In this paper from my research project on Other People’s Struggles, I examine how wealthy Victorian socialists addressed questions of solidarity and fellowship. My focus is the degree to which the socialists thought their own lives needed to change in order to play the roles (which were of course diverse) they assigned to themselves and those like them in the socialist movement. I am interested in whether, when and how the disjointnesses of background and experience and present positioning – wealth, privilege, modes of living and so on – were perceived as problematic for an emerging socialist movement, what solutions were proposed and adopted, and how successful they were.
To provide some focus, I will examine four distinct views on this question in 1883, the year of the great Socialist revival in Britain. They come from three men who each declared himself a socialist in that year: William Morris, Edward Carpenter and George Bernard Shaw, and two who had already done so: Sidney Webb and Belfort Bax.
Of the ways that Socialist Fellowship is made
The first case I consider is William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and businessman. Morris was perpetually troubled by the ‘great class gulf’ that impeded true fellowship among socialists. For him, socialism was not just a set of beliefs one might entertain, but a prefigurative social practice which must be lived. What he wanted most for workers was not improved labour organisation, nor electoral independence, nor even the acceptance of socialist doctrine, but a whole-hearted embrace and exemplification of fellowship in ordinary life. Socialism for the rich was not only a matter of encouraging workers to achieve solidarity among themselves. The rich could not live as though indifferent to the sources of their wealth, but needed somehow to renounce it and its horrible provenance in capitalist exploitation. They too must achieve fellowship with the workers.
This was difficult. Morris felt separated from working men by painful disjointnesses of background. It was hard to move from the intimate fellowship he had enjoyed in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the larger, rougher and unfamiliar world of the working men’s clubs. The tensions were partly a matter of differences over socialist strategy. Morris was torn between his Marxist distaste for ameliorative parliamentarism and palliative trade unionism – at least when they were made part of a socialist programme – and the desire for an intense comradeship with working men. He acknowledged that differences of background might underlie these differences of strategic perspective. ‘I have always belonged to the well-to-do classes, and was born into luxury’, he told one audience, ‘so that necessarily I ask much more of the future than many of you do’. But how could fellowship with working men be achieved if one disapproved so much of the strategies and institutions they had developed for themselves? Morris could not feel content with the heightened ambition that privilege had given him. Class differences also seemed to him ‘strange … sad and shameful’, and he thought that his audiences would find them so too.
orris’s unhappiness persisted because the gulf that divided him from the workers was not just a matter of past background, but also his present manner of living as an employer and a wealthy man. A further challenge, therefore, was that so neatly worded by G. A. Cohen in his question for socialists today, ‘If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?’. This question frequently arose at Morris’s lectures. He replied that when socialism came he would be willing to sink his wealth into the common stock of the nation and work for the same wage as everyone else. But for the present, it would do no good because even the richest were ‘but minute links in the immense chain of the terrible organisation of competitive commerce’. ‘The poor would be just as poor, the rich, perhaps, a little more rich’, Morris retorted to a heckler, ‘for my wealth would finally get into their hands’. To give away his wealth would not amount to more than a drop in the ‘great ocean of economic slavery’, he told a friend in 1884. Such sacrifices might reduce the anxiety of his workers’ lives. But this would be almost worse, because they would fritter away small sums on ‘swinish comfort’, and larger sums would turn them into little capitalists. There was another difficulty too. It would not be fair to expect his family to bear the cost of his principles. ‘I feel the pinch of society, for which society I am only responsible in a very limited degree’, he wrote.
Morris’s arguments do not provide a strong defence of the rich egalitarian. Even if the primary injustice under capitalism is a systematic inequality which cannot be corrected by individual giving, the rich egalitarian can still do something now to remedy the secondary injustices suffered by the poor. Even a drop in the ocean might nonetheless make a real difference to the lives of the recipients. This is tacitly accepted by many rich egalitarians who accept the obligation to give something to the poor and who only resist giving most of what they have. Moreover, the money Morris gave to the socialist cause mostly ended up in the hands of capitalists too, but he did not regard that as a sound reason for not spending it. Even accepting the priority of the struggle over private giving, Morris did not, of course, give most of his wealth to that either.
