Harry Quelch 1907

Reform and Revolution.

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 6 June 15, 1907 pp. 331-337;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

There is scarcely any subject upon which there is greater confusion of thought than that of the relation between reform and revolution. It is the fashion now-a-days to speak of evolutionary Socialists and revolutionary Socialists as representing two distinct schools of thought, just as though the revolutionary Socialist had repudiated the theory of evolution, or there could be Socialists, in any generally accepted meaning of the word, who did not aim at a social transformation. That there are two sections in the Socialist movement, to whom the titles evolutionists and revolutionists are generally applied as antithetical terms, is perfectly true. But they are not accurate definitions. Many of those who plume themselves on being “evolutionary Socialists,” are neither Socialists nor evolutionists, and many others have no more right to the latter title than they have to deny it to the revolutionary Socialists. Roughly, the difference between the two sections – that is of those who really are Socialists – is in the standpoint from which they regard the transitional stage. It is not a difference of aim, nor is it always even a difference of method, although difference of method and tactics are necessarily frequently the consequence of the different standpoint. It is simply the view, on the part of the “evolutionists,” so-called, that the social transformation must necessarily be the result of quite peaceful political action, and a long series of legislative enactments.

That is what they mean by “evolution” – not the scientific conception of the term, but simply a process of slow, peaceful growth as opposed to the idea of sudden and violent change. In their view the world, socially and physically, has outgrown its turbulent youth; the period of violence, of sudden, cataclysmic changes, of insurrections and coups d’etat, of social upheavals and physical earthquakes, and will for the future roll quite smoothly and peacefully down the ringing grooves of change. It is true that existing conditions and recent happenings -the San Francisco and Jamaica earthquakes, the Vesuvian eruption, the widespread strikes, and the growing movement for “direct action” – do not appear to afford much ground for their view. Hope is ever young and buoyant, and they hope that, while there has been history in the past, we have reached finality in regard to most of the things which go to make history, and that whatever changes may take place in the future will be evolved in a slow, peaceful, and orderly manner, and that although, hitherto, no one has been able to achieve such a miracle, it will be for them possible to have their omelette without breaking eggs.

Revolutionists, on the other hand, accept the theory of evolution in its entirety. For them there is no finality. The Social Revolution is merely the outcome of social and economic development, and sudden, violent, cataclysmic changes are but natural incidents in evolution. To them there is no contradiction or antithesis between evolution and revolution. All birth is sudden, violent, revolutionary – in the narrow, arbitrary sense in which the word is frequently used – but the new life, and the violence with which the new life bursts asunder the integuments by which it has been confined and sets itself free, are equally the result of a more or less lengthy period of peaceful, imperceptible gestation and growth. The violent breaking of the shell by which the young bird attains actual, separate, individual life, is just as much part of evolution as any of the unseen changes which have taken place within the shell during the period of incubation.

So in the life of society. Long periods of imperceptible growth and development have been followed by sudden upheavals, which, notwithstanding their apparent isolation, are really incidents in and a part of the general social evolution. Revolutionary Socialists, therefore, are not only revolutionary in aim, but they see that there is no contradiction or opposition between evolutionary and revolutionary changes; but that, on the contrary, they are really one and the same.

So with reform and revolution. It is generally assumed that the one is the antithesis of the other; and timid politicians have been frequently warned that “Reform delayed is revolution begun.” But that depends entirely upon what is meant by reform. The general idea of reform is of such moderate and peaceful changes as will sufficiently modify the existing order in conformity with changing circumstances as to increase its stability and ensure its continuance. Regarded in that sense, it is the fashion of Socialists to contemn reformers; and some Socialists who have been more concerned with immediate ameliorative measures than with the ultimate object, have, and frequently quite justly, come in for the reproach that they are mere “reformists.”

But there are reforms and reforms. There are reforms which are absolutely worthless, which are mere pretence and humbug, which accomplish nothing and are only adopted to deceive. There are others which while ameliorative in their immediate effects are conservative and reactionary in their general tendency; there are those which are neither progressive nor reactionary, but simply philanthropic, and there are others again which are ameliorative in immediate effects and revolutionary in operation and tendency.

Of the latter category are the “Immediate Reforms” in the programme of the Social-Democratic Federation. These, which were first put forward nearly twenty-five years ago, as “Practical Remedies for Pressing Needs,” still hold the field for practicability and usefulness, and, while they are generally spoken of – sometimes contemptuously – as “palliatives,” are conceived not only to ameliorate the worst evils of the present system, but to help on the change to a better. They are reforms, it is true, but they are reforms which, if adopted, would prove to be distinctly revolutionary in their effects.

