Enrico Ferri 1902

The Revolutionary Method

Source: International Socialist Journal, August 1905.
Translated: by Ernest Untermann;
First published: Il Socialismo, Vol. I., No.7, 1902.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.

Let us above all explain ourselves clearly. The Critica Sociale of May first, 1902, asks in the article, “The Spiral of the First of May” : “What has become of the noise that was made about the ‘Ministerialism’ of the Socialists? Who still takes the childishly fanciful idea of a revolution in contradiction to reform seriously? It is about the same as if a forest were to reproach its trees that they interfere with its own dignity by their massive trunks and intricate branches. Compromising and uncompromising; revolutionary method and law-abiding method; possibilism and impossibilism – how far away and antiquated are these word plays, these verbal vanities from which other impotent and bitter vanities could for a moment arise and disport themselves before, the temporarily confused masses.”

Far away and antiquated ?

Why, on the contrary, on the last page of the same number of Critica Sociale, G. Cassola insists on the different tendencies in the Socialist party under the form of a personal critique of my political attitude: He calls it “misleading,” because I am, according to him, “revolutionary ... but in the Copernican sense ; anti-ministerialist ... but vote from case to case for the Ministry; uncompromising ... but do not disdain alliances.” So that “Ferri has created for himself a condition of equivocation by which every one of his acts contradicts some one of his fundamental premises.”

And, apart from such personal polemics, we have only to read our weeklies in order to see the controversy about the different tendencies raging back and forth over every incident of the administrative and political battle.

Far away and antiquated? But this is only an illusion of those who attribute to the whole party this state of a swampy quietude which is at present found only in parliament, and is there mainly as the inevitable consequence of that “ministerial Socialism” which relieves the government of the spur and fear of the clamoring hosts that alone impel the rulers, the happy possessors, to move and do something.

The railway employes were promised a fixed salary and an increase, and it was said the law relative to this would be passed without fail in April. But after the government had been sustained by the vote of parliament, the machine slowly goes about finding the millions necessary for the realization of the measure, and on May 20th, the date of this writing, the railway employes are still waiting for the fruits of the ministerialist vote given by the Socialists on March 15th.

We have had a spectacular demonstration of 200 unions in favor of the law on female and child labor, a largely artificial action, because such a law interests only a small part of the industrial proletariat of Italy and does not provide either for the agricultural proletariat or affect even indirectly the lack of employment and the chronic hunger which are the sorest wounds inflicted by surplus value. We have also had, during the discussion of this law, to which the government, of course, opposed a ministerial project, the absence of the reform Socialists from the chamber, although they formed the majority of the parliamentary group. And thus we have received the first abortion of a law which is still far from being passed, because much water will flow down the hills, before the Senate will decide to mutilate it still more. The same thing happened to the former bill on child labor in 1886, which is also suffering from anemia and has mostly remained ineffective. And in the meantime we hope that the same Senate will find a way to pass that other great reform of the “labor bureaus” which will give to the proletariat the consolation to write the statistics ... of their own misery, which they may read to one another ... in their labor homes which the Honorable Luigi Luzzati has so benevolently promoted, just as if he were also a reform Socialist ... during that Sunday rest which the Chamber and Senate will concede to them ... by and by, so that, by hedging and delaying the “fruit of pastime” may grow. The class conscious proletariat should, therefore, have to share the illusions of those government employes of all stations and kinds who, in their state of political indecision, clamor and hope for some little reform that will relieve them of gloom and misery, and who receive for their political neutrality, so dear to the government, nothing but plenty of promises, especially on the eve of administrative or political elections, while they are feeding in the meantime ... on the “fruit of pastime,” until they acquire the sense and the courage to organize for their own class interests.

“Far away and antiquated” seems rather the spirit of combativeness in the Socialist party, if we judge only by the listless attitude of the reform Socialists in the Chamber at Montecitorio, and by the editorials of our party organ, which has the ingenuity to ask the Minister to dissolve the Chamber (Avanti, May 12). To dissolve a Chamber, in which the Minister may sleep peacefully between the absence of the followers of Sonnini and the ministerialism of the Socialists! And to ask this Minister, who has done all he could do under the circumstances, ... viz., the negative work of respecting the liberty of the people in a certain degree, but who has not done anything positive toward economic reform, because he is not at liberty to do it himself (as it would displease the old fogies of the liberal-conservative majority) , and need not be afraid that anybody else will do it in his stead.

* * *

The truth is that the Socialist party of Italy, as well as of other countries, is going through a stage of uncertainty, of trouble, of various problems, in which different lines of conduct are possible, according to the practical aims of the two tendencies which Engels himself called the right and left wing of the party. These two lines of conduct naturally undergo a thousand different modifications through personal and local variations. But the most typical may be classed under the following four heads :

Reform or Compromising Tendency: (Absolute reformers. Moderate reformers.)

Revolutionary or Uncompromising Tendency: (Revolutionary method. Absolute and negative opposition.)

When the period of self-assertion is over, during which the party is naturally compelled to a close cohesion and strictly uncompromising attitude, there follows a period of defense against the reactionary forces, which imposes less rigorous tactics and brings us unavoidably into a defensive alliance with the popular parties.

With the victory of the latter comes the time of normal life, of freedom of association, of the press, of speech, of the ballot, of strikes, and the addition of more intensive parliamentary and municipal activity.

The difference between the two tendencies cannot become manifest until this time arrives. It is conditioned on personal temperament, local environment, the spirit of combativeness, the desire to quickly and in a popular manner gain public offices or to retain them in elections, the need of a little rest, the fear of relapsing into the full brutality of repression, the want of daily intercourse with the proletariat, etc. And it is easy to give one’s self up to either one of the two extremes, which are more attractive because they are simpler and less tiresome.

Either yield to the temptation of being (in the end) on the side of the liberal Minister and continuing the alliance with the popular parties in order to work for the realization of the “positive program,” which is to improve the material and moral condition of the working class and give them that “bird in hand” of the “amelioration of the conditions of the working class,” as Engels called it, which some people prefer to that “bird in the bush,” the collective ownership of the means of production and exchange, which magnificent ideal can only be attained, according to the reformers, “in an indefinitely distant future.”

Others, again, follow an impulse of psychological reaction and fall into an absolute and negative opposition, inside and outside of parliament, just as if we were still in the middle of the storm and stress period of the party or obliged to defend the most elementary conditions of political existence. The logical consequence of this policy would be the abstention from all political and municipal activity, after the manner of the anarchists who are total abstainers in politics and prefer to leave the administration and maladministration of public affairs in the hands of the conservatives ... who are not abstainers for a moment.

Reform Socialism and negative opposition are straight and simple lines of conduct. For this reason they are attractive, but they both have an affinity for ... the anarchist method.

* * *

In fact, what is the essence of the great and fertile innovation of the revolutionary method of Marx and Engels, as distinguished from utopian, sentimental Socialism and from anarchism ? It consists solely in the substitution of the genetic method, the investigation of causes, to the old empirical, symptomatic method, in harmony with the scientific doctrine of transformism or natural evolution.

In medical practice, it is well known, that up to the middle of the 19th century, before the clinical methods of observation and experiment were tried, diseases were diagnosed and treated only by their symptoms, their outward manifestations. The discoveries of Pasteur, e. g., and of his followers on the field, of microbe germs that cause infectious diseases led to the replacing of the symptomatic cures, which were powerless against such plagues as cholera and typhoid fever, by the elimination of the causes for the purpose of preventing disease. And surprising results were obtained in this way. It is infinitely better to build waterworks for a city suffering from typhoid fever than to increase the number of physicians for the treatment of the diseased or to open public kitchens and reduce the price of medicines.

In the treatment of the infectious disease of exploitation and misery, Marx and Engels have, therefore, said: It is useless to continue those empirical and symptomatic cures, that more or less modern and rational charity, those social reforms “for the so-called amelioration of the condition of the working class,” and the like. It is necessary to eliminate the causes of poverty, and these are in the last instance found in the monopolization of the means of production and exchange by private property, that reaches its climax in that period of civilization which is characterized by bourgeois capitalism. Against this rising tide of economic slavery, human misery, and injustice, little bourgeois reforms from “public soup houses” to “charity balls,” from laws on “female and child labor” to “boards of arbitration” or “Sunday rest,” are as useless as the use of anarchist violence, individual or collective, against this or that capitalist, this or that “economic tyrant,” this or that “political tyrant” is senseless.

The work of the revolutionary method is much more tedious, tiresome, and complex. We must combat and eliminate the fundamental causes of poverty, instead of the more or less apparent symptoms. And as this elimination cannot be accomplished by one stroke of collective or individual violence, nor by social reform legislation, nor by a dictator’s decree, we must form a clear and energetic proletarian mind and redeem it from ignorance and servility. The ideas travel in human boots, and proletarian evolution does not proceed spontaneously nor does it descend from the providential heaven of government action. It rather takes shape partly through the natural agency of economic and social phenomena and partly through the pressure of the proletarian mind itself which struggles by legal means for the realization of its revolutionary aims.

These aims are called revolutionary and cannot be called otherwise. Not because they preach the building of barricades or personal assaults, but because they aim at the complete transformation of the economic fundament of society, instead of limiting, weakening, and entangling themselves in reforms which leave the basis of private property untouched and which the ruling classes have always granted, not for our benefit, but in their own interest, for the purpose of retarding the progress of the revolutionary idea.

* * *

This, then, is the secret of the marvelous force in propaganda, organization, and discipline which the Marxian doctrine has brought to the economic and political world. And this Socialist doctrine, with its powerful method, in harmony with the whole scientific movement of the second half of the 19th century, is impregnable in its fundament and its lines of conduct, no matter what may be the stage of development of the Socialist party, be it in its period of affirmation or of normal life. Just so is the science of germ diseases impregnable and employs means which seem more tedious and less effective, but are in reality the only remedy. And this remedy, like its political corollary, is applicable to all periods of life, in times of disease as well as in normal life.

Does that mean that we should not cure the diseased or that it would not be well to have physicians and cheap medicine while we are building our water works ? Certainly not. But neither should we forget to press the construction of the water works forward, just because the typhoid fever might have begun to disappear. For we must remember that the disease-breeding germs are always present in the impure water and form a constant menace to public health.

In the same way we must daily and incessantly continue the revolutionary work of giving Socialist minds to the proletarians in field and factory. For the Socialist spirit is the most revolutionary social factor. Nothing can resist this Socialist mind, neither the prejudice of reactionary violence, nor the clerical superstition, nor electoral corruption, nor economic servility. It signifies a veritable rebirth of humanity, elevating them from the abjectness of brute animals to the dignity of free citizens and class conscious workingmen.

For the growth of this irresistible force, the modest and unknown, but continuous and fertile, work of our comrades in the family, the workshop, the field, the barracks, the school, and everywhere else is as necessary, or even more so, as the more apparent work of the prominent agitators and organizers who carry “the good message” far and wide. That this force of our agitation is really irresistible, I have observed and am still observing in frequent cases. In the southern provinces of Italy, e. g., the scarcity of the industrial proletariat and the deplorable lack of class consciousness among the rural proletariat might have made any attempt to form a Socialist party and awaken a sense of self-reliance among them appear as utopian. And I remember that Turati wrote about two or three years ago in the Critica Sociale, I was a great optimist, but a poor marxist, when I predicted a development of the Socialist party also in the South. Forgetting all about the agricultural proletariat and thinking only of the industrial proletariat in Milan, he contended that there was no proletariat in southern Italy. Now, the natural protoplasm of the Socialist party is certainly the proletariat, and where this does not exist the Socialist party may be not so much what I would here call the political future of the small bourgeoisie, as the expression of discontent and revolt against want. But is this protoplasm missing in the South ? The first disciples of Marx in Italy, remaining in their studies, forgot that in many parts of southern Italy the place of the industrial proletariat is taken by a numerous rural proletariat which is as free from all political prejudices dating from 1848 as from the idea of abstention from political action, and endowed with a surprising natural intelligence. It is this agricultural proletariat which, by the help of our uncompromising revolutionary method created within a few years the most splendid center of Socialism in the province of Mantua, the kernel of those “Leagues of Amelioration” among the farm laborers which are now extending their organizations throughout Italy, to the admiration of the Socialists in other countries and the discomfiture of those rural swindlers who so long played the confidence game with the simple-minded mass of our farmers.