It is therefore tempting to dismiss Morris’s arguments as hypocritical. Maybe he found it too hard to renounce beautiful objects and the means to acquire them. For Morris, perhaps, Liberty trumped fraternity and equality. But this would be to simplify a complex discomfort. Morris made little use of more reasonable defences for the rich egalitarian. To expect the rich to give away most of what they have, Cohen suggests, is to expect more of them than others, because they will feel the self-inflicted pain of the loss more sharply than the poor who have no choice and are used to it. Morris, however, would have thought this reply unsatisfactory because it drew lines between socialists on the basis of their class backgrounds and experiences. The question that drove his own socialism was, ‘How could you bear it yourself?’. The reply implied by Cohen’s argument – ‘You couldn’t, but they can’ – was unacceptable to him, because in justifying persistent differences of wealth in terms of different expectations and needs, it reinscribed the difference between the rich socialists and the workers with whom they sought fellowship.
Cohen also argues that there may be pragmatic reasons for the rich to retain wealth and position. Morris’s wealth allowed him to finance party activities that could not have been afforded otherwise. It paid to bail out working class demonstrators when they were arrested, and for the printing and distribution of socialist tracts. Morris’s social position also enabled him to take greater risks on the platform than working-class speakers, and to pull rank in the police station or court room. But, again, although Morris did exploit his position, he disliked doing so, because it drove a wedge between himself and his comrades, exposing the differences of wealth, experience and background which his socialism sought to abolish. What he needed to satisfy his desire for fellowship were not justifications for disjointness, but a means of achieving conjointness.
Conjointness, however, was not easily achieved. The pretence that as a craftsman-employer he was a worker like any other – ‘a workman, at any rate in my own way’ – fooled no one, least of all himself. The self-questioning – ‘How could you bear it yourself?’ – could achieve only a hypothetical sharing of the worker’s life-experiences. It might prompt shame, the uneasy emotion Marx had described as a ‘revolution of a kind’. But shame was not the primary feeling of workers, rather of the shamed rich, and could not ground fellowship.
Instead, Morris sought to erase the differences through participatory conjointness, that is, through the feelings of belonging created by common experiences in the movement itself. He was, as Hyndman acknowledged, ‘even too eager to take his full part in the unpleasant part of our public work … never satisfied unless he was doing work … he was little fitted for, and others of coarser fibre could do much better than he’. He ‘carried the banner, sold literature, took the hat round for collections … acted as a sandwichman, between placards advertising Commonweal …. gave a hand with the smallest mechanical details of office or branch organisation’. In Glasier’s affectionate depiction of him, Morris, dressed in his famous rough blue shirt, is continually suggesting collective activities, walks and discussion, and picnics and singing, and refusing the deference that workers offer him. Hyndman himself behaved differently. He addressed audiences of working men wearing the garb of a stockbroker (which he was), offering ironic thanks to the workers for their stupidity in keeping him in his privileged position. This invocation of disjointness was consistent with Hyndman’s wider views. ‘A slave class cannot be freed by the slaves themselves’, he believed. ‘The leadership, the initiative, the teaching, the organisation, must come from those who were born into a different position’. The problem was that, however theoretically correct, Hyndman’s disjointness was alienating. ‘At almost every meeting he addressed’, the socialist trade union leader Tom Mann recalled, ‘Hyndman would cynically thank the audience for “so generously supporting my class”. Indeed, he brought in “my class” to an objectionable degree.’
Morris, by contrast, ‘did not harangue his audiences’, or so Glasier tells us, ‘but spoke to them as a man to his friends or neighbours and as one on their own level of intelligence and goodwill’. In a way Hyndman could never have done, Morris cheerfully admitted that he struggled to understand Marxist economics, and solicited everyone else’s opinions on political questions rather than impose his own. His ‘chants’ for socialists were, unlike those earlier in the century, neither instructions to the workers to ‘rise like lions’, nor attempts to speak on their behalf, but were written from the midst of a common struggle in which all were comrades, in which there was no special place for the socially smart, and ‘named and nameless all live in us’. Above all, Morris shared the risks of the cause. He was arrested for assaulting a policeman in 1885, and summonsed for obstruction the following year.
