Socialism from Below

by David McNally.

Published in International Socialist, Canada, September1984

Introduction: the crisis of socialism

Socialism today is in crisis. Once the banner under which millions of working people resisted the horrors of the factory system and demanded a new society of equality, justice, freedom and prosperity, socialism has become identified in the modern world with monstrous, bureaucratic regimes that deny even the most elementary democratic rights.

At its birth, socialism promised the emancipation of labour, a society founded on workers’ control in which work would be transformed from drudgery done in the pursuit of profit to collective activity done in the service of human needs. Yet workers in the ‘socialist states’ today cry out against the same kind of alienation and dehumanisation denounced by the earliest critics of industrial capitalism. Indeed, so demeaned have workers become in the world’s largest ‘communist’ country, China, that the Chinese government has offered to lease out its labourers to western corporations, promising docility and labour discipline in exchange for foreign currency.

Meanwhile, all the states ofEastern Europe, theSoviet Unionincluded, have seen the emergence of mass workers’ movements that are demanding basic rights and freedoms. Such working class resistance has exposed the pretence of the claims by these regimes to be workers’ states that are charting the course to a new society of freedom.In a world plagued by violence and war, socialism upheld the banner of world peace and internationalism, of an end to military conflict between the world’s peoples.

Today, self-proclaimed socialist nations such asVietnamandChinaare waging war with one another, creating human tragedies that were once attributed exclusively to capitalism. At the same time,RussiaandChinahave placed hundreds of thousands of troops on each other’s borders, contributing to the increase in military tensions around the globe.

The power of the socialist vision has always been that it offered for the first time in the history of humanity a realistic means of overcoming alienation and exploitation, inhumanity and misery, violence and war. Yet, if nearly half the world is socialist and at the same time plagued by these ills, then the very meaning of socialism is put into question. Is socialism to be identified with liberation or oppression? peace or war? abundance or poverty? freedom or totalitarianism? These are the basic questions at the root of the contemporary crisis of the meaning of socialism.

To most of the people of the world today, the word ‘socialism’ has become a source of confusion. Called upon to assess the role of socialism in the modern world, reporters for Time magazine were forced to conclude in a 1978 special report that ‘Socialism is a flag of convenience that accommodates technocrats and market-minded economists, that allows fascist-type dictators or small-time Bonapartes to perpetuate themselves in power … socialism has become a word appropriated by so many different champions and causes that it threatens to become meaningless …’.

Yet if ever an effort was needed to establish the meaning of socialism it is today. The world is once again threatened by a return to depression, to poverty and suffering on a massive scale. The threat of war–and, with it, of human annihilation–is greater than at any time in the past thirty years. Mass struggles for an end to old forms of oppression are sweeping countries as different asPolandandEl Salvador,South AfricaandBrazil. As we enter the second half of the crisis-ridden 1980s, it is becoming a necessity to determine whether the original vision of socialism–of a world society under the democratic control of those who produce the world’s wealth and services– holds any validity; to determine whether it offers humanity any hope of escape from poverty, war and oppression; indeed, to determine whether it offers any meaningful chance of human survival.

This pamphlet is an attempt to do precisely that. It is written in the conviction that, if we are to understand the crisis of socialism in the modern world, we must begin by understanding how the socialist idea first emerged in the nineteenth century and how it has taken shape–how it may have been developed or distorted–in the course of the mighty events of the twentieth century. It is also written in the conviction that the heart and soul of socialism is the struggle for human freedom and that now, more than ever before, humanity stands in desperate need of a genuinely socialist transformation of the world order.


The dream of freedom

THE DREAM of human freedom is as old as class society itself. So long as one section of society has been held down and exploited by another, some men and women have dreamt, spoken and written about the possibility of a new kind of life. And sometimes they have fought to break the chains of domination that have tied them to a life of drudgery and misery. We can find hints of this dream of freedom in the oldest of historical documents. The Old Testament of the Bible, for example, promises the coming of the messiah who will vanquish the rich and liberate the poor. Take the following passage from the Book of Isaiah, for instance, where it is proclaimed that the messiah would come ‘ to preach good tidings to the meek … to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.’ In the same vein, the New Testament announced that Jesus was this messiah who had come to emancipate the poor and the oppressed.

Throughout the Middle Ages inEurope, the legend persisted that some day a new liberator would come to slay the sinful rich and free the poor. When peasants rose in rebellion against their lords and masters, particularly during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they continually looked for a powerful leader appointed by God who would lead them into a new promised land.

All of these movements of popular rebellion had strongly religious overtones. People did not conceive of themselves as having the capacity together to overthrow their rulers and to build a new society out of their own efforts. They looked to a mystical, not a human, transformation of society. It would be God, through the agency of certain human beings, who would cleanse the world of evil, violence and oppression.

This essentially mystical outlook persisted even up to the mighty struggles against the monarchy during the English Revolution of the 1640s. These struggles saw the emergence of powerful communist doctrine based on the notion that all people should own and work the land in common. The radical English writer Gerard Winstanley wrote, for example, that ‘True freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth.’ At the same time, Winstanley and his radical followers adhered to a religious view of things in which the birth of a new society would be the work, not of ordinary men and women, but of God.

It was not until the early nineteenth century that the idea began to emerge that human beings could themselves refashion society. It was only with the industrial revolution and the emergence of the modern working class that critics of society began to think in terms of a human transformation of social life. And it was with these developments that the idea of socialism from below emerged. But at the start, socialism was largely elitist and antidemocratic in character. It was only through several decades of working class struggle that socialism took the form of a movement devoted to the self-emancipation of the oppressed.


Birth of the socialist idea

The term ‘socialism’ made its appearance in print inEnglandin 1827. Five years later, the term was used for the first time in a French publication. It is no accident that the socialist idea –and the socialist movement–first appeared inEnglandandFrance. For socialism was a product of two revolutions in human affairs, each with their respective roots in those two countries: the industrial revolution inEnglandand the popular-democratic revolution inFrance.

The great French revolution of 1789-1799 involved the most massive popular struggles that had yet been seen in history. Rooted in popular hatred of an oppressive monarchy, the revolution rose on the backs of the masses of poor people inPariswho united under the banner of ‘liberty, equality and brotherhood’. Beginning as a rebellion against the abuses of the monarchy, the revolution grew into a massive challenge to all forms of oppressive authority- – whether it was that of lords, priests or factory owners. Initially, the battle against the monarchy unified large sections of society. As the revolution advanced, however, a new ruling group tried to halt the process in order to maintain their grossly unequal system of property and power. As a result, the popular movement divided into conservative and revolutionary camps.

In the conservative camp were those who saw freedom simply in terms of the freedom to own property. In the revolutionary camp were those who represented theParispoor and who recognised that freedom was impossible without equality; that it was meaningless to talk of liberty if this was confined to the right of some men and women to starve to death while others grew rich off the labour of others. As the radical leader Jacques Roux put it at the height of the French Revolution in 1793:Libertyis no more than an empty shell when one class of men is allowed to condemn another to starvation without any measures being taken against them. And equality is also an empty shell when the rich, by exercising their economic monopolies, have the power of life or death over other members of the community.

