OUT OF THE interaction and conflict of the various radical and revolutionary outlooks that emerged from the dual experience of the French revolution and the industrial revolution in England, only one combined a passionate commitment to popular democracy and a socialised economy with an understanding that only the working class, through its self-activity, could bring into being a new society of freedom and abundance. That outlook, founded on the principles of socialism from below, was the work of Karl Marx. Yet, in the 50 years after his death in 1883, the 'Marxist' outlook was to undergo enormous--and conflicting--changes.
During the 1890s world capitalism entered into a 20-year period of prolonged economic expansion. On the tails of economic growth, most workers were able to achieve real improvements in their living standards. In massive numbers, workers joined trade unions and socialist parties, many of which were influenced by Marxist ideas. In Germany, for instance, the Social Democratic Party had one million members by 1912 and received four million votes in the general election of that year. In a period such as this, when life is improving without resort to militant or revolutionary struggle, people become accustomed to the notion that life will inevitably improve in the natural course of things. Socialists are not immune to such ideas. In fact, most European socialists at the time came to the view that socialism would be achieved gradually, through the slow transformation of capitalism into a kind of welfare capitalism under which workers would prosper.
Gone was Marx's notion that socialism could only come into being through a revolutionary transformation of society from below. In its place developed the view that capitalism would slowly grow over into socialism. At most, such a transition to socialism was seen as involving little more than the election of socialist members of parliament. The German socialist Eduard Bernstein was the most outspoken theorist of this reformist and top-down conception of socialism. But all the major European socialist parties of the time were influenced by this outlook. And, in a watered down form, it remains the perspective of social democratic parties even today.
The dominant trend in socialist thought during this period, then, was a variant of socialism from above. Working class struggle was seen as having little or nothing to do with the creation of a socialist society. Instead, elected socialist officials would be entrusted to oversee the smooth evolution of capitalism into socialism. Yet, despite the wide influence of this doctrine, some Marxists remained committed to the idea of socialism from below. The most important of these was the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.
Rosa Luxemburg became a revolutionary socialist in her native Poland at age 16. Two years later, she fled to Switzerland in order to avoid arrest by the Polish police. After several years of study, she moved to Germany, where she became the acknowledged leader of the left wing inside the Social Democratic Party. While in her twenties Luxemburg wrote several major works criticising the attempts by reformists to strip Marxism of its democratic and revolutionary essence. Against the reformists, Luxemburg argued that capitalism would not indefinitely expand; that sooner or later it would revert to crisis and militarism. The only choice for humanity therefore, was socialism or barbarism.
This prognosis was proved overwhelmingly correct with the outbreak of world war in 1914. Nearly the entire reformist wing of European socialism abandoned the long-established principle of opposing all wars between capitalist nations. Instead, they reverted to crass patriotism, each party backing their national government. Rosa Luxemburg--along with the Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Trotsky--headed the internationalist wing of the European socialist movement, the wing that opposed all sides in the war and called for the workers of all countries to reject the war and overthrow 'their' national governments. By the end of the war, working class revolutions did break out--first in Russia, then in Germany (and later in Hungary, Austria and Italy).
Rosa Luxemburg played a central role in the German revolution of 1918-19. And in that struggle, she passionately and insistently affirmed the basic principles of socialism from below. Time and time again, she argued that the working class would have to build a new world from the burning ashes of a Europe consumed by war, hunger and poverty. The struggle for socialism, she asserted, depends upon the fight against exploitation and oppression in every factory and workplace. The new society could only be created by the mass action of the working class. Nobody could give freedom over to the working class. As she wrote at the height of the German revolution:
The struggle for socialism has to be fought out by the masses, by the masses alone, breast to breast against capitalism, in every factory, by every proletarian against his employer. Only then will it be a socialist revolution. ...Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialist. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.
Tragically, the struggle of the German workers was to be crushed--by a government composed of reformist 'socialists'. In the process of stamping out the German workers' revolution, this same 'socialist' government organised the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrade Karl Liebknecht. Bureaucratic and reformist socialism from above would have nothing to do with the self-mobilisation of the masses, with the struggle for socialism from below.
But while the revolution was defeated in Germany, this was not the case in Russia. There, a mass socialist party--the Bolsheviks led by Lenin-- had undertaken a successful working class seizure of power.
Since 1902, Lenin had been fighting to build a genuinely revolutionary workers' party in the adverse conditions of Czarist Russia. Unlike the socialists in western Europe, the Russian Marxists did not have conditions of economic prosperity and expanding political democracy to lull them into reformist illusions. Through all the stages of their development, the Bolsheviks retained a revolutionary outlook.
With the crisis in the socialist movement brought on by World War I Lenin revised and developed the outlook of the Bolsheviks on two essential points. First, he went back to the writings of Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune and came to the conclusion--as had Rosa Luxemburg at an earlier date--that the Marxist view of the state and of a workers' revolution had been grossly distorted by the reformists. In his pamphlet, State and Revolution, Lenin restated the Marxist position that the working class would have to overthrow the bureaucratic and elitist state developed by capitalism and replace it with its own democratic workers' state. 'The liberation of the oppressed class is impossible', Lenin argued, 'without the destruction of the apparatus of state power created by the ruling class.' The new workers' state would be a 'transitional state' based on the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear.'
Secondly, Lenin came over in 1917 to the views of Trotsky on the nature of the coming revolution in Russia. For years, all major trends in Russian socialism had believed that a bourgeois democratic revolution--a revolution against Czarism and for the establishment not of socialism but merely of liberal capitalism-- would have to precede a workers' revolution in Russia. In 1906, Leon Trotsky developed a dissenting view. Only the working class of Russia, Trotsky argued, would be willing and able to carry through the fight for democratic reforms and for a democratic republic. But why, he asked, should the workers be expected to stop at that point? Why should they not extend the fight for democratic rights into a struggle for workers' control and socialist democracy? In fact, Trotsky asserted, democracy in Russia could only be brought into being through a workers' revolution. The struggle for democratic rights, therefore, would tend almost automatically to pass over into a struggle for workers' power.
Answering the charge that Russia was too backward to be able to construct a socialist society--of which a situation of abundance was a central precondition--Trotsky argued that while Russia remained backward, Europe as a whole did not. The Russian revolution, he argued, would be part of a European-wide conflict. Aided by the advanced workers' movements of central and western Europe, he contended, Russia could skip a stage of liberal capitalism and proceed directly to the construction of a socialist society. Trotsky described this process as a permanent revolution. The revolution would have to be permanent in two senses. First, the battle for democracy would have to pass over into a revolution for workers' power. Secondly, the Russian revolution would have to spread and become part of the European revolution--indeed, of the world revolution.
When working women in the Russian city of St Petersburg took to the streets demanding bread and peace in March of 1917, few realised that the Russian revolution had begun. When the demonstration of the women workers sparked a wave of revolutionary struggle against Czarism, however, Lenin immediately embraced the perspective of Trotsky and declared that workers' revolution was the order of the day. At the same time, Trotsky recognised that without an organised political party no revolution could succeed. He therefore joined the Bolshevik Party. Together the two men pushed the Bolshevik Party into organising and leading a workers' uprising in October (November by the western calendar) of 1917.
The Russian revolution was based upon a wholly new kind of social organisation, the workers' council or soviet. These councils, based on elected delegates from the workplace and the neighbourhoods, became the new decision-making bodies of Russia. They were organs of direct democracy whose delegates, like those of the Paris Commune, could be recalled by the electors. The soviets represented a new form of mass democracy. It was for this reason that Lenin and Trotsky made the demand for 'All power to the soviets!' the central slogan of the Russian revolution. The soviets, they claimed, would be the basis of the new workers' state; they would represent the embodiment of workers' democracy. And after the Bolshevik-led uprising in October of 1917, the soviets did indeed become the foundation of the Russian workers' state. The American journalist John Reed, in Russia at the time, carefully described the organisation of this new state:
At least twice a year delegates are elected from all over Russia to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets ... This body, consisting of about two thousand delegates, meets in the capital in the form of a great soviet, and settles upon the essentials of national policy. It elects a Central Executive Committee, like the Central Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, which invites delegates from the central committees of all democratic organisations. This augmented Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets is the parliament of the Russian Republic.
The soviets, Reed pointed out, were amazingly vibrant and active organisations, concerning themselves with all aspects of social policy. 'No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented', he stated.
During 1917 and 1918, the Russian soviets teemed with revolutionary initiative and enthusiasm. For the first time, millions of ordinary workers and peasants found themselves able to participate in the major decisions that affected their lives. Control of the factories was taken over by the workers, land was seized by the poor peasants, the embryo of an entirely new form of society was created .
But only the embryo. For the germ cell of socialism to grow, it required several essential ingredients. One was peace. The new workers' state could not establish a thriving democracy so long as it was forced to raise an army and wage war to defend itself. A second essential ingredient was abundance. Unless the basic material needs of all people could be satisfied, it would be impossible to keep alive a direct and active democracy. Hungry people can only keep their concern with politics alive for so long. Sooner or later, the more pressing need for bread intervenes. For these reasons, a third ingredient was indispensible--the spread of the revolution. Only successful workers' revolutions in Europe could remove the war threat and provide the economic assistance upon which workers Russia depended. It was with these considerations in mind that Lenin stated, four months after the Russian revolution, 'The absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish . '