Socialism from Below (part II)

VI. Leon Trotsky and Anti-Stalinist Socialism

DURING THE TERRIBLE decade of the 1930s when Stalin was committing barbarous crimes in the name of “socialism,” the voice of Leon Trotsky kept alive some of the basic elements of socialism from below. Stalin had returned to an ideology resembling authoritarian pre-Marxian socialism. Gone was socialism’s democratic essence. Stalin’s “Marxism” was a variant of socialism from above. A bureaucratic elite was to oversee the transformation of a poor and backward country into a modern power, whatever the cost in human terms. That such a perspective could be called “socialist” or “communist” was a horrible travesty.

It was Trotsky’s great virtue that, as an internationally known leader of the Russian revolution, he insisted that Stalin’s regime represented the betrayal of socialism. Against all odds, Trotsky maintained that socialism was rooted in the struggle for human freedom. Furthermore, against the nationalistic notion of “socialism in one country.” he asserted that socialism could only come into being on a world scale. In so doing, he defended the uncompromising internationalism of Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin.

After the Communist Party in Germany ahd failed to mobilize united working class action to stop the Nazis, Trotsky fought desperately to build a new revolutionary socialist movement. At a time when Stalin’s counter-revolution was reshaping Russia and the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini was sweeping across Europe, crushing workers’ movements in its path, this was no mean task. Even if he had never developed the theory of the permanent revolution, never played a leading role in the revolution of 1917, nor built the Red Army, Trotsky’s contribution to keeping alive the socialist flame during the 1930s would have insured him a lasting place in the history of international socialism.

The conditions of the 1930s, however could not but affect Trotsky’s outlook. The great periods of Marxism have been those in which revolutionary socialists have been actively bound up with mass movements of the working class. The health and dynamism of Marxism has always depended upon a certain unity of theory and practice. For Marx and Engels, these great periods were the revolutionary wave of 1848 in Europe and that of the Paris Commune of 1871. During the failed Russian revolution of 1905, socialist theory was advanced by the likes of Trotsky, Luxemburg and Lenin. The next great period was that of 1917-1921. Then, revolutionaries such as Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci played central roles in revolutionary movements of the working class. During each one of these periods Marxist theory was developed and enriched on the basis of the living experience of the working class movement.

During the 1930s, however, Trotsky was cut off completely from any genuine workers’ movement. Throughout Europe, the working class was reeling from defeat after defeat. The socialist and communist movement was on the defensive, struggling desperately to defend itself from the hammerblows of fascism. While Trotsky’s commentaries on the events of this period are often brilliant, they were unable to inspire any significant numbers of working people into action. Further, Trotsky’s new communist movement remained confined to handfuls of the radical intelligentsia. Their divorce from mass struggles — indeed an incredible remoteness from the day-to-day experience of the working class — could only distort the theory and practice of what came to be known as “Trotskyism.”

The Trotskyist movement paid dearly for its isolation. In many countries it too often became little more than a debating society for people who had no real experience of working class struggle. Many fine and dedicated individuals joined the ranks of this movement. But their socialist politics were shaped in small, marginalized groups cut off from any real involvement in mass movements. Shut in on themselves in a period of terrible defeats, these groups often became little more than a collection of squabbling factions and individuals. Increasingly, the problems of reaching a mass audience were attributed to “traitors” in their own midst, rather than the objective problems posed by the world around them. Trotsky denounced the “closed circles,” the “literary arrogance” and the “conceit and grand airs” of socialists who felt capable of pronouncing on the general strategy and tactics of revolution in any corner of the world although they had failed to gain a toehold in the workers’ movement of their own country. Yet, for all his criticisms, Trotsky could not supply the only real corrective to such a hot-house atmosphere: involvement and education in the class struggle.

These problems were compounded by defects in Trotsky’s own analyses of events. As the 1930s went on, Trotsky tended towards more and more dramatic, even apocalyptic, predictions. Increasingly he insisted that capitalism had entered its “death agony,” that it could never again expand economically. “The disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits,” he wrote in 1939, “likewise the disintegration of the ruling class. The further existence of this system is impossible.” It had been an axiom of Marx’s thought that capitalism could always get out of a crisis if it was able to grind down workers sufficiently to boost profit rates. With this is mind, later Marxists had argued that there is no such thing as a permanent crisis of capitalism; either workers overturn the system or capitalism will restructure itself at workers’ expense. But Trotsky’s analysis took on a heavily fatalistic character. All the elements of a world-wide revolutionary upheaval were in place, he insisted, except for adequate political leadership. It followed that “the crisis of humanity is the crisis of revolutionary leadership.” The building of the meagre forces of the Fourth International thus came to be seen as a matter of life or death for the working class movement.

This analysis gave an inflated, sometimes messianic, sense of self-importance to Trotsky’s followers. Many started to declare themselves the true leadership of the working class movement despite the fact that most workers had never heard of their groups. The issuing of grandiose pronouncements often became a substitute for the patient political work required to build a meaningful organization. And when things went badly, when workers failed to respond to the appeals of tiny revolutionary groups, it became more and more common for Trotsky’s followers to blame their failings on heretics and renegades in their own midst.

