Socialism and democracy

May 23, 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 first installment of's four-part republication--the text is from the Marxists Internet Archive.


Socialism's crisis today is a crisis in the meaning of socialism. For the first time in the history of the world, very likely a majority of its people label themselves "socialist" in one sense or another; but there has never been a time when the label was less informative. The nearest thing to a common content of the various "socialisms" is a negative: anti-capitalism. On the positive side, the range of conflicting and incompatible ideas that call themselves socialist is wider than the spread of ideas within the bourgeois world.

Even anti-capitalism holds less and less as a common factor. In one part of the spectrum, a number of social democratic parties have virtually eliminated any specifically socialist demands from their programs, promising to maintain private enterprise wherever possible. The most prominent example is the German social-democracy. ("As an idea, a philosophy, and a social movement, socialism in Germany is no longer represented by a political party," sums up D.A. Chalmers' recent book The Social Democratic Party of Germany.) These parties have defined socialism out of existence, but the tendency which they have formalized is that of the entire reformist social democracy. In what sense are these parties still "socialist"?

Marxist Classics

In another part of the world picture, there are the Communist states, whose claim to being "socialist" is based on a negative: the abolition of the capitalist private-profit system, and the fact that the class which rules does not consist of private owners of property. On the positive side, however, the socio-economic system which has replaced capitalism there would not be recognizable to Karl Marx. The state owns the means of production--but who "owns" the state? Certainly not the mass of workers, who are exploited, unfree, and alienated from all levers of social and political control. A new class rules, the bureaucratic bosses; it rules over a collectivist system--a bureaucratic collectivism.

Unless statification is mechanically equated with "socialism," in what sense are these societies "socialist"?

These two self-styled socialisms are very different, but they have more in common than they think. The social democracy has typically dreamed of "socializing" capitalism from above. Its principle has always been that increased state intervention in society and economy is per se socialistic. It bears a fatal family resemblance to the Stalinist conception of imposing something called socialism from the top down, and of equating statification with socialism. Both have their roots in the ambiguous history of the socialist idea.

Back to the roots: the following pages propose to investigate the meaning of socialism historically, in a new way. There have always been different "kinds of socialism," and they have customarily been divided into reformist or revolutionary, peaceful or violent, democratic or authoritarian, etc. These divisions exist, but the underlying division is something else. Throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below.

What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized "from below" in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history. "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves": this is the first sentence in the Rules written for the First International by Marx, and this is the First Principle of his lifework.

It is the conception of Socialism-from-Above which accounts for the acceptance of Communist dictatorship as a form of "socialism." It is the conception of Socialism-from-Above which concentrates social-democratic attention on the parliamentary superstructure of society and on the manipulation of the "commanding heights" of the economy, and which makes them hostile to mass action from below. It is Socialism-from-Above which is the dominant tradition in the development of socialism.

Please note that it is not peculiar to socialism. On the contrary, the yearning for emancipation-from-above is the all-pervading principle through centuries of class society and political oppression. It is the permanent promise held out by every ruling power to keep the people looking upward for protection, instead of to themselves for liberation from the need for protection. The people looked to kings to right the injustices done by lords, to messiahs to overthrow the tyranny of kings. Instead of the bold way of mass action from below, it is always safer and more prudent to find the "good" ruler who will Do the People Good. The pattern of emancipation-from-above goes all the way back in the history of civilization, and had to show up in socialism too. But it is only in the framework of the modern socialist movement that liberation from below could become even a realistic aspiration; within socialism it has come to the fore, but only by fits and starts. The history of socialism can be read as a continual but largely unsuccessful effort to free itself from the old tradition, the tradition of emancipation-from-above.

In the conviction that the current crisis of socialism is intelligible only in terms of this Great Divide in the socialist tradition, we turn to a few examples of the two souls of socialism.

1. Some Socialist "Ancestors"

Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the Second International, began his book on Thomas More with the observation that the two great figures inaugurating the history of socialism are More and Münzer, and that both of them "follow the long line of Socialists, from Lycurgus and Pythagoras to Plato, the Gracchi, Cataline, Christ..."

This is a very impressive list of early "socialists," and considering his position Kautsky should certainly have been able to recognize a socialist when he saw one. What is most fascinating about this list is the way it falls apart under examination into two quite different groups.

Plutarch's life of Lycurgus led the early socialists to adopt him as the founder of Spartan "communism"--this is why Kautsky lists him. But as described by Plutarch, the Spartan system was based on equal division of land under private ownership; it was in no way socialistic. The "collectivist" feeling one may get from a description of the Spartan regime comes from a different direction: the way of life of the Spartan ruling class itself, which was organized as a permanent disciplined garrison in a state of siege; and to this add the terroristic regime imposed over the helots (slaves). I do not see how a modern socialist can read of the Lycurgan regime without feeling that he is meeting not an ancestor of socialism but a forerunner of fascism. There is quite a difference! But how is it that it did not impress itself on the leading theoretician of social-democracy?

