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(en) US, black rose fed: MARXISM, ANARCHISM, & THE GENEALOGY OF "SOCIALISM FROM BELOW" By Tom Keefer
Wed, 31 Oct 2018 10:08:48 +0200
"It is Marxism itself, in what was the best and most revolutionary in it, namely its
pitiless denunciations of hollow phrases and ideologies and its insistence on permanent
self-criticism, which compels us to take stock of what Marxism has become in real life."
---- -Cornelius Castoriadis, The Fate of Marxism ---- Introduction ---- We live today
in an era in which socialism has largely lost its meaning, and at least in the mainstream
political consciousness, much of its relevance. Its role as the bogeyman of U.S. empire
has been replaced by Arab/Islamic "terrorism," and even to those unconvinced by the
triumph of capitalism and of "the end of history," socialism's meaning is obfuscated by an
endless variety of parties, movements and states claiming to be socialist. The profusion
of social democratic, Leninist, Stalinist, and Maoist governments over the past century
which have failed to carry out their stated "socialist" objectives has dealt a serious
blow to the integrity of the very concept of socialism and is largely responsible for
today's marginalization of revolutionary politics. Socialist organizations out of power
have proved no better, as cultism, bureaucratization, and reformism have ossified and
destroyed virtually every such grouping that has been able to amass more than a handful of
members. Despite the best efforts of its founders, for most of the past century
"scientific socialism" has become, as Cornelius Castoriadis puts it:
...an ideology in the full meaning that Marx himself attributed to this word. It has
become a system of ideas which relate to reality not in order to clarify it and to
transform it, but on the contrary in order to mask it and to justify it in the abstract.
It has become a means of allowing people to say one thing and to do another, to appear
other than they are.
One response to this situation has been to articulate a politics of "socialism from below"
to provide a revolutionary alternative to the moral crimes and political failures of both
authoritarian Marxism and social democracy. Hal Draper, the inventor of this term, and
David McNally, who has helped to popularize it, define socialism from below as working
class self-emancipation based upon the fusion of revolutionary socialism with
revolutionary democracy. Socialism from below is seen as the genuine inheritance of
Marxian socialism as articulated in the declaration of the International Workers
Association in 1867 that "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the
working classes themselves."This conception of socialism, it is claimed, stands in
direct opposition to the legacies of authoritarian "socialisms from above" - utopian
socialism, insurrectionist/conspiratorial socialism, anarchism, social democracy,
Stalinism and Maoism.
Over the past several decades the most influential political grouping to lay claim to the
term developed by Draper and McNally has been the International Socialist Tendency (IST),
which is one of the largest socialist groups in the English speaking western world. The
IST is a political formation which, while emerging from the post-World War II Trotskyist
movement, broke from orthodox Trotskyism by its categorization of the former Soviet Union
as state capitalist. The IST has been the largest and most important Trotskyist group in
the English speaking world over the past several decades, and has had a major impact on
the anti-globalization and anti-war movements in England, Canada, and the US. The role
played by the IST has been a controversial one, as many grassroots activists and
organizers have criticized it for undemocratically controlling broad campaigns, forming
unprincipled block with trade union bureaucrats and "left" liberals, using social
movements as recruiting grounds for their organization, and demobilizing and rolling up
grassroots organizations once they are of no more use to their party. Interestingly, the
IST has been the only major Marxist political formation to have claimed to be organizing
on the basis of a politics of "socialism from below," although the term would seem to have
little in common with its actual practice. In recent years this tendency has seen numerous
defections from its ranks from groupings which have split from it in response to what they
view as authoritarian and anti-democratic practices within the organization.
In the context of the recent emergence of significant global anti-capitalist and
anti-imperialist movements, many organizations on the far left are rethinking their
analyses of a variety of political questions in a manner sympathetic to the approach
proposed by Draper and McNally. In addition to an overall resurgence of anarchist
politics, the principles of direct democracy and self-organization dominate much of the
younger and more radical sections of the anti-globalization movement in North America and
Western Europe, and there has been a willingness on much of the socialist left to engage
in processes of regroupment with other left formations which focus on contemporary points
of unity rather than historical disagreements.
The memory of Stalinism is fading as a new generation of radical anti-capitalists comes
into existence, and as anti-globalization and anti-war movements begin to network
themselves together in bottom up formations it, in some ways appears as if we are entering
a historical period reminiscent of the days of the First International. In that era, a
rapacious, unfettered capitalism rampaged across the globe and an internationalist and
non-dogmatic revolutionary movement comprised of a wide variety of political traditions
(Proudhonist, Chartist, Owenist, Marxist, and Bakuninist), arose to create a theoretical
and practical working class resistance to it. The question to be explored is whether or
not the concept of socialism from below provides a practical and theoretical base to
transcend authoritarian versions of "socialism," or if it is just another socialist
"ideology" which papers over fundamental political differences, and thereby obscures the
struggle against exploitation and domination.
The question of whether a politics of "socialism from below" can unite radical
anti-capitalist forces becomes all the more interesting when considered in historical
context, because the stress on exclusive agency "from below" has long belonged to the
arsenal of anti-statist anarchism mobilized against Marxist "authoritarianism." The battle
over the question of whether or not socialism could come "only from below" or must come
"from below and from above as well" has been going on for much longer than many of the
modern day participants in this discussion are aware. Debates between Marx, Engels and
Bakunin regarding methods of organization and concepts of revolution polarized the First
International and led to its eventual dissolution, while the degeneration of the Russian
revolution provided fresh ground for a re-opening of this question and for a development
of anarchist and left communist critiques of Marxism as "proletarian Jacobinism". If, as
Engels stated, "the Bakuninists for years have been propagating the idea that all
revolutionary action from above was pernicious, and that everything must be organized and
carried out from below upwards"and if, as Lenin stated, "limitation, in principle, of
revolutionary action to pressure from below and renunciation of pressure also from above
is anarchism,"how is it that Draper and McNally as Marxists from Leninist and
Trotskyist traditions claim ownership over the concept of "socialism from below"?
