What's wrong with "socialism from below"

Submitted by martin on 30 September, 2003 - 9:53 Author: Martin Thomas.

In the pamphlet Two Souls of Socialism, first published in 1960, Hal Draper coined the phrase "socialism from below" to describe Marxian socialism as against the "socialism from above" of Stalinism, Fabianism, and many pre-Marxian socialists who saw the future in terms of a benevolent authority reshaping society according to a rational blueprint of collective organisation.

The pamphlet has become famous - not without reason, since it includes many excellent passages of polemic against the "Deutscherite", semi- or quarter-Stalinist notions of socialism current in 1960 and still current today. And the catchphrase "socialism from below" has become even more famous.

I would not argue with Draper using "socialism from below" in his pamphlet as a loose euphemism for working-class socialism. It was a reasonable literary ploy to get across to radicals to whom, in the USA of the 1960s, the term "working-class socialism" might initially seem dated jargon. The working class is indeed "below" in capitalist society, and the drive for it to become "above" must indeed start "from below".

But to go from a literary usage in one pamphlet to making "socialism from below" our defining phrase, summary programme, banner, or political label is wrong.

That the three words carry little positive content other than a general indication of favour towards popular movements and grass-roots activism is sufficiently shown by the fact that they are often used by groups connected with the SWP-UK. Politically they are many miles from the "Third Camp" (independent working-class politics) tradition that Draper came from.

Worse, as a three-word summary of our politics, "socialism from below", is positively wrong.

Consider the Owenite movement in Britain in the 19th century.

There was a "centre" constituted by Owen himself and his close associates, publishing newspapers, books, and pamphlets, and training and sending out what they called "social missionaries".

Round that centre clustered a wide variety of circles and groupings, many of them combining Owenite ideas with whatever else they found useful for their situation - trade unionism, retail co-ops, labour-money marts, establishment of model socialist communities, emigration (without any ambition to set up communes), political reform, other strands of socialism like Fourier's or Saint Simon's, educational reform, various religions or militant atheism, spiritualism, phrenology, vegetarianism, fresh air and cold water fads, temperance...

This was emphatically "socialism from below", despite the highly authoritarian nature of the Owenite inner circle. Society was to be changed not by governmental action, but by capitalism being crowded out by the varied socialist initiatives from below. Bronterre O'Brien was driven to describe his proto-Marxist alternative to Owenism as "state socialism".

What he meant was "political socialism". And Marxists too subscribe to political socialism - socialism which recognises the need for a revolutionary working class to form a workers' government which, being a government, acts "from above". Socialism which recognises the need to fight for legal reforms in capitalist society, which, being legal reforms, are enforced "from above" (shorter working day, minimum wage, health-and-safety laws, and so on).

Even in the 1960 pamphlet, the loose euphemism helped to make Draper's polemic shoddy against anarchism - he is very vehement against anarchism, but relies on not much more than an identification of all anarchism with "from above" stances taken personally by Proudhon and by Bakunin - and against Owen.

That weakness in polemic may connect with a later evolution in Draper's thinking, in the early 1970s. He came to reject the project of an organised, activist revolutionary party - or at least of an organisation striving to construct an active nucleus for such a party. He dismissed all such organisations as "micro-sects". Better, he argued, to construct a "political centre" of the type of a magazine editorial board, and have round it a loose network of diverse activist groupings.

The rational core in that argument of Draper's is that a revolutionary grouping must be first and foremost a "political centre". The fight for political and ideological clarity is primary; all the organisational arrangements are ancillary to that and, moreover, flexible.

Draper's argument acquires some bite from the fact that most modern would-be Trotskyist groups are sects of a peculiar sort. What they counterpose to the general class movement is not so much this or that dogmatic political or ideological scheme as the dogma of their organisation. Take the SWP, for example. It will change almost any political line to suit "the mood". Where it has a "sectarian" political line, it arises not from purism, but from a calculation that this line is best suited to attract the militant minority. It is a distinctive selling point.

The SWP's fundamental "sectarian" idea is "build the SWP". The problem, however, is not that building an organisation is inherently sectarian - any more than, say, preaching the socialist future is inherently sectarian - but that it is sectarian to counterpose short-term calculations of organisational gate-receipts to the general class struggle, just as it is sectarian to counterpose preaching the socialist future to the immediate class struggle.

But not all small activist revolutionary groups are like that. Such a group can be based on political ideas (good or bad), not on organisational fetishism. It can operate without destructive pretences of being a mini mass party: Draper must have been aware of Cannon's and Trotsky's ideas on the difference between a propaganda group and a party. A propaganda group can have a democratic regime, avoid "toy Bolshevism" - and be immersed in class struggle.

