Socialism as Self-Emancipation

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Justin Schwartz

Socialism from Below
By Hal Draper; edited by E. Haberkern
New York: Humanities Press, 1990, 282pp+xvii. $45 hardback.

AFTER A CENTURY and a half, Marx remains a closed book This is not just due to failure to master his thought—fifty often abstruse volumes in the collected edition. Hal Draper, who mastered it in a way that few could rival, says the problem is that Marx’s central message has not been grasped by his critics or most of his followers—and where it has, it has largely been rejected. That message, stated in the Rules of the First International, is “that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” (246)(1)

Marx conceives of socialism as what Draper calls “Socialism-from-Below.” The emancipation of subordinate groups requires democratic collective control of the economy attained by these groups themselves, not by anyone acting on their behalf. But the history of the left is dominated by the contrary conviction of “Socialism-from-Above,” that emancipation can only be won for and not by the oppressed, by an enlightened elite–a “vanguard” party of revolutionary bureaucrats, a social-democratic coterie of educated mandarins, or a great Savior-Ruler.

At the best the results have fallen short of human emancipation. At the worst they have discredited socialism. Never was it more timely to consider the alternative, and there are few better places to do this than in Draper’s writings, as sustained an articulation of Socialism-from-Below as exists in English. His great five-volume Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution—while, in fact, astonishingly clear and readable—may intimidate some readers.(2) His briefer essays are buried in hard-to-find journals.

So Socialism from Below, E. Haberkem’s selection of Draper’s shorter pieces, will help introduce Draper’s ideas—and Marx’s—to the twenty-first century. One hopes it will soon be issued in an affordable paperback edition.

Draper devoted his long life (1914-1990) to acting upon as well as interpreting Socialism-from-Below. A student activist in the early 1930s and a labor organizer in the late 1930s and 1940s, he belonged to that small current of American leftists, mostly Trotskyists, like Max Shachtman, who advocated the “third camp” politics of revolutionary socialism, refusing to choose between Moscow and Washington, turning instead to independent working-class politics.

Unlike much of the anti-Stalinist left Draper never became a cold war liberal.(3) In the 1950s, he edited the respected radical newsweekly Labor Action. He was one of the few “old leftists” to support the student movement of the 1960s from the start and, with his wife Anne Draper, continued with antiwar labor activism in the ‘60s, fighting the labor bureaucracy’s support of the war in Vietnam.

In the 1970s and 1980s he devoted himself to Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, a prodigious work that should earn him recognition as one of the great Marx scholars. His writing is lucid and wry, and even his occasional angry polemics have a touch of Mark Twain humor.

Most of the essays in Socialism from Below are from Draper’s work in the 1960s. These include “The Mind of Clark Kerr’ and “In Defense of the New Radicals,” which were important in the student movement in Berkeley. In addition, the collection includes many of his most important pieces from New Politics, a journal that helped keep alive the idea of independent revolutionary socialism in an era caught between disillusion with the USSR the fleeting appeal of Third World Stalinism, and the fatal attraction of Democratic Party liberalism.

Given how many of the articles were occasional pieces written as interventions in particular contexts of struggle, it is amazing how well they stand on their own a generation later.

While the concepts of Socialism-from-Below and from-Above are central to Marx’s conception of revolutionary process and post-capitalist society, as Draper shows in “Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels,” the terms and the sharp contrast between them are Draper’s own main contribution to Marxist theory. What is the distinction?

Socialism-from-Above is fairly straightforward, although Draper says much that is interesting and provocative about the affinities between its two main modern varieties, Stalinism and social democratic reformism, as well as about their intellectual ancestors among the nineteenth-century left. Despite their differences, they share the view that social change must be imposed on oppressed and exploited groups for their own benefit by a well-meaning elite—a revolutionary or reformist party, or a state bureaucracy—that can act for those too ignorant and benighted to act for themselves.

