Looking Back

Democratic Deficit

Vaskar Nandy

Before the collapse of the actually existing socialist states (AES) and the transformation of Mao's China into Deng's China, informed observers from the whole political spectrum, with very few exceptions, were agreed that the state in those countries was by and large welfarist, providing social security of a fairly comprehensive character in spite of severe underdevelopment and mal-development. This welfare system did break down during short phases such as in the aftermath of the so-called collectivisation process in the Soviet Union or the Great Leap Forward in China. The basic feature of this welfare state was universal access to the basics of education, housing and healthcare, and full employment. There were also quite significant forward movements towards gender equality. These countries were also free of the untold miseries that visit workers in capitalist countries during the business cycle crises and depressions. These economies also did not depend for their survival on military production (the so-called military Keynesianism).

Only diehard bourgeois publicists denied or ignored these features of the actually existing socialist states. Communists and other admirers of these states on the other hand would highlight these features as the defining markers of socialism. Those who held on to such views in spite of ample disclosures about terroristic states and the transformation of the Soviet Union into an expansionist superpower (rightly framed within the perspective of social imperialism) are either despairing now, or like Deng and his followers worldwide, such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), are now the brazen servitors of the current gambling saloon capitalism where the guns are not very far away.

As a welcome sign of change, People's Democracy (30 August 2009), the weekly organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), carried an article, 'Socialism and Welfarism', by one of its ideologues which looks very briefly at the difference between a welfare state and genuine socialism. The author Prabhat Patnaik, who has been displaying some unease about his party's line and practice, is mainly concerned with telling the flock that there is nothing wrong, indeed there is an imperative, to fight for a welfare state which the bourgeoisie is sometimes compelled to concede against its wishes or retract according to the ebb and flow of the class struggle. The most interesting point of the article was a denial that a welfare state in itself, even the best, is socialism. That immediately cuts away the ground for the widespread defence of AES on the basis of the supposedly comprehensive welfare available to citizens in the AES countries.

Patnaik's opening paragraph raises a faint hope that those who still cling on to the endorsement of everything since October 1917 to the 'collapse of socialism' will now begin a rethinking on socialism. 'Socialism consists', Patnaik writes, 'not just in building a humane society; it consists not just in the maintenance of full employment (or near full employment together with sufficient unemployment benefits); it consists not just in the creation of a Welfare State, even one that takes care of its citizens "from the cradle to the grave", it consists not just in the enshrining of the egalitarian ideal. It is of course all this; but it is also something more. Its concern, as Engels had pointed out in Anti- Duhring, is with human freedom, with the change in the role of the people from being objects of history to being its subjects, for which all the above conditions of society, namely full employment, Welfare State measures, a reduction in social and economic inequalities, and the creation of a humane order, are necessary conditions; but they are not, even in their aggregation, synonymous with the notion of freedom. And hence they do not exhaust the content of socialism.

Unfortunately, this author, with his own purposes in mind, does not go far into an analysis of the social and economic conditions for the development and consolidation of human freedom in the socialist process, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Presently, this process, if it aspires to take society to communism, i.e., a classless, stateless society of associated labourers, must constitute itself on the widest democracy, a democracy that is well beyond the conceptions of the liberal bourgeoisie. That is the only basis on which the objects of history can become its subjects.

Then why is there this use of the word 'dictatorship?' Dictatorship can be used in two senses, as a description of a form of government where a person, clique, party or the armed forces of the country run the government lawlessly, without the expressed consent of the governed. The other sense is more like the law-governed, limited and extremely short term, individual dictatorships brought in by the senate during emergencies, usually external aggression faced by the Roman republic. In the modern, most extreme example, the government may be liberal democratic with a regime constituted by universal franchise, but it is still a bourgeois dictatorship because the institutions of the state are founded upon and support the establishment, growth and stabilisation of the capitalist economic system and the power of the monopolist bourgeoisie to remain the ruling class. The US has never been a dictatorship (in the first sense) such as those of Somoza or Papa Doc, but capitalist, minority interests prevail over its constitutional system. It is thus a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in the second usage. That is a law-governed condition that does not directly violate the processes emanating from universal franchise or the general consent of the governed. Marx came to use this term in the second usage 'as the form at last discovered' for the transition from the rule of capital to communism during the two month long Paris Commune of 1871.