Out of the French Revolution, then, emerged the essential socialist idea that democracy and freedom require a society of equality. The French radicals recognised that genuine freedom presupposed the liberty of all to participate equally in producing and sharing the wealth of society. They understood that if some had the unequal right to own and monopolise land, wealth or factories, then others might just as unequally be condemned to a life of drudgery, misery and poverty.

But a society of equality requires a state of abundance. So long as economic life remains relatively backward, equality can only mean the common hardship of shared poverty. A healthy and thriving popular democracy requires a state of prosperity in which all the basic needs of people can be satisfied. Without a certain level of economic development, therefore, the French revolutionaries’ demand for liberty and equality remained utopian. It was only with the enormous economic development unleashed by the industrial revolution inEnglandthat a society based upon equality and abundance became a realistic possibility.

The English industrial revolution conjures up images of dark and dirty textile mills, of ten-year-old children labouring in coal mines, of women and men working 12 and 14-hour days–in short, of suffering and misery. Such an image is largely correct. The industrial revolution that sweptBritain, beginning in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, was a massive dislocation in social life: old communities were destroyed; people were forced off the land and into the tyranny of the factory; industrial diseases multiplied; hunger, poverty and illness spread; life expectancy fell. At the same time, however, several ingredients of the industrial revolution held out the prospect of an end to these ills. The new machinery of production that developed, especially during the early 1800s, offered the possibility of sharply reducing drudgery and toil and of massively increasing the production of wealth so as to eliminate poverty forever.

In reality, the industrial revolution did no such thing. Rather than leading to an improvement in the conditions of labour, the new industry was used to increase the fortunes of a few–the new industrial capitalists. Nonetheless, some writers saw in the industrial revolution an enormous potential for improving the human condition. Even some well-intentioned bankers and factory owners came to believe that the forces of the industrial revolution should be harnessed to serve human ends. Many of these become early advocates of what has become known as ‘utopian socialism’.

Britain’s best known utopian socialist was the cotton manufacturer Robert Owen. Like most of the early socialists drawn from the capitalist class, Owen did not call for a mass, democratic restructuring of society. For Owen, the working class was a pathetic and pitiful group. Owen’s socialism was based on appealing to wealthy leaders of business and government in order to persuade them to improve the wretched conditions of the labouring masses.

In this respect, Owen was similar to the two earliest French utopian socialists, Henri Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. Saint-Simon was a real estate speculator turned banker who rose to great wealth in the decades after the French Revolution. Fascinated by the enormous potential of science and technology, Saint-Simon began to argue the case for a ‘socialist’ society that would eliminate the disorderly aspects of capitalism. Saint-Simon’s ‘socialism’ was decidedly anti-democratic. He did not envisage an expansion of human rights and freedoms. Instead, he hoped for a planned and modernised industrial society ruled over by an international committee of bankers. In many respects, Saint-Simon anticipated the development of state capitalism; he looked forward to a capitalist system in which industry would be owned and directed by a government made up of a scientists, managers and financiers.

The socialism of Charles Fourier had more to commend it. A self-taught eccentric, Fourier developed some highly original ideas. But Fourier’s outlook suffered from two main defects. First, he dismissed the potential of modern industry for bringing into being a society of abundance and looked nostalgically for a return to preindustrial conditions of life. Secondly, Fourier looked not to the masses of working people but to enlightened rulers to usher in the socialist utopia. He spent his time drawing up rigid blueprints for the new society and sent copies to rulers like the Czar of Russia and the President of theUnited States.

Indeed, this is the common thread that runs through the outlook of all the early utopian socialists. Each of them looked to some well-intentioned members of the ruling class to bring about a socialist transformation of society. Each rejected the notion that socialism could only be achieved democratically– through the mass action of working people. For this reason, all their views can be described as variants of socialism from above–a view in which the masses of people are mere playthings of an enlightened elite who will change society in the interests of the masses of people. As the historian of socialism, George Lichtheim, has put it:

French socialism, at the start, was the work of men who had not thought of overturning society, but wished to reform it, by enlightened legislation if possible. This is the link between Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Henri de Saint-Simon.

There was, however, one revolutionary doctrine of socialism during this period. This consisted of what can best be called conspiratorial communism. Out of the defeat of the popular struggles of the French Revolution, one far- sighted group of rebel centered around a man named Gracchus Babeuf, developed a communist perspective. Babeuf and his followers believed that true democracy could only be constructed on the basis of common ownership of wealth. But they could see no way of winning a majority of society to support their communist programme. The masses of French people sought little else than protection of their own private property–their plot of land or their workshop. They showed little interest in a socialist transformation of society. For this reason, Babeuf–and his later follower, Adolphe Blanqui– could only conceive of a revolution made by a minority, the communist elite. As a result, democracy remained foreign to their socialist programme as well.

The myth of anarchist libertarianism

Another radical doctrine developed during the period of the 1830s-anarchism. Anarchism is often considered to represent current of radical thought that is truly democratic and libertarian. It is hailed in some quarters as the only true political philosophy freedom. The reality is quite different. From its inception anarchism has been a profoundly anti-democratic doctrine. Indeed the two most important founders of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Michael Bakunin, developed theories that were elitist and authoritarian to the core. While later anarchists may have abandoned some of the excesses’ of their founding fathers their philosophy remains hostile to ideas of mass democracy and workers’ power.

It is certainly true that anarchism developed in opposition to the growth of capitalist society. What’s more, anarchist hostility to capitalism centered on defence of the liberty of the individual. But the liberty defended by the anarchists was not the freedom of the working class to make collectively a new society. Rather, anarchism defended the freedom of the small property owner– the shopkeeper, artisan and tradesman–against the encroachments of large- scale capitalist enterprise. Anarchism represented the anguished cry of the small property owner against the inevitable advance of capitalism. For that reason, it glorified values from the past: individual property, the patriarchal family, racism.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, widely proclaimed ‘the father of anarchism’, is a case in point. A printer by vocation, Proudhon strongly opposed the emergence of capitalism inFrance. But Proudhon’s opposition to capitalism was largely backward-looking in character. He did not look forward to a new society founded upon communal property which would utilise the greatest inventions of the industrial revolution. Instead, Proudhon considered small, private property the basis of his utopia. His was a doctrine designed not for the emerging working class, but for the disappearing petit bourgeoisie of craftsmen, small traders and rich peasants. In fact Proudhon so feared the organised power of the developing working class that he went so far as to oppose trade unions and support police strike-breaking.

Worst still, he violently opposed democracy. ‘All this democracy disgusts me’, he wrote. And his notes for an ideal society involved the suppression of elections, of a free press, and of public meetings of more than 20 people. He looked forward to a ‘general inquisition’ and the condemnation of ‘several million people’ to forced labour. The masses, he wrote are ‘only savages … whom it is our duty to civilise, and without making them our sovereign.’

Consistent with this outlook, Proudhon supported nearly every backward-looking cause available to him. He was a rabid racist reserving his greatest hatred for Jews, whose ‘extermination’ he advocated. He opposed emancipation for the American blacks and backed the cause of the southern slave owners during the American Civil War. Likewise, he denounced women’s liberation, writing that ‘For woman liberty and well-being lie solely in marriage, in motherhood, in domestic duties …’

George Lichtheim, in his book The Origins of Socialism, has written quite accurately that it is difficult to name a single author, alive or dead, of whom Proudhon ever found anything good to say. His other crochets included antisemitism, Anglophobia, tolerance for slavery (he publicly sided with the South during the American civil war), dislike of Germans, Italians, Poles – indeed of all non-French nationalities–and a firmly patriarchal view of family life … After this it comes as no surprise that he believed in inherent inequalities among the races or that he regarded women as inferior beings.

