Monday, January 31, 2011

Paul le Blanc: What Do Socialists Say About Democracy?

What Do Socialists Say About Democracy?
by Paul le Blanc
International Socialist Review


There are additional realities that flow from this, and you don’t have to be a genius like Albert Einstein to figure out what they are. The fact remains, however, that Einstein did discuss the question in 1949 and expressed himself rather well, so let’s see what he had to say:

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.16

More recently, Sheldon Wolin, Professor Emeritus of Political Theory at Princeton University, updated some of Einstein’s points. To understand what he says, you need to understand Greek—so I will now give you a Greek language lesson. We got the word “democracy” from the ancient Greeks—demokratia, derived from demos (the people) and kratia (rule). Sheldon Wolin says: “It is obvious that today—in the age of communication conglomerates, media pundits, television, public opinion surveys, and political consultants—the exercise of popular will, the expression of its voice, and the framing of its needs have been emptied of all promise of autonomy.” No kidding! Noting that “American politicians and publicists claim that theirs is the world’s greatest democracy,” Wolin tells us, instead (and remember, “demos” means “the people”): “The reality is a democracy without the demos as actor. The voice is that of a ventriloquist democracy.”17 That is, “we the people” seem to be expressing ourselves politically, but really what is being expressed comes from the wealthy elites and their minions who control the economy, the larger culture, the sources of information, the shaping of opinion, and the political process as a whole.

Many anarchists, quite understandably, denounce the very concept of democracy as a swindle that should be rejected by all honest revolutionaries. Marxists argue, however, that the swindle must be rejected—but democracy should be fought for. It does seem, however, that given the many ways in which the electoral process in the United States is stacked in favor of capitalism and capitalists, a case can be made, at least in the present time, for our efforts to be concentrated outside the electoral arena. Just as politics involves much, much more than elections and electoral parties, so the struggle for democracy—as the comments of Howard Zinn suggest—can often be pursued far more effectively in workplaces, in communities, in schools, in the streets, in the larger culture through non-electoral struggles, and creative work of various kinds. The key for us is to draw more and more people into pathways of thinking and pathways of action that go in the direction of questioning established authority and giving people a meaningful say about the realities and decisions affecting their lives. That is the opposite of how so-called democracy—focused on elections—actually works in our country. This comes through brilliantly in the description of the wonderful anarchist educator Paul Goodman regarding the U.S. political system in the early 1960s:

Concretely, our system of government at present comprises the military-industrial complex, the secret paramilitary agencies, the scientific war corporations, the blimps, the horses’ asses, the police, the administrative bureaucracy, the career diplomats, the lobbies, the corporations that contribute Party funds, the underwriters and real-estate promoters that batten on urban renewal, the official press and the official opposition press, the sounding-off and jockeying for the next election, the National Unity, etc., etc. All this machine is grinding along by the momentum of the power and profit motives and style long since built into it; it cannot make decisions of a kind radically different than it does. Even if an excellent man happens to be elected to office, he will find that it is no longer a possible instrument for social change on any major issues of war and peace and the way of life of the Americans.18

Elections can sometimes be used effectively by revolutionaries to reach out to masses of people with ideas, information, analyses, and proposals that challenge the established order. If elected, they may also find that—aside from proposing and voting for positive, if relatively modest, social reforms—they will also be able to use elected office to help inform, mobilize, and support their constituents in non-electoral mass struggles. But the insertion of revolutionaries into the existing capitalist state will not be sufficient to bring about the “true democracy” that Marx spoke of, because they would find themselves within political structures designed to maintain the existing power relations. They would not have the power to end capitalist oppression or to transform the capitalist state into a structure permitting actual “rule by the people.” Marx and Engels themselves came to the conclusion that it would not be possible for the working class simply to use the existing state—designed by our exploiters and oppressors—to create a new society. The workers would need to smash the oppressive apparatus in order to allow for a genuinely democratic rule, through their own movements and organizations, and through new and more democratic governmental structures.

It is possible that some revolutionaries might be elected before such revolutionary change restructures the state. But they can be effective in what they actually want to do only by working in tandem with broader social movements and with non-electoral struggles. These movements and struggles must be working to empower masses of people in our economy and society, and to put increasing pressure on all politicians and government figures, and also on capitalist owners and managers, to respond to the needs and the will of the workers, of the oppressed, and of the majority of the people. Remember C. L. R. James’s comment: “To the degree that the [working class] mobilizes itself and the great masses of the people, the socialist revolution is advanced. The [working class] mobilizes itself as a self-acting force through its own committees, unions, parties, and other organizations.” These are, potentially, the seeds of the workers’ democracy—germinating in the present—that will take root and grow, challenging and displacing the undemocratic and corrupted structures associated with the so-called bourgeois democracies.

Democracy and “communism”

Before we conclude, we need to look more closely, even if briefly, at a contradiction that seems to have arisen between the notion of democracy and the realities of what came to be known as Communism. Within the tradition of twentieth-century Communism, many (in sharp contrast to Marx) came to counterpose revolution and communism to democracy as such. This can’t be justified, but it needs to be explained. Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks led a super-democratic upsurge of the laboring masses, resulting in the initial triumph of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Immediately afterward, Russia was overwhelmed by foreign military invasions, economic blockades, and a very bloody civil war nurtured by hostile foreign capitalist powers. In that horrific situation, a brutal one-party dictatorship was established to hold things together. The Bolsheviks (even comrades Lenin and Trotsky) came up with highly dubious theoretical justifications for the dictatorship, which caused Rosa Luxemburg—correctly—to sharply criticize them, even as she supported the Russian Revolution. The justifications they put forward were soon used as an ideological cover for the crystallization of a vicious bureaucratic tyranny propagated, in the name of “Communism,” by Joseph Stalin and others, ultimately miseducating millions of people throughout the world.19

Both Lenin and Trotsky, and also many others who were true to the revolutionary-democratic essence of the Bolshevik tradition, sought to push back this horrendous corruption of the Communist cause. But it was too late, and after the late 1920s such words as Communism, Marxism, and socialism became wrongly identified throughout the world with that horrendous, totalitarian, murderous corruption represented by the Stalin regime. The ideology and practices of Stalinism are close to being the opposite of classical Marxism.

To Read the Entire Essay

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