Saturday, April 21, 2012

Intellectuals and the Struggle for Socialism from Below

I've been thinking a lot of about the role of intellectuals (and theorists in particular) in the struggle for socialism. There has been a lot of ink spilled over this question within the Marxist tradition and beyond. I don't pretend to address this topic in any comprehensive way. What follows are merely a couple of reflections aimed at helping me clarify my thinking about these matters.

One way to get into this problem would be to frame it in terms of theory and practice. To ask what role theorists should play is, in some sense, to ask what role theory should play in revolutionary practice. As far as I'm concerned, some of the best things said about this particular topic are addressed in Alasdair MacIntyre's short pamphlet, "What is Marxist Theory For?". Of course, there are plenty of other, more detailed treatments around. Those theorists interested in working-class self-emancipation tend to give the best accounts here, in my view. Michael Löwy's The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx and Hal Draper's work on self-emancipation, and Norman Geras's excellent essay "Marxism and Proletarian Self-Emancipation" all give detailed treatments of the problematic of theory and practice in Marxism with an eye to do justice to the ideal of working-class self-emancipation. Lenin's discussion of these questions in What is to be Done? is helpful. So is the work of Lukács and Gramsci.

Interesting though these questions are, I don't want to talk about the role of theorists in these particular terms. It's not for any systematic or political reason that I want avoid addressing the problem in these terms. It's just that my particular academic sphere of activity requires that I articulate myself in other ways, and I think it's worth attempting to think through these problems in vocabularies other than the standard Marxist lexicon.

One way to gloss the core of self-emancipation and the notion of socialism from below would be to read it as a democratic approach to social transformation--as opposed to the technocratic, administrative, and elitist approach known as socialism from above. Now, don't misunderstand me. By "democracy" I mean something completely different from the electoral procedures and political institutions that we see in many capitalist societies. In other words, by "democracy" I don't mean bourgeois democracy. Neither do I have in mind the typical liberal conception of democracy--often called the "aggregative" model of democracy--according to which democracy is merely a fair procedure for the aggregation of pre-political individual "preferences" (no different from consumer "preferences"). This aggregative conception understands democracy as a kind of market, takes individual "preferences" as given, assumes that individual preferences are merely private wants, and attempts to "reconcile" these conflicting individual preferences with each other through an aggregative mechanism such as voting. When I say "democratic" I have nothing like the above in mind.

When I say that socialism from below is radically democratic, it is because it involves a class-for-itself actively participating in and (determining the course of) the struggle to create society anew. It involves the conscious, deliberate action of the mass of working people who bring the basic structure society under their direct democratic control.

Contrast this with two other views of what socialism is and how it is won: utopian socialism and Stalinism. The utopian socialists started off with a blueprint of what a new society should look like down to every last detail. Fourier, for example, had a detailed system for how garbage collection would work that involved only children because, he reasoned, children liked to play in the dirt so why shouldn't they like to be the ones to handle all of the garbage in society? There are lots of things to say about the schemes of the utopian socialists, but what we want to say here is that they were all to some extent elitist or paternalistic. They didn't look to the masses of working people as a source of energy, insight and transformative power. And why should they have? They already had all of the substantive details worked out--what kind of lives people would live in a properly socialist society, what they would do, how they would do it, what they would produce, etc. etc. Accordingly many of the utopians detested genuine democracy. Many of them looked to the powers that be--kings, capitalists, state administrators--in an effort to win them through persuasion to implement their favored blueprint for a new society.

Stalinism is a complex phenomenon, but for our purposes we can boil it down to some rather simple elements. Whereas Marx and Engels distinguished themselves in the 19th Century by opposing the utopians, the Blanquists, and everyone else who chafed against the ideal of working-class self-emancipation, Stalinists cast all this aside. They reverted to pre-Marxist ideas that saw socialism nothing more than a specific form of bureaucratic administration from above. So long as private ownership of the means of production was abolished, and a form of bureaucratic state administration put in its place, a society was "socialist". The only question for Stalinists is: what sort of policies should the administrators implement from above? In some ways, their question had the same structure as the utopians. Both presumed that a layer of elites should sit above the masses and decide substantive matters such as what sort of life people should lead, what should get produced, how it should be produced, etc. etc. Socialism, for both of them, becomes little more than a social-engineering problem best solved by "experts" and technocrats.

In obsessing over the first-order question "what, substantively speaking, should society be like in all its details?" they completely elide the second-order question "but who should decide this?". It is sensitivity to this second question that distinguishes those who advocate socialism from below.

This brings me to the role of radical intellectuals (theorists, academics or whatever).

What we can already see is that socialism from below, in being radically democratic, refuses to put forward a substantive blueprint that pre-empts the collective deliberations of radicalized workers involved in the fight for a new society. Theorists take on an elitist, technocratic perspective when they pre-empt the decisions of a mass movement and propose a substantive picture of what people's lives should be like in a new society. Part of the point of socialism--genuine socialism--is to give the masses of people (for the first time) the power to genuinely control their own lives and determine collectively the course that society will take. It is about bringing the basic structure of society under the collective control of the activated masses. Now, there may be some role for intellectuals to play in proposing various institutional schemes to their fellows in the midst of collective discussions among workers engaged in building a new society. If these proposals find favor then it's possible that they might be implemented. But this is the sort of collective discussion that one has after the revolution. That's not where we are right now.

