There are few conceptions over which there has been so much contention, as over that of revolution. This can partially be ascribed to the fact that nothing is so contrary to existing interests and prejudices as this concept, and partially to the fact that few things are so ambiguous.
As a rule, events can not be so sharply defined as things. Especially is this true of social events, which are extremely complicated, and grow ever more complicated the further society advances – the more various the forms of co-operation of humanity become. Among the most complicated of these events is the Social Revolution, which is a complete transformation of the wonted forms of associated activity among men.
It is no wonder that this word, which every one uses, but each one in a different sense, is sometimes used by the same persons at different times in very different senses. Some understand by Revolution barricades, conflagrations of castles, guillotines, September massacres and a combination of all sorts of hideous things. Others would seek to take all sting away from the word and use it in the sense of great but imperceptible and peaceful transformations of society, like, for instance, those which took place through the discovery of America or by the invention of the steam engine. Between these two definitions there are many grades of meaning.
Marx, in his introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, defines social revolution as a more or less rapid transformation of the foundations of the juridical and political superstructure of society arising from a change in its economic foundations. If we hold close to this definition we at once eliminate from the idea of social revolution “changes in the economic foundations,” as, for example, those which proceeded from the steam engine or the discovery of America. These alterations are the causes of revolution, not the revolution itself.
But I do not wish to confine myself too strictly to this definition of social revolution. There is a still narrower sense in which we can use it. In this case it does not signify either the transformation of the juridical and political superstructure of society, but only some particular form or particular method of transformation.
Every socialist strives for social revolution in the wider sense, and yet there are socialists who disclaim revolution and would attain social transformation only through reform. They contrast social revolution with social reform. It is this contrast which we are discussing today in our ranks. I wish here to consider social revolution in the narrow sense of a particular method of social transformation.
The contrast between reform and revolution does not consist in the application of force in one case and not in the other. Every juridical and political measure is a force measure which is carried through by the force of the State. Neither do ally particular forms of the application of force, as, for example, street fights, or executions, constitute the essentials of revolution in contrast to reform. These arise from particular circumstances, are not necessarily connected with revolutions, and may easily accompany reform movements. The constitution of the delegates of the third Estate at the National Assembly of France, on June 17, 1789, was an eminently revolutionary act with no apparent use of force. This same France had, on the contrary, in 1774 and 1775, great insurrections for the single and in no way revolutionary purpose of changing the bread tax in order to stop the rise in the price of bread.
The reference to street fights and executions as characteristic of revolutions is, however, a clue to the source from which we can obtain important teachings as to the essentials of revolution. The great transformation which began ill France in 1789 has become the classical type of revolution. It is the one which is ordinarily in mind when revolution is spoken of. From it we can best study the essentials of revolution and the contrast between it and reform. This revolution was preceded by a series of efforts at reform, among which the best known are those of Turgot. These attempts in many cases aimed at the same things which the revolution carried out. What distinguished the reforms of Turgot from the corresponding measures of the revolution? Between the two lay the conquest of political power by a new class, and in this lies the essential difference between revolution and reform. Measures which seek to adjust the juridical and political superstructure of society, to changed economic conditions, are reforms if they proceed from the class which is the political and economic ruler of society. They are reforms whether they are given freely or secured by the pressure of the subject class, or conquered through the power of circumstances. On the contrary, those measures are the results of revolution if they proceed from the class which has been economically and politically oppressed and who have now captured political power and who must in their own interest more or less rapidly transform the political and juridical superstructure and create new forms of social co-operation.
