Socialism from Below (part I)

by David McNally

Second (revised) edition.

Published in 1997 by the New Socialist Group.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Crisis of Socialism
I. The Dream of Freedom

II. Birth of the Socialist Idea

III. Marxism: Socialism from Below

IV. Rosa Luxemburg, V. I. Lenin and the First Crisis of Marxism

V.From the Russian Revolution to the Rise of Stalinism

VI. Leon Trotsky and Anti-Stalinist Socialism

VII. Antonio Gramsci and the Renewal of Socialism from Below
VIII. Rebels within the Movement: Socialist Voices for Gender, Racial and Sexual Liberation
IX. Socialism from Below for the 21st Century

Introduction: The Crisis of Socialism

Socialism today confronts a crisis. We are told on a daily basis that socialism is dead; that there is no alternative to capitalism. As a result of decades in which police-state dictatorships called themselves “socialist,” huge numbers of people now equate socialism with grey-faced bureaucrats who watch over parades of tanks and missiles and who jail those who think freely, organize independent unions, fight for their rights, read banned literature, or listen to “subversive” music. Rather than freedom, the word socialism often triggers images of repression. As if this were not bad enough, the collapse of many of these bureaucratic regimes during the 1980s gave credence to the idea that socialism is unworkable, that it inevitably produces an inefficient economic system. In this context, pundits have declared “the end of history;” they insist that capitalism has defeated all comers, that it no longer has any serious rivals.

To complicate matters further, people calling themselves “socialists” and “communists” often appear today as born-again converts to the ideals of capitalism. In Italy, the Democratic Party of the Left has declared that “there are no alternatives to the market economy.” In a similar vein, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated that “Margaret Thatcher’s emphasis on enterprise was right.” And in Canada, the New Democratic Party, the parliamentary part of the left, has governed just like any other mainstream party of capitalism. In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, an NDP government grotesquely violated union rights and undertook major cuts to social programs. Indeed, then NDP Premier Bob Rae claimed that “the choice isn’t between capitalism and socialism. The question is what kind of capitalism do we want to have.”

Actions and statements like this lend enormous weight to the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. And there is nothing unique to Canada or Europe about all of this. As a Globe and Mail correspondent wrote in July 1996, “In countries such as Poland, China and Vietnam, parties or governments that still use the label Communist are actually implementing the policies of capitalism.”

Yet, paradoxically, the socialist critique of capitalism has rarely seemed more relevant than it does at the moment. In a world where 447 billionaires own property equal to the annual income of fully half of humankind; in which one billion people live in what the World Bank terms “absolute poverty”; where more than 100 million children labour in sweatshops; where environmental devastation escalates at an alarming rate; and where the oppression of women, people of colour, lesbians and gay men, aboriginals, and people living with AIDS shows no sign of lightening; in such a world the socialist critique of exploitation, inequality and oppression takes on particular urgency.

At its birth, socialism was the banner under which working people resisted the horrors of the factory system and demanded a new society of equality, justice, freedom and prosperity. Socialism promised the emancipation of labour, a society founded on workers’ control where labour would be transformed from drudgery done in the pursuit of profit into collective activity done in the service of human needs. Early socialists looked forward to a world society free of nationalism and war, a world without gender and racial inequalities; they envisioned a cooperative and democratic society run by and for the majority. Rather than autoritarian regimes that deny even the most elementary democratic rights, socialism was understood as a new society of freedom.

This pamphlet is dedicated to recovering that original vision of socialism and freedom and to showing how it might be renewed for the early 21st century. To renew socialism means two things. First, to return to its original sources and to show how these still speak to the dilemmas we face in late capitalist society. And, second, it means showing how authentic socialism might be extended and developed in order to address new problems and challenges that are posed by new social and historical conditions.

This pamphlet begins, then, with the birth of socialism and proceeds to trace key parts of its history over the past 150 years or so. I discuss this history not in order to create a dogma to be memorized by the “disciples” of socialism. I do so because any movement for human emancipation has a duty to learn from the great struggles, errors, and accomplishments of the past. Throughout, my discussion is informed by one overriding conviction: that the heart and soul of socialism is the struggle for human freedom, and that the socialist ideal of a free society needs to be revitalized if we are to mount any meaningful challenge to exploitation and oppression.

I. The Dream of Freedom

The dream of human freedom is as old as class society itself. So long as one section of society has been held down and exploited by another, some women and men have dreamt, spoken and written about the possibility of a new kind of life. And sometimes they have fought to break the chains of domination that tied them to a life of drudgery and misery. We find hints of this dream of freedom in the oldest of historical documents. The Old Testament of the Bible, for example, promises the coming of the messiah who will vanquish the rich and liberate the poor. Take the following passage from the Book of Isaiah, for instance, where it is proclaimed that the messiah would come “to preach good tidings to the meek…to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” In the same vein, the New Testament announced that Jesus was this messiah who had come to emancipate the poor and the oppressed. Similar sentiments are expressed in other world religions.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the legend persisted that some day a new liberator would come to slay the sinful rich and free the poor. When peasants rose in rebellion against their lords and masters, particularly during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, they continually looked for a powerful leader appointed by God who would lead them into a new promised land.

The popular culture of Europe nourished a rich tradition of opposition to the rich and powerful. During times of feasting and carnival, the people engaged in rituals of “dethroning” kings, crowning the humblest member of society, blashpheming against bishops and priests, mocking the powerful and the well-to-do. Such practices were not unique to Europe. An Ethiopian proverb, for example, captures a similar sentiment. It states: “When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts.”

