Mihailo Markovic 1981
Source: Praxis International, April 1981.
An essential part of the right-wing ideological counteroffensive in the 1970’s has been an attempt to prove that socialism is incompatible with democracy, that socialism cannot be but authoritarian, and that democracy cannot but have traditional parliamentary form.
Views of this kind cannot be proven – as anyone knows who understands the methodology of social sciences. But they have, unfortunately, been well supported by evidence about post-revolutionary developments in many countries. They have impressed all those intellectuals who always prefer to swim with the mainstream. There is a definite “sliding toward the right,” and a flood of texts have appeared repeating that “socialism has lost any historical significance,” and that, after all, “socialism is Gulag.”
The fact is that revolutions claiming to be socialist have so far either produced gulags, or have lost momentum halfway toward new democratic forms. That suffices to necessitate undertaking a critical re-examination of the theory of socialist revolution and a re-appraisal of the status of societies claiming to be socialist. But it does not suffice to make generalizations of universal and epochal significance. On the basis of experiences with some rural, patriarchal societies – despotically governed over centuries – nothing can be concluded about the whole world and especially about future possibilities of the most developed countries.
A comparable carelessness of thought characterizes much of the contemporary debate about Marx’s concept of a “transition period.” On the one hand, apologists of bureaucratic tyranny use some ambiguous statements of Marx in order to make that tyranny pass for the historically highest, most developed form of democracy. Every hitherto existing form of democracy was in fact a dictatorship of the minority, whereas the new “proletarian” state is, allegedly, a dictatorship of the majority – which can be demonstrated by the empirical fact that members of the Soviets have invariably been elected by the 99.99% majority! This way of reasoning has now become ridiculous everywhere. But an apparently totally opposite approach deserves the same destiny. When French “new” philosophers, among others, identify Marxism with Gulag, they seem to believe that there is only one possible interpretation of a theory which then alone has the power to produce a social reality. It is beyond the dignity of intellectual work to have to teach them that a social phenomenon has many causes and that an abstract theory allows many interpretations.
As a matter of fact, it can be shown that Marx’s basic philosophical ideas on human emancipation and praxis are incompatible with any state monopoly and party rule, and that a true socialization of the means of production requires a true participation of all citizens in social decision-making. Our next problem is under what historical conditions is this possible. The basic purpose of this paper is, however, to explore more in detail the new democratic forms that can be projected on the basis of contemporary socialist experiences.
Existing forms of bourgeois democracy allow for egoistic man who aspires toward more wealthy personal success and power, and who is free to the extent that no social forces block the realization of those private aims. This form of democracy is reduced to the political sphere of society; in the civil sphere (of economy, culture and everyday life) the “negative” freedom of possessive individualism goes together with domination and glaring social inequalities. But even in political society this form of democracy is rather limited. It is certainly the necessary ground on which any further emancipation can take place, and one cannot sufficiently emphasize its importance in a world still largely controlled by totalitarian forces. However, parliamentary democracy is far from being the optimal historically possible form of the political organization of an advanced society. It still allows and makes legitimate a tremendous amount of domination and heteronomy. This is partly the consequence of the enormous strength of extra-political powers (direct influence of corporate capital on the government and on party bosses; lobbying; pressure through large-scale mass-media). It is also the consequence of its own inner structure. Parliamentary democracy is a permanent form of the state, the primary function of which is to preserve existing social order. Whatever inequalities and injustices there are in the civil sphere, the state may “legitimately” use violence to conserve and perpetuate them; this legitimacy is ultimately derived from the decisions of the parliament. Parliament as an institution rests on the principle of party rule. Parties appear as the mediators between the people and the government. But parties are hierarchical, authoritarian organizations which inevitably develop ruling oligarchies and which, in the scramble for power, increasingly try to ideologically manipulate potential voters. Under such circumstances even the most important and most worthy democratic forms (free elections and limitation of the mandate, separation of powers) lose much of their substance.
However, existing forms of “real socialism” destroy civil society altogether instead of radically democratizing it. Everything that is social has been brought under the control of the state. Instead of “withering away,” the state has become an all-embracing, omnipotent force. In such a way, possessive individualism has not been transcended by a unity of the personal and the communal, but has turned into an extreme opposite – a false collectivism that, behind the fašade of a general social interest, perpetuates a selfish particular interest of the ruling bureaucracy. The form of the party has been preserved as the only permissible form of political organization, with the only historical “advantage” being that a plurality of parties (which at least offers the opportunity to choose the least evil) is now replaced by one ruling party which has brought hierarchy, authoritarianism and ideological manipulation to extreme and absurd forms.
