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Socialism from below

This talk by Anthony Arnove kicked off a NYC Tempest Collective discussion on  the theme of  “Socialism from Below.”

The following is modified from a talk given by Anthony Arnove at the Northeast Marxism Day School on June 16, 2023. The New York City event was one of a series organized nationally by the Tempest Collective. The talk kicked off a discussion based on a series of readings with the theme “Socialism from Below.” As the visions of a socialist future among the newest generation of radicals continue to be dominated by the illusions of social democracy and the delusions of Stalinism, this remains an issue of ongoing relevance.

In considering what we mean by socialism from below, I want to start with an important insight from volume 1 of Hal Draper’s critical Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: “What goes by the name of Marxism nowadays, like as not, has little to do with Marx’s views, in general or on any particular subject.”

We don’t have to look far to see examples of people who call themselves socialists and Marxists who have a fundamentally different conception of what that means from the understanding that guides our political practice at Tempest.

And that’s why we cannot just say, “We are all socialists, what’s the big deal?” but need, as Draper suggests, to be clear about what we mean by socialism. We need to be able to say why we feel socialism from below is the hope for revolutionary transformation of society, not this or that version of socialism from above.

So, I’d like to make a few arguments about what I think this means practically. The first is that socialism from below is a revolutionary political standpoint.

If you want a definition of revolution, you can’t do much better than the description offered by Leon Trotsky in his magisterial account of the Russian Revolution:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business — kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime…. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

“Rulership over their own destiny”: Trotsky here is echoing Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who in the Communist Manifesto describe revolution as the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

Revolution is the forcible entry of the masses onto the stage of history–not just for a moment to topple one regime so that a new elite can emerge in its place, as we have seen so often in history, but to fundamentally transform the nature of political power.

That is, revolution is an act of self-emancipation, the vast majority acting in the interest of the vast majority, not a minority acting on its own or anyone else’s behalf. Self-emancipation is fundamental to the Marxist idea of revolution and to the project of socialism from below.

In the words of the Communist Manifesto:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

Whereas under genuine socialism, “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

I think there is no better summation of what we envision by socialism or communism than those few last words. As Engels puts it, “Our notion, from the very beginning, was that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself.’”

But as the Palestinian socialist Tony Cliff wrote in 1952 of the regimes established through force by Joseph Stalin as Socialist Republics, “The ‘People’s Democracies’ are based on a different conception. A bureaucratic police dictatorship has raised itself above the people, and is independent of its will, while claiming to govern in its interests.”

For those who follow Stalin’s model, socialism no longer means workers’ power but nationalized property, even though the equation “state ownership equals socialism” is a complete departure from the Marxist tradition.

The same is true of various models of social democracy. As Draper notes in his essay “Socialism from Below”, speaking of the connection between Stalinism and social democracy, “The two self-styled socialisms are very different, but they have more in common than they think,” in that both focus on control of the state and making changes from above to bring about socialism. As Draper rhetorically asks, “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 levels of social and political control.”

Again, this is certainly not how Marx or Engels saw the matter. This is why Marx spoke of smashing the state and the withering away of the state.

In Anti-Dühring, Engels wrote that if “statification” equals socialism, “then Napoleon and Metternich are to be counted among the founders of socialism” for nationalizing tobacco production. The key to understanding a society is not the abstract form of property, but the actual class relations defining the social relations of production.

Another key element of socialism from below is its understanding of revolutionary agency. The French socialist Michael Löwy notes, “Marx cut the Gordian knot of the philosophy of his age by declaring … that change in circumstances, and transformation of consciousness, coincide in revolutionary praxis.”

From this idea flows, rigorously and coherently, Marx’s new conception of revolution. Only through their own experience, in the course of their own revolutionary praxis, can the exploited and the oppressed shatter the external “circumstances” that enslave them–capital and the state—as well as shatter their formerly mystified consciousness. In other words, no true emancipation exists apart from self-emancipation.

From this point of view, the famous slogan of the Founding Manifesto of the International Workingmen’s Association–“The emancipation of the working class will be the task of the working class itself”—sums up, with laconic conciseness, the innermost core of Marxist political thought. As self-liberating praxis, revolution is simultaneously a radical change in economic, social and political structures and the realization, by the victims of the system, of their true interests, the discovery of new, radical and libertarian ideas, aspirations and values.

Within this conceptual framework of revolution, which is of course tied not only to the seizure of power but to an entire uninterrupted historic period of transformation as well, there is no room, from the standpoint of the argument itself, for any “Supreme Savior” (“neither Caesar nor Tribune”). Marx’s philosophy of praxis is intrinsically hostile to all authoritarianism, substitutionism or totalitarianism. Of all the manipulations, deformations and falsifications that Marxism has endured, undoubtedly the worst were produced courtesy of Stalinist bureaucratic Caesarism, which was no “theoretical deviation” but a monstrous system of monopoly power wielded by a parasitic “estate.”

For Marx, contradiction and human agency are central to understanding —and transforming—the world. Thus, as the preface to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx stresses:

[Joseph] Proudhon, for his part, seeks to represent the coup d’état as a result of an antecedent historical development. Unnoticeably, however, his historical construction of the coup d’état becomes a historical apologia for its hero. Thus he falls into the error of our so-called objective historians. I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.

