THE RADICAL THOUGHT of the 1820s and the 1830s was profoundly elitist and anti-democratic in character. Utopian socialism was the creation of upper-class reformers. Anarchism originated in the anti-democratic protest of the small property owner. Conspiratorial communism conceived of a transformation of society brought about by a select and secret group. The programmes of social change advocated by thinkers associated with these trends of thought did not look forward to a collective reordering of society by the mass of the oppressed. The idea of a new democratic order that would be created by the self-activity of ordinary people was foreign to all of these trends of radical thought.
By the 1840s, however, a new trend in socialist thought had started to emerge. The industrial revolution in England and France had brought into being a new social force that was pressing for widespread change in society. This force was the industrial working class–a class of wage-labourers concentrated in large factories and workplaces and increasingly inclined to resort to collective action, such as strikes, and collective organisation, in the form of trade unions. Between the years 1830 and 1848–which mark two separate revolutionary uprisings in France — the industrial working class changed the shape of European politics.
In Britain, major strike waves had taken place in the mid-1820s. In 1834, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was founded. Mass strikes took place in 1842. In 1847, on-going agitation among workers forced the government to pass the Ten Hour Bill, thus limiting the length of the workday. In France, the years 1831 and 1834 saw strikes and insurrections among the silk weavers of Lyons. Uprisings among Parisian workers occurred in 1832 and 1834.
This upsurge in militant working class activity powerfully influenced the thinking of some radical writers and organisers. Increasingly, some socialists began to think of the working class as the group that could change society. Indeed, a few theorists began to talk in terms of the working class liberating itself through its collective action. Notable in this regard was the French revolutionary woman Flora Tristan, who linked together ideas of working class self-emancipation and women’s liberation with the proposal for a world-wide organisation of workers. But it was in the writings and the organising of a German socialist, Karl Marx, that the working class took centre stage in socialist thought. Inspired by the emergence of the modern working class, Marx developed a wholly new socialist outlook based upon the principle of socialism from below.
Marx was the first major socialist thinker who came to socialism through the struggle for democratic rights. As a young man in Germany during the early 1840s, Marx edited a newspaper which supported the widespread extension of democratic liberties. Increasingly, Marx came to the view that the political restrictions on democracy were a result of the economic structure of society. When the government closed down his newspaper in 1843, Marx moved to Paris. There he encountered a vibrant working class and socialist movement. Several years later, Marx moved to England where he undertook a painstaking study of the nature of the capitalist economy. Out of his experience in France and England, Marx developed a consistently democratic and revolutionary socialist outlook.
The young Marx came increasingly to believe that no society which was divided into exploiting employer and exploited worker could ever achieve full democracy. So long as the capitalists held the bulk of economic power in society, they would continue to dominate political life. Full democracy, Marx argued, required the overcoming of class division in society. Only then could each individual fully and equally participate in social and political affairs. Unlike the utopian socialists, Marx insisted that socialism had to represent a higher stage of democracy than anything yet seen. He opposed all socialist and communist views that involved a curtailing of democracy. As he wrote in 1847 in a pamphlet outlining the views of a socialist grouping he was involved in:
We are not among those communists who are out to
destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the
world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic
workhouse. There certainly are some communists who,
with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance
personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out
of the world because they consider that it is a
hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire
to exchange freedom for equality. We are convinced
that in no social order will freedom be assured as
in a society based upon communal ownership.
Equally important, if socialism was to represent a new society of freedom, then it had to be achieved through a process in which people liberated themselves. Unlike the utopian socialists who looked to an elite to change things for the masses, Marx argued that the masses had to free themselves. Freedom could not be conquered for and handed over to the working masses. Socialism could only be brought into being through the mass democratic action of the oppressed.
Marx was the first major socialist thinker to make the principle of self-emancipation–the principle that socialism could only be brought into being by the self-mobilisation and self-organisation of the working class–a fundamental aspect of the socialist project. As he wrote in the statement of aims of the First International Workingmen’s Association, ‘The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves.’
Unlike the conspiratorial communists, Marx insisted that there was a majority force in society that would bring socialism into being. He argued that the modern working class of wage-labourers was organised in such a way that they would be pushed, in the course of struggle, towards socialist objectives. Through his study of English economics, Marx came to see that capitalism had created, for the first time in human history, an oppressed class that worked collectively in large workplaces. If this class was to liberate itself, he pointed out, it could only do so in common. If it was to reorganise the economic basis of society, it could only do so in a collective fashion. If the factories, mines, mills and offices were to be brought under the control of those who worked them, this could be achieved only through the coordinated action of thousands upon thousands of working people. Thus, a working class revolution would of necessity arrive at a new form of collective economy and society in which the means of producing wealth–the factories, mines, mills and offices — would be owned and managed in common by the whole of the working class.
Such a democratic and collective society would have to be based upon the fullest possible political democracy. Marx made this point clear from his earliest writings. But it was only with the workers’ revolution in Paris in 1871, the revolution that established the short-lived Paris Commune, that Marx came to see some of the forms that a workers’ state, workers’ democracy, would take.
In March of 1871, the army of France admitted defeat at the hands of Prussia. Fearing a Prussian take-over of France, the workers of Paris rose up and took control of their city. For more than two months, the workers ruled Paris before their uprising was drowned in blood. In order to secure their rule, the Parisian workers took a series of popular democratic measures. They suppressed the standing army and replaced it with a popular militia; they established the right of the people to recall and replace their elected representatives; they decreed that no elected representative could earn more than the average wage of a worker; they instituted universal male suffrage and universal education.
Marx immediately rallied to the cause of the Paris Commune. He hailed the action of the ‘heaven-stormers’ of Paris. Most important, he learned enormous lessons from the experience of the first workers’ revolution. Prior to the Paris Commune, Marx had given little thought to the form that a workers’ revolution would take. Now he drew a conclusion of tremendous importance. The working class, he wrote, could not ‘simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes. ‘ Rather, the working class had to create an entirely new form of state in order to secure workers’ democracy and workers’ power.
Marx insisted that the abolition of the standing army, free and universal education, universal suffrage, the right to recall representatives and limits on the salary of any elected official were all essential elements of any workers’ state. The Paris Commune, Marx wrote was ‘essentially a working class government … the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour’. Economic emancipation, the elimination of class divisions and private ownership of the means of producing wealth, could only take place under the direct and democratic rule of the working class through its own state.
Marx’s socialist perspective represented a thorough fusion of the idea of mass democracy with the notion of a commonly owned and managed economy. His work signalled an entirely new direction in socialist thought and socialist politics. Central to Marx’s socialism were two basic principles. First, that the working class had to emancipate itself through its own collective action. Freedom could not be given over to the working class, it had to be conquered by the oppressed themselves. Secondly, in order to bring about a socialist transformation of society, the working class would have to overthrow the old state and create a new, fully democratic, state for itself. These two principles–of self-emancipation and of the democratic workers’ state — became the very essence of ‘Marxism’, of socialism from below.