Most of these cultures of resistance and movements of popular rebellion had strongly religious overtones. People did not tyically conceive of themselves as having the capacity to overthrow their rulers and to build a new society of their own efforts. They looked to a mystical, not a human, transformation of society. The turned to God who, through the agency of certain human beings, would cleanse the world of evil, violence and oppression.

Such a mystical outlook persisted even up to the mighty struggles against the monarchy during the English Revolution of the 1640s. These struggles saw the emergence of a powerful communist doctrine based on the notion that all people should own and work the land in common. The radical English writer Gerard Winstanley wrote, for example, that “True freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth.” At the same time, Winstanley and his radical followers adhered to a religious view of things in which the birth of a new society would be the work, not of ordinary men and women, but of God.

It was not until the late 18th century that the idea began to emerge that human beings could themselves refashion society. Only with the rise of capitalism in Europe and the emergence of the modern working class did critics of society began to think in terms of a human transformation of social life. And it was with these developments that the idea of socialism from below emerged. But at the start, socialism was largely elitist and antidemocratic in character. It was only through several decades of working class struggle that socialism took the form of a movement devoted to the self-emancipation of the oppressed.

II. Birth of the Socialist Idea

The term “socialism” made its appearance in print in England in 1827. Five years later, the term was used for the first time in a French publication. It is no accident that the socialist idea — and the socialist movement — first appeared in England and France. For socialism was a product of two revolutions in human affairs, each with their respective roots in those two countries: the industrial revolution in England and the popular-democratic revolution in France.


The great French revolution of 1789-1799 involved the most massive popular struggles that had yet been seen in history. Rooted in popular hatred of an oppressive monarchy, the revolution rose on the backs of the masses of poor people in Paris who united under the banner of “liberty, equality and brotherhood.” Beginning as a rebellion against the abuses of the monarchy, the revolution grew into a massive challenge to all forms of oppressive authority — whether it was that of lords, priests or factory owners. Initially, the battle against the monarchy unified large sections of society. As the revolution advanced, however, a new ruling group tried to halt the process in order to maintain their grossly unequal system of property and power. As a result, the popular movement divided into conservative and revolutionary camps.

In the conservative camp were those who saw freedom simply in terms of the freedom to own property. In the revolutionary camp were those who represented the Paris poor and who recognised that freedom was impossible without equality; that it was meaningless to talk of liberty if this was confined to the right of some men and women to starve to death while others grew rich off the labour of others. As the radical leader Jacques Roux put it at the height of the French Revolution in 1793:

Liberty is no more than an empty shell when one class of men is allowed to condemn another to starvation without any measures being taken against them. And equality is also an empty shell when the rich, by exercising their economic monopolies, have the power of life or death over other members of the community.

Out of the French Revolution, then, emerged the essential socialist idea that democracy and freedom require a society of equality. The French radicals recognised that genuine freedom presupposed the liberty of all to participate equally in producing and sharing the wealth of society. They understood that if some had the unequal right to own and monopolise land, property or factories, then others might just as unequally be condemned to a life of drudgery, misery and poverty.

But a society of equality requires a minimum level of abundance. So long as economic life remains relatively backward, equality can only mean the common hardship of shared poverty. A healthy and thriving popular democracy requires a state of prosperity in which all the basic needs of people can be satisfied. Without a certain degree of economic productivity, therefore, the demand of the French revolutionaries for liberty and equality could only remain utopian. It was only with the enormous economic development unleashed by the industrial revolution in England that a society based upon equality and abundance became a realistic possibility.


The English industrial revolution conjures up images of dark and dirty textile mills, of ten-year-old children labouring in coal mines, of women and men working 12- and 14-hour days — in short, of suffering and misery. Such an image is largely correct. The industrial revolution that swept Britain, beginning in the last quarter of the 18th century, was a massive dislocation in social life: old communities were destroyed; people were forced off the land and into workshops and factories, or into lives of poverty and unemployment; industrial diseases multiplied; hunger, poverty and illness spread; life expectancy fell. At the same time, however, several ingredients of the industrial revolution held out the prospect of an end to these ills. The new machineries of production that developed, especially during the early 1800s, offered the possibility of sharply reducing drudgery and toil and of massively increasing the production of wealth so as to eliminate poverty forever.

In reality, the industrial revolution did no such thing. Rather than leading to an improvement in the conditions of labour, the new industry was used to increase the fortunes of a few — the new industrial capitalists. Nonetheless, some writers saw in the industrial revolution an enormous potential for improving the human condition. Even some well-intentioned bankers and factory owners came to believe that the forces of this revolution should be harnessed to serve human ends. Many of these become early advocates of what has come to be known as “utopian socialism.”


Britain’s best known utopian socialist was the cotton manufacturer Robert Owen. Like most of the early socialists drawn from the capitalist class, Owen did not call for a mass, democratic restructuring of society. For Owen, the working class was a suffering, downtrodden mass, not a group capable of remaking society. Rather than build a political movement of the oppressed, Owen sought to persuade politicians, landlords, and wealthy businessmen to embrace the cause of social reform. Of the four essays that make up his New View of Society (1813), one was originally dedicated to Britain’s prince Regent, another to the middle class reformer William Wilberforce, and a third to his “fellow manufacturers.” In the latter essay, Owen described workers to his colleagues as “your vital machines.” Although he briefly flirted with support for trade unions in the early 1830s, Owen returned to addressing himself to “men of influence.” His whole approach was based upon appeals to those at the top of society; the idea of mobilizing those at the bottom was entirely foreign to his outlook. Indeed, when the workers of Paris rose up in June of 1848, Owen welcomed their suppression, arguing that it was the duty of the army to “overwhelm the deluded mass opposed to them.”

