David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

Socialists and the masses

Proceeding on the basis of similar idealist conceptions, you, Comrade Brenner, arrive at a conception of the relationship between socialists and the masses that resembles, to a remarkable degree, the position of the “critical critics,” as summarized above by Plekhanov.

“According to Beams,” you write, “it will not be socialists but the masses who will run socialist society, and so there is no need for socialist policies—which he refers to disparagingly as ‘prescriptions’—on issues like the family, work, the environment, etc., let alone a coherent vision of what socialist society will be like. There is a basic truth here—that the working class must emancipate itself—which is fundamental to the socialist project. But never before has this been interpreted to mean that socialists don’t need to have a program.”

Once again, you resort to a polemical sleight of hand: Beams’ statement that a socialist society is not one “run” by socialists, and that it is the task of the working class, in the process of its self-emancipation, to work out the new forms of society, without “prescriptions” laid down in advance, is misrepresented as a repudiation of program.

You insist that “there is no contradiction between the masses emancipating themselves and socialists running society.” Are the masses to assume that this is the case because you, Commissar Brenner, say so? Either the self-emancipation of the working class means it is the masses who must create and work out the forms of their own liberation, or it does not. This is not merely an issue of abstract theoretical interest. The question has merely to be posed: Would a revolutionary socialist government, in the aftermath of the conquest of political power, be subject to the democratic control of the working class? Would the working out of policies proceed on the basis of diktats issued by the ruling socialists, or through an open struggle among diverse social tendencies, whose right to fight for their viewpoints and policies would be among the most precious and zealously defended of democratic rights?

One has only to read your description of the state of affairs in the aftermath of the revolution to imagine your reply to these questions:

Some workers will actively oppose the revolution: to imagine them running anything in a socialist society is perverse. Others will be politically neutral: to foist responsibilities on them right away for a revolution they have barely begun to understand will probably do little more than antagonize them; their political consciousness (and more broadly, their general cultural level) will have to be patiently nurtured. So for a considerable period of time the running of socialist society will be in the hands, not of the amorphous “masses,” but of class conscious workers—in other words, that section of the class (necessarily a large portion of it and hopefully a majority) whose political consciousness has been shaped by the revolutionary socialist movement. This, it needs to be emphasized, is what is meant by “socialists running society”—not a small clique of party bureaucrats but a broad section of workers imbued with socialist consciousness.

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, as one reads your vision of the situation that will confront a socialist government. Though you hold out the hope that a majority of the working class (though clearly not the majority of the population as a whole) will support the revolution, there seems to be no question in your mind that the socialists will be spending at least as much time suppressing people as they will emancipating them. Moreover, if all those sections of the working class, from whom you anticipate opposition or indifference, are to be excluded from “running anything,” the continued functioning of a substantial portion of the economic, technological and social infrastructure of an advanced society will be, to put it mildly, problematic. There are limits to what can be decided on the basis of purely political considerations. In the aftermath of winning power, a socialist workers government will require the interested cooperation of large numbers of people who, whatever their political convictions, will continue to play critical roles in the infrastructure of society. Socialists, even if they were so inclined, could not simply order these people about. They will have to be not only listened to, but also treated with the respect that their experience and expertise merits.

Fixated as you are on conjuring up prescriptions for the socialist society of the future, it does not seem that you have given too much thought to the problems of the transition from capitalism to socialism. By its very nature, socialism is inconceivable without mass participation in the making of decisions on all issues affecting the lives of the people, that is, without a vast expansion in democracy. As Engels put the matter so well, in his May 1895 Introduction to a new edition of Karl Marx’s The Class Struggle in France (completed just three months before his own death):

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. [49]

In other words, the revolution cannot be made for the workers. It must be made by the workers who understand what they are fighting for. The conception that the working class is capable of fighting for, and winning, political power, can appear reasonable only to those who believe that masses of workers will be drawn to the perspective of socialism out of the experiences of their own lives. But you, Comrade Brenner, do not believe this. All that you see in the masses is a spectacle of appalling backwardness. You write:

If by the sheer act of participating in a revolution the undifferentiated masses can, as it were, leap out of their skins and transcend a lifetime of oppression and backwardness to the point of being able to carry out the mammoth task of socialist construction on their own, i.e., without any guidance or “prescriptions” from socialists, then one has to wonder why they would need these same socialists to lead them in making a revolution in the first place. One has to wonder, in short, why they would need a change in consciousness at all.

Backward the workers come into the revolution. Backward they leave it. Only through the Herculean efforts of Frank Brenner can something be salvaged from this general mess and the masses led, despite themselves, to the new utopia.


Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 27 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1990), p. 520.