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Albert Goldman

The Basis of Workers’ Democracy

An Answer to Ciliga

(December 1946)

From New International, Vol.12 No.10, December 1946, pp.305-307.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ciliga’s purpose in writing the last chapter of his book, The Russian Enigma (published as an article in the August issue of Politics) was to prove that it was Lenin who laid the foundation for the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Stalin. To prove his thesis he relies on certain specific policies adopted by Lenin. To answer Ciliga fully it would be necessary to take up in detail the specific policies he cites and to arrive at a conclusion as to their correctness or incorrectness on the basis of a thorough analysis of all the factors that prevailed at the time they were adopted. Such an analysis can be made best by a Marxist who is familiar with the Russian language and can go to the original sources. This task should be left to such a person.

It is, however, justifiable without waiting for such an analysis to reject Ciliga’s central thesis because of his method and approach to the problem of workers’ democracy. He approaches the problem in far too general a manner to be convincing. He does not tell us what specifically should have been done by Lenin; he relies simply on general principles. It is all very well to contend that the liberation of the workers should be accomplished by the workers themselves. Such a principle can be readily accepted but it does not inform us what exactly should be done at a particular time under specific conditions.

With Ciliga’s proposition that we should discuss Lenin’s policies in a critical manner there can be no quarrel whatever. Lenin could be and was wrong on many occasions. It is necessary to examine every policy and determine its correctness or incorrectness. It may well be that a certain policy followed by Lenin prepared the road for Stalin’s betrayal but this is far from sufficient to accuse Lenin of betrayal.

That the critical, independent spirit which should be taken for granted in the attitude of every revolutionary socialist was almost completely lacking in the early days of the Communist movement is shown by Ciliga’s own attitude. His emotional reactions, upon “discovering” that Lenin “betrayed the Revolution” indicates that he had more of a religious attitude to Lenin than a revolutionary-socialist one. This was true of practically all the followers of Lenin in the early days of the Communist movement.

The religious attitude prevails now among the Stalinists, although they have nothing to do with Lenin’s policies. It also prevails to a large extent among “official” Trotskyists. It is disheartening to recognize that we must repeat over and over again that the religious attitude has no place whatever in the revolutionary socialist movement. Every idea and every act of the outstanding teachers and leaders of socialism should be subjected to a critical examination. Being a revolutionary socialist implies the acceptance of the critical approach of the great socialists.

One-Party Dictatorship

Three questions are raised by Ciliga as constituting the problems of workers’ democracy. I shall deal with them separately though they are obviously very closely connected.

There was a time when even in the Trotskyist movement the idea was generally accepted that during the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat there can be only one party – the party under the leadership of which the workers take power. It was not until Trotsky showed that the one-party regime in the early days of the Soviet Union was the result of peculiar conditions and was not the result of a principle enunciated by the Bolshevik leaders that the Trotskyists began to assert their belief that after the conquest of power by the workers the normal and desirable situation is the existence of competing parties presenting their programs to the masses.

Between the Trotskyists and Ciliga there can be no quarrel on the necessity of recognizing the principle that a one-party dictatorship is dangerous to the revolution. Here one must indicate that the actual practices of the “official” Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party can justifiably lead to the conclusion that the leaders of that party give lip-service only to the idea that there should be more than one party during the regime of the proletarian dictatorship. In reality we are safe in concluding that they would not tolerate any opposition to their rule – should the exceedingly improbable situation arise of the workers taking power under their leadership. One need only listen to arguments by major and minor leaders of the SWP to the effect that “we play for keeps” and that “we are monopolists in politics” to realize that there is at least a tendency to a one-party dictatorship.

Our opposition to a one-party dictatorship under the rule of the workers does not, unfortunately, guarantee that there will be no such dictatorship. For, whether or not such a situation exists, depends not only upon the party in power but the opposing parties. Opponents of the regime of Lenin and Trotsky place the whole blame upon them for the existence of the one-party Bolshevik dictatorship. An objective analysis of the role played by the opponents of Bolshevism during the period when Lenin and Trotsky led the Bolshevik party leads to the conclusion that the major part of, if not the entire, blame for the existence of the one-party regime lies upon the shoulders of the opponents of Bolshevism.

It is a matter of record that the Bolsheviks did not drive their opponents out of the Soviets when they gained a majority and the Soviets took the power; the opponents left the Soviets. The Bolsheviks worked amicably with those of their opponents – like the Left Socialist Revolutionaries – who remained in the Soviets and it was not until the Left SR’s tried to gain power through a coup d’etat that the regime became entirely a one-party one. Nor must it be forgotten that many of the opponents of Bolshevism in the ranks of the various groups of socialists took up arms against the Soviet régime. Trotsky’s thesis that the activities of the Bolshevik opponents brought the one-party regime of the Bolsheviks into existence is proved by the historic record.

If Ciliga is correct in saying that Lenin in 1920 made a principle of the one-party dictatorship we should not hesitate to say that Lenin was wrong and by his act aided greatly in disorientating the Communist movement on that question.

In the light of subsequent events it is clear that Lenin and Trotsky erred greatly in prohibiting factions at the Bolshevik congress of March 1921. Stalin took ample advantage of that prohibition. The Civil War was over and, if anything, it was necessary to relax the previous prohibitions. Surely those who fought shoulder to shoulder with the Bolsheviks in the Civil War gained the right to an independent existence as a group and to criticize the reigning party. When one considers how Stalinism was aided by Lenin’s action in prohibiting factions it is clear that any danger arising as a result of factional criticism could not possibly compare with the danger of aiding the development of a monolithic party through the prohibition of factions. Not even the terrible conditions prevailing in the country at the time of the Congress justified the prohibition against factions.

Existence of Bourgeois Parties

Should bourgeois parties be suppressed by a government ruling under the dictatorship of the proletariat? It must be remembered that the Bolsheviks did not begin with suppressing any party – not even the most reactionary bourgeois party. A socialist party placed in power by the masses should not suppress any bourgeois party unless it attempts to overthrow the government by violence or to demoralize the masses by spreading falsehoods and thus prevent the smooth functioning of the economy and the government.

There is no general rule which can be formulated that will succeed in solving all of the problems connected with the suppression of parties during the period immediately following the taking of power by the workers. The only general rule to be followed is that the regime of the workers must be protected and at the same time the greatest possible democracy must be assured to the masses. Special circumstances may require certain limitations of democracy but the leadership of the party representing the workers must understand how dangerous any limitation of democracy is and should be anxious to remove it at the earliest opportunity. To limit democracy after the necessity for any limitation is over is to increase the danger of degeneration.

Democratic vs. Bureaucratic Management of Industry

No socialist will argue against Ciliga when he asserts that democratic management of nationalized industry by the workers is absolutely essential. The real problem is how to apply that principle correctly in the period immediately following the taking of power by the workers; and in the solution of that problem Ciliga is of no great help to us. Does accepting the above principle mean that we must grant the right of the workers of every factory to determine all of the conditions of labor and all of the questions connected with production in their particular factory independently of the factories in the same industry or in other industries? Does it mean that the trade unions rather than the party should have control of industry?

There certainly can be no advantage whatever in permitting trade-union bureaucrats to run the industries rather than party bureaucrats. The problem of the democratic management of industry by the workers would still remain and the danger of excluding the workers from the management would be just as great.

We must start from the premise that it is essential to enlist the greatest possible participation of the workers in the running of industry. It is essential from the fundamental point of view of the efficient operation of industry. A bureaucratic régime in industry means inefficiency. Stalinist Russia is proving, if it has not already proved conclusively, that a bureaucratic control of industry cannot increase the productivity of labor as against a developed capitalism. It is altogether probable that nationalized industry under bureaucratic control offers, from the point of view of developing the productive forces of society, no improvement whatever over developed capitalism.

But workers’ democracy in industry does not mean that the workers of a particular factory or plant are to have final say in determining conditions of production and labor. It will not be difficult to have the workers of every factory understand that the factory in which they work is intimately connected with all other factories and that planning for all of industry excludes the possibility of permitting the workers of a particular factory to determine their conditions.

An over-all planning authority with plans to be fulfilled by the workers of a particular factory is essential. The management of a factory by the workers comes in when they examine and criticize the plans proposed by the planning authority. The workers of a factory know far better than the planners outside what their factory is capable of producing. From what Ciliga says it can be deduced that he is more of an anarcho-syndicalist than of a Marxist on the question of workers’ democratic control of industry. His vague philosophy about the immediate post-revolutionary period is revealed in his assertion that “modern revolutions must achieve socialism or inevitably become anti-socialist, anti-proletarian, counter revolutions.”

When taken on an historical plane there can be no objection to the above statement. From Ciliga’s assertion, however, one can conclude that modern revolutions must immediately achieve socialism or degenerate. It is taken for granted by Marxists that a transitional period must necessarily follow the taking of power by the workers and that during that period many of the standards existing under capitalism will still prevail. He is a Utopian who thinks that socialism and all that socialism means to society and to the individual can be ushered in immediately after capitalism is destroyed.

