Vanguard November 1915

The Need For A Revolutionary Ideal

Source: J.B. Askew, Vanguard, November 1915, p. 3;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In no country in the world is it so necessary to accentuate the fact that the workers’ movement, as such, is necessarily a revolutionary one, as in the motherland of political compromise – England. Nowhere has the absurd distinction between Revolution and Evolution been made so much of as in the British Socialist organisations, and that more than ever to-day when a number of those who in former years described themselves as revolutionary Social Democrats are now engaged in preaching to the workers the solidarity of their interests with those of their masters.

The attempt to pour new wine into old bottles, or, in other words to cramp new social forces into the forms of historical and traditional institutions amid which we have grown up is very strong in all of us, and with the usual perversity of things, we find that those people claim for themselves the right to call themselves the historical school in economics and social philosophy, who are in reality the least influenced by the true historical spirit – who are, in fact, often enough absolute reactionaries. Of this school Marx, writing in 1843 in a criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Law of the historical school, said it is “a school which justifies the abominations of to-day by the abominations of yesterday, a school which calls every cry of the serfs against the whip for rebellion, if only the whip is an ancient and historical whip. And that is as true to-day as the day on which it was written. Institutions like the House of Lords, or the Churches, are deemed to be sufficiently defended by histories of their great achievements in the past, though few of those who accept this argument in matters social and political would allow an employee to continue to hold a responsible post on the same ground. Goethe put the matter very tersely when he said, “alles was entsteht ist wert dass es zur grunde geht,” in English; “everything that arises is worm that it should go to ground,” in other words, is not even worthy to be immortal.

Now in the theory the bourgeois economists and social philosophers would probably for the most part admit that social institutions evolve like everything else. But when it comes to the practice, from the abstract to the concrete, they show, as did Herbert Spencer, that for them the present order is the last word in social evolution. They cannot admit that the branch of the tree on which they are sitting – that this branch will itself decay. That private property itself can disappear – that is inconceivable to them, or even when they go so far as to allow that it is conceivable, they put it off for a dim and distant future which deprives it of all reality. And there can be little doubt that for us Socialists – even Socialism of recent years has lost in actuality by the fact of being postponed to a far-off future. Our festive occasions and at congresses most impressive appeals are made to the fight for Socialism, but in the practice it is to be feared – the political everyday fight tends to become more and more a question of this or that programme of small reforms, which themselves become more and more whittled down by the inevitable compromise. There is no need to blame anybody for this or to make scapegoats; it is, however, requisite to call attention to what is a special danger. Because compromise is inevitable in political life, reformers too often begin offering a compromise, and forget that they will have to compromise that compromise. I say forget, though in the case of the Liberal Government, to take the crassest example of this style of politics, it is obvious that the process of whittling away their principles by so-called compromise is only a fraud which enables them to gain credit in the public eye as standing for principles which in reality they betray. But no doubt the whole International Socialist movement has suffered from the same defect in more or less degree. For instance, in the place of the 48 hours week there has been, in more than one country, the tendency to put the demand for a Sunday rest – no doubt in some ways a great advance – though whether the old Scottish Sabbath represents an ideal for which we as Socialists should fight is another matter, and short of the Scottish Sabbath there will always be a large number of workers inevitably employed on Sunday; indeed, unless the whole community remains in bed from Saturday to Monday and fasts the whole time, there will be at least a certain amount of domestic work.

In England the same, spirit has shown itself in the absurd attempts made to cure the evils of alcoholism, by a number of petty police measures, instead of demanding the socialisation of the public house and providing facilities for other than alcoholic refreshment, the pub is tolerated as a pariah dog useful as a source of dividends, but not a place for the respectable bourgeois to go to himself, to say nothing of his wife. Such instances might be multiplied ad infinitum. Capitalism has produced a vast number of ulcers on the surface of the social organism, and it is very tempting, for the capitalist politician, to deal with each of them separately and by itself. The more, however, we go on trying to remove theses evils by palliative measures, the more does it become clear that they can only be abolished by the abolition of capitalism itself. Are the capitalists confined in one direction it is not long before they have discovered means to compensate themselves in another, and the public enjoys the privilege of having won a meaningless principle.

The great justification for palliative measures lies in the fact that they make it easier for the workers to organise themselves and enlighten themselves about the real meaning of capitalism and the part that they are forced to play under it, and shew the thinking worker how futile it is to dream of reforming capitalism. They furnish besides that a rallying ground for those workers who cannot see beyond their own nose, and perhaps would not understand Socialism, but do feel the need for a shorter working day. A great danger, however, arises when good people try to persuade the workers as well as themselves that Socialism only means the sum of a number of such petty acts and restrictions; that in other words, Mr. Lloyd George’s fraudulent Insurance Act was also Socialism. By that means Socialism gets the credit for measures which are in all but the name measures for defending capitalism against Socialism and all the disadvantages which arise from that fact are written down to the discredit of Socialism. No doubt all change, however genuine, will always produce a certain reaction – not to say disillusionment but that will be less if there are genuine advantages than if the whole measure is an elaborate swindle. The main point, however, that occurs to my mind is this – whether the experience of the last two or three decades of social reform activities has not been to show that it would be simpler and better to concentrate our efforts on the abolition of capitalist control of industry than on any attempts to reform it – that is not to say that we need reject any attempts from the capitalist side to reform capitalism, but we ought to regard them as what they are, as attempts to prolong the death agony of capitalism; of this I am pretty confident, the more cool we shew ourselves about them, the more keen will their capitalist champions become. Our business would then be to shew how inadequate all such reforms must be to remove the evils from which the workers were suffering. But above all what impresses me with the need for such change in our tactics is the perception that only with the abolition of production for profit, and the competition between the capitalists for sources of profitable investment which is an inevitable result of the capitalist system, can we get rid of the danger of war, and the race of armaments – the imperialist policy.

A certain number of Marxists are so impressed with the connection between imperialism and capitalism that, looking on the former as a necessary stage on the way from capitalism to Socialism, they consider it just as futile to combat imperialism under capitalism as it was for the workers to fight the introduction of machinery. All argument from analogy is notoriously very dangerous since it is generally much easier to see the points of similarity than those of distinction. Apart from this the argument that imperialism is for the capitalists a necessity may be granted, in the sense that it offers them a means of side-tracking Socialism but how far it represents a necessary stage in the social evolution towards Socialism is another matter. There is for Marxists a great danger to which too many have succumbed – to forget in their enthusiasm for the great social and economic drama which they see developing that they are a part of that development. They overlook the fact that their will, or the collective will of the class for which they are fighting, forms an essential element in that development which they are watching as students.

When we talk about the inevitability of Socialism we assume that the workers will continue to struggle for their rights. Were they, on the other hand, to accept the word in a fatalist sense, and think that they could sit down tamely and wait till Socialism came to them, they would soon lose all the rights that they have now and become mere slaves.

It is, of course, true enough, as has often been said, that Socialism can only come when the possibilities of capitalist production have been exhausted, but chief among these possibilities is the willingness of the workers to allow themselves to be exploited. Were the workers, both politically and economically, so class conscious and so well organised as to make their exploitation impossible then capitalism would have reached the end of its tether, have exhausted its possibilities. That is what we understand by Social Revolution, and our ideal – that of human brotherhood – is revolutionary, because it is only to be realised by the Social Revolution.