Political confusion and disagreement about what was happening in Russia only made matters worse. As Stalin’s counter-revolution intensified — as communist militants were executed, peasants slaughtered, the last vestiges of democracy eliminated — the question arose as to the nature of the society that was taking shape in Russia. Many people began to argue that a new kind of class domination had developed in Russia, that nothing of lasting value remained from the revolution of 1917. Trotsky resisted such arguments. While vehemently condemning Stalin’s regime, which he even described as “a Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy” that had become “a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class,” he argued that Stalin’s Russia remained a workers’ state, albeit of a degenerated kind. Trotsky acknowledged that the soviets had been destroyed, that union democracy had disappeared, that the Bolshevik party had been stripped of its revolutionary character, and that a new “political” revolution would be necessary to overthrow the Stalinist dictatorship. Still, he insisted that Russia was a workers’ state. And he did so on the basis of one criterion alone: that property remained nationalized, in state hands. This was evidence, he believed, of a lasting gain brought about by the 1917 revolution; private property had not been restored by Stalin.

For some of Trotsky’s followers, this was not good enough. A workers’ state, they insisted, required the existence of some form of workers’ power or workers’ control. Nationalized property did not make a society superior to private, liberal capitalism. These critics argued that a new ruling class, basing itself upon state-owned property, had come into being. Some of these critics referred to this new system as bureaucratic collectivism. Still others saw it as duplicating the forms of exploitation found under classic capitalism; they characterized the Stalinist regimes as state capitalist societies.

The present writer sympathizes with the critics of Trotsky’s view of Stalinist Russia as a workers’ state. But it must be added that the situation was a difficult and complex one, and that a strong and vigorous movement would have allowed such differences of analysis to coexist. Such a movement would have acknowledged the complexity of the problems involved while insisting upon its revolutionary socialist opposition to the Stalinist regimes. But the small, isolated Trotskyist groups were incapable of holding together in the midst of such differences. Even during Trotsky’s lifetime, the movement he had created began to split and fracture over these issues. After his death, as new Stalinist regimes were created in eastern Europe and elsewhere, these differences became more and more difficult to contain. The Trotskyist movement entered upon a history of almost permanent fracturing. While individual groups often played an admirable role in galvanizing significant struggles — anti-war movements, struggles for abortion rights, student upheavals — the movement which took Trotsky’s name failed to develop into a genuinely mass organization. Unable to affect real events, Trotsky’s followers too often clung to their “orthodoxy,” to a doctrinaire attachment to the writings of their founder as a security blanket, a kind of faith designed to keep them together through hard times. Their squabbles over who was the true disciple and who the heretic became more and more obscure to ordinary people.

As a result, the Trotskyist movement was largely incapable of developing Marxist ideas to confront the changing realities of capitalism and the working class in new historical situations. While many of Trotsky’s ideas — his theory of permanent revolution, his writings on literature and art, and his passionate critiques of Stalinism — are an important source for the traditions of socialism from below, they are far from adequate on their own and cannot be treated like a dogma. Socialism from below must draw upon other vital traditions of Marxist theory and practice. Especially important in this regard are the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

VII. Antonio Gramsci and the Renewal of Socialism from Below

Antonio Gramsci is probably the most widely discussed Marxist figure in the West today. Born on the Italian island of Sardinia in 1891, Gramsci studied philosophy and linguistics at university, and joined the Socialist Party of Italy (SPI) in 1913. Three years later, he gave up his studies to become a full-time worker for the SPI. The Socialist Party was growing considerably at this time, its membership rising from about 50,000 in 1914 to 200,000 by 1919. In the general election of the latter year the SPI became the largest party in the Italian parliament, winning 156 seats and two million votes.

During the war, Gramsci settled in Turin where he became closely associated with the city’s militant metalworkers. Shortly after, a great upsurge of working class struggle occurred, beginning with a rash of factory occupations by workers in northern Italy in February 1920. In April, the struggle rose to a new level when Turin employers tried to reduce the power of workers’ organizations known as “internal commissions” within the factories. Confronted with this attack, 400,000 Turin workers occupied their factories. Yet, even this phase of the struggle paled by comparison with events that erupted in August when employers refused to negotiate with the metalworkers’ union. Hearing that employers had locked out 2000 Milan metalworkers, the union called an occupation of 300 Milan plants. When the employers responded with a national lock-out, a nation-wide wave of factory occupations ensued. Half a million workers seized control of their factories, raising red flags and organizing armed workers battalions to prevent the police or army from trying to take back the factories.

Within days, on a suggestion from Gramsci and other socialists in Turin, the workers restarted production without management. Gramsci had wanted to demonstrate that workers’ controlled production was entirely possible — and now such an experiment was in motion. For Gramsci and tens of thousands of working class militants, the socialist revolution was now underway in Italy.

But for the leaders of the unions and the PSI, all this was a bit much. They had wanted to use mass struggle to force the employers to negotiate; they were certainly not interested in an experiment in workers’ control of industry, or a working class seizure of power. As a result, they moved quickly to demobilize the struggle. First, they invented the absurd tactic of calling a referendum on whether to proceed with a socialist revolution — a referendum in which roughly 590,000 workers voted “no” while 409,000 voted “yes”! Then the labour leaders reached a settlement with the employers under which the factories were returned to their capitalist owners.

For Gramsci and tens of thousands of working class socialist activists, the sell-out of the struggles of 1920 was a staggering disappointment. Within months, tens of thousands of SPI members split away to form the new Communist Party. But just as the socialist revolutionaries were regrouping, so was the ruling class. In October 1922, Mussolini undertook his famous march on Rome which brought the fascists to power. Four years later, the fascist government imprisoned Gramsci, then general secretary of the Communist Party. Gramsci was to spend 11 years behind bars, all of that time with deteriorating health. When his sentence expired in 1937, he was too ill to leave the clinic in which he had been placed by prison authorities; he died there only days after he was due for release. But while in prison, he had written thousands upon thousands of pages devoted to sorting through the problem of socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist society organized differently from Czarist Rissia. These writings, known as Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, are a rich source of Marxist analysis and reflection on socialist struggles in advanced capitalism.

