Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

One of the most vital questions arising from the experience of the twentieth century is that of socialist democracy. It was a problem that never really came to the fore during Karl Marx's lifetime. The closest thing to a proletarian seizure of power that occurred then was the Commune of Paris, which maintained itself–shakily–in a single city for only a few months of 1871. Marx and others extracted whatever lessons they could from it; but, understandably, there was only so much that it had to teach. Many problems that were to weigh heavily on twentieth-century socialist revolutions were barely even foreshadowed in the Commune. Since 1917, however, we have seen proletarian revolutions take place on a continental scale, creating governments that have lasted decades. We have also witnessed those revolutions’ failure and the resulting governments’ collapse: and very few of them have fallen the way the Paris Commune did, overwhelmed by armed counter-revolution with the aid of reaction overseas. The Bavarian and Hungarian Soviets of 1919 do belong in that category; the same can probably be said of Popular Unity in Chile, the first Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and there may be some other examples. In general, however, socialist revolutions have succumbed not to physical force but to internal deterioration. After the Russian Civil War, no power on earth was in a position to restore capitalism in that country–no power, that is, except the Soviet government and the Communist Party. We cannot dodge the fact that organizations set up to embody the dictatorship of the proletariat have so far shown an alarming tendency to alienate themselves from the proletariat’s control. Nor can we escape its implications by Pharisaical declarations to the effect that we are ‘good’ communists and so naturally we would not have made the same mistakes. Transposing a historical and political question into moral terms may sometimes be emotionally satisfying–but it can only hinder genuine understanding of the processes at work. That is perhaps one reason why those Marxists who are keenest to dissociate themselves from the ‘bad’ communism of the past are sometimes the first to reproduce the bureaucratic and authoritarian methods they condemn.

For the tendency under discussion is not restricted to the period after the seizure of power. Across the world, democratic and proletarian organizations have undergone an analogous deterioration: committees have made themselves permanent, prominent spokespeople have been built up as indispensable visionary leaders, and the involvement of the masses (through ballots, branch meetings, election of officials and delegates, or whatever) has become a matter of empty routine. Trades unions degenerate into service providers; campaigning groups become vehicles for a charismatic salaried director. There is no need to assume any particular malice. We have all been there. We have all been part of the arrogant and unaccountable leadership; we have all been part of the troublemaking opposition. There can be few political activists who have never even once, at the height of some particular struggle, felt that debating everything in full with the whole membership was a luxury that just couldn’t be afforded–much better for all concerned if the meeting could simply be stacked, or the motion ruled diplomatically out of order, or the matter remitted to the officers’ group, or some unfortunate amendment (passed with the votes of people who really don’t understand the issue as well as we do) just quietly forgotten about. This does not have to represent a cynical power-grab: it is not improbable that the core leadership will consist of experienced, well-informed, and hard-working militants who quite sincerely believe that forcing a particular decision through is in the best interests of the movement. It is even possible, in particular situations, that they will be right. But, each time they do it, they are undermining the consciousness and responsibility of the rank and file. A correct decision (if it really is correct) can be imposed each time; but, each time, there is a price to be paid.

The overriding objective of communist political activism is to raise people’s consciousness, not to bolster the passive attitudes promoted by capitalism. As such, we should always be working to extend and deepen proletarian democracy. This is true of the whole historical era of the transition between capitalism and communism, an era within which the actual seizure of power is only one moment. The proletarian, popular, and communist organizations that exist right now are the forerunners, however distant, of tomorrow’s socialist state. The organizational habits we are creating today are the habits that the movement will inherit. In the long run, wherever you have a fixed leadership set against an essentially disempowered rank and file you have the beginnings of the division between mental and manual labour–the matrix, according to Marx and Engels, from which class division originally grew. It is therefore of fundamental importance that we should work out forms of organization and mass action that are genuinely participatory and empowering.

Some people, looking at the historical record, almost despair that this is possible. And you can indeed construct quite a persuasive abstract argument to the effect that genuine democratic control of a political or state organization by a class is intrinsically impossible–that modern political forms are too complex to be democratic, and that an ‘iron law of oligarchy’ will always reassert itself. Fortunately, there is no need to be quite so pessimistic. If it were truly impossible for a modern political structure to stay accountable to a particular class, then the same would apply to the bourgeoisie: power would keep sliding out of the hands of the class as a whole into those of individual politicians and generals, who would then be free to use it against the interests of the class that put them there. But this development is actually exceptionally rare. In the advanced capitalist countries, at any rate, the state remains admirably devoted to the interests of the ruling class. The bourgeoisie seems never to have had much difficulty in keeping its responsible servants in line.

