Socialism From Below

Ray, San Francisco, CA

Dear Comrades,

Tom Keefer’s article in U.T.A. no. 2 on “socialism from below” was a pleasure to read. A number of unresolved questions for radicals are dealt with in a way that helps situate them for us. And Keefer is certainly correct that Hal Draper’s treatment of “socialism from below” for what is now the International Socialist Tendency has unfortunate ideological blindspots.

There are several points, though, that I might question or comment on. Keefer’s summary of how Draper first popularized the term “socialism from below” might mislead a reader into assuming that Draper and this view held center stage within that tendency in the Trotskyist subculture. Far from true. While Hal Draper was respected as a Marxist intellectual toiling away as a university librarian, he was a marginal figure in practical terms even within his own party. That is, although often thought of as the theoretician of the left of that party, he was by choice an unimportant factor in terms of that group’s direction. As you know, at the time that Draper was working on “Two Souls of Socialism” in the late 1950s, his party, the Independent Socialist League, was dominated by the legendary Max Shactman. This Trotskyist tendency was becoming increasingly pro-American and even back then was pretty white supremacist in all but word. Even Draper’s home chapter in Berkeley was controlled by Shactman loyalists.

By the way, the phrase “socialism from below” was commonplace in the younger ranks of the I.S.L. then (whether from Draper or others), but Draper’s long awaited book was privately seen as a disappointment. For young radicals breaking with the past, willingly dealing with right wing violence in organizing new 1960s movements of opposition to US capitalism, his book was pedantic and obvious. More bore than bombshell. Nonetheless the Shactmanite leadership of the I.S.L. used the “Two Souls of Socialism” line as one more propaganda tool in their increasingly tunnel vision anti-Stalinism and pro-Americanism. This “socialism from below” dogma was unimportant even then except as propaganda alongside fairly dishonest political maneuvers, which from what Keefer indicates still persist and might raise legitimate questions about the soil from which “socialism from below” grew.

Draper’s one notable contribution to the struggle at that time came not from his dealings with Marxist theory but from practical activism. During the dramatic mass sit-ins of the 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, Trotskyists of all stripes were heavily involved, and Draper ended up writing several major pieces of mass education for the FSM, which defended the student struggle politically. It was one of the few times we younger activists saw Draper’s obvious ability get harnessed in any useful way in the day to day struggles that we had thrown ourselves into.

Draper wasn’t a villain or a fool. He was smart, with a sharply dry wit (his total break with his brother Ted – the historian of the Communist Party USA – was well known, and I once asked him how he saw the differences between them. Grinning wickedly, he replied “oh, I’m the smarter one.”) Marxism was his life in a priestly way. He refused to get too involved in the inner party struggle against Shactman’s clique because he always insisted that such petty battles weren’t enough. To succeed in a changed world, he said, Marxists needed a whole new political framework – he just never could work out what that was (and while he was buried in the library stacks, the whole world was burning in the Sixties high tide of revolution).

Keefer perceptively notes that Draper didn’t list Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai among the leading lights of various schools of socialism. While he gracefully hints that sexism may have been involved, that seems pretty obvious. Hal may have been very sexist in a 1940s way, but he was no more so than most left men. This was one side of the deeper political problems that applied to the thesis of “socialism from below.” As readers probably know quite well, the left back then took the struggles of the oppressed to be secondary to the main class struggle of the “advanced” industrial proletariat – ie. the white male working class in Europe and North America. So, while the oppression of women and the colonized nations and peoples was definitely an evil to us male socialists back then, these were all things that we were told would be solved when the “advanced” workers made the Revolution. At best, these “other” struggles were thought to be only supporting the main battleground of macho white revolutionary men “at the point of production” in heavy industry. Sounds silly now, doesn’t it?

To Draper, ideas of “socialism from below” weren’t really about the marginalized. Not about women. Not about Black workers, nor the undocumented migratory proletariat all over the world, to say nothing of indigenous and colonized peoples. His “socialism from below” wasn’t really so “from below.” On another front, a criticism that this article raises repeatedly - that some political positions are stiff and incomplete, missing the dialectical “complexity” of the real life struggle – is actually more important a subject than this “socialism from below” stuff.

I want to briefly go into the Bolshevik revolution discussion Keefer deals with – not so much to drag on old debates or to repeat historical points many know better than I, but to use it in examining how we understand some of the themes he raised.