The Russian ‘father of anarchism’, Michael Bakunin, shared most of Proudhon’s views. Indeed, Bakunin was fond of claiming to his fellow anarchists that ‘Proudhon is the master of us all’. Bakunin shared his master’s anti-semitism – he was convinced that the Jews had constructed an international conspiracy that included Karl Marx and the wealthy Rothschild family. He was a Great Russian chauvinist convinced that the Russians were ordained to lead humanity into anarchist utopia. And what that utopia might have looked like is hinted at by Bakunin’s organisational methods, which were overwhelmingly elitist and authoritarian. As one historian has written of Bakunin,

The International Brotherhood he founded inNaplesin 1865-66 was as conspiratorial and dictatorial as he could make it, for Bakunin’s libertarianism stopped short of the notion of permitting anyone to contradict him. The Brotherhood was conceived on the Masonic model, with elaborate rituals, a hierarchy, and a self-appointed directory consisting of Bakunin and a few associates.

These characteristics of Bakunin and Proudhon were not mere quirks of personality. Their elitism, authoritarianism and support for backward-looking and narrow-minded causes are rooted in the very nature of anarchist doctrine.

Originating in the revolt of small property owners against the centralising and collectivising trends in capitalist development (the tendency to concentrate production in fewer and fewer large workplaces), anarchism has always been rooted in a hostility to democratic and collectivist practices. The early anarchists feared the organised power of the modern working class. To this day, most anarchists defend the ‘liberty’ of the private individual against the democratically made decisions of collective groups. Anarchist oppose even the most democratic forms of collective organisation of social life. As the Canadian anarchist writer George Woodcock explains: ‘Even were democracy possible, the anarchist would still not support it … Anarchists do not advocate political freedom. What they advocate is freedom from politics …’ That is to say, anarchists reject any decision-making process in which the majority of people democratically determine the policies they will support.

There is, however, another trend which is sometimes associated with anarchism. This is syndicalism. The syndicalist outlook does believe in collective working class action to change society. Syndicalists look to trade union action–such as general strikes–to overthrow capitalism. Although some syndicalist viewpoints share a superficial similarity with anarchism — particularly with its hostility to politics and political action–syndicalism is not truly a form of anarchism. By accepting the need for mass, collective action and decision-making, syndicalism is much superior to classical anarchism. However, by rejecting the idea of working class political action, syndicalism has never been able to give real direction to attempts by workers to change society.


Marxism: socialism from below

The radical thought of the 1820s and the 1830s was profoundly elitist and anti-democratic in character. Utopian socialism was the creation of upper- class reformers. Anarchism originated in the anti-democratic protest of the small property owner. Conspiratorial communism conceived of a transformation of society brought about by a select and secret group. The programmes of social change advocated by thinkers associated with these trends of thought did not look forward to a collective reordering of society by the mass of the oppressed. The idea of a new democratic order that would be created by the self-activity of ordinary people was foreign to all of these trends of radical thought.

By the 1840s, however, a new trend in socialist thought had started to emerge. The industrial revolution inEnglandandFrancehad brought into being a new social force that was pressing for widespread change in society. This force was the industrial working class–a class of wage-labourers concentrated in large factories and workplaces and increasingly inclined to resort to collective action, such as strikes, and collective organisation, in the form of trade unions. Between the years 1830 and 1848 – which mark two separate revolutionary uprisings inFrance- the industrial working class changed the shape of European politics.

InBritain, major strike waves had taken place in the mid-1820s. In 1834, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was founded. Mass strikes took place in 1842. In 1847, on-going agitation among workers forced the government to pass the Ten Hour Bill, thus limiting the length of the workday. InFrance, the years 1831 and 1834 saw strikes and insurrections among the silk weavers ofLyons. Uprisings among Parisian workers occurred in 1832 and 1834.

This upsurge in militant working class activity powerfully influenced the thinking of some radical writers and organisers. Increasingly, some socialists began to think of the working class as the group that could change society. Indeed, a few theorists began to talk in terms of the working class liberating itself through its collective action. Notable in this regard was the French revolutionary woman Flora Tristan, who linked together ideas of working class self-emancipation and women’s liberation with the proposal for a world-wide organisation of workers. But it was in the writings and the organising of a German socialist, Karl Marx, that the working class took centre stage in socialist thought. Inspired by the emergence of the modern working class, Marx developed a wholly new socialist outlook based upon the principle of socialism from below.

Marx was the first major socialist thinker who came to socialism through the struggle for democratic rights. As a young man inGermanyduring the early 1840s, Marx edited a newspaper which supported the widespread extension of democratic liberties. Increasingly, Marx came to the view that the political restrictions on democracy were a result of the economic structure of society. When the government closed down his newspaper in 1843, Marx moved toParis. There he encountered a vibrant working class and socialist movement. Several years later, Marx moved toEnglandwhere he undertook a painstaking study of the nature of the capitalist economy. Out of his experience inFranceandEngland, Marx developed a consistently democratic and revolutionary socialist outlook.

The young Marx came increasingly to believe that no society which was divided into exploiting employer and exploited worker could ever achieve full democracy. So long as the capitalists held the bulk of economic power in society, they would continue to dominate political life. Full democracy, Marx argued, required the overcoming of class division in society. Only then could each individual fully and equally participate in social and political affairs. Unlike the utopian socialists, Marx insisted that socialism had to represent a higher stage of democracy than anything yet seen. He opposed all socialist and communist views that involved a curtailing of democracy. As he wrote in 1847 in a pamphlet outlining the views of a socialist grouping he was involved in:

We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced that in no social order will freedom be assured as in a society based upon communal ownership.

Equally important, if socialism was to represent a new society of freedom, then it had to be achieved through a process in which people liberated themselves. Unlike the utopian socialists who looked to an elite to change things for the masses, Marx argued that the masses had to free themselves. Freedom could not be conquered for and handed over to the working masses. Socialism could only be brought into being through the mass democratic action of the oppressed.

Marx was the first major socialist thinker to make the principle of self- emancipation–the principle that socialism could only be brought into being by the self-mobilisation and self-organisation of the working class–a fundamental aspect of the socialist project. As he wrote in the statement of aims of the First International Workingmen’s Association, ‘The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves.’

Unlike the conspiratorial communists, Marx insisted that there was a majority force in society that would bring socialism into being. He argued that the modern working class of wage-labourers was organised in such a way that they would be pushed, in the course of struggle, towards socialist objectives. Through his study of English economics, Marx came to see that capitalism had created, for the first time in human history, an oppressed class that worked collectively in large workplaces. If this class was to liberate itself, he pointed out, it could only do so in common. If it was to reorganise the economic basis of society, it could only do so in a collective fashion. If the factories, mines, mills and offices were to be brought under the control of those who worked them, this could be achieved only through the coordinated action of thousands upon thousands of working people. Thus, a working class revolution would of necessity arrive at a new form of collective economy and society in which the means of producing wealth – the factories, mines, mills and offices – would be owned and managed in common by the whole of the working class.