In this respect, Owen was similar to the two earliest French utopian socialists, Henri Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. Saint-Simon was a real estate speculator turned banker who rose to great wealth in the decades after the French Revolution. Fascinated by the enormous potential of science and technology, Saint-Simon began to argue the case for a “socialist” society that would eliminate the disorderly aspects of capitalism. Saint-Simon’s “socialism” was decidedly anti-democratic. He did not envisage an expansion of human rights and freedoms. Instead, he hoped for a planned and modernised industrial society ruled over by an international committee of bankers. In many respects, Saint-Simon anticipated the development of state capitalism; he looked forward to a capitalist system in which industry would be owned and directed by a government made up of a scientists, managers and financiers.

The socialism of Charles Fourier had more to commend it. A self-taught eccentric, Fourier developed some highly original ideas with respect to the emancipation of women and to self-governing communities. But Fourier’s outlook suffered from two main defects. First, he dismissed the potential of modern industry for bringing into being a society of abundance and hoped nostalgically for a return to preindustrial conditions of life. Second, Fourier looked not to the masses of working people but to enlightened rulers to usher in the socialist utopia. He spent his time drawing up rigid blueprints for the new society and sent copies to rulers like the Czar of Russia and the President of the United States.

Indeed, this is the common thread that runs through the outlook of all the early utopian socialists. Each of them looked to some well-intentioned members of the ruling class to bring about a socialist transformation of society. Each rejected the notion that socialism would have to be achieved democratically — through the mass action of working people. For this reason, all their views can be described as variants of socialism from above — a view in which the masses of people are mere playthings in whose interests an enlightened elite will change society. As the historian of socialism George Lichtheim has put it:
French socialism, at the start, was the work of men who had no thought of overturning society, but wished to reform it, by enlightened legislation if possible. This is the link between Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and Henri de Saint-Simon.
There was, however, one revolutionary doctrine of socialism during this period. This consisted of what can best be called conspiratorial communism. Out of the defeat of the popular struggles of the French Revolution, one far-sighted group of rebels centered around a man named Gracchus Babeuf, developed a communist perspective. Babeuf and his followers believed that true democracy could only be constructed on the basis of common ownership of wealth. But they could see no way of winning a majority of society to support their communist program. The masses of French people sought little else than protection of their own private property — their plot of land or their workshop. They showed little interest in a socialist transformation of society. For this reason, Babeuf — and his later follower, Adolphe Blanqui — could only conceive of a revolution made by a minority, the communist elite. As a result, democracy remained foreign to their socialist program as well.


The same is true, sometimes to a shocking degree, of the earliest exponents of the radical doctrine known as anarchism. It’s “founder,” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, was an anti-semite and a woman-hater who vigorously opposed democracy. He opposed workers’ strikes, and supported France’s military dictatorship in the early 1850s. “All this democracy disgusts me,” he wrote on one occasion. The masses, he argued are “only savages…whom it is our duty to civilise, and without making them our sovereign.”

The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin carried on this tradition, declaring that “Proudhon is the master of all of us.” Bakunin continued his “master’s” anti-semitism, believing in the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy that included Karl Marx and the wealthy Rothschild family. Moreover, Bakunin was forever creating conspiratorial “brotherhoods” organized according to a rigid hierarchy with himself and his appointed followers at the top.

Early anarchism too, then, lacked a commitment to democratic emancipation. Not until the 1840s were democracy and socialism to come together in a powerful new form.

III. Marxism: Socialism from Below

The radical thought of the 1820s and the 1830s was profoundly elitist and anti-democratic in character. Utopian socialism was the creation of upper-class reformers; anarchism originated in the anti-democratic protest of the small property owner; conspiratorial communism conceived of a transformation of society brought about by a select and secret group. The programs of social change advocated by thinkers associated with these trends did not look forward to a collective reordering of society by the mass of the oppressed themselves.

By the 1840s, however, a new current in socialist thought was emerging. The rise of capitalism in England and France had brought into being a new social force that was pressing for widespread change in society. This force was the working class — a class of wage-labourers concentrated in large factories and workplaces and increasingly inclined to resort to collective action, such as strikes, and collective organisation, in the form of trade unions. Between the years 1830 and 1848 — which mark two separate revolutionary uprisings in France — the emerging working class changed the shape of European politics.

In Britain, major strike waves had taken place in the mid-1820s. In 1834, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was founded. Mass strikes took place in 1842. In 1847, on-going agitation among workers forced the government to pass the Ten Hour Bill, thus limiting the length of the workday. In France, the years 1831 and 1834 saw strikes and insurrections among the silk weavers of Lyons. Uprisings among Parisian workers occurred in 1832 and 1834.

This upsurge in militant working class activity powerfully influenced the thinking of some radical writers and organisers. A few of them began to think of the working class as the group that could change society. Indeed, some theorists began to talk in terms of the working class liberating itself through its collective action. Notable in this regard was the French revolutionary Flora Tristan, who linked together ideas of working class self-emancipation and women’s liberation with the proposal for a world-wide organisation of workers. But it was in the writings and the organising of a German socialist, Karl Marx, that the working class took centre stage in socialist thought. Inspired by the emergence of this class, Marx developed a wholly new socialist outlook based upon the principle of socialism from below.

Marx was the first major socialist thinker who came to socialism through the struggle for democratic rights. As a young man in Germany during the early 1840s, Marx edited a newspaper which supported the widespread extension of democratic liberties. Increasingly, Marx came to view political restrictions on democracy as a result of the economic structure of society. When the government closed down his newspaper in 1843, Marx moved to Paris. There he encountered a vibrant working class and socialist movement. Several years later, Marx moved to England where he undertook a painstaking study of the nature of the capitalist economy. Out of his experience in France and England, Marx developed a consistently democratic and revolutionary socialist outlook.


