The Sociology of Revolutions

For some years there has been a “boom” in “Sociology.” Not long ago the demand for books upon social affairs was so limited that the publication of small popular and cheap volumes of the kind which to-day and for the past few years have been so abundant was not a commercial proposition, except to publishing houses which specialised in such works. Before the war the output showed a marked increase. But that event which, overwhelming though it appeared in its day, we may now regard as a mere political episode hardly warranting, when compared with coming conflicts already hinted at by the “experts,” the titles of the “ Great” War, gave a further impetus to the publication of “sociological” treatises, enquiries and text books—because as the problems of society multiply or intensify, so do the attempts to solve them.

Looking over the shelves of a public library one may find works on “Unemployment,” “Poverty,” “Taxation,” “Industrial Management,” “Trades* Unions, ” “Political Reform,” the “Structure of the State,” “Education,” One will see ponderous works and slim handbooks about “Primitive Society,” “Early Law and Custom,” “Feudalism,” “Mediaeval Guilds,” and the “Factory System.” All these will contain some useful information. Some will be sound in viewpoint and contents while others will be comparatively worthless. In such a collection, however, one subject of enormous importance to the student of society, both in its present and its past evolution, will be found to be practically, if not completely ignored, and that subject is the “Sociology of Revolutions.” Very few, if any, works will be devoted to the consideration of the place of social revolution in history, while those which mention the subject at all do so casually, hastily, and in an utterly unconvincing way.

Apart from the fact that “revolution” is always a delicate subject with bourgeoise writers and particularly so, to the extent of taboo, at a time when social problems are in pressing need of solution, there is a strong theoretical reason for this “peculiar omission.”

Revolutions are generally considered by the bourgeoise “sociologist” to be something apart from the normal processes of society, as disturbing, intruding factors unrelated to the conditions ordinarily determining social evolution and therefore outside the “proper scope” of their “science.”

This mistaken notion, although based fundamentally upon an unconscious bias and being, therefore, as the psychologist would say, a “rationalisation” promoted by a politico-economic “complex” is related theoretically to two of the basic ideas which form the usual stock-in-trade of bourgeoise socia; science.

The first of these is that evolution is usually, if not always, a “slow” and at any rate an uniform process. This idea is utterly unsound. The terms “slow” and “fast” are purely relative to some accepted standard of measurement when applied to evolution as to other aspects of motion. By what arbitrary standard are we to judge by comparison any evolutionary process to be slow or fast? The only general fact we know about universal evolution at all is that it shows no break in the continuous chain of cause and effect. The further notion that the rate of progression is uniform, is a pure fiction contradicted by facts from every branch of science.

The other fallacious idea which is common to orthodox writers on social science is that evolution must necessarily be governed by the same forces and take place in the same way and at the same rate in all the different branches of the social structure. This idea touches on the central problem in the study of the social revolution.

Marx was probabIy the first thinker to address himself to the solution of this problem, and in the introduction to his “Critique of Political Economy” (1859) will be found the summary of his conclusions, in which he shows what a revolution is and how it is brought about. This passage, which is given below, has become classic, and has been translated into practically every language spoken by civilised men:—

   “In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of Society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of. men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic—in short, idealogical forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness: on the contrary, this consciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing, conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore, mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outlines we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeoise methods of production as so many epochs in the progress of the economic formation of society. The bourgeoise relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production—antagonistic not in the’ sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society; at the same time the productive forces developing, in the womb of the bourgeoise society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation constitutes, therefore, the closing chapter of the pre-historic stage of human society” (“Critique of Political Economy,” pages 11-13).

R. W. Housley