Unconditional Democracy

In my short response ('Democracy from Above and Below' published in Issue number 5 of Open Polemic) to F.Gordon of Red Action (OP 4), I pointed out that he could hardly claim that his organisation was revisionist for it has yet to arrive at, before it could retreat from Marxism. His reply in the last issue has, in fact, confirmed rather than changed that view.

Before I comment on particular areas of his reply, I must raise an important question concerning the way we conduct any polemic. We all find it useful, in order to maintain the flow of an argument, to make omissions in our quotations from the political positions of others but, in doing so, we have to try and ensure that any omission does not detract from the essence of the quotation.

In my article, I argued that it was supremely important to regard democratic centralism, not as a mere organisational form, but as a political and organisational principle in which the decisions taken by the party centre, its congress, are binding on all its members, including its leaders.

At the end of my article, I asserted that if we were to achieve a democratic centralism appropriate to a mass party of action then we would have to ensure that:

'programme, strategy and tactics emanate from above, at the party congress and are then directed from below, in the first instance, by the national leadership.'

However, Gordon chose to strip that very short statement of its dialectical content by taking the trouble to replace 'in the first instance' with three dots.

My crucial inclusion of those four words obviously alluded to the existence of further 'instances' of direction from below; down to the basic units of the party which discuss programme, strategy and tactics from below in the first instance, and then, through delegation, from above at the party congress. In other words, the inference of my assertion was that democratic centralism, if practised correctly, involves a continual, dialectical process of democracy from above and below.

Unconditional Democracy

Gordon appears not to understand why I should treat his appeal for 'unconditional democracy within the revolutionary organisation' with such disdain.

Taking Lenin's comments in State and Revolution, (in the section titled Supplementary Explanations by Engels), he quotes Lenin as follows:

'To develop democracy to the utmost, to find the forms for this development, to test them by practice - all this is one of the component tasks of the struggle for the social revolution.'

He then asks me to enlighten Red Action on the difference between its call for 'unconditional democracy' and Lenin's 'developing democracy to the utmost'.

Bearing in mind that Lenin was here referring, not to the revolutionary organisation, but to socialism, to the dictatorship of the proletariat, let us place Lenin's comments into their immediate context.

Lenin states:

'... under capitalism, fully consistent democracy is impossible, while under Socialism a democracy withers away.'
This is a sophism comparable to the old humorous problem of whether a man is becoming bald if he loses one hair.

To develop democracy to its logical conclusion, to find the forms for this development, to test them by practice: and so forth - all this is one of the fundamental tasks of the struggle for the social revolution.

Taken separately, no kind of democracy will yield Socialism. But in actual life democracy will never be 'taken separately', it will be 'taken together' with other things, it will exert its influence on economic life, stimulating its reorganisation; it will be subjected, in its turn to the influence of economic development, and so on. Such is the dialectics of living history.

Despite the discrepancies in our respective translations, (to its logical conclusion or to the utmost) it is quite clear that Lenin, in accord with Engels, is viewing the development of democracy under the dictatorship of the proletariat as being conditional on a whole number of factors. And, it could not be otherwise, for once democracy reaches the point at which it would become unconditional, it ceases to be democracy and becomes something else. For Marxists, it represents a change from the quantitative to the qualitative. In other words, there is no such thing as unconditional democracy. That is why I used the term 'emotive' in respect to Gordon's appeal for 'unconditional democracy within the revolutionary organisation'.

In socialist society, democracy is a political state intimately connected with the economic state. 'Unconditional democracy', which might, perhaps, be better described as 'democracy superseded', can only come about when the economic state has reached the stage of abundance which we associate with the higher phase of communism.
So, from the standpoint of communism, a call for 'unconditional democracy' amounts to a repudiation of party and means leaping, not to the lower or socialist phase of communism, but to the higher phase of communism.

The Democratic Republic

When dealing with the question of the democratic republic, Gordon argues that Lenin slipped from 'his customary close attention to the text' (of Engels) in asserting that:
'the democratic republic is the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat'.

