Is Marxism Socialism From Below?

Friedrich Engels

Republished with permission.

Source: The Anarchist Library


Some Marxists, such as the International Socialist Tendency, like to portray their tradition as being “socialism from below.” Under “socialism from below,” they place the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, arguing that they and they alone have continued this, the true, ideal of socialism (Hal Draper’s essay “The Two Souls of Socialism” seems to have been the first to argue along these lines). They contrast this idea of socialism “from below” with “socialism from above,” in which they place reformist socialism (social democracy, Labourism, etc.), elitist socialism (Lassalle and others who wanted educated and liberal members of the middle classes to liberate the working class) and Stalinism (bureaucratic dictatorship over the working class). Anarchism, it is argued, should be placed in the latter camp, with Proudhon and Bakunin showing that anarchist libertarianism simply a “myth”.

For those who uphold this idea, “Socialism from below” is simply the self-emancipation of the working class by its own efforts. To anarchist ears, the claim that Marxism (and in particular Leninism) is socialism “from below” sounds paradoxical, indeed laughable. This is because anarchists from Proudhon onwards have used the imagery of socialism being created and run from below upwards. They have been doing so for far longer than Marxists have. As such,“socialism from below” simply sums up the anarchist ideal!

Thus we find Proudhon in 1848 talking about being a “revolutionary from below and that every “serious and lasting Revolution” was “made from below, by the people.” A “Revolution from above was “pure governmentalism,” “the negation of collective activity, of popular spontaneity” and is “the oppression of the wills of those below.” [quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 143] For Proudhon, the means of this revolution “from below” would be federations of working class associations for both credit (mutual banks) and production (workers’ associations or co-operatives) as well as federations of communes (democratically organised communities). The workers, “organised among themselves, without the assistance of the capitalist” would march by “[w]ork to the conquest of the world” by the “force of principle.” Thus capitalism would be reformed away by the actions of the workers themselves. The “problem of association,” Proudhon argued, “consists in organising ... the producers, and by this subjecting capital and subordinating power. Such is the war of liberty against authority, a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege ... An agricultural and industrial combination must be found by means of which power, today the ruler of society, shall become its slave.” [quoted by K. Steven Vincent, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, p. 148 and p. 157] Ultimately, “any revolution, to be effective, must be spontaneous and emanate, not from the heads of authorities, but from the bowels of the people ... the only connection between government and labour is that labour, in organising itself, has the abrogation of governments as its mission.” [Proudhon, No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 52]

Similarly, Bakunin saw an anarchist revolution as coming “from below.” As he put it, “liberty can be created only by liberty, by an insurrection of all the people and the voluntary organisation of the workers from below upward.” [Statism and Anarchy, p. 179] Elsewhere he wrote that “popular revolution” would “create its own organisation from the bottom upwards and from the circumference inwards, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top downwards and from the centre outwards, as in the way of authority.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 170] His vision of revolution and revolutionary self-organisation and construction from below was a core aspect of his anarchist ideas and he argued repeatedly for “the free organisation of the people’s lives in accordance with their needs — not from the top down, as we have it in the State, but from the bottom up, an organisation formed by the people themselves ... a free union of associations of agricultural and factory workers, of communes, regions, and nations.” He stressed that “the politics of the Social Revolution” was “the abolition of the State” and “the economic, altogether free organisation of the people, an organisation from below upward, by means of federation.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, pp. 297–8]

While Proudhon wanted to revolutionise society, he rejected revolutionary means to do so (i.e. collective struggle, strikes, insurrection, etc.). Bakunin, however, was a revolutionary in this, the popular, sense of the word. Yet he shared with Proudhon the idea of socialism being created by the working class itself. As he put it, in “a social revolution, which in everything is diametrically opposed to a political revolution, the actions of individuals hardly count at all, whereas the spontaneous action of the masses is everything. All that individuals can do is clarify, propagate and work out the ideas corresponding to the popular instinct, and, what is more, to contribute their incessant efforts to revolutionary organisation of the natural power of the masses — but nothing else beyond that; the rest can and should be done by the people themselves ... revolution can be waged and brought to its full development only through the spontaneous and continued mass action of groups and associations of the people.” [Op. Cit., pp. 298–9]

Therefore, the idea of “socialism from below” is a distinctly anarchist notion, one found in the works of Proudhon and Bakunin and repeated by anarchists ever since. As such, to hear Marxists appropriate this obviously anarchist terminology and imagery appears to many anarchists as opportunistic and attempt to cover the authoritarian reality of mainstream Marxism with anarchist rhetoric. Moreover, the attempt to suggest that anarchism is part of the elitist “socialism from above” school rests on little more that selective quoting of Proudhon and Bakunin (including from Bakunin’s pre-anarchist days) to present a picture of their ideas distinctly at odds with reality. However, there are “libertarian” strains of Marxism which are close to anarchism. Does this mean that there are no elements of a “socialism from below” to be found in Marx and Engels?

If we look at Marx, we get contradictory impressions. On the one hand, he argued that freedom “consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.” Combine this with his comments on the Paris Commune (see his “The Civil War in France”), we can say that there are clearly elements of “socialism from below” in Marx’s work. On the other hand, he often stresses the need for strict centralisation of power. In 1850, for example, he argued that the workers must “not only strive for a single and indivisible German republic, but also within this republic for the most determined centralisation of power in the hands of the state authority.” This was because “the path of revolutionary activity” can “proceed only from the centre.” This meant that the workers must be opposed to the “federative republic” planned by the democrats and “must not allow themselves to be misguided by the democratic talk of freedom for the communities, of self-government, etc.” This centralisation of power was essential to overcome local autonomy, which would allow “every village, every town and every province” to put “a new obstacle in the path” the revolution due to “local and provincial obstinacy.” Decades later, Marx dismissed Bakunin’s vision of “the free organisation of the worker masses from bottom to top” as “nonsense.” [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 537, p. 509 and p. 547]

Thus we have a contradiction. While arguing that the state must become subordinate to society, we have a central power imposing its will on “local and provincial obstinacy.” This implies a vision of revolution in which the centre (indeed, “the state authority”) forces its will on the population, which (by necessity) means that the centre power is “superimposed upon society” rather than “subordinate” to it. Given his dismissal of the idea of organisation from bottom to top, we cannot argue that by this he meant simply the co-ordination of local initiatives. Rather, we are struck by the “top-down” picture of revolution Marx presents. Indeed, his argument from 1850 suggests that Marx favoured centralism not only in order to prevent the masses from creating obstacles to the revolutionary activity of the “centre,” but also to prevent them from interfering with their own liberation.

Looking at Engels, we discover him writing that “[a]s soon as our Party is in possession of political power it has simply to expropriate the big landed proprietors just like the manufacturers in industry ... thus restored to the community [they] are to be turned over by us to the rural workers who are already cultivating them and are to be organised into co-operatives.” He even states that this expropriation may “be compensated,” depending on “the circumstances which we obtain power, and particularly by the attitude adopted by these gentry.” [Selected Writings, pp. 638–9] Thus we have the party taking power, then expropriating the means of life for the workers and, lastly, “turning over” these to them. While this fits into the general scheme of the Communist Manifesto, it cannot be said to be “socialism from below” which can only signify the direct expropriation of the means of production by the workers themselves, organising themselves into free producer associations to do so.

It may be argued that Marx and Engels did not exclude such a solution to the social question. For example, we find Engels stating that “the question is not whether the proletariat when it comes to power will simply seize by force the tools of production, the raw materials and means of subsistence” or “whether it will redeem property therein by instalments spread over a long period.” To attempt to predict this “for all cases would be utopia-making.” [Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 386] However, Engels is assuming that the social revolution (the proletariat “com[ing] to power”) comes before the social revolution (the seizure of the means of production). In this, we can assume that it is the “revolutionary” government which does the seizing (or redeeming) rather than rebel workers.

This vision of revolution as the party coming to power can be seen from Engels’ warning that the “worse thing that can befall the leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to assume power at a time when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents and for the measures this domination implies.” [Op. Cit., vol. 10, p. 469] Needless to say, such a vision is hard to equate with “socialism from below” which implies the active participation of the working class in the direct management of society from the bottom-up. If the leaders “assume power” then they have the real power, not the class they claim to “represent.” Equally, it seems strange that socialism can be equated with a vision which equates “domination” of a class being achieved by the fact a leader “represents” it. Can the working class really be said to be the ruling class if its role in society is to select those who exercise power on its behalf (i.e. to elect representatives)? Bakunin quite rightly answered in the negative. While representative democracy may be acceptable to ensure bourgeois rule, it cannot be assumed that it can be utilised to create a socialist society. It was designed to defend class society and its centralised and top-down nature reflects this role.