The starting point of Marx’s approach to history is the centrality of class struggle, that is, subjective and contingent human agency. And as Stuart Hall reminds us in his essay “For a Marxism Without Guarantees,” there is certainly nothing automatic or inevitable about socialism emerging from capitalism. Our situation is best described by Rosa Luxemburg—either we can have socialism, which must be actively struggled for, or we will have barbarism.

But what Marx struggled with throughout his life-and what we as socialists today confront-is a very practical question: How do we build a new society, a classless society, from the existing conditions presented by capitalism?

It is not that Marx and Engels were the first people to ask this question. The dominant tradition of socialist politics before them was elitist. It believed that socialism would either come about through the action of a small group of enlightened intellectuals who would carry out a revolution on behalf of the oppressed, or it held that socialism would be achieved through a gradual process of enlightenment and betterment until people, including owners of factories, landowners, and politicians would voluntarily choose socialism.

As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, “The proletariat, then still in its infancy, offered [these early Socialists] the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.” It was perhaps to be pitied, but it was certainly not seen as a revolutionary class.

Marx’s approach was fundamentally different. What we see if we examine Marx’s life, his practical involvement in political struggles, and his commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class is that, at every stage, the development of his thought is shaped by the concrete problems thrown up by the international workers’ movement.

Marx developed the first outlines of his ideas about working-class self-emancipation only after moving to Paris in the early 1840s and becoming involved in the most militant and creative organizations of workers then emerging in France. And while Marx was working toward an understanding of the working class as the revolutionary class under capitalism, Engels was having a similar experience in England, as the working-class Chartist movement rose to brilliant heights and was defeated.

Later, we see that Marx’s ideas about a future socialist society were changed significantly by the historic struggle of workers in Paris, who, in 1871, seized power and established the Paris Commune for 71 days before it was brutally crushed. It was in the new forms of workers’ democracy created by the Paris Commune that Marx saw the practical forms of socialism from below — and it was also here that Marx saw for the first time that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,” but that they would need to actually create new democratic forms of decision-making and representation.

Poster of the Paris Commune (1871); by anonymous artist depicting three women holding red flags, two reaching for each other and the third, in the background, struggling to rise from her knees.
Poster of the Paris Commune (1871); by anonymous artist.

I want to turn for a moment to the common criticism that Marx did not issue a blueprint. This is partly the flip side of the idea (held by many on the right, as well as the Left) that he did issue a blueprint — and it was realized in the Soviet Union. In fact, Marx and Engels consciously rejected the blueprint approach because they saw it as elitist and as a political dead end.

This is how they frame the issue in the Communist Manifesto: “

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.

Marx and Engels here are arguing that any future socialist society needs to emerge from the activity of workers fighting for that society. However, Marx was also very clear that our ideas, our political practice, our imagination are all conditioned by capitalism, even as we work to dismantle it. For example, today neoliberal thinking runs rampant in leftist movements and organizations, even among people who formally criticize neoliberalism.

Marxists, contrary to the common critique of them, have a humility about this fact. Marx summed up this humility in the third of his eleven “Theses on Feuerbach”:

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances … forgets that circumstances are changed by [people] and that it is essential to educate the educator…. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.

We change in struggle. Our ideas change. Our potential changes. And if one takes that idea seriously, I think a few conclusions follow.

One is that our own understanding of the future socialist society today is necessarily limited — and any models we draw up based on that understanding will be necessarily limited. It will be up to the people forging socialism to properly realize the potential of a truly emancipated society. We can gesture toward some of the basic principles: a society based on cooperation rather than competition, a system that prioritizes people and the planet rather than profit, and a society that maximizes human creativity while holding an expansive view of human needs, limiting the drudgery of work, and more, but we can’t say exactly how to do so.

Second is that we cannot rely on revolutionary slogans to advance our project. We cannot “substitute the catchword of revolution for revolutionary development,” as Marx argued in a debate within anarchists in the Communist League in 1850. As Hall reminds us, this is a problem among many people who identify with Marxism in the here and now, too.

Marx criticized radicals who

regard not the real conditions but a mere effort of will as the driving force of the revolution. Whereas we say to the workers: “You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power.”

There are no shortcuts, there is no gradual path, no idyllic path, to socialism. And no parliamentary road to socialism either, as the social democrats believe.

A logical corollary of this is that we do not imagine that Tempest is the embryo of the future socialist society. Instead, the broad perspective of socialism from below holds that capitalism, by its very nature, breeds opposition and resistance on a global scale; that millions, indeed billions of people, will move into struggle; and that our highest aspiration is to be among those people when they do, regrouping, reorganizing, debating, arguing, and collaborating to best advance the struggle for revolutionary change; and, we hope, finding in the lessons of the past, and in the best of our tradition, critical ideas to help that struggle succeed. That is, we make the future by fighting for it.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Anthony Arnove View All

Anthony Arnove is an editor at Haymarket Books and a member of Tempest Collective.