No matter how much possessive individualism and totalitarianism differ, they share a sceptical view about human potential and especially about a capacity of ordinary human beings to understand the nature of social needs and the rational ways to meet them. That is why they both reject the right of the decision-making power by all citizens, in all aspects of public life; that is why they both need parties, professional politics and state bureaucracy.
A truly emancipatory philosophy starts from the assumption that each individual, with all his or her distinctive abilities and needs, is at the same time a social being. One becomes human only in society; by learning a language, rules of conceptual thinking and moral norms; by acquiring the cultural heritage of a former generation. Need for personal freedom goes together with the need to be recognized and esteemed in the community to which one belongs. Self-realization has an inner limit in a concern about the well-being of others: in that sense human freedom is responsible. Far from being a natural condition, egoistic, irresponsible behaviour may invariably be explained as the consequence of negligent, abusive treatment in early stages of one’s growth. But if egoism, acquisitiveness and aggressiveness are not inevitable, genetically determined traits of human nature but patterns produced by education, then any political philosophy based on the assumption of egoistic human nature no longer holds ground.
The possibility of new forms of democracy in socialism presupposes a philosophical conception of man as a being of praxis, i.e., a being capable of free creative activity, who brings to life the individual’s potential and at the same time satisfies the needs of others. Under unfavourable historical conditions this potential for praxis is wasted; this is the general meaning of the various dimensions of alienation. The whole purpose of the struggle for universal human emancipation is to create different conditions, different social structures, under which this potential can be increasingly brought to life.
From the general philosophical assumption of man as a being of praxis, a more specific principle, relevant for the whole sphere of social decision-making, can be derived. That is the principle of equal self-determination, which asserts that all human individuals have a capacity for self-determination and, therefore, should be equally treated as self-determining beings (who have the capacity to choose autonomously and rationally among alternative possibilities, to act accordingly, and to contribute by their action to the determination of the course of historical events).
The conception of society based on the principle of equal self-determination differs essentially from either traditional liberalism or bureaucratic collectivism. If each individual is essentially a social being and has a potential for self- determination, then any division of human beings into dominating ruling subjects and dominated ruled objects is untenable, whether in politics or in economy and culture. This entails three conclusions relevant for our discussion:
First, the means of production and means of other socially necessary activities must not remain the monopoly of any particular social group (bourgeoisie, bureaucracy, technocracy); they ought to be socialized (not turned into the property of the state).
Second, the realm of democracy is not only the political sphere but the whole sphere of public life – production, education, scientific research, cultural activities, health service, etc. This is possible under the conditions of a thorough decentralization. The need to coordinate some social activities does not restore centralism but leads to federalism.
Third, since political (in contrast to technical) dimensions of social decision- making do not require specialized skills but, rather, reason, responsibility, personal integrity, wisdom and understanding of social needs – and these are general capacities of human individuals independent of their profession – there is no need for any concentration of power in the hands of professional politicians. A form of democracy without professional politics is councils-democracy or self-government.
In all socialist revolutions thus far – in the Paris Commune, in the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions, in Yugoslavia and China and elsewhere – there was a spontaneous tendency to create new forms of democracy, e.g., councils, Soviets, people’s committees. Invariably those new self-governing organs lost their power and at best remained a facade useful for ideological purposes. In one case, Yugoslavia, they were brought back to life after the conflict with Stalinist statism, and they continued to develop by assuming former roles of the state in all spheres of social life during the subsequent fifteen years. Their further development was blocked in 1965 when the point was reached where the very central organs of the state in the federation and federal republics should have been replaced by the self- governing assemblies.
A causal analysis of this type of failure leads to the following conclusions.
First, spontaneous democratic tendencies in all those countries where socialist revolutions were attempted for the first time in history met insurmountable cultural and psychological barriers: in the preceding authoritarian political tradition; in the possessive individualism of an insecure petty bourgeoisie and uprooted, urbanized peasants; in the patriarchal family reproducing master-slave relations among sexes and generations; finally, in the nationalistic divisiveness flaring up in ever new frictions and clashes among socialist forces themselves.
Second, these cultural and psychological constraints are the historical product of retarded and abortive bourgeois development. General social backwardness constrains socialist development not only in the sense that all of the best human resources have to be engaged in the typical tasks of the bourgeois revolution (such as industrialization and urbanization), but also in the sense that those human resources are extremely limited, not easily reproducible and are likely to be deformed after a prolonged period of staying in power.
Third, this likelihood of deformation was greatly increased owing to the fact that the most conscious socialist forces were organized in an essentially feudal, hierarchical and elitist way. They hardly ever set an example of a self- determining, egalitarian community and remained obsessed with the preservation of power. Instead of coping successfully with all those overwhelming impediments, they themselves began to reproduce them: seeing a possible ally in a rising new middle class; cultivating patriarchal loyalty rather than socialist solidarity; using nationalist resentments and frictions in order to prevent internal dissent and to consolidate their authority. All of this is a formidable lesson.
We now know that authoritarian political organizations cannot produce democratic socialism, even when they consciously aspire to it, and even when they are imbued with true revolutionary zeal. Democratic socialism can be brought to life only by broad, pluralistic, democratic movements. Marx stated that explicitly as early as 1847:
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
The very possibility of such a movement presupposes the existence of a fairly democratic order in which civil liberties, no matter how formal, are truly respected. This in its turn presupposes a rather high level of general material and cultural development. Only on the ground of an already achieved bourgeois democratic revolution, of an already industrialized and urbanized civil society, is it really possible both to socialize the means of production and to turn government into self-government. Productivity of work must reach a point where it would be possible both to satisfy the elementary needs of all individuals and to reduce socially obligatory working hours to a level which will allow everybody truly to participate in communal activities and decision-making processes. These conditions exist today in all highly developed industrial countries.
It does not follow that the rest of the world has to wait in order to pass through all those stages of capitalist development which took place in Western Europe and the United States. The days of bourgeois revolutionary liberalism and of entrepreneurial capitalism are over. What rules now in many countries of the Third World is a blend of parasitic bourgeoisie and feudal aristocracy which needs the most brutal repressive force and the support of at least one superpower in order to survive. Organizations and revolutions of the Leninist type may be one of the ways to reduce the suffering of the masses of the population and to open the road of an accelerated development. All kinds of mixed societies will emerge on that road. Some of them will end up in bureaucratic collectivism; some of them might eventually generate conditions which are necessary for a transition towards democratic socialism.
Conceptual clarity about what democratic socialism really is helps to provide a long range sense of direction. We can no longer afford to believe that there is an inevitable progress and that socialism is the necessary consequence of the dialectic of history. We know now that nothing is guaranteed, that the strongest human commitment to one among the alternatives of a given framework decides the course of history, and that we can not hope to make proper choices without such a long-range project. However, clarity about the nature of that project helps to demystify ideological claims intended to legitimate bureaucratic authority in various abortive or incomplete revolutions.
Three crucial issues need to be clarified:
(1) How is it possible to socialize the means of work without creating new organs of alienated power?
(2) How is it possible to preserve a necessary level of coordination and conscious direction in a decentralized society?
(3) How is it possible to turn government into self-government?
There is an enormous confusion in the use of the term “socialism.” In the USA it is highly suspect; however, in Western Europe it is so respectable that even those ruling parties claim to be “socialist” which do not ever intend to transform corporate property. Yet the entire Eastern European camp labels itself “real existing socialism” although the means of production are there nationalized and turned into state property rather than really socialized.
In both cases workers remain wage-laborers. In one case they may have more civil rights – to express themselves freely, to organize, demonstrate, strike, struggle for the improvement of wages and labor conditions. In the other case they may have more social rights – to employment, health service, retirement. But their social position is the same. They are engaged in a purely instrumental, mechanical work; have no say about the organization and planning; they do not decide about the distribution of the results of their work. Their social emancipation requires, therefore, the abolition of both private and state ownership of the means of work; these must be socialized.
There are two meanings to the concept of socialization in this context. In the first sense, socialization of the means of production is the transformation of private property into common social property. To be common social property means: (a) to belong to the society as a whole without anybody’s right to sell it or to bequeath it; (b) to be put at the disposal of a working community which could then share the income from the results of work with the rest of society in order to cover both individual and collective social needs. Socialization in this strong sense is relevant to all those larger enterprises where the process of production has already been social but where the appropriation of the product has been private. The justification for the socialization of the means of production is that those means were actually produced by social work, by the accumulated, unpaid surplus work of hired producers over a long period of time.
There is another, weaker sense of socialization applicable in those cases where an individual has acquired some property by saving from his or her own past work, without any exploitation of other workers. An individual is free to enter into associations with other producers (cooperatives, collectively owned and managed small firms). Such associations distribute their income (after they pay their share for the satisfaction of general social needs) according to the rules they have laid down.
In both cases what makes socialization a truly democratic act is the effective introduction of worker’s self-management. The collective of all workers (in small working communities), or the council composed of worker’s delegates (in large ones) becomes the highest authority in the enterprise, responsible for the basic making of decisions regarding all issues of production, distribution and communal life. It has the right of full control, involving the rights of firing, election and re-election of the operative management that is responsible for technical decision-making. The advantage of the management seems to be its skills, access to all information and leisure necessary for the preparation of decisions.