Moreover, Marx and Engels had argued in The Holy Family that the “question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.” [quoted by Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists, p. 280] As Murray Bookchin argued:

“These lines and others like them in Marx’s writings were to provide the rationale for asserting the authority of Marxist parties and their armed detachments over and even against the proletariat. Claiming a deeper and more informed comprehension of the situation than ‘even the whole of the proletariat at the given moment,’ Marxist parties went on to dissolve such revolutionary forms of proletarian organisation as factory committees and ultimately to totally regiment the proletariat according to lines established by the party leadership.” [Op. Cit., p. 289]

Thus the ideological underpinning of a “socialism from above” is expounded, one which dismisses what the members of the working class actually want or desire at a given point (a position which Trotsky, for one, explicitly argued). A few years later, they argued in The Communist Manifesto that “a portion of the bourgeois goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” They also noted that the Communists are “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties” and “they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the general results of the proletarian movement.” This gives a privileged place to the party (particularly the “bourgeois ideologists” who join it), a privileged place which their followers had no problem abusing in favour of party power and hierarchical leadership from above. Lenin was just expressing orthodox Social-Democratic (i.e. Marxist) policy when he argued that socialist consciousness was created by bourgeois intellectuals and introduced into the working class from outside. Against this, we have to note that the Manifesto states that the proletarian movement was “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.”  Whe they wrote this the proletariat was a minority in all countries bar Britain. [Selected Works, p. 44, p. 46 and p. 45]

Looking at the tactics advocated by Marx and Engels, we see a strong support for “political action” in the sense of participating in elections. This support undoubtedly flows from Engels’s comments that universal suffrage “in an England two-thirds of whose inhabitants are industrial proletarians means the exclusive political rule of the working class with all the revolutionary changes in social conditions which are inseparable from it.” [Collected Works, vol. 10, p. 298] Marx, likewise, repeatedly argued along identical lines. For example, in 1855, he stated that “universal suffrage ... implies the assumption of political power as means of satisfying [the workers’] social means” and, in Britain, “revolution is the direct content of universal suffrage.” [Op. Cit., vol. 11, pp. 335–6] Yet how could an entire class, the proletariat organised as a “movement” exercise its power under such a system? While the atomised voting to nominate representatives (who, in reality, held the real power in society) may be more than adequate to ensure bourgeois, i.e. minority, power, could it be used for working class, i.e. majority, power?

This seems highly unlikely because such institutions are designed to place policy-making in the hands of representatives and were created explicitly to exclude mass participation in order to ensure bourgeois control. They do not (indeed, cannot) constitute a “proletariat organised as a ruling class.” If public policy, as distinguished from administrative activities, is not made by the people themselves, in federations of self-managed assemblies, then a movement of the vast majority does not, cannot, exist. For people to acquire real power over their lives and society, they must establish institutions organised and run, as Bakunin constantly stressed, from below. This would necessitate that they themselves directly manage their own affairs, communities and workplaces and, for co-ordination, mandate federal assemblies of revocable and strictly controllable delegates, who will execute their decisions. Only in this sense can a majority class, especially one committed to the abolition of all classes, organise as a class to manage society.

As such, Marx and Engels tactics are at odds with any idea of “socialism from below.” While, correctly, supporting strikes and other forms of working class direct action (although, significantly, Engels dismissed the general strike) they placed that support within a general political strategy which emphasised electioneering and representative forms. This, however, is a form of struggle which can only really be carried out by means of leaders. The role of the masses is minor, that of voters. The focus of the struggle is at the top, in parliament, where the duly elected leaders are. As Luigi Galleani argued, this form of action involved the “ceding of power by all to someone, the delegate, the representative, individual or group.” This meant that rather than the anarchist tactic of “direct pressure put against the ruling classes by the masses,” the Socialist Party “substituted representation and the rigid discipline of the parliamentary socialists,” which inevitably resulted in it “adopt[ing] class collaboration in the legislative arena, without which all reforms would remain a vain hope.” It also resulted in the socialists needing “authoritarian organisations”, i.e. ones which are centralised and disciplined from above down. [The End of Anarchism?, p. 14, p. 12 and p. 14] The end result was the encouragement of a viewpoint that reforms (indeed, the revolution) would be the work of leaders acting on behalf of the masses whose role would be that of voters and followers, not active participants in the struggle.

