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Alex Callinicos

One party states

(September 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 68, September 1984, p. 23.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Why does bourgeois democracy hardly exist in the Third World? Why is political power so frequently exercised in the form of a one party state? These questions are raised by the recent second congress of the ruling party in Zimbabwe, ZANU-PF.

The congress’s main theme was the establishment of a one-party state. This would involve the suppression both of the remnants of the old white supremacist Rhodesian Front, still headed by Ian Smith, and more seriously, of ZAPU, whose enduring popular base in the western provinces of Matabeleland has called forth a large-scale military operation against the local peasantry.

Two reasons are usually given to justify the creation of one-party states. One is an appeal to traditional, pre-capitalist values. African society before the white conquest was based on consensus, one is often told in Zimbabwe; the one-party state involves a return to such a condition. I doubt if anyone takes this sort of nostalgic hogwash seriously.

The second, more serious, argument for a one-party state is that made for example, by Zimbabwean prime minister Robert Mugabe. National unity, he says, is required to build socialism. This seems to suggest that capital can be expropriated with its own consent, without class struggle. This is a rather strange idea coming from someone who led a bloody seven year peasant war to wrest political power from white hands. Is economic power likely to come any easier?

The president’s power

In any case, there is not the slightest prospect of socialism being built under the present Zimbabwean regime.

As David Caute, covering the congress for the New Statesman, put it:

‘Four years after he (Mugabe) took power Zimbabwe’s economy, whether industrial, financial, commercial or agricultural, closely resembles that of white Rhodesia ... What lies ahead for Zimbabwe is not socialism but presidential power.’

So Zimbabwe looks headed to join the long line of bourgeois regimes, especially in Africa, where power is concentrated in the hands of a president, who heads a single mass party organised on lines formally similar to the structure of the ‘Communist’ Parties of the eastern bloc (politburo, central committee etc.), and proclaiming a commitment to socialism. Yet, unlike the state capitalist countries, one-party states usually have a sizeable private sector. How did this peculiar political form arise?

One way of answering this question is to consider the conditions under which multiparty systems evolved in countries such as Britain. There seem to be three crucial factors.

First, the ruling class broadly accept the legitimacy of the existing state. This can’t be taken for granted – in England, for example, it took a hundred years for the capitalist political regime established by the revolution of 1640 to be stabilised. It took a similar length of time for the bourgeois republic to consolidate itself in France.

Second, economic and political power have become to some degree separated. Under feudalism, the landowner’s control of the means of production was bound up with his coercive power. Capitalism, because it separates the workers from the means of production, and places them under economic pressure to submit to exploitation, doesn’t require the same sort of continuous application of force. The state can become an arena in which the different sections of the capitalist class seek to hammer out a unified strategy, with the party system acting as a mechanism through which the bourgeoisie’s internal conflicts are expressed.

Third, it is both necessary and possible to incorporate the working class in the political system – necessary because of the strength of workers’ organisations, possible because the ruling class of imperialist countries find themselves in a position, for long periods of time, to make economic concessions to workers. This provides the material base on which bourgeois democracy, and in particular the emergence of the trade union bureaucracy and the reformist parties as intermediaries between labour and capital, can flourish.

It is the absence of these three conditions which gives rise to one-party states in the Third World. To take the third, and most obvious factor – few ruling classes in the poor countries are in a position to make significant material concessions to the mass of workers. Repression takes visible and daily forms which are comparatively rare in the imperialist countries.

However, the lack of a material basis for reformism is not the decisive factor in explaining the existence of one-party states. Thus India combines a brutal, highly coercive state apparatus, and a multiparty system whose divisions are largely a reflection of conflicts within the propertied classes. The one-party state is a function of the weakness of the ruling class itself.

Thus, one cannot in many Third World countries take acceptance of the legitimacy of the state for granted. So many ex-colonies were simply arbitrarily carved out by one or other imperial power, and often contain within them different ethnic groups united only by subjugation to the same master.

Post-colonial states usually undertake a process of ‘nation-building’ which seek to create a national identity where none existed before. Usually this process involves the dominance of one ethnic group over others – thus the creation of a nation state in Zimbabwe involves the subordination of the Ndebele-speaking minority to a Shona-speaking nationhood.

Even where ethnic divisions are not so important, local ties undermine the power of the central government. In pre-conquest African societies, kinship played a crucial part in the distribution of economic and political power. The persistence of kin relations today creates local networks in which people seek to become clients of a powerful relative whose economic and political influence will get them jobs and government favours. The strength of local loyalties, the weakness of commitment to the nation state make it difficult for a party system to evolve in which conflicts within the ruling elite are openly expressed.

To this is added the fact that state power is often in the Third World the main instrument in creating a local capitalist class. The development of a ‘national’ bourgeoisie was generally stunted by colonialism. Those holding power in the new independent states generally belonged to the petty bourgeoisie. Often where a local bourgeoisie did exist at the time of independence it was regarded as ‘alien’ by the new ruling parties – the Asians in east Africa, the overseas Chinese in Malayasia, the English-speaking bosses of the mining finance houses in South Africa.

The new bourgeoisie

The state inherited from the colonial days had often played a major economic role in any case – usually this has been expanded in an effort to create an authentically ‘national’ bourgeoisie. But the importance of the state in bringing into existence a bourgeois ruling class makes it virtually impossible for a multiparty system to be permitted to evolve – very often it is in the ruling party that the new bourgeoisie crystallises.

Major conflicts do occur within the ruling party, frequently under ethnic labels. But the one-party system helps to prevent splits within what is still a weak ruling class from acquiring open expression, and thereby drawing the masses of workers and peasants into political life. At the same time the party cadres act as intermediaries between the ruling class and the masses, permitting some degree of popular mobilisation when it suits those at the top.

From the standpoint of the Third World ruling classes, the one-party state has been a success. Many one-party regimes have shown remarkable stability.

When one-party states have fallen, it has been to a military coup, not a mass uprising. But whether this will remain the case, given the depths of the crisis in much of the Third World, is another question.

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