Correspondence: Evolution by Revolution

In the March pissue of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD appeared an article over the signature of H. Philpott Wright, entitled “Evolution and Revolution,” which, in the humble opinion of the undersigned, is a positively brilliant production—except for the fact that it is grammatically obscure, logically deficient, historically absurd, and economically unsound.

Mr. Wright endeavours to prove that “revolution” and “evolution” are antithetical or antagonistic terms, and makes this clear by using “revolution” in one place in the sense of destruction, in another as meaning “dissolution,” in another as meaning a “sudden transition,” in another a “catastrophic change!”

Mr. Wright avoids discussing the question Reform v. Revolution on its own merit, contenting himself with arguing that if you are a revolutionary you must aim at revolution, while if you are a reformer you must aim at reform.

But the climax is reached when Mr. Wright says or gives us to understand that the transition from Capitalism to Socialism can be effected as well by reform as by revolution; that is, in his own words, “if Socialism evolves from this system there can be no revolution, for none will be needed.”

Now I, although unworthy, venture to assert that on the contrary, Socialism will evolve from this present system, and one phase of its evolution will be a revolution—the transition from Capitalism to Socialism constituting a social revolution; one essential stage in the transition being a political revolution.

Before we proceed to discuss the point will Mr. Wright please turn to our “Declaration of Principles” on page 1 and read it through carefully? He will notice that after pointing out the economic relation of the exploiting and exploited classes, the Declaration proceeds:

“That as in the order of social evolution the working-class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working-class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.”

Following Mr. Wright’s example I will now give a “little illustration.” I was at one time not a Socialist, in fact, I was violently opposed to Socialism. For me to change from an anti-Socialist into a Socialist entailed a complete and fundamental change in my political, social, and moral beliefs and ideals—in short an intellectual revolution.

Yet this revolution was produced merely by the apprehension of one simple fact, viz., that where one section of the community own all the means of life the rest of the community are in fact, if not in name, enslaved.

The acquirement of the knowledge necessary to the apprehension of this fact and to a recognition of its importance was a long and gradual process, but the apprehension was a single and sudden mental occurrence.

What had happened? I had acquired from various sources (environment) a certain quantity of knowledge bound up with a certain quantity of prejudice and a certain number of beliefs. Addition to this knowledge entailed as a necessary consequence the destruction of a mass of prejudice and the reconstruction of social and moral ideals.

Now what was that but an evolution with a revolution as an integral phase?

From one point of view here was a continuous development; from another a destruction of one “form” and the substitution of one entirely different. From one point of view the process was an evolution; from another a revolution. And as the latter necessarily followed upon the former, we sum up the process as an evolution with revolution as an integral phase.

Much in the same way does Society evolve: for we must always remember that one of the forces whose operation produces social evolution is human intelligence. In fact, in discovering the forces producing or laws governing social development, we have to trace the laws determining the development of public opinion; and here lies the essence of the socialist philosophy first expounded by Karl Marx. I cannot do better than give his own words:

“In making their livelihood together men enter into certain necessary, involuntary relations with each other.
“These industrial relations arise out of their respective conditions and occupations, and correspond to whatever stage society has reached in the development of its material productive forces.
“Different stages of industry produce different relations.
“The totality of these industrial relations constitutes the economic structure and basis of society.
“Upon this basis the legal and political superstructure is built.
“There are certain forms of social consciousness or so-called public opinion which correspond to this basis.
“The method prevailing in any society of producing the material livelihood determines the social, political, and intellectual life of men in general.
“It is not primarily men’s consciousness which determines their mode of life, on the contrary, it is their social life which determines their consciousness.
“When the material productive forces of society have advanced to a certain stage of their development they come into opposition with the old conditions of production, or to use a legal expression, with the old property relations, under which these forces have hitherto been exerted.
“Instead of serving longer as institutions for the development of the productive powers of society, these antiquated property relations now become hindrances. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
“With the change of the economic basis the whole vast superstructure undergoes, sooner or later, a revolution.
“In considering such revolutions we must always distinguish clearly between the change in the industrial methods of social production on the one hand: this change takes place unconsciously, strictly according to the laws of natural science, and might properly be called an evolution.
“And on the other hand, the change in the legal, political, religious, artistical or philosophical, in short, ideological institutions; with reference to these, men fight out this conflict as a revolution conscious of their opposing interests.
“This conflict takes the form of a class struggle.
“We may in wide outlines characterise the Asiatic, the antique, the feudal, and the modern capitalistic methods of production as a series of progressive epochs in the evolution of economic society.
“The industrial relations arising out of the capitalistic method of production constitute the last of the antagonistic forms of Social production; antagonistic, not in the sense of an antagonism between individuals, but of an antagonism growing out of the circumstances in which men must live who take part in social production.
“But the productive forces which are developed in the lap of capitalistic society create at the same time the material conditions needed for the abolition of this antagonism. The capitalist form of society therefore will bring to a close this cycle of the history of human society, as it has existed under the various forms of exploitation.”—From the Introduction to the “Critique of Political Economy.”

