Art and Labour, Version 1

By William Morris

Entry 8344


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Revolt Library Anarchism Art and Labour, Version 1

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(1834 - 1896)

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he helped win acceptance of socialism in fin de siècle Great Britain. (From:

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Art and Labour, Version 1

The well-known poet and art critic, Mr. Wm. Morris, of London, delivered a lecture, under the auspices of the Preston Eclectic Society at their meeting place, Percy Street, on Wednesday evening, on "A Socialist’s view of Art and Labor.” There was a numerous and representative audience, and the chair was occupied by the Rev. W. Sharman.

The CHAIRMAN, in introducing Mr. Morris, said the democratic cause, from time time, had had melancholy reason to repeat Browning’s poem of "The Lost Leader,” but that night a gentleman came before them who took the place of the "lost leader"—who devoted his genius to the cause of the improvement of the people, and that gentleman was Mr. Wm. Morris, whom he now introduced to them—(applause).

Mr. MORRIS said the questions he had to ask them that night were—what have been, what are, and what should be the relations between art and labor. He must ask them to understand that by the word art, he meant something wider than was usually meant by it. He did not mean pretty ornament, though that was part of it; he did not mean only pictures and sculpture, though they were the highest manifestations of it; he did not mean only splendid or beautiful architecture, though that included a great deal of all that most deserved to be called art. He meant all these things, and a great many more—music, the drama, poetry, imaginative fiction, and above all and especially the kind of feeling which enabled them to see beauty in the world and stimulated them to reproduce it, to increase it, to understand it, and to sympathize with those who specially dealt with it. In short, by art he meant the intellectual, and therefore specially human pleasure of life, distinguished from the animal pleasure, and yet partaking of its nature in many ways, and which pleasure was produced by the labor of men, either manual or mental or both.

Some of them who most loved art had of late years awakened to a sense of terrible lack in the life of to-day. They had felt as if this pleasure of life were slipping away from the world, as if something or other were robbing them of it.

Many of them, sometime ago, were blind to the meaning or causes of this loss, but now they were beginning to understand what it all meant. That decrepitude of art which once only filled them with dismay and hopelessness, showed with another face now, and they recognized in it one of the tokens of the coming change in the basis of society which they so ardently desired. All along they had dimly seen that what was called modern commerce had been the foe of art or the pleasure of life, and now at last they were beginning to see that the very sickness and confusion of that pleasure was sign of commercial war wearing itself out; fretting itself away; that the foe itself would at last kill itself, and give place to something better, nothing less than that which they and he called Socialism.

What they, as lovers of art and defenders of the pleasures of life, had really [l]earned, was this: that art depended on the labor of the mass of men, and that the commerce of modern times was destructive to art, because it was the oppressor of labor, and by the commerce of modern times he meant the system of exchange which lived on the exploitation of labor—that system of profit grinding of which they all formed a part, either as the grinders or the ground.

The lecturer then sketched the relations of art labor in past times—referring to the three epochs of slavery, chattel slavery, serfdom, and wage earning slavery—in order to give some idea how it was that the comparatively modern monster of profit grinding gradually sucked art, or the pleasure of life, into its relentless mill. He also traced the formation and history of guilds, and the causes which led to the entire destruction of popular art, except in places so remote from the centers of civilization that they scarcely felt the influence of commerce.

He then proceeded to deal with the relation of art to labor at the present time, saying that labor in the mass had no longer anything to do with art. So far as the work of the worker was concerned, there was no attractiveness, that was, art, in it, whereas once his work was always almost attractive.

But if his work was no longer attractive, surely there was something compensatory otherwise in his life. Where was it then? His home? Alas in these manufacturing districts not even rich man could have a decent home, much less a poor one.

Did leisure compensate their workmen then? They need not go into that question, he thought. Or high wages, if they could be any good to him, compelled to live in the toiling hell from which, as long as he was the worker, he could not escape? They knew very well that under the present system his wages must be limited to the amount which would keep him from day to day, in the condition he was used to, or profits would come to an end. Or education, should that be his recompense? They knew that the education among them at the present day did not aim any further than class education.

It seemed to him that the question what were the present relations of art to labor was soon answered. The relations were simple enough, for labor was wholly divorced from art. As to the worker, he was either himself a machine, or was the slave of a machine. Therefore there was no art in his work, and as to his life outside his work, he had neither money, leisure, nor education, that was to say, refinement sufficient to obtain it.

>He greatly feared that some of them would think that this would not matter at all. The workman was fed, clothed, and lodged in such a way that he made a good workman—for making a profit for other people—and was contented with his lot as yet. So that they would not care to listen to his answer to the third question—What should be the relations between art and labor?

