Daniel De Leon, Reform or Revolution, 1947 Preface by Arnold Petersen

Arnold Petersen
1947 Preface to
Reform or Revolution

"Reform or Revolution," a lecture delivered in 1896, is the first of Daniel De Leon's great quartet of "primary" lessons in Marxism and its corollaries, the other three being "What Means This Strike" (1898), "Burning Question of Trades Unionism" (1904), and "Socialist Reconstruction of Society" (1905). The four constitute an integrated whole, each dealing with a particular facet of basic, or elementary, Marxism.

While some of the references to events current in 1896 may seem out of date, there is nothing outmoded in the essential points and basic principles presented in this first great masterpiece by America's foremost Marxian scientist -- "the only one" who, in the words of Lenin, "has added anything to Socialist thought since Marx." On the contrary, the principles laid down by De Leon in this pamphlet are as applicable, and the language essentially as fresh, as when first presented in Boston fifty-one years ago.

In language so simple that a child can understand it, through illustrations and analogies so apt and direct that the dullest can comprehend them, De Leon made crystal clear the difference between reform and revolution -- made it clear why at one stage reform may be logical, because conditions lack the necessary ripeness, and why at another stage it may be the worst of criminal nonsense and madness; and why revolution at one stage may be the folly of unschooled impatient dreamers or of criminal adventurers. "The reformer's mouth," said De Leon, "is ever full with the words 'individual freedom,' yet in the whole catalogine of defiers of individual freedom, the reformer vies with the frontmost." In reviewing the careers of the reformers who rose to power, from Millerand-Briand to Roosevelt-Attlee, can anyone in reason challenge De Leon's dictum?

Reforms naturally imply belief in the usefulness, or indispensability, of the thing to be reformed. A garment may be renovated or repaired over and over again, but the point is eventually reached when the effort and cost of repair exceed the replacement cost of the garment. To continue to repair must eventually, and inevitably, lead to a result directly opposite to that at which the process of repairing is aimed. It ceases to be economical to repair, and the garment is discarded. However, to continue to repair a worn-out garment is no more foolish and wasteful than it would be to discard the garment while it is still serviceable and worth repairing. To repeat: To continue to "reform" the garment when the stage of "reform" has passed is as fatuous and destructive as would be the prematurely "revolutionary" act of throwing away a perfectly serviceable and useful garment.

As with a garment, so with social systern and social organizations, except, of course, that the latter involve questions far more complex, and infinitely further removed from the arbitrary will and whims of man. Social systems in the past served useful purposes, or they could not have endured so long. And, as with earlier social systems, so with the present capitalist system. As in the case of a garment, a social system may develop defects that demand "repairs," i.e., reforms. If the social system, however imperfect, is serving the needs of man better than any other which is possible or conceivable at the time, common sense dictates that its curable defects be reformed. Necessity and enlightened self-interest generally operate toward effecting the indicated reforms, though there may be some who (through ignorance or unenlightened selfishness) would oppose them.

But when experience and the obvious facts in the case prove that reforms no longer operate to produce the desired results, the advocacy of reforms, and the attempts made to keep alive artificially that which should be allowed to die a natural death, become foolish and eventually socially criminal. Those who seek to prevent the inevitable, or at any rate the socially needed change, constitute the undesirable and reactionary element in society, whereas those who seek to further the revolution -- i.e., the substitution of a new and sound principle for the diametrically opposed prevailing unsound principle -- represent the useful, the desirable element. At least, a truly sane, a genuinely rational society, would so appraise them.

But in a society where private property interests dominate, and where classes contend for supremacy, the verdict is quite different. In such a society (the present capitalist society, for instance) those who would retain the worn-out social "garment," at a tremendous cost to humanity, become the "pillars of society," the patriots; and those who would cast away the worn-out "rags" are denounced as enemies of society, as "subversive elements," and taunted with similar false nonsense. Those who consciously, and out of selfish class interests, oppose the change that would so greatly benefit society as a whole are generally rewarded as if they were really the benefactors of mankind, inasmuch as they enjoy prestige and wealth, whereas the real benefactors of society and the true friends of mankind are reviled and generally suffer penury and persecution.

It may be asked: Granted that all this is true, how could De Leon know, how do we know, that this is the hour of revolution? How do we know that reforms are no longer possible or desirable? We know this, first, because it is capable of scientific demonstration. We also know it in the same way that we know a tree by its fruit. Society is an organism, and it reacts to artificial promptings, or artificial restraints, as do all organisms. Human society is a, living thing, a growing thing. Its roots are in the subsoil of the past, its topmost branches straining toward the sky of the future. Social systems are born, grow and mature, and eventually decay. During the ethnic period when class has contended against class; when private property rights for the few at the expense of the many have prevailed; and when slavery in one form or another has existed, social systems have come and gone.

The system typified in the ancient Roman Empire came into existence out of the dim past. As it grew in size and power, it scattered its seeds over the then known world. Its mission had been to pull society out of the morass of equality in poverty and ignorance. A vast slave class was the basis of this society -- a slave class that made it possible for the few to enjoy the leisure and freedom of action that enabled them to acquire learning, to develop culture, and to insure the spreading of this civilization far and wide. The means often were cruel, the cost in human life and happiness terrible, but the cost was necessary in order to make it possible for man to emerge out of the near-animal stage, and to rise above the level of brute existence. But the Roman slave system naturally ceased to serve a useful purpose in the measure that it achieved its mission -- and only a few, of course, were even dimly conscious of the nature of this mission, however well its ends were served. In due time, corruption set in, and, though noble and well-meaning men arose to reform (in order to save) the Roman system (notably the famous Gracchi brothers who perished in the attempt), it was all in vain, ad eventually the empire fell into utter decay and collapsed.

Out of the ruins and chaos emerged the feudal system. Its mission was to bring order out of chaos, to safeguard what cultural conquests had been made against the threatening barbaric hordes of the east and the north, and generally to raise the standards of life and to introduce greater security, greater stability to the end of insuring a continued upward development -- a steady progress in education, in the arts, and general culture, all of which rested on a growing and steadily expanding commerce, with its accompaniments of settled communities, and the opening up of the rest of the world.

Feudalism, too, went through the successive stages of lusty youth, maturity, corruption and final and utter decay and collapse. The process of decay was slow, and, as in the case of the Roman Empire, those who benefited by the social system -- the princes (including the princes of the Roman Church), the nobles and the ruling class generally resisted any attempt to change things socially for the better, with the result that corruption increased, and matters went from bad to worse. The typical example of this process is found in the case of France. There were men in 18th century France who realized that an explosion was due unless something were done. They did not realize, however, that feudalism -- specifically the monarchy -- was done for, and that the way of progress inescapably lay over the ruins of the monarchy, and of the feudal structure generally.

And so these would-be reformers of feudalism, through their attempts to maintain the monarchy -- that is, by their attempted reforms of the feudal System -- merely postponed the inevitable, thereby aggravating the situation; and, far from preventing the foreshadowed revolution, they merely rendered it inevitable that this revolution should become bloody and violent. We know this violent and bloody revolution now by the designation of the Great French Revolution. The American Revolution of 1776 and the British Revolution of 1688 were essentially of the same character as the French Revolution, but quite different in form and manifestation. The feudal system had reached the end of its normal development. It could not continue to grow within the existing legal restrictions and property relations, and the ruling class that had become useless refused to yield to, or share power with, the new important class in society, the bourgeoisie, or, as we say today, the capitalist class. As said, conciliation was attempted, as were compromises, and special "reforms" were agitated. But, in the end, revolution was "called in" to cut the Gordian knot. And so, eventually, a new system was born, the system we call capitalism, or, as its current beneficiaries and apologists like to call it, "the system of free enterprise."

The capitalist system, like its predecessors, has gone through the familiar stages of growth -- lusty youth, maturity and ripe age, and is now in the last stages of decay and corruption. The specific mission of capitalism (successfully carried out) has been twofold: To organize and coordinate production on a basis and scale insuring forever the elimination of want, and the fear of want, in society; and, further, to train, to organize cooperatively, and to coordinate functionally, the working class, the class that is destined to supplant all other classes, and that, by so doing, will bring into existence the free, classless Socialist Industrial Union society wherein, to paraphrase the old Greek philosopher, there will be need for neither servants nor slaves, nor room for masters and "bosses." Scarcity, inability to produce things in quantity, rendered slavery and poverty necessary for the many, lest all society remain in the rut of universal poverty, ignorance and social stagnation. Capitalism's gift to mankind has been to make possible mass production, insuring a basis for universal well-being and prosperity, with freedom for all.

But capitalism, having long since ceased to be useful in the evolutionary scheme of things, having in fact become an obstruction in the path of social progress, must now be abolished, as former social systems were abolished, and for the same general reason. The stage of reform has long since been passed, the hour of revolution has struck.

All of this, though not fully developed by De Leon, is implicit in his great speech. Again and again, there has been demonstrated the truth of his incisive maxims: "At the present stage of civilization there is possible no reform worth speaking of..."; "Where a social revolution is pending and, for whatever reason, is not accomplished, reaction is the alternative"; "Every reform granted by capitalism is a concealed measure of reaction." And so forth. Emphasis was lent to his denunciation of reform measures by such witty and devastating observations as this one: "For Socialism in the United States to bother with reforms is like washing the garbage before dumping it into the can. Away with the garbage of capitalism!" And there is truth, power and potent meaning in his magnificent and impatient exclamation: "Give us a truce with your 'reforms.' There is a sickening air of moral mediocrity in all such petty movements of petty, childish aspirations at times like these, when gigantic man-issues are thundering at every man's door for admission and solution."

In a few respects, some of De Leon's terminology in this pamphlet reminds us that his speech was delivered in 1896, that is, before he had fully formed his conception of the new society as a Socialist Industrial Adminittration, based on occupational rather than on territorial (political) line. On page 39, De Leon speaks of restoring the instruments of production "to the commonwealth." Alter 1904, he would have said, "to the workers in the Socialist industrial society." On page 40, he refers to the Socialist Republic as "the State or government." After 1904, he would not have spoken of the "Socialist State," this being a contradiction in terms. ("The existence of the State is inseparable from the existence of slavery." -- Marx.) On page 45, he says: "The Socialist revolution demands ... the public ownerahip of all means of transportion." After, he would have spoken of ownership by the workers, organized in Socialist industrial councils. And similarly with his reference to "nationalization" on page 46. Both "public ownership" and "nationalization" represent the concept of State-owned industries, etc., in fact, State capitalism. After 1904, De Leon discarded these and similar unscientific terms, employing thereafter terms fitting his great discovery of Socialist Industrial Unionism as the basis and fabric, as the very soul, of Socialist society. But these are minor defects, and understandable in the light of the then prevailing circumstances. Attention is called to them here for the sake of scientific precision, and in order to anticipate the carping critic and the quibbler.

"Reform or Revolution" is indispensable in the study of Marxism as applied to this age and particularly to this country. In the catalogue of Marxian classics, it takes its recognized, its honored place.


New York, September 30, 1947