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What is socialism from below?

Sean Larson outlines different conceptions of socialism and asserts that only the self-emancipation of the working class can lead to the world we want.

The word socialism has many associations today. First on numerous minds is what Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez call democratic socialism—the deeply-felt and shared desire for a world without poverty, oppression, environmental devastation, and war. This represents a striving for more democracy, solidarity, and equality. When pressed for proof that socialism can work, Bernie Sanders and many others will invoke Sweden and the social democracies of western Europe as potential models. Others do not accept this model, including many within Europe who have been subjected to the anti-worker policies of social democratic parties in power. However, the only examples of non-capitalist societies they are left with are the former one-party dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc and Stalinist Russia. But how could cults of personality, show trials, and gulags have anything to do with democracy and a better life?

The future of our generation of socialists is left largely undefined. At a certain point, sooner rather than later, we have to confront the question of what kind of world we are fighting for. One possible outcome of our struggle is a repeat of the so-called socialisms of the last century, whether that is Stalinist Russia or the social democracies of western Europe. Both of these can be characterized as socialism from above. But there is another path, a specter haunting the resurgence of interest in socialism: socialism from below, a world based on workers’ control and complete democracy.

Why the working class

When socialists talk about ordinary people, we are really talking about the working class. People who have to work for somebody else for a living and those who depend on them. The real working class, in all of its multiracial, transnational, gender-ending splendor. As individuals, workers are powerless. They depend upon their boss for their job and their livelihood. If they speak out against injustice, they risk retaliation by losing their job or being picked off by the police. But collectively, bosses depend upon the workers. Schools and hospitals and coffee shops cannot run without the collective mass of workers. That is why strikes are so categorically powerful—they shut down a whole system and show who really makes things run.

Education workers during the 2018-2019 #RedforEd strike wave.

The collective power of workers is the concrete reality upon which socialists since Marx have based their hope not just to reform capitalism, but to build a different kind of society altogether. The point is not that working people are more radical—in fact, workers can be just as sexist, racist or reactionary as anyone else. The point is that capitalist society is built upon an antagonism. A tiny group of people have documents saying they own the schools, the factories, the warehouses, and the hospitals. These are capitalists, and they depend for their own continued existence upon the profit they can make off of the people they employ. Profit supersedes everything, including human rights like healthcare, education, and even democracy. Workers do have an interest in these things. Not only that, they are the only social group with the potential power to end the reign of the 1 percent and build a new kind of society that serves everybody.

The premise of socialism is simple: full democracy. It is “the complete democratization of society,” meaning every person has the right to decide the conditions of their own life and working people collectively have decision-making power over how society is run. Capitalism is incompatible with that kind of democracy. Even narrow political democracy under capitalism is a sham. We get to cast a vote once every couple years for someone to misrepresent us.

But more importantly, as soon as you enter the capitalist workplace, you exit the realm of democracy. You have no say over how things are produced, what gets prioritized, or how things are distributed in your workplace or in the economy as a whole. You effectively enter a dictatorship of the boss while you are at work. Democratize work and the economy and you can organize it based upon human needs like healthcare, education, and free time.

That’s what the word socialism meant for Marx and the early socialist or communist movement. Until partway through the 20th century, it was generally taken for granted that Marxism stood for that kind of revolutionary workers’ democracy. But the last hundred years of Left politics internationally has complicated the terms that we have to think through.

Socialisms from above

If we are serious about forging a path to a better world, we have to understand how socialism can work. Understanding that starts with asking how the so-called socialist states of the 20th century did not fulfill the socialist mission and, indeed, functioned to suppress workers’ power.


Firstly, the Soviet Union and so-called communist states of the Eastern Bloc. The ghost of Stalin’s Russia is what Fox News will evoke when discussing socialism—food lines, travel restrictions, prison labor, and so forth. That society was built up on the conception that socialism is primarily about state ownership of the economy. If you nationalize everything, states can try economic planning and theoretically distribute things more equitably according to priorities other than individual greed. That is the best possible interpretation of the idea behind this statist socialism. But here’s the key problem: if a state controls economic planning, who controls that state? In the Eastern Bloc, states were controlled not by ordinary working people, but by one-party dictatorships of state functionaries.

