Paul Foot

The Case for Socialism

1: The Foaming Wave

‘All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.’
Rosa Luxemburg.

‘EVER SINCE the beginning of time,’ says a disembodied voice over a picture of a spinning globe at the start of Cecil B. de Mille’s film Samson and Delilah, ‘man has striven to achieve a democratic state on earth.’ That is probably putting it a little high (especially as the voice goes on to assert: ‘such a man was Samson’), but there is some truth in it. For thousands of years there have been oppressors and oppressed; rich and poor; powerful and weak; and through all that time the first group have robbed the second. During all that time, too, people at the bottom have dreamt of a world where there would be no oppression but where people would live in peace without being robbed. Most of these Utopias were in heaven. The few that ever existed on earth were always in isolation from the real world.

In feudal times, there was less than enough to go round: nothing like enough, for instance, to feed everyone. If anyone was to progress at all from the lowest form of human life, they had to turn themselves into rulers, seize the land and steal a surplus from the people who tilled it. Obviously they could not do this as individuals. They had to band together into classes, to pool their resources with others so that they could more effectively rob the majority, or go to war with other rulers in other parts of the world.

The word ‘socialism’ was first used in France after the Great Revolution which finally put paid to feudalism. Capitalism, the system which emerged, completely changed the economic and social environment. It brought men and women together, to co-operate with one another in production. Feudal backwardness and isolation were replaced by capitalist progress and growth.

The wealth which was produced under the new system was so enormous that there was, quite suddenly, enough to go round. For the first time it was possible for people to imagine a society where everyone could live in relative equality: where there was no need for exploiters and exploited, and where the means of production could be owned not by marauding individuals but by society. Workers were cooperating to produce; why then should they not extend that cooperation to deciding what they produced, and to whom and how it was distributed?

In such a cooperative society, production could be planned to fit everyone’s needs. Distribution, exchange – everything else in society – could be organised socially. It followed that in socialist society, there would be no need for anyone to fight anyone else. There would be more than enough for everyone, and it would be distributed not on the basis of who had the strongest army or who could make the biggest gun, but on the basis of who needed most.

These simple socialist ideas were first put around by people later called ‘Utopians’, who argued that such a society would emerge if people thought about it and understood it. The strength of the idea alone, they argued, would persuade the capitalists either to surrender their property or to organise it in the interests of everyone, including their own workers.

One of the earliest socialists in Britain was Robert Owen. He was a wealthy man who put his socialist ideas into practice by organising his mill in New Lanark, Scotland, so that workers worked decent hours for reasonable wages. Education and medical care were provided for them and their families.

New Lanark was not a bad place to work. But it was completely isolated. To Robert Owen’s anguish, every other employer preferred old-fashioned Christian values of robbery and greed. New Lanark staggered on in isolation, until the iron grip of the employers in every other part of Scotland strangled it.

The Utopian socialists were put to flight in the 1840s by a young German revolutionary called Karl Marx. Just as socialism is being ‘written off by all important people today, so in his lifetime (1818 to 1883) and ever since, Karl Marx has been ‘written off’ by each successive generation of politicians and intellectuals. At his funeral in Highgate, North London, the graveside oration was made by his collaborator and friend, Frederick Engels. In a short, simple speech Engels summed up Marx’s enormous contribution to civilisation. Just as Darwin discovered that mankind had developed from animals – the law of evolution – so Marx discovered

the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, religion and art; and that therefore the production of the immediate material means of life and consequently the degree of economic development ... form the foundation upon which the forms of government, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have been evolved ... instead of vice versa as had hitherto been the case.

Marx argued that all human history was dominated by a tussle for the wealth between classes, one of which took the wealth, and used it to exploit the others. As science and technology developed, so one exploiting class was replaced by another that used the resources of society more efficiently. The necessity for exploitation, he observed, had ended with capitalism. If the working class, the masses who cooperate to produce the wealth, could seize the means of production from the capitalist class, they could put an end to exploitation forever and run society on the lines of the famous slogan: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’

Famous people throughout history have scoffed at Marx as a remote academic, who wrote for intellectuals and not for the masses. This entirely misses the main inspiration of Marx’s life. Here is Engels again, by the graveside:

Marx was before all else a revolutionary. His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the forms of government which it had brought into being ... Fighting was his element.

