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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

4. Socialism And Democracy

Marxist ideology saw the future state as 'a direct democracy in which the task of governing would not be the preserve of a state bureaucracy' and as 'an association in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all'.(2) How did it happen that, in the name of this most humane and liberating ideology, the bureaucracy became so allpowerful and the individual was so suffocated?

To find, at least, the beginnings of an answer we need to look at four related areas:

The thesis of the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' which was used as the theoretical rationalisation for unbridled authoritarianism.

The steady erosion of people's power both at the level of government and mass social organisations.

The perversion of the concept of the party as a vanguard of the working class, and

Whether, at the end of the day, socialist democracy can find real expression in a singleparty state.

A. Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The concept of the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' was dealt with rather thinly by Marx as 'a transition to a classless society' without much further definition.(3) For his part Engels, drawing on Marx's analysis of the Paris Commune, claimed that it indeed 'was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat'.(4) The Paris Commune of 1871 was an exceptional social experience which brought into being a kind of workers' citystate (by no means socialistled) in which, for a brief moment, most functions of the state (both legislative and executive) were directly exercised by a popular democratic assembly.

The concept of the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' was elaborated by Lenin in State and Revolution in the very heat of the revolutionary transformation in 1917. Lenin quoted Engels approvingly when he said that 'the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist' (Engels, Letter to Bebel). In the meanwhile, in contrast to capitalist democracy which is 'curtailed, wretched, false ... for the rich, for the minority ... the dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will, for the first time, create democracy ... for the majority ... along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority.'(5)

Lenin envisaged that workingclass power would be based on the kind of democracy of the Commune, but he did not address, in any detail, the nature of established socialist civil society, including fundamental questions such as the relationship between the party, state, people's elected representatives, social organisations, etc. Understandably, the dominant preoccupation at the time was with the seizure of power, its protection in the face of the expected counterrevolutionary assault, the creation of 'democracy for the majority' and the 'suppression of the minority of exploiters'.

Rosa Luxemburg said, in a polemic with Lenin:

'Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party however numerous they may be is not freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently ... its effectiveness vanishes when "freedom" becomes a special privilege.'(6)

These words may not have been appropriate as policy (which is what Luxemburg argued for) in the special conditions of the phase immediately after the seizure of power in October 1917. Without a limitation on democracy there was no way the revolution could have defended itself in the civil war and the direct intervention by the whole of the capitalist world. But Luxemburg's concept of freedom is surely incontrovertible once a society has achieved stability.

Lenin clearly assumed that whatever repression may be necessary in the immediate aftermath of the revolution would be relatively mild and shortlived. The state and its traditional instruments of force would begin to 'wither away' almost as soon as socialist power had been won and the process of widening and deepening democracy would begin. Lenin was referring to the transitional socialist state (and not to the future communist society) when he emphasised that there would be an extension of 'democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear ... it is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word (because) the suppression of the minority of exploiters ... is easy, simple', entailing relatively little bloodshed, and hardly needing a machine or a special apparatus other than 'the simple organisation of the armed people (such as the Soviets) ...'(7)

We know that all this is a far cry from what happened in the decades which followed. The whole process was put in reverse. The complete 'suppression of the exploiters' was followed by the strengthening of the instruments of state suppression and the narrowing of democracy for the majority of the population, including the working class.

The antiLeninist theory advanced (in the name of Lenin) to 'justify' this process was that the class struggle becomes more rather than less intense with the entrenchment of socialism. In some respects this became a selffulfilling prophecy; a retreat from democratic norms intensified social contradictions which, in turn, became the excuse for an intensification of the 'class struggle'.

One of the key rationalisations for this thesis was the undoubted threat, even after the end of the civil war, posed by imperialism and fascism to the very survival of the Soviet Union and the continuing Western conspiracies to prevent the spread of socialist power after 1945. But events have demonstrated that if the survival of the Soviet Union was at risk from the fascist onslaught it was, among other reasons, also the result of damage wrought to the whole Soviet social fabric (including its army) by the authoritarian bureaucracy. And if Western 'conspiracies' have succeeded in threatening the very survival of socialism in places like Eastern Europe, it is the narrowing rather than the extension of democracy which has played into their hands.

The term 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' reflected the historical truth that in classdivided social formations state power is ultimately exercised by, and in the interests of, the class which owns and controls the means of production. It is in this sense that capitalist formations were described as a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie' whose rule would be replaced by a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' during the socialist transition period. In the latter case power would, however, be exercised in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people and should lead to an everexpanding genuine democracy both political and economic.(7).

On reflection, the choice of the word 'dictatorship' to describe this type of society certainly opens the way to ambiguities and distortions.

The abandonment of the term by most communist parties, including ours, does not, in all cases, imply a rejection of the historical validity of its essential content. But, the way the term came to be abused bore little resemblance to Lenin's original concept. It was progressively denuded of its intrinsic democratic content and came to signify, in practice, a dictatorship of a party bureaucracy. For Lenin the repressive aspect of the concept had impending relevance in relation to the need for the revolution to defend itself against counterrevolutionary terror in the immediate postrevolution period.(8) He was defending, against the utopianism of the anarchists, the limited retention of repressive apparatus.

But, unfortunately, practices justified by the exigencies of the earlier phases became a permanent feature of the new society. As time went on the gap between socialism and democracy widened; the nature and role of the social institutions (such as the Soviets, the party and mass organisations) which had previously given substance to popular power and socialist democracy, were steadily eroded.

B. Elected Bodies and Mass Organisations

The steady erosion of the powers and representative character of elected institutions led to the alienation of a considerable portion of society from political life. The electorate had no effective right to choose its representatives. Gone were the days when the party had to engage in a political contest to win a majority in the Soviets. The legislative organs did not, in any case, have genuine control over legislation; by their nature they could only act as rubber stamps for decisions which had already been taken by party structures. The executive and judicial organs were, for all practical purposes, under the direct control of the party bureaucracy. In practice the majority of the people had very few levers with which to determine the course of economic or social life.

Democracy in the mass organisations was also more formal than real. The enormous membership figures told us very little about the extent to which the individual trade unionist, youth or woman was able to participate in the control or direction of their respective organisations. At the end of the day these organisations were turned into transmission belts for decisions taken elsewhere and the individual members were little more than cogs of the vast bureaucratic machine.

The trade union movement became an adjunct of the state and party. Workers had no meaningful role in determining the composition of the top leadership which was, in substance, answerable to the party apparatus. For all practical purposes the right to strike did not exist. The extremely thin dividing line between management and the trade union collective on the factory floor detracted from the real autonomy of trade unions. Apart from certain welfare functions, they tended, more and more, to act like Westernstyle production councils, but without the advantage of having to answer for their role to an independent trade union under the democratic control of its membership.

Much of the above applied to the women's and youth organisations. Instead of being guided by the aspirations and interests of their constituencies, they were turned into support bases for the ongoing dictates of the state and party apparatus.(9)

The Party

In the immediate aftermath of the October revolution, the Bolshevik party shared power with other political and social tendencies, including Mensheviks and a section of the left Social Revolutionaries. In the elections for the constituent assembly in 1918, the Bolsheviks received less than a third of the popular vote.(10)

There may be moments in the life of a revolution which justify a postponement of full democratic processes. And we do not address the question of whether the Bolsheviks were justified in taking a monopoly of state power during the extraordinary period of both internal and external assault on the gains of the revolution. Suffice it to say that the singleparty state and the guiding and leading role of the party subsequently became permanent features of socialist rule and were entrenched in the constitutions of most socialist states.(11) Henceforth the parties were 'vanguards' by law and not necessarily by virtue of social endorsement.

This was accompanied by negative transformations within the party itself. Under the guise of 'democratic centralism' innerparty democracy was almost completely suffocated by centralism. All effective power was concentrated in the hands of a Political Bureau or, in some cases, a single, allpowerful personality. The control of this 'leadership' by the party as a whole was purely formal. In most cases the composition of the highest organ the congress which finalised policy and elected the leadership was manipulated from the top.