This essay will try to answer these questions by moving beyond static categories of
socialism "from above" and "from below" and seek to understand what the real issues are in
this ongoing debate. To begin with, I will provide a review and assessment of the
political genealogy of the term "socialism from below" and then discuss the manner in
which the conflict between Marxists and anarchists in the First International related to
questions of socialism from below. An assessment of the politics and potential of
socialism from below would not be complete without addressing the question of the Russian
revolution and its subsequent degeneration, which has posed the most significant problem
for socialist revolutionaries in the 20th century. In the course of this essay I will rely
on the insights of a variety of revolutionary schools of thought, which, while they have
been largely ignored by the theoreticians of "socialism from below," offer possibilities
for pushing liberatory politics beyond the ideological constraints of a reductionist and
Socialism From Below and "Anarchist Libertarianism"
The term "socialism from below" was coined in 1960 by the American Marxist Hal Draper, in
an essay entitled The Two Souls of Socialism.Draper, who was a founding member of the
US Trotskyist movement but split with orthodox Trotskyism during World War II, wrote his
essay to address what he called the "crisis in the meaning of socialism."Faced with a
host of competing socialist groups - social democratic, Stalinist, Maoist, and Trotskyist
- all claiming the mantle of genuine socialism, Draper came up with the terms "socialism
from below" and "socialism from above" to distinguish between authentic revolutionary
socialism and its antithesis. Draper defined these two competing "socialisms" as follows:
What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that
socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses
in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact.
The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through
the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their
own hands, mobilized "from below" in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as
actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history.
This definition forms the substance of Draper's essay and of his notion of socialism from
below. Using it as a criterion he devotes the rest of his essay to examining a wide swath
of socialist thinkers (from Kautsky, to Babeuf, to Saint-Simon, Bernstein, to US radicals)
in order to categorize them as followers of a "socialism from below" or "socialism from
above". For Draper it is only Marx who truly occupies the category of socialism from
below, for it was Marx who "finally fettered the two ideas of socialism and democracy
together."Draper argues that Marx did this not only in the realm of theory, but also in
the practice of his day to day organizing.
Draper saves his fiercest criticism for two libertarian socialist critics of Marx -
Proudhon and Bakunin. Draper condemns the racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism of Proudhon
and lambastes him as a would be dictator, adding that "the story is similar with the
second ‘father of anarchism,' Bakunin."For Draper, despite its "something from below"
verbiage, anarchism "is not concerned with the creation of democratic control from below,
but only with the destruction of ‘authority' over the individual, including the authority
of the most extremely democratic regulation of society that it is possible to imagine."
Nearly twenty-five years after the publication of the Two Souls of Socialism, Hal Draper's
Marxism was re-popularized in a pamphlet entitled Socialism from Below by David McNally.
McNally was then a member of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), a group whose
U.S. section had been created in part by supporters of Draper's analysis. Following the
disseminatin of McNally's pamphlet, the concept of "socialism from below" was to become a
touchstone in the political self-definition of the IST.
McNally's stated purpose in writing the pamphlet was identical to Draper's - to address
the "root of the contemporary crisis in the meaning of socialism"13 created by the crimes
of Stalinism.The similarities go deeper, as McNally's pamphlet adopts the structure of
Draper's "Two Souls of Socialism" by laying out a historical accounting of the
predecessors of the modern socialist movement. In some sections of his work, McNally is
obviously heavily indebted to Draper's analysis. For example, in his section on anarchism,
McNally not only borrows the same subtitle of "the myth of anarchist libertarianism" but
in three separate places within the same section uses the exact same quotations that
Draper uses to critique anarchism. McNally's rejection of anarchism, like Draper's, is
threefold: anarchism represents the urges of the small shopkeeper and the petty
bourgeoisie, not the working class; it is anti-democratic in its refusal of "democratic
and collectivist practice"; and its rejection of "political freedom" for a "freedom from
politics" means that anarchism will never be able to provide "real direction to attempts
by workers to change society."
The virulence of Draper's and McNally's critique of anarchism is the product of a
difficult contradiction within orthodox Marxist claims to embody socialism from below -
the fact that of all the revolutionary critiques of capital and the state, anarchism would
seem to be the theoretical perspective that has most consistently advocated a politics
"from below". Not only that, but revolutionary anarchism is not easily dissociated from
Marxism. As Enrico Malatesta noted, "almost all the anarchist literature of the 19th
century was impregnated with Marxism."The libertarian communist Daniel Guerin takes
this analysis a step further by arguing that:
Marxism and anarchism are not only influenced by one another. They have a common origin,
they belong to the same family.... Anarchism and Marxism, at the start, drank at the same
proletarian spring. And under the pressure of the newly born working class they assigned
to themselves the same final aim, i.e. to overthrow the capitalist state and to entrust
society's wealth, the means of production, to the workers themselves.
