Government by the people

June 6, 2014

The Two Souls of Socialism by Hal Draper first appeared in New Politics in 1966. Since that time, it has been reissued many times, providing a powerful argument for the concept of "socialism from below" as an alternative to other socialist currents, from utopianism to social democracy to Stalinism. This is the third part of's four-part republication--the first can be found here. The text is from the Marxists Internet Archive.

7. The “Revisionist” Façade

Eduard Bernstein, the theoretician of social-democratic "revisionism," took his impulsion from Fabianism, by which he was heavily influenced in his London exile. He did not invent the reformist policy in 1896: he merely became its theoretical spokesman. (The head of the party bureaucracy preferred less theory: "One doesn't say it, one does it," he told Bernstein, meaning that the politics of German social-democracy had been gutted of Marxism long before its theoreticians reflected the change.)

But Bernstein did not "revise" Marxism. His role was to uproot it while pretending to prune away withered limbs. The Fabians had not needed to bother with pretense, but in Germany it was not possible to destroy Marxism by a frontal attack. The reversion to Socialism-from-Above ("die alte Scheisse") had to be presented as a "modernization", a "revision."

Essentially, like the Fabians, "revisionism" found its socialism in the inevitable collectivization of capitalism itself; it saw the movement toward socialism as the sum of the collectivist tendencies immanent in capitalism itself; it looked to the "self-socialization" of capitalism from above, through the institutions of the existing state. The equation of Statification = Socialism is not the invention of Stalinism; it was systematized by the Fabian-Revisionist-State-socialist current of social-democratic reformism.

Marxist Classics

Most of the contemporary discoveries which announce that socialism is obsolete, because capitalism no longer really exists, can already be found in Bernstein. It was "absurd" to call Weimar Germany capitalist, he declared, because of the controls exercised over the capitalists; it follows from Bernsteinism that the Nazi state was even more anti-capitalist, as advertised...

The transformation of socialism into a bureaucratic collectivism is already implicit in Bernstein's attack on workers' democracy. Denouncing the idea of workers' control of industry, he proceeds to redefine democracy. Is it "government by the people"? He rejects this, in favor of the negative definition "absence of class government." Thus the very notion of workers' democracy as a sine qua non of socialism is junked, as effectively as by the clever redefinitions of democracy current in the Communist academies. Even political freedom and representative institutions have been defined out: a theoretical result all the more impressive since Bernstein himself was not personally antidemocratic like Lassalle or Shaw. It is the theory of Socialism-from-Above which requires these formulations. Bernstein is the leading social-democratic theoretician not only of the equation statification = socialism, but also of the disjunction of socialism from workers' democracy.

It was fitting, therefore, that Bernstein should come to the conclusion that Marx's hostility to the state was "anarchistic," and that Lassalle was right in looking to the state for the initiation of socialism. "The administrative body of the visible future can be different from the present-day state only in degree," wrote Bernstein; the "withering away of the state" is nothing but utopianism even under socialism. He, on the contrary, was very practical; for example, as the Kaiser's non-withering state launched itself into the imperialist scramble for colonies, Bernstein promptly came out for colonialism and the White Man's Burden: "Only a conditional right of savages to the land occupied by them can be recognized; the higher civilization ultimately can claim a higher right."

Bernstein contrasted his own vision of the road to socialism with that of Marx: Marx's "is the picture of an army. It presses forward, through detours, over sticks and stones...Finally it arrives at a great abyss. Beyond it there stands beckoning the desired goal – the state of the future, which can be reached only through at sea, a red sea as some have said." In contrast, Bernstein's vision was not red but roseate: the class struggle softens into harmony as a beneficent state gently changes the bourgeoisie into good bureaucrats. It didn't happen that way--when the Bernsteinized social-democracy first shot down the revolutionary left in 1919, and then, reinstating the unregenerate bourgeoisie and the military in power, helped to yield Germany into the hands of the fascists.