In the Soviet Union, the ruling party expressed the interests of a new class of bureaucrats, with certain privileges, access, and standards of living that were far superior to the mass of ordinary working people. While workers who actually produced the wealth of the country had an inherent interest in collective solidarity and democratic control, the interests of this new bureaucratic class were different. The class interests of the bureaucrats were tied to expansion of that state and its power over the workers. The mere fact that economic planning was controlled by a centralized state did not prevent the class controlling that state from using all those resources for their own benefit. The protection of the bureaucrats’ interests often meant that state power was used against working class movements and working class interests. Instead of a society built to fulfill human needs, these were sacrificed for the sake of expanding production quotas and military buildup.

Many people who identify themselves with this sort of socialism will justify themselves by saying this was the only alternative to capitalism, that this was the only way socialism could be enacted. But in the process of apologism, the goalposts are moved: socialism is no longer defined as workers’ power but rather as the nationalization of the economy on behalf of the workers. The assumption here is that workers themselves are incapable of running their own society. They need guidance from experts who know better, an elite to administer society as their representatives because an ordinary plumber or cabdriver is too backwards to govern. Workers become the recipients of socialism, consumers of socialism, instead of the active agents, producers, and creators of their world.

Social democracy

The second model commonly understood as socialism is that of social democracy. Even if you don’t have Sweden or the countries of western Europe as your model, this is perhaps the more intuitive understanding of socialism. These societies were built upon the idea that socialism has something to do with using states to regulate property and markets. We could summarize the associated strategy as follows: run socialist candidates who are really champions of women, immigrants, workers, and the oppressed for Congress and other elected positions. After you get more of these socialist candidates elected, you capture a majority in the representative bodies of the government, or even a significant minority. Once you have this, you can then begin to wield state power, by making new laws and new programs, by funding infrastructure, by raising the minimum wage, or even demilitarizing the police.

The idea behind this approach is that states have immense power. Of course, in our world as it is currently constituted, there is nothing more powerful than states. So, why not use that power to shape the world in the way we want to see it? Why not legislate a more equitable distribution of resources and use state power to reign in the excesses and destructive behaviors of the giant corporations?

Even if we could instantly change electoral laws, run socialist parties in elections, and replace every single pro-capitalist official, the socialists in office would still face an ultimate obstacle in trying to introduce socialism.

Capitalist states depend for revenue on a growing and healthy national economy. Whether national economies grow depends on if capitalists, the private owners of wealth, decide to invest. If a capitalist does not see a favorable business climate that offers potential profits, they will not invest, and economic growth will then slow down. Once that happens, employment opportunities start evaporating and general income starts to fall, then state tax revenues start to shrink. Because capitalists control the wealth, they subjectively decide when to invest. States, regardless of who is in office, are thus compelled to convince capitalists to invest. The only way to do this is by slashing labor protections, cutting taxes on the rich, privatizing sectors like healthcare and education, and even defending the interests of capitalists abroad through war and military buildup. Paradoxically, states can ultimately only raise funds to pay for healthcare or education by gutting social protections and catering to the private corporations that make the investment decisions that determine the state of the economy.

That is exactly the dilemma that the social democratic parties of Germany, France, Sweden, and elsewhere in Europe ran up against throughout the 20th century. They had to make a choice: either impose neoliberal austerity policies in the interests of capital or relinquish their state offices. In every country, they clung to their offices, even when that meant they had to turn against the workers they were originally elected to serve. Because they identified their interests with nation-states, the social democratic parties of the 20th century have also tended to support nationalism, including against the workers of other countries through wars, colonialism, or debt servitude.

Social democracy was characterized by a strategy of using state power to try to legislate in socialism on workers’ behalf. The problem is that the positions of the socialist representatives in office necessarily came to depend upon the profitability of capital. Because of this, social democracy strategy has ultimately left the power of capitalists over workers in the workplace untouched. That power of capital has thus been allowed to continue shaping and shuttering democracy and human rights throughout society.

Substitution or self-activity?

Both Stalinism and social democracy share a conception of socialism as something that must be handed down to the masses by an elite who know how to manage society. They share a common hostility to the idea that ordinary people can be trusted to take over society and run it themselves in their own interests collectively and democratically. Both rely on some substitute for working class self-activity, whether a stratum of elite state planners or a select group of representatives elected to office. Historically, other substitutes for working class self-activity have arisen among movements calling themselves socialist. These have included peasant armies, utopian communes, conspiratorial groups, guerilla fighters, or even intellectuals who proclaim themselves to be the leadership of a non-existent movement. All of these reflect an approach to politics as something workers must have done for them, an approach that has become almost common sense.