Three concepts figure centrally in Gramsci’s application of Marxism to western capitalist societies. First, there is the idea of civil society. In Gramsci’s view, the ruling class in the West does not simply dominate society by means of the state — the political bureaucracy, police, army, and courts. Instead, he suggests, western capitalism is characterized by a diverse civil society — consisting of schools, political parties, mass media, churches, and other organizations — through which the ruling class can extend its influence over the mass of the population. Most of the time, he argues, institutions of civil society play a more important role than does the state in securing bourgeois rule.

This leads to the second of Gramsci’s key ideas, the notion of hegemony. In the West, he argues, the capitalist class normally relies less on coercion, on domination by direct use of force and intimidation, and puts greater emphasis on winning the consent of the governed. The ruling class seeks to establish a moral and ideological leadership, or hegemony, over society as a whole by instilling its values within the general population. This means, said Gramsci, that a revolutionary movement must be concerned not merely with overthrowing the state, but also with winning the oppressed majority to a new set of values and beliefs, with breaking the intellectual and cultural domination of the ruling class. A revolutionary movement must construct a counter-hegemony, he suggests; and this means establishing a socialist movement with its own intellectual and cultural institutions.

With this in mind, Gramsci introduces a third idea, the war of position. In Russia, he argues, once the Czarist regime went into crisis, the main task was to pull sufficient forces together to overturn the state. This entailed a “war of maneuver,” a complex set of tactics designed to strike when the other side was off balance. But such an approach won’t work where the ruling class rules as much or more by consent than coercion. In such circumstances, Gramsci maintains, the Marxist movement will have to engage in a protracted war of position within society, a campaign of building an intricate system of political trenches — newspapers, cultural organizations, trade unions, women’s, peasant and youth organizations — that enable the revolutionary socialist movement both to weaken the hegemony of the ruling class and to begin building its own political culture within the spaces of the old society. While Gramsci continue to insist that a revolutionary assault on the state would be required, he envisioned years of building a new kind of mass revolutionary movement as its essential precondition.

Gramsci thus rejected the idea, still held by some on the left, according to which a profound societal crisis breaks out like lightning in a thunderstorm, and a revolutionary movement arises virtually from nowhere to topple the old order. Gramsci described such views as a kind of “historical mysticism” that awaits a “miraculous illumination.” Modern capitalism, with its complex civil society, will not be susceptible to a dramatic meltdown in which a revolutionary movement surges from the margins to seize power. Given its complex network of institutions and political parties, the ruling class in the West has considerable resources for reclaiming “the control . . . slipping from its grasp.” Rather than simply transfer a revolutionary strategy that fit France in 1848 or Russia in 1917, western Marxists will need a much more sophisticated strategy, one devoted to the development of a genuinely mass revolutionary movement long in advance of a social and economic crisis.

Gramsci thus constructed a new and more complex model of a revolutionary party within an advanced capitalist society, one that is especially important in the age of radio, television, film, video and the internet. It is not the case, however, that Gramsci believed all that was needed was to engage in cultural and intellectual combat with capitalist hegemony. Not for a moment did he suggest that artists and intellectuals could simply produce paintings, books, plays, films, and so on as an adequate means of challenging capitalist power. Political parties are the “historical laboratory” for developing a counter-hegemony, he insisted; revolutionary parties are “the crucibles where the unification of theory and practice” can take place. The building of a new type of mass revolutionary party had to be the central commitment of every serious Marxist.

At the same time, Gramsci was aware of the danger that the leaders of a socialist party might become conservative and bureaucratic in outlook, that they might become habituated to seeing things only through the windows of a party office and lose contact with the actual experience of the oppressed. Political parties, claimed Gramsci, have a “tendency to become mummified and anachronistic.” It is vital, therefore, that a genuinely socialist party be organically connected to the experience of masses of working class people. And this means that the party’s intellectuals — its speakers, journalists, and organizers — need to be immersed in that experience. It also means that the party must develop intellectuals of a new type, what Gramsci called organic intellectuals, people whose intellectual life and outlook is formed by their organic involvement in the struggles of the oppressed.

To this end, Gramsci argued for a close interaction between the “spontaneous” struggles of working class people and the political “leadership” of a revolutionary party. He argued that spontaneous movements, however uneven they might be, should not be “neglected or despised.” It was the job of a socialist party to be a part of these struggles, while at the same time trying to raise them to a higher level — to free them from nationalism, sexism, or other traditional ideas — and to use such struggles to demonstrate to the mass of the people that they have the power to become “creators” of new values, “founders” of a new form of society. Gramsci thus envisioned an ongoing interaction between day-to-day struggles and educative activities designed to create the rudiments of a socialist political culture in the here-and-now. Both elements — immediate struggles and political and cultural education — were essential. The unity of the two was to be achieved in a political movement dedicated to the self-mobilization and self-education of the working class.

Gramsci did not provide a recipe book for building revolutionary movements in advanced capitalist societies; he was not the creator of a new dogma. His Prison Notebooks are often vague and merely suggestive; and there are many features of late capitalist society he could not possibly have anticipated. But while in prison he reflected profoundly upon his experience in the working class and socialist movements, including the experience of a near-revolution whose failure opened the door to fascism. In so doing, he addressed ways in which a socialist movement might contend with the cultural and ideological forms of capitalist domination of society. Preliminary and suggestive as these ideas might be, they are an invaluable source for those who want to continue the task of organizing for socialism from below today.

