Evolution and Revolution

There appears to be some confusion of thought among Socialists as to the true value and relative application of the words “evolution” and “revolution.”

Influenced doubtless by Karl Kautsky’s reasoning in his “Social Revolution,” many students of sociology believe that the terms are synonymous. So far from this being the case, the words and the meaning they convey are in direct antagonism, as I shall try to prove.

Before the great French Revolution, society in France was evolving along certain lines, that is to say, a section of the community was becoming rich or profligate, or both, by the degradation, exploitation, and enslavement of the other section. Therefore, the tendency of the evolution of that society was to make a clear and ever more accentuated line of division between rich and poor, aristocrat and peasant.

The Revolution destroyed all that, cutting off for the time being all such tendency. In short, the Revolution put a period to the evolution of society as then constituted.

It may be contended that French society having evolved to a certain point, a change was inevitable. Even so, the change was none the less a revolution in that it altered most effectually the existing order of things, which, left to themselves—that is, had natural evolution been unchecked—would have developed into something quite different.

Here we may see the fundamental difference between evolution and revolution. The former means a gradual growth from that to this, with a connecting link so closely forged that the careful student may clearly see the second evolved from the first.

On the other hand, revolution is a force which comes in at certain periods, completely snapping the connecting link between the old and the new, rendering impossible, for the time at least, the further development of the old. The change revolution produces may of course go on evolving, but we must not forget that revolution brought that particular phase of evolution into existence. In doing this it necessarily destroyed the line of evolution which preceded the outbreak or upheaval, proving that revolution was opposed to evolution on those lines.

But, you will say, the Revolution aided the evolution of the French to a higher conception of equity and brotherhood. Quite so, but that by no means proves that revolution is an essential part of evolution, or that in fact it has any collateral relationship. Perhaps my meaning may be made clearer by an illustration.

If we took a boy from sordid and degraded surroundings and placed him in a refined and cultured environment, we should have revolutionised the life of that boy. His evolution to manhood would continue at about the same rate as if he had been left in the slum, but the evolutionary process would be of an entirely different nature. This change would have been brought about by stopping his old line of evolution and starting him on a new one—in other words, revolution has stepped in and performed its function, which is checking one form of evolution and supplanting it by another.

Now supposing that after the boy had spent two years in his superior environment, we then return him to the slum. That would mark another revolution in his life, and by that act you would be doing your utmost to set up the process of involution, which is the opposite to evlution. In short, you would be trying to get that boy back to the state in which you found him.

What may be said of the individual may be said of nations, and thus we see that revolution can not only elevate, that is, evolve, but it has power to degrade, to lower, to involve; again proving it is distinct from evolution, for were it the same thing it could not act in opposition to itself.

I am quite aware that an individual may rise above or fall below his environment, but that in no way affects the force of my illustration.

Involution is quite as important a factor in this question as evolution, for it has manifested itself, more or less, through every revolution.

For instance, the French people made no practical or lasting use of their splendid opportunities. There was in their Revolution the usual three turns of the wheel. First, the moderate movement, forward, then, after a time, the second, then the extreme party which created a reaction against the revolution, when the wheel moved backwards—involution. First, the Girondists, second, the Jacobins, then the reaction to monarchy.

So, then, we see that revolution can both build up and pull down, the latter power being altogether outside the province of evolution.

This should be quite sufficient to prove that the two words we are discussing do not mean one and the same thing, but let us go a little further.

The capitalist system was not caused by direct revolution : it evolved ; that is to say, it was established gradually, imperceptibly. The fact that the introduction of machinery later on brought about an industrial revolution in no way militates against this statement, for machinery was an outgrowth of the capitalist system, it did not produce it. The change it caused in the methods of production then prevailing, however, constituted a revolution, a revolution which cut off at once the further development of the old machinery.

The same may be said of many other things. For example, gunpowder as an aid to slaughter, was not evolved through the weapons of its day. It was a distinct invention or discovery, and its introduction caused a revolution in the art of war.

The application of steam to locomotion was also a revolution, for it did not evolve through the old stage coaches or any other then known means of transit; it was in fact a separate discovery. But having proved its usefulness, the application of steam has gone on being evolved right down to the present day. Electricity in its turn has produced a revolution in the application of energy.

