A Question of Definition (3) – Revolution


Revolution originally meant a revolving movement and is still used in this sense when we talk about engines doing so many revolutions per minute. It later came to be extended to describe a change in the political set-up (a change of ruler or constitution). Thus, when in 1688 Parliament and the Bishops expelled the Catholic King James II and replaced him by the Protestant William of Orange, appointed by Act of Parliament, they described this as the Glorious Revolution. Then, in the following century, there was the American Revolution and of course the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was a great deal more radical than the so-called “glorious revolution” of 1688 in England, but it gave rise to a body of thought which demanded an even more radical change which by 1848 was called “la révolution sociale”. The exact significance of this phrase will not be grasped if the French word social is understood to mean simply “something to do with society” so that “social revolution” would merely mean revolution in society. Of course “la révolution sociale” was to be a revolution in society, but then so had been the French “bourgeois revolution” as it was now being called. It meant a particular kind of revolution in society, one which would benefit the mass of ordinary, working people. Thus it might even be said that “social” in this phrase had some of the meaning of “socialist”. A contrast was also drawn between “la révolution sociale” and political revolutions, which, like the French bourgeois revolution, involved as far as the mass of people were concerned a change of rulers

Social Revolution

We would be more precise today and use political revolution to describe a change in the class which controls the State, social revolution to mean a change in the basis of society and socialist revolution to describe the particular change of society from capitalism to Socialism following the winning of political power from the capitalist class by the working class. Proletarian revolution is not a phrase we use though it was used by early Socialist writers and thinkers but, if we did use it, it would mean the winning of political power by the working class, i.e., the political revolution (change in control of political power) preceding the social revolution from capitalism to Socialism.

Now, whether we like it or not (and we don’t), we cannot deny that the word revolution has often been used to mean “violent overthrow” and in fact most of the political and social revolutions of the past have been violent. We deny, however, that there is any necessary connexion between revolution and violence. Here we endorse Williams’ comment on the revolution versus reform controversy (which he calls, confusedly, “the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism”):

    “From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order (socialism as opposed to capitalism) and the more limited modification or reform of an existing order . . . The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also usually an argument about ends.”

Peaceful change

This is an important point, and one we have always made ourselves. In our view the distinction between revolution and reform is not between violent overthrow (insurrection) and peaceful change (using elections and Parliament), but between those who want to replace capitalism by Socialism and those who seek merely to re-form capitalism in one way or another. We claim to be revolutionaries because we stand for a fundamental and rapid change in the basis of society following the capture of political power by the working class, even though we hold that the working class can capture political power peacefully through elections and Parliament. On the other hand, there are many who believe in the violent capture of political power but who would use it merely to re-form capitalism (generally into State capitalism). We deny they are revolutionaries, irrespective of their commitment to violent tactics.

In other words, there is no necessary link between revolution and violence: there can be revolution without violence and violence without revolution. The criterion for revolution is the end envisaged (a change in control of political power, a change in the basis of society) not the means advocated (peaceful or violent).

Adam Buick

Leave a Reply