Catastrophic Gradualism

by George Orwell, C[ommon] W[ealth] Review, November 1945; Politics, September 1946

There is a theory which has not yet been accurately formulated or given a name, but which is very widely accepted and is brought forward whenever it is necessary to justify some action which conflicts with the sense of decency of the average human being. It might be called, until some better name is found, the Theory of Catastrophic Gradualism. According to this theory, nothing is ever achieved without bloodshed, lies, tyranny and injustice, but on the other hand no considerable change for the better is to be expected as the result of even the greatest upheaval. History necessarily proceeds by calamities, but each succeeding age will be as bad, or nearly as bad, as the last. One must not protest against purges, deportations, secret police forces and so forth, because these are the price that has to be paid for progress: but on the other hand “human nature” will always see to it that progress is slow or even imperceptible. If you object to dictatorship you are a reactionary, but if you expect dictatorship to produce good results you are a sentimentalist.

At present this theory is most often used to justify the Stalin regime in the USSR, but it obviously could be—and, given appropriate circumstances, would be—used to justify other forms of totalitarianism. It has gained ground as a result of the failure of the Russian Revolution—failure, that is, in the sense that the Revolution has not fulfilled the hopes that it aroused twenty-five years ago. In the name of Socialism the Russian regime has committed almost every crime that can be imagined, but at the same time its evolution is away from Socialism, unless one redefines that word in terms that no Socialist of 1917 would have accepted. To those who admit these facts, only two courses are open. One is simply to repudiate the whole theory of totalitarianism, which few English intellectuals have the courage to do: the other is to fall back on Catastrophic Gradualism. The formula usually employed is “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” And if one replies, “Yes, but where is the omelette?”, the answer is likely to be: “Oh well, you can’t expect everything to happen all in a moment.”

Naturally this argument is pushed backward into history, the design being to show that every advance was achieved at the cost of atrocious crimes, and could not have been achieved otherwise. The instance generally used is the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie, which is supposed to foreshadow the overthrow of capitalism by Socialism in our own age. Capitalism, it is argued, was once a progressive force, and therefore its crimes were justified, or at least were unimportant. Thus, in a recent number of the New Statesman, Mr Kingsley Martin, reproaching Arthur Koestler for not possessing a true “historical perspective”, compared Stalin with Henry VIII. Stalin, he admitted, had done terrible things, but on balance he had served the cause of “progress”, and a few million “liquidations” must not be allowed to obscure this fact. Similarly, Henry VIII's character left much to be desired, but after all he had made possible the rise of capitalism, and therefore on balance could be regarded as a friend of humanity.

Now, Henry VIII has not a very close resemblance to Stalin; Cromwell would provide a better analogy; but, granting Henry VIII the importance given to him by Mr Martin, where does this argument lead ? Henry VIII made possible the rise of capitalism, which led to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution and thence to a cycle of enormous wars, the next of which may well destroy civilisation altogether. So, telescoping the process, we can put it like this: “Everything is to be forgiven Henry VIII, because it was ultimately he who enabled us to blow ourselves to pieces with atomic bombs.” You are led into similar absurdities if you make Stalin responsible for our present condition and the future which appears to lie before us, and at the same time insist that his policies must be supported. The motives of those English intellectuals who support the Russian dictatorship are, I think, different from what they publicly admit, but it is logical to condone tyranny and massacre if one assumes that progress is inevitable. If each epoch is as a matter of course better than the last, then any crime or any folly that pushes the historical process forward can be justified. Between, roughly, 1750 and 1930 one could be forgiven for imagining that progress of a solid, measurable kind was taking place. Latterly, this has become more and more difficult, whence the theory of Catastrophic Gradualism. Crime follows crime, one ruling class replaces another, the Tower of Babel rises and falls, but one mustn’t resist the process—indeed, one must be ready to applaud any piece of scoundrelism that comes off—because in some mystical way, in the sight of God, or perhaps in the sight of Marx, this is Progress. The alternative would be to stop and consider (a) to what extent is history predetermined ? and (b) what is meant by progress ? At this point one has to call in the Yogi to correct the Commissar.

In his much-discussed essay, Koestler is generally assumed to have come down heavily on the side of the Yogi. Actually, if one assumes the Yogi and the Commissar to be at opposite points of the scale, Koestler is somewhat nearer to the Commissar’s end. He believes in action, in violence where necessary, in government, and consequently in the shifts and compromises that are inseparable from government. He supported the war, and the Popular Front before it. Since the appearance of Fascism he has struggled against it to the best of his ability, and for many years he was a member of the Communist Party. The long chapter in his book in which he criticises the USSR is even vitiated by a lingering loyalty to his old Party and by a resulting tendency to make all bad developments date from the rise of Stalin: whereas one ought, I believe, to admit that all the seeds of evil were there from the start and that things would not have been substantially different if Lenin or Trotsky had remained in control. No one is less likely than Koestler to claim that we can put everything right by watching our navels in California. Nor is he claiming, as religious thinkers usually do, that a “change of heart” must come before any genuine political improvement. To quote his own words:

    Neither the saint nor the revolutionary can save us; only the synthesis of the two. Whether we
    are capable of achieving it I do not know. But if the answer is in the negative, there seems to
    be no reasonable hope of preventing the destruction of European civilisation, either by total
    war’s successor Absolute War, or by Byzantine conquest—within the next few decades.

That is to say, the “change of heart” must happen, but it is not really happening unless at each step it issues in action. On the other hand, no change in the structure of society can by itself effect a real improvement. Socialism used to be defined as “common ownership of the means of production”, but it is now seen that if common ownership means no more than centralised control, it merely paves the way for a new form of oligarchy. Centralised control is a necessary pre-condition of Socialism, but it no more produces Socialism than my typewriter would of itself produce this article I am writing. Throughout history, one revolution after another—although usually producing a temporary relief, such as a sick man gets by turning over in bed—has simply led to a change of masters, because no serious effort has been made to eliminate the power instinct: or if such an effort has been made, it has been made only by the saint, the Yogi, the man who saves his own soul at the expense of ignoring the community. In the minds of active revolutionaries, at any rate the ones who “got there”, the longing for a just society has always been fatally mixed up with the intention to secure power for themselves.

Koestler says that we must learn once again the technique of contemplation, which “remains the only source of guidance in ethical dilemmas where the rule-of-thumb criteria of social utility fail”. By “contemplation” he means “the will not to will”, the conquest of the desire for power. The practical men have led us to the edge of the abyss, and the intellectuals in whom acceptance of power politics has killed first the moral sense, and then the sense of reality, are urging us to march rapidly forward without changing direction. Koestler maintains that history is not at all moments predetermined, but that there are turning-points at which humanity is free to choose the better or the worse road. One such turning-point (which had not appeared when he wrote the book), is the atomic bomb. Either we renounce it, or it destroys us. But renouncing it is both a moral effort and a political effort. Koestler calls for “a new fraternity in a new spiritual climate, whose leaders are tied by a vow of poverty to share the life of the masses, and debarred by the laws of the fraternity from attaining unchecked power”. He adds: “If this seems Utopian, then Socialism is a Utopia.” It may not even be a Utopia—its very name may in a couple of generations have ceased to be a memory—unless we can escape from the folly of “realism”. But that will not happen without a change in the individual heart. To that extent, though no further, the Yogi is right as against the Commissar.