Hal Draper


The Two Souls of Socialism


5. Lassalle and State Socialism

That very model of a modern social-democracy, the German Social-Democratic Party, is often represented as having arisen on a Marxist basis. This is a myth, like so much else in extant histories of socialism. The impact of Marx was strong, including on some of the top leaders for a while, but the politics which permeated and finally pervaded the party came mainly from two other sources. One was Lassalle, who founded German socialism as an organized movement (1863); and the other was the British Fabians, who inspired Eduard Bernstein’s “revisionism.”

Ferdinand Lassalle is the prototype of the state-socialist – which means, one who aims to get socialism handed down by the existing state. He was not the first prominent example (that was Louis Blanc), but for him the existing state was the Kaiser’s state under Bismarck.

The state, Lassalle told the workers, is something “that will achieve for each one of us what none of us could achieve for himself.” Marx taught the exact opposite: that the working class had to achieve its emancipation itself, and abolish the existing state in the course. E. Bernstein was quite right in saying that Lassalle “made a veritable cult” of the state. “The immemorial vestal fire of all civilization, the State, I defend with you against those modern barbarians [the liberal bourgeoisie],” Lassalle told a Prussian court. This is what made Marx and Lassalle “fundamentally opposed,” points out Lassalle’s biographer Footman, who lays bare his pro-Prussianism, pro-Prussian nationalism, pro-Prussian imperialism.

Lassalle organized this first German socialist movement as his personal dictatorship. Quite consciously he set about building it as a mass movement from below to achieve a Socialism-from-Above (remember Saint-Simon’s battering-ram). The aim was to convince Bismarck to hand down concessions – particularly universal suffrage, on which basis a parliamentary movement under Lassalle could become a mass ally of the Bismarckian state in a coalition against the liberal bourgeoisie. To this end Lassalle actually tried to negotiate with the Iron Chancellor. Sending him the dictatorial statutes of his organization as “the constitution of my kingdom which perhaps you will envy me,” Lassalle went on:

“But this miniature will be enough to show how true it is that the working class feels an instinctive inclination towards a dictatorship, if it can first be rightly persuaded that the dictatorship will be exercised in its interests; and how much, despite all republican views – or rather precisely because of them – it would therefore be inclined, as I told you only recently, to look upon the Crown, in opposition to the egoism of bourgeois society, as the natural representative of the social dictatorship, if the Crown for its part could ever make up its mind to the – certainly very improbable – step of striking out a really revolutionary line and transforming itself from the monarchy of the privileged orders into a social and revolutionary people’s monarchy.”

Although this secret letter was not known at the time, Marx grasped the nature of Lassalleanism perfectly. He told Lassalle to his face that he was a “Bonapartist,” and wrote presciently that “His attitude is that of the future workers’ dictator.” Lassalle’s tendency he called “Royal Prussian Government socialism,” denouncing his “alliance with absolutist and feudal opponents against the bourgeoisie.”

“Instead of the revolutionary process of transformation of society,” wrote Marx, Lassalle sees socialism arising “from the ‘state aid’ that the state gives to the producers’ cooperative societies and which the state, not the worker, ‘calls into being.’” Marx derides this. “But as far as the present cooperative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the government or of the bourgeoisie.” Here is a classic statement of the meaning of the word independent as the keystone of Socialism-from-Below versus state-socialism.

There is an instructive instance of what happens when an American-type academic anti-marxist runs into this aspect of Marx. Mayo’s Democracy and Marxism (later revised as Introduction to Marxist Theory) handily proves that Marxism is anti-democratic mainly by the simple expedient of defining Marxism as “the Moscow orthodoxy.” But at least he seems to have read Marx, and realized that nowhere, in acres of writing and a long life, did Marx evince concern about more power for the state but rather the reverse. Marx, it dawned on him, was not a “statist”:

“The popular criticism leveled against Marxism is that it tends to degenerate into a form of ‘statism.’ At first sight [i.e., reading] the criticism appears wide of the mark, for the virtue of Marx’s political theory ... is the entire absence from it of any glorification of the state.”

This discovery offers a notable challenge to Marx-critics, who of course know in advance that Marxism must glorify the state. Mayo solves the difficulty in two statements: (1) “the statism is implicit in the requirements of total planning ...” (2) Look at Russia. But Marx made no fetish of “total planning.” He has so often been denounced (by other Marx-critics) for failing to draw up a blueprint of socialism precisely because he reacted so violently against his predecessors’ utopian “plannism” or planning-from-above. “Plannism” is precisely the conception of socialism that Marxism wished to destroy. Socialism must involve planning, but “total planning” does not equal socialism just as any fool can be a professor but not every professor need be a fool.


Last updated on 25.9.2004