Hal Draper


The Socialist View:
Democracy is a Weapon!


Original published: From This Shall a New Man Arise!, Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 18, 1 May 1950, p. 4.
Source: Introduction to Independent Socialism: Selected Articles from Labor Action No. 1, Independent Socialist Press, 1963.

Now ’tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden,
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry.

Henry VI (Part 2)

Fear is the hallmark of totalitarianism. Fear is also the weapon of totalitarianism, even more than its slave camps and executioners which come in only as the last resort. Fear of being different from the official pattern, fear of standing out from the ruck, fear of being suspected of thinking dangerous thoughts, fear of being suspected of associating with people who are suspected of thinking dangerous thoughts ...

Such fear is growing like weeds in the United States today. The roots of democratic feeling are deep in the country; they have been nourished by our frontier past, by the lack of any feudal tradition such as existed in Europe, by the fact that the country itself arose out of a mass rveolutionary struggle. But these traditions are fast being overgrown and choked.

The “typical American” is supposed to be the shirt-sleeved commoner who is as ready to speak his mind to a plushbottom tycoon as to his crony around the cracker barrel. There’s a good deal to that stereotype – but just try to keep it in mind when you read of the “evidence” against “subversives” and “security risks” that is gathered by the FBI! Was your aunt’s second cousin a member of an organization on the attorney general’s subversive list? Did you sign a petition to put a radical on the ballot in 1936?

Fear! Not of being sent to a slave camp or a prison – no sir, this is still America! As yet just fear of losing a job, fear of being avoided by your friends, fear of bad publicity, fear of losing clients ...

This was not started by the Truman administration’s subversive list. After the First World War there was less democracy in this country than before it. The Fair Deal has intensified the trend in this post-war world. It has done it in its own way – not by passing repressive laws, but by bureaucratic state administrative decree operating through the Department of “Justice” and its FBI, through its loyalty boards, through its Army and Navy intelligence gumshoes in the factories.

Compared with what it has done, Senator McCarthy’s omnibus charges are a mere comedy. McCarthy’s attacks have raised such a storm of indignation in liberal-labor circles because they are directed against the Fair Deal administration – the same administration which has shown the way to charges based on guilt-by-association and punishment for dangerous thoughts.

The capitalist government of the United States, in the name of the “defense of democracy against communism,” is conducting the most insidious cold war against civil liberties and democracy that we have ever seen here.

In the face of this cold war, the liberal spokesmen and labor leaders have beat a full retreat. If there is one thing that has distinguished liberalism at its best, it has been its firmness in taking a determined stand in defense of all forms of freedom for the expression of ideas. Today its leaders (Americans for Democratic Action, for instance) are distinguishing themselves by keeping their mouths shut on what is happening here.

Can Democracy Work?

It is not that democracy is any less dear to their hearts than before. They are in a quandary. In the first place, this cold war against civil liberties is being conducted by the “liberal” Fair Deal whereas they are used to meeting such attacks from the reactionary right wing of capitalism. In the second place, they are political supporters of this Fair Deal administration, and – one must be “practical.” In the third place, something has to be done to guard against Stalinist infiltration – they’re agents of a foreign power, aren’t they? Besides, sometimes it is necessary to fight an enemy with his own weapons ...

This is the heart of the matter. The cold war against the Russian totalitarianism is at the heart of the cold war against democracy here. The fight against Stalinism is given as both the aim and the justification for giving up the outer bastions of democratic rights in this country.

Isn’t there something to this “practical” argument? After all, we mustn’t be whole-hog perfectionists!

There is a great deal to it – more than its liberal practitioners realize! Behind it is the concept, the admission, that while democracy is a very good thing, it cannot effectively defend us against Stalinism. Democracy can’t get things done, said the fascist propagandists – you need a Leader, Authority, Discipline, Gleichschaltung, by which they meant a Dictator. Are the destinies of a state to be left in the hands of a fickle mob, torn by opinions, swayed by demagogues, paralyzed by endless discussions, weakened by dissension? When we need a strong hand, we can’t afford the luxury of democratic trappings ...

With this we Independent Socialists violently disagree. Democracy is a weapon stronger than planes and tanks, yes, stronger than the A-bomb. It is real democracy we are talking about, complete democracy, not merely the formal political democracy of capitalist parliamentarism – real democracy which comes only when the people can really feel that they are defending a country which is all theirs.

Today this country is “ours” – the people’s – only in a very limited sense. Its factories and shops, in which we spend the greater part of our waking hours, are not ours: in them we are the subjects of an autocratic despot, the boss, whose dictatorship is tempered only by the power of the trade unions. He owns; he has the power to give us the means to live or to deprive us of it; we have only the choice of working for him or starving. We have no say in our economic lives.

In the war the people were told they had to shoulder a gun in order to avoid conquest by a worse enemy than their own capitalists. They did so, because they saw no third alternative. But what happens when people work and fight, not to avoid something worse, but because they are fired by the fact that they are defending themselves and their own? We saw it in America in the Revolutionary War when a handful of straggling colonies defeated the greatest power of its day. We saw it in revolutionary Russia when a nation whose army had collapsed turned back the interventionist troops of Europe and America, inspired by the revolution they had just made and were defending.

