A certain tincture of socialism

A selection from William Morris’s review of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Commonweal (1889), the opening paragraph of which might well have been written today:

We often hear it said that the signs of the spread of Socialism among English-speaking people are both abundant and striking. This is true; six or seven years ago the word Socialism was known in this country, but few even among the “educated” classes knew more about its meaning than Mr. Bradlaugh, Mr. Gladstone, or Admiral Maxse know nowi.e., nothing. Whereas at present it is fashionable for even West-end dinner-parties to affect an interest in and knowledge of it, which indicates a wide and deep public interest. This interest is more obvious in literature perhaps than in anything else, quite outside the propagandist tracts issued by definitely Socialist societies. A certain tincture of Socialism, for instance (generally very watery), is almost a necessary ingredient nowadays in a novel which aims at being at once serious and life-like, while more serious treatment of the subject at the hands of non-Socialists is common enough. In short the golden haze of self-satisfaction and content with the best of all possible societies is rolling away before the sun-heat bred of misery and aspiration, and all people above the lowest level of intelligence (which I take to be low gambling and statesmanship) are looking towards the new development, some timorously, some anxiously, some hopefully.


Mr. Bellamy’s ideas of life are curiously limited; he has no idea beyond existence in a great city; his dwelling of man in the future is Boston (U.S.A.) beautified. In one passage, indeed, he mentions villages, but with unconscious simplicity shows that they do not come into his scheme of economical equality, but are mere servants of the great centres of civilisation. This seems strange to some of us, who cannot help thinking that our experience ought to have taught us that such aggregations of population afford the worst possible form of dwelling-place, whatever the second-worst might be.

In short, a machine-life is the best which Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at then this his only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery. This view I know he will share with many Socialists with whom I might otherwise agree more than I can with him; but I think a word or two is due to this important side of the subject. Now surely this ideal of the great reduction of the hours of labour by the mere means of machinery is a futility. The human race has always put forth about as much energy as it could in given conditions of climate and the like, though that energy has had to struggle against the natural laziness of mankind: and the development of man’s resources, which has given him greater power over nature, has driven him also into fresh desires and fresh demands on nature, and thus made his expenditure of energy much what it was before. I believe that this will be always so, and the multiplication of machinery will just—multiply machinery; I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men’s energy by the reduction of labour to a minimum, but rather to the reduction of pain in labour to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be a pain; a gain to humanity which can only be dreamed of till men are even more completely equal than Mr. Bellamy’s utopia would allow them to be, but which will most assuredly come about when men are really equal in condition; although it is probable that much of our so-called “refinement,” our luxury—in short, our civilisation—will have to be sacrificed to it. In this part of his scheme, therefore, Mr. Bellamy worries himself unnecessarily in seeking (with obvious failure) some incentive to labour to replace the fear of starvation, which is at present our only one, whereas it cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself.

The drudgery of being useful

Benjamin, from “Paris, die Hauptstadt des XIX Jahrhunderts”:

Das Interieur ist die Zufluchtsstätte der Kunst. Der Sammler ist der wahre Insasse des Interieurs. Er macht die Verklärung der Dinge zu seiner Sache. Ihm fällt die Sisyphosaufgabe zu, durch seinen Besitz an den Dingen den Warencharakter von ihnen abzustreifen. Aber er verleiht ihnen nur den Liebhaberwert statt des Gebrauchswerts. Der Sammler träumt sich nicht nur in eine ferne oder vergangene Welt, sondern zugleich in eine bessere, in der zwar die Menschen ebensowenig mit dem versehen sind, was sie brauchen, wie in der alltäglichen, aber die Dinge von der Fron frei sind, nützlich zu sein.

translated by Kevin McLaughlin:

The interior is the asylum of art. The collector is the true resident of the interior. He makes his concern the transfiguration of things. To him falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them. But he bestows on them only connoisseur value, rather than use value. The collector dreams his way not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one—one in which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided with what they need than in the everyday world, but in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful.