H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution


Careful observers agree that with the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century the civilised world entered upon another revolutionary period. In this, as in other great social change, there is nothing really sudden about the development. Unnoted modifications in the economic order of things have been going on steadily all the time. But now these have become cumulative in their effect. The time is nearly ripe, therefore, for giving a political outlet and legal sanction to alterations in the industrial and social world – alterations which otherwise may compel men to accomplish ignorantly and in haste what ought to have been carried out intelligently and at leisure.

A revolution is none the less a revolution because its aims have been achieved peacefully; nor does the bloodiest upheaval really anticipate or even greatly hasten the growth of events. In the latter case, incapacity above and justifiable impatience below seethe until an outburst takes place. But then the queer psychology of human nature has its word to say in the matter; and though the crucial and necessary reforms are made, the people concerned, being mentally unprepared, allow a counter-stroke of reaction to take place which hinders them from realising the full value of the new forms then indispensable to social progress. Yet all that the ablest and most far-seeing can do is to take account, without prejudice, of the facts around them and to make ready, in concert with their fellows, whose minds have been likewise awakened, for the actual transformation.

There are thus two sides to every great change in the conduct of human affairs. First, and most important in all progressive societies, is the economic development itself, which, up to the present era, has been for the most part unconscious, so far as the mass of the people, and even the most capable brains of the time, were concerned. Next to the growth of the economic forms comes the mental appreciation of them, which enables the community, led by its clearest thinkers, to comprehend what is taking place. They may thus capably and consciously guide their own community on to the next plane of social realisation, as gardeners may help on the growth of a plant, though they alone could not cause it to grow. Such psychologic influence, reacting consciously upon national growth, is practically unattainable until mankind has reached the point in civilisation whence it can survey the unconscious gropings of the past, and the more intelligent aspirations of the present, as one great inevitable series of advances in the course of human progress. The unconscious is thenceforth controlled, or at least intelligently supervised, by the conscious.

Revolution, in its complete sense, means a thorough economic, social and political change in any great human community.

There can be no revolution, in this sense, until the economic and social conditions are ripe for such a change.

Therefore to speak of “making” a revolution is absurd. 

No man and no body of men can check a make a revolution; just as no man and no body of men can check a revolution, for any considerable time, when once the conditions themselves prepared. This means, further, that however justifiable, does not originate, and may not even hasten, revolution. Economic and social changes are no brought about in that way. Force may have helped exceptional periods; it has never created revolution at any period.

Yet, unless forms of popular opinion have been so modified and adapted as to give a specific and legal outlet to the to the general changes demanded by the economic and social situation, then forcible endeavors to establish the new system are inevitable. Nor can the most relentless application of force on the other side do more than postpone the advance. The part taken by force in revolution is, therefore, much less decisive than is commonly assumed.

It is a remarkable fact, for example, that the most crucial revolution in the story of human growth produced, in the earlier stages at any rate, no forcible revolt against the complete alteration that was being unconsciously made. This revolution was the transformation from collective or communal property held by a portion of a tribe itself, and ultimately by a confederation of tribes, into private property held by the individual and his family. This enormous revolution, accompanied by an inevitable, and at least equally extraordinary, modification of the sexual relations, went on quite unconsciously among our primitive ancestors, without any of the bloodshed and upset which we are accustomed to associate in the historical period, with far less serious social and economic modifications of an existing state of things. We can observe similar changes going on slowly at present, through contact with European ideas and methods, among existing tribes at the same stage of savage or barbaric development. Yet unless the application of these new views is accompanied by manifest nd cruelty, they are quietly accepted by the native tribes, who, reluctant as they may be, accommodate themselves by degrees to the foreign forms, introduced in the first instance by exchange, and become accustomed to this overturn of all their original conceptions and habits of life.

The direst poverty, the grossest injustice, the most revolting brutality do not, of themselves, engender revolution. They have very frequently occasioned widespread revolts of an alarming kind, accompanied by hideous atrocities, on the side of the oppressed as well of the oppressors. But the social system of class servitude itself, however horrible it may be in many of its details, is not overthrown by such upheavals from below so long as it is adapted to the general economic needs of the period. Fear of the recurrence of disorders may produce a change for the better, but these improvements are superficial and do not affect the main social structure. A reign of terror, or an orgy, by a dominated majority, allows the former sufferers to avenge past wrongs; it does not produce those conditions which will prevent the commission of similar wrongs in the future – unless unseen circumstances working below have done this effect.

These considerations apply to societies which are not exposed to invasion or to continuous pressure from without. When one community of greater power, whether civilised or barbarous, attacks or even infringes upon another, revolution, or reaction in a revolutionary form, may easily follow, irrespective of the conditions of the country which has such a power for its neighbor. Here the influence of one human group may arrest or accelerate the development of another, so far as to divert its natural progress into a totally different channel from that which it would have followed had there been no interference from without.

This applies not only to the course of religious development. And in these cases force may, and does, have a great and sometimes a long-enduring effect. But such instances of the changes wrought by the contact of tribes, or nations, at different stages of social growth, are not usually regarded as revolutions, tremendous though their effects on the history of mankind have been. They are taken as a matter of course. So little was the current of economic its consequences understood, until recently wide knowledge in other departments, that they have assumed that invasions and conquests by tribes only just emerging from barbarism, but possessed of fine physique and capacity, were in some instances advantageous to general progress. This idea has now been dispelled. Domination of a higher form of society by a lower has invariably spelt arrested development, or positive retrogression, for the conquered races, even where these the more civilised people reached a period of decay. The superior vigour and fighting power of the victors did not make amend for their inferior culture. Nor did the slack tide of development begin to flow again until the invaders had been absorbed or enlightened by the civilisation which they had apparently overwhelmed. This, we can now see, has been the invariable rule.

Nor does the overthrow of a people at a lower stage of development by one which has attained to a higher level produce a permanent revolution in the social case. It is, indeed, doubtful whether any such conquests, revolutionary as they seemed at the time, have left an enduring mark on the subjugated races. The improvements introduced under such circumstances are merely superficial: after generations, perhaps centuries, passed under peaceful role from without, the native population has taken up its tale of social history from, or near, the point at which it had arrived when conquered. In not a few instances the so-called inferior race has slowly absorbed the superior.

The greater the difference between the stages of civilisation reached by the two races occupying the same territory, the less influence has the one on the social development of the other. It is very doubtful whether conquest, except of like by like, has aided progress as a whole. Even in that case the psychologic element steps in, apart from economic advantages or drawbacks, and incites the repressed people to demand the right of free expansion. Thus even national and social revolution without is rarely, or never, permanent in its effect, where the higher civilisation, with its appliances, is voluntarily adopted by adjacent peoples, who themselves adjust the new methods to their own social forms. Where this is done, under the present conditions of improved intercourse and the rapidly augmented powers of man over nature, the increased rapidity of the social development to a revolution of the most surprising character; stages of growth, under the old conditions, had required centuries to traverse, being actually covered in decades.

Whether the economic and social advance is necessarily by an equal psychologic and intellectual change is not easy to determine. As a rule, and in spite of all theorising, it takes a very long time for material changes to transform modes of thought transmitted from generation to generation, and to shake the religious observances which accompany diversified beliefs in the supernatural. The strange phenomenon may even be observed of a people consciously and capably availing themselves of the most recent discoveries of science and their most modern applications to the work of everyday life, yet remain wholly immersed in their old-world superstitions to the most incredible deifications of real or imagined objects, or to the age-old ancestor worship of their forbears.

