From the point of view of intellectuals who have a choice of roles to play in the social struggle, the perspective of Socialism-from-Below has historically had little appeal. Even within the framework of the socialist movement it has had few consistent exponents and not many inconsistent ones. Outside the socialist movement, naturally, the standard line is that such ideas are visionary, impractical, unrealistic, “utopian”; idealistic perhaps but quixotic. The mass of people are congenitally stupid, corrupt, apathetic and generally hopeless; and progressive change must come from Superior People rather like (as it happens) the intellectual expressing these sentiments. This is translated theoretically into an Iron Law of Oligarchy or a tinny law of elitism, in one way or another involving a crude theory of inevitability – the inevitability of change-from-above-only.
Without presuming to review in a few words the arguments pro and con for this pervasive view, we can note the social role it plays, as the self-justificatory rite of the elitist. In “normal” times when the masses are not moving, the theory simply requires pointing with scorn, while the whole history of revolution and social upheaval is simply dismissed as obsolete. But the recurrence of revolutionary upheavals and social disturbances, defined precisely by the intrusion onto the historical stage of previous inactive masses and characteristic of periods when basic social change is on the agenda, is just as “normal” in history as the intervening periods of conservatism. When the elitist theorist therefore has to abandon the posture of the scientific observer who is merely predicting that the mass of people will always continue quiescent, when he is faced with the opposite reality of a revolutionary mass threatening to subvert the structure of power, he is typically not behindhand in switching over to an entirely different track: denouncing mass intervention from below as evil in itself.
The fact is that the choice between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below is, for the intellectual, basically a moral choice, whereas for the working masses who have no social alternative it is a matter of necessity. The intellectual may have the option of “joining the Establishment” where the worker does not; the same option holds also for labor leaders, who, as they rise out of their class, likewise confront a choice that did not exist before. The pressure of conformity to the mores of the ruling class, the pressure for bourgeoisification, is stronger in proportion as personal and organizational ties with the ranks below become weak. It is not hard for an intellectual or bureaucratized official to convince himself that permeation of and adaptation to the existing power is the smart way to do it, when (as it happens) it also permits sharing in the perquisites of influence and affluence.
It is an ironic fact, therefore, that the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” is iron-clad mainly for the intellectual elements from whom it arises. As a social stratum (i.e., apart from exceptional individuals) intellectuals have never been known to rise against established power in anything like the way that the modern working class has done time and again through its relatively brief history. Functioning typically as the ideological flunkies of the established rulers of society, the brain-worker sector of the non-propertied middle classes is yet, at the same time, moved to discontent and disgruntlement by the relationship. Like many another servant, this Admirable Crichton thinks, “I am a better man than my master, and if things were different we would see who should bend the knee.” More than ever in our day, when the credit of the capitalist system is disintegrating throughout the world, he easily dreams of a form of society in which he can come into his own, in which the Brain and not Hands or Moneybags would dictate; in which he and his similars would be released from the pressure of Property through the elimination of capitalism, and released from the pressure of the more numerous masses through the elimination of democracy.
Nor does he have to dream very far, for existing versions of such a society seem to be before his eyes, in the Eastern collectivisms. Even if he rejects these versions, for various reasons including the Cold War, he can theorize his own version of a “good” kind of bureaucratic collectivism, to be called “Meritocracy” or “managerialism” or “Industrialism” or what-have-you, in the U.S.; or “African Socialism” in Ghana and “Arab Socialism” in Cairo; or various other kinds of socialism in other parts of the world.
The nature of the choice between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below stands out most starkly in connection with a question on which there is a considerable measure of agreement among liberal, social-democratic and Stalinoid intellectuals today. This is the alleged inevitability of authoritarian dictatorships (benevolent despotisms) in the newly developing states of Africa and Asia particularly – e.g. Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno, et al. – dictatorships which crush independent trade unions as well as all political opposition and organize to maximize the exploitation of labor, in order to extract from the hides of the working masses sufficient capital to hasten industrialization at the tempo which the new rulers desire. Thus to an unprecented degree, “progressive” circles which once would have protested injustice anywhere have become automatic apologists for any authoritarianism which is considered non-capitalist.
Apart from the economic-determinist rationale usually given for this position, there are two aspects of the question which illuminate what is broadly at stake:
1. The economic argument for dictatorship, purporting to prove the necessity of breakneck industrialization, is undoubtedly very weighty for the new bureaucratic rulers – who meanwhile do not stint their own revenue and aggrandizement – but it is incapable of persuading the worker at the bottom of the heap that he and his family must bow to super-exploitation and super-sweating for some generations ahead, for the sake of a quick accumulation of capital. (In fact, this is why breakneck industrialization requires dictatorial controls.)
The economic-determinist argument is the rationalization of a ruling class viewpoint; it makes human sense only from a ruling-class viewpoint, which of course is always identified with the needs of “society.” It makes equally good sense that the workers at the bottom of the heap must move to fight this super-exploitation to defend their elementary human dignity and wellbeing. So was it also during the capitalist Industrial Revolution, when the “newly developing states” were in Europe.
It is not a question simply of some technical-economic argument but of sides in a class struggle. The question is: Which side are you on?
2. It is argued that the mass of people in these countries are too backward to control the society and its government; and this is no doubt true, not only there. 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.
Although we have been considering a particular line of apologia, the two points which emerged do in fact apply all over the world, in every country, advanced or developing, capitalist or Stalinist. When the demonstrations and boycotts of the Southern Negroes threatened to embarrass President Johnson as he faced an election, the question was: which side are you on? When the Hungarian people erupted in revolt against the Russian occupier, the question was: which side are you on? When the Algerian people fought for liberation against the “socialist” government of Guy Mollet, the question was: which side are you on? When Cuba was invaded by Washington’s puppets, the question was: which side are you on? and when the Cuban trade unions are taken over by the commissars of the dictatorship, the question is also: which side are you on?
Since the beginning of society, there has been no end of theories “proving” that tyranny is inevitable and that freedom-in-democracy is impossible; there is no more convenient ideology for a ruling class and its intellectual flunkies. These are self-fulfilling predictions, since they remain true only as long as they are taken to be true. In the last analysis, the only way of proving them false is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again. To choose any of the forms of Socialism-from-Above is to look back to the old world, to the “old crap.” To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.
Last updated on 26.9.2004