There is always the danger that the technical management can gain control and reduce the self-governing council to an easily manipulated approval body. But the council must have the power to create information services and critical study groups independently and outside of the administration in order to check the data provided by it. The council must also have the power to request the management to offer alternative proposals analyzed in terms of their advantages and limitations. The more workers improve their education, develop a genuine interest in long-range goals of development, overcome group egoism, and preserve full democratic control over their own delegates in the worker’s council, the better their chances to efficiently counteract this technocratic danger.
An even more serious problem than technocracy within the socialized working organization is that of coordination within a large, modern society. Extreme decentralism, advocated by some classical libertarian thinkers (Godwin, Hodgskin, Warren, Tucker) and some contemporary ecologists, holds that all big systems are intrinsically bad and that all those activities that require them (for example, the production of nuclear power, jet transportation, big cities) ought to be abandoned. Giving up a part of power over nature would allegedly be a reasonable price to pay for a reduction of authoritarian social order.
On the one hand, excessive decentralization has a number of shortcomings, such as:
(1) The absence of necessary coordination leads to disorder, waste of natural resources, inefficiency. Some important social activities require common natural and human resources, division of roles and unique direction. These include energy production, public transportation, large-scale exchange of goods, protection of the natural environment, production of indispensable raw materials, defense.
(2) A low level of productivity based on small scale technology requires more labor and yet produces more poverty. Many important human needs can not be met with small scale technology.
(3) Small scale social organization and reduction of needs makes many rare, specific human skills redundant. Specialized scientific research, fine arts, high achievements in athletic skills cannot be supported by small, self-reliant communities. Hardly any goal can justify a reduction of an already achieved high level of human creativity.
(4) The inevitable social-psychological consequence of a narrow, provincial mentality. After bourgeois civilization, with its revolutionary tendency of growing cosmopolitanism and life enrichment, any return to parochial forms of life and thought would constitute a major retrogression.
(5) Decentralization does not ipso facto eliminate domination and oppression. One huge, impersonal “leviathan” may be merely replaced by a number of small, personal, local masters. Far from being more beautiful, the small master may be more inconsiderate, arbitrary, frustrated and sadistic.
On the other hand, centralism also has serious shortcomings:
(1) Each centralistic system has a hierarchical structure which involves a tremendous amount of domination. A well known way to legitimate central authority is to ascribe to its bearer the status of a revolutionary, history-making vanguard of the vast majority of the population. But unless the vanguard gets really autonomous consent from that population, which presupposes nothing less than full respect of civil liberties, it is hardly anything but a self-appointed master. The so-called “democratic centralism” has nothing democratic in it: a well organized threatening elite, holding firmly all levers of power, will never fail to secure a majority. In some other systems minorities have the right to continue to defend their dissenting view; here they are fully compelled to conform.
(2) An element of heteronomy which is inevitable in every large society (in which the very survival depends on many compromises) increases enormously in a centralistic system. Too many issues that can be regulated by local or regional communities themselves are now decided upon at the level of global society. Also, as Rousseau observed, in large scale societies representatives are more likely to alienate themselves from the people.
(3) The more centralistic a system, the more mediation is needed between the center of power and the people. Bureaucracy must be generated to fill this need. Since its sacred principle is order it will kill all initiative and spontaneity except that which comes from the center. Bureaucracy creates and carefully maintains the image of itself as a precious social force without which the society would fall apart, and which, consequently, deserves excessive privileges for its services. The truth is, of course, that the more expansive it grows, the more useless and paralyzing it becomes.
(4) While claiming rationality and efficiency, all centralistic systems suffer from a specific form of inefficiency and waste. Decisions are taken at a considerable distance from the place where they are needed, and they often come with a damageable delay. The center has the advantage of seeing the whole context, but it has to operate on the basis of abstract, reifying information, missing too many psychological factors, and lacking real understanding of the specific situation. The center, therefore, tends to impose simple, uniform, elegant-looking solutions for the whole system. But complex, irregular-looking solutions may do much better justice to the diversity of various parts within the system. Human beings feel responsibility in proportion to the freedom they have to contribute, by their own autonomous action, to a given course of events. The more often they have to wait for the orders from the center, the less responsible they feel, the more apathetic, alienated, they become. Then things begin to drag on in a routine way with far too little initiative to introduce the necessary innovations. In that sense all centralistic systems become barriers to qualitative development, no matter how much they may foster quantitative growth. A real alternative to both centralism and decentralization is federalism.
