E. Belfort Bax

The Evolution Of Revolution

(3 February 1921)

E. Belfort Bax, The Evolution of Revolution, Justice, 3rd February 1921, p.3. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

The facility of our comrade Hyndman’s pen and the catholicity of his interests have never been more strikingly illustrated than in the past two or three years, since he has had behind him more than three-quarters of a century. Clemenceau, The Awakening of Asia, and now, most important of all the present volume, are not a bad record for one approaching the ninth decade of his life. Add to this, at the same time, political and economical labours in the sphere of current affairs, and I think no one can deny that in Henry Mayers Hyndman we have one of the most remarkable figures of the twentieth century. I must confess to a feeling akin to that of one of our comrades who, not long ago said to me that he could not help regarding Hyndman as immortal, for I also find it difficult to envisage the world, and especially the Socialist movement, without Hyndman. When one’s Socialist faith is for the nonce overclouded in the confused whirl of modern change and threatened change, a discourse or conversation of Hyndman’s always dispels gloomy forebodings, for Hyndman, though often depressed for the immediate future, never loses his confidence in the final issue.

The Materialist Theory of History

In The Evolution of Revolution [1] we have this confidence justified by (in the first place) a thoroughgoing historical analysis of the course of the economic evolution of man in society. Not that Hyndman is by any means a slavish adherent of the so-called “materialist theory of history” of Marx and Engels. He recognises a dual strain in all social change and progress – a psychological and moral as well as an economic and material strain. This is a point of view I may perhaps mention Hyndman and the present writer arrived at many years back, quite independently of each other, and which gave rise to a controversy myself and Kautsky some quarter of a century ago.

In the chapter on the Limits of Economic Determinism, Hyndman brings forward a mass of historical illustration in confirmation of our view, and administers a wholesome correction to the partisans of the extreme materialist theory.

He shows that economical considerations are by no means necessarily or always the dominant factor in social change and human progress. The psychological strain, the intellectual beliefs and emotional “urge” may quite well override the influence of economic conditions, and Hyndman points out that this has actually happened in some important cases – e.g., the rise and success of Mohammedanism and perhaps of Buddhism. He also shows that in neighbouring countries like India and China, where economic forms were almost precisely identical, entirely different civilisations otherwise have grown up. The mistake is in thinking, because very often, and notably in modern times, the economic factor is plainly the dominant one in social progress, that therefore it always has been and always must be so.

In the 400 pages of which this book consists, there is packed a solid mass of information historical, political and economic – such as is assuredly not to be found in any other single volume. In such an embarras de richesse it is difficult to select special chapters. However, I would mention, among the historical sections dealing with modern times, chapter xxiv, Forty-eight and Seventy-one, together with those on the rise of English capitalism, the Chartist movement and the period of apathy succeeding, as specially interesting to readers of to-day, showing as they do the connection of events and of the recent and current aspects of the Labour movement with those preceding.

Early Society and Ancient History

But The Evolution of Revolution is not confined to modern times. Fully half the volume is taken up with early society and ancient history. Here, perhaps, one or two criticisms may be ventured upon in spite of the masterly exposition of the causes of the decline of slavery in the Roman Empire, one feels that the earlier and later periods of the Empire are not sufficiently distinguished. A great deal of Tiber water had flowed under the Roman bridges between (say) Hadrian and Diocletian – the second century and the fourth. And although foreshortened by our historical perspective, there must have been considerable internal social change between the first and the second period, of which change the growth of the Christian Church from an obscure sect into a power threatening the integrity of the imperial system itself is an indication. This change was certainly in great measure other than economic, for the methods of production and distribution remained fundamentally the same throughout.

The Rise of the Individual Ethic

A more important a criticism as regards the first half of the book might be as to an inadequate recognition of the importance of the revolution in moral and intellectual outlook which came over the world of early civilisation somewhere about the sixth or seventh century B.C. Long after civilisation had begun, the object of highest regard and conduct continued to be the “group”, the society rather than the individual and his inner life; but about the period named, in some cases rather earlier and to others later, we see a movement springing up in which the centre of interest is transferred from the social whole and its life to the individual soul and its relation to a transcendent divinity. This movement of introspection, of “personal” religion, out of which sprang the so called “universal” or “ethical” religions of the world, including Christianity, is exemplified in the rise of the Hebrew “prophetic” literature, and its following, in Palestine; in the Orphic movement in Greece, in the Buddhistic development in India, etc. It would be rash to allege no connection between this movement and economic conditions, but the connection is not obvious, and one would like to have had a discussion from Hyndman as to the possibility of tracing such a connection, and, if it exist, as to its extent and nature.

The Need for Hyndman’s Book

Beyond a few misprints this is about all that is to be said by way of criticism of a work in general alike admirable in its inception and excellent in its working out. How much such a book is needed after forty years of Socialist propaganda one has only to read the leading article in the Times Literary Supplement of January 6 to understand. The British workman is there rebuked for imagining “capitalism” to be “a new and mischievous thing,” and is assured that it is an old and beneficent thing, without which production can never be carried beyond the stage of infancy! That it is possible for any anti-Socialist at this time of day to repeat such stuff as this shows what amount of ignorance of Socialist economics we have still among us. In conclusion I would point out that for him who clamours for something not merely critical of existing society, but constructive as well, he will find all he has a right to expect in the chapter on the Cooperative Commonwealth. Even though some of us may doubt whether the view expressed on page 396 as to the possibility of one nation alone constituting itself a perfected Socialist Commonwealth, single handed, is sustainable in view of the close interconnection of all modern civilised communities, we can none of us fail to appreciate the noble expression of our common Socialist faith in the concluding pages of the present volume.


1. The Evolution of Revolution, by H.M. Hyndman (Grant Richards, St. Martin’s Street, W.C.2.), 21s. net.


Last updated on 27.5.2007