It is hard to be sure how successful participatory conjointness was. Morris found a basic and insoluble problem of address. He couldn’t employ the mateyness that Mann and John Burns used in their speeches. ‘[I]t is a great drawback that I can’t talk to them roughly and unaffectedly’, he wrote after a meeting in Stepney in 1885. His diary of political meetings in 1887 frequently records a lack of connection. ‘I shall have to be as familiar and unliterary as I can’, he told himself before addressing a ‘rather rough lot of honest poor people’ in Mitcham. But even the best audiences were quiet, unresponsive and uncomprehending; and the worst, ignorant, ‘perfectly supine’, and ‘degraded’, with drunkenness often the only thing that prompted a critical intervention from the floor.
Morris’s lectures were also heavy with instruction, because his purpose was to convert workers to socialism, rather than offer them the half-loaf of palliatives they already wanted. His value to the socialist movement came from the expensive education that had made him ambitious, insightful and eloquent concerning their condition. When his journalism was criticised for its difficulty, he responded that he ‘could not offer to the workers what he did not himself think good’. But this was bound to leave such audiences feeling that the small betterments that they sought through the unions and co-operatives were unworthy, and that there was some higher, less selfish goal that they were missing or perhaps could not comprehend. This rarely aroused hostility. The atmosphere at Morris’s meetings tended to be, as Shaw described it, one of ‘ignorant and uncertain reverence’. The deference was a sign of Morris’s value, but also of a difference he hated yet could not erase. His audiences always contained a large component of those who had come to see Morris the artist and writer – the ‘distinguished curiosity’ who still lived at a distance from them.
Of William Morris and participatory conjointness
Of Edward Carpenter and isolated conjointness.
The possibilities of a deeper conjointness were being explored elsewhere in 1883 by another of that year’s converts to socialism. Edward Carpenter had abandoned the church for university extension lecturing, but was frustrated to find that his audiences consisted not of manual workers but other middle class people. In 1883, he met Morris and Hyndman and paid for the Democratic Federation to launch its newspaper, Justice. But Carpenter’s desire for conjointness took him in a different direction to either of them. Using a legacy from his father, he had purchased Millthorpe, a house and seven-acre plot of land in rural Derbyshire, which he spent the year repairing and improving. In Towards Democracy, also published in 1883, Carpenter set out his vision of conjointness with the unprivileged.
This required a sharper break than Morris felt able to make. Millthorpe involved a commitment to self-supporting labour, simple living, and a reorientation of friendships and associations. For Carpenter, divestment meant much more than disposing of financial assets, but a reconsideration of every convention of daily living, from clothing to diet and health, household arrangements, and family and personal relationships. He advocated simple dress not merely on grounds of health and cost but also so as to remove the disjoint class signals which expensive clothing introduced into human interactions. He also embraced radical democratic notions of learning from below. The poor not only knew things the elite had forgotten but knew all one needed to live conjointly. He ‘seems to live in great amity with the workmen and the women’, wrote Morris after visiting Millthorpe. ‘[T]hey all live together in the kitchen and ‘tis all very pleasant’.
For all this, Carpenter found a lived egalitarianism effortful. His early days at Millthorpe, living amid a ‘perfectly illiterate unprogressive country population’ were lonely. Over time, however, he did construct an extensive network of personal friends, which included manual labourers, though also many of the disillusioned and lost middle classes too. Like Morris, Carpenter adhered most readily to craft workers rather than newly organising semi-skilled or unskilled workers. His relationships with them did not always match his hopes. Many workers were distressingly materialistic and ambitious, and remained stubbornly attached to cheap goods. They missed the possibilities of the ‘larger socialism’ and new ways of living in fellowship.
These were perhaps the unavoidable inconsistencies of any such effort at adherence. Carpenter’s social experiments were, after all, artificial and impossible for anyone poorer to emulate. Millthorpe was a freehold property, purchased with his legacy, so its commercial viability rested on inherited wealth. When its stresses became too much for him, there was always the possibility of a foreign holiday for recuperation. As his biographer acknowledges, Carpenter had not become poor himself, but was ‘looking at the poor and outcast and willing himself among them’. Carpenter did more than any of his generation to show how a middle class man of private means could detach himself from a Victorian upbringing and its expectations. Where he was less successful was in reattachment to something else.