A small group can have most of its members active in trade unions and suchlike just as well as a mass party: what they can do in those unions will obviously be more limited than what a mass party can do, but the weight of union involvement relative to the "weight" of the revolutionary organisation can easily be as big for a propaganda group as for a mass party. In fact, because the small group's own structures are so much weaker than those of a mass party, the weight of the union involvement can easily be relatively much bigger, with a consequent tendency for the group's activists to "dissolve" into the surrounding labour movement. Efforts by the group to counteract that tendency can lead to sectarianism if overdone - but only if overdone.

The group's main job is to be a "political centre". It can do that job more effectively if the group is organised coherently, with its main body immersed in class struggle, rather than being just an editorial board loosely linked to individuals and circles who are active in class struggle. It is more effective because it can translate its general political ideas into specific proposals for action, and even sometimes autonomous initiatives of its own; it is more effective, also, because it must translate its general political ideas into proposals for action, and thus gains for its "theoretical" development the stimulus provided by continuous concretisation and testing against experience.

It is more effective, also, when operating in a labour movement already highly structured, with many other "political centres" in the field, because if organised as an activist group it can hope to win the best new militants, while if organised only as an editorial group it hands over those militants to the other, alien "political centres" which do organise as activist bodies.

Study of the record of Marx, Engels and Lenin confirms this conclusion rather than Draper's. Marx and Engels, on Draper's own account, failed to establish a "political centre" even of the editorial-group type. Indeed, the "Marx party" was in many ways a clique, depending on people like Edward Aveling and Paul Lafargue more for family reasons than for sound political grounds.

The results were especially grievous in Britain. The "Marx party", round Aveling and Eleanor Marx, worked in the SDF, then in the Socialist League, then in the ILP, with uniformly poor results: the anarchists took the Socialist League, the reformists dominated in the ILP, and the SDF was left under Hyndman's domination as the only representative of Marxism. This happened more because of Aveling's arrogance and conceit than any overwhelming adverse force, and Engels did nothing to restrain or go round Aveling.

Engels was an old man, and preoccupied with other tasks. His attitude, and Marx's, to political organisation had been set in the 1850s. They had concluded - correctly and, as we can see now, with amazing foresight - that the future of socialism depended on the working class organising itself broadly, primarily through trade unions, and that broad working-class organisation being helped, through the interaction of socialist education and the logic of its own struggle, to a clear perspective.

In Britain the trade unions existed, but were very limited and conservative. Marx and Engels were exiles, who cannot then have imagined that they would remain in England for the rest of their lives. Plainly it made little sense for them to try to become British trade-unionists, through they were ready enough to join broad working-class movements when there were openings (the First International).

As for the German movement - they never disavowed the Communist League. They just concluded that it had no future as an exile group when there was no working-class movement in Germany, nor would be for over a decade to come. In the 1850s they decided that their time would be best spent on laying theoretical foundations than in exile wranglings. Or, rather, than just in exile wranglings: they remained pretty much involved in German revolutionary-exile politics throughout (how else was it that Marx was an immediate choice to represent German worker-exiles on the council of the First International when it was set up?). Even in his preface to Capital volume 3 Engels wrote:

"If a man has been active in the movement for more than fifty years, as I have been, he regards the work connected with it as a bounden duty that brooks no delay. In our eventful time... pure theorists on social affairs are found only on the side of reaction..."

The spirit of Engels' comment can be a model for us today, but not the details of his and Marx's decisions in the 1850s. We are not exiles; broad working-class movements exists, with many other "political centres" already in the field; and which of us can say that we will revolutionise theory?

Draper is right that Lenin saw developing a "political centre" as primary, What Is To Be Done? is about that. But Lenin did not stop at What Is To Be Done?. At the Second Congress in 1903, and in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, he went on to fight to shape the grouping round that "political centre" into a party (and not yet a mass party).

Of course, even at that stage - let alone over later years, in 1905, for example - Lenin was very far from being the dogmatist of organisational rigidity which the Stalinists later made him out to be. But he fought for a party against the "circle spirit" - in fact, against precisely the model advocated by Draper, a central editorial board which was a self-elected circle, surrounded by a heterogeneous scattering of other circles.

Paradoxically, I think, Draper's conclusion is sectarian. The socialist sects which Marx and Engels rejected were not activist revolutionary groups of the sort Draper condemns. When Engels saw organisations recognisably similar to the modern "left groups", in the shape of the SDF and the Socialist League, he condemned not their existence as such (which he regarded as positive), but specifics of their policy.

I have argued that Owenism was a fairly pure form of "socialism from below" which nevertheless was far from Marxist, working-class, socialism. Also, the Owenite movement was very much in line with Draper's scheme of what a socialist movement should be.

It had a "political centre" round Owen himself, and "from 1820 to 1860 there was an almost continuous run of a central Owenite organ... the New Harmony Gazette... the Crisis... the New Moral World... the Reasoner". (This quotation, and all others below, from J F C Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites). The "political centre" also produced many books and pamphlets. It had a mechanism for spreading its ideas, travelling lecturers whom they called "social missionaries".

What made the enterprise sectarian was its dissociation from the class struggle, and that dissociation was very closely linked to its character as a cluster of circles round a propagandist inner circle. "For the Chartists their meeting was an instrument for action; the Owenite meeting was for education, proclamation or even rational amusement. Chartist leaders expected their followers to take industrial or political mass action to get the Six Points of the Charter. The Owenites believed that if Truth were proclaimed loudly and insistently enough people would accept it and the millennium would begin..."

In other words, the Chartists moved towards tying all fronts of the class struggle into a militant strategy; the Owenites saw the function of their "political centre" solely as "the struggle on the ideological front" (though they would not have put it that way!), and local Owenites were left to take or leave what they would of the doctrine while they engaged in their trade-union or political activity.

Draper's scheme in Alternatives to the micro-sect corresponds very closely to the natural inclinations of a writer or ideologue tired of day-to-day revolutionary activity. Scrap the activist organisation and have an editorial board instead! As the senior ideologue, he acquires immediate freedom from the demands or complaints of younger activists - he becomes "the centre" by self-proclamation rather than by the irksome "any kind of vote" which he irritably spurns in the introduction to the article.

Even better, he can claim the moral high ground by declaring that he has not abandoned building a revolutionary party.

He can claim that he has only found a better way to do it. But he has not.

Links: Alternatives to the micro-sect.

Two Souls of Socialism

[Originally written in the early 1990s, and rearranged and slightly expanded here. (The original version concentrated more on the "microsect" argument)].


Submitted by AWL on Fri, 15/08/2008 - 20:53

Lenin 1: from "Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder"

We hope that the reader will understand why the Russian Bolshevik who has known this mechanism for twenty-five years and has seen it develop out of small, illegal and underground circles, cannot help regarding all this talk about "from above" or "from below", about the dictatorship of leaders or the dictatorship of the masses, etc., as ridiculous and childish nonsense, something like discussing whether a man’s left leg or right arm is of greater use to him....

Lenin 2: from "Two Tactics of Social-Democracy"

“Revolutionary Communes” and the Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry

The Conference of the new-Iskraists did not keep to the anarchist position into which the new Iskra had talked itself (only “from below,” not “from below and from above”). The absurdity of admitting the possibility of an insurrection and not admitting the possibility of victory and participation in a provisional revolutionary government was too glaring. The resolution therefore introduced certain reservations and restrictions into the solution of the question proposed by Martynov and Martov. Let us consider these reservations as stated in the following section of the resolution:

“These tactics” (“to remain the party of extreme revolutionary opposition”) “do not, of course, in any way exclude the expediency of a partial and episodic seizure of power and the establishment of revolutionary communes in one or another city, in one or another district, exclusively for the purpose of helping to spread the insurrection and of disrupting the government.”

That being the case, it means that in principle they admit the possibility of action not only from below, but also from above. It means that the proposition laid down in L. Martov’s well-known article in the Iskra (No. 93) is discarded and that the tactics of Vperyod, i.e., not only “from below,” but also “from above,” are acknowledged as correct.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 26/08/2008 - 16:18

Yes, David, the CP of Czechoslovakia mobilising workers (in a limited way) only led to a Stalinist state. I can even guess where you learned about that...

As for Owen, yes, he started off with the idea of a benevolent reorganisation of society from above. Draper focuses only on that side of Owen. Owenism changed over time. The plan was still to reorganise society according to a clever blueprint worked out by Owen himself (the "Social Father"), but the path to it was seen as pretty much "from below".

Submitted by martin on Thu, 28/08/2008 - 08:33

Submitted by david mccullough (not verified) on Mon, 27/01/2020 - 00:14

“either the majority rules or a minority rules.” that is a quote from a debate between draper and an anarchist in L.A., 1968. by rejecting authority, anarchism rejects democracy (majority rule). the only person completely free from the authority of others is the tyrant.

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