Socialism from below

June 13, 2014

The Two Souls of Socialism by Hal Draper first appeared in New Politics in 1966. Since that time, it has been reissued many times, providing a powerful argument for the concept of "socialism from below"--specifically as an alternative to other socialist currents, from utopianism to social democracy to Stalinism. This is the last installment of's four-part republication--the text is from the Marxists Internet Archive.

9. Six Strains of Socialism-From-Above

We have seen that there are several different strains or currents running through Socialism-From-Above. They are usually intertwined, but let us separate out some of the more important aspects for a closer look.

1. Philanthropism--Socialism (or "freedom," or what-have-you) is to be handed down, in order to Do the People Good, by the rich and powerful out of the kindness of their hearts. As the Communist Manifesto put it, with the early utopians like Robert Owen in mind, "Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them." In gratitude, the downtrodden poor must above all avoid getting rambunctious, and no nonsense about class struggle or self-emancipation. This aspect may be considered a special case of –

2. Elitism--We have mentioned several cases of this conviction that socialism is the business of a new ruling minority, non-capitalist in nature and therefore guaranteed pure, imposing its own domination either temporarily (for a mere historical era) or even permanently. In either case, this new ruling class is likely to see its goal as an Educational Dictatorship over the masses--to Do Them Good, of course--the dictatorship being exercised by an elite party which suppresses all control from below, or by benevolent despots or Savior-Leaders of some kind, or by Shaw's "Supermen," by eugenic manipulators, by Proudhon's "anarchist" managers or Saint-Simon's technocrats or their more modern equivalents--with up-to-date terms and new verbal screens which can be hailed as fresh social theory as against "nineteenth-century Marxism."

Marxist Classics

On the other hand, the revolutionary-democratic advocates of Socialism-from-Below have also always been a minority, but the chasm between the elitist approach and the vanguard approach is crucial, as we have seen in the case of Debs. For him as for Marx and Luxemburg, the function of the revolutionary vanguard is to impel the mass-majority to fit themselves to take power in their own name, through their own struggles. The point is not to deny the critical importance of minorities, but to establish a different relationship between the advanced minority and the more backward mass.

3. Plannism--The key words are Efficiency, Order, Planning, System--and Regimentation. Socialism is reduced to social-engineering, by a Power above society. Here again, the point is not to deny that effective socialism requires over-all planning (and also that efficiency and order are good things); but the reduction of socialism to planned production is an entirely different matter; just as effective democracy requires the right to vote, but the reduction of democracy merely to the right to vote once in a while makes it a fraud.

As a matter of fact, it would be important to demonstrate that the separation of planning from democratic control-from-below makes a mockery of planning itself; for the immensely complicated industrial societies of today cannot be effectively planned by an all-powerful central committee's ukases, which inhibit and terrorize the free play of initiative and correction from below. This is indeed the basic contradiction of the new type of exploiting social system represented by Soviet bureaucratic collectivism. But we cannot pursue this subject further here.

The substitution of Plannism for socialism has a long history, quite apart from its embodiment in the Soviet myth that Satification = Socialism, a tenet which we have already seen to have been first systematized by social-democratic reformism (Bernstein and the Fabians particularly). During the 1930s, the mystique of the "Plan," taken over in part from Soviet propaganda, became prominent in the right wing of the social-democracy, with Henri de Man hailed as its prophet and as successor to Marx. De Man faded from view and is now forgotten because he had the bad judgment to push his Revisionist theories first into corporatism and then into collaboration with the Nazis.

Aside from theoretical construction, Plannism appears in the socialist movement most frequently embodied in a certain psychological type of radical. To give credit due, one of the first sketches of this type came in Belloc's The Servile State, with the Fabians in mind. This type, writes Belloc,

loves the collectivist ideal in itself...because it is an ordered and regular form of society. He loves to consider the ideal of a State in which land and capital shall be held by public officials who shall order other men about and so preserve them from the consequences of their vice, ignorance and folly. [Belloc writes further:] In him the exploitation of man excites no indignation. Indeed, he is not a type to which indignation or any other lively passion is familiar...[Belloc's eye is on Sidney Webb here.]...the prospect of a vast bureaucracy wherein the whole of life shall be scheduled and appointed to certain simple schemes... gives his small stomach a final satisfaction.

As far as concerns contemporary examples with a pro-Stalinist coloration, examples-a-go-go can be found in the pages of Paul Sweezy's magazine Monthly Review.

In a 1930 article on the "motive patterns of socialism," written when he still thought he was a Leninist, Max Eastman distinguished this type as centered on "efficiency and intelligent organization...a veritable passion for a plan...businesslike organization." For such, he commented, Stalin's Russia has a fascination:

It is a region at least to be apologized for in other lands--certainly not denounced from the standpoint of a mad dream like emancipation of the workers and therewith all mankind. In those who built the Marxian movement and those who organized its victory in Russia, that mad dream was the central motive. They were, as some are now prone to forget, extreme rebels against oppression. Lenin will perhaps stand out, when the commotion about his ideas subsides, as the greatest rebel in history. His major passion was to set men free ... if a single concept must be chosen to summarize the goal of the class struggle as defined in Marxian writings, and especially the writings of Lenin, human freedom is the name for it...

It might be added that more than once Lenin decried the push for total-planning as a "bureaucratic utopia."

There is a subdivision under Plannism which deserves a name too: let us call it Productionism. Of course, everyone is "for" production just as everyone is for Virtue and the Good Life; but for this type, production is the decisive test and end of a society. Russian bureaucratic collectivism is "progressive" because of the statistics of pig-iron production (the same type usually ignores the impressive statistics of increased production under Nazi or Japanese capitalism). It is all right to smash or prevent free trade-unions under Nasser, Castro, Sukarno or Nkrumah because something known as "economic development" is paramount over human rights. This hardboiled viewpoint was, of course, not invented by these "radicals," but by the callous exploiters of labor in the capitalist Industrial Revolution; and the socialist movement came into existence fighting tooth-and-nail against these theoreticians of "progressive" exploitation. On this score too, apologists for modern "leftist" authoritarian regimes tend to consider this hoary doctrine as the newest revelation of sociology.

4. "Communionism"--In his 1930 article Max Eastman called this "the united-brotherhood pattern," of "the gregarian or human-solidarity socialists"--"those yearning with a mixture of religious mysticism and animal gregariousness for human solidarity." It should not be confused with the notion of solidarity in strikes, etc., and not necessarily identified with what is commonly called comradeship in the socialist movement or a "sense of community" elsewhere. Its specific content, as Eastman says, is a "seeking for submersion in a Totality, seeking to lose himself in the bosom of a substitute for God."

Eastman is here pointing to the Communist Party writer Mike Gold; another excellent case is Harry F. Ward, the CP's hardy clerical fellow-traveler, whose books theorize this kind of "oceanic" yearning for the shucking-off of one's individuality. Bellamy's notebooks reveal him as a classic case: he writes about the longing "for absorption into the grand omnipotency of the universe;" his "Religion of Solidarity" reflects his mistrust of the individualism of the personality, his craving to dissolve the Self into communion with Something Greater.

This strain is very prominent in some of the most authoritarian of the Socialisms-from-Above and is not seldom met in milder cases like the philanthropic elitists with Christian Socialist views. Naturally, this kind of "communionist" socialism is always hailed as an "ethical socialism" and praised for holding class struggle in horror; for there must be no conflict inside a beehive. It tends to flatly counterpose "collectivism" to "individualism" (a false opposition from a humanist standpoint), but what it really impugns is individuality.

5. Permeationism--Socialism-from-Above appears in many varieties for the simple reason that there are always many alternatives to the self-mobilization of masses from below; but the cases discussed tend to divide into two families.