Yet, since he could answer this question also in a few words, he would risk boring them with doing so. First of all, he would take the surroundings under which the workman lived, because he did not believe his work could ever be set right until the surroundings of his life were set right, and that of course would include the surroundings of the lives of all of them.

First, the workman must live in a pleasant house in a pleasant place. That was a claim for labor which he knew they would be inclined to agree with until they considered how impossible it was to satisfy it under their present profit grinding system, for let them think what time, money, and trouble it would take to turn, say Preston, into a thoroughly pleasant place. They must also remember that a pleasant house must also be a costly one; there was no doubt about that. Then the workmen must be well educated. Here again he was sure they would all agree with his words till they knew what they meant. This was that all children should be educated not according to the money their parents happened to possess, but according to their capacity. Less than that meant class education, which was a monstrous oppression of the poor by the rich. Next, the workman most have due leisure, and again they would all agree with him till they knew what hie words meant. Overwork for profit must be prevented at any cost. The necessary maximum of a day’s work must be found out and made legal and compulsory. It followed as a corollary to this that all people must work, the result of which would be in point of fact a change of the whole basis of society.

So much for the necessary surroundings of life under which art for the whole people would be possible. They would, he thought, see that what these three things really meant was, refinement of life, or, as they called it now, the life of a gentleman. He would tell them plainly that if the workers had no hope of becoming refined, they would in the long run become brutes, and they of the well-to-do class would be no better off than the workers would be. Let them think of that and what it meant—the lives of some of them might see its terrible meaning explained unless they grew wise in time.

Now, as to the manner of work, if they were to have art once more among them. In the first place, there must be no useless work done. That indeed followed as a matter of course on the limitation of the daily hours of work. But he knew they would not agree at all in this, as they mostly lived—they of the well-to-do classes—on useless labor. Secondly, whatever necessarily irksome work must done should be done by machines, which should be used to save labor, and not, as now, to grind out profit. They were not, as they were now called, labor-saving machines, but, on the contrary, multiplied labor. The proposition that machines should be their servants, not their masters, would seem to them monstrous, but he still made the claim. In the third place, no useless work being done, and all irksome labor saved as much as possible, it would follow as a matter of course that whatever work was done, which in truth would be by far the most important, would be accompanied by pleasure in the doing, and would receive praise when done. And most true it was that the product of all work done with pleasure and worthy of praise was art—that was to say, an essential part of the pleasure of life. Beauty was the necessary expression and token of all such work.

Of course, they would say that this kind of work was desirable, but impossible to realize; but he would remind them that to a certain extent it was realized in the Middle Ages, when the workman was master of bis material, tools, and time. In order to realize this kind of work once more the workman must be master of his material, tools, and time, and this must be brought about not by reverting to the system of the Middle Ages, which was absolutely impossible, but by making the workman master of his time, tools, and material, collectively or socially. Of course he knew that this meant the altering of the basis of society, since it meant nothing less than supplanting the present system of competition by Socialism or universal cooperation, whichever they liked to call it. He doubted not that most of them would think such a change a heavy price to pay for art, even it were true, as he still asserted that it was, that they could not have art without that change.

Yet he must ask them to remember that he had called art the pleasure of life, which indeed meant nothing short of happiness. Let them tell him, then, what was too high a price to buy general happiness with.

It was also necessary for the new birth of art that the workman should be well housed and well educated, and have due leisure in his life. He knew this could not happen under the present competitive system. If they did not know it they might find it true some day when they began to try that the workman should be well housed, well educated, and be in possession of due leisure, and if the present system would not do this for him what would? This was an important question, which the workman would one day ask and answer for himself without their help if they did not look to it. His answer to the question was, the supremacy of labor used in a social sense for the benefit of the community. That was the next move in the great game of progress which would be made, whether they liked It or not, and whether they helped in it or not.