VIII. Rebels within the Movement: Socialist Voices for Gender, Racial and Sexual Liberation

EARLY SOCIALISTS hoped, somewhat romantically, that workers would increasingly recognize their common interests and unite irrespective of nationality, gender, ethno-racial identity and sexual orientation. “Workers of the the world unite,” intoned the Communist Manifesto without paying much attention to how difficult this might prove. Yet the reality is that divisions plague the working class, and these often have to do with the involvement of many workers in oppressive practices. White workers are often complicit in racism; male workers in sexism; straight workers in heterosexism towards lesbians and gay men. Workers in dominant nations, like English-speaking Canada, are often hostile to the national aspirations of those, like aboriginal peoples and the Québecois, who have suffered historic oppressions.

By showing how workers inherit the traditional ideas of the dominating classes, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony can help us understand why oppressed people of the working class are often complicit in the oppression of others. But Gramsci didn’t spend much time analyzing specific forms of oppression and division and how they might be countered. It has been left largely to dissidents within the socialist movement to try to force the struggles for anti-racism, lesbian and gay liberation and the emancipation of women onto the socialist agenda. In the process, many of these people have extended and developed Marxism in order to explain forms of oppression that were often neglected by their forerunners.

These dissidents have often encountered fierce opposition within the left. Sometimes, outright bigotry has been tolerated in the socialist movement; the reformist socialists in Germany at the turn of the century, for example, supported colonialism. But even where such sentiments have not been voiced, those advocating a major commitment to the liberation of specially oppressed groups have frequently found themselves accused of “diverting” the movement away from its central goal — the working class struggle for political power — and of being “divisive” in focussing on issues that speak most directly to only a section of the working class. Yet one of the central principles of socialism from below is that the overwhelming majority of the oppressed must mobilize on their own behalf and for their liberation. For those whose lives are dominated by racism, sexism and/or heterosexism, activism around issues like these is anything but a “diversion.” On the contrary, mobilization around such issues is absolutely essential to a truly liberating politics, to people discovering their power and reclaiming some control over their lives. Any emancipatory socialist politics must embrace such struggles — by recognizing them as central components of the class struggle in society, and by encouraging the self-organization of oppressed people on their own behalf.

The record of the socialist left in the areas of anti-racism, women’s emancipation and lesbian and gay liberation is a highly uneven one. Nevertheless, the socialist movement has often been the forum in which some of the most dedicated activists in these struggles have tried to develop strategies for genuine emancipation by linking battles against oppression to an anti-capitalist politics. Their efforts, and the struggles in which they have participated, are key elements of the legacy of socialism from below.


Since the great democratic revolutions of the modern era, radical politics have involved the struggle against racist oppression. The French Revolution of 1789, for example, ignited a great uprising of black slaves in what is now called Haiti (then known as San Domingo). Under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture an army of ex-slaves fought and defeated the forces of Spain, France and Britain and created the first black republic in the Americas.

At the height of the black struggle in Haiti and the democratic mobilizations in France, these two revolutions came together in a glorious moment of unity. In January of 1794 a three man delegation from San Domingo was welcomed into the meeting of the French Convention in Paris. A black ex-slave named Bellay addressed the Convention, pledged support to the revolution in France, and called on the body to abolish slavery in the French colonies. After Bellay had finished speaking, a delegate moved that the assembly declare the liberation of black slaves. Historian C.L.R. James picks up the inspiring story: “The Assembly rose in acclamation. The two deputies of colour appeared on the tribune and embraced while the applause rolled round the hall from members and visitors.”

By 1794, then, the radical left had taken up the cause of black liberation. As the French Revolution was rolled back, and its democratic content diluted, this commitment too receded. But it was recovered during the Chartist movement in England of the 1830s and 1840s whose most left-wing members also took up the campaign against slavery. Marx and Engels embraced this cause and made it a point of honour during the Civil War in the United States (1861-65). Disgusted by those in the labour and socialist movements who refused to oppose slavery, Marx issued a steady stream of articles and speeches urging the European labour movement to champion one fundamental principle: “the emancipation of the slaves.” In America, meanwhile, several of Marx’s friends and followers became officers in the Union Army in order to help destroy slavery.

From the 1860s on, Marx and Engels increasingly recognized that the unity of the working class would not come about automatically; that it had to be fought for. And this meant opposing workers’ prejudices towards oppressed peoples. I have discussed above Marx’s support for Irish independence in order to counter the bigotry of English workers. He and Engels also took up a similar position on the struggle for Polish independence. Arguing against those who saw this struggle as a diversion, Engels insisted that
Every Polish peasant or worker who wakes up from the general gloom and participates in the common interest, encounters first the fact of national subjugation. This fact is in his way everywhere as the first barrier. To remove it is the basic condition of every healthy and free development. . . In order to be able to fight one first needs a soil to stand on, air, light and space. Otherwise all is idle chatter.
This really is the key insight of the writings of Marx and Engels from the 1860s. In championing the struggle against slavery in America, and the movements for Polish and Irish independence, they rejected the idea that these issues were diversions from the real struggle. On the contrary, they saw these stirrings for freedom and self-determination as essential to an internationalist movement towards socialism. To talk of workers’ unity and socialism without embracing and encouraging such movements is, they insisted, “idle chatter.”

