Where Is Democracy?

Dissent and its Destiny

Sankar Ray

Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden, which, translated into English, reads "Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters". It was written one hundred years ago by Rosa Luxemberg, the legendary Poland-born revolutionary. Vladimir Illych Lenin called her, 'the eagle of revolution'. She wrote this in her Die russische Revolution : Eine kritische Würdigung (The Russian Revolution: A Critical Appraisal), published in 1920.

Trampling of dissent under foot is a part of history. Its virulent manifestation resurfaces intermittently but in a disorderly and in a protracted manner, making democracy a gigantic farce. Destruction or decimation of dissent never dies. Lenin famously wrote in his State and Revolution (1917) "While the State exists there can be no freedom; when there is freedom there will be no State". This was in sync with Karl Heinrich Marx's assertion about 'withering of state'. However, Lenin staged a turn- about when he came out with the concept of 'socialist state' or 'commune state' to justify the Bolshevik power. Bolsheviks under his leadership set up a totalitarian state which had very very little in common with Marx's theory of proletarian dictatorship. In his speech at the first All Russia Congress of Workers in Education and Social Culture on 31 July 1919, Lenin stated bluntly: " is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position because it is the party that has won, in the course of decades, the position of vanguard of the entire factory and industrial proletariat". It means annihilation of dissent. It was followed by red terror under the garb of 'socialist state'.

Prof Paresh Chattopadhyay who wrote the main chapter of the Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism, (ed Stephen A Smith), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Communism demolished with authentic basis the claim that Bolsheviks under Lenin succeeded in socialism in his essay The Myth of Twentieth-Century Socialism and the Continuing Relevance of Karl Marx in ‘Socialism and Society’ (Vol 3, No 24, Nov 2010). This socialism, Chattopadhyay wrote ingenuously, ‘‘has nothing to do with what Marx envisages as socialism, as it appears in Marx's own writings’’. He pointed out, "Socialism is a product of history", quoting from an essay that Marx wrote in 1847. "Individuals build a new world from the historical acquisitions of their foundering world. They must themselves in course of their development first produce the material conditions of a new society, and no effort of spirit or will can free them from this destiny" (Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality—in German).

Bolshevik regime from the very beginning suppressed individual liberty, even before the advent of Stalin. Few months before the Bolshevik insurrection Lenin promised that if his party came to power, there would be no secret police. Lenin went back on his words and set up Cheka and NKVD which from the very beginning frightened and traumatised hundreds of innocents. Thus the 20th Century or Lenin's socialism was totalitarian, exactly opposite to Marx's socialism that was to ensure and expand individual liberty. Dissent remained suppressed—an abominable Bolshevik tradition, caressed and applied humanimalistically by Stalin, continued by Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. It is kept up in an autocratic and vindictive manner by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

A neo-Stalin in temper, Putin who was head of the dreaded Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti (KGB) in the last phase of Soviet era, spotted the independent media his main target. In Russia newspapers, TV and radio stations, often funded by wealthy oligarchs, played important role in Russian politics in the late 1990s. But gradually, things began turning for the worse when NTV had drawn Putin's ire for airing a satirical puppet show shortly before the 2000 presidential election. A Putin puppet played Little Zaches, an evil changeling from a fairy tale by E T A Hoffman. The people of a village are manipulated in Hoffman's story by Zaches. They mistake him for a gentleman and scholar, and award him the job of minister to the prince. Putin's supporters reacted fiercely to the caricature; a letter was published in St Petersburg's Vedomosti newspaper signed by the rector of St Petersburg State University, calling for charges to be brought against the producers of the show.

Ilya Shakursky and Dmitry Pchelintsev, arrested in Penza and charged with involvement in a "terrorist community", have told their attorneys that Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers tortured them in the basement of the city's remand prison. Mediazona has decided to publish the story told by Shakursky's defense counsel and the transcript of what Pchelintsev relayed to his lawyer. FSB's counter-intelligence, internal and border security, counter-terrorism, and surveillance are nightmarish for innumerable innocent Russians.

The principal actors in the world's stage of annihilation of dissent are the US President Donald John Trump, his Russian counterpart Putin, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of People's Republic of China Xi Jinping and, Israeli Premier Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and of course the Indian. Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi whose open patronage of cow vigilantism is a new brand of Fascism, envisioned by India's first PM Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1930s during pre-independence days. Nehru prophetically said that Indian Fascism's route would be 'majoritarian communalism'—model worthy of emulation for tyrants abroad, lacing up their boots to rape dissent in their own countries.

Not surprisingly, the FSB began rounding up free-thinkers in October 2017 when Yegor Zorin, Ilya Shakursky, Vasily Kuksov, and Dmitry Pchelintsev were picked up in Penza. They were professedly anti-fascists. On 23 January, 2018, anti-fascist Viktor Filinkov was detained in Petersburg. The next was Igor Shishkin. Friends and family could not find either of them for over a day. A court had remanded both of them in custody as members of the alleged "terrorist community". Thus, functions Kremlin's Network with cells, working round the clock in Moscow, Petersburg, Penza, and even Belarus, an independent country.

