1940s >> 1947 >> no-517-september-1947

Gradualism and Revolution

The constant description of the Labour Party’s programme of Nationalisation as an example of Socialism in action has brought into prominence again the old controversy between “Gradualism” and “Revolution” that raised a ferment in the Social Democratic movement towards the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. An examination of the contentions of those who argued for revolution at the time shows that even they were impregnated with a good deal of the gradualist outlook, which was based on the assumption that Socialism, as a practical proposition, was at the back of beyond and then some.

The divergence in ideas between gradualists and revolutionists was assumed to be a divergence in outlook as to the method of obtaining a commonly agreed upon object—Socialism. In fact, however, it was partly a difference in conception of the object itself, in spite of the general use of such expressions as “Common ownership,” “Collectivism,” etc. Gradualists defined their views as evolutionary, but this was obviously inaccurate as evolution involves sudden changes, catastrophic changes, to which they were opposed.

The extreme expression of gradualism at the beginning was the Fabian Society, formed in 1884. It was mainly composed of people who were drawn together to discuss the “higher life” ideas of Thomas Davidson, and the discussions were infused with a complacent atmosphere of “Intellectualism”; the smug and self-satisfied members were acutely conscious of their mental superiority to the rest of society, both bloated bourgeois and ignorant workers; they had a heartfelt and, it must be added, a sincere desire to improve the poverty stricken conditions of the latter class. The Fabians were opposed to sweeping changes, proposing to gradually permeate society, both “upper” and “ lower” layers, with a leaven of “advanced” ideas until it had imperceptibly changed its form. The ultimate aim they had in view was a form of state capitalism and was summed up in one of the phrases in their report to the Second International Congress in 1896: “the Fabian society, far from desiring to abolish wages, wishes to secure them for everybody.” Naturally the members of the Fabian Society were to be the intellectual leaders of the bovine, though sometimes awkward, herd. Most of the early members of the Fabian Society were government officials and their occupation led them to believe that they were in a position to influence legislation in the direction of their aspirations. One of their members, Ramsay MacDonald, became the first Labour Prime Minister and others rose high in government and diplomatic service.

The propaganda of the Fabians was partly instrumental in the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, whose principal spokesman, Keir Hardie, was opposed to the historical and economic theories of Marx, holding the view that socialist revolutions had been occurring throughout the whole period that followed the disintegration of tribal communism. To him “Socialism, like every other problem of life, is at bottom a question of ethics and morals.” (Page 35, “From Serfdom to Socialism”). According to Keir Hardie the road to Socialism was as follows:

  “In like manner it is conceivable that the transference of industries from private hands to the State will be a gradual and peaceful process. Already, in fact, the process has advanced to a considerable stage. The property held and worked and controlled by municipalities already exceeds £500,000,000 sterling in value, and it is being added to yearly. This process has but to continue long enough to ensure that every industry will pass under public control, and thus State Socialism will become an accomplished fact, by a gradual process of easy transition.”

By State Socialism Hardie meant, as can be seen, Nationalisation; and that even that process has been gradual no one can deny as it is now forty years since Hardie wrote the above words and the process is far from being completed. But even that which he aimed at has been clearly revealed to any who will give it an hour or two’s realistic examination as a system in which the Capitalists own industry collectively, and live upon the interest they draw from their bondholding ; so that the system that was to come silently, like a thief in the night, is only a thieving system after all.

The position of the gradualists was given a semblance of a scientific basis by Edward Bernstein in his book “Evolutionary Socialism.” Bernstein attacked the chief tenets of Marxism, but we have not sufficient space to discuss his criticism. The object of his criticism was to induce the Social Democratic Parties to concentrate upon such immediate questions as that of “democratising” the state and removing the worst evils that afflict the workers, on the ground that Socialism was an ideal beyond the most distant horizon. Before he died Bernstein recanted his most vigorous criticism, and he at least has the merit of having opposed the first world war.

Now let us glance at the attitude of some of those who were the professed opponents of gradualism and who have been esteemed as outstanding theorists of the socialist movement and Marxists. Emile Vandervelde was one of these but his definition of Socialism does not work out much differently from that of the Fabians and Keir Hardie; he also had in mind gradualism, nationalisation, and unequal rewards for those living under the new system. Here are examples of his views taken from “Collectivism and the Industrial Revolution“:

  “By the very fact of its magnitude, this revolution can only be the result of a long and complex series of partial variations; ‘radical changes cannot be sudden: sudden changes cannot be radical’. (Page XV).
   “In fact there is nothing to prevent us imagining a socialist state, in which individual ownership and labour would co-exist with collective ownership and labour.” (Page 47).
   “In the proportion in which it would be socially useful from the point of view of production to allow special advantages to certain workers, or to certain categories of workers, in order to stimulate their energies and their power of labour, nothing would prevent a collectivist society from maintaining — mutatis mutandis —the graduated scale of salaries which exists today in the public services. Collectivism does not then necessarily imply equality of remuneration.” (Page 177-178).

The last statement merits comment from another point of view. Vandervelde wrote his book in 1907, when he was a leading official in the Second International, and a comrade of Lenin’s until 1917. Lenin however supported equality of remuneration and regretted that the Bolsheviks had to take a step backwards and introduce inequality; it was left for his successor, Stalin, who could hardly find words strong enough to vilify Vandervelde, to glorify unequal remuneration as one of the distinctive achievements of the soviet state and a hall mark of its socialist basis.
Even Kautsky, who was the outstanding opponent of revisionism, accepted the revisionist (and gradualist) concentration upon immediate demands, nationalisation, and even inequality of incomes under Socialism:

     “All forms of modern wage-payment-fixed salaries, piece wages, time wages, bonuses—all of them are reconcilable with the spirit of a socialist society; and there is not one of them that may not play a role in socialist society, as the wants and customs of its members, together with the requirements of production, may demand.” (“Class Struggle,” page 149).

