Short Story: Extraction From ‘The Compleat Socialist.’
Being a Discourse not Unworthy of the Perusal of Most Reformers.
[Cast of Characters:] Reformer, No Party, Socialist.
Reformer.—A good morning, gentlemen, to you both! Your countenances, methinks, promise cheerful discourse, and I hope your business may occasion you to Carlisle, whither I am bound in the excellent train. We are all so happy as to have a smoking compartment, and I hope we shall each be the happier for the others’ company. It may well be so, with the help of good discourse, as an invitation to the which I propose diligently to endeavour to entertain you, my subject being my humble labours for the commonweal. Now to begin, I profess myself a Reformer, e’en one that has for a goodly number of years directed all his zeal to the task of the betterment of mankind. And you are first to hear how wretched a spectacle confronted me when in early manhood I regarded the lives of my fellow workers. How had a man to toil so long in the day that body and mind grew bent to his task ! How did the youth his son waste his days amid smoke and clamour, so that when he had climbed but to twenty years he was no longer young ! And consider his daughter, that should have been comely and dainty as a phrase of sweet music ; went she not wearily, in unpleasant raiment, to the like drudgery ? And I may put you in mind what was their requital. They had perforce to restore themselves with victuals of the meanest, notwithstanding that the thrifty wife had cudgelled her brains and tired her limbs perfectly to obtain the utmost her slender purse would buy. And for his house, which some did use to call his kingdom—what was it but an incommodious shelter, so put together and of such materials, as to increase the labour of the housewife by tenfold ? And for his infants, to the which the meadow and the seashore should be a playground, and to whose delight trees and brooks should minister, they ran their races in squalid streets, and hushed their dolls on doorsteps.
I say, all this, and much more which I could feelingly relate, was the pitiable lot of the working people, from which they seemed nowise able to escape, were they never so diligent and careful. And the contemplation of their material hardships was like to possess my whole thoughts; but I grew to perceive that divers hatreds mingled with their sorrows, and made their bread yet more bitter and their hovels intolerable. The men did revile their fellow men, and even more heartily their fellow women, for that all wished to serve a master for hire, and the masters required but part of them. And old workers held young workers to be their enemies, because masters would more willingly hire them; but when wars broke upon the earth —for what causes they knew not, nor do I rightly know—all these, men and women, old and young together, hated perfectly their brothers in other lands, and suffered exquisitely in inflicting the like pains on them.
And you are to note, gentlemen, of what character were their recreations ! For books and plays, those which they did chiefly use to enjoy had indeed sensation and bilious sentimentality, but little of power or beauty ; the commonplace waltz and the maudlin song entertained them for music, and of pictures they loved only the superficially pretty. And now what say you, my masters ? Spoke I not truth when I said their lives were wretched?
No Party.—Trust me, sir, you did, whereto my own experience serves for more testimony ; and now, sir, fulfil your promise by relating wherein you have endeavoured to mend a condition so villainous.
Reformer.—Well, sirs, I shall divide the improvements in the cause of which I have laboured into four kinds—to wit, Economic, Political, Educational, and Moral. Of the Economic there be—
Workman’s Compensation Act,
Limiting Hours of Labour,
Establishment of Minimum Wages,
Rent Restriction Act,
and many more of hardly less note. You are to bear in mind also that with no little difficulty we have secured that divers acts should be amended, which else had worsened the portion of the workers past the bearing. And in the future we do purpose to effect the following :
Nationalisation of land, mines, and railways,
and not a few others which I doubt not you would confess heartily desirable, but which I will pass by and proceed to the Political, of which I entreat you to remember
Limitation of Power of the House of Lords (and we hope in future time to abolish it),
Extension of the Franchise of Women (and we intend to labour for its further enlargement to include all men and women of discreet years),
Admission of Women to Parliament,
Payment of M.P.’s.
And of the Educational there are—
Popular lectures and concerts,
Mutual improvement societies,
and all institutions which instruct the unhappy ignorant workers how to know what is truly excellent in the work of great men. And of the Moral have we not supported
Co-operative Movements, and
and caused to be printed writings preaching the reconciliation of men with, women, nation with nation, rich with poor. Gentlemen, if I should enlarge my discourse, as the extent of my subject tempts me to do, I should prove tedious; which I am resolved I will not, but will conclude with the modest hope that what you have heard concerning our labours may urge you to do likewise.
No Party.—I promise you, sir, your choice exposition hath pleased me marvellous well; and recalling the words of the noble Agrippa I would say, “Almost thou persuaded me to be a Reformer.” But a doubt there is which exercises me. Look out, I pray you, on the town which we are passing e’en now. Methinks I see houses ugly and crowded, and these in the greatest number. Now sounds the whistle of the factory before us : I pray you take note of the workers as they are released for their midday meal. See you those men, have they any pleasure in their work ? Yonder is a band of swains: could they challenge the Olympians ? And for those maidens hurrying along, are they gayer or better apparelled than those of twenty years ago ? Here stands a theatre, of the which the bills invite to “Mr. Mustafa Lotofem” ; the barrel organ outside (infallible register of popular taste in music) dispenseth “I’m a Naughty Girl” !—is the sum of your aesthetic advance but this ? And we have passed a number of such towns, e’en while you so sweetly discoursed ; I know, moreover, because I travel much, and because I read the papers, that in all parts of this country and indeed in many others (those which are accounted the most rich and splendid) the lot of those who work is little improved. So far as concerneth your distressful antagonisms between sexes and classes and nations, I find them still most feelingly expressed ; and I would remind you indeed of the war which is not yet at an end—how ineffectual have been your pleas for Peace and Brotherhood !
Where then are the fruits of all your reforms; and if I become one of your company, of what avail will my endeavour be ?
Reformer.—Well, sir, and upon my word you have spoke the very riddle which hath oft tormented me of late ! All so soon as matters have been in one direction bettered, do they in another begin to worsen. And it gives us Reformers great distress to discover that those very measures which most appear as being beneficent and full of commendation, do of times prove a curse and a chain to them whom we did desire to benefit. Yet of such is our zeal for the advancement of the miserable, that these misfortunes but spur us to introduce new reforms.
No Party.—Which are like to prove as mischievous, or at the best worthless, I fear me. In sooth, sir, methinks your intentions do you credit, but for your achievements, they limp far behind.
Reformer.—You speak roundly, sir, and I am constrained to confess that you have much right on your part. But I charge you, show me an alternative or I swear I will be a Reformer for ever ; for I cannot watch wretchedness inactively. Move I must, and all men who feel the pain of others, be the achievement never so small.
Socialist.—Marry, sir, that alternative will I show you, who at first kept silence because I had a mind to hear of which kind of Reformers you were. For some there be, I pray you let me speak it without offence, who profess themselves such with the object of mounting to positions of some profit. And others there be which love publicity, and delight to lead a crowd. Such men know well the answer to your riddle, but for their own advantage give out false solutions. But there is yet another sort of man, who is of their fraternity only because he is ignorant of that which alone can end the ills which he deplored—and such do I perceive you to be.
Reformer.—Trust me, sir, I am for you heartily if you can show me such a physic, but I fear you are not able, nor any man.
No Party.—I fear it too, but let us hear.