Write us!

September 2004 • Vol 4, No. 8 •
Arsenal of Marxism

Socialism and Democracy

By James P. Cannon

Part A

Cannon gave the following talk to a meeting at the Socialist Workers party (SWP) West Coast Vacation School, September 1, 1957. It was first published in the Fall 1957 International Socialist Review. (This and many other classics of Marxism are made available courtesy of the Marxist Internet Archive, www.marxists.org. Markup: by David Walters.)

Comrades, I am glad to be here with you today, and to accept your invitation to speak on socialism and democracy. It is a most timely subject, and in the discussion of socialist regroupment it takes first place. Before we can make real headway in the discussion of other important parts of the program, we have to find agreement on what we mean by socialism and what we mean by democracy, and how they are related to each other, and what we are going to say to the American workers about them.

Strange as it may seem, an agreement on these two simple, elementary points, as experience has already demonstrated, will not be arrived at easily. The confusion and demoralization created by Stalinism, and the successful exploitation of this confusion by the ruling capitalists of this country and all their agents and apologists, still hang heavily over all sections of the workers’ movement. We have to recognize that. Even in the ranks of people who call themselves socialists, we encounter a wide variety of understandings and misunderstandings about the real meaning of those simple terms, socialism and democracy. And in the great ranks of the American working class, the fog of misunderstanding and confusion is even thicker. All this makes the clarification of these questions a problem of burning importance and immediacy. In fact, it is first on the agenda in all circles of the radical movement.

The widespread misunderstanding and confusion about socialism and democracy has profound causes. These causes must be frankly stated and examined before they can be removed. And we must undertake to remove them, if we are to try in earnest to get to the root of the problem.

Shakespeare’s Marc Antony reminded us that evil quite often outlives its authors. That is true in the present case also. Stalin is dead; but the crippling influence of Stalinism on the minds of a whole generation of people who considered themselves socialists or communists lives after Stalin. This is testified to most eloquently by those members and fellow travelers of the Communist Party who have formally disavowed Stalinism since the Twentieth Congress, while retaining some of its most perverted conceptions and definitions.

Socialism, in the old days that I can recall, was often called the society of the free and equal, and democracy was defined as the rule of the people. These simple definitions still ring true to me, as they did when I first heard them many years ago. But in later years we have heard different definitions, which are far less attractive. These same people whom I have mentioned, “leaders of the Communist Party and fellow travelers who have sworn off Stalin without really changing any of the Stalinist ideas they assimilated‚” still blandly describe the state of affairs in the Soviet Union, with all its most exaggerated social and economic inequality, ruled over by the barbarous dictatorship of a privileged minority, as a form of “socialism.”

And they still manage to say, with straight faces, that the hideous police regimes in the satellite countries, propped up by Russian military force, are some kind of “people’s democracies.”

When such people say it would be a fine idea for all of us to get together in the struggle for socialism and democracy, it seems to me it would be appropriate to ask them, by way of preliminary inquiry: Just what do you mean by socialism, and what do you mean by democracy? Do you mean what Marx and Engels and Lenin said? Or do you mean what Stalin did? They are not the same thing as can be easily proved, and it is necessary to choose between one set of definitions and the other.

This confusion of terminology has recently been illustrated by an article by Howard Fast, the well-known writer, who was once awarded the Stalin Prize. For a long time Fast supported what he called “socialism” in the Soviet Union, with his eyes shut. And then Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Congress, and other revelations following that, opened Fast’s eyes, and he doesn’t like what he sees. That is to his credit. But he still calls it “socialism.” In an article in Masses and Mainstream he describes what he had found out about this peculiar “socialism” that had prevailed in the Soviet Union under Stalin and still prevails under Stalin’s successors.

This is what Howard Fast said: “In Russia, we have socialism without democracy. We have socialism without trial by jury, habeas corpus or...protection against the abuse of confession by torture. We have socialism without civil liberty...We have socialism without public avenues of protest. We have socialism without equality for minorities. We have socialism without any right of free artistic creation. In so many words, we have socialism without morality.”

