‘Evolution and Revolution’ by Karl Kautsky from The Social Revolution. Translated by A.M. and May Wood Simons. Socialist Standard Series. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, 1902.

The Commune.

The second chapter of the first part of Kautsky’s ‘The Social Revolution’ from 1902.

‘Evolution and Revolution’ by Karl Kautsky from The Social Revolution. Translated by A.M. and May Wood Simons. Socialist Standard Series. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, 1902.

A social reform can very well be in accord with the interests of the ruling class. It may for the moment their social domination untouched, or under certain circumstances, can even strengthen it. Social revolution, on the contrary, is from the first incompatible with the interests of the ruling class, since under all circumstances it signifies annihilation of their power. Little wonder that the present ruling class continuously slander and stigmatize revolution because they believe that it threatens their position. They contrast the idea of social revolution with that of social reform, which they praise to the very heavens, very frequently indeed without ever permitting it to become an earthly fact. The arguments against revolution are derived from the present ruling forms of thought. So long as Christianity ruled the minds of men the idea of revolution was rejected as sinful revolt against divinely constituted authority. It was easy to find proof texts for this in the New Testament, since this of the Roman Empire, during an epoch in which every revolt against the ruling powers appeared hopeless, and all independent political life had ceased to exist. The revolutionary classes, to be sure, replied with quotations from the Old Testament, in which there still lived much of the spirit of a primitive pastoral democracy. When once the judicial manner of thought displaced the theological, a revolution was defined as a violent break with the existing legal order. No one, however, could have a right to the destruction of rights, a right of revolution was an absurdity, and revolution in all cases a crime. But the representatives of the aspiring class placed in opposition to the existing, historically descended right, the right for which they strove, representing it as an eternal law of nature and reason, and an inalienable right of humanity. The re-conquest of these latter rights, that plainly could have been lost only through a violation of rights, was itself impossible without a violation of rights, even if they came as a result of revolution.

To-day the theological phrases have lost their power to enslave, and, most of all, among the revolutionary classes of the people. Reference to historical right has also lost its force. The revolutionary origin of present rights and present government is still so recent that their legitimacy can be challenged. Not alone the government of France, but the dynasties of Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, England and Holland, are of revolutionary origin. The kings of Bavaria and Wurtemburg, the grand duke of Baden and Hesse, owe, not simply their titles, but a large share of their provinces, to the protection of the revolutionary parvenu Napoleon; the Hohenzollerns attained their present positions over the ruins of thrones, and even the Hapsburgers bowed before the Hungarian revolution. Andrassy, who was hung in effigy for high treason in 1852, was an imperial minister in 1867, without proving untrue to the ideas of the national Hungarian revolution of 1848.

The bourgeoisie was itself actively engaged in all these violations of historical rights. It cannot, now, since it has become the ruling class, well condemn revolution in the name of this right to revolution, even if its legal philosophy does everything possible to reconcile natural and historical rights. It must seek more effective arguments with which to stigmatize the revolution, and these are found in the newly-arising natural science with its accompanying mental attitude. While the bourgeoisie were still revolutionary, the catastrophic theory still ruled in natural science (geology and biology). This theory proceeded from the premise that natural development came through great sudden leaps. Once the capitalist revolution was ended, the place of the catastrophic theory was taken by the hypothesis of a gradual imperceptible development, proceeding by the accumulation of countless little advances and adjustments in a competitive struggle. To the revolutionary bourgeoisie the thought of catastrophes in nature was very acceptable, but to the conservative bourgeoisie these ideas appeared irrational and unnatural.

Of course I do not assert that the scientific investigators had all their theories determined by the political and social needs of the bourgeoisie. It was just the representatives of the catastrophe theories who were at the same time most reactionary and least inclined to revolutionary views. But every one is involuntarily influenced by the mental attitude of the class amid which he lives and carries something from it into his scientific conceptions. In the case of Darwin we know positively that his natural science hypotheses were influenced by Malthus, that decisive opponent of revolution. It was not wholly accidental that the theories of evolution (of Darwin and Lyell) came from England, whose history for 250 years has shown nothing more than revolutionary beginnings, whose point the ruling class have always been able to break at the opportune moment.

