What is Socialism?

As the horrors of the capitalist system are laid bare, more and more people are looking for an alternative. Today 41% of Americans (and a majority of young adults) have a positive view of “socialism,” but many others still have negative views based on the repressive regimes of the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and there are many different definitions of the word. What does the alternative to capitalism look like and how do we make it happen? Chantal Sundaram looks at different conceptions of socialism outlined in Hal Draper’s classic, “The Two Souls of Socialism.”

Today the word “socialism” has a new lease on life. From AOC and the revival of the term “democratic socialism” in the US to the recent election in Chile of self-declared socialists and communists to a constituent assembly to rewrite a constitution that was previously the work of neoliberal dictator Pinochet, the word is undeniably popular today. 

The word “socialism” has in most eras filled people with hope. But during the Cold War there was a moment when it filled many with dread. The “models” on offer were the Soviet Union, and at best, Cuba. These were states that started with popular uprisings but then took a very different turn. 

And later, in the neo-liberal era of the 90s, many left parties banished the word “socialism” from their constitution or party program, for reasons that had nothing to do with Stalinism. It was the pressure of elections: they thought the word unpopular, and even the notion of modest state control of the market was an embarrassment for those running to the middle. 

But at the very same time there was an attempt to transform those stale traditional left electoral parties, or leave them entirely to form parties to the left: in Brazil, in Greece, in Germany, in Spain, in the UK, and more recently the defeated push by Jeremy Corbyn inside the UK Labour Party, the Leap and Courage coalition around the Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP), and Quebec solidaire. In the US, left alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans are small, and insignificant electorally. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), now a substantial socialist organization but not an electoral party, put a lot of their resources into backing left candidates running on the Democratic ballot line. This has met with some electoral success, and helped publicize an idea of “socialism,” but without independent working class organization. These are all parties or challenges within parties that demonstrate the need for movements from below to be reflected in elections. In some cases they reflect an attempt to transform traditional electoral choices fundamentally in connection with movements from below. But then they come against bourgeois state, be it parliamentary or other. 

To this day there is an attempt to rescue the word “socialism” from any kind of oppressive meaning and invest it with new relevance. And sometimes it has been without the word itself: the Occupy movement made the idea of “them” and “us” stick powerfully in the popular imagination with the notion of the 1%. The struggle to define what “socialism” means in the sense of not just what we are fighting against but what we are fighting for, emerges naturally in most movements for social change. But sometimes it still needs some reflection to clarify.  

The two souls of socialism

In 1960, the American socialist activist Hal Draper wrote an article called “The Two Souls of Socialism” about the very different claims to the word “socialism.” Hal Draper was influential in the Berkeley free speech movement but also in a small revolutionary socialist  organization active in the 60s that was trying to make sense for young people active in resistance movements of the limited choices on offer in the name of “socialism.” 

He divided those choices in two basic camps: “socialism from above” and “socialism from below,” and argued they were divergent and ultimately competing. 

The distinction between “from above” and “from below” made sense at the time in terms of the way that both Stalinist parties and left electoral parties laid claim to that word without its full substance. It still does, as many try to figure out their relationship to the DSA, or in Canada (the NDP or Quebec solidaire), or other left electoral parties. 

Draper’s pamphlet makes the case that no matter how different the two are, the Stalinist tradition and the electoral tradition of social democracy bear a central similarity: they deny the agency of the majority over the authority of the few. The main difference is history: Stalinism emerged from counter-revolution against a genuine attempt at socialism from below in Russia, and left electoral parties like the Labour Party in Britain, the Canadian NDP, or many European Socialist parties,  took shape as a diversion of the workers’ movement exclusively towards the goal of winning elections. 

Both equate socialism with the state, regardless of who controls that state – all its mechanics beyond the few elected positions, and whose interests it serves. The Stalinist state required violence, the election strategy requires redirection of energies and expectations towards elections rather than more radical social change. In the global south there were many places where Communist parties reinvented themselves as social democratic parties, seeking to gain access to the existing state structures. 

