8 Reforms and Revolution

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2010

Anticipation of what is coming anyway tends to be regarded as reform. It is possible, at the time of writing, to see a classic monument to liberal do-goodism in Victoria Embankment Gardens, where one of the typically useless London statues to forgotten nonentities is raised. Epitaphs are notoriously inaccurate, but here we are asked to admire "William Edward Forster 1818/86, to whose wisdom and courage England owes the establishment throughout the land of a national system of elementary education". Could one better it for an outrageous lie? Mr Forster was no doubt a worthy man, but does England really owe its elementary education to him? When he was born, England was largely illiterate, and when he died it was largely literate, but was he responsible? Without him, would England have remained illiterate, surrounded by literate nations? Could it be that if he had not reminded Parliament of the need for elementary schools, it might have been overlooked altogether? This is what liberals once believed, just as Roman Catholics once believed that St Augustine brought Christianity to these islands, and the patriotically superstitious believe that Winston Churchill won the war.

Individuals are credited with achievements far beyond their power, and we are expected to be grateful. It does not take much intelligence to realise that for some achievements, good or bad, we are entirely responsible ourselves. We are asked to honour Rowland Hill for introducing the penny post (which subsequent reformers have taken away) and even the many prison reformers who have made our jails what they are. They could, of course, be worse.

Not all reforms are useless. The most useful ones may be those that do in fact anticipate coming change. It was impossible, for example, that Britain could have carried on much longer in the modern age hanging people for petty thefts or imprisoning them for life because of debt. The fact that these laws did linger on for so long has left its impress on modern thinking, so that some of what are served up as "reforms" are anti-reforms. Some of those who clamour for the restoration of the death penalty, for instance, regard it as a panacea. One has only to read the letters in the press to see that they are under the delusion that hanging murderers will deter all crimes of violence and even prevent vandalism in the parks.

Other reforms are only recognitions of fact. We owe it to the first post-Second World War Labour government that the Witchcraft Act was abolished, and we can worship whichever devil we choose, provided we do not infringe the Blasphemy Act which it was deemed inexpedient to amend. There are some reforms which are genuine concessions from the State, and are the stuff of politics. But politicians as a class are parasitical upon society, and it is not to be regarded as kind that they give back a few crusts of our own bread, though this is how the press personalises particular actions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

By granting some such concessions to the formerly "submerged tenth", the State has legalised poverty. Work was once the idol. Those who could not get work, and had no way of making others work for them, fell into the pit. The post-First World War reformers, still idealising work as such, thought one had only to provide work, however unnecessary, for "the unemployed", and that by expenditure on public works they were solving the problem and making money flow again. But it was not the useless toil that solved the problem of the unemployed put on "New Deal" public works -- it was the fact of having spending-power again. The new liberalism accepts the idea of "relief" or "assistance" no longer presented as an act of charity, but as a recognition of the fact that the well-being of the State requires a class at the bottom which is a threat to any complacency or militancy of other classes, yet which does not have to be starved to the point of desperation.

The purpose of social benefits is to encourage flexibility and mobility, or in other words to persuade people to move around as the State wishes, without being physically forced to do so. But its existence also gives the political reformer the chance to take over from the social philanthropist and to play Santa Claus at no expense to himself and in fact as an advertisement for the store.

The competition between political Santa Clauses is so great that few politicians are quite prepared to come out and say that, for their part, they would abolish him. But they are nevertheless concerned that if social benefits are of a certain level, a few people might "abuse" the system. Like the old-fashioned publican they are afraid someone will take the free lunch without buying the beer.

In the jungle of state-controlled society, people do not like to believe that someone, somewhere, without the power to demand it, is getting something for nothing. They fail to see that something is in fact given for something. Those subsidised by the State for whatever reason are considered necessary by the State, even if the stigma of charity still lies upon some institutions. A policeman may be parasitical upon society, but he is not considered to be so as he is essential to the security of the State. Equally so, a prisoner may not be contributing anything to society, but the State regards a standing population of prisoners essential to the enforcement of law. The modem State also regards as essential a growing number who live upon social security, or have low incomes augmented. This phenomenon promises to become part and parcel of future state economy, as it already is in some American cities.

Some sociologists have said that such people are not "exploited" for they are subsidised to live. The public regards them as "parasites" because it has been taught to object to people being idle out of their proper class. Those concerned may not be productive, except by way of children, but they are not the only class that is divorced from production. Social exploitation exists as well as economic, and is sometimes distinguished from it only by semantics. The Victorian gentleman who kept an under-footman at two pounds a year all found was not exploiting his labour in the same way as he was that of his workers in a factory, but was the difference of importance?

A modern illustration is that of the Arabs displaced by Israeli conquest and living in refugee camps on United Nations handouts. They are not economically exploited by the "host" countries as were, say, the European immigrants to the USA. But the latter fared far better. Those politically exploited become essential to the politicians. Wherever institutionalised "charity" exists, the bureaucracy needs the recipients. Without them, it would grind to a halt. They are like the fabled wolf-killer, who had to breed wolves on the sly in order to keep his job. But there is more than just the need to have a children's party so that one can still go on playing Santa Claus.

The State, in order to survive, needs many strata of society which are not productive and some of which are deliberately kept in idleness. The idleness of luxury is the carrot, and the idleness of want is the stick. The fact of modern abundance could make equity possible, but it also makes inequity more workable. Those at the top can literally reach the moon. Those at the bottom need not be starved to the point where they can become dangerous.

The danger is that if the State is allowed to continue on its present course, the technological revolution will squeeze the working class out of production. It may find itself, if not on permanent social security, at any rate performing the menial tasks of the superior classes, regardless of social usefulness, but only to maintain the distinction. Where would be the joys of reaching the top if there were nobody beneath? The truth, despite the admen, is that we cannot all be "middle-class".

A working class completely deprived of its productivity, and so of its power (which is there, whether it uses it or not) to change society, might nevertheless become militant. That is one of the signs in the younger generation. One suspects that many advocates of state control hope that it might, without industrial power, become grateful for reforms from the top or permission to participate in some of the decisions made for it. Such a hope overlooks human nature. Nobody is really grateful for what is "done for them". The people living in the Negro ghettos of the USA decide such gratitude as "Uncle Tom"-ism. Sooner than be put in a dependent position by the welfare state they would prefer to pull the whole rotten system down -- "Burn baby burn!".

While this may sometimes be expressed in misleading slogans, such as "Black Power", the actual fighters are really against power as such and only demand it on the terms they know they will not get. The federal government would welcome a few black militant leaders in power, but the problem is that as soon as they attain office they not merely cease to be militant, which is expected, but they cease to be leaders. They can only lead by running ahead of the crowd: they do not control. What the crowd is saying is "To hell with white liberalism". They are not only against intolerance, but against damned insufferable tolerance too. They are not really revolutionary: "black liberalism" is only liberalism with a gun and no number of civil rights adds up to social revolution. But as they have no faith even in the reforms for which they are fighting the fiercest, they may achieve a revolutionary position that will shake the world. The tragedy of Martin Luther King's assassination, from the bourgeois point of view, was that here was a moderate and pacific man who was making a bid to capture leadership. The English ruling class might initially have imprisoned him, as they did Jawaharlal Nehru and Jomo Kenyatta, but they would have come to realise that he was useful to them. The more bigoted of them might have gone so far as to object when he was eventually included in the honours list. To have shot him was to show that there was no compromise. If even those preaching conciliation with the dominant are to be killed, what is the deterrent to rebellion?

Even the most intolerant dictator likes to show that there is some hope even for the most recalcitrant. Conquered Spain does not grant remission to its native prisoners, and does not always release them even when their sentence has expired. But every time a prisoner is let out of prison (for they cannot all be kept for ever) it is presented as an act of clemency by the Caudillo. The constitutional monarch has less opportunity for such deeds of mercy.

Mohammed tried to be kindly and tolerant when he decreed that everyone who freed a slave would be certain of a place in Paradise. He did not foresee that his liberal reform would mean that slavery would linger on in Moslem countries long after it had become obsolescent elsewhere; for how else would the ruling class assure its place in Paradise?

We must accept reforms in the spirit in which they are offered, and, if, in order to get a political prisoner released after twenty years in jail, we were asked to appear in our shirts like the burghers of Calais, and march around a cathedral carrying a penitential candle, this would be an act of solidarity no less than attacking a Spanish bank or kidnapping an ambassador. It is sometimes necessary to eat a peckful of dirt when appearing before a judge. Defiance may no doubt be judged in idealistic terms as to degrees of heroism but has no significance in terms of reality or revolution.

Bakunin, spending years in a Russian jail after the 1848 revolution, indulged in an orgy of self-abasement "confessing his crimes before the Czar" and proclaiming his repentance. These pleas were later published by the Soviet government. Bakunin observed the essential rule: not to inform on or incriminate anyone else. It is difficult to see why his behaviour should be regarded as any different from wearing a disguise to escape, and why his idolising biographer and bibliographer, Max Nettlau, criticised the releasing of these papers. It is true that the nineteenth century was sold on idealistic postures and had it been known he "capitulated" it would have damaged Bakunin's reputation for heroism.

What would be the grossest superstition-and this is the analogy with reformism-is to believe that simply by appearing in sackcloth and ashes and traipsing around the cathedral, the dictator could be persuaded to release the prisoners. He might make that his condition of surrender, as an act of humiliation rendered to the conqueror. It is another matter to believe that by carrying out such an act spontaneously, one will have any influence upon him. Letters to members of parliament, discussions of civil rights and the abstract rights of man, petitions to the United Nations, public statements for which one must angle for "names", the collecting of thousands of ordinary signatures . . . all these are secular, democratic versions of the sackcloth and ashes, required by the despot. We may need to engage in them, we may benefit from them, but we do not have to be fooled by them.

This type of liberalism is like learning the captors' language in a prisoner-of-war camp. It makes communication between jailer and victim easier. It may help the jailer to give his commands, but then there is a possibility that otherwise the prisoners might face extinction. The captive is able to have some concessions granted, though at the expense of a promise not to escape (which may be ignored). Once the language is learned, and especially if it is mastered, brainwashing is possible. The only way to resist brainwashing is by non-co-operation, for going along with it spells destruction. The prisoner-of-war is driven back to the art of skiving which (and not conscientious objection, revered by English pacifists and liberals) is the true art of resistance to the Army -- it was not a coincidence that Hasek, who wrote "The Good Soldier Schweik", the classic of skiving, was an Anarchist.

On idealistic grounds one may argue as to whether rejection of parliamentary reformism is "purist" and "sectarian" or not. From a viewpoint immersed in legalism, the acceptance of "mercy" under the law when one regards law as conquest may be regarded as inconsistent and even equated with the attitude of the totalitarian who wants free speech for himself but denies it to others.1

The Libertarian does not fight against all reforms. But he should be careful to make them identify themselves first. And then give only his name, rank and number.

  • 1The Roman Church was once said to be what the Communist Party has since become, "a lamb in adversity, a fox in equality, a tiger in supremacy".