The commune saga begins by smashing the old bureaucracy, the standing army and other structures of the bourgeois state. One of the features of this dictatorship of the proletariat and the commune's plans for other cities and the countryside, much emphasised by Marx and Engels, was elections through universal franchise1 to the legislatures cum executives at many levels of decentralised authority. These authorities were to be coordinated at various levels to converge nationally. All delegates to higher coordinating bodies were to be mandated to express and support the resolutions of the delegating lower body. All elected posts (including those of judges, policemen, bureaucrats, etc.) were subject to the right of recall. The previous armed forces were to be replaced by rotating, short-term service in the people's militias or army. No one, including all elected officials, could receive wages higher than those received by skilled workers.

This dictatorship of the proletariat is always established through a popular uprising by eliminating the ownership of the means of production, political power and the ideological state structures of the bourgeoisie. Lenin characterised the resultant society under the dictatorship of the proletariat as socialist. That usage has become more or less universal in spite of the protests of some very learned textual purists. Lenin sees socialism as a transition between the capitalist mode of production and a communist mode of production, classless and stateless.

Marx also spoke of this transition from the present capitalist mode of production to communism. He was very far from the reactionary concept floated by Soviet theoreticians of a socialist mode of production. 'Between capitalist and socialist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period when the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship ol the proletariat' (Marx 1970). The task of this dictatorship is to effect 'the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.' It is also 'the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolitions of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionising of all the ideas that result from these social relations' (Marx 1977:387).

Given the Marxian conception of the state, as the instrument of rule by exploiting classes, this culmination point of the socialist process is necessarily a stateless society. This statelessness doesn't just arrive at the culmination but is one that begins at the very initiation of the process as a continuous withering away of the state. That means that the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat combines with itself growing elements of its negation, a non-state. From the 1930s onwards, Stalin questioned this concept of the withering away of the state even after his famous 1935 position that the Soviet Union had become classless.

Class is the crucial concept in the Marxist understanding. Lenin provided a well-rounded definition of this concept in an important article, 'A Great Beginning,'

Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of the social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy.
Clearly, in order to abolish classes completely, it is not enough to overthrow the exploiters, the landowners and capitalists, not enough to abolish their rights of ownership....
(Lenin 1972: 421)

Charles Bettelheim pointed out a long time ago that, according to Lenin here, the juridical ownership of the means of production is not a necessary condition for the determination of the place and role in the social organisation of labour and the consequent disposal and appropriation of social wealth.

Class is a crucial issue and relates to the real distinction between the nationalisation of the means of production (which can be decreed) and socialisation which requires the most profound and extremely long-term social and political movement of the masses ('continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat') over many generations.

What happens after the new state takes over the factories and the enterprises of the capitalists? The managers remain or are replaced by other manag-ers and they work to a national plan prepared by some leading party body and various specialists who, along with the managers, had been mostly socialised previously as functionaries of capital. The new situation and the newly established egalitarian ideology might or might not bring to their social consciousness new ideas, even revolutionary ones. But the chain of command still remains external to the worker as before when plant managers worked according to the orders of the top management and owners. Now it is only a different chain of command, from the Polit Bureau-approved planning body to the plant managers and party leaders, presumably with a different outlook. At the beginning, there is no way that such a centralised planning process can be avoided. With time, inputs and even challenges from below may be entertained in the service of modifying some feature of the plan. But in all AES countries this basic pattern of centralised plans that were to be implemented by factory managements remained till nearly the end. Yugoslavia after the break with the CPSU was an exception. But its enterprise decentralisation re-created the value form in its own way.
Stalin summed up the system with his characteristic accuracy and brevity.

They [the means of production] are only allocated by the state to its enterprises. In the second place, when transferring means of production to any enterprise—the State—does not at all lose the ownership of them, on the contrary, it retains it fully. In the third place, the directors of enterprises who receive means of production from the Soviet state, far from becoming their owners, are deemed to be the agents of the state in the utilisation of the means of production in accordance with the plans established by the state.
(Stalin 1972: 53)

It will be most instructive to read this Stalin paragraph by simply replacing the word 'state' with the word 'corporation.' As far as workers' ownership and control of the forces of production is concerned nothing much seems to have changed. This hard reality cannot be wished away by idealistically reducing the identity of the workers to that of the self-professed party of the workers' vanguard which runs the state.