Many excellent working-class and student militants committed and continue to commit themselves to labour parties and Communist parties around the world, because of a genuine commitment to movements from below. And within and around those parties, the notion of power from below continues to be produced through movements like BLM and Land Back, and movements for democracy and workers’ rights from Palestine to Columbia to Indian farm workers to Chile: the dynamics of democratic movements for social change keep the option of socialism from below alive. 

As Draper wrote: “the recurrence of revolutionary upheavals and social disturbances, defined precisely by the intrusion onto the historical stage of previous inactive masses and characteristic of periods when basic social change is on the agenda, is just as “normal” in history as the intervening periods of conservatism.” 

Draper’s work helps put into context the limited choices available to those who seek social change, and celebrates the movements from below that constantly recur and pose the fundamental question of where real change comes from: “That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again.”

How do we not just change but transform?

Draper documents that many debates that occurred between socialists in the early twentieth century were about the end goal. A major debate within the socialist movement in Germany before WWI about whether or not the capitalist state could be reformed to serve the interests of workers devolved into a debate over whether or not workers’ parties should support their own national state in an imperialist war. This was a turning point over the claim to the word “socialism,” at least in Europe. 

The “socialism from above” side won that debate, and it was a fundamental denial of the real Marxist tradition of workers power from below, which had been held by many members of socialist parties until that time. The attempt of this “from above” strategy during the Weimar Republic gave way to the victory of fascism in Germany. It was the result of both this turning away from socialism from below and the terrible influence of Stalinism in causing many socialist fighters to look up to states they believed were socialist to intervene instead of looking to their own power to stop the rise of fascism. 

But every historical moment also produces many who look to socialism from below with uncompromising faith in the self activity of the working class. In Germany at this turning point, it was leaders like Rosa Luxembuerg, who wrote: 

The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history…it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced…the negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot. New Territory. A thousand problems. Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways.

How can Socialism from Below win?

The question of socialism from below is not only about this turning point in Western history: it is global. It is about a goal, and being able to argue for it, but more fundamentally about how it can be won on a mass scale. Draper here echoes many fighters for the concept of socialism from below, from Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, but also Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, and Indigenous Marxists like Howard Adams and many others.: 

How does a people or a class become fit to rule in their own name? Only by fighting to do so. Only by waging their struggle against oppression – oppression by those who tell them they are unfit to govern. Only by fighting for democratic power do they educate themselves and raise themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power. There has never been any other way for any class. 

But the independence of those who have become fit to rule in their own name, collectively with each other, does depend on their ability to speak in their own name. Especially when they speak as a class that can liberate human society. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it like this: “the workers’ movement from below is the steam that powers the piston of a genuine workers’ party with locomotive energy. A genuine workers’ party that brings together those who are generating power from below prevents the steam from dissipating and losing its power. It also does not redirect that power towards chasing elections for their own sake. 

But the piston is a tool: a party from below may adopt strategies around elections to maximize the power of the masses, but never to put itself above the movement from below. The goal is the self-activity of the masses of the working people themselves. There are two “souls” of socialism, two roads that lead in fundamentally different directions. One entrenches the idea that an elite will set us free through the state, and the other opens us up to the idea that our own power can set us free. There are millions around the globe who set out thinking this is the same road, with the same goal, for the best of reasons. 

Ultimately, revolutionary organization against capitalism and its state structures is essential. But the mass instinct for some kind of socialism from below that recurs shows the possibility for that ultimate faith in socialism from below to become reality.

“Since the beginning of society, there has been no end of theories “proving” that tyranny is inevitable and that freedom-in-democracy is impossible; there is no more convenient ideology for a ruling class and its intellectual flunkies. These are self-fulfilling predictions, since they remain true only as long as they are taken to be true. In the last analysis, the only way of proving them false is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again. To choose any of the forms of Socialism-from-Above is to look back to the old world, to the “old crap.” To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.”

– Hal Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism