Development of Modern Society (Part 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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Development of Modern Society (Part 1)

“Development of Modern Society”, Part 1
Author: William Morris
Source: Commonweal, Volume 6, Number 236, pp.225-6 19 July 1890 (the first of five parts.)
Transcribed by: Ted Crawford
Proofing and HTML:Graham Seaman

ALL the progressive races of man have gone through a stage of development during which society has been very different to what it is now. At present there is a very definite line of distinction drawn between the personal life of a man and his life as a member of society. As a rule, the only direction in which this social life is felt is in that of his nearest kindred—his wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters. This is so much the case that we to-day have given to the word relations (which should mean all those with whom a man has serious and continuous dealings) a fresh meaning, and made it signify only those near members of kinship aforesaid. For the rest most civilized men acknowledge no responsibility. Though the word State is in everybody's mouth, most people have but the vaguest idea as to what it means; it is even generally considered as a synonym to the Government, which also indicates either the heads of one of the political parties, or the vague entity called by Carlyle the parish constable—in other words, the executive power of the ruling classes in our society. So little do we feel any responsibilities to this hardly conceivable thing, the State, that while few indeed feel any loyalty towards it, most men do not realize it sufficiently even to feel any enmity against it—except, perhaps, when the tax-gatherer’s hand is on the knocker.

Now all this is so far the result of a long series of history, which I must just hint at before one comes to the condition of the workman during its different stages,—a series of events which tended to give to the word property the meaning which it now has; a series of events which tended more and more to consider things as the important matter of consideration rather than persons; which I may illustrate by the fact that nowadays the law looks upon the estate as of more importance than the user of it, as for instance in the case of the estate of a lunatic, which it will defend to the utmost against all attacks, and treat as if it had a genuine life and soul capable of feeling all injuries and pains, while all the time the lunatic is under restraint.

I will now contrast this entire ignoring of the community (for that will be a better word than State to use at present) with the conditions under which men lived in earlier ages of the world, and through which, as I have said, all the progressive races have passed, some of them so early that when we first meet them in history they are already passing out of it into the next development. In this early period the individual is so far from feeling no responsibility to the community, that all his responsibilities have relation to the community. Indeed, this sense of responsibility, as we shall see later on, has only been completely extinguished since the introduction of the present economical and political system—since the death of feudality, in short: but in the period I am thinking about it was a quite unquestioned habit. The unit of society, the first, and in the beginning the only bond, was the narrowest form of clan, called the gens. This was an association of persons who were traceably of one blood or kinship. Intermarriage between its members was forbidden, or rather was not even dreamed of: a man of the Eagle gens could have no sexual intercourse with an Eagle woman, nor thought of it. All property was in common within the gens, and descent was traced, not through the father, but through the mother, who was the obvious parent of the child. Whatever competition (war, you may call it, for competition was simple in those days), was outside the group of blood relations, each of which felt no responsibility for other groups of their members. But the fact that intermarriage was impossible within these groups brought about a larger association. Since an Eagle could not marry an Eagle, the Eagles must either get their wives by violent robbery in a haphazard fashion from outsiders, or have some other society at hand into which they could marry, and who could marry into their society. It used to be thought that the violent robbery was the method, but I believe the second method was the one used. There were groups of neighbors at hand who were recognized as belonging to the same stock, but who were not too near in blood to make marriage impossible. Between these groups there was affinity, therefore; the Eagles could intermarry with the Owls, the Sparrows, the Cats, or what not, according to a somewhat intricate system, and this quite without violence. And also between the clans or gentes who composed these tribes there would be no war, and the use of whatever land they fed their stock upon or cultivated (for in some places or ages this gentile-tribal system lasted well into the agricultural period) was arranged peaceably in a communal method.

Now the tribe in which a common ancestor (worshiped as a god) was always assumed, and was generally a fact, tended to federate with other tribes who still felt that they belonged to a common stock, who thus formed an association called by our ancestors the thiod, or people; an association much looser, of course, than that of the gens or tribe, but like those, founded on an idea of common kindred; founded on the personal kinship of all its members to the god-ancestor, and not on locality or the holding of certain property or position. The offices of the body, under whatever names they went, were appointed by the tribesmen for their personal qualities to perform definite duties. There was no central executive body; every freeman had certain necessary duties to perform, a shadow of which still exists in our jury, who were originally the neighbors called together to utter their finding (without direction from a judge) as to how such a one had come by his death, what was to do between two neighbors who could not agree, and so forth. If a man was injured, it was the duty of the members of his gens or clan to take up the injury as an injury to the community. This is the meaning of the blood-feud of which we hear so much in the early literature of the North, and of the Celtic clans, and a survival of which still exists among out-of-the-way folks. The practice of the vendetta in Corsica, e.g., does not indicate that the Corsicans are a specially vindictive people; it is a survival of the tribal customary law: its sentimentalizing by novelists and poets is a matter of ignorance—naturally enough, I admit. “Government” or administration, or whatever else you may call it, was in this condition of society as direct as it ever can be; nor had government by majority been invented—e.g., if the clans could not agree to unite in war, the war could not go on, unless any clan chose to go to war by itself.