Gordon quotes Engels:

'If one thing is certain, it is that our party and the working class can only come to power in the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat...' (my emphasis)

In the translation that I have before me, the word 'in' appears as 'under', which, to my mind, clarifies the meaning. But let us try to resolve the problem without getting caught up on the question of translation.

Following his remarks about developing democracy to its logical conclusion, Lenin quotes at length from Engels 1891 Preface to Marx's Civil War in France and at the end of that quotation we find the following:

'And People think they are taking quite an extraordinarily bold step forward when they rid themselves of faith in a hereditary monarchy and become partisans of a democratic republic. The state is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil, inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the proletariat, just like the Commune, will have at the earliest possible moment to lop off, until such time as a new generation, reared under new and free social conditions, will be able to throw on the scrap-heap all this state rubbish.'

Here Engels makes it clear that the 'democratic republic' is a form of bourgeois state which will eventually be inherited by the proletariat. Lenin, therefore, is not only closer to the text of Engels than Gordon, he is closer to Engels in substance than Gordon when he pointed out that:

'...the democratic republic is the nearest approach to the dictatorship of the proletariat. For such a republic - without in the least setting aside the domination of capital, and, therefore, the oppression of the masses and the class struggle - inevitably leads to such an extension, development unfolding and sharpening of that struggle that, as soon as the possibility arises for satisfying the fundamental interests of the oppressed masses, this possibility is realised inevitably and solely in the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the guidance of these masses by the proletariat.'

Dictatorship of the Party

According to Gordon, Lenin argued that:

'the very distinction between the dictatorship of the party and that of the class, ...is evidence of the most incredible and hopeless confusion of mind.' (my emphasis)

Here goes Gordon again, 'modifying' the quotations he selects, to suit his own convenience, for Lenin did not refer to any 'distinction between'. He said:

'The very presentation of the question - dictatorship of the Party or dictatorship of the class ... is evidence of the most incredible and hopeless confusion of the mind' (again my emphasis)

I used this quotation in my original article, so I did not, as Gordon tries to claim, attack 'the distinction between the dictatorship of the party and the dictatorship of the class'

You see, the party of the class, despite the degree of dictatorship that it may maintain over the class as a mass, always remains subordinate to the 'dictatorship of the class' as determined by the existent socio-economic formation and that is the case whether the socio-economic formation is capitalist or socialist.
It is not a matter of a choice between two, qualitatively different, kinds of 'dictatorships' - a 'dictatorship of a party' , in essence, despite appearance, is always exercised within a 'dictatorship of a class'.

If, as claimed by Gordon, the Soviet Union was not a 'dictatorship of the proletariat', then, it seems, he would have us believe that it was a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie' based on a particular, capitalist, socioeconomic formation. In this scenario, the 'dictatorship of the CPSU' was being exercised within a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie' and the communists of the CPSU, instead of playing a central role in the world revolutionary process, were all the time working in the interests of a capitalist class, This must have been the most extraordinary capitalist class that the world has ever seen, for it was one bereft of its most fundamental condition, the ownership of private exploiting property.

Capitalism may take a variety of democratic, bureaucratic and totalitarian forms, but its essence lies in the pursuit of profit through private investment.

The inevitable inequalities that exist within any capitalist class are manifested in the constantly variable, profit differentials between individual, share-holding capitalists. That inequality is a permanent feature of capitalist society. It could only, theoretically, cease to exist through the commercial activity of an actual capitalist class, through a culmination of competition that results in the concentration of all capital in the hands of one capitalist or capitalist collective. It is a process that would have to go beyond state-monopoly capitalism, which Lenin described as:
'a complete material preparation for socialism, the threshold of socialism a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no intermediate rungs'.

The petty bourgeois elements within the revolutionary movement recoil from socialism as practised in the real world. For them and for Gordon, as socialism in practice does not conform to their particular image of an alternative, ideal socialism, it cannot be socialism. It must be some kind of capitalism.

So, they construct their various theories to try and prove that socialism in practice is really capitalism and even dream up impossible, utopian ideas, such as Gordon's 'unconditional democracy'.

Jane Danes
Open Polemic Issue 7