Every socialist has surely indulged in speculation about an ideal society from time to time. The realities of our own society certainly encourage such flights of fancy. But they should not be considered entirely fanciful: without imaginative thinking, it is quite impossible to see how the world might be changed for the better. Yet without any practical grounding, such exercises cannot take us any nearer to the “realistic utopia” that should be our goal.
If equality and justice are taken to be goals of the socialist movement (as they certainly must), we can find a concrete starting point by considering the dilemmas these goals pose for the socialist movement itself. In a world riven by hierarchies, how can the movement avoid creating its own hierarchies—or minimize them if they prove unavoidable? Confronted with opponents willing to use any methods to stop a movement for radical change, how can that movement triumph without perpetrating its own grave injustices? If we can answer these questions, we will have moved towards laying the basis for a society that converts these aspirations into reality.
A Movement of the Minority?
The first hierarchy that arises is, of course, that which divides the activist minority from the passive majority they hope to mobilize. Socialists have always spoken of the working class as the key political force. But as Ralph Miliband has noted, “it is only a minority of the working class which is involved in class struggle from below in a sustained and committed fashion, whether in the industrial or political sphere. This minority has always constituted the activist ingredient of the labour movement…it is clearly by way of a figure of speech that one speaks of ‘the working class’ as thinking, or wanting, or doing this or that.”1 Historical moments when it could honestly be said that “the working class” or “the masses” were active as a whole have proved to be rare.
This is by no means a counsel of despair. The conditions of capitalist society make it extremely difficult for the working class to emerge as a political actor. Anyone who chooses to become a socialist or a trade-union militant is venturing down an arduous path and exposing themselves to innumerable frustrations, from a blocked career path up to and including the risk of imprisonment or death (depending, of course, on the particular circumstances of their society). It would be entirely baffling if the majority took this path on a day-to-day basis. A peculiar combination of idealism, insight, and sheer bloody-mindedness is more or less obligatory for the long-standing activists of the movement.
The ultimate goal of these activists must always be to draw the majority of the working class into political action. But it would be absurd for them to throw in the towel if such a comprehensive mobilization proves to be elusive. It may only be at a very late stage that this goal is achieved. There have certainly been times when a party of the left has established such a degree of implantation within the working class that its claim to speak on behalf of that class was far more than a figure of speech. The German Social Democrats were the first party to achieve this in the years before 1914; the Italian Communist Party (among others) attained a similar position after the Second World War. But even in these cases, party militants were a minority of the class, with the majority confining its political activity to the act of voting.
Under normal circumstances, the politicized sections of the working class will thus be a minority, a vanguard if you will. To use this word, of course, is to invite distrust among those familiar with the experience of the Communist movement. The notion of a “vanguard” carries with it unmistakable baggage; for some the concept itself is deeply authoritarian. But even the most radical libertarian cannot avoid using some equivalent of the term. If we are convinced that capitalism must be replaced with socialism, it follows that the minority who share this view are way ahead of the rest.
There is nothing sinister about this, per se. It need not lead to a permanent division between the politicized minority and the passive majority. The difficulty only arises if we accept the notion that such a minority can take power and rule on behalf of the people, without their active consent. While this version of the vanguard theory is now very popular with radicals of the right, from the neocons in Washington to the supporters of al-Qaeda, the experience of Stalinism has rightly made the left extremely suspicious of such authoritarian shortcuts. For democratic socialists, the aim must always be to win over the majority, not to replace them.
Daniel Singer, having affirmed the need for a “vast coalition of social movements,” suggested that the interim period would require a “provisional party, performing on a smaller scale what the broad coalition is still unable to do on the wide stage. It should regroup the most conscious activists from the labor unions and all other social movements…its ambition would be to help the social forces find their own voice…what lends specificity to this concept of a provisional party is this very function of filling a gap. It does not want to absorb the social movement, as some parties clearly do; it hopes to be absorbed by it.”2 The distinction between a party that aims to “help the social forces find their own voice” and one that purports to speak on their behalf should be clear.