I make no apology for the length of the above quotation. Marx is too little known to the working-class of Great Britain for quotations so important to be superfluous.

It will be seen from this, what indeed Mr. Wright admits, viz., that the political, moral, and social revolutions recorded in history were nothing but re-arrangements of the relations between man and man made necessary by the development of the “material productive forces” of society (the “means and instruments for producing wealth” as the Party Declaration puts it)—in short, an evolution with a revolution as an essential phase.

One illustration from history will suffice: The Capitalist or Bourgeois Revolution in France—The French Revolution.

Just prior to 1789 the Political, Legal, and Religious forms in France were feudal—but at the same time the feudal method of wealth production—viz., individual production by guild craftsmen, &c.—had been breaking up and giving place to the modern capitalist system of manufacture.

Consequently the class-division of society in France was not merely into rich aristocrat and poor peasant.

Firstly, there was the feudal aristocracy, lay and clerical, possessing political power and social privilege.

Secondly, there was the rising middle-class, or bourgeoisie, composed of the professional classes, the growing capitalists, and the lower strata of the priesthood—possessing little or no political power but at the same time the greater proportion of the economic power.

Lastly, there were the proletarians or wage-slaves of the towns and the peasant-serfs of the country, possessing neither political power nor economic possession.

The growing financial embarrassment of the aristocracy compelled them to submit to the summoning of the States-General. The States-General summoned, the bourgeoisie were asked for money, which they granted on their own terms. In short, they seized possession of the political power and proceeded to wield it in their own interest as the aristocracy had done.

This conquest of the political power by the bourgeoisie involved the extinction of the aristocracy as an aristocracy.

The phases of the French Revolution consequent upon the calling of the States-General, viz., the struggle between tie Jacobins and Girodins, &c., can only be understood as the manifestations of a class-struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in which the latter, being undeveloped, eventually and inevitably succumbed. When the monarchy was “restored” in 18l5 it was shorn of most of its feudal privileges—and the return of the monarchy again marked the victory of the landed-class over the industrial capitalist.

In short, economic evolution differentiated society into classes with conflicting interests; with the development of the economic conditions the respective political power changed and with the power eventually went the victory; an evolution with a revolution as its dominating phase.

Just as the economic change developed the capitalist-class and forced them to fight, so the working-class is developed and forced to fight for political supremacy by the evolution of society.

When the workers shall have evolved so far that they conquer for themselves the political power, that day will mark the realisation of the Social Revolution.

—Yours, &c.,


COMRADES,—After mature deliberation consequent upon the careful perusal of Mr. Philpott Wright’s article in the March issue, I discover that I am, (1) an evolutionary Socialist because I concede the principle of development in society and hold that Socialism must grow out of existing forms ; (2) a revolutionary Socialist because the change in existing forms which will inevitably give birth to the new order of society involves a revolution in those forms which I belong to the Socialist Party for the purpose of expediting, (3) an involutionary Socialist because I wish to revert to certain primitive society forms, though I want to retain the advantages of ages of progress.

Now according to Mr. Wright a revolutionary Socialist is entirely distinct from an evolutionary Socialist, while an involutionary Socialist is in complete antagonism to the others. So I am an irreconcilable duality on the one hand and on the other a trinity in violent opposition to myself in two places. I am also a perigrinating paradox and several other things that will occur to Mr.. Wright in the privacy of his chamber, but what am I as a Socialist ? I should like you to fix on a title that will explain my brand of Socialism clearly, but I cannot conveniently call myself an evolutionary-involutionary-revolutionary Socialist. Will you please help me ?


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