While it is true that Proudhon and many of his followers were often reactionary,
chauvinistic, and opposed to many aspects of working class self activity, Draper and
McNally forget to mention that the followers of both Marx and Bakunin were often united
against the Proudhonists. Despite their sharp disagreements on questions of the state and
centralization, Marx and Bakunin:
both believed in the primacy of economic "base" over political "superstructure"; both
wished to overthrow capitalism and were engaged upon working as active revolutionists to
this end; both were socialists and collectivists, opposed to bourgeois individualism; both
were bitterly at odds with religion; both had a veneration for natural science.
Where they disagreed was precisely over what could be termed the principles of socialism
from below. While both believed in working class self-organization, the debate between
them was over exactly how this was supposed to lead to the emancipation of the working
class. As Bakunin argued:
Marx is an authoritarian and centralizing communist. He wants what we want, the complete
triumph of economic and social equality, but he wants it in the State and through the
State power, through the dictatorship of a very strong, and so to say, despotic
provisional government, that is by the negation of liberty. His economic ideal is the
state as sole owner of the land and of all kinds of capital, cultivating the land under
the management of state engineers, and controlling all industrial and commercial
associations with state capital. We want the same triumph of social and economic equality
through the abolition of the State and of all that passes by the name of law (which, in
our view, is the permanent negation of human rights). We want the reconstruction of
society and the unification of mankind to be achieved, not from above downwards by any
sort of authority, nor by socialist officials, engineers, and other accredited man of
learning - but from below upwards, by the free federation of all kinds of workers'
associations liberated from the yoke of the state.
Draper's and McNally's critique of anarchism is superficial and misleading insofar as it
makes no attempt to address the anarchist "from below" critique of Marxist conceptions of
party and state, reduces all anarchism to two individual theorists (Proudhon and Bakunin),
and makes no attempt to address the insights of collectivist, democratic, and working
class currents within anarchism.As vile, reprehensible, and deserving of condemnation
as they are, the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments attributed to Proudhon and
Bakunin should not be grounds for dismissing the entire theoretical edifice of anarchism.
A little digging will reveal racist remarks from both Marx and Engels towards the Slavs,
Mexicans, and other victims of "world history," but reprehensible as these are, no one
suggests that Marxism should be abandoned for this reason.
While Draper and McNally correctly attack the individualist and petty bourgeois tendencies
present within anarchism, they forget that, as with socialism, there are "two souls" of
anarchism. There is an anarchism which is petty bourgeois, anti-democratic, individualist,
and based on a strategy of liberation from above, but there is also a working class,
liberatory anarchism which on numerous occasions in history has taken part in great
mobilizations against capital, state, and authoritarian socialist dictatorships.In
focusing upon Proudhon and Bakunin, as though they were the be all and end all of
anarchism, and not just representatives of particular anarchist currents at a specific
historical juncture, Draper and McNally perform an act of erasure upon important anarchist
theorists such as Malatesta, Kroptokin, Goldman, Berkman, Averich, Makhno and Durruti, all
of whom extended and transformed anarchist thought in important ways. In addition to
ignoring the militant anarcho-syndicalist movement that played such a crucial role in the
early US labor movement, they also omit the revolutionary "from below" contributions of
anarchism to the Russian and Spanish revolutions.
Draper's attack on anarchism is not the only example of occlusion in his essay, as he
declines to ask questions that his framework is incapable of answering. Thus, in saying
that Bolshevism "is difficult to treat briefly"and cannot be discussed within the
scope of his essay, Draper fails to bring his analysis of socialism from below to one of
the most pressing questions concerning the meaning of socialism: what happened to Marxism
in the wake of the degeneration of the Russian revolution? Draper's ducking of the
question of whether "Leninism" was a form of socialism from above or below is matched by
an unwillingness in this essay to pronounce upon several of the most important questions
facing revolutionary movements: the nature and potentiality of the working class as a
force for revolutionary change, the role of the revolutionary organization in the process
of this change, and finally, the nature and role of the state in the revolutionary process.
While Draper's focus on working class self-organization is sufficient to distinguish a
genuine process of revolution from top down reformism or bureaucratic maneuvering "from
above" in the historical examples he has listed, it is not sufficient to articulate what
socialism from below concretely means in today's context. Draper's method is to list a
long variety of great European socialist men and to lump them into various categories
based upon what they have said or written.Not once does he speak of either the
underlying capitalist tendencies of development or mention working class resistance to
these processes and how this might have affected various social movements or the political
development of various theorists. Draper's method is an ideological one (the creation of
various fixed categories removed from the context of class struggle and material reality)
and one in which, ironically enough, the very masses for whom he claims to speak are
removed from the picture.
Lenin and Socialism From Below
Such is the general mechanism of the proletarian state power viewed "from above," from the
standpoint of the practical realization of the dictatorship. It can be hoped that the
reader will understand why the Russian Bolshevik who is acquainted with this mechanism and
who for twenty-five years has watched it growing out of small, illegal, underground
circles, cannot help regarding all this talk about "from above" or "from below," about the
dictatorship of leaders or the dictatorship of the masses, etc., as ridiculous and
childish nonsense, something like discussing whether a man's left leg or right arm is more
useful to him.
- V.I. Lenin, Left Wing Communism
McNally's major contribution to Draper's conception of socialism from below was to extend
it to encompass the Leninist and Trotskyist tradition that the International Socialist
Tendency bases itself upon. Draper defined the essence of Marxism as the synthesis of the
ideas of socialism and democracy, with the emphasis that it is only the working class that
will be able to fuse them together in a revolutionary whole. McNally, in preparing an
extension of socialism from below to include Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik tradition,
defines the "essence" of Marxism slightly differently from Draper. From McNally's
perspective, the essence of Marxism arises from the fact that "the working class had to
emancipate itself through its own collective action" and to "overthrow the old state and
create a new, fully democratic state for itself."McNally then discusses the "revision"
and co-option of Marxist revolutionary and self-emancipatory theory by social democracy,
and, after a brief outline of Rosa Luxemburg's important conflicts with social democracy,
turns to the main thrust of his argument - the contention that, due to its support for the
slogan "All power to the Soviets" and its call for the destruction of the capitalist state
apparatus, Leninism is the true representative of "socialism from below" after the
practice of Marx and Engels.
McNally argues that following the October 1917 Bolshevik led uprising, the embryo of a
truly socialist society had been formed in Russia. Because of the relative backwardness of
Russian economic development, the failure of the revolution to spread to advanced
capitalist societies, and the effects of imperialist intervention and the bloody civil war
that ensued, McNally states that "‘workers' democracy in a meaningful sense of the term
had disappeared" by 1921.McNally attributes this to the atomization and disappearance
of the working class itself under the relentless blows of the counterrevolution and not to
any actions taken by the Bolshevik leadership itself. The counterrevolution for McNally
was only fully completed by 1927, when Trotsky was expelled from the party, and when the
Left opposition which he led was ruthlessly suppressed by Stalin. For McNally, "when
Stalin was committing barbarous crimes in the name of ‘socialism', the lone voice of Leon
Trotsky kept alive some of the basic elements of socialism from below."McNally
continues his analysis of the degeneration of the Russian revolution, expanding upon the
contributions of Trotsky, while also explaining the central theses upon which the IST
broke from orthodox Trotskyism: the IST's theory of state capitalism, its critique of
Third World "from above" revolutions in China and Cuba, and its assertion that the world
is again sliding into a period of crisis reminiscent of the 1930s.
McNally's arguments concerning the degeneration of the Russian revolution may at first
sound convincing, for they repeat the seemingly evident truths that the Bolsheviks were
the victims of the unfavourable circumstances that they inherited after coming to power,
and that the only real alternatives to Soviet power were the white armies of the counter
revolution or those Bolshevik currents represented by Trotsky, Bukharin, or Stalin.
However, in repeating this argument, McNally so simplifies his reading of Russian history
that all real and imagined revolutionary critics of the Bolsheviks have been excised from
his account. While it is true that his work is a short one, it seems odd that McNally left
out the revolutionary critiques of Leninism made by Rosa Luxemburg, the "ultra-left"
communists, Alexandra Kollontai and the Workers' Opposition, and the Russian
anarchist-communists, not to mention such momentous events as the Kronstadt revolt and the
Makhnovist peasant uprising in Ukraine - all of which made coherent criticisms of Leninism
and the Bolshevik tradition from the perspective of the self-organization of the masses
from below. In McNally's analysis, Trotsky stands as the sole opponent of Stalin and the
degeneration of the revolution, because all others have been made to vanish.
It is undeniable that the failure of the Russian revolution to spread to advanced European
nations and the impact of foreign intervention and civil war accelerated its degeneration.
However, the sad fact is that this degeneration began before the Civil War and foreign
intervention began. In his comprehensive study The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control,
Maurice Brinton provides numerous examples of the ways in which the Bolsheviks, in the
months after they came to power and before the Civil War began, undermined workers'
self-management, disbanded and subordinated initiatives amongst the factory committee
movement, and otherwise sought to maintain top down state and party control over the
working class.As Brinton argues, the struggle over whether socialism was to be built
"from above" or "from below" was not debated in the abstract: "underlying the
controversies, what was at stake was the whole concept of socialism: workers' power or the
power of the party acting ‘on behalf of' the working class."
Constraints of space prevent us from engaging in a detailed examination of the dynamics of
socialism from below and socialism from above in the Russian revolution, although a series
of interesting texts take up these questions, making powerful arguments that the Bolshevik
regime was not a force of socialism from below. These include the work of the anarchists
Voline and Paul Averich on Kronstadt and Makhno, and also the work of Samuel Farber in his
book Before Stalinism. Also, a very thorough and well researched response to David
McNally's pamphlet Socialism From Below in the introduction to the "Anarchist Frequently
Asked Questions" document provides a point by point refutation of McNally's arguments
concerning anarchism and the politics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Lenin-ISM and Anarchism
In 1873, Engels wrote "The Bakuninists at Work: an Account of the Spanish Revolt in the
Summer of 1873," an indictment of what he saw as the anarchist failure to lead a
successful revolution in Spain, where the International was heavily dominated by Bakunin's
followers. Engels criticized the political incoherence of the movement, its failure to
articulate a clear political program, its refusal to participate in a coalition government
with the Republican bourgeoisie, and its eventual participation in the government as an
"impotent minority outvoted and politically exploited by the bourgeoisie."Engels'
account is certainly a damning one, and it is true that the movement he critiqued seems to
have committed many of the same mistakes made by the main anarchist tendencies during the
Spanish revolution of 1936.
But what is more interesting is that Engels rooted his critique of the anarchists in their
refusal to support the application of "socialism from above" through revolutionary
organizations and the state. As he put it: "the Bakuninists moreover had for years been
preaching that all revolutionary action from above was pernicious, and that everything
should be organized and carried through from below upward."
In 1905, this debate over the concept of "socialism from below" moved eastward, and in the
midst of the revolutionary upheaval then sweeping Russia, Lenin polemicized against his
rivals Plekanov and Martynov in an article entitled "Only From Below, or From Above as
Well as From Below?" on precisely the same questions that had faced revolutionaries in
Spain. In an ironic twist of history, Plekanov was then arguing that "to participate in a
revolutionary government together with representatives of the petty bourgeoisie would be a
betrayal of the proletariat," a position he later reversed during the 1917
revolution.With major cracks appearing in the edifice of the Tsarist state, Plekanov's
position was hotly criticized by Lenin, who thought that participation of socialists in a
coalition government with progressive members of the bourgeoisie was necessary to push the
revolution forward. Lenin argued that Plekanov's argument smacked of the anarchist
principles unequivocally condemned by Engels.
Lenin summed up the argument between his paper, Vyperod, and Plekanov's Iskra as follows:
"Iskra wants pressure from below, Vyperod wants it ‘from above as well as from below'.
Pressure from below is pressure by the citizens on the revolutionary government. Pressure
from above is pressure by the revolutionary government on the citizens."Lenin further
stressed that what was at stake was a matter of principle: "we are for the moment not
considering any concrete situation... We are dealing with the general question of
principle, whether in the epoch of the Democratic Revolution it is admissible to pass from
pressure from below to pressure from above."Lenin proceeded to recount the lessons of
Spain in 1873 as analyzed by Engels, that "true Jacobin of social democracy," who
"appreciated the importance of action from above." Lenin's article concludes with five theses:
1) Limitation, in principle, of revolutionary action to pressure from below and
renunciation of pressure also from above is anarchism.
2) He who does not understand the new tasks in the epoch of revolution, the tasks of
action from above, he who is unable to determine the conditions and the program for such
action, has no idea whatever of the tasks of the proletariat in every democratic revolution.
3) The principle that for Social-Democracy, participation in a provisional revolutionary
government with the bourgeoisie is inadmissible, that every such participation is a
betrayal of the working class, is a principle of anarchism.
4) Every "serious revolutionary situation" confronts the party of the proletariat with the
task of giving purposive leadership to the uprising, of organizing the revolution, of
centralizing all the revolutionary forces, of boldly launching a military offensive, and
of making the most energetic use of the revolutionary governmental power.
5) Marx and Engels....would have called the new Iskra's doctrinal position a contemplation
of the "posterior" of the proletariat, a rehash of anarchist errors.
These theses are important as they show how once again the controversy regarding socialism
from below arose, this time within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in the early
years of the 20th century. What is also amply clear is that Lenin would have vigorously
resisted any attempts by Draper or McNally to enroll him in the ranks of socialism from
below, "at the posterior" of the proletariat.
Revisions to Socialism From Below
In 1997 David McNally came out with a second revised edition of "Socialism from Below"
after he and others split from the IST in 1996 by forming the New Socialist Group in
Canada.This edition contained significant changes from the first and is worth
mentioning in a study of the political genealogy of socialism from below. The 1997 version
saw the deletion of much of his critique of anarchism, and the introduction of
contributions from other Marxist theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and CLR James, as well
as expanded sections on racial, gender, and sexual liberation that go beyond the lip
service that they received in the 1984 version.
McNally reduces his treatment of anarchism to thirteen lines of text printed in the
original version of the pamphlet and deletes the rest of the section on anarchism without
making any further additions. It is not clear why he has done this. There is no further
mention of anarchism in the pamphlet, no attempt to grapple with other anarchist
theorists, and no retraction of or elaboration upon his previous critique of anarchism.
McNally's sections on Lenin, the Russian revolution, and the contributions of Leon Trotsky
also remain essentially unchanged. One of the major additions to the pamphlet is an
expanded section on the Italian communist leader, Antonio Gramsci, from whom McNally seeks
to derive insights on hegemony, civil society, and the "war of position". For McNally,
Gramsci's central insights lie in his notion of a "a new and more complex model of the
revolutionary party,"but McNally never goes into detail about what this means or
whether or not it is qualitatively different from the Trotskyist model of party building.
Gramsci has certainly left an important legacy for revolutionary activists confronting a
relatively stable advanced capitalist society, but other than a mention of the need to
closely link "spontaneous" struggles with the "leadership" of a "more complex"
revolutionary party, McNally fails to distill what Gramsci's notions mean on a practical
level for the theory of socialism from below. Some other important aspects of Gramsci's
thought could have been drawn out and applied to central questions of socialism from
below, but issues of class consciousness, the role of the revolutionary organization, and
the question of the state are not aspects of Gramsci's thought that McNally addresses.
The other major addition to McNally's pamphlet is his section on "Rebels Within the
Movement," a look at the liberatory contributions of feminist, anti-racist, and sexual
politics to the practice of socialism from below. The development of this section of the
pamphlet is a welcome addition to the brief mention of such issues in McNally's 1984
pamphlet, and to their complete absence in Draper's work. McNally turned to key
revolutionary theorists who have been traditionally marginalized and excluded from the
orthodox Marxist canon in order to build an "inclusive" politics of socialism from below.
Thus, the anti-racist perspective of CLR James is foregrounded, as are the struggles for
sexual and gender liberation as advanced by Alexandra Kollontai and Wilhelm Reich.
