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Bert Cochran

Socialism and Democracy

(July 1955)

From the American Socialist Collection of Sol Dolinger.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Does socialism necessarily mean a one-party dictatorship? Or can fuller democracy and popular control than ever seen under the capitalist system be achieved? An essay on one of the most debated issues of the modern age.

ONE of the most potent pitches that world reaction employs against the Soviet Union – is that the people have no democratic rights, that the governments are police dictatorships; and from this jump to the conclusion that socialism is synonymous with dictatorship. The guess can be hazarded that at least in Western Europe, the United States and Canada, this accusation has hurt the Soviet cause more than any other, and has struck deep chords of suspicion and doubt in the minds of many liberals and workers who otherwise might conceivably be friendly to the socialist states.

Fanatical supporters of all things Russian have taken the line of a blanket denial of the accusation – and retort with an expose of the spurious character of much of Western democracy. They insist that a system of government which is based on a one-party monopoly, where elections consist of one-slate plebiscites, where civil liberties are non-existent – that this kind of rule is the very embodiment of socialist democracy. This position is neither helpful to the popularization of socialism in general, nor to working up of support for the Soviet states in particular. But regardless of its immediate propaganda effects, is it true that socialism stands for the one-party system, and is that what Marx had in mind when he spoke of the dictatorship of the proletariat?

One of the most authoritative statements of the original Marxist position on this question is contained in Frederick Engels’ 1895 introduction to Karl Marx’s pamphlet, The Class Struggles in France. Engels explains that at first both he and Marx were still under the spell of the Great French Revolution and that their ideas of the path that the socialist revolution would follow were colored by this earlier model. But, he says, history showed that both he and Marx were wrong in some of their original assumptions. Where all previous social revolutions in history resulted in the displacement of one minority in favor of another minority, the socialist revolution involves for the first time the displacement of a minority in favor of another minority, the socialist revolution involves for the first time the displacement of a minority in favor of the big majority:

“The epoch ... of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must participate, must grasp what is at stake, and why they are involved. That is what the history of the past fifty years has taught us.”

THE term “dictatorship of the proletariat” was first employed by Marx in 1875 in a private document, and then popularized in the 1917 Russian Revolution. Eugene Debs rightly thought it a very unfortunate phrase, because no matter how many lengthy explanations are given concerning its true meaning, it lends itself to the interpretation that socialists stand for dictatorship. But that is not what Marx had in mind at all. He was talking of the necessity for a victorious labor government during the transition period to resolutely destroy the old privileged positions and suppress all activities aimed at restoring the old order. In this sociological sense, he labelled the regime a “dictatorship”; not to signify minority rule in the manner of Robespierre’s Jacobin dictatorship in the eighteenth century French revolution, or Cromwell’s dictatorship in the seventeenth century English revolution, but only in the sense that it was still class rule, just as under the present system the capitalists wield a class dictatorship regardless whether it is exercised through democratic or autocratic political forms.

Here is the way Rosa Luxemburg, the leading revolutionary Marxist of the pre-war German socialist movement, defined the proletarian dictatorship in her essays on the Russian Revolution:

Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat ... This dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination; in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of capitalist society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

This was no peculiar interpretation of Luxemburg’s. Before the revolution, Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks held a generally analogous position. In State and Revolution published in 1917, Lenin wrote:

Together with an immense expansion of democracy which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the rich folk, the dictatorship of the proletariat produces a series of restrictions of liberty in the case of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists.

Lenin assumed power in 1917 with no preconceived notion of setting up a one-party government. On the contrary, the Soviets were freely elected in the first years, and the original government consisted of a bloc of the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionary Party. The Mensheviks (similar to Western reformist socialists) and the Right Social Revolutionists (a populist party with its chief strength in the peasantry) continued to operate legally. In his dispute with Trotsky in 1920, Lenin insisted that the trade unions must be permitted to function independently of the government apparatus and to protect the workers from its bureaucratic encroachments. In other words, the original concept on which the Russian government was founded was entirely different from that embodied in the constitutions that governed the creation of the “Peoples Democracies” and the Mao government in the present postwar epoch.

NEVERTHELESS, history has recorded that within a few years the original libertarian ideas were discarded in Russia and the dictatorship became one not of a class but of a small group, with the Communist Party remaining the only one on the scene and all other parties suppressed and destroyed, and democracy eliminated from the inner councils of this one existing party as well. The Russian communists in other words wound up not with the democratic governmental structure that they had set out to build, but one of an almost diametrically opposite variety.

In the welter of theories that have flooded the market in recent years to explain Soviet developments, the more serious-minded of the middle-class analysts have tried to account for this startling discrepancy between theory and practice on two broad grounds. One school has rested its case on Lord Acton’s aphorism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In other words, the Russian communist leaders, whatever their previous intentions, could not resist the temptation of becoming absolute dictators once the opportunity presented itself. The other school explains the transformation on the ground that the original Marxist theory was worthless, that consequently as soon as these men were confronted with the practical problems of statecraft, they had no alternative but to discard their former utopian conceptions.

Lord Acton’s bon mot assuredly expressed a psychological truth, but it explains nothing as to why dictatorships rise and prosper in certain periods and under certain historical conditions, and why such forms of rule become impossible in other periods. To ascertain that, one must analyze the economic and social conditions of a given period rather than explore the atavistic impulses that still find refuge in the human psyche.

The first attempts to run the Russian government as a coalition of two parties and to grant a large measure of democracy broke down under the weight of the superhuman difficulties in trying to bring order out of the chaos inherited from Czarism and the destruction of the war. Concretely, the coalition blew up in 1918 when the Social Revolutionists refused to go along on signing the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany and walked out of the government. A few months later their party was outlawed when it embarked on a program of insurrection against the government, assassinated the German ambassador, wounded two Soviet leaders, Lenin and Uritsky, and tried to organize anti-government uprisings in a number of cities. The same year the Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionists had to be outlawed when they set up connections with the White Guards and interventionist armies of imperialism in the midst of the civil war. This process was finally capped in 1921 when the Communist Party outlawed the organization of any opposition groups or factions even within its own party. This extraordinary measure, which Lenin and his friends conceived to be a temporary expedient, taken at the time of the Kronstadt rebellion when the communist regime feared for its survival, proved instead to be a milestone on the road of dictatorial rule.

Luxemburg with great perspicacity wrote in 1918 in the aforementioned brochure:

Dealing as we are with the first experiment in proletarian dictatorship in world history (and one taking place at that under the hardest conceivable conditions, in the midst of the world-wide conflagration and chaos of the imperialist mass slaughter, caught in the coils of the most reactionary military power in Europe, and accompanied by the completest failure on the part of the international working class), it would be a crazy idea to think that every last thing done or left undone in an experiment with the proletarian dictatorship under such abnormal conditions represented the very pinnacle of perfection. On the contrary, elementary conceptions of socialist politics and an insight into their historically necessary prerequisites force us to understand that under such fatal conditions even the most gigantic idealism and the most storm-tested revolutionary energy are incapable of realizing democracy and socialism but only distorted attempts at either.

SOME, of course, have decided to make a virtue out of the grim necessity and to denominate the benevolent despotism as the unparalleled flowering of democracy, and have unabashedly propounded the theory that whereas the Communist parties represent the true interests of the working masses, they are necessarily the only representatives of the majority of the people. There is consequently neither the desire nor the need to set up any rival parties; the only people who are interested in new parties are the capitalists, the counter-revolutionists, the spokesmen for the old regime. Ergo, the one-party system is a true democratic expression the laboring mass will.

No one but uncritical Soviet enthusiasts will accept this rather too-thin rationalization at face value. For it corresponds neither to present experience nor to the past history of classes and parties. In actual life, things are not that simple, individuals are not that uniform, and classes are not that homogeneous. Everyone knows that throughout its history the capitalist class has been represented in most countries by two or more political organizations except in periods of dictatorial suppression. This is explained by the fact that the various subdivisions of the class have different and sometimes even conflicting interests that demand special political consideration and expression. In the United States, for example, some capitalist groups, in highly advanced or favored industries, are free traders. Others who fear foreign competition insist on high protective tariffs. As another example, in Roosevelt’s first terms, the big department store owners and other “consumer” capitalists backed the administration, while the “heavy” industrialists were its obdurate opponents. In France, Italy and Germany, the capitalists to this very day continue to be represented by anywhere from four to six different political parties, which voice either special group or sectional interests, or different programmatic solutions to meet the needs of the class.

The working class is no less heterogeneous in its makeup. Its topmost skilled aristocratic division at times almost merges with the lower middle class. Its bottom section fringes off into a slum proletariat. In between there are innumerable gradations based upon differences in income, nationality, education and religion. In Marx’s time the working class movement was represented by Marxists, Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Mazzinists, conservative laborites. Even in those countries where Marxism later became the accepted program of the working class, there was no agreement as to interpretation of its practical meaning, and, as we know, the working class continues to this day in the West to be represented by Communists and Socialists, and at times, additional numbers of radical parties. The factors which make for this political pluralism continue after a socialist, government takes power, because the gradations and divisions within the class are not and cannot be eliminated for many years to come; in the first years of transition they may even be accentuated. And in any case there are always varying answers and conflicting solutions for the problems at hand. That is why under conditions of democratic fee play, the working masses will inevitably create two or more parties to voice either distinct group interests, or their special programmatic positions for the advancement of the new socialist state.

THE experience of the last three decades has been conclusive in demonstrating that all the mechanical and constitutional devices of democracy, including socialist democracy, are easily robbed of essential meaning when one party has the monopoly of political rights, keeps the rest of the population in a state of amorphousness and atomization, and uses its power to discourage and suppress any and all political opposition or competition. Democracy must mean a free press, free assembly, a legal code that guarantees inalienable rights to the individual, and sharply demarcates and limits the police powers of the state, as well as ability on the part of the majority of the people to periodically pass judgment on the performance of its government, and to turn it out of office in favor of another, if it so desires and decides.

In the last analysis, rights such as these can be guaranteed and maintained not primarily by being written down on pieces of parchment, but by the existence of competing political organizations, which are able by their presence and activity to prevent political power from being monopolized by one minority group and thus centralized in an omnipotent state. No one of course can insist that the peoples of any country must form a multiplicity of competing political organizations, whether they want to or not. What is decisive is that they have the right to form such organizations if they want to. The draconian legal codes and ruthless suppressions make it obvious that Soviet political uniformity is maintained not by electioneering but by force.

SOCIALISTS have to insist on democracy not merely as a matter of justice and the good life, although these are by no means inconsequential considerations; because socialism after all is not a private axe that some of us have to grind, but represents the struggle for a superior social order which will provide greater well-being and happiness for the human race-and it is impossible to conceive of that without an increasing popular participation in and control over all phases of public life. But democracy also has a utilitarian aspect: people work better, are more interested in the success of a venture, and have greater kinship with it, if they feel they are actually part of it, and profit from it. Democracy is not only a more just way of running society; it is more productive in the long run. It is the only way to fully unleash the creative powers lodged in the people.

Luxemburg had a prophetic anticipation of many of the difficulties to come in later years when she wrote:

In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of the laboring masses. But with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press, and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously ... Such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life.

It is irrelevant in this connection to point out, as some do, that the formal democracy under capitalism has very restricted meaning and is robbed of its essence by the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few who are able to manipulate the political mechanism in their own interests and corrupt the legislators to do their bidding. This is all very interesting and true. But socialists have traditionally insisted that the answer to the corruption and bowdlerization of democracy under capitalism is not to throw out democracy altogether and place their fate in the hands of a few saviors, but to eliminate the social parasitism of capitalism so as to be able to extend, to broaden, to ensure a genuine popular democracy, first for the working people, and eventually for all mankind.

A YEAR and a half ago, and again this last January, the question of socialist democracy received international attention when Milovan Djilas, former vice president of Yugoslavia, complained that bureaucratic forces had taken over in his country, and in his latter declaration called for the formation of a new democratic socialist party and the creation of a two-party system. Since the break with Russia in 1948, the Titoists have introduced a number of important reforms toward loosening up the top-heavy structure by decentralizing the administration of economic planning and government operation, a new election law which permitted plural candidacies, liberalization of the legal code, and institution of “workers management” committees in industry. As a result of these reforms, the Yugoslav peoples enjoy a more liberalized rule that do the Russians or the populations of the “Peoples Democracies.” But while the political despotism is more benevolent, it remains a despotism nevertheless, with sole political power concentrated inside the Communist party, and that party, in turn, run by a small coterie of leaders, who brook no opposition, as the Djilas episode graphically illustrated.