One has the perspective of overthrowing the present, capitalist hierarchical society in order to replace it with a new, non-capitalist type of hierarchical society based on a new kind of elite ruling class. (These varieties are usually ticketed "revolutionary" in histories of socialism.) The other has the perspective of permeating the centers of power in the existing society in order to metamorphose it--gradually, inevitably--into a statified collectivism, perhaps molecule by molecule the way wood petrifies into agate. This is the characteristic stigmatum of the reformist, social-democratic varieties of Socialism-from-Above.

The very term permeationism was invented for self-description by what we have already called the "purest" variety of reformism ever seen, Sidney Webb's Fabianism. All social-democratic permeationism is based on a theory of mechanical inevitability: the inevitable self-collectivization of capitalism from above, which is equated with socialism. Pressure from below (where considered permissible) can hasten and straighten the process, provided it is kept under control to avoid frightening the self-collectivizers. Hence the social-democratic permeationists are not only willing but anxious to "join the Establishment" rather than to fight it, in whatever capacity they are allowed to join it, whether as cabin boys or cabinet ministers. Typically the function of their movement-from-below is primarily to blackmail the ruling powers into buying them off with such opportunities for permeation.

The tendency toward the collectivization of capitalism is indeed a reality: as we have seen, it means the bureaucratic collectivization of capitalism. As this process has advanced, the contemporary social-democracy has itself gone through a metamorphosis. Today, the leading theoretician of this neo-reformism, C.A.R. Crosland, denounces as "extremist" the mild statement favoring nationalization which was originally written for the British Labor program by none other than Sidney Webb (with Arthur Henderson)! The number of continental social democracies that have now purged their programs of all specifically anti-capitalist content--a brand new phenomenon in socialist history--reflects the degree to which the ongoing process of bureaucratic collectivization is accepted as an installment of petrified "socialism."

This is permeationism as grand strategy. It leads, of course, to permeationism as political tactic, a subject we cannot here pursue beyond mentioning its presently most prominent U.S. form: the policy of supporting the Democratic Party and the lib-lab coalition around the "Johnson Consensus," its predecessors and successors.

The distinction between these two "families" of Socialism-from-Above holds for home-grown socialism, from Babeuf to Harold Wilson; that is, cases where the social base of the given socialist current is inside the national system, be it the labor aristocracy or declassé elements or any other. The case is somewhat different for those "socialisms-from-outside" represented by the contemporary Communist Parties, whose strategy and tactics depend in the last analysis on a power base outside any of the domestic social strata; that is, on the bureaucratic collectivist ruling classes in the East.

The Communist Parties have shown themselves uniquely different from any kind of home-grown movement in their capacity to alternate or combine both the "revolutionary"-oppositionist and the permeationist tactics to suit their convenience. Thus the American Communist Party could swing from its ultra-left-adventurist "Third Period" of 1928-34 into the ultra-permeationist tactic of the Popular Front period, then back into fire-breathing "revolutionism" during the Hitler-Stalin Pact period, and again, during the ups-and-downs of the Cold War, into various degrees of combination of the two. With the current Communist split along Moscow-Peking line, the "Krushchevites" and the Maoists tend each to embody one of the two tactics which formerly alternated.

Frequently, therefore, in domestic policy the official Communist Party and the social-democrats tend to converge on the policy of permeationism, though from the angle of a different Socialism-from-Above.

6. Socialism-from-Outside--The preceding varieties of Socialism-from-Above look to power at the tops of society: now we come to the expectation of succor from the outside.

The flying-saucer cult is a pathological form, messianism a more traditional form, when "outside" means out of this world; but for the present purposes, "outside" means outside the social struggle at home. For the Communists of East Europe after World War II, the New Order had to be imported on Russian bayonets; for the German Social-Democrats in exile, liberation of their own people could finally be imagined only by grace of foreign military victory.

