April Freeman Banner 2014


World in the Grip of An Idea: 3. Evolutionary Socialism


In this series, Dr. Carson examines the connection between ideology and the revolutions of our time and traces the impact on several major countries and the spread of the ideas and practices around the world.

The appeal of Marxism to intellectuals has been oft noted. A part of the reason for this is no particular mystery. Marxism holds out to the intellectual the hope of escape from one of his most persistent frustrations. An intellectual is, by definition, one who is devoted to ideas, their formulation and exposition. But ideas are only completed or fulfilled when they are put into practice. At least this is so for some ideas, particularly those having to do with social change. Therein, however, lies the source of frustration for modern intellectuals, as their tribe has become more numerous and their ideas become so plentiful: they are often denied any impact on society. Their ideas lie dormant; they fill the pages of books but do not go into practice.

Karl Marx projected a vision of a dramatic ending of this state of affairs. The history of ideas, to Marx, was really a history of ideologies. These ideologies arose as rationalizations of class positions. The ideas were necessarily disjoined from reality as the thinkers were alienated from their own natures by class arrangements and conflicts. Come the revolution, he claimed, the alienation would end, and ideas would become actuality. With the destruction of classes, man’s alienation from his nature would end, and he could experience reality directly, no longer needing to view it through the distorted lenses of ideas. "Philosophy turns into the world of reality," he said.¹ The frustration of the intellectual would presumably end, for he would no longer have a conception of a world different from the world he would be experiencing.

Unfortunately, or, fortunately, if one prefers, the end of ideology with the revolution entails, logically, an end to the function of the intellectual, as Thomas Molnar has pointed out in The Decline of the Intellectual. When everyone perceives reality clearly and directly, there is no need for a special corps of interpreters. When idea has become actuality, there is no occasion for the contentions of intellectuals. Many intellectuals in communist lands neglected to figure this out, and some of them did not live to regret it.


Man Needs a Purpose


There is a deeper reason for the appeal of Marxism to intellectuals; else, one suspects, it would never have gained the hold that it has had. It is that man needs an explanation of the world in which he lives. He wants to know where it came from and where it is going. Above all, he needs a purpose in life, a purpose which goes beyond himself but with which he can identify and find meaning. He needs, in a word, religion. But many intellectuals cut themselves loose from the traditional religions in the modern era. They either ignored religion or became agnostics or atheists, quite often of the most militant variety. Marxism supplied for them the place that religion has usually held for most men.


Marxism, as was earlier noted, is an anti-religious religion. It is an earthbound, materialistic, man centered, cataclysmic, prophetic, and dogmatic religion. Dialectical materialism is its revelation. History is its god. Marx is its prophet. Lenin is its incarnation. The revolution is its day of judgment. And communism is its paradise.

Its claim to being scientific even satisfies the intellectual’s desire to have a rational religion.

Of course, Marxism is not scientific; neither the economic analysis nor the historical prediction can pass muster as science. They are a compound of special pleading, wishful thinking, and carefully chosen abstractions. But it should not be supposed that the appeal of Marxism would be enhanced if it were a science. On the contrary, if it were a science, it would only be a dismal science. The appeal of Marxism lies in its paradoxes, its contradictions, in the very fact that to believe it requires an act of faith, as does any religion. The intellectual of the appropriate temperament finds in the Marxist religion hope for the hopeless, meaning in history, the promised resolution of all conflict, and the expectation of union, even communion, with all men.

The Religion of Socialism

Marxism is, then, the religion of socialism. Many, many intellectuals have been, and are, attracted to this anti-religious religion called communism. Indeed, most socialists identify in some ways with it. Perhaps, they see in it the church to which they would belong had they only undergone the necessary experience of conversion. Most likely, they see in it a common undertaking like their own, only one which uses methods and tactics which they cannot approve. In any case, many of those attracted by it have not become communists. They have, for whatever reasons, turned to other varieties of socialism.


It might be more appropriate to say that they turned to the other variety of socialism, because for the purposes of this work all socialism is being classified as either revolutionary socialism or evolutionary socialism. It is tempting to deal with the other socialism as watered down Marxism. There is some substance to this view. Certainly, when any other approach to socialism is compared with the revolutionary approach it pales beside it. More, the man who gave currency to the phrase, "evolutionary socialism," Eduard Bernstein, is usually classified as a revisionist Marxist.


