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Gareth Jenkins


No saviour from on high

(April 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 174, April 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Socialism from below
Hal Draper
Humanities Press £39.95

Nothing has done the cause of socialism more harm than the notion that socialism equals state control.

The heyday of this idea was the period after the Second World War and it created a problem for the left. If socialism equalled the state on the Soviet model, then socialism lacked all democracy. And if the West was no longer prone to crisis because the state could regulate the economy, then socialism amounted to management of reforms.

Defence of socialism as not being identical with state control was therefore a burning necessity. It found powerful expression in the work of the American revolutionary socialist Hal Draper, whose marvellous essay The Two Souls of Socialism, originally written in 1966, is republished in this collection of essays.

The key distinction Draper makes in this article is between socialism from above and socialism from below.

The idea of emancipation from above, Draper points out, is an old one, born of centuries of class society and oppression. People look to a saviour from on high and the rulers preserve their power by promises of protection. Only with the arrival of the modern working class could this cycle be broken: liberation from below became for the first time a real historical possibility.

But old patterns of thought – of socialism being handed down from above – persisted in social democratic reformism and in Stalinism, not so much opposites as twins. Draper’s point is that this emancipation from above is not some easier and safer route to socialism. It is not socialism at all.

The essays collected here reflect the problems of this period. There are some articles of variable quality, in which Draper is more sure-footed when defending what Marx had to say but less so when applying the tradition (such as the article in which he appears to be defending free speech for fascists).

Draper’s politics had one central flaw: he was clear about what the Soviet regime was not but he could not explain what it was.

Draper believed that the Stalinist regime was bureaucratic collectivist, a view he shared with other revolutionary socialists who had split from the Trotskyist movement in the early 1940s.

The analysis left a key question unanswered. Did this bureaucratic collectivism represent a new world historical trend in exploitation? Some of those who split from Trotskyism drew the conclusion that managerialism was the future (and a good thing too); others, that old style capitalism was more progressive than the new style exploitation.

Either way most believers in the theory of bureaucratic collectivism (Draper was an honourable exception) retreated rapidly from socialism. The weakness of this theory, which he clung to, is evident in one essay reprinted here on how far collectivism had gone in influencing social democracy.

Draper was better at understanding what Marx stood for than analysing where the world had got to. Nonetheless, at a time when workers’ self emancipation as the core of socialism was in danger of being lost, he was a champion of that idea.

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