During this interim period, it will be especially important for the radical left to eliminate practices that create barriers between the movement and the masses—or within the movement itself. Three such barriers can easily be identified: the role of intellectuals; involvement in existing political structures; and (perhaps most important of all) the existence of charismatic leaders.
The Need for Democratic Intellectuals
Without people who are gifted at communicating ideas, the left will be unable to challenge the dominant ideology and popularize its own worldview. But this need for intellectuals has traditionally created its own set of problems. How can we prevent the emergence of an elite that determines policy without any input from the rank and file? Too often, socialist organizations have simply reproduced the division of labor that already exists in society, with intellectual work as a specialized activity monopolized by a handful of “experts.”
In order to mitigate this tendency, it’s essential to shed self-regarding assumptions, of the sort famously expressed by Karl Kautsky more than a century ago: “the vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia: it was in the minds of individual members of this stratum that modern socialism originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done.”3
This view was no doubt flattering to Kautsky himself, and it helped justify his position as the so-called “Pope of Marxism” but it was also quite false. Marx and Engels had based their theories of socialism on the experience of the European working class. Those theories helped clarify the meaning of such key struggles as the Chartist movement and the Paris Commune, and they gave impetus to future battles, but to claim that modern socialism was entirely the creation of two bourgeois intellectuals is absurd.
Variations of Kautsky’s position have recurred again and again (more often implicitly than explicitly). Their persistence owes much to a problem identified by Norman Geras: “the life of an intellectual of the left is pulled by different forces. There is, on the one hand, a moral commitment of some sort…but there is also, on the other hand, a certain self-image, as intellectual, and among its constituents, the desire for recognition.”4 The latter force must be kept very much in check by anyone who wishes to play a useful role.
The majority of those who specialize in intellectual activity will have been through some form of academic training. The culture of the academy encourages its offspring to indulge in displays of gratuitous erudition that serve no purpose outside the university gates. Technical jargon that will win plaudits in certain circles simply places a barrier in the way of understanding. There is no magic formula that will prevent such excesses. But a real connection between practical politics and socialist thought can help prevent the latter from retreating into pretentious obscurity.
A variation of this problem can often be found on the far left, where Marxism has been turned into something resembling theology. Almost thirty years ago, Marshall Berman noted that “people reading and discussing Marx…tend to be small sectarian groups speaking in tongues intelligible only to themselves, cut off from our culture as a whole.”5 The same vices are common today. The theoretical gurus who monopolize discussion of this sort owe little to academic culture. But in their hands, political debate has been reduced to a game, where every position adopted has to be legitimized by a telling quotation from Marx, Lenin, or whoever it might be.
It was perhaps understandable that socialists would lean heavily on the authority of Marx. The temptation to rely on the judgment of such a towering figure could only be strong. But if debate is conducted in these terms, it becomes inaccessible to anyone who has not studied Marx and Marxism in detail, and a new hierarchy within the movement is created. If we take Marx as a guide, it should be in the manner suggested by Berman: “Marx is one of the most communicative writers who ever lived; even his most complicated ideas are presented vividly and dramatically; he didn’t write in any esoteric, private language—as those who write about him tend to do—but as a man speaking to men.”6
Activists, Not Politicians
A challenge of a different sort arises when socialists decide to seek representation within the political structures of the state. Since the emergence of the modern socialist movement in the late nineteenth century, this has presented one of its most significant problems. The parliamentary system, in whatever form, is based on a division between a small political elite and a largely inactive mass of voters. There are no structures that allow for participation by citizens between elections; indeed, such interventions are considered to be unhealthy and are greatly discouraged.