If Bernstein was the theoretician of the identification of bureaucratic collectivism with socialism, then it was his left-wing opponent in the German movement who became the leading spokesman in the Second International of a revolutionary-democratic Socialism-from-Below. This was Rosa Luxemburg, who so emphatically put her faith and hope in the spontaneous struggle of a free working class that the myth-makers invented for her a "theory of spontaneity" which she never held, a theory in which "spontaneity" is counterposed to "leadership."

In her own movement she fought hard against the "revolutionary" elitists who rediscovered the theory of the Educational Dictatorship over the workers (it is rediscovered in every generation as The Very Latest Thing), and had to write: "Without the conscious will and the conscious action of the majority of the proletariat there can be no socialism ... [We] will never assume governmental authority except through the clear unambiguous will of the vast majority of the German working class..." And her famous aphorism: "Mistakes committed by a genuinely revolutionary labor movement are much more fruitful and worthwhile historically than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee."

Rosa Luxemburg versus Eduard Bernstein: this is the German chapter of the story.

8. The 100% American Scene

At the Wellsprings of American "native socialism," the picture is the same, only more so. If we overlook the imported "German socialism" (Lassallean with Marxist trimmings) of the early Socialist Labor Party, then the leading figure here is, far and away, Edward Bellamy and his Looking Backward (1887). Just before him came the now forgotten Laurence Gronlund, whose Cooperative Commonwealth (1884) was extremely influential in its day, selling 100,000 copies.

Gronlund is so up-to-date that he does not say he rejects democracy--he merely "redefines" it; as "Administration by the Competent," as against "government by majorities," together with a modest proposal to wipe out representative government as such as well as all parties. All the "people" want, he teaches, is "administration--good administration." They should find "the right leaders," and then be "willing to thrust their whole collective power into their hands." Representative government will be replaced by the plebiscite. He is sure that his scheme will work, he explains, because it works so well for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Naturally he rejects the horrible idea of class struggle. The workers are incapable of self-emancipation, and he specifically denounces Marx's famous expression of this First Principle. The Yahoos will be emancipated by an elite of the "competent," drawn from the intelligentsia; and at one point he set out to organize a secret conspiratorial American Socialist Fraternity for students.

Bellamy's socialist utopia in Looking Backward is expressly modeled on the army as the ideal pattern of society--regimented, hierarchically ruled by an elite, organized from the top down, with the cozy communion of the beehive as the great end. The story itself pictures the transition as coming through the concentration of society into one big business corporation, a single capitalist: the state. Universal suffrage is abolished; all organizations from below eliminated; decisions are made by administrative technocrats from above. As one of his followers defined this "American socialism": "Its social idea is a perfectly organized industrial system which, by reason of the close interlocking of its wheels, shall work at a minimum of friction with a maximum of wealth and leisure to all."

As in the case of the anarchists, Bellamy's fanciful solution to the basic problem of social organization--how to resolve differences of ideas and interests among men--is the assumption that the elite will be superhumanly wise and incapable of injustice (essentially the same as the Stalinist-totalitarian myth of the infallibility of the Party), the point of the assumption being that it makes unnecessary any concern about democratic control from below. The latter is unthinkable for Bellamy because the masses, the workers, are simply a dangerous monster, the barbarian horde. The Bellamyite movement--which called itself "Nationalism" and originally set out to be both anti-socialist and anti-capitalist--was systematically organized on a middle-class appeal, like the Fabians.

Here were the overwhelmingly popular educators of the "native" wing of American socialism, whose conceptions echoed through the non-Marxist and anti-Marxist sectors of the socialist movement well into the 20th century, with a resurgence of "Bellamy Clubs" even in the 1930s, when John Dewey eulogized Looking Backward as expounding the American ideal of democracy." Technocracy, which already reveals fascist features openly, was a lineal descendant of this tradition on one side. If one wants to see how thin the line can be between something called socialism and something like fascism, it is instructive to read the monstrous exposition of "socialism" written by the once famous inventor-scientist and Socialist Party luminary Charles P. Steinmetz. His America and the New Epoch (1916) sets down in deadly seriousness exactly the anti-utopia once satirized in a science-fiction novel, in which Congress has been replaced by direct senators from DuPont, General Motors and the other great corporations. Steinmetz, presenting the giant monopolistic corporations (like his own employer, General Electric) as the ultimate in industrial efficiency, proposes to disband the political government in favor of direct rule by the associated corporate monopolists.