Neither of these forces became known through a channel which may be termed evolutionary, for neither grew out of its immediate predecessor in the world of dynamics.

Let me give another illustration; the well-known one of the egg and the chicken.

In this case, nature’s design—if I may use such a term in this connection—is to evolve from the germ within the egg a member of the species by which that egg was laid. To bring that member to maturity, or in other words, to evolve it, so that it may in turn assist in the propagation of its species, is surely a natural law.

Anything which interferes with the action of that law is revolutionary, bringing evolution to a halt, either in the egg or the chicken. That is to say, if I break the shell before the chicken is ready for its new conditions, I am displacing evolution by revolution. If I kill the chicken before it is matured, I am doing the same thing.

Evolution, beginning with the germ in the egg, is not complete till that germ has evolved into the fully matured bird, the breaking of the shell when the chicken emerges being a vital part of this evolution ; it in no way constitutes a revolution.

The same may be said of a human being. From conception to maturity is one regular process of evolution, each succeeding stage depending in sequential order on the preceding. The birth of a child, therefore, is an essential part of its evolution towards manhood or womanhood, and is no more a revolution than the cutting of its teeth, the dawn of its intelligence, its first attempt to walk, or in short, any part of its prenatal or breathing existence, each stage, as we have seen, necessarily depending upon the other.

It may be as De Vries says, that catastrophic changes have occurred in the development of organisms, which he avers have suddenly “exploded” and given life to numerous new forms.

That is the point. A sudden change from old forms to new goes to make a revolution ; that which we may term natural and observed evolution being for the time superseded by something temporarily more powerful than itself.

In the birth of a child no such change occurs. The birth takes place, so far as we are aware, exactly as births have always taken place ; there ia no catastrophic change to the child; it was formed in the image of its parents before it appeared. It was intended for a human being, it is a human being; it was destined to evolve to maturity, it will evolve to maturity, unless revolution, which did not attend at its birth, steps in and cuts that evolution short.

I am aware that the evolution of society has always led to the various revolutions within that society, for it is impossible to get away from evolution anywhere or in anything, but we must always remember that revolution has also its evolutionary stages, even though of itself it is no more evolution than man himself. In both, the power to advance comes from a force stronger than themselves, proving that though they are subject to evolution they are yet distinct from it, for surely nothing can be subject to itself.

Another little illustration. A man hews down a tree and plants a sapling, so cutting short the evolution of the tree and aiding the evolution of the sapling. He thus stands as Revolution to that which he destroys and that which he plants, acting revolution’s double part of destruction and beneficence; but who would argue from this that the man is the same thing as the evolution of these trees. A revolution in society is quite as distinct.

Again, if we grow grapes in a hot-house, we can develope them faster than when we grow them in the open, but the stages of evolution from the slip to the matured fruit are identical. The natural development is hastened, but no revolution takes place, unless it should be found, for instance, that a cabbage was growing where a bunch of grapes ought to have been. That we might term a catastrophic change—in short, a. revolution.

Now as the whole of my efforts so far have been directed towards showing the difference between evolution and revolution, I need not pause to combat the belief, held by many, that the present social system, will, of its own inhernt qualities, ultimately lead to Socialism ; but this much may be said : if Socialism evolves from this system, there can be no revolution, for none will be needed.

Were it possible to establish Socialism in our country within the next few years, that would certainly constitute a revolution ; but wait for Socialism to evolve from the present system, and I rather think we are in for a pretty long wait, for to be evolutionary it would have to be established as gradually as was the prevailing order of society ; the State, bit by bit, taking, control of everything essential; the people, department by department, taking control of the State, until the State became the people.

That would be the evolution of Socialism, and in the process it would probably have to-pass through stages of development of which none of us at present have any conception—other systems possibly intervening—and would, doubtless run through many generations in the transition ; for the cream of the power of human evolution always lies with the governors of society, and it is only reasonable to assume that they would stretch every stage to breaking point before they gave way.