The young Marx started from the problem of political alienation in modern society. He was concerned with the fact that, rather than the people controlling the state, the state controlled the people. Marx described this as a condition of political alienation — in which a human social institution, the state, escaped the control of the people and came to dominate them like an alien power. As he studied the capitalist economy, Marx came to a startlingly original conclusion: that this political alienation of people from the state was rooted in alienated labour. So long as people did not control the work they did or the products they created, they would live in an alienating society. And in such a society, he argued, the state too would escape the control of the majority. A truly democratic society could only be created if alienated labour were to be overcome, and if people were able to democratically control their work and the usage of the wealth they create.

It followed for Marx that democracy must begin at the very base of society — in the workplaces and factories — and from there extend through neighbourhoods and communities. So long as the majority do not control their working lives, so long as capitalists hold the bulk of economic power in society, a minority will continue to dominate political life. Full democracy thus requires the overcoming of alienated labour and class division in society. Only then will each individual fully and equally participate in social and political affairs. Unlike the utopian socialists, Marx thus insisted that socialism had to represent a higher stage of democracy than anything yet seen. He opposed all socialist and communist views that involved a curtailing of democracy. As he wrote in an 1847 pamphlet outlining the views of a socialist grouping in which he was involved:

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 freedom be assured as in a society based upon communal ownership.
Equally important, if socialism was to represent a new society of freedom, then it had to be achieved through a process in which people liberated themselves. Unlike the utopian socialists who looked to an elite to change things for the masses, Marx argued that the masses had to free themselves. Freedom could not be conquered for and handed over to the working masses. Socialism could only be brought into being through the mass democratic action of the oppressed.


Marx was the first major socialist thinker to make the principle of self- emancipation — the principle that socialism could only be brought into being by the self-mobilisation and self-organisation of the working class — a fundamental aspect of the socialist project. As he wrote in the statement of aims of the First International Workingmen’s Association, “The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves.”

Unlike the conspiratorial communists, Marx insisted that there was a majority force in society that would bring socialism into being. He argued that the modern working class of wage-labourers was organized in such a way that it would be pushed, in the course of struggle, towards socialist objectives. Through his study of English economics, Marx came to see that capitalism had created, for the first time in human history, an oppressed class that worked collectively in large workplaces. If this class was to liberate itself, he pointed out, it could only do so in common. If it was to reorganise the economic basis of society, it could only do so in a collective fashion. If the factories, mines, mills and offices were to be brought under the control of those who worked in them, this could be achieved only through the coordinated action of thousands upon thousands of working people. Thus, a working class revolution would of necessity arrive at a new form of collective economy and society in which the means of producing wealth — the factories, schools, hospitals, mines, mills and offices — would be owned and managed in common by the whole of the working class.

Such a democratic and collective society would have to be based upon the fullest possible political democracy. Marx made this point clear from his earliest writings. But it was only with the workers’ revolution in Paris in 1871, the upheaval which established the short-lived Paris Commune, that Marx came to see some of the forms that a workers’ state, workers’ democracy, would take.

In March of 1871, the army of France admitted defeat at the hands of Prussia. Fearing a Prussian take-over of France, the workers of Paris rose up and took control of their city. For more than two months, the workers ruled Paris before their uprising was drowned in blood. In order to secure their rule, the Parisian workers took a series of popular democratic measures. They suppressed the standing army and replaced it with a popular militia; they established the right of the people to recall and replace their elected representatives; they decreed that no elected representative could earn more than the average wage of a worker; they instituted universal male suffrage and universal education.

Marx immediately rallied to the cause of the Paris Commune. He hailed the action of the “heaven-stormers” of Paris. Most important, he learned significant lessons from the experience of the first workers’ revolution. Prior to the Paris Commune, Marx had given little thought to the form that a workers’ revolution would take. Now he drew a conclusion of tremendous importance. The working class, he wrote, could not “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Rather, the working class had to create an entirely new form of state in order to secure people’s democracy and workers’ power.

Marx insisted that the abolition of the standing army along with the institution of free and universal education, universal suffrage, the right to recall representatives and limits on the salary of any elected official were all essential elements of any workers’ state. The Paris Commune, Marx wrote was “essentially a working class government … the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.” Economic emancipation, the elimination of class divisions and private ownership of the means of producing wealth, could only take place under the direct and democratic rule of working people through their own state.

The experience of the Paris Commune was also a reminder of some of the limits of working class organizations. Despite the important role played by poor and working class women in the upheaval, the Commune did not give women the vote. Individuals like Louise Michel fought on the barricades, gave speeches and wrote tracts designed to rally the people of Paris to the cause of the Commune. But its leaders displayed a terrible blindspot when it came to the full participation of women. This aspect of the Commune illustrated the way in which divisions and backwardness among workers could persist even in the midst of a major political upsurge in which old ideas and traditions were being radically challenged.


Marx and Engels started to appreciate this fact slowly, over a number of years. When the International Working Men’s Association was launched in 1864 (its name still reflecting some of these limitations), Marx fought the French section’s opposition to organizing women into trade unions. Marx insisted that workers’ organizations should include all workers — irrespective of gender, race or nationality. Later, Marx’s daughter Eleanor played an important role in organizing working women in Britain into the so-called “new unions” which reached out to unskilled workers. More than this, both Marx and Engels understood that women were oppressed by the structures of the privatized family in capitalist society. Indeed, Engels wrote a most important study, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, designed to explain how women came to be oppressed in class-divided society, and how that oppression might be abolished in a society without classes. Not surprisingly, Engels’ book has been shown to be flawed on a whole number of points by more than 100 years of further research. But that is not the key point. Marx and Engels’ views on many questions appear outdated today. What matters, however, is less the specific answers they gave than their dedication to the idea of an inclusive international movement of the working class.

