Socialism from Below

Following the financial crash of 2007-08 the world has seen an explosion of interest in socialism. There is a growing consciousness among millions of people that the capitalist system is unstable, inhumane and environmentally disastrous. As a result, for the first time in decades people are looking for a socialist alternative. In the UK, the leftward surge has been expressed in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist politician with a background in activism, anti-war protest and class struggle. In the 2016 US elections, self-described socialist Bernie Sanders launched a serious challenge for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In 2018, democratic socialist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez beat the incumbent Democrat Congressman Joe Crowley in a New York district primary and went on to easily win the seat in Congress: a remarkable feat for a country with a history of anti-socialist persecution. In 2015, online dictionary Merriam-Webster reported that socialism was its most searched-for word; and new publications, such as Jacobin magazine, have helped a global revival of socialist ideas.

The increased interest in socialism can only be welcomed. Yet, in public discussion the term tends to be limited to a very narrow meaning. In general, what socialism has come to mean, for both admirers and detractors, is increased state intervention in the economy. Whilst Corbyn, Sanders, and Cortez propose real reforms, what is meant when they court the term “socialist” is exactly that: increased state intervention within the bounds of capitalism. Sanders, for instance, celebrates the Nordic model of high taxation, strong unions and heavy regulation as “an example of what socialism can do for a country.”

In this paradigm, economic systems can fall anywhere along a continuum between capitalism and socialism based chiefly on the degree of state intervention in, or ownership of, the economy. One of the problems with this paradigm is that it concentrates popular attention on reform through parliamentary politics and omits the question of workers’ power. To be sure, socialists fight for state regulations which strengthen working-class interests. Yet, for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, revolutionary socialism was less about state regulations and more about the self-emancipation of the working class, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilised “from below” in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history. The defining feature of Marx’s revolutionary socialism is that the working class itself takes power in order reshape the world in the interests of humanity.

Marx understood that no other class in society has the latent revolutionary capacity as the workers. No other class is so essential that without which the system would grind to a halt. No other class can offer an alternative to capitalist solutions to economic and social crises. No other class could ever hope to attain the kind of organisational capacity of the working class that is organised by the division of labour itself. And no other class in society has less vested interest in maintaining capitalist private property relations than the workers. Therefore, a socialist world is possible on the basis of the revolutionary potentiality of the broad masses led by the organised working class.

This conception of revolutionary socialism, which places workers’ power front and centre, separates Marx and Engels not only from the social-democratic approach offered by Corbyn, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, but also from the 20th century Stalinist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, Russia, China and Cuba. Through mechanically equating state control with socialism, Stalinist regimes could lay claim to being socialist because of state-controlled economies, despite the workers remaining exploited and alienated from all levels of social, economic and political control.

Socialism from Above

Beyond social-democracy and Stalinism, the entire history of the socialist movement is marked by a profound distrust of the broad masses going into bat for themselves. The perspective represented by Marx and Engels, famously termed “socialism-from-below” by American radical Hal Draper, represents a minority current. The movement is instead dominated by various forms of what Draper termed “socialism-from-above” groups and individuals, which seek either to use the working class as a “battering ram” for their own political ends or to bestow socialism to the grateful masses from on high.

In the mid-19th century, when the modern socialist movement was born, Marx cut his teeth on two forms of “socialism-from-above.” The first was the revolutionary theory of Louis Blanqui who advocated not for the revolutionary activity of the entire working class, but for a conspiratorial putsch to be made by an elite, revolutionary minority. Whilst Marx and Engels worked with the Blanquists in united-front activity, both before and after the Paris Commune of 1871, they rejected their theory of revolution. In 1874, writing retrospectively, Engels set down explicitly the difference between the Blanquist and the Marxist idea:

From Blanqui’s assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves preciously organised under the dictatorship of one or several individuals.