But it is arguable that was never his intention. Carpenter sometimes romanticised the notion of becoming one with the poor, but he did not minimise its difficulties. Far from fostering fellowship, he argued, contact with the poor usually punctured it, requiring great patience and tolerance. Many of those of Carpenter’s own class who fetched up at Millthorpe with dreams of ‘crossing over’ were either dabblers with hopelessly impractical schemes, or drifters who hoped to postpone any manual work until the day when the socialist revolution made it unnecessary. ‘[B]elonging neither to one class nor the other, outcasts from one, and more or less pitied or ridiculed by the other’, wrote Carpenter, they were in a kind of spiritual limbo. What he wanted for himself was not to become working class, but to displace class: to live as though class did not matter. This is what has made him such a fine visionary example for contemporary libertarian socialists. To them he seems a man ahead of his time. But for the purposes of adherence to other people’s struggles, especially when the struggle is oriented to solidarity, being a few steps ahead is still to be out of line. Carpenter’s desire to displace class was unhelpful to those for whom class emphatically mattered. They saw class difference as not something to transcend, but, on the contrary, as the basis of struggle.
As a consequence, Carpenter remained remote from the tasks of organising workers or building socialist parties. He was, of course, not a political hermit. Like Morris, though less energetically, he managed to erase some of the disabling disjointness of his own background through the shared experiences of open-air speaking, pamphleteering, street corner politics, ‘amusing and exciting wrangles with the police and the town-crowds’ and their associated intimacies. But he resisted taking up membership, making alignments and commitments. He could ally with movements which wanted a loosely affiliated friend, but not with more organised struggles for whom commitment was the cement needed to fix adherents in place. This was Morris’s own conclusion. He contemplated the attractions of Millthorpe ‘with longing heart’, sensing the attractions of ‘a decent community as a refuge from our mean squabbles and corrupt society’. But to throw up the political struggle for such a retreat would be ‘dastardly’. Voluntary simplicity of life was all very well, but socialists’ task was to end the involuntary simplicity of the lives of the poor.
In the terms I use in my book Other People’s Struggles, therefore, this was a project of limited ambition, not in the relationship it proposed to workers, which was admirably uninstructive, but in terms of its projected size and timescale. Through his own example and the stimuli it gave to others, Carpenter showed that an individual could live very largely as though class did not matter, provided a blind eye were turned to certain founding anomalies like the legacy that had kickstarted Millthorpe. But he had nothing original to say about how to get to the place where class no longer mattered.
The year 1883 also saw the formation of another socialist body interested in conjoint fellowship in small numbers. This was the Fellowship of the New Life (FNL), which Carpenter characteristically associated with, but did not join. It emerged from a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the spiritual emptiness of Victorian bourgeois life. Its socialism came from recognising that the unearned privileges of the middle classes rested on ‘the ceaseless toil, cheerless lives and the pinching want of the masses of the people’ and its ambition was ‘to refuse to have a part in, or to profit by, the competitive system’ through living a communal life. Other socialists, the FNL held, deferred the improvement of personal character until after their economic and political schemes were complete. But this was to put the cart before the horse, for such schemes required a prior, or at least parallel, ethical transformation too. Its ethos was ‘the cultivation of a perfect character in each and all’.
The FNL therefore advocated the dignity of labour, and much the same renunciation of luxury as Carpenter did. But it did so not so much in the interests of solidarity with the poor, as of personal improvement so as to set a better moral example, not to workers but to members of their own class.
