Monday, 15 October 2012

Classical Marxism, Socialist Democracy and Stalinist Dictatorship

One of the most common objections to the argument that socialism and participatory democracy constitutes a feasible and desirable alternative to capitalism and representative democracy is the idea that socialism was implemented in Eastern Europe and definitively discredited by the obvious deficiencies of the Stalinist regimes such as the fact that these were dictatorships that brutally suppressed democratic rights, were societies characterized by major inequalities of class, gender and ethnicity, created forms of economic production that were even more environmentally destructive than in the West, and the imperialism of the USSR. Yet many readers of this blog may be surprised to discover how little support for this kind of so-called ‘really existing socialism’ can be found in the writings of the classical Marxists (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg).
In the unlikely event of their wish to find textual ideological inspiration for their form of rule, Communist Leaders would have sought in vain in the many volumes of Marx’s and Engels’s Collected Works.  Least of all would they have found any notion of single-party monopolistic rule.  They might have fared rather better with Lenin’s Collected Works, but even this would have required a very selective reading (Miliband, 1991: 9).
The major reason that Stalinist dictators could only use the texts of the classical Marxists in the most grotesquely distorted way to justify their rule was precisely that these regimes violated every basic principle of that tradition.  In particular, for all the classical Marxists democracy wasn’t merely an ‘optional extra’ for socialism: the establishment of socialism centrally involved workers taking power themselves and exercising collective and democratic control over workplaces, resource allocation through democratic planning, and over the institutions of society and the state. 
The basic principle of classical Marxism, considered as a political movement, was written by Marx into the preamble of the first International: ‘The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves’ (see the excellent discussion by Geras, 1986: 133-144). For all the classical Marxists, including Lenin, the struggle for socialism is a struggle from below by the mass of workers (and other oppressed groups) within society.  For Marx and Engels, as well as the major figures in classical Marxism who succeeded them, socialism is a movement for the self-emancipation of the working class and that process centrally involves the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in order to establish a new form of society governed by the workers themselves.  It is precisely in this sense that socialism is ‘a movement of the immense majority, acting in the interests of the majority’.
Classical Marxism did not simply reject liberal democracy, rather it argued that the liberal or bourgeois form of democracy was too limited and restrictive.  Socialist democracy would both incorporate key elements of liberal democracy – citizenship rights, freedom of political expression and assembly, regular multi-party elections – and ultimately transcend it by democratizing the whole of society, not just the political sphere.  In this regard, Draper is entirely correct to insist that Marx defined socialism in democratic terms and democracy in socialist terms: ‘Marx’s socialism (communism) as a political programme may be most quickly defined, from the Marxist standpoint, as the complete democratization of society, not merely of political forms’ (1977: 282).
This classical Marxist conception of socialist democracy transcending liberal democracy is neatly encapsulated in Marx’s critique of parliamentary democracy.  For Marx bourgeois democracy of this form constituted a ‘democratic swindle’.  As Draper observes Marx considered that:
The ‘democratic swindle’ was a swindle not insofar as it was democratic but, on the contrary insofar as it utilized democratic forms to frustrate genuine democratic control from below.  The phrase itself comes from a reference by Marx to the country which, he well understood, was the most democratic in constitutional form at this time:  the United States.  It was, indeed, ‘the model country of the democratic swindle’ not because it was less democratic than others but for precisely the opposite reason (1977, p. 306).
This central insight is also evident in the analyses of bourgeois or liberal democracy by Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lenin.  For the major figures of classical Marxism, liberal democracy was to be overthrown by revolutionary and insurrectionary means, but this centrally involved the incorporation and expansion of many of the democratic rules and procedures associated with liberal democracy.  It is, therefore, surprising that so many contemporary socialist scholars argue for a rapprochement between socialism and liberalism.  It is, to be frank, to display an astonishing ignorance of the intellectual history of the classical Marxist tradition (see for example McLellan, 1989).
This is an absolutely vital point.  If it is accepted that democracy is definitive of the classical Marxist vision of socialism, if democracy is indeed at the very heart of this vision of socialism, then it follows that the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia were not, at least in this sense, socialist.  There are four key texts within the classical Marxist tradition which lend considerable weight to this view: 1) Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France; 2) Luxemburg’s critical discussion of the Bolsheviks in her pamphlet The Russian Revolution; 3) Lenin’s State & Revolution;  and 4) Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism in The Revolution Betrayed.


