Skip to main content

Socialism from Behind

When Hal Draper's theory of socialism from below was first becoming popular amongst post-Trotskyist circles in Toronto––circles that, at one time, defined what was fashionable amongst the marxist left––there were some queer socialists connected to these circles who joked that they were more interested in socialism from behind.  While this joke might, at first glance, appear to be an unserious rejection of a theoretical province, it contained a kernel of critique: there was little reason to be interested in a theory, regardless of its rhetorical force, that was utterly unremarkable when it came to the concerns raised by the non-marxist anti-oppression discourses.  After decades of feminist, anti-racist, and queer theory, therefore, how did Draper's insights really matter?  Simply put: they did not.

And yet the rhetorical force of the slogan socialism from below is compelling.  After all, many of us indeed want a bottom-up socialism that, while retaining key aspects of Leninism, rejects what would be classified as Stalinism––the party that is the general staff of the proletariat, the party from outside, the party that enacts socialism from above.  Thus, those organizations emerging from the confusion of Trotskyist sectarian who were searching for a formula that would inure them to movementism gravitated towards Draper simply because he seemed to promise, at least in the slogan of his politics, precisely what was required to update this already moribund form of marxism while retaining everything that had made it outdated in the first place.

Indeed, upon reading The Two Souls of Socialism one is struck with how antiquated and removed from social struggle Draper's theory is––not to mention its historical inaccuracies.  Written in 1966, it was strangely but utterly divorced from the New Communist Movement that, regardless of its problems, resonated with the US masses.  Why anyone would take such an alienated theory seriously at the dawn of the 21st century, when it failed to resonate with concrete praxis at the time it was tendered, is question worth asking.  In the midst of exciting marxist engagements with race and gender we are presented with a theorist who spends much of his time thinking about white trade unions, twisting the national question to apply to colonial states such as Israel, and whose conceptualization of Marx and Engels' statement about the "self-emancipation of the proletariat" was tantamount to a sublimated spontaneist elitism.  To this we can add his banal appreciations of "women's emancipation" and civil rights that, though not reactionary, were far from remarkable and at best a tailing of what was already established by struggle––no surprise there, considering that his theory of practice would indeed amount to an unconscious (since he claims, without any theoretical/practical basis, that this is not the case) endorsement of tailism!

Of course, those who have attempted to make Draper into some harbinger of 21st century socialism tend to formulate him in such a way as to force him into the mould of contemporary relevance––as if he was ever relevant in his own social context.  Such a forcing is not out of step with a common practice of making Trotskyism appear more relevant than it actually and ever was.  For example, it is something of a cliche for the more critical Trotskyist/post-Trotskyist organizations and intellectuals to pretend as if a sectarian group such as the Spartacist League was actually embedded in the working class movement and thus part of the New Communist Movement in the US––more than one post-Trotskyist who would be reviled by the Spartacists has gone so far as to declare that this organization was relevant, that it played a significant role in sites of struggle such as the Boston Bussing Crisis, when none of the major organizations of that period even bother to talk about them and none of the people involved have any memory of their involvement.  The truth is that Trotskyist tendencies have unfortunately lacked relevance in concrete class struggles anywhere, regardless of whatever apocalyptic pronouncements they might make from time to time, and so it often becomes necessary for intellectuals and organizations connected to this tradition to produce a mythology.  Draper is perhaps a recovered saint in such a mythology––at least for those adherents to the Trotskyist tradition who seek an unorthodox trajectory.  And perhaps he is an unorthodox saint raised against the spectre of orthodoxy represented by the mythology of the Spartacist sect, because Lord knows that many of those who speak of this orthodox mythos despise the Spartacists as much as they are despised by the Spartacists.

And yet, beyond the compelling rhetoric of socialism from below, we should be struck by the wholly unremarkable character of Draper's theory.  No "outside" party is needed; the working class will self-emancipate by building its vanguard through its already-existing associations (i.e. the trade-unions); the marxist intellectual should just persist as an intellectual and wait for the revolution to be built from below––meaning, for Draper, spontaneously.  If there is any prescience to this theoretical position then it is simply a pre-cognitive acceptance of movementism in Leninist costume.  No wonder the post-Trotskyist intellectuals still obsessed with the anti-globalization movements of yesteryear conjure the memory of Draper in the hope of tricking anarchists into becoming marxists!  We are meant to forget that he was utterly divorced from the struggles of his own time, just as we are meant to ignore the fact that, at least according to the marxist tradition, revolutionary theory is meaningless when disconnected from revolutionary practice.