To him all things seemed moving in that way. The middle classes, long struggling with the class above them, first for existence and latterly for supremacy, had now entered into a new phase, and were arming themselves to resist the class which had formed below them during that struggle, and which had now taken their place in the march of progress. He could not doubt that they had noted some of the tokens of this new struggle. The success of the trades unions in England, though they themselves, hurriedly founded at a time when the principles of Socialism were not well understood, in one of the darker periods of our history, had grown to be conservative bodies, looking after the interests of the aristocracy of labor, regulating the extent to which labor should be fleeced by capital, and not, as they should do, resisting the fleecing of labor by capital altogether. He could not doubt that they had noted the re-awakening of Socialism, supposed to have been dead, in a new and scientific form, even in England, the stronghold of the middle class supremacy, and its rapid spread over the continent of Europe, and especially in Germany, the land of education. All these things pointed to the coming of the great change when the time should be ripe for it. Nor, on the other hand, were there lacking signs of that ripeness—that rottenness, one might call it. England, the great commercial country, was not losing, but had lost, her monopoly of trade which she had after the great French War. Competition was eating its own heart out. Everywhere he heard the manufacturers telling the same story. In the meantime, let them ask themselves what would happen when wages after a certain time did begin to fall very widely; when the working classes, having brought their standard of life up to a certain pitch, found that under the present system that standard could not be maintained. It seemed to him that when that pitch came the conservative instincts of the British working man, on which they of the middle class counted so much, would fail society, and then what would happen [to] them? He begged them to be warned in time. He begged it not in the interests of their own class, which he hoped to see melt away into the general community founded on the equality of labor, but in the interests of the individuals of it who might be alive at the time. He begged it in the interests of that peace and order which they sometimes spoke of, and which be thought was more in their mouths than in their hearts, that the change might be brought about as little mechanically and as completely as might be. And he was boldly begging this since he himself belonged to that middle class, and he thought represented an increasing number of men of that class who, whatever happened, must throw in their lot with the workers at every stage of the struggle. To them the name Socialism did not represent a political party, but a religion, to which they were bound to devote their lives. There were even now but two camps—that of the people and that of their masters. Between those two they must make their choice. Rich and poor were the words which divided the world, and he earnestly begged them to join themselves to the cause of the poor, in the hope that those two names so long expressive of the curse of the world should one day have no meaning to them, but that they should all be friends and good fellows, united in the communion of hopeful and pleasurable labor, which alone could produce art, or the pleasure of life—(applause).

The Chairman, at the close of the lecture, said that Mr. Morris would be glad to answer any questions that might be asked.

Mr. GREENHALGH asked, with regard to the Socialists on the Continent, were they not a political body trying subvert society in its present form? He also wished to know if they were to understand that the lecturer bad advocated the abolition of all labor-saving machinery. Would he abolish the spinning frame, by means of which a man could now do as much could be dose formerly in three mouths?

Mr. BANCROFT would like to be informed as to whether Englishman living in the 13th century, in about the same condition of life as the present skilled artisan, had the same home comforts, good dwellings, education of the same character, was his knowledge of all departments of learning as extensive, was his clothing, food, and other comforts of life up the mark of the present day? In our present competitive system was there not arising the very spirit that the lecturer had called Socialism, that was, sympathy for the weak or for those who might fall behind?

Mr. H. NEWSHAM, in referring to the views of the Democratic Federation, said the lecturer bad been telling them that there would probably be a revolution, as there had been in France. How was the society spoken of going to bring about this change, or what was the modus operandi they wished to be adopted? The lecturer had said that the degradation of the people had been mainly brought about by the "profit grinding” introduced into commerce. Would there not be little destitution in England if the £136,000.000 spent in drink were spent in arts and sciences?

Mr. S. LEE would like know the condition of the people when art was supreme—religiously and intellectually—as compared with the present day.

Another GENTLEMAN supposed they had an illustration of the state of society, or at least in relation to profits, in their present cooperative societies. They found that under this system the laborer was in no better state. Ha did not see that things would be much better if they were nationalized, if they took the Post-office as example. There was a great deal of the screw put on them. They had a most responsible and respectable class who were letter carriers, who were national servants, and therefore represented more or less what the nation would do if everything was nationalized, and yet they were miserably underpaid ─ (hear, hear).

Mr. SHAW asked what steps were to be taken to make all folks of one equal web.[sic]

Mr. BARNES wished to know if the working classes of this country bad derived that benefit from improvements in machinery they ought to have done.

Mr. MORRIS, in reply, said it seemed to him that the questions divided themselves into two classes—one having reference to the historical part of what he had been speaking, and the other to the practical questions of today and bow the Socialists proposed to deal with them.

With reference to the condition of the people in the Middle Ages, the real test of the prosperity in every society was what was the material condition of the various classes, and, of course, what was the relative position. At that time society was in a very rude state, but the point he wanted to call their attention to was that there was a great deal more equality in those times in the condition of the people than there was now. According to all accounts the field laborer got about five times what he did now, and the artisan about the same. The field laborer could earn two g[r]oats and a half or a sucking pig in a day, or an ox in a fortnight, and he (the speaker) thought it would take him a good many fortnights to earn an ox now.