The fact that an idea emanates from any particular class, or accords with their interests, of course proves nothing as to its truth or falsity. But its historical influence does depend upon just these things. That the new theories of evolution were quickly accepted by the great popular masses, who had absolutely no possibility of testing them, proves that they, rested upon profound needs of those classes. On the one side these theories – and this gave them their value to the revolutionary classes – abolished in a much more radical manner than the old catastrophic theories, all necessity of a recognition of a supernatural power creating a world by successive acts. On the other side – and this pleased most highly the bourgeoisie – they declared all revolutions and catastrophes to be something abnormal, contrary to the laws of nature, and wholly absurd. Whoever seeks to-day to scientifically attack revolution does it in the name of the theory of evolution, demonstrating that nature makes no leaps, that consequently any sudden change of social relations is impossible; that advance is only possible through the accumulation of little changes and slight improvements, called social reforms. Considered from this point of view revolution is an unscientific conception about which scientifically cultured people only shrug their shoulders.

It might be replied that the analogy between natural and social laws is by no means perfect. To be sure, our conception of the one will unconsciously influence our conception of the other sphere as we have already seen. This is however, no advantage and it is better to restrain rather than favor this transference of laws from one sphere to another. To be sure, all progress in methods of observation and comprehension of any one sphere can and will improve our methods and comprehension in others, but it is equally true that within each one of these spheres there are peculiar laws not applying to the others.

First of all must be noted the fundamental distinction between animate and inanimate nature. No one would claim on the ground of external similarity to transfer without change a law which applied to one of these spheres to the other. One would not seek to solve the problem of sexual reproduction and heredity by the laws of chemical affiliation. But the same error is committed when natural laws are applied directly to society, as for example when competition is justified as a natural necessity because of the law of the struggle for survival, or when the laws of natural evolution are invoked to show the impossibility of social revolution.

But there is still more to be said in reply. If the old catastrophic theory is gone forever from the natural sciences, the new theory which makes of evolution only a series of little, insignificant changes meets with ever stronger objections. Upon one side there is a growing tendency toward quietistic, conservative theories that reduce evolution itself to a minimum, on the other side facts are compelling us to give an ever greater importance to catastrophes in natural development. This applies equally to the geological theories of Lyell and the organic evolution of Darwin.

This has given rise to a sort of synthesis of the old catastrophic theories and the newer evolutionary theories, similar to the synthesis that is found in Marxism. Just as Marxism distinguishes between the gradual economic development and the sudden transformation of the juridical and political superstructure, so many of the new biological and geological theories recognize alongside of the slow accumulation of slight and even infinitesimal alterations, also sudden profound transformations – catastrophes – that arise from the slower evolution.

A notable example of this is furnished by the observations of de Bries reported at the last Congress of Natural Sciences held at Hamburg. He has discovered that the species of plants and animals remain unchanged through a long period; some of them finally disappear, when they have become too old to longer adapt themselves to the conditions of existence, that have in the meantime been changing. Other species are more fortunate; they suddenly “explode,” as he has himself expressed it, in order to give life to countless new forms, some of which continue and multiply, while the others, not being adapted to the conditions of existence, disappear.

I have no intention of drawing a conclusion in favor of revolution from these new observations. That would be to fall into the same error as those who argue to the rejection of revolution from the theory of evolution. But these observations at least show that the scientists are themselves not wholly agreed as to the part played in organic and geologic development by catastrophes, and for this reason it would be an error to attempt to draw from either of these hypotheses any fixed conclusions as to the role played by revolution in social development.

If in spite of these facts such conclusions are still insisted upon, then we can reply to them with a very popular and familiar illustration, which demonstrates in an unmistakable manner that nature does make sudden leaps: I refer to the act of birth. The act of birth is a leap. At one stroke a fetus, which had hitherto constituted a portion of the organism of the mother, sharing in her circulation, receiving nourishment from her, without breathing, becomes an independent human being, with its own circulatory system, that breathes and cries, takes its own nourishment and utilizes its digestive tract.

