Reaching out for freedom with their own hands

October 7, 2016

How do we define socialism? The most basic definition given by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels is that it was the "self-emancipation of the working class." Paul D’Amato, author of The Meaning of Marxism, explains what they meant--and why they were so insistent that the struggle for a new society must come from below.

OPINION POLLS show an increasing identification with the ideas of socialism, especially among young people in the U.S. But what does socialism mean to them?

The enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is an obvious source of the interest in socialism, but is socialism mainly about political candidates? Most people probably expect that socialism would be about more than the mainly liberal reforms that Sanders proposed--but how much more? And who has the power to accomplish them?

In 1960, the U.S. socialist Hal Draper published the first version of a long essay that has been republished many times under the title The Two Souls of Socialism.

In it, Draper used the term "socialism from below" to distinguish it from forms of "socialism from above" that were dominant at that time in the socialist movement. As he noted in the first paragraph of the article, with hundreds of millions of people living in countries that claimed to be socialist, "there has never been a time when the label was less informative."

A celebration rally in Portugal's capital of Lisbon during the revolution of 1974-75
A celebration rally in Portugal's capital of Lisbon during the revolution of 1974-75

Socialism at the time meant many things, mostly not very attractive. Some countries, such as the USSR and China, which were otherwise repressive and undemocratic in the extreme, claimed to be socialist by virtue of having abolished private ownership of property. Others claimed the mantle (or had it claimed for them) by virtue of having relatively generous welfare systems, as well as certain public or state-owned industries.

In 1960, there were still mass Communist Parties in Europe that looked to Russia as their model of socialism. Meanwhile, Europe's social democratic parties--the Labour Party of Britain or France's Socialist Party, for example--had by this stage adapted so much to "actually existing" capitalism that they were barely interested even in calling themselves socialist.

Though they differed in rhetoric, organizational forms and other aspects, these brands of socialism all had something in common, wrote Draper:

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.

These aren't antiquated notions. Bernie Sanders, for example, made a speech identifying socialism with public libraries, fire departments and the police. "These are socialist institutions," he told a group of supporters.

That would come as news to Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. As if the person guarding the bank that holds all of our stolen wealth is a representative of socialism just because he is paid by the state to guard it.

LONG BEFORE the 21st century and even the mid-20th century, Frederick Engels described this definition to be a kind of "spurious socialism." In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels argued that the mere existence of state property was not in itself evidence of socialism:

The transformation--either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into state-ownership--does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces...

The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine--the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers--proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head.

But the confusion of state ownership and workers' control wasn't the only problem with these conceptions of socialism. What they had in common, Draper wrote, was the idea that they "must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control."

So socialism wasn't something that ordinary people built through their own initiative. It was rather something set up for them--a paradise built by others.

To the top-down socialisms, Draper counterposed socialism from below, which he described this way:

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.

THIS EMPHASIS on revolution from below has been crucial for socialists so long as the dominant conception has been the opposite. But as Draper points out, the idea of social change "from above" isn't confined to certain strands of the socialist tradition.

The most common conceptions of society--both those designed to justify and preserve the current hierarchy and those that look to some development and change--award the dominant place to a minority of the educated or the elite that stands apart from the majority and molds the passive masses.

Even for those conceptions that seek to improve conditions for the mass of society, mass movements of society as a whole have a limited role in achieving change. They are seen as a battering ram--one that is called into action or manipulated by elites who are either openly or covertly directing events.

The point is this: Whether we are talking about rearranging social relations or ensuring that they stay the same, the most common view is that society is directed by small numbers of people, either in their own selfish interests or as benevolent but far-sighted leaders, on behalf--or at the expense--of everyone else.

Implicit in this conception is that once the elites are successful, they will rule the new society. As Engels wrote regarding the revolutionary schemes of the 19th century French radical August Blanqui:

From Blanqui's assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals.

For Engels and Marx, there were two problems with this approach.

First, it divided society into two parts--one that somehow "gets it" and is inexplicably able to stand apart from society and influence it, without being influenced itself. The other part, then, is the passive mass, which is molded, but can do no molding.

But there's no real reason why this should be the case. For if we are all victims of circumstance, there is no reason why some should be able to escape that. And if some can escape it, then all of us can. As Marx wrote in his "Theses on Feuerbach":

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

The point is that the "activized masses in motion" are not only the key to "the changing of circumstances"--that is, actually achieving social change against forces that are resisting change--but also in changing people.

DRAPER WAS well aware of the belief that ordinary people aren't equipped to change society, or run it after it is changed. His answer, like Marx, was that they can become equipped--through their own self-activity:

It is argued that the mass of people...are too backward to control the society and its government; and this is no doubt true...But what follows? How does a people or a class become fit to rule in their own name? Only by fighting to do so. Only by waging their struggle against oppression--oppression by those who tell them they are unfit to govern. Only by fighting for democratic power do they educate themselves and raise themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power. There has never been any other way for any class.

In defining socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class, Marx and Engels didn't mean that the mass of workers are always consciously striving to emancipate themselves--this is obviously not the case. In fact, people often engage in behavior or accept conditions that run counter to their interests.

The working class does require education--but not from an enlightened elite. That education will come first and foremost from engaging in the struggle to change society. In changing their conditions, they change themselves.

You can see glimpses of this in even modest, local struggles, as a look at the Movement News pages of Socialist Worker illustrates. For example, one article about a 2014 strike by bus workers in Vermont includes a quote from a labor activist drawing conclusions about the victorious fight:

It was members who prepared for this strike, organized and carried it out. It wasn't what usually passes for member involvement--where leadership tells you when to show up, what sign to hold, and when to go home. This was a member-driven strike.

For too long, we have been treated as actors on a movie set, and told to show up. The only way we can win is if we're the directors.

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