Bellamyism started many on the road to socialism, but the road forked. By the turn of the century, American socialism developed the world's most vibrant antithesis to Socialism-from-Above in all its forms: Eugene Debs. In 1897 Debs was still at the point of asking none other than John D. Rockefeller to finance the establishment of a socialist utopian colony in a western state; but Debs, whose socialism was forged in the class struggle of a militant labor movement, soon found his true voice.

The heart of "Debsian socialism" was its appeal to, and faith in, the self-activity of the masses from below. Debs' writings and speeches are impregnated with this theme. He often quoted or paraphrased Marx's "First Principle" in his own words: "The great discovery the modern slaves have made is that they themselves their freedom must achieve. This is the secret of their solidarity; the heart of their hope..." His classic statement is this: "Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves." He echoed Marx's words of 1850:

In the struggle of the working class to free itself from wage slavery it cannot be repeated too often that everything depends on the working class itself. The simple question is, Can the workers fit themselves, by education, organization, cooperation and self-imposed discipline, to take control of the productive forces and manage industry in the interest of the people and for the benefit of society? That is all there is to it.

Can the workers fit themselves?...He was under no starry-eyed illusions about the working class as it was (or is). But he proposed a different goal than the elitists whose sole wisdom consists in pointing a finger at the backwardness of the people now, and in teaching that this must always be so. As against the faith in elite rule from above, Debs counterpoised the directly contrary notion of the revolutionary vanguard (also a minority) whose faith impels them to advocate a harder road for the majority:

It is the minorities who have made the history of this world [he said in the 1917 anti-war speech for which Wilson's government jailed him]. It is the few who have had the courage to take their places at the front; who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them; who have dared oppose the established order of things; who have espoused the cause of the suffering, struggling poor; who have upheld without regard to personal consequences the cause of freedom and righteousness.

This "Debsian socialism" evoked a tremendous response from the heart of the people, but Debs had no successor as a tribune of revolutionary-democratic socialism. After the postwar period of radicalization, the Socialist Party became pinkly respectable on the one hand, and the Communist Party became Stalinized on the other. On its side, American liberalism itself had long been undergoing a process of "statification," culminating in the great New Deal illusion of the '30s. The elite vision of a dispensation-from-above under the aegis of the Savior-President attracted a whole strain of liberals to whom the country gentleman in the White House was as Bismarck to Lassalle.

The type had been heralded by Lincoln Steffens, the collectivist liberal who (like Shaw and Georges Sorel) was as attracted to Mussolini as to Moscow, and for the same reasons. Upton Sinclair, quitting the Socialist Party as too "sectarian," launched his "broad" movement to "End Poverty in California," with a manifesto appropriately called I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty (probably the only radical manifesto with two I's in the title) on the theme of "Socialism-from-Up-in-Sacramento. One of the typical figures of the time was Stuart Chase, who wove a zigzag course from the reformism of the League for Industrial Democracy to the semi-fascism of Technocracy. There were the Stalinoid intellectuals who managed to sublimate their joint admiration for Roosevelt and Russia by hailing both the NRA and the Moscow Trials. There were signs of the times like Paul Blanshard, who defected from the Socialist Party to Roosevelt on the ground that the New Deal program of "managed capitalism" had taken the initiative in economic change away from the socialists.

The New Deal, often rightly called America's "social-democratic period," was also the liberals' and social-democrats' big fling at Socialism-from-Above, the utopia of Roosevelt's "people's monarchy." The illusion of the Rooseveltian "revolution from above" united creeping-socialism, bureaucratic liberalism, Stalinoid elitism, and illusions about both Russian collectivism and collectivized capitalism, in one package.

Further Reading

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