When Marx’s daughter Eleanor asked him for his favourite character in history, Marx replied immediately: ‘Spartacus’. The fighting spirit of the slave revolutionary against the Roman Empire inspired Marx’s enthusiasm for the class struggle in his own time. It was, as he put it, all very well for people to understand the rotten world they lived in. The point, however, was to change it.

How could it be changed? It certainly was no good just thinking about a new society, or trying to attract others to it by example. Exploiters who amassed their power and wealth by robbing workers were not sentimental or namby-pamby about it. They would hold on to their wealth and power, if they had to, by force. They would never surrender that power and wealth, however intellectually or morally unjustifiable it was. It was up to the exploited class – the working class – to seize the means of production in a revolution. No one could do it for them. Socialism could not be introduced by Utopians, dictators, benevolent or otherwise, or by reforming intellectuals and politicians. The first precondition for socialism was that the wealth of society had to be taken over by the workers.

Marx faced up squarely to an argument which is common enough a 150 years later. How, he was asked, can you expect the workers to change society? Are they not the most damaged victims of class rule? Are they not religious, racist, nationalist, dirty and violent?

Marx reacted angrily to this abuse. He had spent a lot of his time with the workers of Paris when he was exiled there in the late 1840s. He knew that there were among the workers people of outstanding courage and self-sacrifice, and that workers’ attitudes could quickly change when they took part in collective struggle such as a strike.

But he was not, as so many middle-class socialists can be, a worker-worshipper. He realised that an exploiting society corrupts everyone in it: the exploited as well as the exploiters. Not to put too fine a point on it, capitalist society covered everything in shit. And that was the best argument of all for a workers’ revolution; he wrote:

This revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overturning it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

While reforms are carried out in the name of workers by someone from on high, the muck of ages sticks to them. The hierarchies created by exploitation encourage even the most degraded and exploited worker to seek someone else whom he can insult and bully as he himself is insulted and bullied. In such circumstances, workers will take pride in things of which there is nothing to be proud: the colour of their skin, their sex, nationality, birthplace or God. These are selected for them by custom, inheritance or superstition, and have nothing to do with their abilities or characters. They are the muck of ages. How are they to be shaken off ? Is someone else to do it for the workers? Or should they do it themselves, by organising their producing power, their own strikes, demonstrations and protests?

When people asked Marx for blueprints of a socialist society, he steadfastly refused to supply them. He would not, he said, ‘provide them with recipes for their cookbooks’. The question ‘what is socialism?’ is, he argued, inextricably entwined with another: how can socialism be achieved? No socialist Utopia was worth the paper it was written on if its authors expected the workers to be passive while the Utopia was achieved. The seed of the new society could only be sown in the struggle against the old one. The only way labour could be emancipated from capital was by the active struggle from below – and a struggle from below could not and would not be set in motion from above.

In 1864 Marx wrote the articles for the first International Working Men’s Association. The first clause started: ‘Considering that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves...’ That clause was written on the cards of every member of the International. It was the very lynchpin of Marx’s socialism.

Seven years after the International was formed, the people of Paris, led by the working class in the city, rose, threw off the muck of ages, and set up their own administration: the Paris Commune. It only lasted a couple of months, when it was drowned in the most ferocious ruling-class slaughter. Marx responded at once with one of the most powerful political pamphlets in all history, which he read out loud to a meeting of the International’s executive. The Commune’s outstanding achievement, he said, was the self-emancipation of the working class:

They have taken the actual management of the revolution into their own hands and found at the same time, in the case of success, the means to hold it in the hands of the people itself; displacing the state machinery of the ruling class by a governmental machinery of their own. This is their ineffable crime!

What kind of a society did they set up? ‘The Commune,’ Marx reported,

was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the central government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes and turned into the responsible and revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves ...

The Commune worked. That was no surprise to Marx, for he saw in the Commune ‘the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class’. It was the living expression of the self-emancipation of the working class.