Although the opponents of gradualism paid lip service to revolution in fact they were identified with the former by their platforms of immediate demands and their support for nationalisation. As Robert Hunter put it in “Socialism and Violence” (1916)

   “There is not a socialist party in any country that has not used its power to force the State to undertake collective enterprise. Indeed all the immediate programmes of the various socialist parties advocate the strengthening of the economic power of the State. They are adding more and more to its functions; they are broadening its scope; and they are, without question, vastly increasing its power. But, at the same time, they are democratising the State. By direct legislation, by a variety of political reforms, and by the power of the great socialist parties themselves, they are really wresting the control of the state from the hands of special privilege . . . State Socialism is in itself undermining and slowly destroying the class character of the State.” (Page 257).

Of course the reference to all socialist parties excluded the Socialist Party of Great Britain (we were the awkward squad that must not be noticed) and the alleged practical achievements mentioned above are all moonshine, as the workers under Labour Government are beginning to glimpse. Under nationalised Capitalism the workers are no less in the grip of Capitalist conditions than they were before.
The reform measures included in the programmes of the various social democratic parties (the number and variety of the reforms were bewildering) caused some of their members headaches as they seemed out of harmony with a socialist objective. Ernest Untermann (who translated the second and third volumes of “Capital”) made an attempt to solve this contradiction. In an article in the December, 1903, tissue of the “International Socialist Review” he claimed that the confusion would be cleared up if the socialist parties of the world adopted a common platform separate from the immediate demands and that, as the latter were only instructions issued to members of parliament to act upon while they were in the minority, they should not be published. He suggested that the socialist party in each country should issue a booklet to its members of parliament with instructions about the immediate demands they were to formulate and support. In this way, he argued, the election programmes would be without these immediate demands and thus the candidates would be sure of a vote upon Socialism alone. But he took the backbone out of his proposal by declining to lay down what constituted a socialist programme, claiming that the delegates to the international conferences were quite competent to do this. As these delegates were people who held a variety of views upon Socialism, mostly anything but accurate and overwhelmingly reformist, the result would have been a programme little different from those in existence at the time, and it is worthy of note that, in the course of time both supporters of gradualism and professed supporters of revolution alike became members of both capitalist and labour governments.
What bogged a brilliant theoretical exponent of Socialism, like Kautsky, and vitiated his conception of the road to Socialism was, on the one hand, the desire to improve the capacity of the workers to engage in the struggle by accomplishing practical ameliorations of their conditions and, on the other hand, the fear of antagonising certain sections of the population such as small farmers, independent craftsmen, and small proprietors of various descriptions. He did not realise that the immersion in practical programmes would inevitably result in these demands becoming ultimate ends in themselves and, by occupying all the energies of the social democratic parties, would submerge the socialist objective and tie these parties to the tail of capitalist parties. The history of the past fifty years has demonstrated the accuracy of this view, for Socialism has become identified with reforms and with State Capitalism; even Marx, the founder of Scientific Socialism, has been degraded with a place in the pantheon of capitalist fame.
Those who argue that Socialism is a long way off make it farther off by muddling the workers’ heads with complicated reform programmes; those, on the contrary, who argue that Socialism can be here tomorrow keep their theoretical ideas and practical policy clear and fresh by concentrating solely upon Socialism, leaving no doubt in the minds of the workers about what Socialism is and the practicability of its immediate application, providing the workers understand it and want it. Socialism is revolutionary and therefore its advocates are fundamentally opposed to Capitalism and its policies. Hence the revolutionists were opposed to the first world war, on the ground that it was a capitalist war, while the gradualists and the professed revolutionists of the social democratic parties united in the main in flocking to the support of their respective governments on both sides of the conflict. From that time onwards the professed revolutionism of the social democratic parties practically disappeared, except in odd theoretical disquisitions, swallowed up by the controversy over dictatorship and democracy, and the revolutionary phrases of these parties have been polluted by being used to bolster up the gradualism of the Russian Bolsheviks, and, in a round-about way, the gradualism of Labour governments.
The basis of all gradualist pretensions is that we can have a little bit of Socialism existing alongside of Capitalism, and that this little bit can grow and grow until Capitalism is absorbed in the new system. The confusion is partly due to mixing up the concentration of industry with Socialism and partly to the idea that a government, whose personnel consists of direct representatives of the workers, can radically alter a system and its effects whilst leaving untouched that which is really the basis of the system—capitalist production with its division into two classes of people, one of which depends upon wages for a living and the other upon bond and share holding. Such people get what they ask for—economic blizzards. Socialism, on the other hand, means an immediate and fundamental revolution in the basis of society; the abolition of capitalist ownership of the means of production and its replacement by common ownership. This change will be catastrophic in the sense of a complete break; it cannot be accomplished gradually, no matter how excellent may be the intentions of the gradualists. It involves the capture of political power by the workers and, in the meantime, permanent and unswerving antagonism to Capitalism, its spokesmen, and those who try to dress up Capitalism in more alluring garments. The final fate of all gradualists is to lose themselves in the camp of the enemy. Revolution alone, and not reform, is the only policy to which a socialist party can adhere.

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