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Can the great and good set us free?

This article is over 20 years, 2 months old
Judy Cox kicks off a new series on socialism from below
Issue 1797

DIFFERENT ideas about how to change the system are being debated in meetings and on the streets. There is a fault line between different strategies for fighting back. It lies between those who seek to change things from above through the actions of leaders and those who look to change things from below through actively engaging the maximum number of people.

This distinction runs through the history of the socialist movement-the ‘two souls of socialism’. Traditionally, the idea of socialism from above was linked to two movements. One was associated with the Stalinist system that dominated Eastern Europe up until the late 1980s.

Stalin used the language and symbols of socialism. He cloaked himself in the prestige of the Russian Revolution of 1917. But the society he built was the opposite of the socialism envisaged by Karl Marx and Lenin. In Eastern Europe the state owned and controlled the production and distribution of wealth.

The process was shaped by military competition between the Eastern and Western ruling classes. Workers didn’t run these societies. In fact there was no democracy, no workers’ power and no planning for people’s need. The other main source of the idea of socialism from above is parliamentary Labour-type parties and their allies in the leadership of the trade unions. They arose out of the growing working classes’ aspiration to have independent representation in parliament.

These reformist organisations wanted to win improvements like an eight-hour day and the right to organise in trade unions. But the parties became wedded to the institutions of capitalism. The leaders promoted the idea that workers had to minimise causing disruption. Their best hope was to act in a supporting role to politicians who could pass reforms through parliament.

Today the leaders of parties like New Labour no longer maintain even the pretence of fighting for socialist demands, and are proud to maintain private enterprise in office. Stalinism and reformism have one central thing in common. They both see the working class as the passive objects of history, incapable of determining their own future.

They argue that socialism can only be something handed down by a ruling elite to the grateful masses. This view plays on the lack of confidence that is a permanent feature of life for working class people.

This yearning for emancipation to be delivered from above has been a strong part of society for centuries. Where the majority of the population felt badly treated but lacked the power to do anything about it, they often turned to the ‘good’ king or the ‘wise’ religious leader to improve their lives.

This desire for help from above was incorporated into early ideas of socialism around the beginning of the 19th century. Some believed enlightened leaders could simply educate the working class to understand the need for socialism. They could then fit in with pre-planned schemes for socialist utopias.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution some socialists put their hopes in the conspiracies carried through by dedicated, heroic revolutionaries. It was the great achievement of Marx and Engels to break from these strategies. They saw in uprisings by workers in France and Britain a social group with the potential to liberate themselves from the chains of capitalism.

In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued that a socialist movement would be different from revolutions of the past when one elite replaced another. For the first time in history socialism would be a ‘movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority’. Absolutely central to their vision was the idea that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

Only the working class could tackle the heart of the capitalists’ power-the workplaces where their wealth and profits were produced by workers. Just as importantly, only through activity and involvement could workers free themselves from the ideas and prejudices they are brought up with in capitalist society.

Only through acting to transform their society could the majority of the population become a class capable of establishing and organising a socialist society. Marxism united democracy and socialism. Socialism could only become a reality if the majority of society had the desire and motivation to fight for it.

Every time workers engage in deep-rooted struggles there is what Rosa Luxemburg called the ‘spiritual growth of the masses’. They throw off old ideas and create new, democratic ways of organising society. Even when this process is taking place, there is still a battle against old ideas and the habits of deference and submission. But the working class can realise its own power and be conscious of the possibility of fundamental change.

The working class is growing in size and potential power around the world. The force that is capable of bringing down capitalism and establishing socialism is constantly renewing itself.

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