In a famous passage in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels spoke in vague terms of a revolution in which ‘the first step ... is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy’ (1968: 52).  The abolition of private property was clearly understood by Marx and Engels to centrally involve the exercise of effective control by the proletariat over the means of production: ‘All production [is] concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation’ in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ (ibid: 53).
The revolutionary uprising of workers and brief establishment of the Paris Commune in 1871 had a decisive impact on Marx and Engels’ ideas concerning the political form of working class self-emancipation.  They considered that the commune was:
a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive.  Its true secret was this.  It was essentially a working-class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour (Marx, 1968: 290).
The establishment of the Commune showed that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’ (Marx, 1968: 285).  Rather the working class had to build a thoroughly democratic ‘political form’ characterized by a number of principles which became central to the classical Marxist vision of socialism. First, the overthrow of the bourgeois parliament and the establishment of directly representative and participatory institutions.  Second, the establishment of a new workers’ state composed of workplace, district, and regional assemblies with a multi-party national assembly.  Third, these assemblies to be held accountable to their constituencies by:  (a) the right of recall (delegates to these assemblies were ‘to be at anytime revocable and bound by the ... formal instructions’ of their constituents (Marx, 1968: 288)); and (b) frequent elections. This meant that ‘instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people ... (ibid: 289)’.  Fourth, the standing army and other ‘repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated’ and replaced by a popular militia (ibid).  Finally, the Commune sought the abolition of private property but this did not, for Marx, mean that it would be simply replaced by state ownership:  it centrally involved the exercise of effective control over the means of production by the associated producers through democratic assemblies.  The relations of production which were definitive of Marxian socialism centrally involved democratic working class control of the means of production which were to become ‘mere instruments of free and associated labour’ (ibid: 290-291).


Clearly it is not feasible to provide a detailed critical survey here of Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lenin’s changing views of socialist democracy, nor of the evolving differences between them. Of the three, Luxemburg is most commonly recognized as being unequivocally committed to a radically democratic and pluralist vision of socialism.  In this vein she argued that:
We [revolutionary socialists] have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy;  we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom — not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy – not to eliminate democracy altogether (1970: 393).
But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created:  ‘it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism’ (1970: 394).
For Luxemburg socialist democracy was characterized by ‘general elections’, ‘unrestricted freedom of press and assembly’, and by the existence of a number of competing political parties:  ‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all.  Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently’ (ibid: 389).


These statements appear in Luxemburg’s blistering critique of what she called the ‘Lenin-Trotsky theory’ of socialist democracy.  In this regard, it is widely accepted that many of Lenin’s central ideas, particularly the concept of a vanguard party, and decisions following the October revolution, created the pre-conditions for the emergence of the Stalinist dictatorship during the 1920s.  There are indeed some complex issues here and it is undeniable that both Lenin and Trotsky committed grave political errors during the Civil War period.  But there can be no denying (at least by those capable of making an honest assessment of Lenin’s writing on the issue prior to October 1917) that Lenin envisaged socialism as essentially a form of proletarian democracy.
For example, in State and Revolution Lenin is critical of the highly restrictive form of democracy in capitalist society. This critique still has considerable resonance today.
In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic.  But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich ... in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life (1968: 323). 
The establishment of socialism, by contrast, involved ‘an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags ...’ (ibid: 324).   In a similar vein, Lenin argues that ‘democracy is of enormous importance to the working class in its struggle against the capitalists for its emancipation (ibid: 332)’ and ‘the way out of parliamentarism is not, of course, the abolition of representative institutions and the elective principle, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops into “working” bodies’ (ibid: 294).  So wrote the leader of the Bolsheviks in August and September of 1917.