It is, however, a temptation which should be resisted. Marxism is not the root of socialism; it is only the most virulent branch. Even German Social Democracy, in which both Marx and Bernstein can best be understood, was greatly influenced by Marx’s contemporary, Ferdinand Lassalle. The English Fabians were probably as much influenced by Henry George, say, as by Marx. Guild socialism in France had yet other origins. In the United States, there were Native American socialists who gave to American socialism its own national flavor. Indeed, one of the distinctions between Marxism and evolutionary socialism is that the latter is almost invariably national socialism while the former claims to be, and in certain senses is, international.


Subtle Differences


It may be most helpful to think of both socialisms as belonging to the same family but being different species. Undoubtedly, they share common traits as do members of a biological family. But they are sufficiently different from one another to be thought of as different species. The basic idea from which they spring is the same, but the articulation of it is distinctly different. It is so different that the two do not merge without becoming the one or the other. To be more exact, an evolutionary socialist may approve a revolution somewhere or other, but he does not thereby become himself a revolutionist. In like manner, a revolutionary socialist may approve, even work to bring about, some government intervention, but remain, all the while, a convinced revolutionist. Those of us who are not socialists may find such distinctions difficult to grasp, but, hopefully, they will become clearer with some exposition.

One major difference between the two is in the matter of religion. Marxism—revolutionary socialism—is a religion of sorts. Evolutionary socialism is not. That is not to say that there are not articles of faith and things which one believes if he is a socialist. There are. It is rather that they are not religious in character. Nor should it be thought that socialist belief is less tenacious because it is not religious. My impression is that it may well be more so. The beliefs in evolutionary socialism are often acquired in the same manner as are customs, habits, and traditions. (All socialisms are anti-traditional in the deepest sense, of course, but it is the method of evolutionary socialism to operate within the inherited framework even as it is being altered.) They have the staying power of traditions once they are acquired.

Gradualism, Democratism, and Statism

There are three main elements in evolutionary socialist tactics. All three distinguish them from Marxism in theory, and at least two of them are real differences. They are: gradualism, democracy or democratism, and statism.

Gradualism has several meanings and functions within evolutionary socialism. At the most obvious level, it defines a difference between it and communism. Socialism is to be arrived at gradually, step by step, rather than as a transformation wrought by revolution. Another aspect of it is contained in the Fabian doctrine of permeation. As Sidney Webb described it, the policy of permeation was one of inculcating:

socialist thought and socialist projects into the minds not merely of complete converts, but of those whom we found in disagreement with us—and we spared no pains in these propagandist efforts, not among political liberals or radicals only, but also among political conservatives; not only among trade unionists and co-operators, but also among employers and financiers . . . .2

Gradualism was closely tied in with the theories of geological and biological evolution which were gaining currency at the same time as these socialist ideas. Marx had declared that the condition of the proletariat would continue to deteriorate, or, more precisely, that more and more people would be reduced to the proletarian condition. More and more wealth would be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This would continue to the point at which it became intolerable. At this catastrophic point, the time would be ripe for revolution. The great change could only be effected by something like a revolutionary overthrow of the old system and the grasping of power by the proletariat. The theory of evolution was useful to Marx, too, for it could be used to support the idea that fundamental and basic changes could occur in human nature. But his revolutionary idea was tied to the notion of catastrophic rather than gradual change.

The gradualists, on the other hand, believed that conditions, particularly in advanced industrial countries, were already moving gradually toward a socialist conclusion. Bernstein put it this way:

In all advanced countries we see the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organisations. Under the influence of this, and driven by the movement of the working classes which is daily becoming stronger, a social reaction has set in against the exploiting tendencies of capital, a counteraction which, although it still proceeds timidly and feebly, yet does exist, and is always drawing more departments of economic life under its influence. Factory legislation, the democratising of local government, and the extension of its area of work, the freeing of trade unions and systems of co-operative trading from legal restrictions, the consideration of standard conditions of labour in the work undertaken by public authorities—all these characterise this phase of the evolution.³

Fabian Gradualism

The Fabians were given to emphasizing that the change taking place was not simply a result of changes in political power. It was, they claimed, inherent in the industrial system. One of the Fabian Essays described the process this way:

The factory system, the machine industry, the world commerce, have abolished individualist production; and the completion of the co-operative form towards which the transition stage of individualist capitalism is hurrying us, will render a conformity with social ethics, a universal condition of tolerable existence for the individual.4

In short, the gradualists claimed that the direction of industrial, social, and political evolution was already toward their desired goal of socialism. How this differed from the Marxian view was well stated by Eduard Bernstein:

The old vision of the social collapse which rises before us as a result of Marx’s arguments … is the picture of an army. It presses forward, through detours, over sticks and stones, but is constantly led downward in its march ahead. Finally it arrives at a great abyss. Beyond it there stands beckoning the desired goal—the state of the future, which can be reached only through a sea; a red sea, as some have said. Now, this vision changes, and another takes its place …. This vision shows us the way of the working classes not only forward, but at the same time upward. Not only do the workers grow in numbers, but their economic, ethical, and political level rises as well . . . .5

The link was made, then, between the gradual movement toward socialism and the idea of evolutionary progress. One might say, following this junction, that socialism was the goal, gradualism the way, and evolutionary progress the engine to get there. It has certainly been a most useful propellant. The idea of progress has been mightily attractive in the last couple of centuries. Many have come to believe that great progress was actually taking place. If it was, why it had anything to do with socialism is an important question. But gradualists propounded it not as a proposition standing in need of proof but as the answer to the riddle of history. The notion that the movement toward socialism is progress has served them well. It has enabled them to claim that all acts moving in their direction were progressive, while those opposing them were retrogressive and reactionary.

Practical Democracy

When evolutionary socialists say that they are democratic it does not mean just what it appears to mean. To get in the vicinity of its meaning it is necessary to hark back to one of the issues that split German socialists in the middle of the nineteenth century. The issue was this: Should socialists run for and accept seats in legislatures? More broadly: Should socialists participate in bourgeois governments? To put it in present day jargon: Should socialists participate in the system? By participating in it would they not be giving tacit approval to it? Revolutionists tended to answer that they would. The state—and most emphatically, the bourgeois state — was the enemy. Those who took the other side were early called democratic socialists. They were also called parliamentarists, signifying their willingness to participate in the government.

Actually, evolutionary socialists are what is now often referred to as pragmatic. What this means in socialist terms is that they are not wedded to any particular means in the achievement of power and the enactment of their policies. Hence, democracy may mean for them majority rule when they have a majority. On the other hand, it may mean equality when they are pressing for the enfranchisement of someone or for the use of some other than a parliamentary device for the achievement of their ends. Even the form which socialism will eventually assume, indeed, whether it will have some final form, does not much matter. Eduard Bernstein got in hot water with other socialists when he first tried to express this view. He had said that the "final aim" of socialism was of little account. Here is his further explanation of what he meant:

In this sense I wrote the sentence that the movement means everything for me and that what is usually called "the final aim of socialism" is nothing . . . . Even if the word "usually" had not shown that the proposition was only to be understood conditionally, it was obvious that it could not express indifference concerning the final carrying out of socialist principles, but only indifference—or, as it would be better expressed, carelessness—as to the form of the final arrangement of things.6

The Goal Is Everything

What was shocking about Bernstein’s original statement was that he appeared to have got the matter wrong end to. What he should have said, one supposes, is that the means did not matter but that the end or final goal of socialism was everything. Yet, when pressed on it, he did not back off; he affirmed his devotion to principles, not to goals. Actually, he changed positions. He had said that "the movement means everything," not that principles do. His original meaning may have been closer to the core of evolutionary socialism. He was saying, if I understand him, that what the paradise of socialism is like does not matter so long as we are on the way there. It is in the concerting of effort to achieve it that the fruits of socialism are realized, not in some distant goal to be reached.


Despite any appearance to the contrary, what comes out of this is that methods do not matter so long as they are collectivist in principle. What he was arguing for was the necessity of political activity as the necessary immediate task of socialists. What he was arguing against was that to become embroiled in politics was the wrong way to achieve socialism, that the political means were not in accord with the final goal of socialism. He was arguing against those who were arguing from some blueprint of what socialism was going to be like. He had no such blueprint, he was saying, and he would not be turned away from using methods that were collectivist by some hypothetical final goal.


Does this mean that evolutionary socialists are democratic in principle? A biographer of Bernstein has summed up his mature position this way:

Social democracy fights for democracy in state, province, and community as a means of realizing political equality for all and as a lever for the socialization of the soil and of capitalist enterprises. It is not the workers’ party in the sense that it accepts only workers as members—everyone who subscribes to its principles may belong to it. But its chief appeal is to the workers, for the liberation of the workers must principally be the task of the workers themselves. The chief job of Social Democracy is to fill the working class with this idea and to organize it economically and politically for its historic fight.7

Sidney Webb described the connection between socialism and democracy in these words:

So long … as democracy in political administration continues to be the dominant principle, socialism may be quite safely predicted as its economic obverse,in spite of those freaks and aberrations of democracy which have already here and there thrown up a short-lived monarchy or a romantic dictatorship. Every increase in the political power of the proletariat will most surely be used by them for their economic and social protection . . . .8

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that collectivism was the principle and democracy the means. Democracy offered the mode for collective decision making. More, it provided a means for thrusting toward enfranchising more and more of the population. With near universal suffrage, they hoped that socialist measures would be ever more likely to be enacted. Democracy became a mystique in the course of this effort, a mystique of the proper way to act and even a sort of mystical goal.


Reliance on State Power


Evolutionary socialism is statist. It determinedly uses the power of government for its purposes. On the face of it, however, this does not distinguish evolutionary from revolutionary socialism. The difference, such as it is, is part theoretical and part the role that government is supposed to play and how it is to be done. In theory, Marxists are not statists. The State, according to Marx, was supposed to wither away under communism. This, however, depended upon a transformation of human beings and society which has not taken place. That aside, there are still differences between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism.


The evolutionists proposed to use the existing state and work within it. They would gradually transform the state even as men and society were being transformed. By contrast, revolutionists proposed that the old state structure would have to be destroyed and a new one erected in its place.


Evolutionary socialists have been interventionists. They proposed to work and accomplish their ends, in part at least, by intervening in the capitalist system, as they described it. They would eventually alter and transform the economic structure by their interventions. The revolutionaries were holistic in their approach. They would take over the state apparatus, change it and redirect it so that it was no longer what it had been. They would use it not simply to alter the economy step by step but would destroy the old system and put another one in its place. Both are no doubt statist, at least to those who do not accept the mysteries of communist terminology, but there are differences in approaches.


There is no blinking the fact that evolutionary socialism differs somewhat and bears a different face from land to land. It has already been pointed out that by its nature it is nationalistic. It is even called by different names in different countries. In Germany, it is the Social Democratic Party today, though most political parties are apt to be to some extent under its sway. In England, the Labour Party has been the spearhead of evolutionary socialism. In some lands, it is the Christian Socialist parties. In the United States, its devotees are most often referred to as "liberals," but they have also been known by other names. The Democratic Party in more recent times has been at the forefront in pushing the gradualist type of reforms.

The Strategy Changes

The tactics of socialists differ much from country to country. In those nations where socialism is avowed as a desirable goal, it is sometimes sufficient recommendation for measures that they are required by socialism. But in countries, such as the United States, where few of the actual advocates avow their socialism, and where it would hardly be considered a recommendation, measures are promoted on other grounds.


The amazing thing is the continuing impetus toward socialism and the remarkable consistency in what is sought from land to land. Despite even the most obvious failures, despite political setbacks from time to time, despite cultural differences from land to land, the impetus rises again and again and the same sorts of measures continue to be enacted.

The question must ever arise as to where and what is the source of this impetus and consistency. The impetus to and consistency of communism is not so difficult to explain. After all, communism is an international movement, supported by nations where communist parties are in power, such as the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and Cuba. There is a party line controlled from Moscow, Peking, or wherever. Communism is spread, too, by military conquest. But the paraphernalia for this is missing largely from evolutionary socialism. There is no body with either the power or authority to promulgate a party line across the boundaries of nations. Even within countries, there is usually no authoritative body to enforce some party line. True, the United States, or perchance other nations, may promote socialist measures through foreign aid programs, but these would hardly account for the continuing impetus toward socialism. The notion that it is done by some international cabal is appealing, but such organizations as exist lack the power and authority to promote socialism that thoroughly.