However, there is a problem with McNally's use of these figures. For while he supports an
"inclusive" model of socialism from below, one in which the insights of James, Kollontai,
and Reich can be "added on" to the already determined core of the theory, he is not
interested in examining a transformative politics of socialism from below which might
subject his formulations, in the best Marxist tradition, to the "ruthless criticism of
Just as he did in his 1984 section on anarchism, McNally performs an act of historical
erasure upon the theorists he examines. James, Kollontai, and Reich were not one
dimensional figures who only focused on single issues of oppression that can be simply
added to McNally's conception of socialism from below. At various points in their lives
these thinkers articulated a comprehensive politics of socialism from below, a politics
which was and remains in sharp conflict with McNally's version of a Trotskyist version of
socialism from below. Fresh from a new study of Hegel and under the pressure of events
such as the Hungarian revolution of 1956, C.L.R. James wrote Notes on the Dialectic and a
pamphlet entitled Facing Reality which broke decisively from Trotskyism and pioneered a
radical Marxist politics which transcended the notion of the revolutionary party, and
which rejected the notion of a period of transition between socialism and communism. At
the close of the Russian civil war, Alexandra Kollontai led a bitter fight from within the
Bolshevik party as part of an organized political tendency, the Worker's Opposition,
against authoritarian measures that were being used by Lenin and Trotsky to centralize
power in the hands of an unaccountable party elite. Wilhelm Reich called into question
notions of the revolutionary party as the depository of socialist theory and sought to
develop a critique of everyday life and class consciousness.
One would never know this from reading McNally's pamphlet. In the time that elapsed
between the publication of the two editions, the growth of new social movements required a
rethinking of race, gender and sex politics beyond the lip service paid to
"anti-oppression" politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Because the orthodox party building
Marxist tradition of the past seventy-five years has been so weak on the politics of
oppression, McNally had to look beyond the boundaries of what was permissible in the IST
in order to create his new and improved "inclusive socialism from below". But due to the
fact that political perspectives which would disrupt his pre-arranged conception of
socialism from below are excluded from consideration, the second edition of McNally's
pamphlet, like the first, omits contributions from other revolutionary tendencies which
could better address the problem of socialism from below, its dialectical relationship
with socialism from above, and the controversies which have transfixed the socialist
movement from its inception.
Conclusion: "From Below Only" or "From Below but Also From Above"?
Whatever the inaccuracies of their historical claims, Draper's and McNally's concept of
"socialism from below" and its focus on grassroots power and mobilization appear to
present a welcome antidote to the utopian reformists, messiahs, conspirators, and
"enlightened" dictators who have identified themselves as socialists. Their view seems to
offer a chance for ordinary people to rework the world on their own initiative and in
their own interests. On a closer examination, however, the term reveals inner
inconsistencies and exhibits a consistent inability to deal with the complexity of the
real world of class struggle. Something that is from below is only "from below" in
relation to something else, a process occurring above it, or one emanating from the
"higher" echelons of society downwards. Broadly speaking, it is relatively easy to
distinguish political processes which occur from below, and which originate from within
the ranks of the oppressed and exploited (strikes, protests, riots, or rebellions) versus
political processes coming "from above" (new laws passed by parliament, decisions from the
courts, or the order of an executive committee). At this abstract level it seems obvious
that virtually all Marxist currents from Stalinist and Maoists to Trotskyists and Council
Communists as well as all class struggle anarchists are in agreement with the necessity
for "the masses" to overthrow the capitalist system and build a new social order.
Consequently, the term "socialism from below" loses much of its relevance on this broad
political terrain, as all non-utopian Socialists recognize the importance of some degree
of mass struggle and involvement "from below" in creating social change. The more
important question that needs to be resolved is how the struggle from below is understood
as unfolding and how its structures and institutions are conceived of and articulated.
It is this debate - "from below only" or "from below but also from above" - that we see
playing itself out in the historic battles between Bakunin and Marx, and later between
Lenin and the anarchists and left communists, and indeed right up to the present moment.
It is this tension on both the daily terrain of the class struggle, and in the conflicts
between two evolved practices of revolution - Marxism and anarchism - that both Draper and
McNally fail to capture in their writings on socialism from below. The question is not
just whether struggles develop "from below" or "from above" on the macro and world
historic level, but whether or not revolutionary organizations should in their day to day
activities also operate "from above" as well as "from below" and how, if possible, they
can combine these two processes and still remain committed to a genuine revolutionary
politics. In a broad sense this means developing an analysis about how revolutionaries can
build political organizations of significance, how they should interact with the trade
union movement, under what conditions if any they should participate in electoral
campaigns and sit in bourgeois parliaments, and what, if any, would be the nature of a
revolutionary state and revolutionary organizations in a post-revolutionary society.
Beyond answering these classic questions, any genuine form of socialist politics requires
answers to the specific questions of how revolutionaries approach their day to day
organizing, their relationships to their comrades, the political culture of their
organizations, and their willingness to have their own preconceptions challenged by the
changing realities of the class struggle. Addressing these questions proves to be
completely beyond the Manichean "from below" / "from above" dichotomy articulated by
Draper and McNally, which is only accurate in identifying the obvious fact that processes
of revolution are transformative and largely uncontrolled explosions of self-activity from
broad masses of people.
One approach, most often put forward by individualist anarchists, has been to suggest that
liberatory actions and movements can only take place spontaneously and without leadership,
a proposition which evaporates when we look at the concrete experience of any social
struggle. There are always gradations of political consciousness and people who by virtue
of their own material reality - especially their experience of various aspects of
privilege and disadvantage - assume an endless variety of "leadership" positions within a
given situation. For example, when union organizers are trying to win a union drive in a
workplace, they do not simply hand out union cards to the first workers they come across
and hope for the best. Instead, before making their move, they try to figure out as much
as they can about the specific material relations of the workplace in question. Examining
working conditions and the grievances of workers, they relate primarily to workers who, by
virtue of their length of time on the job, the nature of their job in relation to other
workers, their personal charisma, and shared bonds of gender, ethnicity, and language,
have become capable of expressing the common grievances of significant numbers of their
work mates by becoming leaders within their workplace. In order to be successful, union
organizers must successfully map out workers' social and political relationships and
intervene inexisting relations by targeting the most influential workers who are
unofficial but de facto "leaders" within the workplace, to be brought on side for the
campaign. It is these workers who are brought together as a committee which is then used
to bring in other workers and organize the union drive in every department of the
workplace. Ultimately the campaign must tie into the deeply felt aspirations and
grievances of as many workers as possible at a given workplace; moreover, assumptions of
the union organizers are often challenged by rank and file members. The success of the
campaign is most often determined by the extent to which union organizers have the
unofficial leaders of the workplace on side.