What, then, is the role of radical intellectuals qua intellectuals? Social criticism has got to be part of what they do. That can take many forms: immanent critique of dominant ideologies, criticism of ideas that function to stabilize or legitimate the status quo, criticism of historical narratives that obscure material conditions and class struggle, etc. Radical intellectuals can contribute to a better understanding of the status quo (the better to change it). But is the role of radical intellectuals purely negative or merely descriptive?

I don't think so. Radical intellectuals--qua intellectuals--can and must do more than criticize. But, and this is crucial, what they say in a "positive" spirit must be mediated by the sorts of criticism outlined above. Whatever they say in a positive spirit must grow out of a critique of the dominant order, it must be rooted in the practical activity of movements engaged in challenging it. It can't issue from nowhere and neither can it be the mere daydreams of the theorist.

What do I have in mind by "positive"? Let me introduce a distinction here to try to sharpen my claims. Call a positive claim "substantive" if it has determinate content that has to do with precisely what kind of life people should live, what activities they should be involved in if they are to flourish, etc. A substantive question might be: "What kind of clothing should be produced in a socialist society?" That is not a question intellectuals can answer a priori--that is a question that people must determine themselves, democratically, in a socialist society. Contrast that with "procedural" claims that are formal and lack determinate content about the good life, etc. Procedural matters have to with form and structure, not content and substance. A procedural/formal question might be: "what form of social relations among persons would have to obtain for a society to properly be called socialist?".

What I want to say is that, by and large, intellectuals (or anyone else for that matter) should not be in the business of deciding substantive matters themselves--substantive matters should be determined by the masses of working people themselves. Procedural matters--that is, formal or structural matters--are better suited to intellectual reflection. Of course, socialist democracy can not be conceived as purely formal or procedural--it would necessarily exclude certain kinds of substantive outcomes (i.e. those that involved oppression, exploitation, alienation, etc.). But socialism from below requires leaving a space open for people to determine the vast majority of substantive matters themselves.

Radical theorists, as I say, have no business pre-empting the democratic deliberations of workers by attempting to settle substantive matters ex ante. There are normative and epistemic reasons why they can't do this. Normatively speaking it is elitist and paternalistic, as we've seen. Epistemically, however, theorists can't know everything they'd need to know in order to get these questions right. Many of the concrete practical questions of how to build certain kinds of new, radically democratic social institutions is not one that can be fruitfully addressed from where we stand today.

However, radical theorists should, I think, see themselves as involved in the project of thinking through formal questions such as "what sort of social relations would obtain among persons in a socialist society?". Now, the way they address such questions cannot be abstract or idiosyncratic. It must be closely tied to the critical enterprise and the practical activity of movements on the ground. We only learn about what kind of social relations we want by seeing, in practice, what we don't want: exploitation, oppression, domination, etc. Only a critical analysis of exploitation and oppression in all of their material richness could put intellectuals--or anyone for that matter--in a position to address questions about the form of relations that would characterize some of the basic structural features of a socialist society.

Defenders of capitalism and the status quo attack socialists for advocating an impossible ideal. They say that there is no possible or desirable alternative to the market. They say that a complex society cannot be structured in any other way. They say that genuine socialist democracy would be nothing but the rule of the ignorant and irrational, so they extol the virtues of "experts". Others argue that socialist democracy is itself oppressive because it elides difference.

Radical intellectuals can and must see their role--in part--as dispatching these claims. Socialism is not impossible, and it is a worthwhile exercise to say why not. Genuine democratic planning of production is both possible and desirable, and there is nothing utopian or elitist about attempts to show that that is so. Showing that democracy is desirable involves clarifying and defending the democratic ideal. It doesn't involve giving a blueprint of socialist institutions, but it does mean explaining that democracy is not aggregation of fixed individual preferences. It does mean distinguishing real democracy from the institutions of bourgeois elections. It means showing the epistemic benefits of real democratic deliberation as embodied in practices such as collective assessment. It means emphasizing the collective learning process that occurs in and through mass movements that democratically self-determine their course of action.

Real democracy is deliberative and takes as a basic assumption that people's individual "preferences" aren't fixed. It assumes, rather, that they can change in the course of argument and debate (and through struggle). This model of democracy doesn't, of course, mean that the way we ought engage with the ruling class (or any oppressor) through patient argument and deliberation. The ruling class has to be removed by a movement that forces them out. But within that movement, and within the new society brought under the democratic control of the working class, we need democracy. We don't need "neutral" or "fair" procedures that attempt to reconcile fixed individual preferences. Democracy is much more than the simple act of voting. Neither is it mere discussion--because not all discussions are democratic. We need collective, deliberative processes aimed at producing action, whereby the better argument carries the day, where all of the relevant perspectives and experiences and ideas can be put forward free from oppression, marginalization, and all the rest. Clarifying our thinking about basic form socialist democracy--while steering clear of pre-empting matters of substance best decided by workers themselves--does not seem to me out of the reach of the radical intellectual engaged in the struggle for socialism from below.

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