The peacetime variety is socialism-by-model-example. This, of course, was the method of the old utopians, who built their model colonies in the American backwoods in order to demonstrate the superiority of their system and convert the unbelievers. Today, it is this substitute for social struggle at home which is increasingly the essential hope of the Communist movement in the West.

The model-example is provided by Russia (or China, for the Maoists); and while it is difficult to make the lot of the Russian proletarians half-attractive to Western workers even with a generous dose of lies, there is more success to be expected from two other approaches:

a. The relatively privileged position of managerial, bureaucratic and intellectual-flunky elements in the Russian collectivist system can be pointedly contrasted with the situation in the West, where these same elements are subordinated to the owners of capital and manipulators of wealth. At this point the appeal of the Soviet system of statified economy coincides with the historic appeal of middle-class socialisms, to disgruntled class-elements of intellectuals, technologists, scientists and scientific employees, administrative bureaucrats and organization men of various types, who can most easily identify themselves with a new ruling class based on state power rather than on money power and ownership, and therefore visualize themselves as the new men of power in a non-capitalist but elitist setup.

b. While the official Communist Parties are required to maintain the facade of orthodoxy in something called "Marxism-Leninism," it is more common that serious theoreticians of neo-Stalinism who are not tied to the party do free themselves from the pretense. One development is the open abandonment of any perspective of victory through social struggle inside the capitalist countries. The "world revolution" is equated simply with the demonstration by the Communist states that their system is superior. This has now been put into thesis-form by the two leading theoreticians of neo-Stalinism, Paul Sweezy and Isaac Deutscher.

Baran and Sweezy's Monopoly Capitalism (1966) flatly rejects "the answer of traditional Marxist orthodoxy--that the industrial proletariat must eventually rise in revolution against its capitalist oppressors." Same for all the other "outsider" groups of society--unemployed, farm workers, ghetto masses, etc.; they cannot constitute a coherent force in society." This leaves no one; capitalism cannot be effectively challenged from within. What then? Some day, the authors explain on their last page, "perhaps not in the present century," the people will be disillusioned with capitalism "as the world revolution spreads and as the socialist countries show by their example that it is possible" to build a rational society. That is all. Thus the Marxist phrases filling the other 366 pages of this essay become simply an incantation like the reading of the Sermon on the Mount at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The same perspective is presented less bluntly by a more circumlocuitous writer in Deutscher's The Great Contest. Deutscher transmits the new Soviet theory "that Western capitalism will succumb not so much--or not directly--because of its own crises and contradictions as because of its inability to match the achievements of socialism [i.e. the Communist states]"; and later on: "It may be said that this has to some extent replaced the Marxist prospect of a permanent social revolution." Here we have a theoretical rationale for what has long been the function of the Communist movement in the West: to act as border guard and shill for the competing, rival establishment in the East. Above all, the perspective of Socialism-from-Below becomes as alien to these professors of bureaucratic collectivism as to the apologists for capitalism in the American academies.

This type of neo-Stalinist ideologist is often critical of the actual Soviet regime--a good example is Deutscher, who remains as far as possible from being an uncritical apologist for Moscow like the official Communists. They must be understood as being permeationists with respect to bureaucratic-collectivism. What appears as a "socialism-from-outside" when seen from the capitalist world, becomes a sort of Fabianism when viewed from within the framework of the Communist system. Within this context, change-from-above-only is as firm a principle for these theoreticians as it was for Sidney Webb. This was demonstrated inter alia by Deutscher's hostile reaction to the East German revolt of 1953 and to the Hungarian revolution of 1956, on the classical ground that such upheavals from below would scare the Soviet establishment away from its course of "liberalization" by the Inevitability of Gradualness.