The term “federalism” is used here in the most general sense of a union of communities (national states, provinces, cultural or political organizations) which collaborate as equal partners while preserving a high degree of their autonomy. A federation of this kind is possible when all component communities have an objective interest in cooperation, in sharing certain natural or cultural resources, in exchanging goods and experiences, in joining efforts against natural forces or some other common threat. Thus the basic assumption of the federation is that it is a free creation of the parts rather than a primary whole that determines the conditions of its parts. No matter how high a degree of coordination in a union of this type, it does not have any dominating center because none of its component units aspires to domination, and/or because all of them strongly resist any such tendency. The stability of such a federation depends on a balance of two opposing forces. One works irreversibly toward greater identity and uniformity; the other maintains diversity and preserves specific communal traditions and cultural values. In the same way in which an individual experiences a community as an indispensable social environment when he freely acts and develops in it, a community willingly accepts a larger society as its natural environment when it can freely develop within it, autonomously decide on its specific problems, equally participate in the solution of issues common for the whole society, and when it can collaborate with other parts without being abused or exploited by any of them. In fact the level of coordination among parts can be higher in a federation then in a centralist system. What makes it a federation is equal distribution of power regardless of the size, and full political, economical and cultural self- determination.
While conceptual clarity is essential for building clear, transparent relations within any large association, experience with existing federations indicates all kinds of difficulties requiring sometimes rather ingenious solutions. One such difficulty is difference in size and population. If ordinary democratic rules would be applied, a bigger and more populous federal unit would have a larger electorate, a larger number of representatives in the federal self-governing body (federal assembly) and, consequently, more power. Purely quantitative and representative democracy must be corrected in order to diminish the importance of numbers and to protect the interests of the minorities. But if this is being done, following John Stuart Mill, by giving more weight to some votes than others, this destroys the equality of individual citizens and may damage the bigger units. Such a difficult problem can only partly be solved by building a more sophisticated institutional arrangement. For example:
(1) A federal assembly would consist of several chambers. In one of them all federal units would be represented by an equal number of representatives regardless of the size and population. Such a chamber would separately discuss and vote, with a right of veto, on all those issues that are vital to the interests of any particular federal unit. However, another chamber would be composed of the representatives of all individual citizens – since a federation is ultimately an association of people, not of abstract entities, and many issues will be common or cut across other than particular federal units’ interests.
(2) Conflicts of interest among two groups of federal units or between one and the rest of the federation cannot be resolved by a simple vote. The only appropriate method available is dialogue, negotiation and, eventually, the reaching of a consensus. All kinds of objections are possible here. The method may be too slow in a situation that requires quick solutions. The compromise solution, reached after all parties make concessions, need not be the most rational one. Negotiations do not take place under the public eye and individuals who take part in them seem to acquire some special powers – thus this procedure does not seem to be democratic. There is also a problem about efficiency: there is no guarantee that such agreements will really be implemented.
Surely this, in the short run, need not be the most efficient or instrumentally rational way of conflict resolution. Those for whom efficiency and instrumental rationality are supreme values may opt for centralism. This method is optimal for those who commit themselves to autonomy and equal distribution of power. A price has to be paid for each choice. A federal society may deliberately decide to invest in the development of full self-determination of all its constitutive communities. In the long run it is more rational and may be even more efficient. An impatient and careless handling of initial tensions might later result in explosive and irreparable cleavages.
However the survival of a stable, harmonious federation can not be secured simply by more complex institutional arrangements and more democratic methods of conflict resolution. There must be a political culture that combines autonomy with solidarity, genuine pluralism with a universal, emancipatory rationality. Pluralism is indispensable in order to understand and respect different needs of others. Yet whoever requests understanding for his particular needs clashing with the needs of others must be able to justify them rationally. An association would fall apart if its constituent communities would pursue only their selfish, particular interests; fight all the time; and squeeze out half- satisfactory compromise solutions. The purpose of a common political culture, a part of which must be explicitly expressed in the constitution, would be to provide a consensus in basic premises for any conflict resolution. Such basic premises are, first, agreement about ultimate preferences, other conditions being equal; second, agreement about which ultimate preferences have priority when other conditions are not equal, and when they happen to be mutually incompatible. When a federal unit, for selfish reasons, raises a particular issue, it will be invited to justify it with reference to generally accepted principles. Dialogues cannot be won with short-sighted, self-centered policies. It is true that these policies can be stubbornly defended once one escapes the field of rational and moral discourse and turns to formalistic legal rationalization. After all, it is conceivable that, using its veto power, a part may blackmail the rest of the society. But in such a case either the particular discordant leadership would lose the support of its own constituency and would be recalled, or the federation’s social fabric would collapse, and it would practically fall apart.