This approach informed the work of many of the great black socialists of the 20th century. The Indian Marxist M.N. Roy, for example, argued in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that the anti-colonial struggle would be at the very center of the worldwide movement towards socialism. Similarly, the great West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James saw the black revolt in America as a driving force for the socialist struggle in the United States. Moreover, by focussing on movements of the oppressed in the colonial world, both Roy and James challenged the idea that the center of the struggle for socialism was to be found in Europe and North America. In so doing, they demonstratd that struggles around race and nationality were central to the class struggle on a world scale.

In his book on the slave revolution in Haiti, The Black Jacobins, written in 1938, James (who had join the Trotskyist movement) makes clear that the left cannot ignore the question of race. Insisting that class exploitation is central to the way society is organized, he argued that “to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But,” he continued, “to neglect the racial factor as incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.” Just as anti-racists could not ignore class, in other words, so could socialists not afford to overlook the role of race in political life.

As an activist in the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, James worked to integrate working class and anti-racist politics by indicating their inextricable connections. In a document for the main Trotskyist group in the US in 1948, he sought to show that the black struggle — or, in the language of 50 years ago, “the Negro struggle” — had to be recognized as an independent and vital force in its own right:
We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own . . .

We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrififc force upon the general social and political life of the nation . . .

We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it . . .has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constitutent part of the struggle for socialism.
Informed by this perspective, some Trotskyists made serious efforts to embrace the independent black struggles of the 1960s and 1970s in the US — particularly those led first by Malcolm X and then by the Black Panthers. Rather than rejecting autonomous black organizations, those socialists most influenced by the analysis developed by C.L.R. James enthusiastically supported the black power movement. And this helped black revolutionary activists to develop a dialogue with the socialist movement. During the last year of his life, for instance, Malcolm X moved closer to a clearly socialist position and began working with socialist groups. In the process, his analysis of the African-American struggle in the US became more and more anti-capitalist. “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” he told an audience in May of 1964. “And if you find a person without racism,” he continued “usually they are socialists or their political philosopy is socialism.” In this spirit he told a crowd in February of 1965 that “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a conflict or black against white . . . Rather we are seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.” And, as he told another interviewer about the coming global rebellion, “I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin.”

Rather than building divisions, therefore, the sort of support for independent black movements that James had advocated encouraged closer collaboration between African-American activists and predominantly-white socialist groups. This sort of collaboration continued when organizations like the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers also looked to solidarity and joint action with a wide range of progressive organizations.

The theoretical legacy of C.L.R. James continues to be developed today by radical socialist intellectuals. The historian Robin D. G. Kelley, for example, cites James as an inspiration for his own studies on the black working class in the United States. Building upon the way James and others focus on the day to day experience of workers — and the way in which class experience is both gendered and racialized — Kelley insists upon a broad understanding of politics and resistance. Studying black workers’ struggles over public space (like busses and parks), or culture, music and recreation, Kelley maintains that “Politics is not separate from lived experience or the imaginary world of what is possible; to the contrary, politics is about these things. Politics comprises the many battles to roll back constraints and exercise some power over, or create some space within, the institutions and social relationships that dominate our lives.”

What the effort to integrate socialism and anti-racist politics has done, then, is to underline how people’s experience of capitalist society is a total one, comprising experiences of space, sexuality, race, culture, recreation, gender and the family as well as their experiences at work. The result, at least potentially, is a richer Marxist theory and practice that doesn’t simply look at “economic” questions but, rather, offers a complex view of how capitalist society operates — and a radical view of liberation that encompasses the transformation of the everyday experience of racial oppression.


Ideas about women’s emancipation emerged at the very birth of the socialist movement. In Britain, the radical Owenite socialist William Thompson published in 1825 a searing critique of women’s oppression in capitalist society. Entitled an Appeal of one half of the human race, women, against the pretensions of the other half, men, to retain them in political and thence civil and domestic slavery, Thompson’s book linked the liberation of women to the overturning of the capitalist competition and private property. In France too, as we have seen, writers like Flora Tristan developed a sort of socialist-feminism in the 1830s and ‘40s while Louise Michel and her female comrades played a central role in the Paris Commune of 1871. Yet it must be acknowledged that these were minority voices. The early working class and socialist movement remained male-dominated and in many quarters hostile to talk of the equality of women.

Marx and Engels and their supporters tended to be on the more progressive wing of European socialism on these issues. As noted above, Marx argued for including women in unions and in the First International (against the opposition of French socialists in particular). And Engels, as we have seen, published one of the most important socialist books of the nineteenth century on women’s emancipation, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. One of Marx’s German followers, August Bebel, also published a pioneering book on the emancipation of women, entitled Woman Under Socialism, in 1883. Important as these contributions were, however, the early Marxist movement remained an overwhelmingly male affair. Moreover, even theorists who argued for the social and political emancipation of women — like Bebel in Woman Under Socialism — continued to treat motherhood as women’s true mission. It wasn’t until women themselves began to organize within the socialist movement that a more thorough-going campaign for women’s liberation came to the fore. There were two focal points for this Marxist movement for women’s liberation in the early 20th century: Germany and Russia.

The German socialist women’s movement formally emerged in 1891 when the socialist party (the SPD) brought out its paper Equality. Subtitled “For the Interest of the Woman Worker,” the paper would be edited for 25 years by Clara Zetkin. It wasn’t until 1905, however, that the SPD launched educational and political clubs which organized thousands of women. Then in 1907 Zetkin organized the first-ever international conference of socialist women with representatives from 15 countries.