The answer, as we have explored it thus far, is this. The world is in the grip of an idea. The idea is to use government to achieve human felicity on this earth by concerting all efforts toward its realization and to root out and destroy all that stands in the way. The idea, in its Marxist articulation, is an anti-religious religion. The idea, in its gradualist posture is a secular faith. It is not proclaimed by the gradualists as being either secular or a faith. It is not a religion. It accepts votaries from every religion and none, lays claim to any good which it finds in these religions, and uses the elements of traditional religious belief which bear any resemblance to the idea to support it. Its faith is in progress, in collectivist democracy, in the possibility of changing human nature, and in eventually concerting all efforts behind the movement to achieve human felicity on this earth.

Long-Range Planning

The Marxists offer to the intellectuals the hope that ideas will become actuality. The evolutionary socialists offer not just temporary employment to intellectuals but permanent positions. Since the evolution is an extremely long range affair, there is no probability that in the foreseeable future the need for ideas will end. To the have-nots, to the down-and-out, to any who conceive that they have not received their deserts (and the number of these is legion) both revolutionary and evolutionary socialism promise that all this will be changed. Both hold up a vision of perfection beside the realities of an imperfect world and proclaim that they know how to attain the perfection. If history is for them (either history whose process was supposedly scientifically discerned by Marx, or history discerned in progressive evolutionary patterns), who can be against them? These are the lineaments of a religion, on the one hand, and of a secular faith, on the other.


My main purpose in this work, however, is not to write about ideas. The emphasis is to be on the grip, not upon the idea. To show the grip, it is necessary to look at the actions of governments in some of the lands under the sway of the socialist ideas. There we shall discover not the beatific vision foretold by socialist prophets but the hard realities produced by the applications of force and violence.


From Ideas to Practice


The discussion of the ideas of revolutionary and evolutionary socialism has one main purpose here. It is to show the connection between the ideas and the practices. Socialists of whatever persuasion focus attention upon and talk most about economic matters. They proclaim that the ills which beset us are economic in origin. But the task which they propose to undertake does not simply involve rearranging economies. An economy does not exist in lofty isolation from man, society, morality, religion, culture, habits, customs, and traditions.


Indeed, economy is what it is because man is what he is. This being so, anyone attempting to institute new and different economic arrangements must perforce also devise a new man, new society, new morality, and so on. It may be less painful to go about it gradually than in one fell swoop, but the damage must finally be done whichever way is taken. The damage must be done because the old man, the old society, the old morality, and so on, must be rooted out, altered, or destroyed. The evolutionary approach is much more subtle because much of this process is hidden beneath diversionary arguments and gradual methods. It is there, nonetheless.

Loss of Independence

The impact of the thrust toward socialism is to destroy the independence of the individual and leave him exposed to the power of government and the influence of whoever has it or will wield it. This is so because the thrust of socialism is to remove all the supports by which he may stand as an individual: the supports of a free society, of morality, of religion, of custom and tradition. The logic of this development is in the socialist idea.

We turn now to the exploration of this impact in several lands where it has been applied. Undoubtedly, the impact will vary from country to country. It will certainly vary depending upon whether it is revolutionary or evolutionary socialism at work. It will vary, too, depending upon the leaders from time to time and place to place. Each country has a different history, and each people different ways. But when all that has been said, there is but one definitive way to study the impact of an idea, and A Strange Hybrid that is upon actual people in the situations in which we find them.

Next: 4. Russia: Old Regime and New Revolutionaries.


I-Quoted in Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1961), p. 81.

2Harry W. Laidler, History of Socialism (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968), pp. 220-21.

3Eugen Weber, ed. The Western Tradition (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1959), p. 663.

4Laidler, op. cit., p. 212.

5Quoted in Peter Gay, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism (New York: Collier, 1962), pp. 147-48.

6Weber, op. cit., pp. 664-65.

7Gay, op. cit., pp. 251-52.

8Laidler, op. cit., p. 199. 


March 1977

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