We have only to continue pertinaciously this assiduous work of agitation and organization, and we shall see unexpected results. If we do so, we shall find that these same little bourgeois, artisans and small proprietors, whom we generally declare to find their natural expression in the radical parties, will join the Socialist party faster than we anticipate. For these middle classes must perceive that, in the words of Gatti, they can most efficiently promote their interests by Socialist labor politics, because their economic life consists of three-fourth labor and one-fourth capital. The old capitalist parties cannot do any decisive and thorough work for them, because they are individualistic in the bourgeois sense and leave private property untouched, which is the fundamental cause of the exploitation and poverty of the laborers and the miserable condition of the little bourgeois.

* * *

But while we continue this monotonous, tedious, little esthetic and less attractive work which does not shine so brilliantly as the variations of comparative legislation, does that imply that we are to oppose and neglect reforms which may improve the conditions of the working class ? That would be absurd ! The force of circumstances compels us, therefore, to vote for social reform, though it may remain ineffective, rather than unite with the reaction and bring it to fall. However little such a law may be worth in practice, it would be absurd to oppose it by following a line of absolutely negative opposition. However little a cheapening of the price of medicine may help to cure a disease, it would be nonsense to oppose it. The essential thing is not to become infatuated with such symptomatic measures and to remember that the best remedy against typhoid fever is the building of waterworks, even though the work of carrying a few stones and a few water pipes every day may be monotonous, tiresome, and the completion in the far future. And it is also essential not to forget, that the lowering of the price of medicine, e. g., by the municipality, is not done purely from a philanthropic motive, but also from an egoistic class interest. For it is also in the interest of the rich to weaken the violence of an epidemic, for the purpose of increasing their own chances of escaping with their lives. And it is the same philanthropy ( ... of egoism) which impels them to give the millions ( ... of the people) for the canalization of the great cities from which they derive their robber profits and a decrease of the danger of infection from epidemic and endemic diseases, which easily spread from the slums and moss-grown hovels to the palaces.

Our reform-loving comrades should, therefore, remember that the capitalists will also grant reform laws, and have passed them in other countries, without our help and in their own interest for the purpose of reaction and delay, as long as they are compelled by the fear of the revolutionary spirit of the oppressed classes. Germany is a case in point, where the great promoter of social reform was – Bismarck. And it may even happen that the capitalists, more farseeing than their opponents, think of preventing the growth of the revolutionary spirit by offering the bait of “immediate demands,” as in England. The difference is only that the revolutionary method followed by the German Socialist party put the proletariat on the alert against that reform legislation, however wonderful it may be, while the capitalists in England commenced their social reform before the formation of a revolutionary party took place and thus rendered the gigantic corporative trade unions politically and socially flaccid.

In both cases this is equivalent to confirming that the most efficient, useful, and practical policy for the proletariat is the revolutionary method of Socialist agitation and organization which does not prevent, but promotes reform, without stifling or paralyzing the potent aspirations for the complete emancipation of the proletariat.

* * *

And now, once more and for ever our obstinate conclusion: There is room within the Socialist party for all, whatever may be their line of conduct. From the monosyllabic uncompromising element to the confirmed reformers, everyone fulfills a certain function which is not wholly lost. Only we believe that the latter are making a bad use of their energy. They are expending 100 parts of strength to obtain one part of results. But should the example of England, Germany, Belgium, where they have had that vaunted social legislation for half a century – for which we are still clamoring – teach us nothing ? Cannot we see that the virus of misery and exploitation has not in the least diminished in those countries, despite half a century of social reforms ? What better proof of the eternal illusion of symptomatic remedies do we need ?

The revolutionary method does not neglect the defense of former conquests or the gradual realization of reforms. But in aiming more at causes than at symptoms, it insists above all on the formation of the consciousness of the ultimate and definite goal. Therefore it is a more complex and more tiresome method, and more often very monotonous, because it involves us less in the multi-colored bourgeois schemes and leaves us more in contact with the ragged jackets of the laborers.

But the revolutionary method alone creates and strengthens the inexhaustible energy which enforces all social progress. By force of experience, which is more persuasive than our polemics, it will finally be triumphantly accepted, in Italy as elsewhere, by the common consent of the Socialist proletariat.