"Reform or Revolution."

An Address delivered under the auspices of the People's Union,
at Well's Memorial Hall, Boston,
January 26, 1896.

Published by the New York Labor News Company, 1899.

Mr. Chairman and Workingmen of Boston:
I have got into the habit of putting two and two together, and drawing my conclusions. When I was invited to come to Boston, the invitation reached me at about the same time with an official information that a reorganization of the party was contempolated in the city of Boston. I put the two together and I drew the conclusion that part of the purpose of the invitation was for me to come here to tell you upon what lines we in New York organized....

I think the best thing I can do to aid you in organizing, is to give you the principles upon which the Socialist sections of New York City and Brooklyn are organized. To do that I shall go back to basic principles, and in explaining to you the difference there is between Reform and Revolution, I shall be able, step by step, to point out how it is we do it, and how you ought to do.

We hear people talk about the "Reform Forces," about "Evolution" and about "Revolution" in ways that are highly mixed. Let us clear up our terms. Reform means a change of externals; Revolution--peaceful or bloody, the peacefulness or the bloodiness of it cuts no figure whatever in the essence of the question,--means a change from within.


Take, for instance, a poodle. You can reform him in a lot of ways. You can shave his whole body and leave a tassle at the tip of his tail; you may bore a hole through each ear, and tie a blue bow on one and a red bow on the other; you may put a brass collar around his neck with your initials on, and a trim little blanket on his back.... And yet, essentially, a poodle he was, a poodle he is, and a poodle he will remain. That is REFORM. (Laughter.)


But when we look back myriads of years, or project ourselves into far-future physical cataclysms, and trace the development of animal life from the invertebrate to the vertebrate, from the lizard to the bird, from the quadruped and mammal till we come to the prototype of the poodle, and finally reach the poodle himself, and so forward--then do we find radical changes at each step, changes from within that alter the very essence of his being, and that put, or will put, upon him each time a stamp that alters the very system of his existence. That is REVOLUTION.

So with society. Whenever a change leaves the internal mechanism untouched, we have REFORM; whenever the internal mechanism is changed, we have REVOLUTION.... We Socialists are not Reformers; we are Revolutionists. We Socialists do not propose to change forms. We care nothing for forms. We want a change of the inside of the mechanism of society, let the form take care of itself.


... The Socialist, in the brilliant simile of Karl Marx, sees that a lone fiddler in his room needs no director; he can rap himself to order, with his fiddle to his shoulder, and start his dancing tune, and stop whenever he likes. But just as soon as you have an orchestra, you must also have an orchestra director--a central directing authority. If you don't, you may have a Salvation Army powwow, you may have a Louisiana negro breakdown; you may have an orthodox Jewish synagogue, where every man sings in whatever key he likes, but you won't have harmony--impossible. (Applause.) It needs this central directing authority of the orchestra master to rap all the players to order at a given moment; to point out when they shall begin; when to have these play louder, when to have those play softer; when to put in this instrument, when to silence that; to regulate the time of all and preserve the accord. The orchestra director is not an oppressor, or his baton an insignia of tyranny; he is not there to bully anybody; he is as necessary or important as any or all of the members of the orchestra.

Our system of production is in the nature of an orchestra. No one man, no one town, no one State, can be said any longer to be independent of the other; the whole people of the United States, every individual therein, is dependent and interdependent upon all the others. The nature of the machinery of production; the subdivision of labor, which aids co-operation, and which co-operation fosters, and which is necessary to the plentifulness of production that civilization requires, compel a harmonious working together of all departments of labor, and thence compel the establishment of a Central Directing Authority, of an Orchestra Director, so to speak, of the orchestra of the "Co-operative Commonwealth." (Loud applause.)

Such is the State or Government that the Socialist revolution carries in its womb. To-day, production is left to Anarchy, and only Tyranny, the twin sister of Anarchy, is organized.