There are those who contend that social revolutions are exclusively due to material causes, and that the tremendous effects which, at various periods, they have unquestionably produced upon the world can be traced, in every instance, to the forms of the time when they arose. This school reduces all human action to direct or secondary material causes, putting aside instinct and psychology as unworthy of recognition. But it will be found on examination that this simple monism, so attractive to some minds, will not bear the test of analysis. Time after time in the record of human growth we are brought face to face with vast movements which cannot by any possibility be explained by the economic causes in the present or the past. As a result of such investigation we are forced to the conclusion that although man in society is unquestionably the outcome of material circumstances, nevertheless there are two currents, not merely one, to be observed at work throughout this social development. Of these the economic, as already said, is much more important and the more continuous. But there is also the psychologic current accompanying the whole, which, generally much less powerful, at intervals gains the mastery and carries all before it for the time being, while the economic element continues, but takes a subordinate place. 

Even in social revolution, the only really permanent revolution, this becomes apparent when men exalt their ideas into psychologic fetish. That is to say, when there is no immediate or proximate material material which satisfactorily account for the phenomena observed. Yet it is questionable whether throughout the world's history, revolutions or revolts due to economic causes, and admitted to be so, have ever stirred men on the one hand to the performance of greater acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, or on the other to the perpetration of more frightful massacres and atrocities than religious creeds and religious movements which cannot be traced to the desire of collective material advantage, or the hope of personal gain. In fact, so great a need do human beings appear to have of a psychologic, over and above a material or social motive, that at periods of violent effort, however material in their reality, are clothed with some idealistic glamour in the shape of abstractions divorced almost wholly from reality. 

In the time just before a long-prepared social revolution, meeting with resistance, breaks into violence, it is possible to foresee the line it will take and the changes to which it will give a political, and eventually a legal outlet.

Although religious upheavals and revolutions cannot be overlooked in any survey of the history of humanity, they constitute a relatively unimportant portion of the record of social antagonisms, when compared with the class struggles or class wars which have gone on since the dawn of civilization. These may be observed in every community, from the time when the institute of private property, in land as well as in personal objects, the spread of slavery, the accumulation of riches in a few hands, with disintegrating influence of money and exchange, created antagonistic classes, arising out of strongly divergent social interests. For long periods these dissensions were kept down in many regions, where, for some untraced reason, the same forms of production and distribution, with their attendant slavery, remained unchanged under enlightened theocratic despotism, where a system of caste has been stereotyped for generations, or where barbarian conquerors have long crushed the growth and intensive of a superior culture. Examples of this arrested development, when a certain stage of civilisation has been reached, are numerous, especially in Asia, but, as sooner or later, either from internal causes or external interference, the class struggle is renewed, and, in the old shape or the new, gives rise to peaceful or forcible revolution.

In the free communities, and Western Europe generally, this class conflict has, however, been continuous. It has pervaded every society in succession from the breakup of the gentile and communal order. During the whole of the slave period and the social forms that arose from its decay, the class war between the diverse sections, from the patricians down to the chattel slaves themselves, from the feudal nobles and their higher retainers down to the serfs, from the landowners and and capitalists down to the wage-earners, has continued to our own day. Gradually simplifying itself, as the immediate social orders have forced from the dominant class of their day recognition and full rights for their section, this latent but persistent antagonism has now resolved itself into one final struggle. This steady friction and social conflict, whose existence has always been denied by the classes in control, going on off the appearance of social balance and organised harmony, has given rise to interminable trials of strength between groups and individuals and has been the motive power of social progress. This truth is no longer contested. The class antagonisms which took the shape of personal relations and personal differences have slowly faded into pecuniary relations and pecuniary differences. These are now supreme; so much so that the fetishism of money pervades the whole of civilized life: the creation and distribution of wealth are regarded almost entirely through this distorting medium. The many-coloured faction fights of the past have been transformed into the grim and sordid cash antagonisms of the present. But the greatest revolution of all time has begun. The age-long differentiation of the old communal forms by private property is being reintegrated and unified under our eyes: we are arriving at the co-operative and communal forms of the old gentile period on an almost infinitely higher plane.

Last updated on 27.7.2006