10. Which Side Are You On?

From the point of view of intellectuals who have a choice of roles to play in the social struggle, the perspective of Socialism-from-Below has historically had little appeal. Even within the framework of the socialist movement it has had few consistent exponents and not many inconsistent ones. Outside the socialist movement, naturally, the standard line is that such ideas are visionary, impractical, unrealistic, "utopian"; idealistic perhaps but quixotic. The mass of people are congenitally stupid, corrupt, apathetic and generally hopeless; and progressive change must come from Superior People rather like (as it happens) the intellectual expressing these sentiments. This is translated theoretically into an Iron Law of Oligarchy or a tinny law of elitism, in one way or another involving a crude theory of inevitability--the inevitability of change-from-above-only.

Without presuming to review in a few words the arguments pro and con for this pervasive view, we can note the social role it plays, as the self-justificatory rite of the elitist. In "normal" times when the masses are not moving, the theory simply requires pointing with scorn, while the whole history of revolution and social upheaval is simply dismissed as obsolete. But the recurrence of revolutionary upheavals and social disturbances, defined precisely by the intrusion onto the historical stage of previous inactive masses and characteristic of periods when basic social change is on the agenda, is just as "normal" in history as the intervening periods of conservatism. When the elitist theorist therefore has to abandon the posture of the scientific observer who is merely predicting that the mass of people will always continue quiescent, when he is faced with the opposite reality of a revolutionary mass threatening to subvert the structure of power, he is typically not behindhand in switching over to an entirely different track: denouncing mass intervention from below as evil in itself.

The fact is that the choice between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below is, for the intellectual, basically a moral choice, whereas for the working masses who have no social alternative it is a matter of necessity. The intellectual may have the option of "joining the Establishment" where the worker does not; the same option holds also for labor leaders, who, as they rise out of their class, likewise confront a choice that did not exist before. The pressure of conformity to the mores of the ruling class, the pressure for bourgeoisification, is stronger in proportion as personal and organizational ties with the ranks below become weak. It is not hard for an intellectual or bureaucratized official to convince himself that permeation of and adaptation to the existing power is the smart way to do it, when (as it happens) it also permits sharing in the perquisites of influence and affluence.

It is an ironic fact, therefore, that the "Iron Law of Oligarchy" is iron-clad mainly for the intellectual elements from whom it arises. As a social stratum (i.e., apart from exceptional individuals) intellectuals have never been known to rise against established power in anything like the way that the modern working class has done time and again through its relatively brief history. Functioning typically as the ideological flunkies of the established rulers of society, the brain-worker sector of the non-propertied middle classes is yet, at the same time, moved to discontent and disgruntlement by the relationship. Like many another servant, this Admirable Crichton thinks, "I am a better man than my master, and if things were different we would see who should bend the knee." More than ever in our day, when the credit of the capitalist system is disintegrating throughout the world, he easily dreams of a form of society in which he can come into his own, in which the Brain and not Hands or Moneybags would dictate; in which he and his similars would be released from the pressure of Property through the elimination of capitalism, and released from the pressure of the more numerous masses through the elimination of democracy.

Nor does he have to dream very far, for existing versions of such a society seem to be before his eyes, in the Eastern collectivisms. Even if he rejects these versions, for various reasons including the Cold War, he can theorize his own version of a "good" kind of bureaucratic collectivism, to be called "Meritocracy" or "managerialism" or "Industrialism" or what-have-you, in the U.S.; or "African Socialism" in Ghana and "Arab Socialism" in Cairo; or various other kinds of socialism in other parts of the world.

The nature of the choice between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below stands out most starkly in connection with a question on which there is a considerable measure of agreement among liberal, social-democratic and Stalinoid intellectuals today. This is the alleged inevitability of authoritarian dictatorships (benevolent despotisms) in the newly developing states of Africa and Asia particularly--e.g. Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno, et al.--dictatorships which crush independent trade unions as well as all political opposition and organize to maximize the exploitation of labor, in order to extract from the hides of the working masses sufficient capital to hasten industrialization at the tempo which the new rulers desire. Thus to an unprecented degree, "progressive" circles which once would have protested injustice anywhere have become automatic apologists for any authoritarianism which is considered non-capitalist.