Another essential difficulty of federalism is the gap in the level of economic and cultural development of the various parts. It is hardly possible to achieve full autonomy and equal distribution of power when some parts are much less developed than the others. It is conceivable that, while commodity production still exists, a loose federal structure may even allow an increase of this gap. Centralism may be more efficient in closing it but at the expense of strengthening a lasting, alienated authoritarian power. Since federalism by its very nature excludes the use of authoritarian central force, it may resort only to those means which are compatible with the autonomy and self-determination of each unit. Such is solidarity. One of the basic purposes of living in any community is mutual aid, support of the whole for any of its parts when coping with a problem that exceeds its own powers. It is important to note here that while “aid” appears to be a one-way operation, a humanitarian act, it is, in fact, an expression of mutuality and justice; indeed it is a return to the less developed of what was taken from them, e.g., cheap food, raw materials and less expensive labor. However, aid to overcome backwardness need not be justified only on moral grounds. Not only is it a moral obligation, but under deeper scrutiny, it also turns out to be a rational thing to do, a matter of mutual interest. Growing social inequalities among the parts intensify conflicts and make the federation increasingly vulnerable and unstable. Investment in self-development is a much more reasonable and less costly policy than a myriad of mere welfare programs with all its waste, bureaucracy and condemnation to passivity. Parts that overcome material misery and begin to approach affluence become much better partners in exchange of goods and services. Certain issues can be resolved only in a global way; for example, efforts of more developed federal units to improve the quality of the natural environment do not make much sense if the backward ones cannot afford to join them. In a world of growing interdependence, federalism appears to be the optimal way of transcending backwardness.
The most striking novelty of socialist democracy is self-government. It has become customary for social scholars and politicians to interpret the concept of self-government as a form of direct democracy in working organizations and local communities. In such a way its range of application has been reduced to social micro-structure leaving macro-structure, the institutions of the global society, essentially unchanged.
After more than half a century of various attempts to bring to life self- government, in that restricted sense, one must conclude that either self- government will become the principle of a new organization of all social life, at all levels, or, if limited to enterprises and local communities within an authoritarian society, it stagnates and fails to meet reasonable initial expectations.
Those initial forms of self-government may temporarily coexist with an incompatible mode of production, with a bureaucratic state and ruling political parties. They are, for a while, islands of an emerging new society; they are an indispensable phase in the process of radical social change. If this process grinds to a halt those embryonic self-governing forms will decay or will be co-opted and used to give legitimacy to policies adopted in centers of alienated power.
While the political organization of the global society still has the form of a state, the room for autonomous functioning of self-governing bodies will be greatly restricted. When the state determines both the legal framework and the social conditions under which those organs may operate, this constant interference decreases the sense of responsibility, initiative, dignity, and creative imagination of workers, and dangerously shifts their interest from the issues of production toward issues of distribution. If the function of overall coordination remains in the hands of the state, workers’ collectives and their councils remain poorly linked and disintegrated. Under political pressure to be as efficient as possible they compete on the markets clash with each other and fail to develop an indispensable new socialist political culture.
The most difficult problem of a socialist revolution is, in fact, bringing to life self-government as the new form of democracy, as the basic structure of social organization at all levels. In other words, that is the problem of the transcendence of the state (“withering away of the state” in the more popular language used by Engels and Lenin).
The fact is there is not much discussion about "withering away” of the state in recent Marxist literature. Lenin had neither the time nor the will to put his ideas from State and Revolution (1918) into practice. The last Soviet legal philosopher to defend the theory of the “withering away” of both the state and the law, Pashukanis, disappeared in 1937.
In Yugoslavia a critique of Stalinism, of professional politics and of bureaucratism had quite a prominent place in the 1959 Program of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. There it was stated quite clearly that the organs of the state would have to be transformed into organs of self-government. This process was blocked in 1965 and was reversed in 1972. Some of the federal state power was transferred to republican state organs, but the level of state intervention and coercion is higher now than two decades ago.
Eurocommunist parties made a promising move when they dropped the phrase of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which was already misleading at the moment when it was coined by Marx. But they are still reluctant to accept the idea of self-government: they discretely study the possibilities and ways of the democratization of the state.
However the only long range revolutionary solution is the structural transformation of the state (saddled with its professional bureaucracy and coercive machinery) into a multi-level network of self-governing councils and assemblies. Other alternatives are either liberal or Stalinist.
The former was expressed by Kautsky when he opposed a “democratic state” to self-government and said: “It is not quite suitable to speak about state democracy as self-government of the state by the people. People as a whole cannot govern themselves. They need appropriate organs to run things in their organizations. They need especially the most powerful among their organizations – the state."
The Stalinist alternative was inaugurated by Stalin himself at the 18th Congress of the Bolshevik Party: “The Soviet state is an entirely new state never seen in history. While capitalism still exists in the rest of the world the state has to stay and increase its power even in communism." Nothing reveals better the bureaucratic nature of an opportunistic party or of a stagnating postrevolutionary establishment than such apologies of the institution of the state.