The Central Committee (elected by variations of a 'list' system emanating from the top) had only the most tenuous jurisdiction over the Political Bureau. Within this latter body a change of leaders resembled a palace coup rather than a democratic process; invariably the changes were later unanimously endorsed.

The invigorating impact of the contest of ideas in Marxist culture was stifled. In practice, the basic party unit was there to explain, defend, exhort and support policies in whose formulation they rarely participated. The concept of consensus effectively stifled dissent and promoted the completely unnatural appearance of unanimity on everything. Fundamental differences were either suppressed or silenced by the selfimposed discipline of socalled democratic centralism. In these conditions the democratic development of party policy became a virtual impossibility.

D. The SingleParty State

Hegel coined the profound aphorism that truth is usually born as a heresy and dies as a superstition. With no real right to dissent by citizens or even by the mass of the party membership, truth became more and more inhibited by deadening dogma; a sort of catechism took the place of creative thought. And, within the confines of a singleparty state, the alternative to active conformism was either silence or the risk of punishment as 'an enemy of the people'.

Is this suppression of the right to dissent inherent in the singleparty state? Gorbachev recently made the point that:

'Developing the independent activities of the masses and prompting democratisation of all spheres of life under a oneparty system is a noble but very difficult mission for the party. And a great deal will depend on how we deal with it'.(12)

Gorbachev's thought has special relevance to many parts of our own continent where the oneparty system abounds. It straddles both capitalist and socialistoriented countries and in most of them it is used to prevent, among other things, the democratic organisation of the working people either politically or in trade unions.

This is not to say that all oneparty states in our continent have in fact turned out to be authoritarian; indeed some of them are headed by the most humane leaders ho passionately believe in democratic processes. Nor can we discuss the role they have played in preventing tribal, ethnic and regional fragmentation, combatting externally inspired banditry, and correcting some of the grave distortions we inherited from the colonial period.

In relation to the socialist perspective, it is sometimes forgotten that the concept of the singleparty state is nowhere to be found in classical Marxist theory. And we have had sufficient experience of oneparty rule in various parts of the world to perhaps conclude that the 'mission' to promote real democracy under a oneparty system is not just difficult but, in the long run, impossible.

But, in any case, where a singleparty state is in place and there is not even democracy and accountability within the party, it becomes a shortcut to a political tyranny over the whole of society. And at different points in time this is what happened in most socialist states.

The resulting sense of political alienation of the great majority of the people was not the only negative feature of existing socialism. Of equal importance was the failure to overcome the sense of economic alienation inherited from the capitalist past.


1. Marx: Civil War in France

2. Communist Manifesto

3. Letter to J. Wademeyer, see also 'Critique of the Gotha Programme', Selected Works, p.331

4. Introduction to Civil War in France

5. Selected Works, Volume Two, pp3023

6. The Russian Revolution, p.79 14

7. Selected Works, Volume Two, pp3034 15

8. It is instructive to note how Western antiMarxists and liberals understood and even welcomed the imposition of the most blatant dictatorial methods to deal with the counterrevolutionaries in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Ceaucescu regime.

9. A stark illustration of this is the failure of any of the women's organisations in the socialist countries to mount agitation against the continuing inequalities between men and women in key social and political sectors. It is utterly inconceivable that the women's organisations could have failed to notice the continuing maleoriented structure of the family and the overwhelming male domination (more so than even in the capitalist West) of all structures of political power.

10. The total number of votes cast was 36.26 million. Of the major parties, the Social Revolutionaries received 20.9 million, the Bolsheviks 9.02 million, the Cadets 1.8 million, the Mensheviks 0.6 million and the rest was shared between 20 other parties.

11. Some of the socialist countries were ruled by a front but in substance the allies of the communist parties had little, if any, power or effective autonomy.

12. Pravda November 26, 1989 18

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.