The conquest of the governmental power by an hitherto oppressed class, in other words, a political revolution, is accordingly the essential characteristic of social revolution in this narrow sense, in contrast with social reform. Those who repudiate political revolution as the principal means of social transformation or wish to confine this to such measures as have been granted by the ruling class are social reformers, no matter how much their social ideas may antagonize existing social forms. On the contrary, any one is a revolutionist who seeks to conquer the political power for an hitherto oppressed class, and he does not lose this character if he prepares and hastens this conquest by social reforms wrested from the ruling classes. It is not the striving after social reforms but the explicit confining of one’s self to them which distinguishes the social reformer from the social revolutionist. On the other hand, a political revolution can only become a social revolution when it proceeds from an hitherto socially oppressed class. Such a class is compelled to complete its political emancipation by its social emancipation because its previous social position is in irreconcilable antagonism to its political domination. A split in the ranks of the ruling classes, no matter even if it should take on the violent form of civil mar, is not a social revolution. In the following pages we shall only discuss social revolution in the sense here defined.
A social reform can very well be in accord with the interests of the ruling class. It may for the moment their social domination untouched, or under certain circumstances, can even strengthen it. Social revolution, on the contrary, is from the first incompatible with the interests of the ruling class, since under all circumstances it signifies annihilation of their power. Little wonder that the present ruling class continuously slander and stigmatize revolution because they believe that it threatens their position. They contrast the idea of social revolution with that of social reform, which they praise to the very heavens, very frequently indeed without ever permitting it to become an earthly fact. The arguments against revolution are derived from the present ruling forms of thought. So long as Christianity ruled the minds of men the idea of revolution was rejected as sinful revolt against divinely constituted authority. It was easy to find proof texts for this in the New Testament, since this of the Roman Empire, during an epoch in which every revolt against the ruling powers appeared hopeless, and all independent political life had ceased to exist. The revolutionary classes, to be sure, replied with quotations from the Old Testament, in which there still lived much of the spirit of a primitive pastoral democracy. When once the judicial manner of thought displaced the theological, a revolution was defined as a violent break with the existing legal order. No one, however, could have a right to the destruction of rights, a right of revolution was an absurdity, and revolution in all cases a crime. But the representatives of the aspiring class placed in opposition to the existing, historically descended right, the right for which they strove, representing it as an eternal law of nature and reason, and an inalienable right of humanity. The re-conquest of these latter rights, that plainly could have been lost only through a violation of rights, was itself impossible without a violation of rights, even if they came as a result of revolution.
To-day the theological phrases have lost their power to enslave, and, most of all, among the revolutionary classes of the people. Reference to historical right has also lost its force. The revolutionary origin of present rights and present government is still so recent that their legitimacy can be challenged. Not alone the government of France, but the dynasties of Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, England and Holland, are of revolutionary origin. The kings of Bavaria and Wurtemburg, the grand duke of Baden and Hesse, owe, not simply their titles, but a large share of their provinces, to the protection of the revolutionary parvenu Napoleon; the Hohenzollerns attained their present positions over the ruins of thrones, and even the Hapsburgers bowed before the Hungarian revolution. Andrassy, who was hung in effigy for high treason in 1852, was an imperial minister in 1867, without proving untrue to the ideas of the national Hungarian revolution of 1848.
The bourgeoisie was itself actively engaged in all these violations of historical rights. It cannot, now, since it has become the ruling class, well condemn revolution in the name of this right to revolution, even if its legal philosophy does everything possible to reconcile natural and historical rights. It must seek more effective arguments with which to stigmatize the revolution, and these are found in the newly-arising natural science with its accompanying mental attitude. While the bourgeoisie were still revolutionary, the catastrophic theory still ruled in natural science (geology and biology). This theory proceeded from the premise that natural development came through great sudden leaps. Once the capitalist revolution was ended, the place of the catastrophic theory was taken by the hypothesis of a gradual imperceptible development, proceeding by the accumulation of countless little advances and adjustments in a competitive struggle. To the revolutionary bourgeoisie the thought of catastrophes in nature was very acceptable, but to the conservative bourgeoisie these ideas appeared irrational and unnatural.
Of course I do not assert that the scientific investigators had all their theories determined by the political and social needs of the bourgeoisie. It was just the representatives of the catastrophe theories who were at the same time most reactionary and least inclined to revolutionary views. But every one is involuntarily influenced by the mental attitude of the class amid which he lives and carries something from it into his scientific conceptions. In the case of Darwin we know positively that his natural science hypotheses were influenced by Malthus, that decisive opponent of revolution. It was not wholly accidental that the theories of evolution (of Darwin and Lyell) came from England, whose history for 250 years has shown nothing more than revolutionary beginnings, whose point the ruling class have always been able to break at the opportune moment.