I am conscious of not explaining fully the difference between such a state of society and ours; but it is indeed difficult to do so now, when all our ideas and the language which expresses them have been for so many ages molded by such a totally different society. But I must, at least, try to make you understand that the whole of the duties of a freeman in this society had reference to the community of which he formed a part, and that he had no interests but the interest of the community; the assertion of any such private interests would have been looked upon as a crime, or rather a monstrosity, hardly possible to understand. This feudal union of the tribes is the last state of society under barbarism; but before I go on to the next stage, I must connect it with our special subject, the condition of productive labor.

With the development of the clans into federated tribes came a condition of organized aggressive war, since all were recognized as enemies outside of the tribe or federation; and with this came the question what was to be done with the prisoners taken in battle, and, furthermore, what was to be done with the tribe conquered so entirely as not to be able to defend its possessions, the land, which it used. Chattel slavery was the answer to the one question, serfdom to the second. You see this question was bound to come up in some form, as soon as the productive powers of man had grown to a certain point. In the very early stages of society slaves are of no use, because your slave will die unless you allow him to consume all that he produces; it is only when by means of tools and the organization of labor that he can produce more than is absolutely necessary for his livelihood, that you can take anything from him. Robbery only begins when property begins; so that slavery doesn't begin till tribes are past the mere hunter period. When they go to war they only save their prisoners to have some fun out of them by torturing them, as the redskins did, unless, perhaps, as sometimes happened, they adopt them into the tribe, which also the redskins did at times. But in the pastoral stage slaves become possible, and when you come to the agricultural stage (to say nothing of further developments) they become necessary till the time when privilege is destroyed and all men are equal. There are, then, three conditions of mankind, mere gregarious organized savagery, slavery, and social equality. When you once have come to that conclusion you must also come to this deduction from it, that if you shrink from any sacrifice to the Cause of Socialism it must be because we are either weak or criminal, either cowards or tyrants—perhaps both.

Well, this last stage of barbarism, that of the federated tribes, gave way in ancient history, the history of the Greeks and Romans, into the first stage of civilization. The life of the city[A], and in medieval history into feudalism; it is under the latter that the development of the treatment of the conquered tribe as serfs is the most obvious; serfdom being the essence of medieval society proper, and its decay beginning with the decline of serfdom. But, undoubtedly, there were serfs in the classical period; that is to say an inferior class to the freemen, who were allowed to get their own livelihood on the condition of their performing certain services for them, and with a certain status, though a low one, which raised them above the condition of the chattel-slave, whose position was not recognized at all more than that of his fellow laborer, the horse or the ass. The Helots, for example, were the serfs rather than the slaves of the Spartans, and there were other instances both among the Greeks and the Romans of laborers in a similar position.

However, chattel slavery as opposed to serfdom is the characteristic form of servitude in the ancient city life. In that life you must understand the idea of the merging of the individual into the community was still strong, although property had come into existence, and had created a political condition of society under which things were growing to be of more moment than persons. But the community had got to be an abstraction, and it was to that abstraction, and not to the real visible body of persons that individual interests were to be sacrificed. This is more obvious among the Romans than the Greeks, whose mental individuality was so strong and so various, that no system could restrain it; so that when that system began to press heavily upon them they could not bear it, and in their attempts to escape from its consequences fell into the mere corruption of competitive tyranny at an early period. The Romans, on the other hand, without art or literature, a hard and narrow-minded race, cultivated this worship of the city into an over-mastering passion, so fierce and so irrational that their history before their period of corruption reads more like that of a set of logical demons bent on torturing themselves and everybody else, than a history of human beings. They must be credited with the preservation of the art and literature of Greece (though with its corruptions and stultification as well), and for the rest I think the world owes them little but its curse, unless indeed we must accept them as a terrible example of over-organization. Of their state one may say what one of their poets said of their individual citizens, when they were sunk in their well-earned degradation, that for the sake of life they cast away the reasons for living.


( To be continued.)

(A) Thus in original; this is presumably a typesetter’s mistake in the punctuation. GS.

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