It is understandable why this kind of thinking is so widespread. Whether you work in a factory, hospital, nonprofit, school, or coffee shop, you exit the realm of democracy as soon as you enter the workplace. You are there to do what your boss tells you to do. Any new developments or plans necessarily come through the boss, while you receive them as prepackaged decisions. Anything you create becomes property of someone else. It is easy to start to get used to having no say in how things are done when you spend the majority of your waking life inhabiting that environment.

It is similar in politics: changes, we are told, have to happen gradually, as a result of long discussions by experts in the halls of power. We can react positively or negatively to what they come up with, vote some out and others in. At the end of the day, however, ordinary working people do not have any direct control over the priorities, resource distribution, or laws handed down by governments that rule over them.

But this manner of doing things, politics from above, only serves to protect those who currently have power and wealth. It shores up the system of capitalism that keeps the vast majority from exercising any power over their own living conditions. So, the attempts to emancipate workers from above were not just imperfect, they were inevitably doomed to failure.

What is lost in the above conceptions is an insurgent workers’ democracy, a revolutionary form of socialism, and a belief that working class power is a creative force to be encouraged and developed both before and after taking power. Democracy was always supposed to be intrinsic to socialism, it provides an antidote to the tendencies toward fossilization, bureaucratization, and adaptation to capital. We can only tap into the collective strength and creative potential of workers if it is workers themselves who seize power from below, and that can only be initiated and maintained democratically. This is socialism from below, or what Marx called the self-emancipation of the working class.

Workers’ power: a historical reality

For many today, this prospect seems distant. The periods of decline in working class activity are instead conducive to the re-emergence of yearning for some savior. When the bosses are winning, these ideas come to dominate among those interested in social change. During periods of mass mobilization and revolution, however, the ideas of self-activity and workers’ power spread rapidly, become validated at every turn, and therefore start to crystallize into a new common sense. That is why moments like Occupy Wall Street, the 2018-2019 teachers’ strikes, and the recent uprisings for Black lives can shatter forms of thought and habits established during periods of defeat and declining living standards.

The 1871 Paris Commune showed that workers can rule.

When seemingly deep-set assumptions and expectations are swept away, political horizons can expand boundlessly. The possibility of ordinary workers seizing power has been demonstrated time and again throughout history. It happened in the Paris Commune of 1871. The whole working class seized power in the Russian Revolution of 1917, creating an alternative state based upon their own newfound organizations—soviets (workers’ councils). In revolutionary Catalonia in 1936, George Orwell reported what it looked like for the “working class to be in the saddle”:

Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the anarchists … Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ … Tipping was forbidden by law … There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues … All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

These moments of workers’ power have brought with them extraordinary creativity and social experimentation. During and after the Russian Revolution, some local workers’ councils created their own constitutions, defining citizenship not by nationality but by class. Recently arrived migrant workers would be granted full citizenship, while storied landowning families could not vote. Scenes like this may be hard to imagine, but all deep-seated beliefs about society evaporate with breathtaking speed in moments of mass worker uprising.

Self-activity and revolution

If bottom-up socialism is worth fighting for, how do we get there? We are starting with an apparent contradiction here. Socialists believe that workers themselves have the power and ability to govern, and count on working class people to fight for that. But as we know, most workers are not socialists, meaning most workers do not advocate for working class power. Indeed, many workers have reactionary ideas, they are sexist or racist or anti-union. How can workers become convinced that their interests are tied to the rest of their class, which is multiracial, multi-gendered, gay, straight, trans, and international? How can workers become confident enough to exercise our strength against the bosses when they seek to pit us against each other?

We cannot rely upon some group of individuals to educate the masses about freedom. The stakes are too high. It is important to understand that socialists alone will not radicalize the whole working class. It is the contradictions of capitalism itself that drive working people to fight back in the first place. Those contradictions are ever present, from the demeaning experiences at the workplace to the unrestrained brutality of politicians like Donald Trump. As our numbers grow, socialists can help strengthen, organize, and hopefully play a role in guiding the elemental movements that will inevitably arise. However, any attempt by a relatively small group of socialists to substitute ourselves for these mass movements would only squander our precious resources. Only the working class, as a mass, self-reliant movement, can emancipate itself. And as Socialist Party of America leader Eugene Debs said to a Detroit audience in 1906, “If I could lead you into the promised land, someone else could lead you out again.”