Socialism-from-Above is paternalistic and antidemocratic, even where, as with social democracy, it is committed to liberal democratic forms, and even where it relies reluctantly on mass action to force reform on a recalcitrant ruling minority.

The affinity is manifest in Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s enthusiasm for Stalinism. Theoreticians of the reformist British Fabian Society, self-styled “bureaucrats” (16), and Labour Party leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, the Webbs, in their 1936 Soviet Communism, hailed the terror system then in high gear as “the greatest democracy in the world” (17).

They were also staunch defenders of colonialism and “native paramountcy,” an Orwellian term for “the white man’s burden” (50), as Draper shows in “The Fabian and the African,” on Sidney Webb’s tenure as Colonial Secretary in the first Labour Government (1929-31), when Webb refused to hear African complaints or to meet Johnstone (later Jomo) Kertyatta, who led Kenya to independence.

The common thread in pro-Stalinism and pro-imperialism is subservience to existing power and contempt for the capacity of ordinary people for self-determination. Underlying Socialism-fromAbove is an attitude expressed in Max Nomad’s critique of Draper’s “The Two Souls of Socialism,” reprinted in Socialism from Below:

“After a century of struggles … the enormous majority of workers still constitutes an ignorant mass of near-illiterate racist-minded tabloid readers, interested in nothing but sports, crime news, and movies, and absolutely unable to understand what is really going on in this complicated world.’ (177) This is far more crude than anything the Webbs would permit themselves, but they would doubtless concur with its substance.

The problem is not due to a “bad attitude.” In “The Two Souls of Socialism,” Draper traces the class basis of modem Socialism-from-Above to the managerial middle strata in industrial[izing] societies who seek not capitalist profit but their own power and privilege (27,60). Under Stalinism this “bureaucratic collectivism” took the form of the direct terroristic rule of a new class of noncapitalist exploiters. (Haberkern has chosen, oddly, not to include any of Draper’s writings on Stalinism proper.)

Under capitalism, where managerial strata remain subordinate, bureaucratic collectivism tends towards social democracy, which seeks to “permeate” existing institutions for the purpose of gradual reform, or towards liberal corporatism, which abandons reform rhetoric and openly proclaims that its goal is technocratic efficiency, not democracy.

If the Webbs exemplify the former, the latter is personified by Clark Kerr, former president of Berkeley, author of a 1%3 manifesto for the “business university,” which, Kerr says, has “demonstrated how adaptive it can be to new opportunities for creativity, how responsive to money.” (134)

Kerr is the target of one of Draper’s most sardonic assessments. Like the Webbs, Kerr addresses himself to “the intellectuals, the managers, the government officials and labor leaders who run their countries” (139); like the Webbs he admires the USSR for abolishing popular protest (141). He openly characterizes the social order on which he sees Communism and capitalism converging as a “new slavery” (140)—to “technology,” of course, and not to the bureaucratic managers. Thus the authentic voice of bureaucratic collectivism.

Draper’s alternative—as Marx’s—is Socialism-from-Below, which, through the agency of the working class, unites “the Socialist Idea” with “Democracy-from-Below” (8). Let us interrogate this conjunction more carefully.

I agree with Draper’s reading of Marx and his advocacy of the ideal The following critical assessment is not intended to disparage Draper’s immense accomplishment in recovering Marx’s conception of socialism but to indicate where we need to go further and deeper.

Draper tends to let the content of Socialism-from-Below emerge by contrast with Socialism-from-Above, show-mg us what it is not and how it is at variance with Marx. In “The Two Souls,” he offers a detailed dissection of six strains of the latter—but no similarly articulated account of the former.

We need to know in more detail what we should be for. In discussing Kerr, the Webbs and the corporatists, Draper tends to disavow assessment of their claims (e.g. 142). He relies on our revulsion to the elitist attitudes he so coolly exposes. Only in reply to Nomad does Draper offer a systematic argument that Socialism-from-Below is possible. The choice between the two socialisms, he says, is for the intellectual a “moral choice,” while “for workers Socialism-from-Below is not a choice but a necessity” (31). Still, a moral choice requires reasons.