The second form of “socialism-from-above” to be rejected was that of the utopian socialists, such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. The utopians advocated blueprinted ideal communal colonies, imagined full-blown, not by the workers, but from the mind of the Leader, to be financed by the grace of the philanthropic rich under the wing of Benevolent Power, and implemented without any democratic say-so on the part of workers. Robert Owen, disappointed at the failure of the philanthropic bourgeoisie to become enthusiastic about the abolition of their class, turned for help to the beginnings of the working-class and trade-union movement in England; he thought to use them, not to shift power to that class, but as troops to push through his own scheme, in which a philanthropic elite would do the working class good.

Socialism from Below

What differentiates Marx and Engels from these elitist, anti-democratic philosophies is their commitment to the principle of workers’ self-emancipation: the understanding that socialism could only be won through the organisation, education and struggle of the working class reaching out for freedom themselves. The first line of the Communist Manifesto makes this principle clear: “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves.” For Marx and Engels only a movement looking to the grassroots class struggle between workers and capitalists could be a genuinely proletarian movement. Contra the benevolent rule advocated by the utopian socialists, the statism promoted by Stalinism, or the parliamentary reformism of Social Democracy, Engels wrote that for revolutionary socialists “there is not concern for … gracious patronage from above.”

Marx placed such special emphasis on this principle because he saw the struggle for self-emancipation to be the central process by which workers transformed themselves from a class conditioned to accept subordination into a class of active, confident, self-directed equals who were fit rule in their own interests. It is through active struggle that workers learn to take matters into their own hands and abandon recourse to higher authorities. It is through active struggle that prejudices not conducive to solidarity, democracy and human freedom – what Marx termed “the muck of ages”- are overcome and thrown out.

Once established in the manifesto of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, the principle of self-emancipation appeared over and over again in documents written by Marx and others. In an official manifesto addressed to the National Labour Union of the US, Marx wrote:

On you, then, devolves the glorious task to prove to the world that now at last the working class are bestriding the scene of history no longer as servile retainers, but as independent actors, conscious of their own responsibility…

And following the Paris Commune of 1871, as he was being arrested, a militant socialist by the name of Chalain, was quoted as saying:  

We have proclaimed sufficiently … that we no longer wanted deliverers, that we no longer wished to serve as instruments, and that we had the pretention to have knowledge of the situation, to understand our interests as well as any one.

The principle of workers’ self-emancipation is the most important principle of Marx’s entire revolutionary theory. Without this principle, all other theories must in one way or another go over to an elitist, anti-democratic form of “socialism-from-above.” For Marx, unless the working class was doing it for themselves, it was not a truly socialist movement.


In a nutshell, Marx’s vision of socialism as a political programme can be defined as the complete democratisation of society from below. Under capitalism, democratic control is limited so long as those with money control the media, the schools, the workplaces and governments. The workplace is essentially a dictatorship whereby workers are given no say over production; and political participation is reduced to a vote once every three or four years for unaccountable politicians who are committed to the capitalist system. By contrast, Marx and Engels saw the course of the revolution as the concentration of all political power into the hands of the proletariat. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels say “that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”

What this process of democratisation entails is the complete destruction of the social, political and economic infrastructure of “decisions-from-above” and its replacement with organs of political control from below. Marx took direct inspiration from the Paris Commune of 1871 in which workers and the broad masses took over Paris and formed an alternative government in which universal suffrage was instantly granted. All officials and judges were elective and revocable, the army was abolished, all “hierarchic investiture” was demolished, the police were depoliticised, and communal democracy from below replaced the shattered centralised state. All this Marx summed up by saying that the Commune “supplied the Republic with the basis of really democratic institutions … its special measures could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people.”

This is the great contribution of Marx and Engels to the socialist movement: the fusion of revolutionary socialism with democracy-from-below. No other theory of social change can countenance ordinary workers taking matters into their own hands. No other theory of social change offers such a synthesis of personal liberty and social equality. Against the divine right of kings, the spurious democracy of bourgeois states, and the murderous dictatorships of Stalin and Mao, socialism-from-below offers the way forward for humanity.