Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2013

A critique of Alex Callinicos’s Marxism

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 2:31 pm

On The Two Souls of Socialism

by Joaquín Bustelo on March 22, 2013

Originally posted on the Marxism List in August of 2005, this article takes up the arguments presented by British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader Alex Callinicos in a debate with John Holloway on “Can we change the world without taking power?” The debate was held at the World Social Forum in January of 2005 and the transcript was presented in issue 106 of International Socialism, which is available online.

My contention is that the argument presented by Callinicos, centered on the “two souls of socialism” meme, is quite distant from a rigorous Marxist analysis. Useful as the “two souls” idea and especially “socialism from below” may be in explaining certain concepts in a popular way, trying to use these as fundamental analytical categories, as Callinicos does, following the example of Hal Draper’s famous 1960′s article, is a mistake. It creates a catchall category of “socialism for above” that doesn’t really tell you anything because it is so broad, and sets up impossibly high barriers to any revolutionary process being blessed with the “from below” label.

I am republishing it at The North Star because I believe crises like the one in the SWP involve more than organizational practices. Also involved is an idealist approach that turns preservation of a doctrine into a central task and the very reason for being of a revolutionary organization. I follow it with another post in that discussion thread where I expand on some points.


It is really quite striking how much of Callinicos’s theoretical arsenal is derived from what is a transparently idealist, not Marxist analysis. In his debate with Holloway, Callinicos, a leader of the British SWP says:

I absolutely sympathise with one of the impulses behind the slogan ‘Change the world without taking power’. Among a lot of the traditions on the left worldwide there has been what has been called ‘socialism from above’. Whether it is a Communist party with Stalinist traditions or a social democratic party like the Workers Party in Brazil today, it involves the idea that the party changes things for you and everyone else remains passive.

The political tradition I stand in is a very different one. It is that of socialism from below summed up in Marx’s definition of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. Socialism is about the oppressed and exploited of the world effectively liberating themselves.

My fundamental difference with John is that I believe this process of self-emancipation requires us to confront and overthrow the existing state and replacing it with a radically different form of state power.

This will immediately be recognized by many as a line of argument derived from the idea that there have been historically two “souls” of socialism — socialism from above versus socialism from below. Now, this may have some propaganda utility in the same sense that Lenin said that the phrase “socialism is my religion” might be a permissible pedagogical adaptation by a Marxist to make certain ideas more accessible. But I believe if one delves deeply in the source text of this theses, Hal Draper’s 1960′s article, “The two souls of socialism,” one will find rather less than meets the eye.

read full article: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=8036#comment-42936

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