Paid union organizers, scouting out and then interacting with these "leaders" of the
workplace, mobilize the workforce to demand higher wages and better working conditions.
This everyday experience of the class struggle hardly seems to be in keeping with a
practice of socialism from below. Some leftists (those mostly from an individualist
anarchist or "ultraleft" perspective) might object that the unions themselves are co-opted
by capital, and that by their very nature, they serve to pacify and integrate workers'
labour power into the market by providing class peace and stability in return for higher
wages. These critics might argue that the trade unions would naturally use such top down
methods of trying to organize a workplace from above, in order to maintain the power of
the bureaucracy. However, even if this premise is accepted, it does not alter the fact
that working class consciousness and self-organization is always uneven and that the same
lack of spontaneity and ever fluid nature of leadership applies to other instances of
social struggle as well, and not just to the organizing of unions. Even the most
"spontaneous" wildcat strikes, including those which occur against the will of the union
leadership, rely upon conscious or unconscious direction and activity through formal or
informal channels that have been shaped by previous experiences of struggle. Unplanned
riots also have their own leaders whom police agents are trained to identify and
neutralize. These people may have more pressing grievances than others, they might be part
of a prepared affinity group, or they might have had previous experiences in confronting
and resisting authorities in similar circumstances. Conversely, it is possible that their
role as leaders might come from not having any of these characteristics. All that is
really meant when we say a struggle is "spontaneous" is that we do not know how or why the
struggle started and who is leading it. It is a struggle which is unmediated by structures
that we are aware of, but it is not a struggle unmediated by any structure, experience, or
leadership, as all human beings exist within such social relationships.
While it can be accepted that revolutionary consciousness, in tandem with systems of
capitalist oppression and exploitation, develops unevenly, it will not do for radicals to
simply accept the situation, work with the most "advanced" layers of the working class and
leave this situation un-problematized. For indeed, the actually - existing structures of
leadership created by the everyday experiences of class struggle in a capitalist, racist,
sexist and hetero-sexist world will reflect these patterns of domination and oppression
and shape the kinds of leadership and resistance that emerge. Ironically, despite its
reputation on the libertarian left, Lenin's pamphlet What Is to Be Done? offers an
important approach to the questions and problems of leadership "from below" as it
"spontaneously" develops through class struggle. Lenin's discussion on the limitations of
trade unionist political consciousness and the organizations created by day to day
struggles and his insistence that revolutionaries must take up the fight against all forms
of oppression in society (even in those areas seemingly not directly affecting the working
class) remain relevant today. Lenin's analysis is an important perspective from which to
analyze one specific aspect of the problem of socialism from below - the limitations of
"spontaneous" working class political consciousness, although as Rosa Luxemburg argued,
Lenin failed to make the same critical analysis of the vanguard party and forms of
"socialism from above."
Ironically, the two solitudes of far left thought - Marxism and anarchism - have both
developed insights into the dialectic of socialism from below but have not yet managed to
do so in a manner reflecting the complex interplay of formal organization and
"spontaneity." In its Leninist, Trotskyist, and Maoist forms, Marxism has paid great
attention to the problems of unevenly developing working-class consciousness and has
wasted no time in building organizational frameworks to address this problem - the
"vanguard" party chief among them. Unfortunately, this approach has created greater
problems than the ones it set out to solve, and today's crisis of Marxism has everything
to do with the historical failures of its organizational form. Anarchists and left
communists for their part have developed an insightful critique of party structures and
the perils of leadership "from above" but despite stressing the importance of working
class self-activity they have had remarkably little overall success in implanting
themselves or their ideas within the mass struggles of working class and oppressed
peoples. While the historic defeat of the working class through the rise of Stalinism, the
post-World War II consensus, and the more recent neo-liberal global offensive have
arguably played a key role in decomposing working class political consciousness and thus
limiting the possibilities for revolutionary anarchist and Marxist interventions, it is
fair to say that a significant part of today's theoretical impasse is due to a failure to
productively synthesize the insights of Marxism and anarchism within the dialectic of
socialism from below/from above.
Ultimately this synthesis is only capable of being produced through the concrete processes
of great revolutionary upheavals, but some of its characteristics and possibilities can be
captured by learning from past struggles and thinkers while also paying close attention to
the ongoing and ever present class struggles that exist in the world around us. Important
revolutionary thinkers and activists in the revolutionary tradition who have done
important work in breaking down the contradictions between thinking and doing, teaching
and learning, and party and class include Rosa Luxemburg, Bertolt Brecht, Paulo Freire and
CLR James. A project of rediscovery of their critiques should not be seen as an abstract
intellectual exercise, since to be useful, insights from the past must be located in the
context of shaping the concrete struggles of the present. We should be comforted by the
fact that there is no shortage of contemporary struggles in which the problems of uneven
political consciousness and the problematic of leadership plays itself out, and indeed no
political activity where these problems are not present. At the present moment on the
global stage two vitally important revolutionary processes are grappling with precisely
this problem. In Mexico, the EZLN (which in many ways initiated and helped to shape the
international anti-globalization movement), has decided to launch a new process of
mobilization and consultation where it seeks to generalize its practice of "leading by
obeying" to create a new mass movement of Mexico's poor and dispossessed. In Venezuela,
another important process is taking place as the Bolivarian revolution is working itself
out through a complex and interconnected process with a state and party led process "from
above" connecting with self-organized and grassroots initiatives "from below," reminding
us of how complex and contradictory any real process of revolutionary change inevitably
is. There are no easy answers, no pure version of any one revolutionary theory that can be
mechanically applied to past or current moments, only a "ruthless criticism of everything
that exists" and a willingness to learn from our mistakes as we move forward.