By the 1890s, the top-down and essentially reformist nature of these tactics had made their mark in both Engels’ politics and the practical activities of the Social-Democratic parties. Engels “introduction” to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France indicated how far Marxism had progressed and undoubtedly influenced by the rise of Social-Democracy as an electoral power, it stressed the use of the ballot box as the ideal way, if not the only way, for the party to take power. He noted that “[w]e, the ‘revolutionists’, the ‘overthrowers’” were “thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow” and the bourgeoisie “cry despairingly ... legality is the death of us” and were “much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.” He argued that it was essential “not to fitter away this daily increasing shock force [of party voters] in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day.” [Selected Writings, p. 656, p. 650 and p. 655]

The net effect of this would simply be keeping the class struggle within the bounds decided upon by the party leaders, so placing the emphasis on the activities and decisions of those at the top rather than the struggle and decisions of the mass of working class people themselves.  When the party was racked by the “revisionism” controversy after Engels death, it was fundamentally a conflict between those who wanted the party’s rhetoric to reflect its reformist tactics and those who sought the illusion of radical words to cover the reformist practice. The decision of the Party leadership to support their state in the First World War simply proved that radical words cannot defeat reformist tactics.

Needless to say, from this contradictory inheritance Marxists had two ways of proceeding. Either they become explicitly anti-state (and so approach anarchism) or become explicitly in favour of party and state power and so, by necessity, “revolution from above.” The council communists and other libertarian Marxists followed the first path, the Bolsheviks and their followers the second. Lenin explicitly dismissed the idea that Marxism proceeded “only from below,” stating that this was an anarchist principle. Nor was he shy in equating party power with working class power. Indeed, this vision of socialism as involving party power was not alien to the mainstream social-democracy Leninism split from. The leading left-wing Menshevik Martov argued as follows:

“In a class struggle which has entered the phase of civil war, there are bound to be times when the advance guard of the revolutionary class, representing the interests of the broad masses but ahead of them in political consciousness, is obliged to exercise state power by means of a dictatorship of the revolutionary minority. Only a short-sighted and doctrinaire viewpoint would reject this prospect as such. The real question at stake is whether this dictatorship, which is unavoidable at a certain stage of any revolution, is exercised in such a way as to consolidate itself and create a system of institutions enabling it to become a permanent feature, or whether, on the contrary, it is replaced as soon as possible by the organised initiative and autonomy of the revolutionary class or classes as a whole. The second of these methods is that of the revolutionary Marxists who, for this reason, style themselves Social Democrats; the first is that of the Communists.” [The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, Abraham Ascher (ed.), p. 119]

All this is to be expected, given the weakness of the Marxist theory of the state. Marxists have always had an a-historic perspective on the state, considering it as purely an instrument of class rule rather than what it is, an instrument of minority class rule. For anarchists, the “State is the minority government, from the top downward, of a vast quantity of men.” This automatically means that a socialism, like Marx’s, which aims for a socialist government and a workers’ state automatically becomes, against the wishes of its best activists, “socialism from above.” As Bakunin argued, Marxists are “worshippers of State power, and necessarily also prophets of political and social discipline and champions of order established from the top downwards, always in the name of universal suffrage and the sovereignty of the masses, for whom they save the honour and privilege of obeying leaders, elected masters.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 265 and pp. 237–8]

For this reason anarchists from Bakunin onwards have argued for a bottom-up federation of workers’ councils as the basis of revolution and the means of managing society after capitalism and the state have been abolished. If these organs of workers’ self-management are co-opted into a state structure (as happened in Russia) then their power will be handed over to the real power in any state — the government and its bureaucracy. The state is the delegation of power — as such, it means that the idea of a “workers’ state” expressing “workers’ power” is a logical impossibility. If workers are running society then power rests in their hands. If a state exists then power rests in the hands of the handful of people at the top, not in the hands of all. The state was designed for minority rule. No state can be an organ of working class (i.e. majority) self-management due to its basic nature, structure and design.

So, while there are elements of “socialism from below” in the works of Marx and Engels they are placed within a distinctly centralised and authoritarian context which undermines them. As John Clark summarises, “in the context of Marx’s consistent advocacy of centralist programmes, and the part these programmes play in his theory of social development, the attempt to construct a libertarian Marxism by citing Marx’s own proposals for social change would seem to present insuperable difficulties.” [Op. Cit., p. 93]



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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