1910s >> 1918 >> no-172-december-1918

By Which Means? Revolution or Evolution?

“The difference between evolution and revolution is simply a difference of time.”


Thus spake a “brother” at a recent trade union branch meeting at which this scribbler was present. The fallacy shall be conscripted and made to serve a useful purpose in these columns. And it is the more welcome because it raises an important point at an opportune time.


Before we go any further it may be pointed out that the idea that evolution and revolution are one and the same thing except so far as they are differentiated by the time factor is really at the bottom of all the political activities of the “Socialist” reformists, so far, at all events, as they are not the outcome of deliberate and calculating treachery. The line of argument is, of course, that evolution being but a slower form of revolution, or as the reformists would prefer to put it, revolution being just evolution with “some move” on, “Socialism by evolution” — Socialism by reform, that is—is the line of least resistance, and therefore the correct policy to pursue.


If the premise that the only difference between revolution and evolution is a difference in time were correct the rest would be fair matter for argument; but the fact is that evolution and revolution are entirely different movements.


By social evolution we mean a gradual change in society by a process of development of the existing form. Revolution is a change by the destruction of the old social structure and the substitution of a new one. Hence it is seen that in reality the time factor does not enter into the matter at all. The difference is fundamental.


The question, then, resolves itself into this : is it possible for the present social system to evolve into another system—to pass, that is, by gradual change into a system different in all its parts ?


A social system is not a mere accidental aggregation of social customs, relations, and institutions, springing up haphazard side by side. It is a co-related whole, arising from a definite basis or foundation. Nor is this foundation a product of chance.


If we compare the present social system with say the feudal system of the Middle Ages we find a great difference in the main group of social characteristics. First, the working class of the present day sell their labour power in order to live, while the serf and peasant of mediaeval times lived by the direct application of his labour power, still under his own control, to the land and material in his own possession, and through instruments that were owned by him. Secondly, the whole of the wealth by which men live to-day is produced as objects to be sold, while under serfdom the people lived by wealth which was produced for use, and only the surplus of which was sold.


These differences in characteristics are of vital importance. The first means that the position of the worker has changed from that of the serf (and later the peasant) working for himself to that of a wage worker working for another, and therefore the whole life of the vast balk of the people has changed. The second means that the whole purpose of production has undergone a change, and instead of bread being produced to feed people, and clothes to cover them, and houses to shelter them, these things are produced for profit.


The thing I wish to emphasise is that these conditions of the respective ages are closely connected. How this comes about is easily seen. When the peasant works on his own land his first object is to produce food and clothing to satisfy his own needs ; such things are produced primarily for use, not for profit. If, now, the stage of development of the means and methods of production have not advanced sufficiently to enable the peasant to produce much more than enough for himself (as was the case in medieval times), then any extensive production for anything but use is out of the question. On the other hand, when a man pays money away as wages, he does so, in the modern world, in order that that money shall return to him plus more money. He records his action in a book, starting with the money he lays out and ending with the money he gets back. That increase is his object—it is his profit—it is that for which the wealth has been produced.


If we examine any of the main relations in present-day society we shall find that they are based upon the ownership of the means of living (land, mines, factories, machinery, railways, and the like) by some of the people. The effect of this is plain. Society must, first of all, be a society divided into classes—a propertied class and a propertyless class.


In savage society the land belongs to the whole tribe, who use it in common for hunting and seeking their wild fruits and grains. In such a society all have equal rights in the means of living, and there are no classes.


The whole character of society is thus seen to rest upon the property condition upon which it is based. Class society, with its social inequalities and class antagonisms ; production for profit, with its cut-throat competition, its swindling and sham and adulteration and shoddy produce ; wage-slavery, with its overwork and unemployment, its sordid and depressing poverty for the vast bulk of the workers ; these things make up the most important part of the social world from the workers’ point of view, and they all are based upon the ownership by a class of the means of living.


We have said that in savage society the land was owned by the whole community. The reason is not far to seek. Agriculture was either not discovered or not developed. The land was only useful as a hunting ground, and therefore as the common land of the tribe.


When, however, the means of producing wealth developed, through the discovery and progress of the arts of agriculture and domesticating animals, to the point where labour was capable of yielding’ a surplus of wealth beyond what was necessary for its maintenance, the way was open for chattel-slavery. Accumulated property became possible, and this forming a basis for a dominant class, the old democratic social system broke down, and class society, based on private property, made its appearance.


What we learn from this is that it is the development of the means of production that is the cause of social change. This is easily understood. As the industrial relations are the basis of society, and those industrial relations (which men enter into in making their living together) must be determined by the means which bring men together in industrial relations (the means of production), it follows that as these means develop social changes must take place. Let us see now what part evolution and-revolution play in these changes.


There are two movements to consider— first, the advance of the means of production ; secondly, the change in the social system.


As regards the first, no one will pretend that this is the outcome of any conscious effort of man striving toward social change. Improvements in the means and instruments of production, and in methods, are forced upon the controllers of industry by the competitive nature of their industrial system. This development goes on unceasingly, and is a true evolutionary process.