The matter of the intellectual and religious condition of the people went into a very wide question indeed. He must not be supposed to deny that there had not been any progress since those days. Far from it. Certain progress had been made; and now, when the actual change took place, when the system was changed, the progress that had been made, intellectually and religiously, would be obvious. The progress that had been made since the medieval times up to now had been almost entirely in favor of the rich class. He should say decidedly that the average Englishman was much worse educated up to a few years back than one in the 14th century—take the ordinary agricultural laborer for example. As to his knowledge of philosophy of religion, he was much in the same condition that he was then—pretty much steeped in superstition. Everywhere in England, everywhere where Socialism was not really well forward, this was the condition of all classes, except those of the highest education, who in their turn veiled the knowledge they had acquired with a veil of the most diabolical hypocrisy. This was simply an illustration of the ill-results of the change of the system for livelihood to working for profit.

The liquor question was always a touchy one—(laughter). He could not enter into the question whether liquor should not be manufactured at all, but he was quite certain that people should not drink too much of it. The question that his friend asked certainly had its dealings with the subject be bad been speaking of in this way. Supposing it to be a useless luxury he thought it ought to be put down. The putting down of useless luxuries of all sorts would add consequently to the income of the working classes. All luxuries must distinctly be a tax levied by those who made useless things upon those who made useful things.

As to whether the competitive system did not teach them consideration for their neighbors, he did not see how it could.

With regard to labor-saving machines, he did not advocate the abolition of them. He said that repulsive work should be performed by machines, and that they should be really for saving labor. They were now simply used for profit, and therefore for multiplying labor. He hoped no one supposed they could do without them, but he would make them our servants, and not our masters, as they were now.

He did not think the present cooperative societies were a solution of the whole social difficulty, because it did not matter at all, where money was earned for profit, whether it was earned by a corporation or by an individual, it was still a matter of profit.

He begged to say that he did not agree with the gentleman who instanced the post-office, and said that if all institutions were nationalized they would be conducted in the same way. It was perfectly true that the post-office was an example of such administration, but they must remember that the post-office was worked on the present system.

The subject of equality would involve a lecture on Socialism generally. Difficulties in the regulation of different kinds of labor might exist to a certain extent, but he did not see in the long run any insuperable difficulties in its solution. There was a certain amount of labor to done and a certain amount of supervision, and they simply wished to step in the place of those who were of no use—to abolish. in point of fact, the fifth wheel of the coach.

One gentleman had asked with reference to the Socialists on the Continent trying to subvert the present society, but he rather fancied that bis friend had in his mind the dynamitards. They (the Socialists) said that if they were driven to crime, and crimes were committed, the burden of committing those crimes rested upon those who forced the crimes to be committed. They had got certain opinions to propagate, and it was their duty to propagate them without fear of consequences. If any time these opinions should be put down by violence, that violence came, not from those who held those opinions and wished to propagate them by perfectly legal means, but from those who put them down. The manner in which the Social Democratic Federation carried on its work might ba gathered from the motto at the top of its manifesto, "Agitate, educate, and organize” They must get the people to understand that they were not so well off as they ought to be, and make them discontented; to show them that there was much more to be divided than there was, and that it was only right and fair that every one should have his share. They had to educate them; to show them by the evidence of history that there was a distinct value in the condition of labor. They had to get them to organize themselves in such a way that they could make those demands which they believed to be reasonable and proper. It was quite plain that if the workmen would only combine in sufficient numbers they could make those demands so plain and clear that dominant class could not and dare not refuse them. The idea of Socialism, they might be sure, had got hold of the people, and was growing day by day, and nothing whatever would keep it back. Therefore, if the workmen did not combine completely and organize thoroughly it was possible that all kinds of disorder and misfortune would happen, because it was quite clear the thing would not be smothered. To a very small extent trades unions would show them what could done; but let them suppose a great trades union with all the workmen of England, and not only England, but of the whole of clvilisation! Partial strikes were almost always defeated, unless an advantage was snatched upon a rising market. But if there was a universal strike and that could be maintained by proper cooperation among the different bodies of workmen—they would have the world in their hands. Society would have to give way. If it did not it would be starved, that was all.

The CHAIRMAN then conveyed the thanks of the meeting to Mr. Morris for having made a special journey from London to deliver the lecture, and the proceedings terminated.

Bibliographical Note


A Socialist's View of Art and Labor (as reported by the Preston Herald)


The Preston Herald, Saturday, 25 October, 1884, p.9

This talk was given many times. A full list of the various versions and deliveries of the talk can be found on the Art and Labor page. The Preston Herald account is a faithful rendering of a talk made up of the alternative introduction, the final section of The Relations of Art to Labor, and the political conclusion from the original manuscript.

The account of Morris's talk in the Preston Herald has no internal paragraph breaks. In this version paragraph breaks have been restored from the published and manuscript sources.

Transcription, notes, and HTML

Graham Seaman, July 2020.

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