The analogy between birth and revolution, however, does not rest alone upon the suddenness of the act. If we look closer we shall find that this sudden transformation at birth is confined wholly to functions. The organs develop slowly, and must reach a certain stage of development before that leap is possible, which suddenly gives them their new functions. If the leap takes place before this stage of development is attained, the result is not the beginning of new functions for the organs, but the cessation of all functions – the death of the new creature. On the other hand, the slow development of organs in the body of the mother can only proceed to a certain point, they cannot begin their new functions without the revolutionary act of birth. This becomes inevitable when the development of the organs has attained a certain height.

We find the same thing in society. Here also the revolutions are the result of slow, gradual development (evolution). Here also it is the social organs that develop slowly. That which may be changed suddenly, at a leap, revolutionarily, is their functions. The railroad has been slowly developed. On the other hand, the railroad can suddenly be transformed from its function as the instrument to the enrichment of a number of capitalists, into a socialist enterprise having as its function the serving of the common good. And as at the birth of the child, all the functions are simultaneously revolutionized – circulation, breathing, digestion – so all the functions of the railroad must be simultaneously revolutionized at one stroke, for they are all most closely bound together. They cannot be gradually and successively socialized, one after the other, as if, for example, we would transform to-day the functions of the engineer and fireman, a few years later the ticket agents, and still later the accountants and book-keepers, and so on. This fact is perfectly clear with a railroad, but the successive socialization of the different functions of a railroad is no less absurd than that of the ministry of a centralized state. Such a ministry constitutes a single organism whose organs must cooperate. The functions of one of these organs cannot be modified without equally modifying all the others. The idea of the gradual conquest of the various departments of a ministry by the Socialists is not less absurd than would be an attempt to divide the act of birth into a number of consecutive monthly acts, in each of which one organ only would be transformed from the condition of a fetus to an independent child, and meanwhile leaving the child itself attached to the navel cord until it had learned to walk and talk.

Since neither a railroad nor a ministry can be changed gradually, but only at a single stroke, embracing all the organs simultaneously, from capitalist to socialist functions, from an organ of the capitalist to an organ of the laboring class, and this transformation is possible only to such social organs as retain a certain degree of development, it may be remarked here that with the maternal organism it is possible to scientifically determine the moment when the degree of maturity is attained, which is not true of society.

On the other hand, birth does not mark the conclusion of the development of the human organism, but rather the beginning of a new epoch in development. The child comes now into new relations in which new organs are created, and those that previously existed are developed further in other directions; teeth grow in the mouth, the eyes learn to see; the hands to grasp, the feet to walk, the mouth to speak, etc. In the same way a social revolution is not the conclusion of social development, but the beginning of a new form of development. A socialist revolution can at a single stroke transfer a factory from capitalist to social property. But it is only gradually, through a course of slow evolution, that one may transform a factory from a place of monotonous, repulsive, forced labor into an attractive spot for the joyful activity of happy human beings. A socialist revolution can at a single stroke transform the great bonanza farms into social property. In that portion of agriculture where the little industry still rules, the organs of social and socialist production must be first created, and that can come only as a result of slow development.

It is thus apparent that the analogy between birth and revolution is rather far reaching. But this naturally proves nothing more than that one has no right to appeal to nature for proof that a social revolution is something unnecessary, unreasonable, and unnatural. We have also, as we have already said, no right to apply conclusions drawn from nature directly to social processes. We can go no further upon the ground of such analogies than to conclude: that as each animal creature must at one time go through a catastrophe in order to reach a higher stage of development (the act of birth or of the breaking of a shell), so society can only be raised to a higher stage of development through a catastrophe.

The Social Revolution by Karl Kautsky. Translated by A.M. and May Wood Simons. Socialist Standard Series. Charles H Kerr Publishers, 1902.

Charles H Kerr publishing house was responsible for some of the earliest translations and editions of Marx, Engels, and other leaders of the socialist movement in the United States. Publisher of the Socialist Party aligned International Socialist Review, the Charles H Kerr Co. was an exponent of the Party’s left wing and the most important left publisher of the pre-Communist US workers movement. It remains a left wing publisher today.

For PDF of Book: https://archive.org/download/socialrevolution00kautuoft/socialrevolution00kautuoft.pdf

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