In this regard, it is worth noting that Marx and Engels also became more attentive over time to national and racial divisions among workers. Intitially, Marx held the highly optimistic idea that European workers would automatically take up the cause of the whole of oppressed humanity. But by the 1860s, he was coming to a more subtle view. In the case of England, for example, Marx concluded that anti-Irish sentiment tied English workers to a identification with their own rulers. Antagonism towards the Irish “is the secret of the impotence of the English working class,” he wrote. Any serious working class movement had to oppose anti-Irish bigotry, insisted Marx. For this reason, the International Working Men’s Association was obliged “everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland into the foreground, and everwhere to side openly with Ireland.” The duty of socialists, in other words, was to champion the struggles of oppressed peoples, to side openly with them, in order to undermine the bigotry of workers in the dominant nations.

The same approach informed Marx’s attitude towards the Civil War between North and South of the United States. Much as he mistrusted the politics of the leaders of the US North, Marx argued that European workers had an obligation to support the Northern cause in order to eradicate slavery. “Labour in the white skin cannot be free,” he insisted, “while labour in the black skin is in chains.” At the same time, Marx argued that the battle against the US South should be turned into a “really revolutionary war” — meaning the arming of blacks and their full involvement in the military struggle.

As the years went by, Marx and Engels came to more informed and sensitive views about the integrity of anti-colonial struggles in India and China, and peasant movements in Russia. While there were a number of real shortcomings to their views in some of these areas, they came increasingly to embrace these movements as important parts of the world-wide struggle of the oppressed, as struggles which could make a vital contribution to the self-emancipation of the labouring people of the world.

There is no question that Marx’s outlook constituted the most far-reaching revolutionary vision of his time. Marx’s socialist perspective represented a thorough fusion of the idea of mass democracy with the notion of a commonly owned and managed economy. His work signalled an entirely new direction in socialist thought and politics. Central to Marx’s socialism were two basic principles. First, that the working class had to emancipate itself through its own collective action. Freedom could not be given over to the working class, it had to be conquered by the oppressed themselves. Secondly, in order to bring about a socialist transformation of society, the working class would have to overthrow the old state and create a new, fully democratic state for itself. These two principles — of self-emancipation and of the democratic workers’ state — became the very essence of ‘Marxism’, of socialism from below.

IV. Rosa Luxemburg, V. I. Lenin and the First Crisis of Marxism

Of the various radical and revolutionary outlooks that emerged from the dual experience of the French revolution and the industrial revolution in England, only Marx’s combined a passionate commitment to popular democracy and a socialized economy with an understanding that only the working class, through its self-activity, could bring into being a new society of freedom and abundance. Yet, in the 50 years after his death in 1883, the “Marxist” legacy was to become a contested one. So much so that, a mere decade or two after Marx’s death, the Marxist movement was to undergo a serious crisis and division.

During the 1890s capitalism entered into a 20-year period of prolonged economic expansion. On the tails of economic growth, most European workers were able to achieve real improvements in their living standards. In massive numbers, these workers joined trade unions and socialist parties, many of which were influenced by Marxist ideas. In Germany, for instance, the Social Democratic Party had one million members by 1912 and received four million votes in the general election of that year. In a period such as this, when things are improving without resort to militant or revolutionary struggle, it is easy to assume that slow, gradual improvement is the natural course of things. Socialists are not immune to such ideas. Indeed, a mechanical version of “Marxism” developed during this period which argued that iron laws of historical evolution made the transition from capitalism to socialism inevitable. In this context, most European socialists came to the view that socialism would be achieved gradually, through the slow transformation of capitalism into a kind of welfare state in which workers would prosper.

Gone was Marx’s notion that socialism could only come into being through a revolutionary transformation of society from below. In its place developed the view that capitalism would slowly grow over into socialism. Such a transition to socialism was seen as involving little more than the election of socialist members of parliament. The German socialist Eduard Bernstein was the most outspoken theorist of this reformist and top-down conception of socialism. But all the major European socialist parties of the time were influenced by this outlook. And, in a much watered down form, it remains the perspective of social democratic parties today.

The dominant trend in socialist thought during this period, then, was a new variant of socialism from above. The struggle of working class people to create new institutions of popular democratic control was seen as having little or nothing to do with the creation of a socialist society. Instead, elected socialist officials would simply take over the existing bureaucratic structures of society and run them more humanely. Rather than a qualitatively different society, socialism was depicted as a gently improved form of the existing social order. Yet, despite the wide influence of this doctrine, some Marxists remained committed to the idea of socialism from below. The most important of these was the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.


Rosa Luxemburg became a revolutionary socialist in her native Poland at age 16. Two years later, she fled to Switzerland in order to avoid arrest by the Polish police. After several years of study, she moved to Germany, where she became the acknowledged leader of the left wing inside the Social Democratic Party. While in her twenties, Luxemburg wrote several major works criticising the attempts by reformists to strip Marxism of its democratic and revolutionary essence. Against them, Luxemburg argued that capitalism could not be transformed into socialism without mass struggle as the system is based upon exploitation and inherent contradictions. When these contradictions become especially acute, capitalism plunges into periods of crisis that inflict terrible suffering upon millions of people. And such periods also intensify competition among capitalism powers — competition which manifests itself in colonialism, militarism, and war. For all these reasons, Luxemburg maintained that the socialist movement had to base itself on a thorough-going opposition to capitalism. In the long run, the only choice for humanity was socialism or barbarism.