The effect of the universal limitation of the hours of labour, for instance, would be distinctly revolutionary. Overwork, with the want of employment and the reduction in wages resulting therefrom, necessarily retards the economic development. The reduction of the hours of labour would not only ensure an immediate improvement in the condition of the working class in more leisure and more opportunity for organisation and education, it would increase the cost of labour and would, therefore, stimulate invention and the use of mechanical appliances in production. In a short time, doubtless, the workers would, through improved machinery, lose any material advantages they had gained by the shorter hours in the way of better wages and the absorption of the unemployed. But the advantage of a shorter working day, in itself, would still remain to them; the economic development would have reached a higher plane, and the period of comparative prosperity they had enjoyed would increase their discontent at the return of depression, and would hearten them for another move forward.

Again, with the State Maintenance of School Children. This is perhaps the most revolutionary of all our “palliative” proposals. This is not, as some people seem to imagine, a mere charitable proposal to relieve parents of their responsibilities by some slight mitigation of the sufferings of the children. If that were all that could be said for or against it, the balance would still be in favour of the adoption of our proposal, as there can be no justification for safeguarding the rectitude and probity of the parents by the sacrifice of the health and lives of the children; indeed, by the provisions made for neglected and deserted children, that principle is already admitted. But our proposal means the full recognition on the part of the community of its duty towards the children as really its duty to itself. The children of to-day will be the men and women of to-morrow.

It is said that Xerxes wept when, reviewing his vast host, he reflected that in a hundred years not a man of that great multitude would be alive. How much more cheering is the reflection that, though men and women pass away, the race lives on, and though in a few years we who are now alive shall have ceased to be, we shall still live in our children and our children’s children, and that in the training, education, and means for physical and mental development we provide for the children of the nation to-day we are actually moulding the future life of the race. Our imperialists exalt the greatness and glory of the Empire, and compel the children in the common schools to celebrate “Empire Day.” They might spare some thought to providing that the children of this imperial race shall be worthy of the heritage of which they profess to be so proud, and physically and mentally capable of sustaining the burden of its responsibilities. We, who are not imperialists, who desire and work for a social revolution in which imperialism, with every other form of domination of man by man, shall disappear, want to see the children of the people sufficiently well-educated and well-developed to be able to play their part in that revolution, and to be fit and capable citizens in that better human society which the revolution will usher in.

It may be, and frequently is, urged that social and economic development is progressing too quickly for any of these “palliatives” to be any longer worthy of attention; that there is nothing now to be done but to educate and organise for the revolution; and that even the advocacy of such measures as the State Maintenance of School Children is to divert attention from the great and supreme object. It may be quite true that we are much nearer the complete breakdown of the capitalist system than is generally supposed. This, at any rate, is perfectly certain, that the economic forms are fully ripe for the transformation to complete social ownership and control. What, then, is it that stands in the way? Nothing but the want of education and organisation on the part of the people themselves. Our work, therefore, is still that of agitation, education and organisation. And surely these reforms which, in themselves, make for the revolution, are part of that work. But the children? Surely the education we mean when we talk of agitation, education and organisation is the education of grown men and women, not of children. But while we are striving to educate and organise the men and women, the children are growing up into men and women. And the men and women have to live, and everything which – in improved housing, shorter hours of labour, a higher standard of living, better conditions for the children – tends to make them better men and women, helps our work of education and organisation. No wise general neglects the commissariat of his army to-day – the provision for the care of sick and wounded, the fitness of men and material, or even the sanitation of the camp – because he expects the decisive battle to be fought to-morrow. In our case, we can scarcely expect so much. We have been agitating, educating, organising for a quarter of a century. Many who are men and women in our ranks to-day were unborn when we began. Twenty-five years is a long time in the life of an individual; it is nothing in the life of humanity. Who shall say, imminent as the revolution may appear, that another twenty years’ work may not be before us, ere that consummation is achieved?

Nearly twenty-three years ago, at the conference of the S.D.F. in 1884, two ardent and devoted members of the organisation moved a resolution to the effect that “the time for palaver has passed, the time for action has arrived.” Well, so it appeared. But that is three and twenty years ago. When one sets out to climb a mountain, it looks so near that it is easy to underrate the task. But miles and miles are traversed and as we tramp towards it the mountain appears to recede, and it is long indeed ere we approach the summit. For long we appear to be making no advance, but when at last we reach the top we understand that every step we took was a step towards our goal, and that the weary tramp through morass and thicket, in which we seemed to be making no progress, was necessary if the goal was to be attained. So with our goal of Social-Democracy. Circumstances, and not we ourselves, determine the course we have to travel, the conditions through which we have to win our way. We cannot say when or how the decisive struggle may be fought, or when the road to the summit shall be cleared of obstacles; but if we keep our faces ever towards the goal, our ideal ever before us, no step taken will be wasted, no piece of mere sapper’s or pioneer’s work will be thrown away. We have to do the tasks of to-day; deal with present obstacles, despising nothing as too mean or petty which helps to pave the way to Social-Democracy, while never losing sight of the end in the means; making reform the instrument of revolution; conscious, whatever we may do to ameliorate existing evils or to smooth the road to our goal, that “the Cause alone is worthy till the good days bring the best.”