All this is in the service of oligarchical capitalism, think many Russian academics, albeit privately. Legitimate competition, semblance of dynamic, healthy competition and even sober criticism are in the way of plutocracy that eats away at the resources of a nation like a cancer in the grand design of the oligarchical elites. Russian wealth becomes more concentrated in fewer hands in the interests of twenty or so oligarchs who have access to 'obscene amounts of wealth because of their affinity with those most powerful in government…' Who cares for enveloping penury? According to a survey by Russia's Higher School of Economics in 2017, more than half of Russians languish while official claim is that less than 20 per cent of Russians live below the poverty line.

The war between civil society and the Kremlin reflects the continuing invasion against dissenters is not over. But dissent cannot be annihilated. Even in December 2017, thousands of people came down in cities across Russia to protest the prospect of Putin's fourth presidential term. "Six more years? No thanks!" read one placard, and protesters chanted "Putin is a thief". Nonetheless, the protestation is not loud, albeit audible. This helps the authorities to stifle dissent. Putin and his accolades are not concerned about Russia's growing disrepute. It ranks lower on the protection of civil liberties than Myanmar, Pakistan, and the West Bank. Rather Kremlin's transition to kleptocracy goes ahead alongside the oligarchs' betrayal of their country is complete. The truth, radicals in Russia believe, is that Putin is a showbiz patriot, while actually he is a parasite who has sucked his fortune out of Mother Russia. Dissenters' voice is aired by Radio Svoda, Radio Free Europe but the Sadistic Czar at Kremlin remains outwardly unperturbed.

The Turkish 'all-powerful' President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was on a two-day visit to India on 30 April and 1 May 2017 has been trying to drastically transform the Turkish polity and dictates terms in the ruling Justice and Development Party. He inches ahead with his dictatorial goal after the April 16 referendum. The 'yes' vote in the referendum gives unfettered and almost unlimited powers to the President. The checks and balances that existed before have been done away with; the position of the Prime Minister eliminated, the President has the right to appoint his cabinet, and all senior bureaucrats without the approval of the Parliament; and the President rules by decree.

Ever since he became the Premier in 2003, Erdogan has been keeping up a strong populist paternalist and promoting his personality cult unabashedly. He resides in a palace of more than 1000 rooms and considers himself, according to a Middle East expert "as heir to the Ottoman sultans, Erdogan is now erratic, corrupt and a despotic strong man at the edge of Europe". He too decimates systematically the Turkish democratic institutions and didn't hesitate to ruthlessly repress opposition in any walk of the country—politics academia, media, army, police, and what not. After establishing Turkey as a republic by Mustafa Kemal Pasha out of the ashes of Ottoman Empire, it graduated from a 'sick man of Europe' to a strong, secular, and modern country, waiting to join the European Union. The standards for being a part of Europe are indicators of Turkish development as a nation that nurtures, full respect for democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, pluralism and human rights and so on. But the grim reality is that today the European Union is wary of Turkish slide into authoritarianism from a pluralist democracy with a temperamentally moron and in practice, erratic, corrupt and a despotic man at the helm.

In muzzling of dissent China developed a perfection that even stupefies the Russian secret police bosses. Beijing's innovations how to make use the internet and "fake news", to tame dissent are unique.

Gary King of Harvard University, Jennifer Pan of Stanford University, and Margaret Roberts of the University of California San Diego did a study, captioned "How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument", (July 16, 2014) found in details on the methods of refutation of Beijing's critics or defending of policies with the help of a massive army of government-backed internet commentators. The authorities do not resort to refutation but overwhelm the population with positive news, which the three researchers describe as "cheerleading" content. Beijing eclipses bad news and diverts attention away from actual problems. This is a kind of manipulation permitting just enough criticism to maintain the illusion of dissent and acting overtly when fears of mass protest or collective action arise.

The secret machinery was cracked in end- 2014, by hacking of e-mails that exposed China's elaborate and absurd internet propaganda machine. It began with words "We request every internet commentator carry out the following task today". There was a special propaganda department of Zhanggong, a district in southeast China's modestly sized city of Ganzhou. Employees and freelancers, were stated to have been paid to post pro-government messages on the internet, part of a broader effort to 'guide public opinion'.

Lastly, gagging of dissent in the USA assumed a phenomenal proportion in the Truman years, infamously known as McCarthyism. Sleuths created files against Albert Einstein and Charles Chaplin, branding them as 'Comies'. But it was so bluntly done that the image of American democracy was mauled. Yet the culture of traumatisation of defence remained and kept periodically mutated. The Trump era too sees a mutation. For Trump divisive subjects like gay marriage and abortion rights are "wedge issues" to intensify tribal loyalty. His culture war is total war. He seems unprepared to relent until there isn't a single corner of American life that isn't manacled to a political binary. Trump's former colleagues Steve Bannon and Andrew Breitbart described his authoritarian mindset crisply : "Politics is downstream from culture. I want to change the cultural narrative". It is a kind of a hyperbolic, Manichean view of politics with no room for compromise or shared values, and that became the intellectual and emotional rocket fuel that powered Trumpism.

The Indian National Congress MP and a high-grade intellectual among national politicians Shashi Tharoor stated at a panel discussion in Kolkata in early January on "Dissent is seen as sedition, protest is seen as anti-national, media houses are under pressure, their stories are vanishing from websites". India fits in perfectly to the global penumbra that overshadows mankind's birthright to live in a libertarian manner. But dissent never dies out, braving every odd.

Vol. 50, No.40, Apr 8 - 14, 2018