The other aspect of the Commune which appealed to Marx was its democracy. He liked the fact that it was elected, and the way it was elected. The Commune was infinitely more democratic than any parliamentary democracy the world has known. The executive, as well as the political assembly, the judiciary, the police, education, science, industry and finance – all these became, in the two most consistent words in the pamphlet, ‘responsible’ and ‘revocable’. Marx had seen how workers chose their own representatives in their workplaces. They chose the people they most trusted for positions which held no privilege and no extra wages. Those elected were subject to constant questioning and, if they did not carry out their mandates, to recall. That was a natural way for people to choose their representatives. It brought the representatives close to their electors. It was a democracy which the common people could trust.

The caricature of Marx painted by his enemies over the past 130 years is that he was a tyrant with no interest in democracy. Edmund Wilson, in his famous introduction to his book To the Finland Station, which is about the growth of socialist ideas from the French to the Russian revolution, wrote that Marx ‘was incapable of imagining democracy’. Well, Marx wasn’t terribly interested in imagining anything. But what attracted him to politics in the first place was a loathing for tyranny and a yearning for democracy. In his youth he was known by everyone as ‘an extreme democrat’.

Marx himself wrote how his passionate longing for democracy brought him to socialism. No democracy was worth its name if industry, finance, law and the armed services stayed in the hands of a completely unelected and irresponsible minority. The democratic element in such a democracy was certain to be corrupted and eventually squeezed out. For a democracy to deserve the name, labour had to emancipate itself and, as part of the process, democratise all the areas of society which were constipated by class rule. ‘Democracy,’ wrote Engels in 1845, ‘nowadays is communism... democracy has become the principle of the masses... the proletarian parties are entirely right in inscribing the word “democracy” on their banners.’

The point about socialism is that it would replace a hierarchical, bureaucratic and undemocratic society – capitalism – with a genuine democracy in which the working people controlled their own representatives, and the representatives acted accordingly.

These elements – the self-emancipation of the working class through their own struggle and the democratic society which follows such emancipation – are the heart of socialism. Without them, socialism is dead. All the other features of a socialist society – the planned economy, for instance – depend on a self-emancipated working class and a real democracy. A socialist economy cannot be planned for workers unless the workers are involved in that plan. It took a plan to build the pyramids, but the slaves who built them are not reported to have rejoiced that this new planning brought anything but a life and death under the whip. Like everything else about socialism, the plan depends on who are the planners and how they got there. Socialism depends upon control from below, and control from below can never be brought about from above.

Marx died in 1883, when socialism was still a subject for minorities. He did not live to see the huge growth of the German Social Democratic Party, which claimed it was based on his principles.

As long as the ruling class in Germany withheld the vote and suppressed the growing labour movement, it seemed obvious to most people that socialism could come only through a revolution. But as more and more workers were given the right to vote, and as the trade unions grew into enormous and influential organisations, most socialists started to sing a different tune. In 1898, Eduard Bernstein wrote a pamphlet, which was instantly denounced by other Social Democratic leaders – though they secretly agreed with it. Bernstein argued that the vote and the unions changed the socialist perspective. With the vote and the unions, the working class could be emancipated without a revolution: by getting socialists elected to parliament and there passing laws to change the system. This could be done without antagonising the government or the state, and without calling on people to risk anything, or indeed to do anything or to think anything. All they would have to do was vote.

Bernstein’s book provoked a furious response from another leading member of the German Social Democratic Party: Rosa Luxemburg. Her central point was that Bernstein’s argument was not just an argument about means and ends – but about socialism itself:

People who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society, they take a stand for the surface modification of the old society. Our programme becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism.

Capitalism, she argued, was not made by laws, and would not be undone by laws. It was an economic system, which had to be replaced by another economic system.

The worst part of Bernstein’s proposals was that they left the masses passive: unable to throw off the muck of ages, and so unable to change society. This passivity would, she predicted, make it difficult for the Bernstein reformers to carry out even their most marginal reforms. But the main point about them was that by changing the means of getting socialism, they changed the meaning of socialism itself.