Because a mode of dualistic thinking is deeply rooted in Western Culture, most people continue to think in dichotomies: either the state or the regression to the private; either competent bureaucrats or incompetent laymen in charge of important social affairs. But there is a third self-governing solution. The real dilemma is not competent professionals or incompetent laymen. Professionals invariably have a limited kind of skill which is limited to one special field. They are poorly prepared for the determination of basic policies. This kind of task requires a different sort of competence to be found in persons of wisdom and integrity across the lines of the professional division of labor. The real alternative is, therefore, whether professional experts will be employed for precisely those roles for which they are truly competent, with full responsibility to the elected representatives of the people, or whether the strings of power politics will be pulled behind the ideological screen of “expertize” by unknown grey eminences. The practical meaning of the transformation of government into self- government may be spelled out in the following way:
(a) The members of a self-governing body, at any level of social organization, are directly elected by the people or delegated by a lower-level organ of self- government. The procedure of election is fully democratic: no candidate can have any privileges because of his professional role, past merits, or backing by existing political organizations.
(b) The members of a self-governing body are elected for limited intervals of time; the principle of rotation must be strictly observed and it excludes perpetuation of the power of professional politicians.
(c) The members of self-government are directly responsible to their electorate (and not to any political organization). They are obliged to regularly give account to the community which they represent and are subject to recall. Such dependence on the will of the community does not preclude their leadership role. They lead by articulating and stating explicitly vaguely felt needs of the community, but also by finding ways to reconcile particular interests of the community with interests of other communities and the society as a whole. The institution of self-government excludes authoritarian leadership. The will of the people must count all the time, and the use of force is out of the question. But it does not follow that the roles are simply reversed and that elected representatives have no other alternative but to follow blindly every twist and turn of the mass current. In case of conflict they will make an effort to prevail due to the strength of their arguments – or else they will resign. The road to becoming a career politician is closed. And the community is strongly motivated to have an able representative.
(d) Representatives must not enjoy any material privileges. They may be compensated for their work as in the case of any other creative public activity. Anything beyond that level constitutes a concealed form of exploitation, produces undesirable social differences, lowers the motivation of the representatives as well as the morale of the community, and eventually leads to the creation of a new alienated social elite.
(e) An organ of self-government constitutes the supreme authority at the given communal level. That is where it differs from analogous organs of participation, co-management, or workers-control which have only advisory, consultative, or controlling functions and, at best, only share authority with the political bureaucracy, capitalists, or the techno-structure. “Self-governing” institutions presuppose the elimination of all ruling classes and elites; professional-technical management must be subordinated to them. They create basic policy, formulate long range goals, establish the rules, decide about cadre issues, and control the implementation of accepted policies.
(f ) While there might be a plurality of organizations that mediate between people and self-governing institutions, none of them must be allowed to dominate the institutions of self-government. They can play useful and, indeed, necessary social roles: to express specific group interests, to politically educate people, to mobilize them for alternative programs of development, to contribute to the creation of a powerful public opinion. But none of them – the forms of political party, or trade union, or church, or any other pressure group – must have control over the institutions of self-government. Whatever the personal affiliations of individual elected representatives, their loyalty must go directly and fully to the people whom they represent, and not to any mediating organization.
(g) All power of self-governing bodies is delegated to them by the people from the given field and is not allocated from the center. When social power is alienated, all decision-making goes from the top to the basis of the social pyramid. When it is not, it is always the lower level of social organization, closer to the base, which decides how much regulation, coordination and control is needed at the next higher level. According to such a decision, a certain amount of power is, then, delegated. In such a way the authority of a central federal assembly rests on that of national or regional assemblies, and all of them are eventually authorized to decide on certain issues by the councils of basic working organizations and local communities. Learning from experience in a quickly changing world will give rise to changes of the whole structure. On the one hand, with a growing sense of ethical identity, mass culture will be increasingly decentralized; on the other hand, the scarcity of energy requires joint efforts of the whole society and a considerably higher level of coordination and overall control.
Clearly, the problem is not central decision-making but the source of authority for it. In a bureaucratic, repressive state, classical liberal doctrines of “social contract,” sovereignty of the people and “majority rule” serve to legitimate a situation in which all power stems from a relatively small central oligarchy even when it is considerably diffused and decentralized. In self-government, all power really originates with the councils in the independent social communities, even when a considerable amount of it has been delegated to central self-governing institutions.
