THE DREAM of human freedom is as old as class society itself. So long as one section of society has been held down and exploited by another, some men and women have dreamt, spoken and written about the possibility of a new kind of life. And sometimes they have fought to break the chains of domination that have tied them to a life of drudgery and misery. We can find hints of this dream of freedom in the oldest of historical documents. The Old Testament of the Bible, for example, promises the coming of the messiah who will vanquish the rich and liberate the poor. Take the following passage from the Book of Isaiah, for instance, where it is proclaimed that the messiah would come ' to preach good tidings to the meek ... to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.' In the same vein, the New Testament announced that Jesus was this messiah who had come to emancipate the poor and the oppressed.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the legend persisted that some day a new liberator would come to slay the sinful rich and free the poor. When peasants rose in rebellion against their lords and masters, particularly during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they continually looked for a powerful leader appointed by God who would lead them into a new promised land.
All of these movements of popular rebellion had strongly religious overtones. People did not conceive of themselves as having the capacity together to overthrow their rulers and to build a new society out of their own efforts. They looked to a mystical, not a human, transformation of society. It would be God, through the agency of certain human beings, who would cleanse the world of evil, violence and oppression.
This essentially mystical outlook persisted even up to the mighty struggles against the monarchy during the English Revolution of the 1640s. These struggles saw the emergence of powerful communist doctrine based on the notion that all people should own and work the land in common. The radical English writer Gerard Winstanley wrote, for example, that 'True freedom lies in the free enjoyment of the earth.' At the same time, Winstanley and his radical followers adhered to a religious view of things in which the birth of a new society would be the work, not of ordinary men and women, but of God.
It was not until the early nineteenth century that the idea began to emerge that human beings could themselves refashion society. It was only with the industrial revolution and the emergence of the modern working class that critics of society began to think in terms of a human transformation of social life. And it was with these developments that the idea of socialism from below emerged. But at the start, socialism was largely elitist and antidemocratic in character. It was only through several decades of working class struggle that socialism took the form of a movement devoted to the self-emancipation of the oppressed.