Rosa Luxemburg’s attack on Bernstein – it was titled Social Reform or Revolution – was published in 1900. She returned to the attack six years later in another even more remarkable pamphlet called The Mass Strike. Its inspiration was the Russian revolution of 1905. She watched with increasing excitement as hundreds of years of tyranny in Russia were brought to a halt, not by gradual reforms or by the resurfacing of the old society by wise men at the top, but by the most cataclysmic upheaval from below. She contrasted the slow, steady, ordered march of the German trade unions, through their conferences, sporting associations, libraries, offices and marble halls, with the uprising of Russian workers, many of whom were not even members of trade unions:

While the guardians of the German trade unions for the most part fear that the organisations will fall in pieces in a revolutionary whirlwind like rare porcelain, the Russian revolution shows us the exactly opposite picture: from the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting, rise again, like Venus from the foam, fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions.

Better by far a group of raw workers in struggle than a committee of long-organised trade unionists solemnly selecting candidates for a parliamentary party. The pamphlet throbs with the living spirit of the self-emancipation of workers in struggle: the same spirit which had excited Marx at the time of the Commune. Against the passive piecemeal progress of Bernstein she counterposed the ‘living political school’, the ‘pulsating flesh and blood’, the ‘foaming wave’ of the workers in struggle, breaking down the wall of capitalism and in the process purging themselves of the muck of ages.

This argument between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg has been going on in different tones all through this century. The enormous majority of socialists and even Marxists have taken Bernstein’s side. The reformists offered real reforms, many of which affected the real lives of working people. They offered a clear instrument by which the reforms could be carried out: by electing Labour or social-democratic governments and passing new laws in parliaments; and they demanded from the masses very little – only the vote. How much more ‘sensible’ and ‘practical’ it seemed to get socialism through peaceful parliaments than by revolutions which were vague in theory and dangerous in practice!

A perfect example of the Bernstein method in action was a motion in the British House of Commons which was debated on 20 March and 16 July 1923:

That, in view of the failure of the capitalist system to adequately utilise and organise natural resources and productive power, or to provide the necessary standard of life for vast numbers of the population, and believing that the cause of this failure lies in the private ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, this House declares that legislative effort should be directed to the gradual supersession of the capitalist system by an industrial and social order based on public ownership and democratic control of the instruments of production and distribution.

The debate was ended by the leader of the Labour Party, Ramsay Macdonald, with the words: ‘I am in favour of socialism.’ He lost the vote in the House of Commons that day: 121 MPs voted for socialism; 368 for capitalism.

But a few months later Ramsay Macdonald got his chance. He led the Labour Party to its first election victory, and became prime minister. His government lasted less than a year. It did nothing.

Macdonald’s Labour Party was returned to office again in 1929, pledged to rid Britain forever of the ‘scourge of unemployment’. A million people were out of work. Two years of Labour policies later, there were three million out of work, and Macdonald joined the Tories in a National Government.

Labour and social-democratic governments have been elected throughout Europe all this century. Their model has been Bernstein’s – to enact socialist measures through parliament. When every one of these governments left office, capitalism was stronger and socialism weaker. As Rosa Luxemburg had predicted, the enthusiasm for gradual means has gradually erased the ends. No Labour or social-democratic party now puts forward motions in parliament to get socialism by ‘gradual supersession’, or by any other means for that matter. Instead, they have come to admit that they do not want socialism at all. They prefer, as Rosa Luxemburg predicted, a ‘reformed capitalism’ – a ‘different goal’.

When socialism lost its soul – the self-emancipation of the working class, and a democratic society organised from below – it ceased to be socialism, and became something completely different.

With these dismal consequences, the Bernsteins won the argument for most of the 20th century. But they did not get it all their own way. In that debate in the House of Commons in 1923, the MP for Motherwell, John Newbold, embarrassed the Labour Party leaders with a remarkable forecast:

Apparently, nothing is going to ensue, because we have been informed that the Labour Party is not in favour of the use of force. Consequently, they have told the governing class that they will not have their property taken away. Nothing further will happen except a series of resolutions, and the governing class will say: ‘We will keep our capital in our pocket for nothing is going to occur.’

John Newbold, though in a minority of two in the whole House of Commons, was well equipped to speak up for the soul of socialism: for the tradition of Marx, Engels and Rosa Luxemburg. He was a member of the Communist Party and a supporter of the Russian Revolution.


Last updated on 5.2.2005