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Colin Barker

A rich legacy

(June 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.143, June 1991, pp.18-19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Socialism has always had two opposing traditions: the reformist tradition of socialism from above and the revolutionary tradition of socialism from below. The latest volume of Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution examines the rivals to Marx and is reviewed here by Colin Barker.

Hal Draper
Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Volume IV: Critique of Other Socialisms
Monthly Review Press. £11.95 (available from Bookmarks £9.50).

SOME THINGS we read stay with us for the rest of our lives. For me, one formative influence was an article in the winter 1962 issue of International Socialism by Hal Draper, an American Marxist. It had the unpromising title The Two Souls of Socialism. That article was a knockout.

Draper’s theme was simple: the word ‘socialism’ has two, utterly opposed, meanings.

One – he called it ‘Socialism From Above’ – is vile. Socialism from above says: the way to change things is to rely on great leaders to do it for you. It proposes that wise people should reorganise the world for its own good. The best the rest of us can do is admire and support the wise in their work of regenerating human society.

Socialism from above is a vision impregnated with all the assumptions of class society. It is elitist and bureaucratic. It leaves the exploited majority in the same position as before.

With the rise of the working class, socialism from above entered into our movement. It is the shape of the reformist socialism of the Labour Party, but also – since the Russian Revolution degenerated – of the Communist Party.

Opposed to that tradition is another: ‘Socialism From Below’. Its most important thinker was Karl Marx. Socialism from below stands on entirely different grounds. It grows out of the actual struggles of the oppressed and the exploited, and above all out of the battles of the modern working class. Its rallying cry is the first sentence of the Rules of the First Workers’ International, drafted by Marx in 1864: ‘The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the workers themselves.’

Socialism from below can only be achieved if working people themselves inspire it, create, develop and strengthen it. Their own consciousness and self organisation is the only possible basis for socialism. Such a socialism must be, in its essence, democratic, involving the mass of workers in taking over and running society in their own interests, under their own control.

Socialism from below is the only socialism worth fighting for. It is necessarily revolutionary. And, of course, it is the only realistic socialism.

In the 1970s, the same Hal Draper set out to write a monumental work: a multi-volume account of what Marx really said about socialism. This is the fourth and, alas, the final volume of what grew into a projected five part work since Hal Draper died in 1990. Hal Draper’s whole political life was lived as a revolutionary Marxist and his death was a serious loss to the socialist movement.

His work was not without its flaws – most strongly revealed, perhaps, in a book he published in 1987 on ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ from Marx to Lenin. Draper never accepted the view that Stalinist Russia was state capitalist. He held to the unsatisfactory theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. And he never seems to have fully grasped the significance of the new forms of working class organisation developed by workers themselves in the great revolutionary movements of the 20th century: the workers’ councils or Soviets.

But those weaknesses in his thought do not significantly mar this, his last book.

His theme is really an elaboration of his brilliant old article. During their lifetimes, Marx and Engels had to confront a whole series of rival ‘socialisms’ – all of them in one form or another versions of socialism from above.

Draper takes us through these, one at a time, revealing both what their principles were, and how Marx and Engels combatted them. In the process he lays into the legion of ‘Marx scholars’ who have twisted and perverted the ideas of Marx and Engels. His book is full of humorous and quirky footnotes and appendices, in which he flays the sloppy scholarship and outright lies of several generations of Marx’s critics.

THE BULK OF Draper’s book is concerned with various direct forms of socialism from above. Some socialists from above – like Louis Blanc in France or Lassalle in Germany – openly proclaimed themselves as such. Blanc asked, how do we get to socialism? and replied ‘by intervention of the government.’ That, as Draper remarks, ‘was putting it as flatfootedly as you can.’

There was no doubt, either, that Blanc meant the existing government. In 1848, he led the French workers’ Labour Parliament, but when in June 1848 and again in 1871 the Parisian workers actually fought to create their own more democratic state form, he denounced them and supported their bloody crushing by the government.

Why this dependence on the existing state? Because the government represented, for Blanc, the concentration of intelligence in society. Like so many other thinkers of this kind, he glorified the state. This meant ignoring the ruling class character of the existing state power. It also meant keeping that ‘intelligence’ concentrated at the top and not, instead, developing the practical intelligence of the workers, their organisational and fighting capacity and their theoretical understanding.