This prognosis was proved overwhelmingly correct with the outbreak of world war in 1914. Nearly the entire reformist wing of European socialism abandoned the long-established principle of opposing all wars between capitalist nations. Instead, they reverted to crass patriotism, each party backing its national government. This situation — “socialist” support for war by imperialist powers — represented the first major crisis of the Marxist movement. In the midst of this crisis, a current of socialist internationalists came together. Rosa Luxemburg — along with her comrade Clara Zetkin and the Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky — headed this internationalist wing of the European socialist movement, the wing that called for the workers of all countries to reject the war and overthrow “their” national governments. While the Marxist internationalists were extremely isolated in the early years of the war, by its final years (1917-19), working class revolutions did break out — first in Russia, then in Germany (and later in Hungary, Austria and Italy).

Rosa Luxemburg played a central role in the German revolution of 1918-19. And in that struggle, she passionately and insistently affirmed the basic principles of socialism from below. Time and time again, she argued that the working class would have to build a new world from the burning ashes of a Europe consumed by war, hunger and poverty. The struggle for socialism, she asserted, depends upon the fight against exploitation and oppression in every factory and workplace. The new society could only be created by the mass action of the working class. Nobody could give freedom over to the working class. As she wrote at the height of the German revolution:
The struggle for socialism has to be fought out by the masses, by the masses alone, breast to breast against capitalism, in every factory, by every proletarian against his employer. Only then will it be a socialist revolution. …Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialist. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.
Tragically, the struggle of the German workers was to be crushed — by a government composed of reformist “socialists.” In the process of stamping out the German workers’ revolution, this same ‘socialist’ government organised the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrade Karl Liebknecht. Bureaucratic and reformist socialism from above would have nothing to do with the self-mobilization of the masses, with the struggle for socialism from below.

But while the revolution was defeated in Germany, this was not the case in Russia. There, a mass socialist party — the Bolsheviks —had undertaken a successful working class seizure of power.


The Bolshevik Party emerged in 1903 as a distinct current within the Russian socialist movement. Unlike the socialists in western Europe, the Russian Marxists did not confront conditions of expanding political democracy and rising living standards. Because economic and political circumstances in Russia were harsher than in most of western Europe, ideas about changing society through gradual, democratic reforms did not find a wide audience. Much of Russia’s socialist movement remained more revolutionary in temperment, and this was particularly true of that current known as the Bolsheviks (from the Russian word for “majority”).

The most important leader of the Bolsheviks was Vladimir Lenin. Contrary to most approaches to Russian history, Lenin was neither devil nor saint. He was a committed revolutionary socialist who devoted considerable energies to building a movement that could organize the advanced and most class conscious workers into a party of their own. Like anyone involved in the complex work of political organizing, Lenin could be guilty of serious errors of judgment. And, contrary to those who make a dogma out of his writings, he did not provide a ready-made model for socialist organization in any and all conditions. But, in the specific historical conditions of early twentieth-century Russia, the party he helped to build did develop into a mass organization of tens of thousands of militant workers.

The history of the Bolshevik Party is a most uneven one. There were periods in which the Bolshevism took on a dogmatic and sectarian complexion. This was especially true of the years of defeat and retreat for the Russian workers movement, when police repression, poverty and isolation turned socialists in on themselves. During such moments, the Bolshevik Party assumed a rigid and monolithic character. There is often little in its practice at such times that genuine socialists today would want to emulate. But during the great periods of upsurge by the Russian working class — 1905 and 1917 — Bolshevism managed to overcome many of these limitations. As author Marcel Liebman argues, the Bolshevik Party underwent a metamorphosis in 1917 as it became a truly mass party of class conscious workers. “Having been obliged by force of circumstance to organize in a not very democratic way, or even in a basically anti-democratic one, the Party opened itself in 1917 to the life-giving breeze of democracy.” Thus, when socialists today look back to the experience of the Bolshevik Party, they ought not to romanticize every moment of its history; instead, they should try to learn from its most vibrant, democratic moments — those moments when it was transformed into a fighting party of tens of thousands of militant workers.

Of course, these transformations in the Bolshevik Party went hand in hand with theoretical and political shifts. In fact, during the period of war and revolution (1914-17), Lenin’s own political views shifted and developed in important ways. First, he went back to the writings of Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune and came to the conclusion — as had Rosa Luxemburg at an earlier date — that the Marxist view of the state and of a workers’ revolution had been grossly distorted by the reformists. In his pamphlet, State and Revolution, Lenin restated the Marxist position that the working class would have to overthrow the bureaucratic and elitist state developed by capitalism and replace it with its own democratic workers’ state. “The liberation of the oppressed class is impossible,” Lenin argued, “without the destruction of the apparatus of state power created by the ruling class.” The new workers’ state would be a “transitional state” based on “the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear.” As socialist society developed, the state itself would begin to “wither away,” he argued.

Second, Lenin came over in 1917 to the views of Leon Trotsky on the nature of the coming revolution in Russia. For years, all major trends in Russian socialism had believed that a bourgeois democratic revolution — a revolution against Czarism and for the establishment not of socialism but merely of liberal capitalism — would have to precede a workers’ revolution in Russia. In 1906, Leon Trotsky developed a dissenting view. Only the working class of Russia, Trotsky argued, would be willing and able to carry through the fight for democratic reforms and for a democratic republic. But why, he asked, should the workers be expected to stop at that point? Why should they not extend the fight for democratic rights into a struggle for workers’ control and socialist democracy? In fact, Trotsky asserted, democracy in Russia could only be brought into being through a workers’ revolution. The struggle for democratic rights, therefore, would tend almost automatically to pass over into a struggle for workers’ power.

