Hal Draper


The Two Souls of Socialism

3. What Marx Did

Utopianism was elitist and anti-democratic to the core because it was utopian – that is, it looked to the prescription of a prefabricated model, the dreaming-up of a plan to be willed into existence. Above all, it was inherently hostile to the very idea of transforming society from below, by the upsetting intervention of freedom-seeking masses, even where it finally accepted recourse to the instrument of a mass movement for pressure upon the Tops. In the socialist movement as it developed before Marx, nowhere did the line of the Socialist Idea intersect the line of Democracy-from-Below.

This intersection, this synthesis, was the great contribution of Marx: in comparison, the whole content of his Capital is secondary. This is the heart of Marxism: “This is the Law; all the rest is commentary.” The Communist Manifesto of 1848 marked the self-consciousness of the first movement (in Engels’ words) “whose notion was from the very beginning that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.”

The young Marx himself went through the more primitive stage just as the human embryo goes through the gill stage; or to put it differently, one of his first immunizations was achieved by catching the most pervasive disease of all, the illusion of the Savior-Despot. When he was 22, the old kaiser died, and to the hosannahs of the liberals Friedrich Wilhelm IV acceded to the throne amidst expectations of democratic reforms from above. Nothing of the sort happened. Marx never went back to this notion, which has bedeviled all of socialism with its hopes in Savior-Dictators or Savior-Presidents.

Marx entered politics as the crusading editor of a newspaper which was the organ of the extreme left of the liberal democracy of the industrialized Rhineland, and soon became the foremost editorial voice of complete political democracy in Germany. The first article he published was a polemic in favor of the unqualified freedom of the press from all censorship by the state. By the time the imperial government forced his dismissal, he was turning to find out more about the new socialist ideas coming from France. When this leading spokesman of liberal democracy became a socialist, he still regarded the task as the championing of democracy – except that democracy now had a deeper meaning. Marx was the first socialist thinker and leader who came to socialism through the struggle for liberal democracy.

{In manuscript notes made in 1844, he rejected the extant “crude communism” which negates the personality of man, and looked to a communism which would be a “fully developed humanism.” In 1845 he and his friend Engels worked out a line of argument against the elitism of a socialist current represented by one Bruno Bauer. In 1846 they were organizing the “German Democratic Communists” in Brussels exile, and Engels was writing: “In our time democracy and communism are one.” “Only the proletarians are able to fraternize really, under the banner of communist democracy.”}

In working out the viewpoint which first wedded the new communist idea to the new democratic aspirations, they came into conflict with the existing communist sects such as that of Weitling, who dreamed of a messianic dictatorship. Before they joined the group which became the Communist League (for which they were to write the Communist Manifesto), they stipulated that the organization be changed from an elite conspiracy of the old type into an open propaganda group, that “everything conducive to superstitious authoritarianism be struck out of the rules,” that the leading committee be elected by the whole membership as against the tradition of “decisions from above.” They won the league over to their new approach, and in a journal issued in 1847 only a few months before the Communist Manifesto, the group announced:

“We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced ... that in no social order will personal freedom be so assured as in a society based upon communal ownership... [Let us put] our hands to work in order to establish a democratic state wherein each party would be able by word or in writing to win a majority over to its ideas ...”

The Communist Manifesto which issued out of these discussions proclaimed that the first objective of the revolution was “to win the battle of democracy.” When, two years later and after the decline of the 1848 revolutions, the Communist League split, it was in conflict once again with the “crude communism” of putschism, which thought to substitute determined bands of revolutionaries for the real mass movement of an enlightened working class. Marx told them:

“The minority ... makes mere will the motive force of the revolution, instead of actual relations. Whereas we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through fifteen or twenty or fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change extant conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and to render yourselves fit for political dominion,’ you, on the other hand, say to the workers: ‘We must attain to power at once, or else we may just as well go to sleep.’”

In order to change yourselves and to render yourselves fit for political dominion”: this is Marx’s program for the working-class movement, as against both those who say the workers can take power any Sunday, and those who say never. Thus Marxism came into being, in self-conscious struggle against the advocates of the Educational Dictatorship, the Savior-Dictators, the revolutionary elitists, the communist authoritarians, as well as the philanthropic do-gooders and bourgeois liberals. This was Marx’s Marxism, not the caricatured monstrosity which is painted up with that label by both the Establishment’s professoriat, who shudder at Marx’s uncompromising spirit of revolutionary opposition to the capitalist status quo, and also by the Stalinists and neo-Stalinists, who must conceal the fact that Marx cut his eyeteeth by making war on their type.

“It was Marx who finally fettered the two ideas of Socialism and Democracy together” [2] because he developed a theory which made the synthesis possible for the first time. The heart of the theory is this proposition: that there is a social majority which has the interest and motivation to change the system, and that the aim of socialism can be the education and mobilization of this mass-majority. This is the exploited class, the working class, from which comes the eventual motive-force of revolution. Hence a socialism-from-below is possible, on the basis of a theory which sees the revolutionary potentialities in the broad masses, even if they seem backward at a given time and place. Capital, after all, is nothing but the demonstration of the economic basis of this proposition.

It is only some such theory of working-class socialism which makes possible the fusion of revolutionary socialism and revolutionary democracy. We are not arguing at this point our conviction that this faith is justified, but only insisting on the alternative: all socialists or would-be reformers who repudiate it must go over to some Socialism-from-Above, whether of the reformist, utopian, bureaucratic, Stalinist, Maoist or Castroite variety. And they do.

Five years before the Communist Manifesto a freshly converted 23-year-old socialist had still written in the old elitist tradition: “We can recruit our ranks from those classes only which have enjoyed a pretty good education; that is, from the universities and from the commercial class ...” The young Engels learned better; but this obsolete wisdom is still with us as ever.




2 The quotation is from H.G. Wells’ autobiography. Inventor of some of the grimmest Socialism-from-Above utopias in all literature, Wells is here denouncing Marx for this historic step.


Last updated on 25.9.2004