terms they enforce upon him. This is the " free contract "
of which we hear so much, and which, to speak plainly, is a
capitalist lie. There is no way out of this freedom save rebellion
of some kind or other — strike-rebelhon, which impoverishes
the worker for the time, whether they win the strike or lose it ;
or the rebellion of open revolt, which will be put down always,
until it is organized for a complete change in the basis of
society.

Now to show you another link or two of the chain which
binds the workers. There is one thing which hampers this
constant struggle of the workers towards bettering their con-
dition at the expense of their masters, and that is competition
for livelihood amongst them. I have told you that unskilled
labour is practically unlimited ; and machines, the employ-
ment of women and children, long hours of work, and all
that cheapening of production so much bepraised now, bring
about this state of things, that even in ordinary years there are
more hands than there is work to give them. This is the
great instrument of compulsion of modern monopoly ; people
undersell one another in our modern slave-market, so that the
employers have no need to use any visible instrument of com-
pulsion in driving them towards work ; and the invisibility of
this whip — the fear of death by starvation — has so muddled
people's brains, that you may hear men, otherwise intelUgent,
e.g., answering objections to the uselessness of some occupa-
tion by saying, " But, you see, it gives people employment,"
although they would be able to see that if three of them had
to dig a piece of ground, and one of them knocked off, and
was " employed " in throwing chuckie stones into the water, the



WILLIAM MORRIS 75

other two would have to do his share of the work as well as
their own.

Another invisible link of the chain is this, that the workman
does not really know his own master ; the individual employer
may be, and often is, on good terms with his men, and really
unconscious of the war between them, although he cannot
fail to know that if he pays more wages to his men than other
employers in the same line of business as himself do, he will
be beaten by them. But the workman's real master is not his
immediate employer, but his class, which will not allow even
the best-intentioned employer to treat his men otherwise than
as profit-grinding machines. By his profit, made out of the
unpaid labour of his men, the manufacturer must live, unless he
gives up his position and learns to work like one of his own
men, which, indeed, as a rule he could not do, as he has usually
not been taught to do any useful work ; therefore, as I have
said, he must reduce his wages to the lowest point he can,
since it is on the margin between his men's production and
their wages that his profit depends ; his class, therefore, com-
pels him to compel liis workmen to accept as little as possible.
But further, the workman is a consumer as well as a producer ;
and in that character he has not only to pay rent to a landlord
(and far heavier proportionately than rich people have to pay),
and also a tribute to the middleman who lives without pro-
ducing and without doing service to the community, by passing
money from one pocket to another, but he also has to pay (as
consumer) the profits of the other manufacturers who super-
intend the production of the goods he uses. Again, as a mere
member of society, a should-be citizen, he has to pay taxes, and
a great deal more than he thinks ; he has to pay for wars, past,
present, and future, that are never meant to benefit him, but
to force markets for his masters, nay, to keep him from
rebellion, from taking his own at some date ; he has also to
pay for the thousand and one idiocies of parliamentary
government, and ridiculous monarchical and ofificial state — for
the mountain of precedent, nonsense, and chicanery, with



76 MODERN SOCIALISM

its set of officials, whose business it is, under the name of
law, to prevent justice being done to any one. In short, in
one way or another, when he has by dint of constant labour
got his wages into his pocket, he has them taken away
from him again by various occult methods, till it comes to
this at last, that he really works an hour for one-third of an
hour's pay ; while the two-thirds go to those who have not
produced the wealth which they consume.

Here, then, as to the first and second conditions of a
reasonable society : (i) That the labour should be duly appor-
tioned; (2) that the wealth should be duly apportioned. Our
society does not merely fail in them, but positively inverts
them ; with us, those who consume most produce least, those
who produce most consume least.

There yet remains something to be said on the third con-
dition of a fair state of society : that it should look to it that
labour be not wasted. How does civilization fare in this
respect ? I have told you what was the occupation of the
ancient slave-holders, set free by slave-labour from the necessity



Online LibraryR. C. K. (Robert Charles Kirkwood) EnsorModern socialism, as set forth by socialists in their speeches, writings, and programmes; → online text (page 9 of 35)