Such a democratic and collective society would have to be based upon the fullest possible political democracy. Marx made this point clear from his earliest writings. But it was only with the workers’ revolution inParisin 1871, the evolution that established the short-lived Paris Commune, that Marx came to see some of the forms that a workers’ state, workers’ democracy, would take.

In March of 1871, the army ofFranceadmitted defeat at the hands ofPrussia. Fearing a Prussian take-over of France, the workers ofParisrose up and took control of their city. For more than two months, the workers ruledParisbefore their uprising was drowned in blood. In order to secure their rule, the Parisian workers took a series of popular democratic measures. They suppressed the standing army and replaced it with a popular militia; they established the right of the people to recall and replace their elected representatives; they decreed that no elected representative could earn more than the average wage of a worker; they instituted universal male suffrage and universal education.

Marx immediately rallied to the cause of the Paris Commune. He hailed the action of the ‘heaven-stormers’ ofParis. Most important, he learned enormous lessons from the experience of the first workers’ revolution. Prior to the Paris Commune, Marx had given little thought to the form that a workers’ revolution would take. Now he drew a conclusion of tremendous importance. The working class, he wrote, could not ‘simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes. ‘ Rather, the working class had to create an entirely new form of state in order to secure workers’ democracy and workers’ power.

Marx insisted that the abolition of the standing army, free and universal education, universal suffrage, the right to recall representatives and limits on the salary of any elected official were all essential elements of any workers’ state. The Paris Commune, Marx wrote was ‘essentially a working class government … the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour’. Economic emancipation, the elimination of class divisions and private ownership of the means of producing wealth, could only take place under the direct and democratic rule of the working class through its own state.

Marx’s socialist perspective represented a thorough fusion of the idea of mass democracy with the notion of a commonly owned and managed economy. His work signalled an entirely new direction in socialist thought and socialist politics. Central to Marx’s socialism were two basic principles. First, that the working class had to emancipate itself through its own collective action. Freedom could not be given over to the working class, it had to be conquered by the oppressed themselves. Secondly, in order to bring about a socialist transformation of society, the working class would have to overthrow the old state and create a new, fully democratic, state for itself. These two principles–of self-emancipation and of the democratic workers’ state — became the very essence of ‘Marxism’, of socialism from below.


From Marx to Lenin

Out of the interaction and conflict of the various radical and revolutionary outlooks that emerged from the dual experience of the French revolution and the industrial revolution in England, only one combined a passionate commitment to popular democracy and a socialised economy with an understanding that only the working class, through its self-activity, could bring into being a new society of freedom and abundance. That outlook, founded on the principles of socialism from below, was the work of Karl Marx. Yet, in the 50 years after his death in 1883, the ‘Marxist’ outlook was to undergo enormous- and conflicting – changes.

During the 1890s world capitalism entered into a 20-year period of prolonged economic expansion. On the tails of economic growth, most workers were able to achieve real improvements in their living standards. In massive numbers, workers joined trade unions and socialist parties, many of which were influenced by Marxist ideas. InGermany, for instance, the Social Democratic Party had one million members by 1912 and received four million votes in the general election of that year. In a period such as this, when life is improving without resort to militant or revolutionary struggle, people become accustomed to the notion that life will inevitably improve in the natural course of things. Socialists are not immune to such ideas. In fact, most European socialists at the time came to the view that socialism would be achieved gradually, through the slow transformation of capitalism into a kind of welfare capitalism under which workers would prosper.

Gone was Marx’s notion that socialism could only come into being through a revolutionary transformation of society from below. In its place developed the view that capitalism would slowly grow over into socialism. At most, such a transition to socialism was seen as involving little more than the election of socialist members of parliament. The German socialist Eduard Bernstein was the most outspoken theorist of this reformist and top-down conception of socialism. But all the major European socialist parties of the time were influenced by this outlook. And, in a watered down form, it remains the perspective of social democratic parties even today.

The dominant trend in socialist thought during this period, then, was a variant of socialism from above. Working class struggle was seen as having little or nothing to do with the creation of a socialist society. Instead, elected socialist officials would be entrusted to oversee the smooth evolution of capitalism into socialism. Yet, despite the wide influence of this doctrine, some Marxists remained committed to the idea of socialism from below. The most important of these was the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.

Rosa Luxemburg became a revolutionary socialist in her nativePolandat age 16. Two years later, she fled toSwitzerlandin order to avoid arrest by the Polish police. After several years of study, she moved toGermany, where she became the acknowledged leader of the left wing inside the Social Democratic Party. While in her twenties Luxemburg wrote several major works criticising the attempts by reformists to strip Marxism of its democratic and revolutionary essence. Against the reformists, Luxemburg argued that capitalism would not indefinitely expand; that sooner or later it would revert to crisis and militarism. The only choice for humanity therefore, was socialism or barbarism.

This prognosis was proved overwhelmingly correct with the outbreak of world war in 1914. Nearly the entire reformist wing of European socialism abandoned the long-established principle of opposing all wars between capitalist nations. Instead, they reverted to crass patriotism, each party backing their national government. Rosa Luxemburg–along with the Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky–headed the internationalist wing of the European socialist movement, the wing that opposed all sides in the war and called for the workers of all countries to reject the war and overthrow ‘their’ national governments. By the end of the war, working class revolutions did break out– first inRussia, then inGermany(and later inHungary,AustriaandItaly).

Rosa Luxemburg played a central role in the German revolution of 1918-19. And in that struggle, she passionately and insistently affirmed the basic principles of socialism from below. Time and time again, she argued that the working class would have to build a new world from the burning ashes of aEuropeconsumed by war, hunger and poverty. The struggle for socialism, she asserted, depends upon the fight against exploitation and oppression in every factory and workplace. The new society could only be created by the mass action of the working class. Nobody could give freedom over to the working class. As she wrote at the height of the German revolution:

The struggle for socialism has to be fought out by the masses, by the masses alone, breast to breast against capitalism, in every factory, by every proletarian against his employer. Only then will it be a socialist revolution.

…Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialist. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.

Tragically, the struggle of the German workers was to be crushed–by a government composed of reformist ‘socialists’. In the process of stamping out the German workers’ revolution, this same ‘socialist’ government organised the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrade Karl Liebknecht. Bureaucratic and reformist socialism from above would have nothing to do with the self- mobilisation of the masses, with the struggle for socialism from below.

But while the revolution was defeated inGermany, this was not the case inRussia. There, a mass socialist party–the Bolsheviks led by Lenin — had undertaken a successful working class seizure of power.

Since 1902, Lenin had been fighting to build a genuinely revolutionary workers’ party in the adverse conditions of Czarist Russia. Unlike the socialists in western Europe, the Russian Marxists did not have conditions of economic prosperity and expanding political democracy to lull them into reformist illusions. Through all the stages of their development, the Bolsheviks retained a revolutionary outlook.

With the crisis in the socialist movement brought on by World War I Lenin revised and developed the outlook of the Bolsheviks on two essential points. First, he went back to the writings of Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune and came to the conclusion–as had Rosa Luxemburg at an earlier date–that the Marxist view of the state and of a workers’ revolution had been grossly distorted by the reformists. In his pamphlet, State and Revolution, Lenin restated the Marxist position that the working class would have to overthrow the bureaucratic and elitist state developed by capitalism and replace it with its own democratic workers’ state. ‘The liberation of the oppressed class is impossible’, Lenin argued, ‘without the destruction of the apparatus of state power created by the ruling class.’ The new workers’ state would be a ‘transitional state’ based on the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear.’