Once a socialist candidate for parliament is elected, they immediately occupy a commanding position in relation to the other activists of the movement. They are also subject to innumerable pressures that encourage them to abandon radical ground and move towards the center. The movement itself must counter this pressure in order to keep its representatives on the right path. As these tendencies were first becoming apparent in Germany and France, Rosa Luxemburg observed that: “the party acts as a bulwark protecting the class movement against digressions in the direction of mere bourgeois parliamentarism. To triumph, these tendencies must destroy the bulwark. They must dissolve the active, class-conscious sector of the proletariat in the amorphous mass of an ‘electorate.’”7
The truth of this observation can be judged by the almost hysterical frenzy with which the leadership of the British Labour Party resisted attempts by the party membership to bring Labour MPs under direct control in the 1970s. The proponents of mandatory re-selection, one means by which elected representatives could be held accountable by party activists, were denounced as totalitarian fanatics who were undermining the freedom of MPs to make decisions according to the dictates of their conscience. Of course, no such epithets had ever been flung at the businessmen whose efforts to pressure Labour governments were well documented.
Integration into the morass of parliamentary politics was largely responsible for the decline of many left-wing organizations in the last century. Unless the left can develop structures that will anchor its representatives to the movement as a whole, we are likely to repeat the same experience. Again, there is no easy solution, but the challenge of building structures of this sort will help the left to elaborate its broader vision of a participatory form of democracy that can replace the inadequate status quo.
Keeping Leaders under Control
Finally, we must consider the role of leaders in the movement. This has always been a thorny subject for socialists, who rightly distrust the view that history is made by “great men.” Leaders must always be considered an evil, but experience suggests that they are a necessary evil. The dilemma was best expressed by Bertolt Brecht in his Life of Galileo. At one point, the scientist’s young friend Andrea exclaims passionately: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” to which Galileo replies: “No. Unhappy the land where heroes are needed.”8
There are many unhappy lands in today’s world, and it may be that they need heroes to help bring change. Venezuela today presents a good example. There is no question that the personality of Hugo Chávez has played a large role in the unfolding of the Bolivarian Revolution. Such reliance on one man creates all sorts of potential problems; but on further consideration, would the process have reached its current stage at all without the leadership of Chávez? Certainly, the left in neighboring countries (particularly Colombia) would love to have a leader with the same charisma.
Is this not just a variation of the leadership cult that non-socialist ideologies (particularly Fascism) find so congenial? What is the difference between our “heroes” and their “supermen”? The German Marxist Erich Fromm gave us the basis for an answer when he distinguished between “rational” and “irrational” authority:
the relationship between teacher and student and that between slave-owner and slave are both based on the superiority of the one over the other…[but] the superiority has a different function in both cases: in the first, it is the condition for the helping of the person subjected to the authority; in the second, it is the condition for his exploitation….[in the first case] the more the student learns, the less wide is the gap between himself and the teacher. He becomes more and more like the teacher himself. In other words, the authority relationship tends to dissolve itself. But when the superiority serves as a basis for exploitation, the distance becomes intensified through its long duration.9
The relationship between master and slave is, of course, a perfect analogy for the relationship between the Fascist strongman and his followers. But the real measure of a socialist leader must be whether or not they create the conditions for their own obsolescence. By this standard, it must surely be concluded that Fidel Castro, a close ally of Chávez, has failed: almost fifty years on, his personality is still the driving force of the revolution, and if anything this problem has intensified since its early years. If Hugo Chávez still occupies such a commanding position in Venezuela after a similar length of time, the revolution will also have been a failure.
Reliance on a leader must always be considered a sign of weakness. Eugene Debs once referred to the Irish radical leader Jim Larkin as “the incarnation of the revolution.” It was an apt term, but it reflected the immaturity of the Irish labor movement; no man should incarnate the revolution. There should be no statues erected in their honor, no streets (or cities!) named after them, until they are safely in the ground.
Debs himself gave one of the most eloquent descriptions of the role leaders should play in transforming society: “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves.” A similar sentiment has often been expressed by a contemporary socialist, Tony Benn, who is fond of quoting an old Chinese proverb: “But of the best leaders/When their task is accomplished/Their work is done/The people will remark/We have done it ourselves.”
It is obvious to anyone who cares to look at things realistically that countless obstacles stand in the way of democratic socialism; it is to be expected that any coalition of social movements bent on radical change will have to overcome ferocious resistance. We must then establish if this resistance can be overcome without committing further injustices. Unless this question can be answered in the affirmative, the disasters of twentieth-century socialism may easily be repeated.
We have stated already that our goal is democratic socialism; authoritarian coups will have no place in our strategy. No socialist government can be established unless it enjoys broad popular support. Winning such levels of support, of course, will be extremely difficult; but this is not the place to consider how this can be accomplished. Let us simply assume for the moment that it can be accomplished. A new set of problems then presents itself.
Experience has shown beyond any reasonable doubt that even a decisive parliamentary majority will not deter conservatives from seeking to overthrow a socialist government. Of course, they will be far more hesitant in taking such action if the government clearly enjoys massive support. But in itself, this is no guarantee against violent subversion. The Sandinistas won an overwhelming victory in free elections in 1984; this did not bring a halt to the Contra terrorist campaign.
Furthermore, there will be situations where a left-wing movement has no opportunity to translate its popular support into power through the ballot box. The ANC in South Africa faced this predicament in the 1980s, as did the FMLN in El Salvador. In both cases, whether we are discussing a leftist government challenged by antidemocratic insurgents or a revolutionary movement itself challenging a repressive dictatorship, the same question presents itself. In what circumstances is it legitimate to use violence? What (and more to the point, who) is a “legitimate target”?
Too often, discussions of this sort have been confined to abstract generalities. The phrase “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” has been deployed on countless occasions, as if it sufficed to deal with any questions. This style of argument should be discarded permanently by the left. Since 9/11, mainstream commentators have often busied themselves with the question of torture; learned academic papers have asked whether it might be legitimate to torture suspects in order to prevent acts of terrorism. While they have shown great mental dexterity in constructing hypothetical situations where torture might indeed be justified, few of these erudite gentlemen have bothered to examine the concrete experience of torture in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, or other institutions maintained by the U.S. government.
This is only to be expected from the apologists of the establishment. But socialists must never indulge in such evasive maneuvers. If we are discussing revolutionary violence, we should concern ourselves with practical examples. The most striking example, of course, is the first and most influential socialist revolution. The experience of the Bolshevik government in Russia suggests many cautionary lessons.
The Red Terror
One estimate suggests that 50,000 people were executed by the Cheka during the Russian civil war and its aftermath; the real figure may well be higher. Spokesmen for the regime tended to dismiss queries about the Red Terror with contempt (a posture that Leon Trotsky maintained until his death). Such questions, they insisted, betrayed a glaring inability to comprehend the need for ruthless measures against the regime’s enemies; hesitation in such matters would have guaranteed victory to the counter-revolutionaries, with catastrophic results.
It is one thing, of course, to question the need for terror with the benefit of hindsight, long after the dust has settled. But the Cheka was heavily criticized at the time by many leading Bolsheviks, who could hardly be accused of desiring a White victory in the civil war. Writing in Pravda in February 1919, Mikhail Olminsky asked why it was necessary to “execute and execute for no apparent reason, as if they were competing in the invention of grounds for shooting people: this one for playing cards, that one for making ‘false denunciations’—what other grounds can be devised for executions?”10
Any sober look at the experience of the early Soviet regime cannot avoid the conclusion that much of the violence was both wrong and unnecessary. People who had no hand or part in the counter-revolution were swept up by the Cheka in droves. Nor was this simply a question of mistakes being made here or there; the errors were systematic. It cannot even be claimed that such random terror contributed much to the Red victory. The historian Adam Ulam has argued that: “insurgency and bitterness against the Communist rule grew in fact in the wake of executions and other inhumanities perpetrated by the Cheka and other authorities…far from being a regrettable necessity, the extent of the Bolshevik terror was one of the factors that made their victory in the Civil War more difficult.”11
The practice of the Bolsheviks, then, does not supply us with any satisfactory model. Nor do the theoretical arguments put forward by their leading figures. Trotsky suggested that anyone “bound by ties of class and family solidarity with one of the camps” could be used as a hostage; this definition, if accepted, would expand the list of “legitimate targets” to cover an almost unlimited range of people. His pamphlet Terrorism and Communism is best remembered for the assertion that “we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’” To put it mildly, this is not a sentiment that lends itself to the formulation of just and humane policies.