But these accomplishments did not come easily — or without setbacks. Zetkin was on the left-wing of the SPD and closely aligned with Rosa Luxemburg. The conservative wing of the party mobilized reformist and anti-feminist arguments against Zetkin’s vision of a socialist women’s movement. First, they tried to force the movement towards close collaboration with the middle class women’s movement of the time (something Zetkin resisted). Then they weakened her editorial control over Equality insisting that it publish articles on fashion and cooking.

Despite right-wing, anti-feminist interference, Zetkin continued to push for an energetic socialist women’s movement. In 1910 she organized a second international conference of socialist women where she proposed that March 8th ought to be celebrated as International Women’s Day. Then, after the outbreak of world war in 1914, she convened an International Women’s Conference against the war in early 1915. For this she was arrested and, like Rosa Luxemburg, imprisoned. After the defeat of the German revolution of 1918-19, the socialist women’s movement was taken over by the reformists and Zetkin’s work to build a militant, internationalist women’s socialist movement was wrecked. But just as the defeat of revolution drove back the socialist women’s movement in Germany, so successful revolution in 1917 inspired a burgeoning socialist women’s movement in Russia.

Women workers had burst onto the political scence in Russia with militant strikes in the 1890s. In 1900, the socialist movement published a booklet written by N. K. Krupskaya called The Woman Worker . Then, during the revolution of 1905, a further outpouring of poitical activity by women workers occurred. Inspired by this development, the Marxist activist Alexandra Kollontai began to promote the idea of a special working women’s movement. Kollontai experienced many years of frustration in this area, encountering widespread hostility from male socialists. Finally in 1913, and with the backing of Krupskaya and Lenin, Kollontai persuaded the Bolshevik Party to bring out a publication for women workers (called Woman Worker) and to spearhead a special women’s section of the socialist movement.

But it was the revolution of 1917 itself that really drove the socialist women’s movement forward. Thousands upon thousands of women played important political roles as speakers, writers and organizers in bringing the workers’ government into being. Then, during the Civil War, women again challenged tradition by enlisting in the Red Army to fight the counter-revolution. As historian Richard Stites notes of women in the Red Army: “They fought on every front and with every weapon, serving as riflewomen, armored train commanders, gunners.” Indeed, the role played by women in military defence of the revolution may have done more than any other development to shake up traditional views of women in Russia. As part of the revolutionary upsurge, both abortion and divorce were legalized and women claimed a legal equality unique in the world.

But conservative and patriarchal prejudices do not die overnight. While women were asserting themselves in 1917 and after, they still had enormous ground to cover (including within the socialist movement) to claim full equality. Once the revolution started to recede, and as Stalin reinstated patriotism and the image of motherhood as women’s highest calling, Russia reverted to a thoroughly male-dominated society.

Nevertheless, during the short-lived years of revolution, a radical socialist perspective on women’s liberation had emerged which has left behind a valuable legacy, not least in the writings of Kollontai. In booklets and pamphlets such as Women Workers Struggle for their Rights, Sexual Relations and Class Struggle and Communism and the Family, Kollontai began to reflect upon the end of the family structure characteristic of bourgeois society. “There is no escaping the fact,” she wrote, “the old type of family has seen its day.” By this, Kollontai meant to celebrate the end of a family structure based upon the subordination of women who could not leave a marriage for lack of economic choices. “No more domestic servitude for women,” she wrote. And she continued:

No more inequality within the family! No more fear on the part of the woman to remain without support or aid with little ones in arms if her husband should desert her. The woman in the communist community no longer depends upon her husband but on her work. . . Marriage will be purified of all its material elements, of all monetary considerations . . . free union instead of the conjugal slavery of the past — that is what the communist society of tomorrow offers to both men and women.

This rousing vision of the emancipation of women was lost with the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship, and the writings of Kollontai were neglected and buried. But when the modern women’s liberation movement emerged, her work was rediscovered. Of course, the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s was able to think more radically than could Kollontai about the family, sexuality, love and marriage. Regretably, many socialist women encountered rampant sexism within the left and turned away from socialist politics. But if we are to build a new and inclusive socialist movement today, we need to return to the legacy of people like Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai in order to build upon and further their efforts to truly integrate socialism and women’s liberation.


Many people today think of struggles for sexual liberation — for the right of women to control their bodies, for accessible birth control and abortion services, for liberation for lesbians and gay men, and for sexual rights for youth — as recent phenomena, dating from the late 1960s. It’s certainly true that important movements in these areas emerged at that time. But between 1919 and 1933 a major sexual liberation movement emerged in Germany as socialists and communists took up struggles against sexual oppression.

In 1891 and again in 1905, August Bebel, a Marxist and a member of the German parliament, introduced motions to end discrimination against homosexuals. When the revolution of 1918-19 overthrew the German king (the Kaiser), socialists began organizing against all the oppressive laws that criminalized abortion, homosexuality and the dissemination of birth control information. Indeed, alongside feminists, nurses, doctors and sex reformers, socialists helped to build a network of 150,000 people which ran birth control and sex education clinics in working class neighbourhoods.

The largest mobilizations for sexual rights came about through the campaign against the anti-abortion laws launched by the Communist Party (CP) in 1931. After two doctors were arrested for performing abortions, over 1000 protest demonstrations took place on International Women’s Day (March 8) 1931. Three months later the CP initiated a movement known as the Unity League for Proletarian Sexual Reform. While the Communists were hostile to working with other progressive and left-wing forces (which hurt the effectiveness of the League), this new movement managed to bring tens of thousands of people into struggle for women’s rights, legalization of birth control, homosexuality and abortion, sexual rights for youth, and against the “sexual disenfranchisement of the poor.”