Lassalle sought to tie the rising workers’ movement to, of all things, the German monarchy. Proclaiming that the workers’ main enemy was the liberal bourgeoisie, he suggested to the Chancellor, Bismarck, that since the monarchy also mistrusted the bourgeoisie, the socialists should join forces with the king! He kept this correspondence secret, of course: he had enough sense to know that it would cause a howl of outrage in the socialist movement.

Marx and Engels only gradually came to realise what a pernicious influence Lassalle and his ideas were having inside the German socialist movement; when they did, they attacked.

Socialism, they made clear, has a straightforward attitude to the existing state, which is a state of the exploiting class. It must be smashed, not worshipped. In their time, as now, there were thinkers a-plenty who saw socialism as simply the extension of state power. But not Marx and Engels. The whole existing apparatus of the state was a massive impediment, not an aid, to the struggle for democratic, working class power. Those who make a cult of the state accept and identify with its reverse: the ‘helplessness’ of the workers.

A weak working class looks to the state and preserves its own passivity and flaccidity; a strong workers’ movement aspires to break the existing power and to put its own in place. ‘State socialism’ is the very negation of the principle of self-emancipation. It denies the very possibility that the workers can organise themselves and looks to an agency outside and above them – the existing state – to solve their problems for them.

AFTER LASSALLE’S DEATH, another form of socialism from above was to infect the German socialist movement: an uncritical attitude to nationalisation and state economic intervention. Bismarck’s government statified the main railway system and introduced elements of a welfare state. The right wing asked, is this not a step towards socialism? The whole notion, said Engels, was nonsense:

‘To be sure, if the statification of the tobacco business is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich are to be numbered among the founders of socialism.’

Capitalism itself was compelled, in its own development, towards a form of ‘socialisation’ of production. But this is the antithesis of socialism. The workers remain, as they were before, the objects of exploitation. Statification in itself does not equal socialism. What determines whether a statification is socialist in tendency or not is a simple question: do the workers expand their power? The question, always, for Marx and Engels posed itself in terms of class power.

But Marx and Engels did not just have to contend with open state worshippers. In some ways more insidious were the anarchists, who sounded very revolutionary: they were, they said, against all ‘authority’ and every form of state.

The anarchists’ problem is that they do not really understand the state. And what you cannot understand you cannot ‘abolish’. They declared that the state was a mere excrescence or cancer on society. So why does it exist? The fact is that the state plays a necessary function in existing society. It cannot be ‘abolished’ until society finds ways of performing those necessary functions – with different social institutions.

MARX AND ENGELS insisted not on a fantasy about ‘abolition of the state’, but on a realistic and democratic solution: the existing ruling class state, whose essence is hierarchy and bureaucracy, must be swept away and replaced by a new state, a workers’ state, under the direct, democratic control of the producers.

Anarchism proper rejects all ‘authority’ in the name of the total freedom of the sovereign individual (a figure it takes over from liberalism). But this means, as Draper suggests, that anarchism cannot answer the question: ‘What do you do when people disagree?’

There is a consistent socialist answer to the question: democratic decision will provide the solutions. But that, of course, requires that the minority accept the ‘authority’ of the majority. The socialist answer to the problem of authority in society is to democratise it, to control it ‘from below’, and thus demystify it. But anarchism, rejecting all ‘authority’, also rejects this – and is thus incoherent.

In practice, anarchism must smuggle ‘authority’ back in. One of the most notorious anarchist smugglers was Bakunin, a man of incredible duplicity. Bakunin – who claimed to want to do away with all states and all authority – actually set out to subordinate all movements to a single authority: himself, and a tightly knit secret group of co-conspirators.

In the name of the abolition of authority, he demanded total submission to his fantasies. He abolished the state in one breath, to reinvent it in the next. He and his co-conspirators (who were always falling out among themselves) sought to take over the First International or, failing that, to wreck it.

Draper’s demolition job on Bakunin – a racist, reformist, Tsar-loving rat – is one of the pleasures of this book.

Alas, because of Draper’s death, we shall not get his fifth and final volume, which promised to cover the question of reform versus revolution. But he has left us, anyway, with a marvellously rich and beautifully documented legacy. We should use his writings: they’re a weapon for us.

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