The special interest of the New Lifers lay in the personal ethical dilemmas of the middle class socialists. Its journal Seed-Time ran a regular feature on ‘Every Day Ethics’, which covered such questions as ethical shopping, whether middle class socialists should employ servants or own shares, what they should wear, and whether they should travel third-class on the railway. For Maurice Adams, socialist fellowship precluded rent and profit, all of which were ‘tolls levied on the worker’ and involved living off others. He argued for ‘voluntary service of all, by each, and living by one’s own labour’. He and other correspondents to Seed-Time argued that interest was theft, so socialists ought not to profit from shares, but only invest in co-operative ventures which did not pay dividends. But others argued that no matter what socialists did, shares in joint stock companies would still exist. Socialists who divested would thereby deprive themselves of any influence over the capitalist firm in the matter of wages and conditions. ‘We cannot by one step take ourselves out of the Actual into the Ideal’, J. F. Oakeshott concluded. Socialists should not stop shopping, Clementina Black urged, but enquire about the true costs of goods they purchased and press for the formation of a Consumer’s League to enforce fair prices. Giving to the poor also presented a dilemma. Clearly the poor needed money, but would donations really help them, or end the conditions which made them poor? Perhaps it was better for middle class socialists to make them interest-free loans, or pay for socialist activity? On the vexed question of servants, Edith Lees hoped that simplicity of life and a general commitment to manual labour would make domestic service unnecessary in a socialist home. But until then, she wrote in Seed-Time, socialists must dispense with a spirit of servitude, that is, treating their servants merely as means and not ends in themselves. The article prompted correspondence defending the good socialist mistress, and complaints about the poor quality of the servant class.
Amid such difficulties, the re-education of desire sought by the FNL could therefore best be achieved by living apart. Like Millthorpe, it was more an exercise in detachment than adherence. ‘Class breaking’ was potentially so difficult that it was only possible with a supportive group of likeminded and similarly situated souls. The FNL was unusual in a socialist organisation of its time in actively discouraging membership. ‘Do not, unless you cannot help it’, was its advice to prospective members. Isolation and small numbers were needed for the members to keep each other up to the mark. In 1891, the New Lifers set up Fellowship House in Bloomsbury. In Attainment, a novel written by Edith Lees, one of its inhabitants, the FNL is thinly disguised as the Brotherhood of the Perfect Life. Their efforts prove well-meaning but ineffectual. It takes the maid ‘an hour extra in the mornings to undo the heroic attempts of the Brotherhood at manual labour’, and she is pleased for all the wrong reasons when they double her pay. The problem is that the devotees of the Brotherhood have arrived at socialism by being satiated and bored by capitalism, rather than exploited by it. This is why they want the rewards of a simple life, but this necessarily puts them at odds with those they want to help, who simply want a better rewarded one. The FNL sought an end to the disjointness of their relationships with the workers, but only managed to achieve conjointness with each other. Depth and intensity in conjoint relationships could be achieved, but at the cost of social isolation.
cientific Marxist thinkers, like Engels, Aveling and Bax, the anxious desire for conjointness exhibited by Morris, Carpenter and the FNL was unnecessary. Fellowship was for the future, communist society. Solidarity in the working class would be produced by capitalist exploitation, which would create first a single class interest and later class consciousness and common action. But such solidarity would not extend to the middle class, which was bound to fight against its impending dissolution. As a class, it could never be persuaded of the justice of the proletarian struggle. The FNL’s hope of ‘moralising the capitalist’ was therefore an idle one. Of course, individual members of that class might adhere to scientific socialism through coming to appreciate the direction history was taking in advance. They were therefore invited to ‘renounce their class’. This meant, however, not that they should seek to be at one with the proletariat, but that they should devote their ‘influence, wealth, or educated intelligence … to bring about the inevitable change as speedily and as peacefully as possible’.
Bax thought that the desire for deeper conjointness was a residual form of guilt, fostered by Christian religion and the utopian socialism it had inspired. Christianity, with its passion for individual salvation, was naturally concerned with the inward character of its believers. Modern Anglicans held that believers must put their beliefs in practice, and not merely prepare for the kingdom to come. But modern scientific socialists were different. They looked not inwards, but outwards to the forces needed to transform a whole society. Such a transformation required more than acts of expiation on the part of individuals. Nor should socialists seek guidance from small experimental communities like the FNL or Millthorpe, or from isolated gurus like Carpenter. The correct direction for socialists must be deduced by a proper examination of economics and history at the scale of the whole capitalist system, not artificial micro-communities perched inside it.
ocialists should therefore not condemn Hyndman for refusing to deny – indeed, for continually signalling – his class. What else could he do? For Bax, ‘whenever the Socialist hears of a man professing or striving to practise Socialism in his life he knows he has to deal with either a fool or a humbug’. Nor should Morris feel guilty about the position that capitalism had placed him in. A socialist employer could, of course, choose to pay the minimum union-agreed wage, but should not imagine that doing so would bring the proletarian revolution a day closer. Nor should he feel obliged to give away his wealth. It might be an act of kindness, but it would not make him ‘any more of a Socialist than the man who keeps his pockets more tightly buttoned up’. To emulate the poor, moreover, was mere sentimentalism. The condition of the proletariat was neither desirable nor enviable. For socialists to seek to share it rather than end it was to place personal cleanliness ahead of the collective good. ‘I know of a young man who thinks it an act of Socialistic virtue (not an unfortunate necessity, mind!) to live on 15s. a-week with wife and children’, Bax wrote in disgust. But all he had done was to prove what every capitalist wanted proved: that it was possible to survive on very low wages.
n early 1884, Bax’s newspaper To-Day serialised George Bernard Shaw’s novel An Unsocial Socialist, which its author later claimed to be the ‘first English novel written under the influence of Karl Marx’. Its protagonist is Sidney Trefusis, who has inherited land from his mother and shares from his father’s cotton business, but on reading Marx becomes disgusted with his own class and its means of profit. He leaves his wife five weeks after their wedding, and disguises himself as a labourer, Jeff Smilash, whose conversation alternates bewilderingly between forelock-tugging deference to his social betters and Marxist political economy. When, out of embarrassment, a lady offers him more than the lowest market wage, somewhat in the manner of the Brotherhood of the Perfect Life, Smilash gives her a lecture on Marx’s theory of surplus value, concluding, ‘You have a noble ‘art, lady; but youre [sic] flying in the face of the law of supply and demand’.
However, although he disguises himself as one of the workers, Trefusis does not identify with them. On the contrary, he finds them supine and ignorant. They will have to be saved by the superior brains of intellectuals if they are to be saved at all.
n the question that troubled Morris, Trefusis takes a robustly unabashed attitude. If rich socialists sold their shares, they would only get into the hands of some other capitalist and the workers would be no better off. Even private munifence is pointless. Schools originally built for the poor, like Eton College, were invariably appropriated by the rich. ‘Plant [a park] at the very doors of the poor so that they may at least breathe its air’, Trefusis comments, ‘and it will raise the value of the neighbouring houses and drive the poor away’. In any case, there was no point in ministering to poverty, for ‘[n]o matter how much you give to the poor, everything except a bare subsistence wage will be taken from them again by force’. Trefusis is angry about all this, but in contrast to Morris, he refuses to feel guilty about it. It is not his fault that he is where he is.
Shaw thought the FNL mistaken to put personal perfection ahead of political organising, and found his socialist home in the Fabian Society. In an early paper for the Fabians, titled ‘Why we do not act up to our principle’, he pointed out that most Socialists lived off rent, interest or profit, and some were direct exploiters of wage labour. But he denied, like Bax, that this was hypocritical because he thought no one could live as a socialist yet. The worker could not do so, because if he refused to accept less than the fair price of his labour, he would never get work. The capitalist could not live as a socialist because if he refused to take interest or profit, his firm would be bankrupted, reducing him to the position of the worker. Even the socialist consumer could only purchase goods made through exploitation, because under capitalism there were no other goods to be had.
There was no escape in divestment either. The rich socialist could neither enjoy her wealth, but nor share the life of the poor. ‘[W]ealth cannot be enjoyed without dishonour’, Shaw wrote in 1884, ‘or foregone without misery’. Unlike Carpenter, Shaw refused to be sentimental about the condition of the poor or the supposed wisdom born of living cheaply. The workers did not want spiritual enrichment and the simple life, but the relief of poverty and material goods. Trefusis also expresses Shaw’s own conviction that there were deep divisions of experience and feeling between the classes which could not be bridged with fellowship. While he admired Morris, Shaw thought his ‘costly and carefully dyed blue shirt’ was an affectation. Socialism must reconcile itself to an unabashed disjointness. Socialists must not try to get on with everyone. They must be unsocial and somewhat heartless.
For Shaw, then, the task of the middle class socialist was neither to seek to share the life of the poor, nor lament her inability to do so, but to stay put and act as an irritant within her own class.
Shaw’s provocations made people think and smile, and mercilessly exposed false argument. The harder question for Shaw’s fellow socialists was whether his outrageous performative disjointness was any basis for a political movement. Trefusis, after all, disconcerts and tricks his hearers, but converts no one to socialism. Even Bax, who shared the analysis, found the continual play of Shavian paradox and amusing inversion wearing. For his part, Morris liked Shaw’s book, and indeed Shaw himself, but also thought him sometimes too ‘superior’ in his lectures. ‘He has … got a pocket of conundrums which he pulls out from time to time: his real tendencies are towards individualist-anarchism’, he wrote after hearing Shaw speak. He was also unhappy with Shaw’s inability to reach the working class who made up a large proportion of the audience.
Bax and Shaw’s unabashed disjointness was, like other approaches, neither a good thing or a bad thing. It simply limited the possibilities of the adherent’s contribution in a distinctive way. The only common location the unabashedly disjoint adherents would admit to their working-class audiences was one of being on the same side of history, but without acknowledging a shared understanding that this was the case. Their paradigmatic contribution was the instructional lecture, at which Shaw excelled. Yet even Shaw’s lectures could leave his working class audience feeling strangely put down. Shaw ‘fails to “catch hold” of the ordinary man … ’, wrote Sidney Webb, ‘just as a locomotive engine, when its wheels revolve fast without making the train progress’.
Of Belfort Bax and Bernard Shaw and unabashed disjointness.
Of Sidney and Beatrice Webb and functional disjointness.
Sidney Webb shared Shaw’s view that the rich socialist could not rest content with the unearned income she derived from rent or interest on capital, ‘much of which inevitably comes stained with tears and blood’. Mere divestment was also no solution, he wrote to Jane Burdon Sanderson, for under capitalism, ‘[w]omen and children will be oppressed and starved with your capital, whatever you do’. But in rejecting scientific Marxism’s catastrophist account of the evolution of capitalism, Webb and the Fabians also came to reject its conclusion that little could be done to live as a socialist until the revolution. For the Fabians, socialism was already making converts through its evident superiority as a mode of social organisation. Since socialism was already on the march, there were useful things that wealthy socialists could, indeed ought, to do now.
The socialist shareholder should, Webb advised, retain her shares so as to be a responsible steward of her wealth, writing to the directors of the companies in which she held shares to urge higher pay. She should consume, but – a typical Fabian prescription – make proper enquiries as a consumer. The primary duty of every healthy adult, Webb insisted, was to work full time for her living. To live off the labour of others made one a mere drone, and ‘a dead loss to the world’. The Fabian theory of rent identified unearned income as the main way that the rich lived, legally but immorally, off the work of others. But rent included not only land and capital but also that part of income enjoyed by the skilled which was a consequence not of their efforts, but of luck, opportunity, educational advantage, and the vagaries of supply and demand for their particular skill. This ‘rent of ability’ was not simply a bonus to be privately enjoyed. Like land and capital, it was a social resource to be used in the interests of all. For him to fail to place it at society’s disposal, Graham Wallas argued, was as bad a failing as for a landlord to fail to maintain his property, or a rentier to live idly on unexamined investments.
Socialism also meant a frugal life. The socialist, Wallas believed, should consume personally at a level no higher than he could do were capital fairly distributed. In Webb’s view, rich socialists should restrict their own private expenditure to the level set by the needs of their own working efficiency, but not a penny higher. Socialism, according to Beatrice Webb, meant ‘not .. simply the grasping of good things by the Have nots, but a deliberate giving up of luxury and fashion by the “Haves”’. For all but the poorest, this meant cutting back. This was bound to be difficult to do. Sidney agreed with the simple life, not because it was good for the character, but because it was efficient.
The Fabians therefore acknowledged immediate personal obligations which were more demanding than those accepted by the scientific Marxists. But they were also more extensive than those envisaged by the FNL. The FNL insisted on a significant change of life, but confined such obligations to fellow initiates. The Fabians, by contrast, envisaged duties and responsibilities on a national scale, which covered not merely the rich, but also the talented in every sphere. Like the Marxists, however, the Fabians believed that socialism could not be achieved in miniature, by moralising private individuals. The duty of the rich socialist could not be, as Carpenter had proposed, to ‘hand rent back’ to his own tenants or workers. Rents did not properly belong to them either. They were produced by social co-operation, and had therefore been appropriated from the community as a whole and not from individual members of the proletariat. Carpenter’s proposal that wealth should simply be ‘passed on’ locally to the less privileged was therefore much too close to charity. Fairness could only be achieved when the state assumed responsibility for collecting and administering rents for everyone.
The Fabians therefore soon moved away from the small questions of personal conduct examined by the FNL. The New Lifers were interested in washing their own domestic relationships, such as those with servants and shopkeepers, clean of the stains made by capitalism, in much the same way as they washed their own clothes. By contrast the Fabians, to pursue the analogy, wanted a public enquiry into the conditions of domestic service and municipal laundries. To the Fabians, separated, quasi-socialist ‘communities’ were a poor model for socialism. They usually failed even on their own terms, and when they prospered it was almost always by abandoning the elements of socialism with which they had started. Any shortlived success was an illusion created by forgetting to take into account their founding capital, the missing costs of maintaining children, the old and the sick, and the fact that their members already agreed on so much. Real societies could take none of these for granted. ‘Wise prophets nowadays’, Webb argued, ‘do not found a partial community which adopts the whole faith; they cause rather the partial adoption of their faith by the whole community.’
Conjointness for the Fabians meant the common duty of all able-bodied individuals to contribute to the collective good through useful work. To the Carpenter and the FNL, however, this looked more like efficiency than fellowship. Compared to their own thick but restricted notion of community, the Fabians offered something more extensive but thinner. Fabianism would not involve committed individuals living directly for each other, as in a small socialist community. On the contrary, it would preserve significant differences between the ways people lived, justified in the name of efficiency. Under Fabian socialism, work would not be of equal value, nor would there necessarily be equal incomes. Shaw alone argued for them, and not until much later in life. Far from giving up his vocation or its rewards, Wallas thought, the intellectual ‘must see that he gets his full pay’, but then dedicate it to social service. There would probably still be social classes, although they would be differentiated not by varying amounts of control over factors of production but simply by ability and function, and they would not differ much in status.
Within the socialist movement, the Fabians therefore practised and preached a functional disjointness. The affluent socialist should neither surrender her advantages, nor feel bad about them, nor reserve them for fellow-members of a private community, but develop them through work for the general good. Such work might include attentive managing of her own investments, or participation in local government, or opening her home for socialist discussion among her friends. She should not worry too much about the social distance such specialisation created between herself and workers. This was unavoidable given the increasing complexity of society and the demands of efficiency. For people to do things for which they had not been trained –a valued learning technique among New Lifers – was to the Fabians an inexplicable waste of talent. What socialism needed was not for people to become interchangeable in their various social roles, but more distinct and expert and oriented to the collective good. United by the thin sense of common duty, but divided by different competences, growing numbers of socialists – conscious or unconscious – would each have their own part to play, whether as workers by hand or by brain, producers or consumers, representers or represented.
These were the four principal answers to the question of socialist fellowship in the 1880s. What is most striking is the wide spectrum of view, ranging from those who thought that to become a socialist involved changing nothing other (though nothing less) than one’s core beliefs, and those who thought it meant changing everything else too. It is also clear from the breadth of the disagreement that the problem was an intractable one. None of the solutions was without its drawbacks. Unabashed disjointness did not promise immediate fellowship at all: even proposing itself as an alternative to it. Isolated conjointness was intense, but hard to broaden to workers. Functional disjointness was broader but thinner. It still meant split lives. Adherents who sought conjointness through vigorous participation encountered the difficulty that to be useful as participants they had to preserve aspects of themselves which continued to signal that they were special and different.
In the longer version of this paper, I explore these divisions of opinion and approach in more detail, and trace the trajectories they followed after the 1880s. I also make some contrasts between the questions that arose here and those which arose when middle-class socialists acted as labour representatives, which are the subject of another paper written for the research project on Other People’s Struggles.
IMAGE CREDITS: ALL THE DESIGNS ARE BY WILLIAM MORRIS (1834 – 1896). THE FONTS USED ARE P22 MORRIS GOLDEN AND P22 MORRIS ORNAMENTS BY RICHARD KEGLER AT P22 TYPE FOUNDRY, BUFFALO, NEW YORK.