Answering the charge that Russia was too backward to be able to construct a socialist society — for which a situation of abundance was a central precondition — Trotsky argued that while Russia remained backward, Europe as a whole did not. The Russian revolution, he argued, would be part of a Europe-wide conflict. Aided by the advanced workers’ movements of central and western Europe, he contended, Russia could “skip” the stage of liberal capitalism and proceed directly to the construction of a socialist society. Trotsky described this process as a permanent revolution. The revolution would have to be permanent in two senses. First, the battle for democracy would have to pass over into a revolution for workers’ power. Secondly, the Russian revolution would have to spread and become part of the European revolution — indeed, of a world revolution.

It is important to note in this regard that the theory of permanent revolution involved a much more strongly internationalist outlook than other socialist perspectives. By insisting that workers in less developed countries could undertake struggles for socialism, Trotsky’s theory overcame certain “Eurocentric” tendencies within socialism — the idea that the socialist movement was a strictly European affair. Indeed, after 1917 both Trotsky and Lenin gave a new emphasis to the role of anti-colonial struggles as a central part of the international socialism.


When working women in the Russian city of St Petersburg took to the streets demanding bread and peace in March of 1917, few realised that the Russian revolution had begun. Once the demonstration of the women workers sparked a wave of revolutionary struggle against Czarism, however, Lenin immediately embraced the perspective of Trotsky and declared that only a revolutionary workers’ movement could win the battle for democracy — and in so doing it would begin the struggle for socialism. At the same time, Trotsky recognised that without an organised political party no revolution could succeed. He therefore joined the Bolsheviks. Together Lenin and Trotsky helped to push the Bolshevik Party into organising a workers’ uprising in October (November by the western calendar) of 1917.

The Russian revolution was based upon a wholly new kind of social organisation, the workers’ council or soviet. These councils, based on elected delegates from the workplace and the neighbourhoods, became the new decision-making bodies of Russia. They were organs of direct democracy whose delegates, like those of the Paris Commune, could be recalled by the electors. The soviets represented a new form of mass democracy. It was for this reason that Lenin and Trotsky made the demand for “All power to the soviets!” the central slogan of the Russian revolution. The soviets, they claimed, would be the basis of the new workers’ state; they would represent the embodiment of workers’ democracy. And after the Bolshevik-led uprising of October 1917, the soviets did indeed become the foundation of the Russian workers’ state. The American journalist John Reed, in Russia at the time, carefully described the organisation of this new state:
At least twice a year delegates are elected from all over Russia to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets … This body, consisting of about two thousand delegates, meets in the capital in the form of a great soviet, and settles upon the essentials of national policy. It elects a Central Executive Committee, like the Central Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which invites delegates from the central committees of all democratic organisations. This augmented Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets is the parliament of the Russian Republic.
The soviets, Reed pointed out, were amazingly vibrant and active organisations, concerning themselves with all aspects of social policy. “No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented,” he stated.

During 1917 and 1918, the Russian soviets teemed with revolutionary initiative and enthusiasm. For the first time, millions of ordinary workers and peasants found themselves able to participate in the major decisions that affected their lives. Control of the factories was taken over by the workers, land was seized by the poor peasants, the embryo of an entirely new form of society was created.

But only the embryo. For the germ cell of socialism to grow, it required several essential ingredients. One was peace. The new workers’ state could not establish a thriving democracy so long as it was forced to raise an army and wage war to defend itself. A second essential ingredient was abundance. Unless the basic material needs of all people could be satisfied, it would be impossible to keep alive a direct and active democracy. Hungry people can only keep their concern with politics alive for so long. Sooner or later, the more pressing need for bread intervenes. For these reasons, a third ingredient was indispensible — the spread of the revolution. Only successful workers’ revolutions in Europe could end the threat of war and provide the economic assistance upon which workers’ Russia depended. It was with these considerations in mind that Lenin stated, four months after the October revolution, “The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish.”

V. From the Russian Revolution to the Rise of Stalinism

Worker’s Russia was not greeted by a revolution in Germany, by warm arms and offers of fraternal assistance. Instead, it was greeted by the invasion of 17 armies from 14 countries. Alone, isolated, encircled, revolutionary Russia undertook the heroic task of defending itself. Under the leadership of Trotsky, a Red Army was created that for nearly three years criss-crossed Russia battling the armies of imperialism. In the end, the Red Army prevailed — but at a terrible price. Russia was bled dry. Its industry had collapsed. It could no longer feed its population. With economic and social collapse came political decay. As workers’ democracy disintegrated, a new bureaucracy rose to power.

The dimensions of Russia’s collapse are truly staggering. By 1920, industrial production had fallen to a mere 13 per cent of its 1913 level. There were massive shortages of every conceivable item. But most desperately, there was a chronic shortage of food. Famine swept the countryside. According to Trotsky, cannibalism emerged in some of the provinces. There was a huge flight of people from the cities, where food was nearly impossible to find, back to the country. The population of Petrograd, the major industrial city, fell from 2.5 million in 1917 to 574,000 in August of 1920. And even those workers who remained in the cities were often too sick or too hungry to work. Absenteeism reached an average of 30 per cent. Disease haunted the country. Between 1918 and 1920, 1.6 million people died of typhus, dysentery and cholera. Another 350,000 perished on the battle field.