Secondly, Lenin came over in 1917 to the views of Trotsky on the nature of the coming revolution inRussia. For years, all major trends in Russian socialism had believed that a bourgeois democratic revolution–a revolution against Czarism and for the establishment not of socialism but merely of liberal capitalism– would have to precede a workers’ revolution inRussia. In 1906, Leon Trotsky developed a dissenting view. Only the working class ofRussia, Trotsky argued, would be willing and able to carry through the fight for democratic reforms and for a democratic republic. But why, he asked, should the workers be expected to stop at that point? Why should they not extend the fight for democratic rights into a struggle for workers’ control and socialist democracy? In fact, Trotsky asserted, democracy inRussiacould only be brought into being through a workers’ revolution. The struggle for democratic rights, therefore, would tend almost automatically to pass over into a struggle for workers’ power.

Answering the charge thatRussiawas too backward to be able to construct a socialist society–of which a situation of abundance was a central precondition–Trotsky argued that whileRussiaremained backward,Europeas a whole did not. The Russian revolution, he argued, would be part of a European- wide conflict. Aided by the advanced workers’ movements of central and western Europe, he contended,Russiacould skip a stage of liberal capitalism and proceed directly to the construction of a socialist society. Trotsky described this process as a permanent revolution. The revolution would have to be permanent in two senses. First, the battle for democracy would have to pass over into a revolution for workers’ power. Secondly, the Russian revolution would have to spread and become part of the European revolution–indeed, of the world revolution.

When working women in the Russian city ofSt Petersburgtook to the streets demanding bread and peace in March of 1917, few realised that the Russian revolution had begun. When the demonstration of the women workers sparked a wave of revolutionary struggle against Czarism, however, Lenin immediately embraced the perspective of Trotsky and declared that workers’ revolution was the order of the day. At the same time, Trotsky recognised that without an organised political party no revolution could succeed. He therefore joined the Bolshevik Party. Together the two men pushed the Bolshevik Party into organising and leading a workers’ uprising in October (November by the western calendar) of 1917.

The Russian revolution was based upon a wholly new kind of social organisation, the workers’ council or soviet. These councils, based on elected delegates from the workplace and the neighbourhoods, became the new decision- making bodies ofRussia. They were organs of direct democracy whose delegates, like those of the Paris Commune, could be recalled by the electors. The soviets represented a new form of mass democracy. It was for this reason that Lenin and Trotsky made the demand for ‘All power to the soviets!’ the central slogan of the Russian revolution. The soviets, they claimed, would be the basis of the new workers’ state; they would represent the embodiment of workers’ democracy. And after the Bolshevik-led uprising in October of 1917, the soviets did indeed become the foundation of the Russian workers’ state. The American journalist John Reed, inRussia at the time, carefully described the organisation of this new state:

At least twice a year delegates are elected from all over Russia to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets …

This body, consisting of about two thousand delegates, meets in the capital in the form of a great soviet, and settles upon the essentials of national policy. It elects a Central Executive Committee, like the Central Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which invites delegates from the central committees of all democratic organisations.

This augmented Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets is the parliament of the Russian Republic.

The soviets, Reed pointed out, were amazingly vibrant and active organisations, concerning themselves with all aspects of social policy. ‘No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented’, he stated.

During 1917 and 1918, the Russian soviets teemed with revolutionary initiative and enthusiasm. For the first time, millions of ordinary workers and peasants found themselves able to participate in the major decisions that affected their lives. Control of the factories was taken over by the workers, land was seized by the poor peasants, the embryo of an entirely new form of society was created .

But only the embryo. For the germ cell of socialism to grow, it required several essential ingredients. One was peace. The new workers’ state could not establish a thriving democracy so long as it was forced to raise an army and wage war to defend itself. A second essential ingredient was abundance. Unless the basic material needs of all people could be satisfied, it would be impossible to keep alive a direct and active democracy. Hungry people can only keep their concern with politics alive for so long. Sooner or later, the more pressing need for bread intervenes. For these reasons, a third ingredient was indispensible–the spread of the revolution. Only successful workers’ revolutions inEuropecould remove the war threat and provide the economic assistance upon which workersRussiadepended. It was with these considerations in mind that Lenin stated, four months after the Russian revolution, ‘The absolute truth is that without a revolution inGermanywe shall perish . ‘


International socialism or state capitalism?

Workers’russiawas not greeted by a revolution inGermany, by warm arms and offers of fraternal assistance. Instead, it was greeted by the invasion of 17 armies from 14 countries. Alone, isolated, encircled, revolutionaryRussiaundertook the heroic task of defending itself. Under the leadership of Trotsky, a Red Army was created that for nearly three years criss-crossedRussiabattling the armies of world capitalism. In the end, the Red Army prevailed. But at a terrible price.Russiawas bled dry. Its industry had collapsed. It could no longer feed its population. With economic and social collapse came political decay. As workers’ democracy disintegrated, a new bureaucracy rose to power.

The dimensions of Russia’s collapse are truly staggering. By 1920, industrial production had fallen to a mere 13 per cent of its 1913 level. There were massive shortages of every conceivable item. But most desperately, there was a chronic shortage of food. Famine swept the countryside. According to Trotsky, cannibalism emerged in some of the provinces. There was a huge flight of people from the cities, where food was nearly impossible to find, back to the country. The population ofPetrograd, the major industrial city, fell from 2.5 million in 1917 to 574,000 in August of 1920. And even those workers who remained in the cities were often too sick or too hungry to work. Absenteeism reached an average of 30 per cent. Disease swept the country. Between 1918 and 1920, 1.6 million people died of typhus, dysentery and cholera. Another 350,000 perished on the battle field.

By 1920, the very face ofRussiahad changed. Workers’ democracy, in the meaningful sense of the term, had disappeared–as had most of the working class through death or retreat to the countryside. In many cases elections to the soviets ceased. The Bolshevik Party remained alone in power confronted by a country that was slowly dying. In the early 1920s, this ruling party divided into a series of factions, each with a different view as to how society should be governed and socialism constructed. While many individuals crossed back and forth between the contending factions, a few years after Lenin’s death in 1924 (he had been sick and largely incapacitated since 1922) there were two dominant points of view.

Grouped around Joseph Stalin were those forces that represented the rising Soviet bureaucracy. Stalin’s group argued that the Russian government should go about the task of building ‘socialism in one country’. For this group, ‘socialism’ lost all foundation in organs of workers’ democracy, soviets, and the international economy of abundance. They came increasingly to identify socialism with a bureaucratic monopoly of power which allowed no place for organs of mass democracy. Further, they began to define socialism as a state- controlled and planned economy which would industrialise backwardRussiaon the basis of ruthless labour discipline and starvation wages.

Grouped around Leon Trotsky were the forces known as the ‘Left Opposition’. At the urging of Lenin before he died, Trotsky had started to oppose many of Stalin’s policies. By the mid-1920s, the programme of the Left Opposition had two central planks. First, democracy had to be re-established in the Bolshevik party and in the mass organisations such as the trade unions and the soviets. Secondly, the Soviet government had to abandon all such retrograde notions as socialism in one country – which identified socialism with an impoverished and bureaucratically-dominated society – in favour of a revolutionary and internationalist perspective that understood thatRussia’s salvation lay in the spread of revolution abroad.

