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John Passant

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September 2010



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The two souls of socialism

Ever since the dream of a socialist society first emerged, there has been a wide range of ideas as to how this could be turned into a reality. Some people who describe themselves socialists have looked to parliament, some to workers’ revolution, and yet others to armed bands of guerrilla fighters.

At the centre of the debate has been a simple question argues Andrew Cheeseman in Socialist Alternative. Can a society where the working class is in control be achieved “from above”, by a minority at the top of society? Or must it be won “from below”, by the working class themselves?

It turns out that this isn’t just a debate about which road is the best way to socialism. The different roads lead to different ends altogether.

The early socialists

Karl Marx wasn’t the first to consider himself a socialist, although he was a pioneer of the tradition of socialism from below. In the early nineteenth century, some radical thinkers like Robert Owen were attracted to a tendency that is now known as the utopian socialists. These early thinkers spent most of their time debating out exactly what a socialist society would look like, then trying to convince wealthy philanthropists to donate money to allow the creation of their dream societies.

Essentially, the utopian socialists sought to create benevolent dictatorships where the main decisions were made by well-intended, enlightened socialists, and the working class would play only the role of passive beneficiaries.

Of course, it all came to nothing anyway, as the capitalist class – those with enough money to bankroll these schemes – never wanted anything resembling equality. Why would capitalists experiment with other ways of running society when they were doing just fine with the present way?

The utopians, however, were just the first major grouping in the tradition of socialism from above, and unfortunately, the appeal of socialism from above didn’t fade into irrelevance with the utopians.

The idea of “socialism from above”

At its heart, the idea of “socialism from above” is the belief that socialism can be achieved by a minority at the top of society acting in the interests of the working class. Just who this minority is – philanthropic capitalists, parliamentarians, or armed rebels – varies. The main constant is that, for proponents of socialism from above, the emancipation of the working class is carried out by some force other than the working class.

Today, there are still many political currents within the traditions of socialism from above.


The most important of these currents historically has been reformism – a parliamentary road to socialism – the idea that socialists can capture control of the structures of the capitalist state by winning elections, and then gradually legislate for progressive change and ultimately socialism. You wouldn’t know it from looking at them today, but this is exactly what the founding members of the Australian Labor Party intended.

Some reformists restrict their activity solely to parliamentary elections. Other times, adherents of this political tradition engage in activism outside parliament as well. However, both agree that the main vehicle for change is legislating for it in parliament; and for both, the role of activism is to speed the process along, or to convince the public to think about an issue more so they will vote for the reformist party in the next election.

The reformist project fails, however, because under capitalism, merely winning government isn’t enough to enact real change. The most important decisions in society are made outside of the parliament – by the corporate boards that decide what is produced and where, by the police chiefs who decide who is prosecuted, and the generals who decide whether the army launches a coup to crush a government.

When ruling classes have felt even remotely threatened by the reformist project, they have been happy to dispense with the parliamentary system these “socialists” rely upon. In Chile in 1973 the capitalist class engineered a military coup that crushed the reformist government of Salvador Allende; two years later in Australia they dispensed with democracy in a less violent manner to oust the decidedly non-socialist Whitlam government.

Guerrilla struggle

A more radical-seeming approach from some proponents of socialism from above is to look to bands of disciplined, hardened guerrillas to bring down governments.

This tradition can seem appealing to people that can see that the working class is clearly not revolutionary in the present day – and so they aim to substitute their sheer force of will for the collective activity of the working class.

Historically, this political tradition has had its greatest “successes” in the mid-20th century nationalist revolutions in China and Cuba.

Both of these revolutions struck important blows against imperialism, winning national independence for both China and Cuba, and as such should be celebrated. However, neither brought the working class to power. Over fifty years later, both countries remain one-party dictatorships.

The real Marxist alternative – socialism from below

Karl Marx was the first socialist to break with the idea of socialism from above, and to put forward the alternative of working class self-emancipation.

At the centre of the real Marxist tradition is the argument that the liberation of the working class can only come from the working class itself – from the bottom of society, rather than a minority at the top. In other words, socialism from below.

In his book The German Ideology, Marx talks of the need for a revolution in which the mass of the working class plays the leading role.

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

This statement is worth breaking down.

First, the power of the ruling class under capitalism is immense. They control the means of production along with the major ideological, political and economic institutions of society. Breaking up these institutions root and branch, and breaking the power of the ruling class, can only be achieved by a revolution that mobilises the full power of the working class – not merely the “power” of a tiny minority of well-intentioned parliamentarians or guerrillas. Importantly, ruling classes won’t concede their wealth and power just because a government tells them to – they will organise and fight to defend it.

Second, it is only through workers’ own participation in revolutionary struggles that the divisive ideas spread under capitalism – what Marx termed the “muck of ages” – can be broken down. Workers who might have had contempt for their Lebanese, Indian and Aboriginal co-workers from a young age are thrust into struggle alongside them, and against a common enemy – the (mostly white) ruling class. Solidarity is central to any serious working-class struggle – and this need for solidarity and unity creates the opportunity to break down such divisive ideas.

Finally, mass participation in working-class struggle creates the basis for a truly democratic society, as working-class struggle needs to be democratic in order to win. A minority taking power – even a well-intentioned minority – does not have the same effect.

Ultimately, only the ideas of socialism from below offer a way to break down the “muck of ages” and to produce a new society without class divisions. Only through the mass participation of the working class in a revolution – as the central actors, not just as passive supporters – can the working class become fit to rule. As it was put in the charter of the First International, “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.

For an extended analysis of this argument read Hal Draper’s The Two Souls of Socialism



Comment from ghoul
Time September 23, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Isn’t it a bit cheeky to write (and publish) all this without once mentioning Hal Draper’s name?

Comment from John
Time September 23, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Good point ghoul. I’ll add a link.

Comment from George
Time September 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm


I’m confused. Part of this looks like you’re suggesting the removal of Parliament. Is that what you’re really saying?


Comment from John
Time September 27, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Yes Georgg, and its replacement with more democratic structures based on the workplace… These more democratic structures are those workers themselves create to run society There is a long history of these more democratic structures arising – eg Paris 1871, Russia 1905 and 1917 (before the destruction of the revolution and the rise of stalinism), Germany 1918 to 1923, China 1926, East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Poland 1979/80 Iran 1978/79 etc etc.

It is these workers councils that will decide what is produced, the political questions of the day and the like. Representatives will be subject to immediate recall eg if they vote in a way contrary to those who elected them. I imagine meetings in workplaces every morning to elect delegates or replace them.

In addition the representatives will be on the average wage to make sure they experience working class life.

Read Marx on the Civil War in France as a starter.

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