By 1920, the very face of Russia had changed. Workers’ democracy, in the meaningful sense of the term, had disappeared — as had most of the working class, through death or retreat to the countryside. In many cases elections to the soviets ceased. The Bolshevik Party remained alone in power confronted by a country that was slowly dying. Increasingly, the leadership of this party came to distrust all dissent; its rule became more and more dictatorial. Even dedicated revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky were not immune to these tendencies. In some cases, as at Kronstadt in 1921, the Bolshevik government crushed dissent that, even if misguided, grew out of genuine popular grievances, not right-wing conspiracy. That these developments were largely a result of overwhelming pressures is indisputable; but these pressures took an enormous toll, leading to a growing bureaucratization of political life. In the early 1920s, this ruling party divided into a series of factions, each with a different view as to how society should be governed and socialism constructed. While many individuals crossed back and forth between the contending factions, within a few years of Lenin’s death in 1924 (he had been sick and largely incapacitated since 1922) there were two dominant points of view.

Grouped around Joseph Stalin were those forces that represented the rising Soviet bureaucracy. Stalin’s group argued that the Russian government should go about the task of building “socialism in one country.” For this group, “socialism” lost any foundation in organizations of workers’ democracy, soviets. They came increasingly to identify socialism with a bureaucratic monopoly of power which allowed no place for organs of mass democracy. Further, they began to define socialism as a state-controlled and planned economy which would industrialise backward Russia on the basis of ruthless labour discipline and starvation wages.

Grouped around Leon Trotsky were the forces known as the “Left Opposition.” In the early 1920s, Trotsky had started to oppose many of Stalin’s policies. At first, Trotsky’s opposition was timid and cautious; his criticisms did not go so far as had those of some earlier oppositionists. Shortly before his death, Lenin had suggested that he and Trotsky should form a “bloc” against Stalin. By the mid-1920s, the Left Opposition had been created around two central planks. First, democracy had to be re-established in the Bolshevik Party and in the mass organisations such as the trade unions and the soviets. Secondly, the Soviet government had to abandon all such retrograde notions as socialism in one country — which identified socialism with an impoverished and bureaucratically-dominated society — in favour of a revolutionary and internationalist perspective that saw Russia’s salvation in spreading the revolution. The program of the Left Opposition was far from perfect; in particular, it put insufficient emphasis on the revival of workers’ democracy. But at the time it represented the only perspective that held out any hope of resisting the degeneration of the revolution.


By 1927 the debate was largely over. Trotsky’s revolutionary perspective fell on deaf ears. Although some thousands of workers did take up the slogans of the Opposition, the mass of the working class was hungry and demoralized. It remained largely indifferent to the rallying cry of the Left Opposition. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of careerists had joined the Bolshevik Party. Many of these were former Czarist officials who foresaw the possibility of state employment if they proclaimed themselves “communists.” With the Bolshevik Party dominated now by such elements (200,000 original communists had died during the Civil War), Stalin’s victory was assured. In November of 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Bolshevik Party. He would soon be deported from the Soviet Union.

At that point, Stalin undertook to reshape the entire nature and direction of Russian society. This reshaping had four main aspects: the elimination of all dissent; the liquidation of all forms of democracy and of genuine working class organisation; the slashing of the living standards of the working class; and the physical annihilation of millions of peasants. The purpose of these policies was to transfer economic resources from fulfilling the consumption needs of human beings to the building of a massive military-industrial complex that could compete with western capitalism.

The elimination of dissent had begun in the early 1920s. Now it intensified with expulsions from the Bolshevik party in 1927. Then came sweeping arrests. In the mid-1930s, a wave of “show trials” led to the slaughter of the original Bolshevik leaders of the revolution. But the most astounding and gruesome form of repression came in the slave labour camps. By 1931, two million people had found their way into these camps. By 1933, the figure was five million. In 1942 it reached a staggering 15 million.

The destruction of the remnants of workers’ democracy proceeded apace. Strikes were outlawed in 1928. After 1930, workers were no longer allowed to change jobs without state permission. Trade unions were reduced to bureaucratic playthings controlled by the state. Other democratic gains of the revolution were buried. Access to divorce was severely curtailed. Abortion was made illegal. Homosexuality, made legal with the revolution, was criminalized once again. A regime of police terror prevailed.

In 1929, the first Five-Year Plan was introduced. The aim Stalin announced, was to “catch up and overtake” the West. In order to take control of food production, several million peasants were slaughtered. In the towns, workers’ wages were cut in half between 1930 and 1937. A rate of growth of 40 per cent was declared. Such a growth rate could only be achieved through ruthless exploitation of the working class — by forcing workers to produce more and more output for lower and lower wages.

From this point on, the whole axis of Russian development changed. Gone was the commitment to workers’ democracy and international socialism. In their place, a privileged bureaucracy had installed the aims of industrial and military development in order to build a world power. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union undertook to make its peace with world capitalism. The objective of defeating international capitalism through workers’ revolutions was replaced by the aim of building a modern military-industrial complex. To this end, the Soviet Union developed its own cynical foreign policy, helping to strangle revolution in Spain in 1936-37 in an effort to appease the West, and signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler’s Germany in 1940. After the Second World War, Stalin’s Russia claimed control of large parts of eastern Europe — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary in particular. When these nations challenged Russian rule, tanks were sent in to crush dissent — as in Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia 12 years later.

The effect of Stalinism was to do inestimable damage to the image of socialism. With repressive, bureaucratic states calling themselves “socialist,” huge numbers of people decided they wanted nothing to do with a movement carrying that name. When a mass workers’ movement calling itself Solidarity rose up in Poland in 1980-81, it was brutally repressed, demonstrating once again that the Stalinist regimes were enemies of the working class. Suffering economic crises and lacking popular support, the Stalinist regimes in eastern Europe fell like dominoes from 1989 on. No greater condemnation is possible than that delivered by the mass of the people who cheered on the disintegration of these corrupt police states.