The fact that an idea emanates from any particular class, or accords with their interests, of course proves nothing as to its truth or falsity. But its historical influence does depend upon just these things. That the new theories of evolution were quickly accepted by the great popular masses, who had absolutely no possibility of testing them, proves that they, rested upon profound needs of those classes. On the one side these theories – and this gave them their value to the revolutionary classes – abolished in a much more radical manner than the old catastrophic theories, all necessity of a recognition of a supernatural power creating a world by successive acts. On the other side – and this pleased most highly the bourgeoisie – they declared all revolutions and catastrophes to be something abnormal, contrary to the laws of nature, and wholly absurd. Whoever seeks to-day to scientifically attack revolution does it in the name of the theory of evolution, demonstrating that nature makes no leaps, that consequently any sudden change of social relations is impossible; that advance is only possible through the accumulation of little changes and slight improvements, called social reforms. Considered from this point of view revolution is an unscientific conception about which scientifically cultured people only shrug their shoulders.
It might be replied that the analogy between natural and social laws is by no means perfect. To be sure, our conception of the one will unconsciously influence our conception of the other sphere as we have already seen. This is however, no advantage and it is better to restrain rather than favor this transference of laws from one sphere to another. To be sure, all progress in methods of observation and comprehension of any one sphere can and will improve our methods and comprehension in others, but it is equally true that within each one of these spheres there are peculiar laws not applying to the others.
First of all must be noted the fundamental distinction between animate and inanimate nature. No one would claim on the ground of external similarity to transfer without change a law which applied to one of these spheres to the other. One would not seek to solve the problem of sexual reproduction and heredity by the laws of chemical affiliation. But the same error is committed when natural laws are applied directly to society, as for example when competition is justified as a natural necessity because of the law of the struggle for survival, or when the laws of natural evolution are invoked to show the impossibility of social revolution.
But there is still more to be said in reply. If the old catastrophic theory is gone forever from the natural sciences, the new theory which makes of evolution only a series of little, insignificant changes meets with ever stronger objections. Upon one side there is a growing tendency toward quietistic, conservative theories that reduce evolution itself to a minimum, on the other side facts are compelling us to give an ever greater importance to catastrophes in natural development. This applies equally to the geological theories of Lyell and the organic evolution of Darwin.
This has given rise to a sort of synthesis of the old catastrophic theories and the newer evolutionary theories, similar to the synthesis that is found in Marxism. Just as Marxism distinguishes between the gradual economic development and the sudden transformation of the juridical and political superstructure, so many of the new biological and geological theories recognize alongside of the slow accumulation of slight and even infinitesimal alterations, also sudden profound transformations – catastrophes – that arise from the slower evolution.
A notable example of this is furnished by the observations of de Bries reported at the last Congress of Natural Sciences held at Hamburg. He has discovered that the species of plants and animals remain unchanged through a long period; some of them finally disappear, when they have become too old to longer adapt themselves to the conditions of existence, that have in the meantime been changing. Other species are more fortunate; they suddenly “explode,” as he has himself expressed it, in order to give life to countless new forms, some of which continue and multiply, while the others, not being adapted to the conditions of existence, disappear.
I have no intention of drawing a conclusion in favor of revolution from these new observations. That would be to fall into the same error as those who argue to the rejection of revolution from the theory of evolution. But these observations at least show that the scientists are themselves not wholly agreed as to the part played in organic and geologic development by catastrophes, and for this reason it would be an error to attempt to draw from either of these hypotheses any fixed conclusions as to the role played by revolution in social development.
