The Living Wage
(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 : Wikipedia.org.)
The Living Wage
On Sunday afternoon, happening to be in the neighborhood of Ravenscourt Park — which, I may state, is near Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush ─ I saw the sturdy, well-knit figure of Mr. William Morris tramping along heedless of the driving rain and the keen north-east wind. Mr. William Morris is an extraordinary character — in fact, he answers to the description of "three single gentlemen rolled into one." Firstly, he is a poet ─ "the idle singer of an empty day" he calls himself; secondly, be is an art-decorator, a designer of artistic wall-papers, and man of a flourishing business in which there is little time for idle singing; thirdly, he is a gentlemanly Socialist. One could not call him a "kid-gloved Socialist" seeing that he does not wear kid gloves, and appears on all occasions in a dark blue loose suit, a higher-color blue-gray shirt open at the neck, and a red tie. Seeing that Mr. Morris seemed to have a purpose in his walk, I followed him to a small Congregational Chapel, near Shepherd's Bush, and there heard him deliver a speech, or lecture, or sermon, or whatever it may be called, on "The Living Wage." The result was disappointment. The speech seemed to have no heart in it. Mr. Morris's thesis seemed to be that everybody had a right to a "living wage," whether he was competent in his trade, business, or profession,or whether he was utterly incompetent. Further, that as the price of everything had risen and we were compelled to live in a more luxurious style than our forefathers, the prices of labor ought to rise in order to keep pace with the luxury of the times. Frankly, I like Mr. William Morris better as a poet than as a Socialist.
Mr. William Morris delivered an address on the "living wage" in a stern-looking place of worship called the Oaklands Congregational Church yesterday afternoon. "A living wage" meant (he said) that the workmen, having raised their standard of living to a certain point, considered that they were not justified in working for less money, and that, in point of fact, they refused to do so. Was it true that the miners were not such bad political economists after all? In answering this question, one had to consider not the political economy of bankers and money-lenders, but the political economy of laborers. The question must also be considered whether the idle people of the country, who controlled the forces of law and order, could carry their power to all lengths. Something of a compromise was bound to be arrived at between the organized physical forces of the country and those who do its useful work. Though the capitalists might carry out their threat of taking their capital out of the country, they could not carry away the country itself. The workers could always impose their views upon the community within the bounds of sense and reason. The owners were in control of a most indispensable commodity which they were unable to put upon the market without starving a section of the working population. Either these people were trustees or not; if they were not trustees they were living on other peoples goods, and if they could not carry on the business in a satisfactory way there was only one thing to do: put it into the hands of people who could—that is to say. the State.
A large number of people were present last Sunday afternoon to hear Mr. William Morris deliver a lecture on the "Living Wage." The lecturer said that the recent Coal War differed from all previous strikes, inasmuch it was a struggle for bare existence on the men's part. Previous disputes had been more or less a mere matter of business between master and men as to the exact division of profits. Defining the term "Living Wage" Mr. Morris declared that it meant that weekly sum which the workman considered sufficient, and below which he was resolved not to go. There was a definite principle contained in the proposition, and though at the present it had only been applied to coal mining, the time was approaching when it would have to be applied to all industries. Mr. Morris further ventured to prophecy that in the battle between Capital and Labor, the latter must be victorious, because "although the Capitalist might carry away his money out of the country he could not carry away the country itself." In conclusion the speaker advocated a workmen’s or socialistic political party, which should consider and advocate nothing but what was to the worker's advantage. Perhaps, said Mr. Morris, some may consider this selfish and greedy, but it seems to me that such terms are curious ones to apply to the poorest party in the country.
The Living Wage (as reported in the press)
This is a previously unrecorded talk by Morris. The coal miners had gone on strike in 1893 after their employers had tried to impose a wage reduction of 25%. The government intervened to end the strike after the death of strikers in Yorkshire, shot by the local militia. The strikers returned to work on their previous wages but with a government organized Conciliation Board tasked with assessing a 'fair' level of wages for the future: a 'living wage'.
The 'living wage' was not a new concept - it had even been discussed in a papal encyclical in 1891 - but the miners' strike in 1893 saw a wave of talks, lectures, congresses, and pamphlets on the topic, many involving nonconformists (Congregationalists in particular). Tarleton gave a talk with this title to the Hammersmith Socialist Society on November 19th, but it is not known if the contents was the same as Morris's.
Morris's own notes for the current talk have not survived and the newspaper reports are too brief and unreliable to give a full understanding of its structure (in particular, the reference to 'putting business in the hands of the state' is quite untypical of Morris's published views). All the same it is clear that Morris was against the SDF position of decrying calls for a living wage as a 'mirage' and a fraud, and saw the demand for a living wage as one of principle which pointed beyond capitalism to socialism.
He returned to the topic briefly in relation to women workers in April 1894 (Interview with the Women's Signal).
Graham Seaman, July 2020.
From : Marxists.org
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