Briefly, then, the evolution of Socialism from the present system would mean progress by reform—a higher development of society attained by gradual and easy stages, nobody’s corns being trodden upon in the process. Were Socialism established by revolution, it would have to be by a sudden, and, comparatively speaking, instant turnover.

Therefore, the man who calls himself a Revolutionary Socialist, while devoting his energies to reforms, has no very clear perception of the difference between the two forces we have under consideration. He should style himself ar. Evolutionary Socialist. Believing, as he necessarily must, that the more reforms he can wrest from the governing class the nearer he gets, to the day of emancipation, he cannot logically term himself anything else.

Where in the past history of the world have beneficial reforms led up to revolution ? Personally, I know of no single instance, and should be much surprised to hear of one. But in any case, to work for, and obtain reforms, and then expect that these reforms will lead eventually to revolution, is simply absurd. To reach Socialism by such methods would be evolution, not revolution.

All revolutions which have not been spontaneous have been planned, the malcontents working hard to gain sufficient numerical strength to strike. A revolution to Socialism from the present system must be brought about in the same way, or it will never be brought about at all. The more society is reformed, the less likelihood can there be of a revolution, and at the best, the further is the day of revolution put back.

I am not here discussing which is the better method to adopt, my main object, as I have already intimated, being to point out the difference between evolution and revolution.

By educating the people into a knowledge of Socialistic principles, we can hasten the day of revolution ; by educating them into a conception of reforms of a Socialistic tendency, we may hasten the day of evolution, but nothing is more certain than that we cannot have both. The question as to which would realise our hope the quicker is another matter.

The man who believes the present system will, of its own weight, evolve into Socialism, should be, by that very belief, a Reformer, in the ordinary accepted sense of the word, for in effect he is saying Socialism may be brought about without the aid of revolution. So it may, in some such manner as I have pointed out, but why then does he talk about and work for the Social Revolution ? Simply, I presume, because he is not quite clear as to the meaning of the words he employs.

The real Revolutionary Socialist, however, cannot believe in the near evolution of society into a State which at present may be said to be its direct opposite in almost every particular. Put the capitalist system into a hot-house and it would not evolve quite so quickly as that belief implies.

Never in the history of the world, so far as I have read, has a single social system evolved directly into its opposite, and it appears unduly optimistic to expect it ever will. Other systems have always come between, and I can see nothing to warrant the belief that an exception is to be made of the present system.

This being so, the man who believes in revolution and works steadfastly only for that, has this advantage over his less determined fellow-Socialist—he knows exactly where he is going. With his objective point ever before his inward sight, he moves along the main line of his belief, sternly refusing to be side-tracked at any intermediate Station of Reform, no matter how alluring the surrounding prospect may appear. For a Revolutionary Socialist, that position is logical, unassailable

On the other hand, his evolutionary comrade—for so, as we have seen, should reforming Socialists be termed—is quite content to be side-tracked, and though frequently switched off on to another line in addition, he does not seem to mind so long as his engine keeps moving from one point to another.

It must of course be admitted that evolution is in perfect harmony with the nature of things, but so also is revolution ; moreover, the principle of revolution is ever in accord with the advanced thought of nations, the intellect of the studious chafing and rebelling against the slow progress of evolution and the frequent set-backs, or reactions, which take place within it.

As I have tried to show, evolution has often been displaced by revolution, and were it possible for a syndicate of capitalists to possess themselves of a machine which would displace a million of men, would they hesitate to avail themselves of the chance ? Not likely. They would consider such a revolution as this machine would bring about a most desirable thing for the nation—that is, themselves. Not a word would be said of attaining such a result by slow and easy stages, or in other words, by evolution. Evolution might go hang. However sudden the change might be, however much misery it might produce, they would not refuse it. Not a word would then be heard about the “natural order of things.”

What, then, is there inconsistent or unnatural in Socialists advocating that the intellect of man shall displace the slow progress of evolution in society, as it does in methods of production or in other directions ?

Nothing at all, and personally, I think Socialists will do well to take a leaf out of the book of their governors, keeping their eyes always fixed on their main object, and not allowing considerations of “natural evolution” to turn them for one moment from their purpose.


(Socialist Standard, March 1905)

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