The final example I wish to cite in defence of my argument that democracy is central to the classical Marxist vision of socialism is Trotsky’s path breaking analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution – The Revolution Betrayed.  The significance of this book can hardly be overstated.  It represents the first attempt to develop an historical materialist explanation of the revolution’s degeneration and the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship by one of the leading figures in that revolution.  Despite its faults, and the analysis is flawed, the book affirms the classical Marxist tradition by highlighting the extent to which Stalin’s rise to power involved a fundamental break with the basic principles of that tradition.
Trotsky observed that ‘The present regime in the Soviet Union provokes protest at every step, a protest the more burning in that it is repressed. The bureaucracy is not only a machine of compulsion but also a constant source of provocation.  The very existence of a greedy, lying and cynical caste of rulers inevitably creates a hidden indignation’ (1972: 284-285).  This situation was likely to lead to the revolutionary overthrow of the Stalinist regime.  However, this revolution was not simply a matter of ‘substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country’ (ibid: 289).  Trotsky’s commitment to the restoration of democracy can hardly be doubted:
Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy.  A restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country.  This assumes a revival of the freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions.  The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers (ibid).
Unfortunately, the power of Trotsky’s critique was severely undermined by his insistence that state ownership of the means of production combined with centralized planning meant that the Soviet economy was in some sense ‘socialist’.  This involved a conflation of property ownership and relations of effective control.  The notion that a ‘political revolution’ was all that was required to re-establish genuine socialism in Russia ignored the reality that a fundamental transformation of the relations of production was required.
In sum, it is a central contention of this article that a fair and open-minded analysis of the writings of the classical Marxists will demonstrate that democracy was absolutely central to their vision of socialism.  There are, of course, major differences between them on specific issues, their own positions were often complex and sometimes inconsistent, and there are important problems with some of their conceptual formulations.  In addition, during the Civil War period both Lenin and Trotsky had an unfortunate propensity to justify measures that were enforced upon them by desperate material circumstances through the erection of highly dubious general principles.  Consequently, it is important to recognize that arguing for the democratic credentials of classical Marxism does not commit one to:  (a) the assumption that because Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg or Trotsky wrote something that it must be true (arguing from authority);  nor (b) that the classical Marxist conceptualizations of socialist democracy are entirely adequate and non-problematical.
Any open-minded observer cannot help but be struck by the dramatic contrast between the classical Marxist vision of socialist democracy and the brutal reality of Stalinist dictatorship. It was not socialism which collapsed in 1989 but an historically specific form of bureaucratized state capitalism — a system which in reality always bore far greater similarities to the fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Spain than it ever did to the underlying political principles of classical Marxism.  However, as Callinicos observes, this insistence on the centrality of the principles of working class self-emancipation and socialist democracy may appear to some as an evasive defensive manoeuvre, an attempt to dissociate the revolutionary socialist tradition from the catastrophe in the East.
This accusation fails ... to strike home.  In the first place, it is just a matter of fact that there is a demonstrable difference between Marx’s — and Lenin’s — conception of socialism and the theory and practice of the Stalinist regimes.  It is an entirely appropriate response to right-wing polemic to insist on that difference.  Secondly ... it was this conception of socialism which informed the strategies and interventions of those who actually led the October Revolution.  It is an entirely legitimate form of historical interpretation to appraise the outcome of that Revolution in terms of its makers’ self-understanding (1991: 18).

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  1. I'd like to believe it, but this didn't just happen in Eastern Europe -- Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Robert Mugabe were/are all dictators. Even Fidel Castro's government put heavy limits on political viewpoints they deemed counter-revolutionary. Every socialist I personally know cares deeply about democracy, but somehow whenever revolutionary socialism has been tried, the same thing has gone wrong. It's time to revise the hypothesis to take account of the experimental results.

  2. There is a substantial body of literature that does just this, see for example, Alex Callinicos, The Revenge of History: Marxism and the East European Revolutions.

  3. I've added a list of sources that explore the questions of whether a democratic socialism is possible- see 'Is Socialist Participatory Democracy a Feasible and Desirable Alternative to Capitalism and Liberal Representative Democracy?'

  4. Very good! As a Marxist, I agree 100% with this piece.

  5. See

  6. It seems to be a rather typical viewpoint that Marxism is a good doctrine, but Stalin has deviated from it and spoiled it. It is a totally fallacious attitude. As a matter of fact, Stalin has had no way out. Marxism has been erroneous from the very beginning. Moreover, Stalin is better than Marx and Engels because he at least tried to estimate good people, regardless of their being red or white, he tried to rehabilitate the Church, he rejected the socialist and Marxist idea of elimination of family, etc. Cf.