explains that socialists look to a society based on mass democracy.
June 23, 2009 | Issue 699
ONE OF the most frequent objections to the idea that the organized working class can and should take charge of the economic and political levers of society is that such efforts invariably end in tyranny. The case is straightforward: Just look what happened in Stalin's Russia, Mao's China and Castro's Cuba, where efforts to build a socialist society ended with purges and police states at worst, and a low overall standard of living at best.
The particular course that political movements took in overthrowing the old regime in each of these countries was a response to different historical contexts, but all ended up with similar political and economic arrangements within a decade (or less) of coming to power.
In each case, the state controlled the economy, a bureaucratic elite controlled the state, and workers and peasants remained exploited. Despite the rhetoric of workers' democracy, dissent and debate were repressed. Instead of a socialist society where workers and peasants could enjoy the fruits of their labor, a bureaucratic ruling class took power and used authoritarian measures to impose a state capitalist logic on all aspects of social and economic life (see these articles for a Marxist account of the political and economic factors at work in Russia, China and Cuba).
Some on the left have drawn the conclusion that, whatever their differences, these historical examples demonstrate the reality that exploited and oppressed groups can resist their rulers, and may even succeed in overthrowing them--but that their attempts to build a truly liberated and democratic society will inevitably fail.
Such prophesies of doom even predate the 20th century experience of so-called socialist countries that turned to state capitalism. In 1911, German sociologist Robert Michels wrote a blistering critique of workers' organizations based on his observations of the bureaucratization of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was then considered the largest and most advanced socialist party in the world.
Michels was correct in identifying the SPD's drift away from the principles of revolutionary socialism. Just a few years later, in 1914, the SPD voted to support its own ruling class in the First World War--a betrayal of the bedrock principle of internationalism.
But Michels went beyond a specific criticism of the SPD to draw a much larger generalization that he famously termed the "iron law of oligarchy." Michels argued that the same pressures that give birth to a self-sustaining bureaucracy in the capitalist state and in political parties also operate in workers' organizations--the need for a division of labor, the inescapable growth of a professional organizational leadership, and the equally inescapable transformation of these leaders from servants of the organization into its masters.
Thus, "the social revolution would not affect any real modification of the internal structure of the mass," concluded Michels. "The socialists might conquer, but not socialism, which would perish in the moment of its adherents' triumph."
In an article about Michels and similar thinkers, the American socialist Bert Cochran pointed out a crucial defect in such arguments:
[Michels'] mechanics of mass organizations have considerable validity under various conditions of democratic capitalism and the present going levels of material and cultural attainment.
Michels couldn't see, however, that where he was describing the general apathy of a membership, he was talking not about a universal condition of mankind outside of spatio-temporal considerations, but a condition arising from the lack of leisure of the masses, and their consequent lack of time and energy for larger affairs--and that the same was true for all his other so-called innate laws of organization.
In other words, the ability of workers to play a central role in decision-making about the general affairs of society requires that they have time to deliberate, discuss and debate the various options before them.
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ANY ANSWER to the question of what mass democracy would look like in a socialist society depends on an understanding of the enormous changes in economic and political life across human history.
Take, for example, the existence of the state. In hunter-gatherer societies--what Marx and Engels referred to as "primitive communist" societies--there was no state. The level of economic development had not yet advanced beyond the point where each member of society had to devote their energy to producing the necessaries of life.
Only with the emergence of the first settled agrarian societies was it possible to produce a surplus of food, clothing and shelter beyond what was consumed in a given year. This allowed people to survive harsh conditions for a year or two, and it also became possible to free some members of society from daily toil so they could direct their energy to deciding how to use the surplus and to the conduct of other social and economic functions.
Marx and Engels, living at a time when capitalism's enormous productive capacity had burst onto the stage of history, were the first to observe that society had finally advanced to the point where classes were no longer necessary.
The economy is today productive enough--in Cochran's words, the "present going levels of material and cultural attainment" are high enough--that more than a minority of the members of society may enjoy sufficient levels of education, leisure and free time to participate fully in the running of society.
So if workers are successful in overthrowing capitalism and sweeping away the capitalist state, the productive forces have developed sufficiently that it's possible for workers to put an end to the cycle whereby a revolutionary transformation brings to power a new class of exploiters, as the English, American and French Revolutions did.
Viewed in this light, the defeat of the Russian Revolution doesn't demonstrate the impossibility that workers could run society. On the contrary, it confirms the central Marxist argument that a society's "level of material and cultural attainment" shapes its political system.
In the early 20th century, Russia had a relatively backward economy, and after the Bolsheviks' victory in 1917, the new workers' state faced a grueling civil war with elements of the Tsar's regime, as well as encirclement and invasion by more than a dozen imperialist armies.
The revolution might still have survived if the post-First World War revolutionary upsurge had produced a successful workers' revolution in Germany and other developed countries, but this did not happen. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it in explaining the rise of a bureaucracy that strangled the revolution's goals:
The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line.
When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the Soviet bureaucracy. It "knows" who is to get something and who has to wait...The poverty and cultural backwardness of the masses has again become incarnate in the malignant figure of the ruler with a great club in his hand. The deposed and abused bureaucracy, from being a servant of society, has again become its Lord.
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ALTHOUGH THE economy today has sufficient productive capacity to meet human needs on a global scale, the corporations that dominate the economy make their decisions about what and how much to produce based on how much profit they can make.
For society to advance beyond this, it's necessary for workers to organize collectively to take control of the economy. The working class exerts its power first through its ability to shut down production--the strike weapon.
But if it is to assert its collective interests in society as a whole and against the employers as a class, it must seize political power. Only after the working class has seized political power can it begin to reorganize production and distribution in such a way as to gradually abolish the market and production for profit's sake.
What does it mean to say that workers must achieve political power? The key lies in masses of people forming, in the course of resisting capitalism, counter-institutions that begin first as organs of collective struggle, but which have the potential to evolve into alternative institutions of democratic rule.
At the high points of working-class uprisings during the last century and a half--from Paris in 1871, to Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918, to Hungary in 1956, to Chile in 1973 and Iran in 1979--workers who organized the most advanced fights against capitalist exploitation set up such workers' councils to coordinate their efforts.
At the same time, these formations gave workers a means of organizing production under their own control and insuring that the products of their labor could be used to sustain their challenge to the status quo.
Such councils have typically been based on delegates elected out of workplaces and other institutions--these representatives were paid no more than an average workers' wage, were known by their co-workers, and were recallable if they failed to exercise the will of those who elected them.
As a system reaching throughout society, these councils give workers the ability to have a real say in every aspect of society.
This is the foundation of real democracy in a society run by workers--and the reason that socialists can answer confidently that our vision of workers' power won't degenerate into tyranny, but can continue to give all people living in such a world real freedom and control over their own lives.