By 1927 the debate was over. Trotsky’s revolutionary perspective fell on deaf ears. The working class, to the extent that it still existed, was hungry and demoralised. It remained largely indifferent to the rallying cry of the Left Opposition. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of careerist elements had joined the Bolshevik party. Many of these were former Czarist officials who foresaw the possibility of state employment if they announced themselves ‘communists’. With the Bolshevik party dominated now by such elements (200,000 original communists had died during the Civil War), Stalin’s victory was assured. In November of 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Bolshevik party.

At that point, Stalin undertook to reshape the entire nature and direction of Russian society. This ‘reshaping’ had three main aspects: the elimination of all dissent; the liquidation of all forms of democracy and of working class organisation; the slashing of the living standards of the working class and the physical annihilation of millions of peasants. The purpose of these policies was to transfer economic resources from fulfilling the consumption needs of human beings to the building of a massive industrial/military complex that could compete on the same footing as western capitalism.

The elimination of dissent began with expulsions from the Bolshevik party in 1927. Then came sweeping arrests. In the mid-1930s a wave of ‘show trials’ led to the slaughter of the original Bolshevik leaders of the revolution. But the most astounding and gruesome form of repression came in the slave labour camps. By 1931, two million people had found their way into these camps. By 1933, the figure was five million. In 1942 it reached a staggering 15 million.

The destruction of the remnants of workers’ democracy proceeded apace. Strikes were outlawed in 1928. After 1930 workers were no longer allowed to change jobs without state permission. Trade unions were reduced to bureaucratic playthings controlled by the state. Other democratic reforms of the revolution were buried. Access to divorce was severely curtailed. Abortion was made illegal. Homosexuality, made legal with the revolution, was once again made a criminal offence. A regime of police terror prevailed.

In 1929, the first Five-Year Plan was introduced. The aim Stalin announced, was to ‘catch up and overtake’ the West. In order to take control of food production, several million peasants were slaughtered. In the towns, workers’ wages were cut in half between 1930 and 1937. A rate of growth of 40 per cent was declared. Such a growth rate could only be achieved through ruthless exploitation of the working class–by forcing workers to produce more and more output for lower and lower wages.

From this point on, the whole axis of Russian development changed. Gone was the commitment to workers’ democracy and international socialism. In their place, a privileged bureaucracy had installed the aims of industrial and military development in order to build a world power. Under Stalin, theSoviet Unionconsciously adapted itself to the dynamics of world capitalism. The objective of defeating international capitalism through workers’ revolutions was replaced by the aim of building a modern military/industrial complex. And it would happen at break-neck speed. Stalin expressed the logic clearly:

To slacken the pace would mean to lag behind; and those who lag behind are beaten. We do not want to be beaten … We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years.

International socialism had thus been supplanted by state capitalism. All of economic life was subordinated to the objective of competing with western capitalism. The satisfaction of human needs was not the aim of production. Rather, production was geared to constructing steel mills and tank factories that could rival those of the West. After all, the price of survival for any state caught up in the world capitalist system is that it incessantly expand the industrial and military resources at its command. The living standards of the working class are, therefore, continually subordinated to the aim of endless expansion. For it is impossible to build ever more factories and produce ever more weapons unless workers are continually turning out more and more unpaid labour.

For Russia, competition is primarily military. But, in order to equal the West in sophisticated weaponry,Russiamust be capable of matching the growth of western capitalism in all areas: in steel, electrical goods, industrial chemicals and so on. The pressure of world capitalist competition – both military and economic – shapes the structure and direction of Russian society.Russiais thereby reduced to little more than a state-owned economy that has adapted itself to the capitalist system as a whole.

It is for this reason thatRussia, both in Stalin’s day and today, can be described as state capitalist. For the defining feature of capitalism is not that individual businessmen produce for their own gain. Rather it is that owners of ‘capital’ (resources produced by workers) exploit workers who are forced to sell their ability to work in order to make a living. In a capitalist system, that exploitation takes place with a view to expanding the wealth and power at the disposal of a corporation or state so that they can hold their own in a world system of competition.


Leon Trotsky and beyond

During the terrible decades of the 1920s and 1940s when Stalin was committing barbarous crimes in the name of ‘socialism’, the lone voice of Leon Trotsky kept alive some of the basic elements of socialism from below. Stalin had returned to an ideology resembling authoritarian pre-Marxian socialism. Gone was socialism’s democratic essence. Stalin’s ‘Marxism’ was a variant of socialism from above. A bureaucratic elite was to oversee the transformation of a poor and backward country into a modern power, whatever the cost in human terms. That such a perspective could be called ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ was a horrendous infamy.

It was Trotsky’s great virtue to insist against all odds that socialism was rooted in the struggle for human freedom. Furthermore, against the nationalistic notion of ‘socialism in on country’, Trotsky asserted that socialism could only come into being on a world scale. In so doing, he defended the uncompromising internationalism of Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin.

Throughout the 1920s and until his death at the hands of Stalinist agent in 1940, Trotsky fought desperately to build a revolutionary socialist movement based on the principles of Marx and Lenin. At a time when Stalin’s counter- revolution was reshapingRussiaand the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini was sweeping acrossEurope, crushing workers’ movements in its path, this was no mean task. Even if he had never developed the theory of the permanent revolution, never played a leading role in the revolution of 1917, nor built the Red Army, Trotsky’s contribution to keeping alive the socialist flame during the 1930s would have insured him a lasting place in the history of international socialism.

The conditions of the 1930s, however could not but affect Trotsky’s outlook. The great periods of Marxism have been those in which revolutionary socialists have been actively bound up with mass movements of the working class. The health and dynamism of Marxism has always depended upon a certain unity of theory and practice. For Marx and Engels, these great periods were the revolutionary wave of 1848 inEuropeand that of the Paris Commune of 1871. During the failed Russian revolution of 1905 socialist theory was advanced by the likes of Trotsky, Luxemburg and Lenin. The next great period was that of 1917-1921. Then, revolutionaries such as Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci played central roles in revolutionary movements of the working class. During each one of these periods Marxist theory was developed and enriched on the basis of the living experience of the working class movement.

During the 1930s, however, Trotsky was cut off completely from any real workers’ movement. Throughout all ofEurope, the working class was reeling under defeat after defeat. The socialist and communist movement was on the defensive, struggling desperately to protect itself from the hammerblows of fascism While Trotsky’s commentaries on the events of this period are often brilliant, they were unable to inspire any significant numbers of working people into action. Further, Trotsky’s new communist movement remained confined to the radical intelligentsia. The divorce from mass struggles– indeed an incredible remoteness from the day-to-day experience of the working class–could only distort the theory and practice of what came to be known as ‘Trotskyism ‘.

The Trotskyist movement paid dearly for its isolation. It became in most countries little more than a debating society for intellectuals who had no experience of working class struggle. Trotsky denounced the ‘closed circles’, the ‘literary arrogance’ and the ‘conceit and grand airs’ of intellectuals who felt capable of pronouncing on the general strategy and tactics of revolution in any corner of the world although they had failed to gain a toehold in the workers’ movement of their own country. Yet, for all his criticisms, Trotsky could not supply the only real corrective to such a hot-house atmosphere: involvement and education in the class struggle.