Pythagoras founded an elite order which acted as the political arm of the landed aristocracy against the plebeian-democratic movement; he and his party were finally overthrown and expelled by a popular revolutionary rising. Kautsky seems to be on the wrong side of the barricades! But besides, inside the Pythagorean order a regime of total authoritarianism and regimentation prevailed. In spite of this, Kautsky chose to regard Pythagoras as a socialist ancestor because of the belief that the organized Pythagoreans practiced communal consumption. Even if this were true (and Kautsky found out later it was not) this would have made the Pythagorean order exactly as communistic as any monastery. Chalk up a second ancestor of totalitarianism on Kautsky's list.

The case of Plato's Republic is well-enough known. The sole element of "communism" in his ideal state is the prescription of monastic-communal consumption for the small elite of "Guardians" who constitute the bureaucracy and army; but the surrounding social system is assumed to be private-property-holding, not socialistic. And--here it is again--Plato's state model is government by an aristocratic elite, and his argument stresses that democracy inevitably means the deterioration and ruin of society. Plato's political aim, in fact, was the rehabilitation and purification of the ruling aristocracy in order to fight the tide of democracy. To call him a socialist ancestor is to imply a conception of socialism which makes any kind of democratic control irrelevant.

On the other hand, Catiline and the Gracchi had no collectivist side. Their names are associated with mass movements of popular-democratic revolt against the Establishment. They were not socialists, to be sure, but they were on the popular side of the class struggle in the ancient world, the side of the people's movement from below. It seems it was all the same to the theoretician of social-democracy.

Here, in the pre-history of our subject, are two kinds of figures ready-made for adoption into the pantheon of the socialist movement. There were the figures with a tinge of (alleged) collectivism, who were yet thorough elitists, authoritarians and anti-democrats; and there were the figures without anything collectivist about them, who were associated with democratic class struggles. There is a collectivist tendency without democracy, and there is a democratic tendency without collectivism but nothing yet which merges these two currents.

Not until Thomas Münzer, the leader of the revolutionary left wing of the German Reformation, do we find a suggestion of such a merger; a social movement with communistic ideas (Münzer's) which was also engaged in a deep-going popular-democratic struggle from below. In contrast is precisely Sir Thomas More: the gulf between these two contemporaries goes to the heart of our subject. More's Utopia pictures a thoroughly regimented society, more reminiscent of 1984 than of socialist democracy, elitist through and through, even slaveholding, a typical Socialism-from-Above. It is not surprising that, of these two "socialist ancestors" who stand at the threshold of the modern world, one (More) execrated the other and supported the hangmen who did him and his movement to death.

What then is the meaning of socialism when it first came into the world? From the very beginning, it was divided between the two souls of socialism, and there was war between them.

2. The First Modern Socialists

Modern socialism was born in the course of the half century or so that lies between the Great French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848. So was modern democracy. But they were not born linked like Siamese twins. They traveled at first along separate lines. When did the two lines first intersect?

Out of the wreckage of the French Revolution rose different kinds of socialism. We will consider three of the most important in the light of our question.

I. Babeuf--The first modern socialist movement was that led in the last phase of the French Revolution by Babeuf ("the Conspiracy of the Equals"), conceived as a continuation of revolutionary Jacobinism plus a more consistent social goal: a society of communist equality. This represents the first time in the modern era that the idea of socialism is wedded to the idea of a popular movement--a momentous combination.[1]

This combination immediately raises a critical question: What exactly in each case is the relationship that is seen between this socialist idea and that popular movement? This is the key question for socialism for the next 200 years.

As the Babouvists saw it: The mass movement of the people has failed; the people seem to have turned their backs on the Revolution. But still they suffer, still they need communism: we know that. The revolutionary will of the people has been defeated by a conspiracy of the right: what we need is a cabal of the left to re-create the people's movement, to effectuate the revolutionary will. We must therefore seize power. But the people are no longer ready to seize power. Therefore it is necessary for us to seize power in their name, in order to raise the people up to that point. This means a temporary dictatorship, admittedly by a minority; but it will be an Educational Dictatorship, aiming at creating the conditions which will make possible democratic control in the future. (In that sense we are democrats.) This will not be a dictatorship of the people, as was the Commune, let alone of the proletariat; it is frankly a dictatorship over the people--with very good intentions.