If in spite of these facts such conclusions are still insisted upon, then we can reply to them with a very popular and familiar illustration, which demonstrates in an unmistakable manner that nature does make sudden leaps: I refer to the act of birth. The act of birth is a leap. At one stroke a fetus, which had hitherto constituted a portion of the organism of the mother, sharing in her circulation, receiving nourishment from her, without breathing, becomes an independent human being, with its own circulatory system, that breathes and cries, takes its own nourishment and utilizes its digestive tract.
The analogy between birth and revolution, however, does not rest alone upon the suddenness of the act. If we look closer we shall find that this sudden transformation at birth is confined wholly to functions. The organs develop slowly, and must reach a certain stage of development before that leap is possible, which suddenly gives them their new functions. If the leap takes place before this stage of development is attained, the result is not the beginning of new functions for the organs, but the cessation of all functions – the death of the new creature. On the other hand, the slow development of organs in the body of the mother can only proceed to a certain point, they cannot begin their new functions without the revolutionary act of birth. This becomes inevitable when the development of the organs has attained a certain height.
We find the same thing in society. Here also the revolutions are the result of slow, gradual development (evolution). Here also it is the social organs that develop slowly. That which may be changed suddenly, at a leap, revolutionarily, is their functions. The railroad has been slowly developed. On the other hand, the railroad can suddenly be transformed from its function as the instrument to the enrichment of a number of capitalists, into a socialist enterprise having as its function the serving of the common good. And as at the birth of the child, all the functions are simultaneously revolutionized – circulation, breathing, digestion – so all the functions of the railroad must be simultaneously revolutionized at one stroke, for they are all most closely bound together. They cannot be gradually and successively socialized, one after the other, as if, for example, we would transform to-day the functions of the engineer and fireman, a few years later the ticket agents, and still later the accountants and book-keepers, and so on. This fact is perfectly clear with a railroad, but the successive socialization of the different functions of a railroad is no less absurd than that of the ministry of a centralized state. Such a ministry constitutes a single organism whose organs must cooperate. The functions of one of these organs cannot be modified without equally modifying all the others. The idea of the gradual conquest of the various departments of a ministry by the Socialists is not less absurd than would be an attempt to divide the act of birth into a number of consecutive monthly acts, in each of which one organ only would be transformed from the condition of a fetus to an independent child, and meanwhile leaving the child itself attached to the navel cord until it had learned to walk and talk.
Since neither a railroad nor a ministry can be changed gradually, but only at a single stroke, embracing all the organs simultaneously, from capitalist to socialist functions, from an organ of the capitalist to an organ of the laboring class, and this transformation is possible only to such social organs as retain a certain degree of development, it may be remarked here that with the maternal organism it is possible to scientifically determine the moment when the degree of maturity is attained, which is not true of society.
On the other hand, birth does not mark the conclusion of the development of the human organism, but rather the beginning of a new epoch in development. The child comes now into new relations in which new organs are created, and those that previously existed are developed further in other directions; teeth grow in the mouth, the eyes learn to see; the hands to grasp, the feet to walk, the mouth to speak, etc. In the same way a social revolution is not the conclusion of social development, but the beginning of a new form of development. A socialist revolution can at a single stroke transfer a factory from capitalist to social property. But it is only gradually, through a course of slow evolution, that one may transform a factory from a place of monotonous, repulsive, forced labor into an attractive spot for the joyful activity of happy human beings. A socialist revolution can at a single stroke transform the great bonanza farms into social property. In that portion of agriculture where the little industry still rules, the organs of social and socialist production must be first created, and that can come only as a result of slow development.
It is thus apparent that the analogy between birth and revolution is rather far reaching. But this naturally proves nothing more than that one has no right to appeal to nature for proof that a social revolution is something unnecessary, unreasonable, and unnatural. We have also, as we have already said, no right to apply conclusions drawn from nature directly to social processes. We can go no further upon the ground of such analogies than to conclude: that as each animal creature must at one time go through a catastrophe in order to reach a higher stage of development (the act of birth or of the breaking of a shell), so society can only be raised to a higher stage of development through a catastrophe.