Is it any wonder, then, that the organizations who are invested in reviving Draper's theory are composed primarily of academic elitists who are by-and-large disinterested in embedding themselves in the masses?   It is easy to talk about the self-emancipation of the working class and socialist revolution when you have to do nothing but talk.  And is it perhaps a point of irony that some of the organizations that Draper would lambast as "stalinist" for bringing socialism "from outside" were also the same organizations that, unlike Draper, attempted to declass their members by seeding them into the very working class institutions he extolled?  For if class is made and not found, then only someone who perceives class as an essence––and that the working class is everywhere born to be the working class––would judge this act to be in contradiction with the slogan of self-emancipation.

Thus, aside from the compelling nature of the slogan that hides the concept, Draper's socialism from below is yet another example of a revenant theory that is no more vital than innumerable marxist theoretical provinces that were conceived at the margins of class struggle.  It is still invested in a simplistic notion of the proletariat, caught in the trap of economism, regardless of its possible alliance with movementism.  That there could be a revival of an unremarkable theorist who had little to no influence or understanding of the great movements of his time tells us more about those responsible for this revival than the theorist in question: caught within the boundaries of a conservative first world marxism, but enamoured by the supposed heterodoxy of movementism, one attempts to find a thinker who can square this heterodoxy with a bland marxism and, in this squaring, produce something significant.

The fact that the long process that eventually produced marxism-leninism-maoism was concerned with a "party of the new type"––that is, a party that would somehow escape the monolithism of pure Leninism and that would, through theories of the mass-line, produce its own tendency of "socialism from below"––was not only ignored by Draper but also by those who attempt to breath new life into Draper's dismal theory.  Obviously the new communist movement that was emergent in Draper's time did not solve this problem, but Draper's theory was even further away from solution (the former, at least, possessed a mass movement) and, as aforementioned, didn't even engage in the theoretical exchanges of the time: hence Draper's caricature of "socialism from outside", a problem of which Tom Clark (who came out of the new communist movement) would better understand, with all of its dialectical force, in State and Counter-Revolution.  More significantly, however, is the fact that today's Draperites show no interest in the strategic theories of the party that have developed, with advances and setbacks, through various people's wars––theories that, connected to that concept called "the mass-line", might in fact tell us more about "socialism from below" then small cabals of academics waxing poetic about the self-emancipation of the proletariat.

So Draperism is one of those minor strains of marxism that appeals to the first world academic who is looking for a Leninism that is radical in form but is ultimately unoffensive in its actual lack of revolutionary content.  Banal, unremarkable, alienated from concrete social struggles, but agreeable in a slogan which obscures its substance.  We find in the theory of "socialism from below" the same problems that have hampered the most rigidly orthodox marxisms for over a century: the essentialization of the proletariat, the inability to think through the possibility of an exterior-interior dialectical relationship, the reification of the trade union movement, the sublimation of the strategy of insurrection, the anti-elitism that is in actual fact an elitism in that it refuses to engage with the masses, etc., the lack of theoretical sophistication to engage with issues that do not at first glance appear connected to class struggle.

Aside from squatting on Luxemburg's legacy––as so many bargain basement theorists afraid of "Stalinism" have done for decades––there is really nothing in this theory, or any that follow in its wake, worth adopting or emulating… And yet, as history has taught us, innumerable theories that belong in history's dust-bin––theories that have produced nothing that even begins to resemble revolutionary praxis––are still adopted and emulated.  So in the end, the ghost of Draperism is a symptom of the larger problem of opportunism, particularly that unique kind of opportunism that hampers academic marxists at the centres of capitalism: the adherence to a constellation of marxist theory that allows us to appear radical in form while simultaneously justifying our desire to remain outside (or at the most on the periphery as commentators, theorists, and authorities) of class struggle.