For most of the next fifty years, the conception of the Educational Dictatorship over the people remains the program of the revolutionary left--through the three B's (Babeuf to Buonarroti to Blanqui) and, with anarchist verbiage added, also Bakunin. The new order will be handed down to the suffering people by the revolutionary band. This typical Socialism-from-Above is the first and most primitive form of revolutionary socialism, but there are still today admirers of Castro and Mao who think it is the last word in revolutionism.

II. Saint-Simon--Emerging from the revolutionary period, a brilliant mind took an entirely different tack. Saint-Simon was impelled by a revulsion against revolution, disorder and disturbances. What fascinated him was the potentialities of industry and science.

His vision had nothing to do with anything resembling equality, justice, freedom, the rights of man or allied passions: it looked only to modernization, industrialization, planning, divorced from such considerations. Planned industrialization was the key to the new world, and obviously the people to achieve this were the oligarchies of financiers and businessmen, scientists, technologists, managers. When not appealing to these, he called on Napoleon or his successor Louis XVIII to implement schemes for a royal dictatorship. His schemes varied, but they were all completely authoritarian to the last planned ordinance. A systematic racist and a militant imperialist, he was the furious enemy of the very idea of equality and liberty, which he hated as offspring of the French Revolution.

It was only in the last phase of his life (1825) that, disappointed in the response of the natural elite to do their duty and impose the new modernizing oligarchy, he made a turn toward appealing to the workers down below. The "New Christianity" would be a popular movement, but its role would be simply to convince the powers-that-be to heed the advice of the Saint-Simonian planners. The workers should organize--to petition their capitalists and managerial bosses to take over from the "idle classes."

What then was his relationship between the idea of the Planned Society and the popular movement? The people, the movement, could be useful as a battering-ram--in someone's hands. Saint-Simon's last idea was a movement-from-below to effectuate a Socialism-from-Above. But power and control must remain where it has always been--above.

III. The Utopians--A third type of socialism that arose in the post-revolutionary generation was that of the utopian socialists proper--Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet, etc. They blueprinted an ideal communal colony, imagined full-blown from the cranium of the Leader, to be financed by the grace of the philanthropic rich under the wing of Benevolent Power.

Owen (in many ways the most sympathetic of the lot) was as categorical as any of them: "This great change...must and will be accomplished by the rich and powerful. There are no other parties to do is a waste of time, talent and pecuniary means for the poor to contend in opposition to the rich and powerful..." Naturally he was against "class hate," class struggle. Of the many who believe this, few have written so bluntly that the aim of this "socialism" is "to govern or treat all society as the most advanced physicians govern and treat their patients in the best arranged lunatic hospitals," with "forbearance and kindness" for the unfortunates who have "become so through the irrationality and injustice of the present most irrational system of society."

Cabet's society provided for elections, but there could be no free discussion; and a controlled press, systematic indoctrination, and completely regimented uniformity was insisted on as part of the prescription.

For these utopian socialists, what was the relationship between the socialist idea and the popular movement? The latter was the flock to be tended by the good shepherd. It must not be supposed that Socialism-from-Above necessarily implies cruelly despotic intentions.

This side of these Socialisms-from-Above is far from outlived. On the contrary, it is so modern that a modern writer like Martin Buber, in Paths in Utopia, can perform the remarkable feat of treating the old utopians as if they were great democrats and "libertarians"! This myth is quite widespread, and it points once again to the extraordinary insensitivity of socialist writers and historians to the deep-rooted record of Socialism-from-Above as the dominant component in the two souls of socialism.

3. What Marx Did

Utopianism was elitist and anti-democratic to the core because it was utopian--that is, it looked to the prescription of a prefabricated model, the dreaming-up of a plan to be willed into existence. Above all, it was inherently hostile to the very idea of transforming society from below, by the upsetting intervention of freedom-seeking masses, even where it finally accepted recourse to the instrument of a mass movement for pressure upon the Tops. In the socialist movement as it developed before Marx, nowhere did the line of the Socialist Idea intersect the line of Democracy-from-Below.

This intersection, this synthesis, was the great contribution of Marx: in comparison, the whole content of his Capital is secondary. This is the heart of Marxism: "This is the Law; all the rest is commentary." The Communist Manifesto of 1848 marked the self-consciousness of the first movement (in Engels' words) "whose notion was from the very beginning that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself."

The young Marx himself went through the more primitive stage just as the human embryo goes through the gill stage; or to put it differently, one of his first immunizations was achieved by catching the most pervasive disease of all, the illusion of the Savior-Despot. When he was 22, the old kaiser died, and to the hosannahs of the liberals Friedrich Wilhelm IV acceded to the throne amidst expectations of democratic reforms from above. Nothing of the sort happened. Marx never went back to this notion, which has bedeviled all of socialism with its hopes in Savior-Dictators or Savior-Presidents.

Marx entered politics as the crusading editor of a newspaper which was the organ of the extreme left of the liberal democracy of the industrialized Rhineland, and soon became the foremost editorial voice of complete political democracy in Germany. The first article he published was a polemic in favor of the unqualified freedom of the press from all censorship by the state. By the time the imperial government forced his dismissal, he was turning to find out more about the new socialist ideas coming from France. When this leading spokesman of liberal democracy became a socialist, he still regarded the task as the championing of democracy--except that democracy now had a deeper meaning. Marx was the first socialist thinker and leader who came to socialism through the struggle for liberal democracy.

{In manuscript notes made in 1844, he rejected the extant "crude communism" which negates the personality of man, and looked to a communism which would be a "fully developed humanism." In 1845 he and his friend Engels worked out a line of argument against the elitism of a socialist current represented by one Bruno Bauer. In 1846 they were organizing the "German Democratic Communists" in Brussels exile, and Engels was writing: "In our time democracy and communism are one." "Only the proletarians are able to fraternize really, under the banner of communist democracy."}

In working out the viewpoint which first wedded the new communist idea to the new democratic aspirations, they came into conflict with the existing communist sects such as that of Weitling, who dreamed of a messianic dictatorship. Before they joined the group which became the Communist League (for which they were to write the Communist Manifesto), they stipulated that the organization be changed from an elite conspiracy of the old type into an open propaganda group, that "everything conducive to superstitious authoritarianism be struck out of the rules," that the leading committee be elected by the whole membership as against the tradition of "decisions from above." They won the league over to their new approach, and in a journal issued in 1847 only a few months before the Communist Manifesto, the group announced:

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 personal freedom be so assured as in a society based upon communal ownership...[Let us put] our hands to work in order to establish a democratic state wherein each party would be able by word or in writing to win a majority over to its ideas...

The Communist Manifesto which issued out of these discussions proclaimed that the first objective of the revolution was "to win the battle of democracy." When, two years later and after the decline of the 1848 revolutions, the Communist League split, it was in conflict once again with the "crude communism" of putschism, which thought to substitute determined bands of revolutionaries for the real mass movement of an enlightened working class. Marx told them:

The minority...makes mere will the motive force of the revolution, instead of actual relations. Whereas we say to the workers: "You will have to go through fifteen or twenty or fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change extant conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and to render yourselves fit for political dominion," you, on the other hand, say to the workers: "We must attain to power at once, or else we may just as well go to sleep."

"In order to change yourselves and to render yourselves fit for political dominion": this is Marx's program for the working-class movement, as against both those who say the workers can take power any Sunday, and those who say never. Thus Marxism came into being, in self-conscious struggle against the advocates of the Educational Dictatorship, the Savior-Dictators, the revolutionary elitists, the communist authoritarians, as well as the philanthropic do-gooders and bourgeois liberals. This was Marx's Marxism, not the caricatured monstrosity which is painted up with that label by both the Establishment's professoriat, who shudder at Marx's uncompromising spirit of revolutionary opposition to the capitalist status quo, and also by the Stalinists and neo-Stalinists, who must conceal the fact that Marx cut his eyeteeth by making war on their type.

"It was Marx who finally fettered the two ideas of Socialism and Democracy together"[2] because he developed a theory which made the synthesis possible for the first time. The heart of the theory is this proposition: that there is a social majority which has the interest and motivation to change the system, and that the aim of socialism can be the education and mobilization of this mass-majority. This is the exploited class, the working class, from which comes the eventual motive-force of revolution. Hence a socialism-from-below is possible, on the basis of a theory which sees the revolutionary potentialities in the broad masses, even if they seem backward at a given time and place. Capital, after all, is nothing but the demonstration of the economic basis of this proposition.

It is only some such theory of working-class socialism which makes possible the fusion of revolutionary socialism and revolutionary democracy. We are not arguing at this point our conviction that this faith is justified, but only insisting on the alternative: all socialists or would-be reformers who repudiate it must go over to some Socialism-from-Above, whether of the reformist, utopian, bureaucratic, Stalinist, Maoist or Castroite variety. And they do.

Five years before the Communist Manifesto a freshly converted 23-year-old socialist had still written in the old elitist tradition: "We can recruit our ranks from those classes only which have enjoyed a pretty good education; that is, from the universities and from the commercial class..." The young Engels learned better; but this obsolete wisdom is still with us as ever.


1. Strictly speaking, this combination had been anticipated by Gerrard Winstanley and the "True Levelers," the left wing of the English Revolution; but it was forgotten and led to nothing, historically speaking.
2. The quotation is from H.G. Wells' autobiography. Inventor of some of the grimmest Socialism-from-Above utopias in all literature, Wells is here denouncing Marx for this historic step.

Further Reading

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