These defects in the Trotskyist movement were compounded by a very serious analytical error committed by Trotsky during this period. As Stalin’s counter- revolution intensified–as communist militants were executed, peasants slaughtered, the last vestiges of democracy eliminated–the question arose as to the nature of the society that was taking shape inRussia. Throughout the 1930s, Trotsky consistently argued that Stalin’sRussiaremained a workers’ state, albeit of a degenerated kind. Trotsky acknowledged that the soviets had been destroyed, that union democracy had disappeared, that the Bolshevik party had been stripped of its revolutionary character. Indeed, at times he compared the political regime inRussiato that of fascistGermany. Still, he insisted thatRussiawas a workers’ state. And he did so on the basis of one criterion alone: that property remained nationalised, in state hands. This Trotsky believed was evidence of a lasting gain brought about by the 1917 revolution. Private property had not been restored by Stalin. Therefore, the economy remained collectivised and capable of planning.

Descriptively, what Trotsky said was clearly true. Stalin betrayed no intention of restoring private capitalism inRussia. But this was hardly enough for Stalin’sRussiato qualify as a workers’ state. A workers’ state, according to Marx and Lenin, is a state based upon workers’ control of society. It depends upon the existence of democratic organisation that can control society from below. A workers’ state presupposes that workers are running the state. To talk of a workers’ state is necessarily to talk of workers’ power and workers’ democracy. The particular form of property ownership is certainly of interest, but it tells us nothing about the essential nature of society and of the state. To understand these, as Marx argued consistently, we must look at the social relations that characterise the society. That is to say, we must look at who controls the structure of economic production and at who controls the apparatus of state power.

It was certainly true that nationalised property and attempts planning the economy characterisedRussia–and it remains the case today. But the relevant questions are these: Who controls the nationalised property? Who is doing the planning and on what basis? It is not enough to answer that the state controls property. For the obvious question then becomes: who controls the state? It is not the working class, then who is it? If we answer, as Trotsky did, that a privileged bureaucracy controls this state, then we must look deeper. For, if this bureaucracy uses its control of the state (and thus of the economy and the labour force) in order to direct production and accumulation in the interests not of human emancipation, but of industrial and military competition with other capitalist power then we can hardly be said to be talking about a workers’ state. Rather, we are dealing with a system of bureaucratic state capitalism in which capital is collectively controlled by the privileged bureaucracy that controls the state.

By making the nature of property ownership the criterion of workers’ state, Trotsky committed an error that was seriously to disorient the Trotskyist movement in later years. For, unwittingly, Trotsky had broken from the most basic precepts of socialism from below.

This was not readily apparent during Trotsky’s lifetime. But the end of the Second World War, these problems burst into the open. At that time, Stalin’s troops rolled into most ofEast Europe, creating loyal puppet regimes in countries such asPoland,Hungary,Bulgariaand so forth. Initially, the Trotskyist forces insisted that these countries remained capitalist regimes. After all, workers’ revolutions had [not*] taken place. Slowly, however, another realisation took hold of them. Under Russian orders, these puppet governments had created internal structures modelled on thoseRussia: industry and finance were nationalised; a bureaucratic or party state was created; attempts to plan the economy were introduced. According to Trotsky’s criterion, these new Eastern European regimes would have to be workers’ states. And this was the conclusion arrived at by the Trotskyist movement. In so doing they claimed what for revolutionary socialists should have been the inadmissible: that workers’ states could be created without the active intervention of the working class. Workers’ states without workers’ revolutions was a glaring violation of the principles of Marx and Lenin. Even more grotesque, Stalin’s army was now being painted as an instrument of human liberation, creating workers’ states at the end of its bayonets.

From this point onwards, the movement Trotsky had created fell victim to the ideology of socialism from above. No longer, for them, was socialism dependent upon the self-emancipation of the working class. Now any collection of guerrillas, technocrats or petty dictators who undertook to turn backward countries into modern empires by nationalising the means of wealth appeared as progressive movements. InChina,Cuba,Algeriaand dozens of other countries, such movements came to power. In no case were these regimes based on structures of workers’ power and workers’ democracy. Yet, more often than not, the Trotskyist movement greeted these brutally undemocratic state capitalist tyrannies as workers’ states.

Thus, by a peculiar irony of history, the movement founded by the great revolutionary socialist who had spearheaded the communist opposition to Stalinism fell victim to the ideology of socialism from above. Trotsky himself made a lasting contribution to international socialism which remains indispensable to socialists today. But recognition of that contribution should not blind us to the fatal error he committed–an error that, by violating the principles of socialism from below, has distorted irreparably the movement that takes his name.


Socialism from below

Today in the period after World War II, revolutionary socialism was everywhere in retreat. What passed itself off as ‘socialism’ was generally an elitist and authoritarian doctrine strongly resembling the anti-democratic visions of socialism from above. There were, of course, major national liberation struggles, such as those inChinaandCuba, which freed colonial nations from the oppressive grip of a major world power. As victories against imperialism, these movements were justly deserving of support. But the claims of the Chinese and Cuban regimes to be ‘socialist’ have stained the image of genuine socialism everywhere.

The national liberation movement inChinawas led by a guerrilla army that had no base among the organised working class. When Mao’s army rolled intoChina’s major cities, workers were told to stay at work and obey the orders of their managers. At most, some owners and managers were replaced by officials of the new government. In no sense was there a working class reshaping of society from below. InCuba, a small band of guerrillas were fortunate enough to confront a regime so weak and corrupt that it fell under the first assault. Again, workers played no serious role in the Cuban revolution of 1959. By no stretch of the imagination can either the Chinese or Cuban revolutions be said to represent working class movements for self-emancipation.

What’s more, in bothChinaandCuba, the new regime modelled themselves on the totalitarian state capitalist structure ofRussia. A one-party state was created in which all elections were a meaningless ritual. Opposition parties – - workers’ parties included–were outlawed. Trade unions were put under rigorous state control. Strict press censorship was introduced. Left-wing critics were thrown in jail. All of industry and finance was put into state hands. No organs of democratic social control were encouraged or tolerated. The fact that these state capitalist dictatorships passed themselves off as ‘socialist’ was an enormous blight against the most democratic and revolutionary movement ever created.

Fortunately, workers soon began to put the lie to the socialist pretensions of the Stalinist regimes. Beginning inEast Germanyin 1953, continuing throughHungaryandPolandin 1956,Chinain 1967,Czechoslovakiain 1968 andPolandagain in 1970, 1976 and 1980, the spectre of workers’ power has returned to haunt the ghost of Stalin. What’s more, young dissidents have come increasingly to recognise the true nature of the state capitalist regimes in which they live–and to affirm the perspective of socialism from below.

Such an approach was presented most clearly in the open letter to the Polish Communist Party written in 1964 by two young rebels Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski. Kuron and Modzelewski argued persuasively that the Polish working class is exploited by ‘central political bureaucracy’ that controls the economy in the interests of state competition:

… all means of production and maintenance have become or centralised national ‘capital’. The material power of the bureaucracy, the scope of its authority over production, its international position (very important for a class organised as a group identifying itself with the state) all this depends on the size of the national capital.