The best way to shed the deep feelings of isolation and powerlessness that workers are bombarded with every time they go to work is through workers’ activity itself. Not the actions of their representatives, but working class self-activity: primarily strikes and mass movements in the streets. This kind of self-activity pits workers against the bosses and builds confidence in our collective strength as a class.

Every strike is a laboratory of changing consciousness. For that temporary glimpse of power to become a permanent reality, more than a strike will be necessary.

The only way to move from just resisting to taking power is to disrupt and replace the mechanism of exploitation, the class relationship at the heart of the market economy. Unless you remove capitalists from their positions of power over other people, capitalism will always balance itself on the backs of workers. Stopping exploitation will take much more than new representatives, it will take a social revolution. Socialism from below is necessarily a revolutionary socialism.

What is a revolution? It is not simply a single act—smash the state!—but an entire period of widespread working class self-activity, a mass movement determining for the first time how to shape society collectively and democratically. It is soldiers stripping their superiors of their insignia or workers hauling off their bosses to the local ravine in a wheelbarrow. A revolution is the full process whereby the working class seizes power for itself. As Robin D.G. Kelley has written, “making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.” The revolution will not go according to some plan, but it will change those who make it and strengthen the bonds between us all.

A 1889 illustration by Walter Crane


Capitalism is a global force, and it has given rise to a system of geopolitical competition among nation-states, each in the service of a national ruling class. Workers do not have a stake in any side of these inter-imperialist rivalries. You do not have to support dictators to be a socialist, which is strangely something that needs to be said. Some people join the movement for socialism—freedom from dictatorship at work—and find themselves pressured to support dictators like Bashar Assad, simply because factions of the Syrian elite have come into conflict with the U.S. But capitals compete! That is a feature of imperialism. You do not have any stake in siding with another boss who is undercutting your boss, they are both bosses and they both belong in wheelbarrows on their way to be dumped in a ravine.

Socialism is meaningless if, in the name of anti-imperialism, it tolerates the brutal, genocidal suppression of social uprisings in other countries. Our aim is for the exploited and oppressed themselves to determine their own future. Those struggles are happening in every country on the globe. That is why any socialism worth its salt is international.

Social movements

Revolutionary and international. That is the horizon of consistent working class self-activity, and the perspective of socialism from below will inform what we do in the here and now. Fighting for and winning concrete social changes like universal healthcare and unemployment support right now is central to building a movement that can put power in the hands of workers. If you want socialism from below, the most effective way to fight for these kinds of reforms is based upon what will strengthen the fighting capacity and the confidence of the working class in itself.

Within social movements that arise here and now, there are two key imperatives that flow from a perspective of socialism from below.

Because our strength lies in mass numbers, movements have to be mass, inclusive struggles. Any successful movement will rely on all of the workers. That also means our movements have to be multiracial, have to cross gender and national lines, and have to challenge the forms of oppression faced by each and every member of the working class. That is not a moral imperative, it is our deep well of power.

Social movements and workers must rely only upon themselves. A successful movement from below will not try to win the trust of big funders, rather it will instead start to impose costs on them and to disrupt their business environments. If social change can only come from below, movements cannot rely on professional organizers or nonprofits. Socialists should seek to constantly expand any movement or campaign they are involved in, in order to draw in more people and involve them in the process of their own self-emancipation.

The future is open

Socialism from below is a simple idea, even if all the forces of capitalism are set to distort and undermine it. It is the historically-grounded recognition that no one is coming to save us. Workers have to emancipate themselves and build a new society based on their own power. The concept of workers’ self-emancipation was the unique contribution of Karl Marx, who reached this conclusion in 1845 after witnessing and learning from workers’ rebellions of his own time.

Karl Marx famously said very little about what a socialist or communist society would look like. If socialism is the careful implementation of a blueprint thought up by a genius, you will have a set of guidelines and rules about what socialism will look like. But if socialism is a dynamic process of creative construction by a whole generation of people discovering their own capacities anew, then only they can say what socialism will look like when the time comes. The point is, we will finally be deciding for ourselves.

Socialists view the oppressed and exploited of today as literally the potential rulers of society. Socialism from below will undoubtedly be messy, but it will be a free society. The new rulers, the cooks and the cab drivers, will no longer live under the imperatives of capitalism. In fact, they no longer live under anything. They will rule over socialism. It is up to us and future generations to decide what we will do with the world once we have seized it.

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Sean Larson View All

Sean Larson is a socialist in Chicago and a founding editor of Rampant magazine.