But mark this—however much these means and instruments of production may evolve, that evolution cannot of itself change the social system.


For instance, the unconscious development of machinery was not sufficient in itself to evolve society from a basis of peasant-proprietorship and handicraft to a basis of wage labour. Before men could be reduced to wage-slavery it was necessary to deprive them of all other means of livelihood— they had to be divorced from their holdings. In like manner, all the evolution in the world of the modern means and processes of production will not change their character of implements for the production of profit through the exploitation of wage labour. Their gradual advance may, nay does, prepare the way for their conversion into common property, but it does not shift in the least degree the ownership and control under which they exist. When these means of living ceased to belong to those who operated them they became the property of a class, and in spite of all their evolution they are still the property of that class.


No, evolution and revolution are not the same thing with a difference of time. The evolution of the technical resources of man it is true renders necessary certain changes in the structure of society, but such changes are always consciously wrought by the class which gains by them. They take the form of readjustments through revolution. As they are consciously achieved by the revolutionary class, so they are consciously opposed by the reactionary class—which means, of course, that they are realised through a class struggle.


To-day the instruments of labour have evolved to the point where they are ripe for their ownership and control by society. As, generations ago, they divorced the workers from ownership, as a necessary condition of their further advance, so now they have banished their capitalist owners from all participation in the necessary operations of production. The type of capitalist to day is the shareholder— as such an absentee, a superfluity, who can be dropped out without creating any “aching void” or causing any disruption. Every operation of a productive character is performed and supervised by hirelings—members of the working class. The work of evolution as a preparatory force on the technical field is completed. Its further progress can only be coercive and educational.


At no time in history have the productive processes made an advance at all comparable to that of the past four years. The difficulties with which this is going to confront the capitalists of the world are foreshadowed by their wild clamour for a league of nations. The increased productivity of human energy resulting from the speeding-up and the tapping of lower stratas of labour-power (female, for instance) has produced a condition that fills the master class with apprehension. The surplus wealth—the product in excess of wages— which is about to be poured forth in all lands presents a problem of markets that is appalling, and from which the master class shrink in fear. So, in a frenzied attempt to escape the logical outcome of the evolution of their technical processes—war unceasing for markets —they endeavour take the step of “arrangement” through a “league of nations”—-a resource which logically leads to the regulation of industry.


As a matter of fact, along this road lies the only lengthy respite for the capitalist class. They themselves will be forced to try some method of controlling output (as for years they have done in certain directions, for example, the organised destruction of cotton by the American planters) as the alternative to war—which offers temptation to revolt. It is here that the danger of the theory that revolution and evolution differ only in time is most apparent. For the necessary accompaniment of the attempt to control production is to modify the wages system and produce a State slave system. To which end the reforms of the “evolutionists,” who imagine that to “nationalise” is to socialise, are not antagonistic.


The social basis cannot evolve. To “nationalise” the railways, for example, is not to make them the property of the whole, but simply of the State—in other words, of the capitalist class. If they are run for profit, then the profit goes to relieve the master class of certain burdens which they would otherwise have to meet through taxes. If they are run on a “free service basis,” then the workers, having no railway fares to pay, can work for that much less wages, and will have to. The same applies to housing. Free rent simply means that the capitalists stable their human cattle through the State instead of through the private landlord. And as with each of these “reforms” the ruling class will add some substitute for the lessened power of the whip that drives the workers into the labour market, the more of these “reforms” the “evolutionists” achieve the nearer are the workers to that State slavery in which the capitalists may attempt to find refuge from revolution.


Once again, the instruments of labour are the subjects of evolution—conscious as far as their increased productivity goes, unconscious as regards their effect on the social relations. The social edifice is, however, the conscious product of men. It is established and safeguarded consciously by the class which dominate under it, using all the forces, military and otherwise, at their disposal to delay the readjustment called for by the evolution of the means and methods of production. It becomes, therefore, a conscious struggle between classes—a class struggle between classes conscious of their interests.


What is indicated, therefore, is that the working-class fight for emancipation must be based upon the principle of the class struggle—which means that there must be no compromising, no political trading, no obscuring of the line of class cleavage. It must be based, further, upon a class-conscious proletariat—a working class conscious of their true interest and aim—a politically educated working class. It must take the form of a struggle for the control of the political machinery, since it is through that that the armed forces are controlled.


All these considerations point the way to the working-class voter at the ballot box. He must have nothing to do with any reform-monger. Only the accredited candidate of the Socialist Party—the man put forward and guaranteed by the political party of the working class, standing for the Socialist revolution and that alone, and asking for support on no other ground whatever—only such a candidate is any good to the workers. And no such candidate is to be found in any part of the Kingdom.


Nevertheless, every voter may cast a vote for Socialism by writing “Socialism” across his ballot
paper, and such a demand for Socialist candidates will not be made in vain,


A. E. Jacomb


Leave a Reply