The Titoists used to repeat the argument that in their country there was no need for more than one party (except on the part of the counter-revolution) as there was only one program: socialism. The Djilas controversy quickly disposed of this synthetic thesis. In the course of the debates in the Yugoslav central committee a year and a half ago, Tito put his cards on the table:

“I prefer,” he flung out at his adversary, “being guided by gendarmes and that I should be a priest of socialism, that is, I should be an agitator of socialist ideas – I prefer this to pondering again in some capitalist jail on how to fight against the restored bourgeois dictatorship which probably would win if we were to accept the views of Comrade Djilas.”

This straight-from-the-shoulder avowal brings us squarely up against the question whether the old Marxian concept is actually workable? It certainly does no good to rest our case on quotations from Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, beautiful though they may appear in print, and ignore the practice of the Russians, and now of the East Europeans and Chinese. The experience of Lenin and his friends is even more telling, as they clearly started out with libertarian ideas on this score, and quickly abandoned them as impossible to execute in the given conditions of the time. Obviously, no revolutionary government will permit political liberalization to develop when it is convinced that it will thereby open the door for the socialists to be driven from power and for the capitalist regime to be restored. No revolutionary party will consciously dig its own grave. Has life then pronounced this part of the Marxian conception as utopian?

SUCH a sweeping conclusion would ignore the fact that contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism was first destroyed and the construction of socialism started not in the most advanced but in the most backward countries of the world. Revolutionary governments throughout history have been unstable governments. But this general instability was in these cases immeasurably aggravated because the majority of the populations consisted of backward peasant masses, because of the primitive economic heritage, by the lack of capital resources for industrialization, by the need to make good the ravages of destructive invasions and civil wars. Socialist development thus necessarily took on lopsided forms, and the industrialization programs, which had to be financed out of the living standards of the living generations, led to the imposition of despotic forms of rule, and warped out of recognizable shape Marx’s old concept of the proletarian dictatorships.

The well-known writer on Russian affairs, Isaac Deutscher, has offered the theory that Stalin’s regime of tyranny and “primitive magic,” as he calls it, derived from the isolation, ruin and backwardness of the Russia of the twenties, typified by the muzhik tilling the soil with his wooden plow; and that with the country’s emergence as a great industrial power, these methods are outlived and cannot long endure. This theory is undoubtedly correct as far as it goes. Unfortunately, sociological developments have a habit of becoming devilishly complicated, and social institutions and groups do not conveniently abdicate and remove themselves from the scene when their presence no longer corresponds to objective needs.

In the course of its grim struggle to industrialize and to construct a powerful military machine, Russian society got stratified and an aristocratic caste enjoying greater privileges and higher incomes hardened on top. The harsh legal code, the absence of elementary civil liberties, originally devised to destroy counter-revolutionary foes, in time merged with the needs of the bureaucratic caste to preserve its own favored status. In the meantime, the successive five-year plans have created a new Russia with a vast urban population, a strong working class, a new intelligentsia and an educated class of collective farmers.

This new Russia cries aloud for a breaking down of the old prison walls; the old despotism has become an anachronism. But no privilged group gives up its favored position unless it is forced to do so, and the elaborate hierarchical structure of despotism that has been built up over the years will crumble only as the masses regain their initiative, secure their rights to form independent organizations once again, and impose a more democratic setup in all spheres of life. That as a matter of fact appears to be the long-term trend implicit in present Russian affairs.

WHEN socialists take over in the advanced Western countries, they will be able to rest on the more consistent support of the big majority, and from the first will be able to offer notable advances over the best of capitalism. Hence, political rule will be far closer to the theoretical model: Socialism will be able to give full rein to democracy for the mass of the people, which under capitalism could never attain more than rudimentary and stunted forms.

The vicissitudes of the struggle, the practical difficulties, and unforeseen peculiarity of socialism having begun its work on the most unfavorable foundations have wrought damage to the democratic conceptions that animated socialism’s founders. With the end of the Soviet Union’s isolation and the build-up of its economy, however, the tendency even here will be increasingly for a return to libertarian ideas and methods; in other words, toward a more faithful realization of these original socialist principles.

That is the programmatic model that socialists must continue to cherish.

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