Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Gradualism and Revolution

To many, the word "revolution" conjures up visions of barricades and public executions. All it means is a complete change, without any implication as to how that change is to come about. Socialist Studies stands for a revolution in the basis of society, a complete change from class to common ownership of the means of production and distribution: this social revolution to be carried out democratically by the use of political power. It is possible for a majority of socialist workers to win power through democratic institutions, by the use of the ballot and Parliament, for the purpose of carrying out the socialist revolution. Thus we stand for democratic revolutionary political action.

In the past, and to a much smaller extent today, others who claimed to stand for Socialism advocated what they thought was an alternative method: by working, under capitalism, to induce the government to enact reform measures favourable to workers. They stood for reformist political action which they hoped would gradually transform capitalism into socialism without the need for class conscious workers' political action: this policy was called gradualism.

In Britain the leading gradualist thinkers were in the Fabian Society formed in 1884. The Fabians held that by "permeating" the civil service and the working class and "middle class" organisations they could gradually change society. Their real aim was State capitalism in which they saw themselves as the most suitable top administrators. Gradualism, as expounded by the Fabians and adopted by the Labour Party, has always been the dominant reformist theory in Britain. Labour leaders have always rejected Marx and never claimed to be revolutionary. Under Tony Blair they claim to favour "radical reforms" but the Labour Party are merely one business party among many.

The situation was different on the Continent, and especially in Germany, where there were large parties, supported by millions of workers, claiming to be Marxist and to stand for revolutionary policy. The German Social Democratic Party was the largest and most influential of these parties; but at the turn of the century it was rent by a controversy over gradualism which became known as Revisionism.

Edward Bernstein, a close friend of Engels, spent many years in exile in London and it has been suggested that he was greatly influenced by the Fabians. He attacked the main tenants of Marxism and called upon the Social Democratic Party to recognise that they were in reality only a reform party. He suggested that they be honest with themselves and drop their ultimate commitment to the capture of power for Socialism and instead concentrate on getting reforms within capitalism by working through Parliament, the co-operatives, the trade unions and local councils, and even by co-operating with non-socialist parties.

Bernstein and his supporters were answered and refuted by the arguments of men like Karl Kautsky who had a better grasp of Marx's writings and who did a great deal to popularise them. The German Social Democratic Party turned down Bernstein's suggestions but the decision meant nothing as far as the party's practical policy was concerned. They retained their paper commitment to the socialist revolution but continued their day-to-day reformist practices. For it was on the basis of reforms not Socialism that their mass support amongst the German workers rested. In time, as their attitude to the First World War was dramatically to show, they became bogged down in reformist politics and prisoners of their non-socialist and patriotic supporters so that they lost all claim to be called a socialist party. Even supporters of revisionism such as Kautsky were ready to defend the idea that a socialist party could engage in reform politics. Like the gradualists, they also had some odd views about Socialism, equating it with nationalisation by a democratic state and holding that the wages system and buying and selling were quite compatible with the common ownership of the means of production. Their ultimate aim, like that of the Fabians, was State capitalism -not Socialism.

The question of reform and revolution was discussed not only in Germany but throughout Europe and America. In the English-speaking world, parties with Socialism supposedly as their aim had failed to attract mass support even for reforms. This had the advantage of allowing them the chance to look at the question in an objective manner since they did not have to worry so much how their answer might offend their non-socialist supporters. One important view to emerge was that the way to avoid the dangers of reformism was for a socialist party to seek support for Socialism alone and not to campaign for so-called immediate demands within capitalism. This view was held by some members of the Socialist Party of Canada, the Socialist Party of America and the Socialist Labour Party of America. In Britain, it was advocated within the Social Democratic Federation by a group which in 1904 left to set up Socialist Studies.

That a socialist party should not advocate reforms has always been the policy of Socialist Studies. This is not to say that reforms can never bring any benefit to the workers. Some can and do, while many are futile and harmful. But a socialist party which advocates reforms would attract the support of people interested more in these reforms than in Socialism. In these circumstances the party would be dragged into compromise with capitalism and so in the end become merely another reform party even if it still proclaimed Socialism as its ultimate aim. As Socialism can only be set up when a majority of workers understand and want it, a socialist party must build up support for this aim alone. Support gained on any other basis is quite useless, even harmful.

Despite the existence there of large Social Democratic parties, Europe was both socially and politically less advanced than Britain (where capitalism had long eliminated the peasant class) and North America (which had never known Feudalism). In Europe significant remnants of feudalism survived; the workers were only a minority amidst a population of peasants, artisans and small traders; many still thought of revolution in terms of a determined band of conspirators setting up barricades in a bid to seize important civic buildings much as had happened in France in 1830, in many other European cities in 1848 and in Italy in the 1860s.

This tradition put many of the European opponents of reformism on the wrong track. They mistakenly argued that it was parliamentary politics that had led the Social Democratic parties astray and that political power for Socialism could only be won through an armed uprising. Thus the reform and revolution controversy tended to resolve itself into Parliament versus insurrection, in which both sides assumed that parliamentary action must be reformist.
As capitalism developed, insurrection as a way of political power became more and more obviously outmoded. The advocates of parliamentary action, even though reformists were able effectively to refute the advocates of armed uprisings. Later many of these, especially under the influence of Bolshevism, went from bad to worse and agitated for minority coups of the kind opposed by Marx and Engels as far back as 1848. The European opponents of reformism this ended up in a blind alley.

Socialist Studies contribution to socialist theory lies in having worked out a satisfactory solution to the problem of reform and revolution based on the revolutionary use of democratic institutions, including Parliament to achieve Socialism. Parliament had only been used by the Social Democrats to get reforms and it was assumed that this was the only purpose for which it could be used. Our contribution was to point out that this was a false conclusion and that there was no reason why parliament could not be used by a class-conscious socialist majority to win power for the socialist revolution.

The two futile policies of insurrection and reformism can be avoided by building up a socialist party composed of and supported by convinced socialists only. When a majority of workers are socialist-minded and organised, they can use their votes to elect parliament and the local council delegates pledged to use political power for the one revolutionary act of dispossessing the capitalist class by converting the means of production and distribution into the property of the whole community.

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