Many progressives would agree with much of what Keefer says about the Workers’ Opposition vs. the authoritarian drift of the Bolshevik leadership. It’s easy now to say that the Central Committee grew power hungry or that they never resisted the addiction of “from the top down” authoritarianism. That’s what they were naïve about, but what are we naïve about? It is even fashionable to say such things now – just as it was once fashionable to wear “Mao caps” and find no fault with the world’s biggest state machinery. I think we have to resist scoring easy points. Since the realities of revolutionary struggle are much more “complex,” as the article says (really meaning “dialectical”), it is towards that level of understanding and actual ability that we must push ourselves. The biggest problem with Marxism is that we don’t use it enough.

It is obvious now, looking at the old Stalinist gulag society and today’s Chinese “Red capitalism,” that we really don’t want to go there again. On one level that’s truth, and on another level that’s only cheap thrills. The understanding that would have been great in 1935 is kind of dried to dust in 2006. We have to become better at studying past struggles. More theoretical work, not less. Not in order to have the “correct revolutionary position” on them, in my opinion, but to salvage what can be of use. I doubt we will ever have a definitive understanding of – for example – the Bolshevik revolution or its workers’ councils. This is unknowable to us in any practical sense. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to work so hard.

Keefer points out that within every “spontaneous” rebellion there are leading elements “from above,” however informal or undeveloped; that “from below” and “from above” are not pure or eternal categories in real life, but opposites in the dialectical sense that they interpenetrate each other and take on each other’s essence in ceaseless change.

So in every real mass struggle, leading forces within that uprising “from below” make new instruments to carry out their own practical work and to hold the political ground that they have gained. This then becomes “from above.” They do this and always will do it, just as we breathe and birds fly, from our basic needs and praxis. Keefer’s article points to this “complex” process. In that sense, the Bolshevik party with its conspiratorial centralization represented a creation “from below,” from the roots of the historic violent anti-Czarist movement (which was of necessity secret and conspiratorial) and from its base in the urban industrial working class. The same thing happened with the Black Panther Party, which was much less “democratic” than the parties of Lenin or Mao but is seldom criticized on these grounds by the left as those other parties are.

So when Lenin started the Cheka and told the party to enact “terror” on the enemies of the Revolution, was he only precipitating the crystalization of the inevitably growing spontaneous and disorganized security policing by the revolutionary workers and soldiers? The point is that it is useless for us, for those who practically have to deal with these problems and tools among the oppressed, to adopt a holy stance and proclaim that Chekas or “top down” commands are either horrible or wonderful. That kind of abstract posturing is for pedants. We revolutionaries have to deal with all this practically, concretely, to know it as something we can either use or defuse if we decide. Because everything has its own power.

As far as I know, the need for and consequences of Chekas or militias, for example, even in the short term, have yet to be seriously examined by revolutionaries here. Every party that gets into real struggle has them in one form or another. It’s disturbing to find revolutionary groups today amidst the resources of the metropolis who have no mechanism to deal with rape or criminal threats or medical emergency, etc., and therefore duck real life crises like the plague. As though you could duck human crises when ducking them only means pushing people back onto the terrain of bourgeois culture. Out of the same politics that led to the Cheka, Lenin opposed Trotsky, who wanted to handle labor unrest against the Bolsheviks by militarizing all labor into industrial regiments under central command (i.e. Stalinism without any pretenses). Lenin, we know, warned the party against Trotsky’s tendency towards trying to solve what were political problems “from below” among the masses of workers and peasants by administrative means “from above.” To Lenin, these two positions were aspects of the same perspective in “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation.”

Keefer’s article reminds us that the “crisis in Marxism” is the great backdrop to our inquiries. I think it was healthy to talk about the smashup of classic Marxism to get peoples’ attention away from all that “invincible,” “inexorable” rhetoric. But let’s not get carried away with it. I doubt that a century from now revolutionary historians (perhaps from the “Luxemburg Bicycle Factory Historians Militia”?) will look back and think that what we’re living through on a world scale is a “crisis of Marxism.” From a historical materialist perspective we are merely entering the early phases of the epoch of the transition from capitalism to communism, a transition that will be centuries long. Of course our socialism today is tentative, naive, impractically transferred from crude drawings to massive structures, very mixed up with habitual capitalist assumptions and culture and people (just as early capitalism had so much of feudalism mixed within it for so long). We have the least advanced, most amateurish, beginners only, barely functional socialism that keeps keeling over. We advance only to fall back, we build things and they evolve sideways. Should that be so surprising or dismaying?

Anyway, I just want to convey how thought provoking your article was for me. Take care. And I also hope that your journal keeps coming out.

San Francisco, CA.