It is now accepted all around that contrary to Stalin, the AES economic system as a whole, i.e., including exchanges within the state sector and not just in the exchanges between the state and the collective sectors, was subject to the law of value. The Maoists were very clear about this. What does the value form rest on? According to Marx, the value form rests on 'different kinds of labour carried out independently of each other. But where were the labourers in the quotation from Stalin? Now one knows that they were wage slaves, labourers performing different kinds of labour independently under the yoke of a ramified, all powerful and extremely lawless bureaucracy.

Production of commodities and their exchange through money transactions were not 'mere form', as Stalin thought, and not just a device for calculation and settlement, for determining whether enterprises are running at a loss, for checking and controlling the enterprises. They were not the dialectician's famous nightmare, forms without content. These forms appeared and persisted because as their content was the fact that the labourers were not the possessors of the means of production, however loud the idealistic glamour about ownership by the working class. By their 'role in the social organisation of labour' (Lenin, above) the leaders of the party and the managers were the actual possessors and real owners of the means of production. That means that, as Chang (one of the 'gang of four') put it, there is a distinction between the formal and the actual settlement of the question of ownership. Only the workers' assertion, participation and control over the pro-cesses of production and, hence, distribution, can gradually break down the division of labour between managers and the labourers, a social relation of production that rests squarely on the ownership question.

This role in the social organisation of labour marks the leaders of the party and the managers employed by them as a class in itself that could aspire through totalitarian state terror and the imposition on the workers an ideology that mimics living Marxism to become a class for itself. That is precisely what happened in the AES countries.

The kind of time scale Mao had in mind for the journey to communism can be gauged from his talking about the seizure of power as the first step in a ten thousand li2 march. He made another very significant statement on this issue near the end of his life in 1974, more than 20 years after the seizure of power in China.

In a word, China is a socialist country. Before liberation she was much the same as a capitalist country. Even now she practices an eight-grade wage system, distribution according to work and exchange through money and in all this differs very-little from the old society. (Quoted in Chang Chun Chiao 1975: 5)

The protracted nature of the process can be gauged by its complexity. Chang Chun Chiao (who had led the working class of Shanghai to start building a commune on the pattern of Paris during the height of the Cultural Revolution but was dissuaded by Mao himself) urges communists to 'see more clearly that on the problem of the system of ownership, as on all other problems, one should pay attention not only to its form but also to its actual content. It is perfectly correct for people to attach importance to the decisive role of the system of ownership in the relations of production. But it is incorrect to attach no importance to whether the issue of the system of ownership has been resolved in form or reality... The correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line, and the control of leadership in the hands of one class or another, decides which class owns a factory.' (Quoted in Chang Chun Chiao 1975: 9) The passage from Stalin shows quite clearly which class was leading production.

This question of leadership is crucial and it raises the question of the role of the party under the dictatorship of the proletariat. In all AES countries, 'Marxist-Leninist' parties, proclaiming themselves to be the vanguard of the proletariat, instituted single party rule. They controlled the standing armies, the bureaucracies and, if it existed, the judiciary. The trade unions ceased to be organs for the self-organisation and education for workers and became appendages of the party. Their task was to cheer onerous work norms and higher production while subjecting all dissent from workers to ridicule or punishment. Only those ideas that received the approval of the party could be seen in the media; all contrary ideas were silenced and the people who held them were punished severely. Instead of argument there was censorship. In the Soviet Union, this party proclaimed itself to be monolithic and soon devoured all minority opinion within it and without. In China, the party was viewed more dialectically, as one that contained two-line struggles. Some of those struggles were tolerated but many important ones were not. Extreme secrecy shrouded internal debate and whatever leaked out was only the rant of the victorious.