This article was originally published in Upping the Anti, number 2, 2005. All links in the
foot notes have been updated to current sources to the best of our ability.
If you enjoyed this article we also recommend the following similarly themed pieces "The
State and Revolution: Theory and Practice," on Lenin's State and Revolution, "Kali Akuno
on Lenin's Vanguard Party" and "The Bolshevik Myth Reloaded."
1. Cornelius Castoriadis. "The Fate of Marxism". In Roussopoulos, Dimitrios, I. (ed.). The
Anarchist Papers. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1986. p 80.
2. Ibid, p 78.
3. The Marxist Internet Archive, "Rules and Administrative Regulations of the
International Workingmen's Association (1867),"
4. Friedrich Engels, "The Bakuninists at Work: An account of the Spanish revolt in the
summer of 1873," http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1873/bakunin/
5. V.I. Lenin,On the Provisional Revolutionary Government, Collected Works, Vol 8. 4th
English Edition, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965.p. 481.
6. From the research I have done, Draper appears to have been the first person from a
Marxist or anarchist background to use the phrase "socialism from below," although many
other revolutionaries have used the terms "from above" and "from below" when describing
7. Hal Draper, "The Two Souls of Socialism," in E. Haberkern (ed.) Socialism from Below.
Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. Pp. 2-33. Also online at:
8. Ibid, p 3.
9. Ibid, p 10.
10. Ibid, p 12.
11. Ibid, p 12.
12. This remains the case today, with the term being regularly used by the group's leading
theoreticians as the party's political basis of unity. David McNally left the IST in 1996
and was one of the co-founders of the New Socialist Group.
13. David McNally, "Socialism from Below,"
15. Daniel, Guerin, "Marxism and Anarchism," in Goodway, David (ed.) For Anarchism:
History, Theory, and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1989. p. 117.
16. Ibid, p 118-19.
17. Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists. London: Routledge, 1980, p 297.
18. A significant and highly detailed anarchist critique, a "Reply to errors and
distortions in David McNally's pamphlet Socialism from Below" has been made of McNally's
arguments regarding anarchism. I share many of the same critiques and for reasons of space
I will not repeat it. The document can be found at:
19. See Wayne Price, "Socialism from Above or Below", The Utopian, Number 3, Available at:
20. Hal Draper, note from 1970 edition of Two Souls of Socialism.
21. Interestingly, in his listing of the all male figures representing the various schools
of socialism from below and socialism from above, Draper neglects to mention the
contributions of either Rosa Luxemburg or Alexandra Kollontai, presumably because of their
arguments against Leninism and the bureaucratization of the Russian revolution would
unduly complicate matters.
22. V.I. Lenin, Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, Peking: Foreign Language
Press, 1975. p. 39.
23. David McNally, "Socialism from Below,"
26. Maurice Brinton,The Bolsheviks & Workers' Control 1917 to 1921: the State and
Counter-Revolution, p 18-27.
28. See a "Reply to errors and distortions in David McNally's pamphlet Socialism from
Below at http://www.infoshop.org/faq/append31.html.29.
29. Friedrich Engels, "The Bakuninists at Work: An account of the Spanish revolt in the
summer of 1873," http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1873/bakunin/.
30. It is also true that later anarchist movements proposed solutions of these political
questions-the contributions of the Platformists and the Friends of Durruti address
precisely these questions, focusing upon the necessity of a united political and military
program in times of revolution. See Alexandre Skirda, Facing the Enemy: A History of
Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968and Agustin Guillamon, The Friends of
Durruti Group: 1937-1939.
31. Engels, "The Bakuninists at Work"
32. V.I. Lenin, On the Provisional Revolutionary Government, p474.
33. Ibid, p 474.
34. Ibid, p 475.
35. Ibid, p 481.
36. See www.newsocialist.org and http://www.etext.org/Politics/International.Socialists/
for more information concerning the political issues involved in this split.
37. David McNally, Socialism from Below, 2nd ed. www.newsocialist.org/group.html.
38. It is preposterous to suggest that Draper, who was a serious researcher and archivist
of the Marxist movement (he compiled a resource which provided a day by day breakdown of
Marx's and Engels' lives), was unaware of the Bakuninist "from below" critique of Marx and
Engels. It is likely that Draper's decision not to include Lenin and the Bolsheviks in his
study stemmed from an inability to defend their record of centralized, top down control as
a politics "from below", and from Lenin's own rejection of this term. It also seems odd
that McNally, a leading figure within an avowedly Leninist organization, would have been
unaware of Lenin's own view on the use of a "socialism from above". Recently, it would
appear that McNally is increasingly moving away from certain of his previous formulations
as indicated by his writings in a recent book, Another World is Possible, where he
includes anarchist-communists as part of the "socialism from below" tradition, and in his
recent article "Against the State" in New Socialist magazine where he appears to move away
from certain Leninist formulations.
39. See Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1961.
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