Envisioning the Masses’ Role

What then is Socialism-from-Below? In economics, it is socialist, whatever that means. In politics, it is democratic, ditto. Its class basis is proletarian. Consider these each in turn. Like Marx, Draper says little about what socialism might be. It is not state control of the economy (19, 25, 83). It involves planning, but not central planning from above (24-25). It requires workers’ control in industry (102). Socialism aims at “solving the economic problem” and winning a decent life for ordinary people (209).

That’s about it. But how will worker controlled industry work? What does decentralized planning look like? Is there any role for markets? (Draper would say no, but does not discuss the matter.) What about the objection that even democratic socialism would be inefficient and technologically stagnant compared with capitalism? Why think that socialism can “solve the economic problem”?

Doubtless Draper would cite Marx on “not writing recipes for the cookshops of the future.” Economically, socialism involves bringing production under democratic workers’ control; they will decide what it will look like and how it will work. True enough. They will decide. But the questions are reasonable; workers as well as intellectuals want answers. “It won’t be like Stalinism” isn’t good enough, especially in view of Draper’s underdeveloped account of democracy.

Draper equates “socialism-from-below with ‘working class socialist democracy” (187). But what is this democracy for which Draper speaks? It is the self-rule of the “activized masses” (3); it is what subordinate groups do when they collectively act instead of being acted upon. What do they do?

Draper’s examples of democratic self-activity in ancient and early modem history include Cataline and the Gracchi, leaders of popular revolts in ancient Rome, and Thomas Murizer, leader of the “left” in the German Reformation (5), and the socialist mass movements of the last two centuries; what the activized masses do is fight for their interests against oppression and exploitation.

But capitalists and bureaucrats, too, fight for their interests, so what makes the self-activity of the oppressed democratic must be something else.

Partly it is that the oppressed are the majority: Draper cites the English communist William Morris in defense of majority rule (18). But Draper’s majoritarianism is not just a matter of counting votes. In a too-brief discussion of SDS’s “participatory democracy,” he says that his criterion of democracy is:

“…the degree to which people participate personally and unconstrainedly, from the bottom up, in political and social decision-making  and in the immediate appointing and firing of decision-makers, through free organizations, assemblies, elections, trade unions, demonstrations, and hell-raising.” (123)

Majoritariartism is justified and ensured by encouraging the greatest possible participation in policymaking by those affected by the policies. Unfortunately he does not take up such vital questions as what is the greatest possible amount of such participation and in what way it might be promoted.

A democratic qualification to majoritarianism is respect for political rights as absolute, and particularly free speech, without which self-organization is impossible (170).(4) In “Free Speech and Political Struggle,” an important article from which those concerned with “political correctness” might profit, Draper attacks the arguments of those who would repress political discourse on behalf of revolution or socialism.

“There can be no contradiction, no gulf in principle, between what we demand of this existing state and what we propose for the society we want to replace it” (165). Civil rights and liberties are for all, even and especially for those whose views we loathe (169), and presumably even override the will of the majority.

A third democratic element seems to be the character of the interests being fought for. That the activized masses fight for emancipation from oppression makes theirs a democratic struggle, as opposed to the struggle by oppressors to continue and extend oppression. “‘State control for what purpose?’ [and] ‘state control by whom?” he asks a former Socialist Party figure who identifies socialism with state control (83).

It is not just that the goals of the activized masses are good, but that they are emancipatory: they are democratic because their realization requires egalitarian control of the decisions that affect people’s lives: e.g. how long and on what people work. (This is a construction: Draper does not put it that way.) Draper does not reject organization and leadership; only through democratic organization and with democratic leadership can socialist democracy can be won. Draper invokes Eugene Debs (22-23) and Rosa Luxemburg (20) on the need for a “vanguard” of conscious socialists in the struggle for socialism. While a minority, this vanguard does not set itself up as an elite to use the workers for their own good in the manner of Socialism-from-Above, but encourages workers to fight for power on their own behalf.

During the struggle, concrete leadership positions in independent working class organizations, such as trade unions, can be attained only through winning “moral authority by fighting for workers’ interests (215). Under Socialism-from-Below socialists will be a majority, so a vanguard, though not leadership, will be superfluous (Draper does not say this but it seems implicit in his argument). Given the touchiness of issues of leadership, Haberkem’s decision not to include any of Draper’s writings on the “dictatorship of the proletariat’ is unfortunate.(5)

Draper never directly defends democracy as a value. But his reply to Nomad addresses a key objection to the possibility of democracy in a way that is revealing about the sort of democracy Draper has in mind and its justification. Stripped of Nomad’s crudity, the idea is that workers’ circumstances make them incapable of self-rule and incapable of becoming capable. Self-rule requires education, public spirit, and wide horizons, and workers subordinate conditions deprive them of these. They can only put some new “vanguard” in power over themselves, which at best will make concessions to workers to keep their own power.(6)

Draper agrees about the conditions for self-rule and that workers, because of their mode of life, tend to lack them. But this is not irremediable: through and only through the process of democratic struggle, workers can, in Marx’s words, “change [them]selves and render [them] selves fit for political dominion” (10). Education is acquired on the shop floor and in the union hail, on the picket line, and at the demonstration, as well as in school Struggle itself is an education, and struggle is real.

As Draper says, if Nomad is right, it is hard to explain the repeated mass movements for social transformation (185). Nomad’s workers are too stupid, apathetic, and bigoted to organize a crap game, much less a union or a political party. But there are unions, political parties, and even revolutions.

This emphasis on self-transformation through struggle, the working class making itself fit to rule, suggests that Draper’s fundamental argument for democracy is the way it transforms its participants. Democracy isn’t merely the fairest way of making decisions or the best way to promote the interests of the greatest number. More deeply, through democratic participation, we become better people—more educated, more public-spirited, wider in our horizons.

That is why socialist democracy requires the widest participation in decision-making at all levels, not just majoritarian voting. It is also why democracy requires socialism—because submitting to arbitrary power at work is not conducive to For Beginners democratic citizenship. Finally, self-transformation is why democratic socialism requires free speech and a civil libertarian conception of political rights workers cannot transform themselves unless they are free to do so. Thus Draper coincides with Marx, and with J.S. Mill (On Representative Government).

Draper notes further that however much education and self-development are needed for “political dominion,” it is not evident either that our rulers have enough of the right kind or more than ordinary workers, that capitalists and bureaucrats are now that workers—even as they are—are not.

History has pronounced judgment on Stalinist rulers, and the leaders of capitalism have not used their advantages in a way that shows particularly strong evidence of fitness to rule. “The bourgeoisie in Mississippi is literate and educated, therefore fit to rule, while the Negro masses there are even more II-literate and uneducated than the contemptible working-class canaille in the rest of the country” (190), Draper remarks ironically.

The third part of Socialism-fromBelow is its proletarian class character. The working class, for Draper and Marx, is the first class in history that makes possible the conjunction of socialism and democracy (8,245); it is “a social majority which has the interest and motivation [as well the capacity) to change the system”: this is the point of Marx’s Capital (10). Draper’s working class, like Marx’s, is wider than just industrial workers (since it j5 majority); it seems to include all wage workers who are not managers or intellectuals.

Draper thinks Marx has shown that workers have the relevant interests, motivations, and capacities This has been disputed, not just on Nomadian grounds of worker stupidity, but in light of arguments that workers are a numerically declining minority (Andre Gorz, Daniel Bell) or that they have no such interest, regardless of capacity, because capitalism is better for them than any socialist alternative (Scott Arnold).

Marxists must answer such objections; with regard to the latter, we need detailed articulations of the socialist part Of Socialism-from-Below.

But grant, as I do, that the working class has the revolutionary potentials Marx and Draper attribute to it. Other groups—women, national minorities, Third World peoples—also have potentials to emancipate themselves by struggling against their own oppressions.

While Diaper insists on the central role of class struggle and proletarian self-emancipation, he is not guilty of ‘class reductionism1’ the view that all oppressions class oppression and that socialism is a panacea. In James Morrison and Working-Class Feminism,” he recovers the work of a remarkable early nineteenth-century feminists who insits on women’s self-emancipation. In “Karl Marx and Simon Bolivar” he documents and endorses Marx’s call for democratic self-emancipation in what we today call struggles of national liberation. Draper is no ‘workist,’ at least, not one at the expense of other llberation movements.

But Draper, like Marx, does not integrate these positions into his picture of Socialism-from-Below. They are tacked onto it. How do the various struggles and self-emancipations relate? In what sense is class supposed to be central? How can a workers’ democracy accommodate the claims of other historically oppressed groups? A fully adequate theory of the self-emancipation of the oppressed awaits formulation.

In writing the pieces in Socialism from Below, Hal Draper of course did not have the benefit of the renewed theorizing in the women’s movement and the national liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s. But we do. Draper’s achievement is to bring to light that what is at stake is self-emancipation in which democracy is central, and to show us how Marx framed the issues for the case of the working class. That is enough to ensure his honored place in Marxist theory. Addressing his unanswered questions is up to us.


  1. Parenthetical page references are to Hal Draper, Socialism from Below, ed. E. Haber-kern (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., Humanities Press, 1992).
    back to text
  2. Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution includes five volumes titled State and Bureaucracy (1977), The Politics of Social Classes (1978, The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (1986, Critique of Other Socialisms (1989), and the as-yet-unpublished posthumous work, Critique of Reformism, all from Monthly Review Press. In addition Draper wrote The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” from Marx to Lenin (New York- Monthly Review, 1987), which may be regarded as a sort of supplement to volume three.
    back to text
  3. His brother Theodore Draper, a Communist Party member in the 1930s, is today a well-regarded left-liberal writer for The New York Review of Books and the author of several severe scholarly books on the history of the Party as well as on other political issues.
    back to text
  4. Draper’s argument for the absoluteness of rights is that to say something is a right means that it is absolute and cannot be overridden by any greater value (163). The argument relies on a theory of meaning that has since been generally rejected by philosophers. According to this theory, terms like “rights” have fixed meanings, which can be known a priori. Recent work in the philosophy of language has suggested, however, that the line between issues of the meanings of terms and questions about the subject matter to which terms refer is much less firm than Draper’s view will allow. So if we start to use (for example) “right” as meaning claims that can be overridden by a greater value in some cases, we have not necessarily changed the subject, but may have changed our mind about what rights are. I think that Draper’s extreme civil libertarianism is nonetheless defensible in another way: see e.g. J.S. Mill’s On Liberty. Mill argued that although rights are not absolute, still the human good is best promoted by maximum tolerance of dissenting speech and lifestyles, in large part because such diversity is most likely to uncover new ideas about how best to promote human flourishing, something about which we can hardly claim to know enough as things stand. Other arguments are possible.
    back to text
  5. In his volumes on the dictatorship of the proletariat’ Draper shows by careful textual argument that Marx and Engels meant by this concept workers’ self-rule—not, as Stalinists and anti-Marxists have understood it, the tyranny of a bureaucratic elite over the workers.
    back to text
  6. This line of argument was developed into a theory of liberal elite democracy by the conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter in his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947), a work of considerable sophistication and intellectual power. Schumpeter, who knew Marx’s work well, is one of the few critics who both rasped and rejected his idea of self-emancipation. He aIso thought that capitalism was probably doomed to be replaced by socialism (from above).
    back to text

January-February 1994, ATC 48