The vanguard parties in Russia, Yugoslavia, Albania and China earned the prestige of leading the masses to victory against reactionaries through insurrection and war. They presided over the total expropriation of the erstwhile ruling classes, including not just their property but also their linkages to the ideological state structures and the media. The bourgeoisie's links to the armed forces vanished with the liquidation of those forces. But their linkages to those sections of the bureaucracy that had to be retained to help in the running of the vast, newly acquired state properties, although weakened, could not be obliterated. But sooner than later, the system described by Stalin above was imposed upon the labouring masses. Such parties were then well on their way to becoming the vanguard of the new bourgeoisie. The Gorbachevs and the Yeltsins, all top leaders of the CPSU, pretend no longer to any communist identity, having abandoned their country to criminals, gangsters and the suave persuaders of the shock therapy. Treading the neo-liberal path by other means, Deng's cohorts continue to identify themselves as the vanguard of the proletariat.

This self identification as a vanguard has no source of validation other than its own power in the AES countries. With this identification and in the pretended interest of suppressing the bourgeoisie, this party has made a mockery of universal franchise. Appointment or removal of its candidates to state office, high or low, follows byzantine processes within its own fold, without even a nod towards the workers whose highest representatives they are supposed to be.

The example of the mass participatory democracy of the commune is eschewed on the ground that the bourgeoisie, obviously the old ones who have lost property, the powerful media and the backing of the bureaucracy and the armed forces, will apparently make a return if multi-party elections with a universal franchise are institutionalised. Of course such an outcome is not entirely unthinkable especially if the workers feel oppressed by the workings of the new, actual owners of the means of production and distribution. But what does a return mean? Will the old bourgeoisie resume its ownership of the means of production and all the power that such ownership bestows? Hardly likely. A working class that rose in insurrection or people's war precisely to divest the bourgeoisie of such ownership or power would not tolerate such an outcome. But suppose it does so. What does that prove? It proves that the rule by the vanguard was worse than what their memories tell them of the old regime. The party will be on its way to truly play the vanguard role if it sign posts such an outcome as the proof of its gross mistakes and changes its policies towards being the servant of the masses and not their masters. A communist party that has lost the workers' mandate must not only rectify its mistakes but must in adversity be prepared to go underground, as before the revolution, to regain that mandate.

The question of the armed forces is very important. The AES countries institutionalised standing armies. These have always been the instruments of last resort in the maintenance or the capture of power, as in the case of the Beijing garrison arresting the majority of the Polit Bureau clearing the way for the seizure of power by the neo-liberals (with Confucian characteristics) led by Deng. To be sure, the dictatorship of the proletariat does need armed forces to quell bourgeois rebellion of the Kolchak and Denikin type and external aggression. But if the workers are to have real power under the dictatorship of the proletariat, these armed forces must take the character of an armed people, as envisaged by the commune. Only then can the workers express their will, right, or wrong, according to their experience. Mistakes are always possible but the workers' right to make mistakes is fundamentally linked to their self-education and the gradual rise to become the ruling class.

No one-party rule, no unelected bureaucrats, no standing army, and multi-party elections under universal franchise and the right of recall should be on the masts of every communist party. Only then can workers begin to express themselves and begin the long journey to remould themselves and their circumstances in a process of doing and learning. In a simultaneous process, the communist party will also remould itself to arrive asymptotically to a real, not self-proclaimed, integration with the movement of the working class. Just like the state, the party will also begin to wither away.

That is the freedom road, the road to being the subjects of history and not its objects.

1.     That universalism did not extend to the heroic women of Paris who were at the forefront of the armed struggle against Versailles.
2.    The li is a traditional Chinese unit of distance, which has varied considerably over time hut now has a standardised length of 500 metres or half a kilometre (c. 1640 feet).

Chang Chun Chiao. 1975 On Exercising All-round Dictatorship over the Bourgeoisie. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.
Lenin.V.1.1972.'A Great Beginning,' Collected Works, Vol.29. Moscow: Progress Publishers; 409-34.
Marx, Karl. 1970. 'Critique of the Gotha Programme,' in Marx/Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers; 13-30
Marx, Karl. 1977. Collected Works, Vol. 10. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Stalin, J V. 1972. Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. Peking: Foreign Languages Press.

[Source : For a New Democracy, October 2009–March 2010. This article was written in memory of Prof Hari Sharma]

Vol. 48, No. 12, Sep 27 - Oct 3, 2015