Vicious Spiral-Down

Democracy is a weapon not only because it inspires its defenders but because it disintegrates its enemy’s forces. Americans look at the way the masses of East Europe tolerate the despotism of Stalinism and evolve theories about “totalitarian man” and the desire for the Father-Tyrant. There is a clearer reason nearer home. These masses were drawn to Stalinism by its anti-capitalist demagogy in the first place because they have had their bellyful of the system they have known and hated. They find out the truth about Stalinism too, soon enough, under the latter’s rule; they find out that it too means oppression, poverty and class rule – but is that enough to turn them back fired with enthusiasm for the system they have hated for a much longer time? The result is confusion, even hope that Stalinism may reform its worst features (as our own liberals hope this for capitalism), passivity and retreat from political thought, for those who do not have the guts to fight when others bow the head.

The dynamite under the Stalinist system – which is shaken by its own contradictions, the most spectacular of which is Titoism – could be touched off only by the offering of an alternative to both exploitive systems which could set the oppressed masses in motion. Capitalism cannot do this. It can do this even less today than yesterday, now that it is adopting more and more the visage of its enemy (which the apologists call “fighting the enemy with his own weapons”). As the capitalist West strips for action by shedding its democratic “luxuries,” the hold of Stalinism over its own people is reinforced. Further sacrifices are thereupon demanded in the West. This is not a vicious circle. It is a spiral-down-down to the new barbarism threatened by the atomic war between the world rivals.

There is another admission hidden in the Fair Deal’s cold war against liberty. It is the admission that the capitalists and their government have no confidence in the attractive power of their own system and their own declining democracy. Consider the enormous confession contained in the theory of “once a Communist, always a Communist” which is in effect written into the law which set up the Marshall Plan and which is the operating principle of much of the government’s witchhunt (the main exceptions made in the latter are ex-CPers who are obliging enough to spill their guts before the FBI or a judge). A man who has even associated with Stalinists is tagged a “poor security risk” – he has opened himself to taint by the enemy, and to be on the safe side we must assume he is in fact tainted.

What lack of confidence in the attractive power of U.S. democracy! The men in Washington talk about selling the glories of free-enterprise capitalisms to Europe, but they cannot really even convince themselves. An operation so extensive as the government purge and FBI witchhunt cannot be based on the existence of one or two men who are so misguided as to prefer hell to heaven. It can be justified only on the basis of the existence of the danger on a mass scale.

This lack of confidence in the ability of the U.S. system to keep its own citizens’ loyalty is indeed justified, but not because of the superiority of Stalinism. It is the crying evils of capitalism which give Stalinism its victims. They cannot be eliminated without eliminating capitalism. The capitalists naturally prefer to eliminate democratic rights.

Toward the Remaking of Man

This is why democracy is a weapon but not a weapon which the capitalist system can use against the Russian enemy. The edge cuts its hand too. It is the weapon of the democratic socialist alternative to both systems.

Under capitalism, real democracy was never possible, not while the men of money also owned the press, the radio, the meeting halls, and controlled the schools and governments through their economic power. Today it is not simply a matter of wanting something better than the incomplete democracy of capitalist politics. It is a question of the fate of the most elementary democratic rights. These cannot be preserved except by going forward and beyond them, to the full economic and political democracy of a social system in which the people own their own livelihood for the first time.

For capitalism today, democratic processes are a nuisance, an impediment, an obstacle to its needs. For socialism, democracy is a necessity.

It is an economic necessity, first of all, because it is false to believe that a really planned economy can be blueprinted by ukase from above, by bureaucrats (no matter how smart or how much statistics are at their disposal) whose plans and goals cannot be checked by give-and-take from below. In totalitarian Russia, for example, this cannot take place: a mistake is a state crime, and a harassed factory manager cannot tell a government minister that his plan is unrealizable, a mistake. He must demonstrate that he can fulfill the Plan, even if the machinery he produces breaks down. Initiative from below is insubordination, responsibility is a danger, decisions can be a life-and-death matter: it is better to do what one is told.

Democracy is a political necessity for socialism. Without it, the private capitalist owners may be eliminated, but their place will be taken by a new ruling class, the state bureaucrats who own the means of production because they own and control the state which is the only legal owner.

Democracy is a cultural necessity for socialism. For the end goal of socialism is not merely abundance, security, peace and freedom. These, precious as they are and great goals of man that they are, are themselves only means to an end. The end of socialism is not merely the remaking of the social system and of the world – it is the remaking of man himself.

Today and during all our yesterdays of class society, man has been an animal sharing with all other animals one common need: the necessity of spending the greatest portion of his days and thought and energy on the job of filling his stomach so that he might be able to live to work another day. Man still works to eat and eats in order to work in an endless chain. Directly and indirectly, and not only during the hours of direct labor, we still live on the animal level for all our refrigerators and science and autos and television.

In a socialist world of plenty, man is at long last freed of the dominance of economics, the tyranny of economics. He will for the first time be free to develop the full potentialities and capacities of the human individual, and see the full flowering of man’s spirit.

This is the only goal worth fighting for today. It is the real freedom.


Last updated on 23 July 2018