Apart from the economic-determinist rationale usually given for this position, there are two aspects of the question which illuminate what is broadly at stake:

1. The economic argument for dictatorship, purporting to prove the necessity of breakneck industrialization, is undoubtedly very weighty for the new bureaucratic rulers--who meanwhile do not stint their own revenue and aggrandizement--but it is incapable of persuading the worker at the bottom of the heap that he and his family must bow to super-exploitation and super-sweating for some generations ahead, for the sake of a quick accumulation of capital. (In fact, this is why breakneck industrialization requires dictatorial controls.)

The economic-determinist argument is the rationalization of a ruling class viewpoint; it makes human sense only from a ruling-class viewpoint, which of course is always identified with the needs of "society." It makes equally good sense that the workers at the bottom of the heap must move to fight this super-exploitation to defend their elementary human dignity and wellbeing. So was it also during the capitalist Industrial Revolution, when the "newly developing states" were in Europe.

It is not a question simply of some technical-economic argument but of sides in a class struggle. The question is: Which side are you on?

2. It is argued that the mass of people in these countries are too backward to control the society and its government; and this is no doubt true, not only there. But what follows? How does a people or a class become fit to rule in their own name?

Only by fighting to do so. Only by waging their struggle against oppression--oppression by those who tell them they are unfit to govern. Only by fighting for democratic power do they educate themselves and raise themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power. There has never been any other way for any class.

Although we have been considering a particular line of apologia, the two points which emerged do in fact apply all over the world, in every country, advanced or developing, capitalist or Stalinist. When the demonstrations and boycotts of the Southern Negroes threatened to embarrass President Johnson as he faced an election, the question was: which side are you on? When the Hungarian people erupted in revolt against the Russian occupier, the question was: which side are you on? When the Algerian people fought for liberation against the "socialist" government of Guy Mollet, the question was: which side are you on? When Cuba was invaded by Washington's puppets, the question was: which side are you on? and when the Cuban trade unions are taken over by the commissars of the dictatorship, the question is also: which side are you on?

Since the beginning of society, there has been no end of theories "proving" that tyranny is inevitable and that freedom-in-democracy is impossible; there is no more convenient ideology for a ruling class and its intellectual flunkies. These are self-fulfilling predictions, since they remain true only as long as they are taken to be true. In the last analysis, the only way of proving them false is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again. To choose any of the forms of Socialism-from-Above is to look back to the old world, to the "old crap." To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.

A Few References

As mentioned in the Note, following are a few useful titles, but for most of the questions dealt with, one must go back to the sources.

For Section 1, one book worth reading is A.D. Winspear's The Genesis of Plato's Thought, which discusses Pythagoras somewhat too. For Proudhon, see the chapter in J.S. Schapiro's Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism, and Proudhon's Carnets. For Bakunin, see E. Pyzuir's The Doctrine of Anarchism of M.A. Bakunin, with E.H. Carr's biography for background. For Lassalle, see E. Bernstein's F. Lassalle as a Social Reformer, and D. Footman's biography. For Fabianism, there is only one half-decent published study, A.N. McBriar's Fabian Socialism and English Politics, and E.J. Hobsbawm's unpublished thesis, Fabianism and the Fabians, neither adequate for our purpose. For Rosa Luxemburg, see Paul Frölich's biography, and Tony Cliff's thin book both titled with her name. For Bellamy and Gronlund, see Arthur Lipow's unpublished thesis, Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement (Berkeley, Univ. of Calif., 1965).

Two articles by me in New Politics bear on some aspects of the subject: Neo-Corporatists and Neo-Reformists (I, 1, Winter 1962) and The New Social-Democratic Reformism (II, 2, Winter 1963). Also relevant are parts of the following two publications of the Independent Socialist Committee: Independent Socialism: a Perspective for the Left (pamphlet), and Introduction to Independent Socialism (a "clipping-book"). [H.D.]

Further Reading

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