Any definite conclusion as to whether revolution is a necessity or not can be drawn only from an investigation of the facts of social development, and not through analogies with natural science. It is only necessary to glance at these earlier stages of development in order to see that social revolution, in the narrow sense in which we are here using it, is no necessary accompaniment of social development. There was a social development and a very far-reaching one before the rise of class antagonisms and political power. In these stages the conquest of political power by an oppressed class, and consequently a social revolution, was as a matter of course impossible.
Even after class antagonisms and political power have arisen it is a long time before we find, either in antiquity or the Middle Ages, anything which corresponds to our idea of revolution. We find plenty of examples of bitter class struggles, civil wars and political catastrophes, but none of these brought about a fundamental and permanent renovation of the conditions of property and therewith a new social form.
To my mind the reasons for this are as follows: In antiquity and also in the Middle ages the center of gravity of the economic and also of the political life lay in the community. Each community was sufficient in itself in all essential points and was only attached to the exterior world through loose bands. The great states were only conglomerates of communities which were held together only through either a dynasty or through another ruling and exploiting community. Each community had its own special economic development corresponding to its own peculiar characteristics and corresponding to these also its special class struggles. The political revolutions also at that time were chiefly only communal revolutions. It was as a matter of course impossible to transform the whole social life of a great territory by a political revolution.
The smaller the number of individuals in a social movement the less there is of a real social movement; the less there is of the universal and law creating, and the more the personal and the accidental dominate. This increased the diversity of the class struggles in the different communities. Because in the class struggle no movement of the masses could appear, because the general was concealed in the accidental and the personal, there could be no deep recognition of social causes and the goals of class movements. However great the philosophy created by the Greeks, the idea of a scientific national economy was foreign to them. Aristotle supplies only outlines of such a system. The Greeks and Romans on the economic field produced only practical instructions for domestic economy, or for agricultural industries, such as those composed by Xenophon and Varro.
While the deeper social causes that gave rise to the condition of individual classes remained concealed and were veiled by the acts of individual persons and local peculiarities, it was not to be wondered at that the oppressed classes also, as soon as they had conquered political power, used it first of all to get rid of individuals and local peculiarities and not to establish a new social order.
The most important obstacle in the road to any revolutionary movements at this time was the slowness of economic development. This proceeded imperceptibly. Peasants and artisans worked as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been accustomed to work. The ancient, the customary, was the only good and perfect thing. Even when one sought to create something new, he endeavored to prove to others that it was really a return to some forgotten tradition. Technical progress did not in itself compel new forms of property for it consisted only in increasing social division of labor, in the division of one trade into many. But, in each of the new trades, hand work was still fundamental, the means of production were insignificant, and the decisive element was manual skill. To be sure, in the last years of antiquity, we find beside the peasants and the artisans great businesses (even industrial establishments), but these were operated by slaves who were considered as aliens outside of the community life. These industries produced only luxuries and could develop no special economic strength, except temporarily in times of great wars which weakened agriculture and made slave material cheap. A high economic form and a new social ideal cannot arise upon a slave economy.
The single form of capital which was developed in antiquity and the Middle Ages was usury and commercial capital. Both of these may, at times, bring about rapid economic changes. But commercial capital could only further the division of the old trades into countless new ones and the advance of the great industry dependent on slave labor. Usurious capital operated simply to stunt existing forms of production without creating new ones. The struggle against usurious capital and against the great agricultural industries which were operated by slaves led to occasional political struggles very similar to the social revolutions of our time. But the goal of these was always only the restoration of an earlier condition and not a social renovation. Such was the case in the liquidation of debts brought about for the Greek peasants, by Solon, and in the movements of the Roman peasants and proletarians from which the Gracchi receive their name. To all of these causes – slowness of economic development, lack of recognition of deeper social relations, division of political life into countless differing communities, must be added the fact that in classical antiquity and many times also in the Middle Ages, the means for the suppression of a rising class were relatively insignificant. There were no bureaucracies, or at least never where there was the most active political life, and where the class struggle was most fiercely waged. In the Roman world, for example, bureaucracy was first developed under the empire. The internal relations of communities as well as their commerce with each other were simple, easy to comprehend and pre-supposed no expert knowledge. The governing classes could easily secure the necessary governing officials out of their own number, and this is all the more true in that at that time the governing class was also accustomed to engage in artistic, philosophic and political activity. The ruling class did not simply reign, it also governed.