These are the words of Howard Fast. I agree with everything he says there, except the preface he gives to all his qualifications—that we have “socialism” without this and that, we have “socialism” without any of the features that a socialist society was supposed to have in the conceptions of the movement before Stalinism. It is as though Fast has discovered different varieties of socialism. Like mushrooms. You go out and pick the right kind and you can cook a tasty dish. But if you gather up the kind commonly known as toadstools and call them mushrooms, you will poison yourself. Stalinist “socialism” is about as close to the real thing as a toadstool is to an edible mushroom.

Now, of course, the Stalinists and their apologists have not created all the confusion in this country about the meaning of socialism, at least not directly. At every step for 30 years, the Stalinist work of befuddlement and demoralization, of debasing words into their opposite meanings, has been supported by reciprocal action of the same kind by the ruling capitalists and their apologists. They have never failed to take the Stalinists at their word, and to point to the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, with all of its horrors, and to say: “That is socialism. The American way of life is better.”

It is these people who have given us, as their contribution to sowing confusion in the minds of people, the delightful definition of the capitalist sector of the globe, where the many toil in poverty for the benefit of the few, as “the free world.” And they describe the United States, where the workers have a right to vote every four years, if they don’t move around too much, but have no say about the control of the shop and the factory; where all the means of mass information and communication are monopolized by a few—they describe all that as the ideal democracy, for which the workers should gladly fight and die.

It is true that Stalinism has been the primary cause of the demoralization of a whole generation of American radical workers. There is no question of that. But the role of Stalinism in prejudicing the great American working class against socialism, and inducing them to accept the counterfeit democracy of American capitalism as the lesser evil, has been mainly indirect. The active role in this miseducation and befuddlement has been played by the American ruling minority, through all their monopolized means of communication and information.

They have cynically accepted the Stalinist definition and have obligingly advertised the Soviet Union, with its grinding poverty and glaring inequality, with its ubiquitous police terror, frame-ups, mass murders and slave-labor camps, as a “socialist” order of society. They have utilized the crimes of Stalinism to prejudice the American workers against the very name of socialism. And worst of all, comrades, we have to recognize that this campaign has been widely successful, and that we have to pay for it. We cannot build a strong socialist movement in this country until we overcome this confusion in the minds of the American workers about the real meaning of socialism.

This game of confusing and misrepresenting has been facilitated for the capitalists and aided to a considerable extent by the Social Democrats and the labor bureaucracy, who are themselves privileged beneficiaries of the American system, and who give a socialist and labor coloring to the defense of American “democracy.” In addition to all that, we have to recognize that in this country, more than any other in the world, the tremendous pressures of imperialist prosperity and power and the witch-hunt persecution have deeply affected the thinking of many people who call themselves radicals or ex-radicals. These powerful pressures have brought many of them to reconciliation with capitalist society and to the defense of capitalist democracy, if not as a paradise, at least as a lesser evil and the best that can be hoped for.

There is no doubt that this drumfire of bourgeois propaganda, supplemented by the universal revulsion against Stalinism, has profoundly affected the sentiments of the American working class, including the bulk of its most progressive and militant and potentially revolutionary sectors.

After all that has happened in the past quarter of a century, the American workers have become more acutely sensitive than ever before to the value and importance of democratic rights. That, in my opinion, is the progressive side of their reaction, which we should fully share. The horrors of fascism, as they were revealed in the 1930s, and which were never dreamed of by the socialists in the old days, and the no less monstrous crimes of Stalinism, which became public knowledge later—all this has inspired a fear and hatred of any kind of dictatorship in the minds of the American working class. And to the extent that the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia has been identified with the name of socialism, and that this identification has been taken as a matter of course, the American workers have been prejudiced against socialism.

That’s the bitter truth, and it must be looked straight in the face. This barrier to the expansion and development of the American socialist movement will not be overcome, and even a regroupment of the woefully limited forces of those who at present consider themselves socialists will yield but little fruit, unless and until we find a way to break down this misunderstanding and prejudice against socialism, and convince at least the more advanced American workers that we socialists are the most aggressive and consistent advocates of democracy in all fields and that, in fact, we are completely devoted to the idea that socialism cannot be realized otherwise than by democracy.

The socialist movement in America will not advance again significantly until it regains the initiative and takes the offensive against capitalism and all its agents in the labor movement precisely on the issue of democracy. What is needed is not a propaganda device or trick, but a formulation of the issue as it really stands; and, indeed, as it has always stood with real socialists ever since the modern movement was first proclaimed 109 years ago. For this counteroffensive against bourgeois propaganda we do not need to look for new formulations. Our task, as socialists living and fighting in this day and hour, is simply to restate what socialism and democracy meant to the founders of our movement, and to all the authentic disciples who followed them; to bring their formulations up to date and apply them to present conditions in the United States.

This restatement of basic aims and principles cannot wait; it is, in fact, the burning necessity of the hour. There is no room for misunderstanding among us as to what such a restatement of our position means and requires. It requires a clean break with all Stalinist and social democratic perversions and distortions of the real meaning of socialism and democracy and their relation to each other, and a return to the original formulations and definitions. Nothing short of this will do.

The authentic socialist movement, as it was conceived by its founders and as it has developed over the past century, has been the most democratic movement in all history. No formulation of this question can improve on the classic statement of the Communist Manifesto, with which modern scientific socialism was proclaimed to the world in 1848. The Communist Manifesto said:

“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

The authors of the Communist Manifesto linked socialism and democracy together as end and means. The “self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority‚” cannot be anything else but democratic, if we understand by “democracy” the rule of the people, the majority. The Stalinist claim—that the task of reconstructing society on a socialist basis can be farmed out to a privileged and uncontrolled bureaucracy, while the workers remain without voice or vote in the process—is just as foreign to the thoughts of Marx and Engels, and of all their true disciples, as the reformist idea that socialism can be handed down to the workers by degrees by the capitalists who exploit them.

All such fantastic conceptions were answered in advance by the reiterated statement of Marx and Engels that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.” That is the language of Marx and Engels, “the task of the workers themselves.” That was just another way of saying—as they said explicitly many times—that the socialist reorganization of society requires a workers’ revolution. Such a revolution is unthinkable without the active participation of the majority of the working class, which is itself the big majority of the population. Nothing could be more democratic than that.

Moreover, the great teachers did not limit the democratic action of the working class to the overthrow of bourgeois supremacy. They defined democracy as the form of governmental rule in the transition period between capitalism and socialism. It is explicitly stated in the Communist Manifesto—and I wonder how many people have forgotten this in recent years. “The first step,” said the Manifesto, “in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”

That is the way Marx and Engels formulated the first aim of the revolution—to make the workers the ruling class, to establish democracy, which, in their view, is the same thing. From this precise formulation it is clear that Marx and Engels did not consider the limited, formal democracy under capitalism, which screens the exploitation and the rule of the great majority by the few, as real democracy. In order to have real democracy, the workers must become the ruling class. Only the revolution that replaces the class rule of the capitalists by the class rule of the workers can really establish democracy, not in fiction, but in fact. So said Marx and Engels.

They never taught that the simple nationalization of the forces of production signified the establishment of socialism. That’s not stated by Marx and Engels anywhere. Nationalization only lays the economic foundations for the transition to socialism. Still less could they have sanctioned, even if they had been able to imagine, the monstrous idea that socialism could be realized without freedom and without equality; that nationalized production and planned economy, controlled by a ruthless police dictatorship, complete with prisons, torture chambers and forced-labor camps, could be designated as a “socialist” society. That unspeakable perversion and contradiction in terms belongs to the Stalinists and their apologists.

All the great Marxists defined socialism as a classless society—with abundance, freedom and equality for all; a society in which there would be no state, not even a democratic workers’ state, to say nothing of a state in the monstrous form of a bureaucratic dictatorship of a privileged minority.

The Soviet Union today is a transitional order of society, in which the bureaucratic dictatorship of a privileged minority, far from serving as the agency to bridge the transition to socialism, stands as an obstacle to harmonious development in that direction. In the view of Marx and Engels, and of Lenin and Trotsky who came after them, the transition from capitalism to the classless society of socialism could only be carried out by an ever-expanding demo-cracy, involving the masses of the workers more and more in all phases of social life, by direct participation and control.

continue to Part B





Write us