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[John G. Wright]

To Make a Revolution

(March 1935)

From New International, Vol.2 No.2, March 1935, p.77.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

How to Make a Revolution
By Raymond W. Postgate
The Vanguard Press. New York. 199 pp. $1.90.

From one point of view, this is a contemptible book. There is such an air of pretentious “realism”, of hard-boiled “facing the facts”, like a Boy Scout at his first sex talk. A skillful snobbery is woven into the style, which suggests that reader and author have a private understanding as thinking and sensible men, in contrast to the hare-brained fanatics who at present try to lead the revolutionary movement. We must be, author and reader, so thoroughly objective, weighing all the evidence, uninfluenced by wishful thinking. It is not, perhaps, surprising that all this objectivity leads us tumbling into the warm bosom of the British Labour party. A genuinely objective bosom indeed – not even making class distinctions.

Postgate attempts to be scientific. He states his question precisely on the first page:

“The object of this book is to answer, as scientifically as possible, the question: ‘How can a [social] change be brought about?’ Given that the readers of this book desire a thorough social change, and that they have some adequate idea of the measures that radical reformers should apply when once in power, there still remains the question: ‘How can power be taken over?’”

He attempts to answer the question by reviewing the classic answers that have been given to it in the past; by estimating their validity in the light both of historical examples of their application and of contemporary developments in the mechanism of power; and by considering in the struggle for power – the general the usefulness of certain specific practises strike, financial pressure, armed revolution.

Postgate examines the positions held with respect to his central question by Fascism, syndicalism, anarchism, Blanquism. He finds them all wanting both theoretically and by the test of history. To the general strike he grants a certain efficacy, particularly the first time it is tried within a country, and for negative purposes (“preventing a war or defending an attacked government”). Nevertheless, the general strike, so far as the more positive problem of achieving drastic social change goes, “requires other means – electoral or military – to bring it to final success, and it is very difficult to manoeuver”. The control over electoral machinery makes parliamentary hopes illusory. “Armed revolution”, moreover, “must be wholly rejected from our arsenal. Direct armed revolt is no longer practical”, even though a discreet use of violence on certain occasions may be effective within restricted limits.

Indeed, Postgate ends by rejecting all traditional methods for effecting social change as having either been proved useless by history or been made useless by the contemporary development of military technique and propaganda control. This conclusion, though hardly satisfactory, is at least more intelligible than the abrupt right about face of the last chapter. Here, in the most romantic denial of all that has preceded in the book, Postgate makes his jump into the Labour party. There, he states, revolutionists should gather to build a kind of party within a party, a band of “storm troopers of labour”, who, when the Labour party is voted into power (which he had previously ruled out as impossible), will see to it that the party carries through the social revolution.

This whole book is characterized by what might be called political superficiality. Postgate remains throughout on the plane of strategy and tactics, never digging down to the theoretic roots of the questions he attempts to analyze. This is strikingly evident in his treatment of Marxism and anarchism. Nowhere does he deal with the social and historical foundations of the positions he is discussing. He writes as if the positions existed in a vacuum, to be taken up and applied by anyone or any group that might feel like it. Even more obviously superficial is the chapter he devotes to The Communist Tactics, where he deals chiefly with the Communist Party of Great Britain, of which he was for several years a leading member. He never looks behind the tactics which he criticizes to the principles or historic causes from which these tactics flow.

Nevertheless, this theoretical failing is, in a sense, the strength of the book, and the reason why – in spite of its cheapness and superficiality – it should be read widely and thought about at length by serious revolutionists. This book does indeed deal! with strategy and tactics, above all with, the concrete plans for taking power in the present era, and it is precisely these concrete and practical problems that have been-most grossly and tragically neglected by Marxists. There has been for too long a time the naive belief that correct tactics wilt automatically now from correct theory; and consequently the fight of Marxists has been far too exclusively a fight for principle. Naturally this fight had to be made, and must continue. Moreover, it is true that without correct principle, tactics, in the long run, are sure to be wrong. But it is far from the case that correct tactics will automatically flow from principles correct in the abstract. Correct tactics require-intelligence, effort, activity. Indeed, a Marxian principle is distinguished by just the fact that it gets meaning and content only through correct revolutionary activity – that it cannot be even “correct” merely as principle, as abstraction.

It is time for a re-direction of energies.. We know the correct principles. We must apply them in stimulating and guiding a. movement. We must stop relying on a mystic faith in “the inevitability of communism” to make things turn out all right in the end, so long as we repeat the right phrases; and thereby excuse our practical stupidities. They will turn out all right in the end if Marxists make them.

The major problems of the day are practical problems. The great value of Postgate’s book is to help drive this lesson home. If he gives the wrong answers, he at least asks the right questions. And where are the right answers to be found? The unfortunate truth is precisely: Nowhere. The practical methods of all branches of the revolutionary movement, both with reference to their day by day activities and their plans up to and including the seizure of power and the workers’ rule, are a chaotic compound of Paris Commune, pre-war social democratic trade union and parliamentary habits, and the October revolution. Nowhere is the realization that capitalism in rapid decline and capitalism with modern military and publicity methods is a far different matter from pre-war capitalism. And being far different, so must be the revolutionary methods that oppose it.


Last updated: 19.6.2005