... Watch the process of "moral development" in this country--the classic ground in many ways to study history in, for the reason that the whole development of mankind can be seen here, portrayed in a few years, so to speak. You know how, to-day, the Northern people put on airs of morality on the score of having "abolished chattel slavery," the "traffic in human flesh," "gone down South and fought, and bled, to free the negro," etc., etc. Yet we know that just as soon as manufacturing was introduced in the North, the North found that it was too expensive to own the negro and take care of him; that it was much cheaper not to own the worker; and consequently that they "religiously," "humanly" and "morally" sold their slaves to the South, while they transformed the white people of the North, who had no means of production in their own hands, into wage slaves, and mercilessly ground them down. In the North, chattel slavery disappeared just as soon as the development of machinery rendered the institution unprofitable....

Socialism knows that revolutionary upheavals and tranformations proceed from the rock-bed of material needs. With a full appreciation of and veneration for moral impulses that are balanced with scientific knowledge, it eschews, looks with just suspicion upon and gives a wide berth to balloon morality, or be it those malarial fevers that reformers love to dignify with the name of "moral feelings."


... The laws that rule sociology run upon lines parallel with and are the exact counterparts of those that natural science has established prevail in biology. In the first place, the central figure in biology is the species, not the individual specimen. Consequently, that is the central figure on the field of sociology that corresponds to and represents the species on the field of biology. In sociology, the economic classes take the place of the species in biology.

In the second place, struggle, and not piping peace; assimilation by the ruthless process of the expulsion of all elements that are not fit for assimilation, and not external coalition--such are the laws of growth in biology, and such they are and needs must be the laws of growth in sociology.

Hence, Socialism recognizes in modern society the existence of a struggle of classes, and the line that divides the combatants to be the economic line that separates the interests of the property-holding capitalist class from the interests of the propertyless class of the proletariat....


The Socialist revolution demands, among other things, the public ownership of all the means of transportation. But, in itself, the question of ownership affects only external forms: the Post Office is the common property of the people, and yet the real workers in that department are merely wage slaves. (Applause.) In the mouth of the Socialist, of the revolutionist, the internal fact, the cardinal truth, that for which alone we fight, and which alone is entitled to all we can give to it--that is the abolition of the system of wage slavery under which the proletariat is working. (Loud applause.)

Now, up step the Populists--the dupers, not the duped among them--with a plan to nationalize the railroads. The standpoint from which they proceed is that of middle class interests as against the interests of the upper capitalists or monopolists. The railroad monopolists are now fleecing the middle class; these want to turn the tables upon their exploiters; they want to abolish them, wipe them out, and appropriate unto themselves the fleecings of the working class....

While we, the revolutionists, seek the emancipation of the working class, and the abolition of all exploitation, duper-Populism seeks to rivet the chains of wage slavery more firmly upon the proletariat. There is no exploiter like the middle-class exploiter. Carnegie may fleece his workers--he has 20,000 of them--of only fifty cents a day and yet net, from sunrise to sunset, $10,000 profits; the banker with plenty of money to lend can thrive with a trifling shaving of each individual note; but the apple woman on the street corner must make a hundred and five hundred per cent profit to exist. For the same reason, the middle class, the employer of few hands, is the worst, the bitterest, the most inveterate, the most relentless exploiter of the wage slave. (Loud applause.)

You will perceive the danger run by movements that--instead of accepting no leadership except such as stands squarely upon their own demands--rest content with and entrust themselves to "promises of relief." REVOLUTION accordingly, stands on its own bottom, hence it cannot be overthrown; REFORM leans upon others, hence its downfall is certain.

Of all revolutionary epochs, the present draws sharpest the line between the conflicting class interests. Hence, the organizations of the revolution of our generation must be the most uncompromising of any that yet appeared on the stage of history. The program of this revolution consists not in any one detail. It demands the unconditional surrender of the capitalist system and its system of wage slavery; the total extinction of class rule is its object. Nothing short of that--whether as a first, a temporary, or any other sort of step--can at this late date receive recognition in the camp of the modern revolution.

Upon these lines we organized in New York and Brooklyn, and prospered; upon this lines we have compelled the respect of the foe. And I say unto you, Go ye, and do likewise.....


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College