But in fact it took centuries of experimentation, from the Italian city-Republics to the United States Constitution, for the bourgeoisie to work out the basic institutions of modern liberal democracy. All its early attempts were failures. The characteristic organizational forms of bourgeois rule–parliaments, political parties, standing armies, police forces, newspapers, professional bureaucracies–did not leap spontaneously into existence the first time anyone started buying labour power as a commodity; nor were they just standing around waiting to be put to use, at least not in anything like their modern shape. The bourgeoisie had to develop these instruments, to test them, and to learn how to wield them: only then could it be reasonably confident that its military commanders would not become Renaissance-style princely despots and that its prime ministers were unlikely to found their own autocratic dynasties.

Thus the bourgeoisie has not just had to establish and consolidate its hegemony over society as a whole: it has also had to create a stable hegemony over its own political superstructures. The two processes are linked and interdependent, but nonetheless partially distinct. And it is especially the latter process by which the bourgeoisie has become, in the fullest sense, a class ‘for itself’–a class that is not just passively united by its position in production, but that is also politically organized to assert its interests against other classes. The excellence of the bourgeoisie’s class organization goes beyond the formal institutions of parliaments, parties, and so forth: it also includes the richly diversified network of more or less informal organizations and relationships by which the bourgeoisie is knitted into a coherent class Establishment. The generals, secretaries of state, chief constables, judges, and other officials who hold the specific levers of power are smoothly and effectively disciplined by their immersion in all the countless social ties that link them to the class they serve.

As yet, the proletariat has not managed to create anything quite comparable. Our class is atomized, and what organizations we have do not often manage to promote a lively and empowering internal democracy. It is idle to separate the question of class organization from the question of class consciousness: they are two aspects of the same development, and neither can be effectively fostered without the other. The role of Marxist militants is to help the proletariat develop a network of organizations that will enable it to act as a conscious class ‘for itself’–a whole political superstructure, supple and disciplined, that will serve the proletariat as effectively as liberal democracy serves the bourgeoisie.

The Communist Corresponding Society does not have ready-made answers to how we can do this. Previous experience of Soviets, communes, workers’ councils, and similar bodies is an abundant source of inspiration, but there is no model out there waiting for us to copy it. We can, however, reiterate that the democracy of proletarian organizations today and that of the socialist state after the seizure of power need to be considered as a unity, as part of the transition from class society to the classless, stateless society of communism.

And that perspective risks being badly blurred if we draw the wrong conclusions from the difficult history of twentieth-century socialism. The failure of revolutionary socialists so far to develop viable forms of proletarian democracy has led some on the Left to conclude that the only possible kind of democracy is the liberal democracy of the bourgeoisie. Ironically, this loss of confidence comes at a time when public trust in the institutions of bourgeois democracy has rarely been so strained. People feel increasingly excluded by a political system that has sealed itself off from popular accountability, one in which the mainstream parties now form an undisguised cartel. Marxists should not be encouraging the proletariat to lapse back into illusions it is gradually abandoning; nor should we be trying to pretend that the proletariat can emancipate itself and create a new society within the oppressive framework of the liberal bourgeois state. Instead, we need to renew the argument for a system that will be radically, fundamentally more democratic than liberalism can ever be. The first experiments in socialism failed lamentably; but that is a reason to study, criticize, think, try again, and ultimately do better, rather than to give up.

In particular, we should resist any temptation to soften or normalize the Marxian concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat by using phrases like ‘working-class power’. Such formulations are dangerous precisely because they sound normal, stable, sustainable, and permanent–all things that the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot and must not be. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not a normal state of affairs: it is the temporary, transitional exercise of absolute coercive power (dictatorship) by a class defined in terms of non-ownership and therefore of economic powerlessness. It embodies a contradiction. And that contradiction presses forward to the abolition of both its premises: the dictatorship of the proletariat resolves itself into classless and stateless society. That is the general context within which we must discuss how to develop new, inclusive, and participatory forms of democracy. The basic content of any socialist democracy worthy of the name is the dictatorship of the proletariat, in its dialectical development: it is the organizational form of the withering away of the state.


Privacy Policy