On the other side the mass of the people were not wholly defenceless. It was in just the golden age of classical antiquity that the militia system was the rule, under which every citizen was armed. Under those conditions a very slight alteration in the balance of power of classes was sufficient to bring a new class into control. Class antagonisms could not well reach such a height that the idea of a complete transformation of all existing institutions could become firmly rooted in the minds of an oppressed class, and, moreover, in these oppressed classes, stubborn clinging to all privileges was the rule. As has already been noted this operated to confine political revolution almost wholly to the abolition of individual abuses and the removal of individual persons. This condition also assisted in the avoidance through compromise of all forms of revolution.
Among the great nations of modern times England is the one which most resembles the Middle Ages, not economically, but in its political form. Militarism and bureaucracy are there the least developed. It still possesses an aristocracy that not only reigns but governs. Corresponding to this, England is the great modern nation in which the efforts of the oppressed classes are mainly concerned to the removal of particular abuses instead of being directed against the whole social system. It is also the State in which the practice of protection against revolution through compromise is farthest developed.
If the universal armament of the people did not encourage great social revolutions, it did make it much easier for armed conflict between the classes to arise at the slightest opportunity. There is no lack of violent uprisings and civil wars in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The ferocity with which these were fought was often so great as to lead to the expulsion, expropriation and oftentimes to the extermination of the conquered. Those who consider violence as a sign of social revolution will find plenty of such revolutions in earlier ages. But those who conceive social revolution as the conquest of political power by a previously subservient class and the transformation of the juridical and political superstructure of society, particularly in the property relations, will find no social revolution there. Social development proceeded piece-meal, step by step, not through single great catastrophes but in countless little broken-up, apparently disconnected, often interrupted, ever renewing, mostly unconscious movements. The great social transformation of the times we are considering, the disappearance of slavery in Europe, came about so imperceptibly that the contemporaries of this movement took no notice of it, and one is to-day compelled to reconstruct it through hypotheses.
Thing took on a wholly different aspect as soon as the capitalist method of production was developed. It would lead us too far and would be only to repeat things well known if I were here to go into the mechanism of capitalism and its consequences. Suffice it to say that the capitalist method of production created the modern State, made an end to the political independence of communities and at the same time their economic independence ceased, each became part of a whole, and lost its special rights and special peculiarities. All were reduced to the same level, all were given the same laws, the same taxes, same courts, and were made subject to the same government. The modern State was thus forced to become a National State and added to the other equalities the equality of language.
The influence of governmental power upon the social life was now something wholly different from what it was through antiquity or the Middle Ages. Every important political change in a great modern State influences at once with a single stroke and in the profoundest manner an enormous social sphere. The conquest of political power by a previously subject class must, on this account, from now on, have wholly different social results than previously.
As a result the power at the disposal of the modern State has grown enormously. The technical revolution of capitalism reaches also to the technique of arms. Ever since the Reformation the weapons of war have become more and more perfect, but also more costly. They thus become a privilege of governmental power. This fact alone separates the army from the people, even in those places where universal conscription prevails, unless this is supplemented by popular armament, which is not the case in any great State. Most important of all, the leaders of the army are professional soldiers separated from the people, to whom they stand opposed as a privileged class.
The economic powers also of the modern centralized State are enormous when compared with those of the earlier States. They comprehend the wealth of a colossal sphere whose technical means of production leave the higher culture of antiquity far behind.
The modern State also possesses a bureaucracy far more centralized than that of any previous State. The problems of the modern State have grown so enormously that it is impossible to solve them without an extensive division of labor and a high grade of professional knowledge. The capitalist manner of production robs the ruling class of all the leisure that they previously had. Even, if they do not produce but are living from the exploitation of the producing classes, still they are not idle exploiters. Thanks to competition, the motive force of present economic life, the exploiters are continuously compelled to carry on an exhausting struggle with each other, which threatens the vanquished with complete annihilation.