If self-government is to replace the state in all its socially necessary functions, it has to embrace a network of councils and assemblies constituted at several levels of social reality and on both territorial and productive principles. One would have to distinguish clearly among at least four levels:
(1) Basic organs of self-government in most elementary working and living communities;
(2) Organs of self-government in larger associations – enterprises, communes;
(3) Organs of self-government for whole regions and branches of social activity;
(4) Central institutions of self-government for the global society.
1. The basic level of self-government is characterized by direct democracy. Each individual has the right (although not the duty) to directly participate in decision- making in most elementary units of social life. Thus the individual has a chance to express and affirm oneself not only as a citizen, but also as a producer and a consumer (the last in a most general sense, with respect not only to material goods but also culture, natural environment and communal activities).
2. The next level is constituted by councils of larger working associations and the assemblies of larger local communities (communes). Here referendums and assemblies of all workers or residents remain the only feasible form of direct democracy. Councils composed of the elected representatives practically become the highest authority in the area or enterprise. But they are strictly responsible to the given community. However, they are limited in their decision-making by the existing legislation and accepted policies of the higher-level organ of self- government. In a true system of self-government the laws are not merely imposed from the center. The center has been delegated power to pass them, therefore they can be revoked once they stop serving any useful social purpose.
3. Another intermediary level is constituted, on the one hand, by the coordinating self-governing boards for whole branches of activity (metal industry, energy, agriculture, transportation, etc.); on the other hand, by regional organs of self-government coordinating the development of all communes from a definite area. Once a bourgeoisie and bureaucracy have gone from the historical stage, the purpose of better organization, coordination and direction is no longer to increase efficiency in the struggle against another nation or region, not to control the market. The main purposes of coordination are now the elimination of waste, reduction of friction, joining forces for the solution of ecological problems, mutual aid and solidarity, aid for accelerated growth of the weak and underdeveloped.
4. Self-government at the level of global society does not yet exist in any country in its systematic integral form, although some of its elements have been existing in all relatively democratic political systems. Already in classical liberalism the principle was stated that political power must rest on people’s voluntary surrender of a part of their natural liberty in order to gain security within a political commonwealth.
The central organ of self-government – a federal assembly or congress of people’s delegates – must integrate both networks, one covering various types of activity, the other various territorial communities. There are a variety of forms possible for their inner organization, but all of them have to take into account the following three necessities:
The first is to reconcile the particular interests of various types of activity with the particular interests of various regions.
The second is to reconcile particular interests of both professional and regional groups with the common interest of the whole society.
The third is to preserve the unity of authority in order to secure efficiency and reduce wasteful inner conflicts, but at the same time to separate powers – in order to prevent dangerous concentration of powers in the hands of an oligarchy or a single dictator.
One possible solution is to have three different chambers: one composed of the delegates of all workers; another constituted by the delegates of all communes; a third composed of the directly elected representatives of all citizens. The former two would approach issues from the point of view of particular professional or regional interests. The third would mediate between them from the point of view of general interests of the whole society.
One of the most difficult problems of any democracy is how to preserve unity of purpose and protect the general interest without making it overwhelmingly strong. The classical liberal solution has been to separate legislative, executive and judiciary power – this is an achievement of lasting value. However at a much higher level of social organization public institutions assume some new powers, e.g., regulation and planning of work, overall control of the implementation of adopted programs, cadres policy. All these powers should be separated. This can be done, for example, by creating a council composed of elected members of the Assembly for each of these powers. Each member of the Assembly would thus participate in protecting a certain interest in one of the chambers, and would also participate in the execution of one specific power in one of the Assembly’s councils.
All improvements in the structure of self-government do not make much difference if the whole political process is fully controlled by one or more political parties. The party in the proper sense is a political organization that struggles to win power. It is hierarchical and authoritarian, manipulative and ideological. Both the state and the party are incompatible with real self- government. The party will be transcended by a political organization that aspires to educate and not to rule, to prepare rational solutions rather than to decide about them, to build up criteria of evaluation rather than to evaluate itself, to engage in dialogues in order to clear up issues rather than to settle them. Under such conditions, the pluralism of political life will no longer be a pluralism of entrenched class interests struggling for domination but a pluralism of visions, of options, of imaginative approaches in a really free society.
1. In 1936 Stalin asserted that Soviet socialism was the most developed existing form of a democratic society and that the new Constitution of USSR was “the only thoroughly democratic constitution in the world.” Stalin, “On the Draft Constitution of the USSR,” in Problems of Leninism (Moscow, 1945), pp. 550, 557.
2. Marx, Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, II.
3. Karl Kautsky, Die materialistische Geschichtsauffassung (Berlin, 1927), Bd. II, s. 461.
4. Stalin, “Report to the Eighteenth Congress of the CPSU(b)” in Problems of Leninism (Moscow, 1945), pp. 632-638.