Alternatives to Dictatorship
Most revolutionary governments in the last century beat a similar path, often carrying the use of violence much further than the Bolsheviks. For a clear alternative, we must look at the experience of the Nicaraguan revolution. Günter Grass was one of many foreign visitors who noted the striking dissimilarities:
The French, the North American and the Russian revolutions all resulted in vengeful violence, murder and mass liquidation. Indeed all known revolutions have wanted to appease their ideals and make their people happy with theories soaked in blood. Yet in this tiny, sparsely populated, powerless land, where Christ’s words are taken literally, the Sandinista revolution provides a different example.12
The reluctance of the Sandinistas to resort to terroristic methods, even in the face of the murderous Contra assault, did them great credit. Unlike the Bolsheviks, they permitted considerable freedom to their opponents and held free elections. There were no purges, no death camps, and no ubiquitous secret police. It may be said, of course, that they ultimately lost, while the Bolsheviks won. But at what price was the Russian “victory” secured? The authoritarian degeneration of the Soviet regime did incalculable damage to the cause of socialism, damage from which it has yet to recover.
It’s doubtful if the Sandinistas could have secured their revolution by repressing opposition forcibly. Such measures might have supplied the Reagan administration with a pretext for invasion. Besides, they would simply have confirmed the cynical view that all revolutions must end in tyranny. By defying this logic, the socialists of Nicaragua set an example that will inspire people far more than the Soviet experience.
Drawing the Line
If we are to ensure that socialism retains a clear commitment to justice, the Nicaraguan experience presents a much better model. A commitment to justice, however, does not imply timidity or helplessness in the face of ruthless enemies. It simply means that great care must be taken to exclude the blameless. The rules of conventional warfare have generally been ignored or side-stepped by governments, but they could well be adopted by revolutionaries seeking guidelines for their own conduct.
In other words, violence can only legitimately be used against “combatants”: those who take up arms against a radical government, or those who enter the service of a dictatorship that stands in the way of change. There will always be problematic cases, and it may be impossible to prevent abuses from occurring. But if such distinctions are considered unimportant, revolutionary movements will become yet another force of oppression, whether in power or in armed opposition.
During the U.S. Civil War, Abraham Lincoln justified the prosecution of certain pro-Confederate politicians with the following words: “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?…I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.”13 A similar logic could also be applied when opponents cross the line from peaceful persuasion to the advocacy of violence and illegality: the conduct of the private media during the abortive Venezuelan coup of 2002 presents a striking example.
But at all times, the greatest possible effort must be made to avoid measures that conflict with the imperatives of liberty and justice. George Orwell has rightly been an inspiration for generations of democratic socialists. In the midst of the bloodiest conflict in human history, with the Third Reich still occupying most of Europe, he still rejected the calls to keep the notorious fascist Oswald Mosley behind bars: “In 1940 it was perfectly right to intern Mosley, whether or not he had committed any technical crime. We were fighting for our lives and could not allow a possible quisling to go free. To keep him shut up, without trial, in 1943 was an outrage.”14
None of these observations should be viewed as definitive answers. The failures of the last century should have taught every socialist that nothing can be considered unproblematic. But those failures have not taken away the validity of the struggle for equality and justice, nor changed the fact that socialism must be considered the last and best chance for realizing these goals.
- Ralph Miliband, Divided Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 57.
- Daniel Singer, Whose Millennium?: Theirs or Ours? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), 255.
- V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done? (London: Pluto Press, 1989), 106.
- Norman Geras, Discourses of Extremity (London: Verso, 1990), 63.
- Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism (London: Verso, 1999), 79.
- Berman, Adventures, 80.
- Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 175.
- Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays, vol. 5 (London: Vintage, 1995), 91.
- Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), 141.
- Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 131.
- Farber, Before Stalinism, 129.
- John Pilger, Heroes (Boston: South End Press, 2001), 500.
- James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (London: Oxford University Press, 1988), 598.
- George Orwell, preface to Animal Farm (London: Penguin, 1995), 169.