The capitalists have therefore neither time nor leisure, nor the previous culture necessary for artistic and scientific activity. They lack even the necessary qualifications for regular participation in governmental activities. Not only in art and science but also in the government of the State the ruling class is forced to take no part. They must leave that to wage-workers and bureaucratic employees. The capitalist, class reigns but does not govern. It is satisfied, however, to rule the government.
In the same way the decaying feudal nobility before it, satisfied itself by taking on the forms of a royal nobility. But while with the feudal nobility the renunciation of its social functions was the product of corruption, with the capitalists this renunciation arises directly from their social functions and is an essential part of their existence.
With the help of such a powerful government a class can long maintain itself, even if it is superfluous. Yes, even if it has become injurious. And the stronger the power of the State, just so much the more does the governing class rest upon it, just so much more stubbornly will it cling to its privileges and all the less will it be inclined to grant concessions. The longer, however it maintains its domination in this manner, the sharper become class antagonisms, the more pronounced must be the political collapse when it finally does come, and the deeper the social transformation that arises out of it, and the more apt the conquest of political power by an oppressed class to lead to revolution.
Simultaneously the warring classes become more and more conscious of the social consequences of their political struggle. The capitalist system of production tends to greatly accelerate the march of economic evolution. The economic transformation for which the century of invention has prepared the way is continued by the introduction of machines into industry. Since their introduction our economic relations are subject to continual change, not only by the rapid dissolution of the old but by the continuous creation of the new. The idea of the old, of the past, ceases to be equivalent to the tested, to the honorable, to the inviolable. It becomes synonymous with the imperfect and the outgrown. This idea is transplanted from the economic life into the field of art and science and politics. Just as in earlier days people clung without reason to the old, so to-day one gladly throws the old aside without reason just because it is old. And the time which is necessary in order to make a machine, an institution, a theory outgrown becomes ever shorter. And if in former days men worked with the intention of building for eternity with all the devotedness that flows from such a consciousness, so to-day one works for the fleeting effect of a moment with all the frivolity of this consciousness. So that the creation of to-day is within a short time not simply unfashionable but also useless.
The new is, however, just that thing that one observes, criticizes and investigates the most closely. The ordinary and the commonplace pass as a matter of course. Mankind studied the causes of eclipse much earlier than the rising and setting of the sun. In the same way the incentive to investigate the laws of social phenomena was very slight so long as these phenomena were the ordinary, the matter-of-course, the “natural.” This incentive must at once be strengthened as soon as new, hitherto unheard of formations appeared in the social life. It was not the old hereditary feudal economics, but rather the newly appearing capitalist economics that first roused scientific observation at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Economic science was encouraged still more by another motive. Capitalist production is mass production, social production. The typical modern capitalist state is the great state. Modern economics, like modern politics, must deal with mass phenomena. The larger the number of similar appearances that one observes, the greater the tendency to notice the universal – those indicating a social law – and the more the individual and the accidental disappear, the easier it is to discover the laws of social movements. The mathematical mass-observation of social phenomena, statistics, and the science of society that rises from political economy and reaches its highest point in the materialistic conception of history, has only been possible in the capitalist stage of production. Now for the first time classes could come to the full consciousness of the social significance of their struggles, and for the first time set before themselves great social goals, not as arbitrary dreams and pious wishes destined to be shattered on the hard facts, but as results of scientific insight into economic possibilities and necessities. To be sure this scientific thought can err, many of its conclusions can be shown to be illusions. But however great these errors may be, it cannot be deprived of the characteristic of every true science, the striving after a uniform conception of all phenomena under an indisputable whole. In social science this means the recognition of the social whole as a single organism in which one cannot arbitrarily and for itself alone change any single part. The socially oppressed class no longer directs its theoretical criticism against individual persons and tendencies, but against the total existing society. And just because of this fact every oppressed class which conquers political power is driven to transform the whole social foundations.
The capitalist society which sprang from the revolution of 1789 and its outcome was foreseen in its fundamental outlines by the physiocrats and their English followers.
Upon this distinction between the modern states and society and the organizations of antiquity and the Middle Ages rests the difference in the manner of their development. The former was predominantly unconscious, split up into local and personal strifes and the rebellion of countless little communities at different stages of development; the latter grows more and more self-conscious and strives towards a great recognized social goal which has been determined and is propagated by scientifically critical work. Political revolutions are less frequent, but more comprehensive and their social results more extensive.
The transition from the civil wars of antiquity and the Middle Ages to social revolutions in the previously used sense of the word was made by the Reformation, which belonged half to the Middle Ages and half to modern times. On a still higher stage was the English revolution of the middle of the seventeenth century, and finally the great French revolution becomes the classical type of social revolution, of which the uprisings of 1830 and 1848 mere only faint echoes.
Social revolution in the sense here meant is peculiar to the stage of social development of capitalist society and the capitalist state. It does not exist previous to capitalism, because the political boundaries were too narrow and social consciousness too undeveloped. It will disappear with capitalism because this can only be overthrown by the proletariat, which as the lowest of all social classes can use its domination only to abolish all class domination and classes and therewith also the essential conditions of social revolution.
There now arises a great question, a question that to-day affects us profoundly, because it has the greatest influence upon our political relations to the present: Is the time of social revolution past or not? Have we already the political conditions which can bring about a transition from capitalism to socialism without political revolution, without the conquest of political power by the proletariat, or must we still expect an epoch of decisive struggles for the possession of this power and therewith a revolutionary epoch? Does the idea of social revolution belong with those antiquated ideas which are held only by thoughtless echoers of outgrown conceptions or by demagogical speculators upon the applause of the unthinking masses, and which every honest modern person who dispassionately observes the facts of modern society must put aside?
That is the question. Certainly an important question which a couple of phrases will not serve to dismiss.
We have discovered that social revolution is a product of special historical conditions. They presuppose, not simply a highly developed class antagonism, but also a great national state rising above all provincial and communal peculiarities, built upon a form of production that operates to level all local peculiarities, a powerful military and bureaucratic state, a science of political economy and a rapid rate of economic progress.
None of these factors of social revolution have been decreasing in power during the last decade. Many of them, on the contrary, have been much strengthened. Never was the rate of economic development more rapid. Scientific economics make, at least, a great extensive, if not intensive growth, thanks to the newspapers. Never was economic insight so broadly dispersed; never was the ruling class, as well as the mass of people, so much in a condition to comprehend the far-reaching consequences of its acts and strivings. This alone proves that we shall not make the tremendous transition from capitalism to socialism unconsciously, and that we cannot slowly undermine the dominion of the exploiting class without this class being conscious of this, and consequently arming themselves and using all their powers to suppress the strength and influence of the growing proletariat.
If, however, the insight into social relations was never so extensive as to-day, it is equally true that the governmental power was never so strong as now, nor the military, bureaucratic and economic forces so powerfully developed. It follows from this that the proletariat, when it shall have conquered the governmental powers, will have thereby attained the power to at once bring about most extensive social changes. It also follows from this that the personal governing class with the help of these powers can continue its existence and its plundering of the laboring class long after its economic necessity has ceased. The more, however, that the ruling classes support themselves with the State machinery and misuse this for the purposes of exploitation and oppression, just so much more must the bitterness of the proletariat against them increase, class hatred grow, and the effort to conquer the machinery of State increase in intensity.
To be sure it has been claimed that this comprehension of the newest socialist phenomena does not take account of the undeniable fact that the development proceeds in other directions also. It is claimed also that the contrast between proletariat and bourgeoisie is not increasing, and in every modern State there are enough democratic arrangements to make it possible for the proletariat, if not to gain the power, still to gain power gradually, step by step and steadily increasing, so that the necessity of a social revolution ceases. Let us see in how far these exceptions are justified.
Last updated on 28.1.2004