Probably the most important theorist of the sexual politics movement of the time was the Freudian analyst Wilhelm Reich, a dissident member of the CP. In a series of articles and pamphlets Reich challenged the “bourgeois sexual morality” that dominated the CP. He argued that the Communist Party should develop “a sexual-revolutionary practice” which would focus on challenging the sexual oppression of youth in the family and at school. But Reich was not just calling for a change in attitudes. He insisted that very real material pressures made it difficult for working class youth in particular to develop their sexuality in a free and healthy fashion. He attacked “lack of opportunities, of money and contraceptives” for frustrating sexual development and he advocated birth control and abortion clinics and publicly-funded housing as essential to providing the resources for people to make real sexual choices in their lives. For Reich, sexual liberation should be central to the socialist vision of a free society:

In capitalist society today there can be no sexual liberation of youth, no healthy, satisfying sex life; if you want to be rid of your sexual troubles fight for socialism. . . Socialism will put an end to the power of those who gaze up towards heaven as they speak of love while they crush and destroy the sexuality of youth.
Reich was one of the few Marxists of the time to attempt to address issues of sexual oppression. Nevertheless, there were real shortcomings in his analysis — particularly in his attitude towards homosexuality. Moreover, Reich’s opportunity to develop his analysis as part of a growing mass movement was cut short. First he was expelled from the Communist Party for his radical views. Then the rise of Nazism destroyed the movement for sexual liberation in Germany. Not until the resurgence of gay and lesbian liberation beginning in 1969 did these issues again begin to be taken seriously within the left. And, as with anti-racist and feminist politics, much of the left showed itself to be quite backward in its thinking. Like the socialist dissidents many decades earlier, anti-racists, feminists and lesbian and gay liberationists have had to fight to get their struggles recognized as essential elements of radical socialist politics.


The movements and individuals I have discussed constitute important parts of the the legacy of socialism from below. Just like the writings of Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci, so the writings of socialist dissidents like C.L.R. James, Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, and the sexual politics radicals in the German Left ought to be important reference points for socialists today. Again, this has nothing to do with hero-worship or the creation of a dogma. There are many serious shortcomings in the writings of people like James, Zetkin, Kollontai and Reich. Later in his life, James was often uncritical of various Third World nationalisms. Both Zetkin and Kollontai went on to make compromises with Stalinism. And after emigrating to America, Reich developed increasingly eccentric ideas.

But none of this takes away from the freshness and the spirit of liberation that can be found in their writings at times when they were involved with important social movements and political events. If we are serious about an inclusive socialism — one that truly integrates struggles against racial, gender and sexual oppression into a socialist, working class politics — then we must celebrate all those moments when the socialist movement became alive with, and attuned to, struggles against racism, sexism and heterosexism. Anything less does not deserve to be considered a politics of socialism from below

IX. Socialism from Below for the 21st Century

Socialists today confront a paradox: the world we live in looks increasingly like the class-divided society described by Marx; yet, at the same time, Marxist politics seem weaker than at any time in the past. Let’s look first at our class-divided society.

In his major work, Capital, Marx argued that capitalism produces “accumulation of wealth at one pole” and “accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole.” For decades it was common to dismiss this analysis by claiming that modern capitalist societies were becoming more equal over time. Today, no one can seriously make such a claim.

The division of wealth in the world is more unequal than it has ever been. Recent statistics indicate that as of 1996 there were 447 billionaires in the world. These people have more wealth than the combined annual incomes of fully half of humankind.

And the half of humanity that finds itself at the bottom of the economic pyramid does indeed live in the sorts of conditions described by Marx: “misery, torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation.” Across the globe, we find hundreds of millions of children working in sweatshops; we find women and men condemned to work that breaks their bodies and their spirits; we find horrible poverty and disease; we find child prostitution, and epidemic conditions for AIDS, tuberculosis, and fatal diarrhea for dehydrated children. And we find all of this in the midst of collossal wealth.

Never before has humanity possessed such tremendous technologies of production. We have the capacity to feed, clothe, shelter and educate every person on the planet at a morally decent standard — and to do so in an environmentally friendly way. Yet, we fail to do so. Instead, we have a world society divided into pockets of obscene wealth alongside continents of appalling poverty. And this is as true inside the richest countries, as it is between countries.

Take the United States, for example. For twenty years, the rich have been getting richer, the poor poorer. In the US today, the wealthiest one per cent of society owns 48 per cent of all wealth; the bottom 80 per cent has a mere six per cent. Twenty years ago, chief executive officers of large firms in the US earned 35 times more than the average worker they employed; today they earn 187 times as much. And similar trends can be observed in all the advanced capitalist countries. In Canada, 52 corporate executives earned more than $2 million in 1995 — a 12.6 per cent increase over the year before. And all of this is taking place at a time when hospital workers, teachers, factory workers, hotel and restaurant employees and others are watching jobs disappear and earnings fall.

As we move towards the 21st century, we observe a world in which more and more of humanity knows war, disease, crippling hunger, grinding poverty, and environmental devastation. On top of this, there is the suffering associated with special forms of oppression — the violence and humiliation of racism, the degradation of gender oppression, the fear and indignity generated by heterosexism, the hardship imposed upon people with disabilities.

For all these reasons, the ideas of socialism from below refuse to disappear. Again and again, as people fight back against joblessness and poverty, against racism and oppression, against enviromental devastation and the dismantling of social services, some of them question why we couldn’t organize society differently. They wonder why we couldn’t make human needs, not corporate profit, the priority of a rational and humane society. They wonder why wealth and power couldn’t be equitably shared, rather than concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. In raising such questions, they return to the classic vision of socialism from below.

But, if socialism from below is to become a meaningful force for the 21st century, it cannot just repeat analyses from the past. Genuine socialism is a dynamic, living movement; drawing upon the rich resources of past struggles, it replenishes these in the new conditions in which people struggle today. And at a time of new forms of capitalist restructuring and exploitation, and new kinds of social struggles against the system, socialism must be renewed in ways that speak meaningfully to the experiences of new generations of people.

While building upon the heroic struggles of the past, the socialism with which we meet the battles of the future must also incorporate the fresh initiatives of contemporary struggles to break the chains of oppression. Socialist emancipation in the modern world must also be women’s liberation. It must embrace the struggles of women to gain full control over their own bodies, to achieve true equality at work, in society, and in the cultural spheres, to be freed from the overwhelming responsibility for housework and childrearing. Socialist emancipation must also be about anti-racist liberation. It must centrally involve the battles of blacks, aboriginals, and other peoples of colour against systemic discrimination, harassment and injustice. Socialist emancipation must also be lesbian and gay liberation. It must include the struggles of gay men and lesbians to love those whom they choose, and to do so free from the fear of harassment and victimization; it must include their campaigns for equal recognition of their relationships, and for their right to raise their children in an atmosphere free from hate; and it must include active public campaigns in the schools, communities and workplaces to root out anti-gay bigotry in all its forms.

Another key element of renewing socialism from below is establishing again the inextricable link between socialism and democracy. This means restoring to socialism its democratic essence, its passionate concern with human freedom. This means being on the side of all those struggles in which people try to carve out just a bit more liberty to make decisions about their lives.

The socialism we renew for the 21st century must also be uncompromisingly internationalist. It must oppose all forms of imperialism and colonialism; it must overcome the “Eurocentric” biases of many early socialists. And it must champion the right of oppressed peoples to determine their own future. It must also understand that the socialist goal of a planned world economy and a genuine world community has never been more relevant. It must try to forge real bonds of active solidarity among working people across national boundaries in an effort to bring to life Marx’s call for the workers of the world to unite.

The democratic and socialist restructuring of society remains, as it was in Marx’s day, the most pressing task confronting humanity. And such a reordering of society can only take place on the basis of the principles of socialism from below. Now more than ever, the liberation of humanity depends upon the self-emancipation of the world working class. We are a long way from that goal at the moment. But the forces of socialism from below are working to renew themselves today in the knowledge that new movements of opposition to capitalism will once more come into being, and that they will need to draw upon the rich legacy of revolutionary socialism. The New Socialist Group exists in order to contribute to the renewal of socialism from below as a vital part of these future struggles.


Sources for Further Reading

For those interested in pursuing some of the issues discussed above, I offer a guide to the main works that have influenced the views presented here.

Origins of Socialism: For the history of the period, see Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Revolution. Albert Soboul’s The French Revolution 1787-1799 is the leading treatment in English of the popular struggles that made up the French Revolution. George Lichtheim’s The Origins of Socialism is a usually reliable guide to early socialist thought.

Marxism: David McClellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought is a reasonably accurate and well-written biography. Hal Draper’s brilliant work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, especially its first volume, is an invaluable but sometimes difficult source. Of course there is no substitute for reading the works of Marx and Engels themselves; the best starting point remains The Communist Manifesto.

Rosa Luxemburg: Paul Frolich’s Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work is the best and most accessible biography. Of Luxemburg’s own writings, Social Reform or Revolution and The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions are highly recommended and can be found in a number of editions.

The Russian Revolution: John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World remains the best introduction. Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is a superb and penetrating account. Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power is among the best of recent scholarly accounts.

Lenin: The most important single work by Lenin is his pamphlet State and Revolution which is widely available in various editions. Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin is a superbly fair and honest assessment. For Lenin’s opposition to Stalin see Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle.

Stalinism: There are now many studies of the horrors of Stalinism, such as Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge. Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed remains a classic socialist critique, and Victor Serge’s From Lenin to Stalin is a marvellous short treatment.

Trotsky: In addition to The History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky’s most important writings include Results and Prospects and The Permanent Revolution along with The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany.

Gramsci: The Selections from the Prison Notebooks are a difficult read, but well worth the effort. The Introduction to the Selections provides a useful overview of Gramsci’s life and work.

Voices of Liberation from Oppression: There are a number of selections of writings by C.L.R. James now available. For a truly wonderful read, however, it is hard to surpass his book The Black Jacobins. A good collection of pieces by Alexandra Kollontai is entitled Selected Writings (edited by Alix Holt). Some of Wilhelm Reich’s writings on sexual liberation can be found in a collection called Sex-Pol: Essays, 1929-1934 (edited by Lee Baxandall).

Socialist Renewal: For excellent works that develop and extend socialist analysis, the following are highly recommended. On lesbian and gay liberation: Gary Kinsman, The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, 2nd edition. An excellent overview of Marxist approaches to understanding the oppression of women in capitalist society is Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women. On race and class with a focus on the US see Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, and David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. On socialism and environmentalism, see John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet.


The author would like to acknowledge the helpful editorial advice of Brett Cemer and Myles Magner.