Democratic control of industry by the workers is possible and absolutely essential even before socialism comes into existence but it should be understood that it is a control primarily through the democratic workers’ state which owns the industries and which is in a position to plan for all of the industries. The workers in a particular factory must subordinate themselves to the needs of the workers as a whole. Neither the trade-union bureaucrats nor the party bureaucrats should control industry but the workers state, that is, the Soviets, democratically controlled by the masses.

Nor must it be forgotten (and Ciliga does not mention it) that the basic premise for the existence of democratic control of industry, in the long run, is the existence of a developed industry which can satisfy the needs of the masses. We can confidently expect that the democratic traditions of the American workers will make it more difficult for bureaucrats to usurp authority. But what is decisive is the existence of a sufficiently high productive capacity to eliminate the need for a struggle for a decent livelihood. No rules and no determination to adhere to democratic forms will prevail against a long period of scarcity.

Lenin thought that the development of a bureaucracy could be prevented by decreeing that the payment of an official should be no higher than the payment of a worker and that the workers should have the right to recall their representatives any time they wanted to. But these measures turned out to be ineffective in the face of universal need. This does not mean that workers’ democracy is ineffective; it simply means that it can not prevent degeneration when the economic conditions favorable to degeneration exist for a long period.

Control of the Government by the Working Class

Actually, if the workers succeed in controlling the government all of the problems of workers’ democracy are thereby solved. If the workers have complete democracy in the Soviets or workers’ councils then through their control of the government they can determine the policies of the government.

Control of the government implies the right to vote the governing party out of power. Democratic control of the government by the workers exists if they have the right to recall the old and elect new representatives whenever they wish and if the main policies of the party in power are presented to the workers for their approval or disapproval through the means of elections at definite intervals where criticism is completely free and opponents of the party in power have an opportunity to present their criticism and their program. As a corollary to this proposition it follows that a minority is in duty bound to submit to the government until there is an opportunity to reverse its policies by an appeal to the workers in a general election.

That a revolutionary party in power may, under certain circumstances, deem it necessary to go against the will of the majority of the workers can be taken for granted by those who understand that we are not living in a world where a correct solution to all problems can be reached through pure democracy. Those who have been active in the labor movement know that it happens frequently that in the course of a long and bitter strike the overwhelming majority of the strikers become tired and demoralized. Inevitably a group of backward workers takes the lead in a movement to go back to work. If given an opportunity the majority of the workers would undoubtedly vote to end the strike. A conscious and militant leadership will not yield to the mood of the majority it” it is convinced that in a short period there is a chance for a favorable conclusion of the strike.

A revolutionary party can permit itself the liberty of disregarding the will of the majority provided it realizes that to do so for a long period means inevitably the use of deceit and force against the majority and to do that for any length of time means to institute a dictatorship of the minority which must inevitably result in degeneration.

It is not at all sufficient, as Ciliga seems to think it is, to proclaim the principle that the emancipation of the workers must be accomplished by the workers themselves. All revolutionary socialists who have taken the lesson of Stalinism to heart realize how necessary it is to abide by that principle enunciated by Marx. But it cannot solve the problems that will confront a party in power. To follow that principle rigorously means to oppose the formation of a party. To see the necessity of applying that principle does not mean to idealize the workers who have been subjected to the demoralizing influence of capitalism.

Upon a revolutionary party lies the responsibility of educating the workers to think critically and independently and thus to enable them to guard against the would-be usurpers. Next to a favorable economic situation the best guarantee against degeneration is a revolutionary party composed of educated, critical revolutionary workers. Such a party will not for long act against the will of the workers; it will either win the majority to its point of view or yield to the majority.

When evaluating the role of Lenin and Trotsky during the extremely trying period of the Civil War and the period immediately following it one must not forget that they had no experience by which to be guided in their actions. It is obvious that of the two great principles – the necessity to guard the conquests of the workers and the necessity to guard the democratic rights of the workers, they placed the emphasis upon the first. We who have the lessons of Stalinism as a terrible warning can realize more clearly than any of the leaders of the Russian Revolution how important it is to stress the democratic rights of the workers.

Unfortunately history decreed that the first socialist revolution occur in a backward country. From our vantage point we can see that degeneration was inevitable if the revolution was not extended to more advanced countries. But giving precedence to the factor of backwardness we must nevertheless realize that an important contributing factor was the crushing of the democratic rights of the Russian workers by the Stalinist bureaucracy. This was part of the degeneration and at the same time hastened the degeneration. If together with Ciliga we realize the importance of the problem of workers’ democracy it does not mean that we agree with his thesis that Lenin and Trotsky were partly responsible for the degeneration in Russia. We reject his thesis because it is not true but more than ever do we recognize the necessity of emphasizing the need of workers’ democracy as a means to guard against degeneration.

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