Consequently, the bureaucracy wants to increase capital, to enlarge the producing apparatus, to accumulate.

And Kuron and Modzelewski knew that, if this situation was to be changed and genuine socialism created, the conclusion was inescapable:

The revolution that will overthrow the bureaucratic system will be a proletarian revolution. InEastern Europe, then, working class action has exposed the lies and hypocrisy of the ‘socialist’ states. At the same time, western capitalism has exposed its violent, militaristic, inhuman face. Military madness has re- emerged on a terrifying scale. The world is now spending $1.3 million per minute on the means of destroying human life. TheUnited Statesis in the midst of the biggest peacetime arms build-up in history – andRussiais scrambling frantically to catch up. With each such escalation in the arms race, the threat of war – global nuclear war – looms larger.

At the same time, the world capitalist system is sliding once more into depression. In the major capitalist countries, this economic crisis means massive unemployment, particularly for young people; it means a life of poverty and despair for millions. In the underdeveloped nations, the crisis means death – on a horrifying scale. According to the World Bank, some 800 million people now live in a state of ‘absolute poverty’. Every day hunger and hunger-related diseases kill 41,000 human beings. That’s 28 victims of hunger per minute – two-thirds of them children – while more than a million dollars per minute is spent on armaments.

So none of this has to be. The means exist to banish forever hunger, poverty and starvation. The wealth devoted annually to producing weapons of destruction could easily solve the problem of food production. The problem is not a material one, it is social in nature; it is a result of the barbaric priorities of a system founded on economic and military competition.

The same goes for the multitude of other problems that threaten lives, that distort and mutilate human existence. Whether it is the alarming rise in industrial accidents and diseases, the terrifying spread of nuclear power, or the near-catastrophic destruction of our natural environment, the cause–the capitalist organisation of world society-remains the same.

The solution also remains the same. The democratic and socialist restructuring of society remains, as it was in Marx’s day, the most pressing task confronting humanity. And such a reordering of society can only take place on the basis of the principles of socialism from below. Now more than ever, the liberation of humanity depends upon the self-emancipation of the world working class. And the transition to a new society of freedom and abundance depends upon the construction of a world federation of workers’ states, each based on the principles of workers’ democracy.

The vital task confronting all those who desire the creation of such a new society is to raise up the banner of socialism from below, to establish once again in the popular consciousness the inextricable connection between socialism and democracy. The challenge is to restore to socialism its democratic essence, its passionate concern with human freedom.

And the socialism with which we meet the battles of the future must not only build upon the heroic struggles of the past. It must also incorporate the fresh initiatives of contemporary struggle to break the chains of oppression. Socialist emancipation in the modern world must also be women’s liberation. It must embrace struggle of women to free themselves from a second-class existence, from the ties that bind them to the endless drudgery of housework, from the images and ideology that try to reduce them to mindless sex-objects. Socialist emancipation must be black liberation. It must centrally involve the battles of black people against institutionalised discrimination and injustice; against racial harassment and ghetto existence. Socialist emancipation must also be gay liberation. It must include the struggles of gay men a women to live their lives free to love those whom they choose, free from the fear of harassment and victimisation.

Once again there are signs that the international working class is flexing its muscles and making its power felt. Perhaps on a small scale but whether it be Solidarity inPoland, a general strike against the military inChile, miners’ strikes inSouth AfricaorBritain, workers testing their strength inNorth AmericaorAustralia, the workers of the world are again moving towards the centre of stage of world history. In the crisis-ridden decade of the 1980s, are confronted once again with the choice presented over sixty years ago by Rosa Luxemburg: socialism or barbarism.

Last time humanity entered a similar period of crisis, during the 1930s, the result was fascism inEuropeand the immeasurable suffering and barbarism of a world war that saw the explosion the first nuclear bomb. Yet there is an alternative. Worker’s democracy, an end to poverty and oppression–these are the prospects held out by an advance towards international socialism. That vision, that dream of a new world of freedom is more the just an idle daydream. As William Morris wrote a century ago

Ours is no dream. Men and women have died for it, not in ancient days, but in our own time; they lie in prisons for it, work in mines, are exiled, are ruined for it; believe me when such things; suffered for dreams, the dreams come true at last. We are international socialists, and, linked with revolutionary socialist groups in other parts of the world, we are dedicated bringing that dream into being, to realising the principles socialism from below. We are as yet small. But our vision is big. We have the opportunity of building a movement that can change the world. Won’t you join us? After all, we have a world to win.


Further reading

I have not produced references to prove my every statement in this pamphlet. For those interested in pursuing some of the issues discussed above, however, I have provided below a guide to the main works that have influenced the views presented here.

Origins of Socialism: For the history of the period, see Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Revolution. Albert Soboul’s The French Revolution 1787-1799 is the leading treatment in English of the popular struggles that made up the French Revolution. George Lichtheim’s two books, A Short History of Socialism and The Origins of Socialism are the most reliable guides to early socialist thought.

Marxism: The best single introduction to Marx’s political work and thought is Alex Callinicos’ The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. Hal Draper’s brilliant work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, is an invaluable but sometimes difficult source. I should also record here a debt of inspriation of a now- out-of-print pamphlet by Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism. Of course there is no substitute for reading the works of Marx and Engels themselves.

The Russian Revolution: John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World remains the best introduction. Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is a superb and penetrating account. Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Reuolution is excellent. On the building of the Bolshevik party and the years of struggle that led up to the revolution, read Steve Wright’s pamphlet,Russia: The Making of the Revolution. On the decline of the revolution see Alan Gibbons, How the Russian Revolution Was Lost.

Lenin: The most important single work by Lenin is hispamphletStateand Revolution which is widely available in various editions. Tony Cliff’s four volume biography, Lenin, is invaluable. Alfred Rosmer’s work Moscow Under Lenin, also known as Lenin’sMoscow, is insightful. For Lenin’s opposition to Stalin see Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle.

Stalinism: There are now many studies of the horrors of Stalinism. Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed is still an important treatment, as is Victor Serge’s From Lenin to Stalin. The best theoretical treatment of Stalinist Russia is Tony Cliff’s classic, State Capitalism inRussia. Chris Harman’s Class Struggles inEastern Europedevelops the state capitalist analysis for the eastern European states. Kuron and Modzelewski’s open letter, also reprinted as Solidarnosc: The Missing Link? is invaluable. Nigel Harris’ The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China is a masterful treatment of state capitalism inChina. The best short introduction to the theory of state capitalism is Abbie Bakan’s The Great Lie.

Trotsky: In addition to The History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky’s most important writings include Results and Prospects and The Permanent Revolution. Duncan Hallas’ Trotsky’s Marxism is the best overall treatment of the strengths and weaknesses of Trotsky’s thought.

A Further Note: The role of women in the working class and socialist movement is still largely ignored in most writings on these periods. Tony Cliff’s Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation represents an attempt to fill this gap.


David McNally is a Professor of political science at York University in Toronto, Ontario and chair of the university’s political science department.He has published several books including:

  • Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism, Winnipeg: ArbeiterRing Publishing, 2005 (a new and revised edition came out in early 2007).
  • Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labor, and Liberation, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
  • Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique, London: Verso, 1993.