1940s >> 1946 >> no-503-july-1946

Russia and Democracy

On March 23rd, under the title “True Democracy,” the Manchester Guardian opened a discussion on democracy when reviewing a recently published lecture by Professor E. H. Carr. This review was followed by contributors from Lord Lindsay, Mr. Laski and Mr. Bertrand Russel on April 20th and May 4th respectively.

The striking thing about all the contributions was that they distinguished an entirely different outlook on democracy between Russia and the Western Countries, but, to all of them, the Russian outlook is accepted as a sincere one, tied up with the view that the Russian rulers are acting on behalf of one section of society alone, the workers, and that their dictatorship signifies the rule of the workers. This, the writers agree, explains the difference between “Proletarian Democracy” and “Bourgeois Democracy.” This, for instance, is the reviewer puts it:-

“It is important, as Professor Carr points out, to realize that the Russians are just as sincere in their use of the word democracy as we and the Americans are in ours.”

We have not the space to examine the many misleading ideas that are foisted upon the Marxian point of view by these writers, but must confine ourselves to the alleged basic difference between the Russian and the Western definition of democracy.

Cutting away all trimmings, democracy simply means a state of affairs in which the will of the majority of a group, a nation, or an international society, shall always prevail. The will of the majority cannot prevail unless circumstances exist which make it possible to know at any time what the will of the majority really is and whether, for any reason, it has changed. This cannot be known unless there is at least freedom of discussion and means existing for this purpose; freedom of equality of voting; freedom to select those who are to carry out the will of the majority; and equality of electoral conditions.

Although in theory these four fundamental conditions exist in the Western democratic states, in fact there are considerable limitations. One needs only to remember the private and business votes processed by some, the enormous influence of a press owned by a propertied minority, the economic penalties suffered by the workers who express their opinion too freely; and the governments who coalesce instead of dissolving. In spite of the limitations, however, there is sufficient democracy in most of the European states and in America to enable the majority of the people to change the basis of society if, and when, they wish to do so. The point is to get them to wish it. It is therefore to the interest of the workers, who form the great majority in the nations, to use these democratic avenues and not to ignore or destroy them.

The Russian Government was, and is, fundamentally undemocratic, and under its inspiration Communist parties of the other countries have worked to discredit democratic institutions. Sometimes the plea has been that these democratic institutions were barrier to the taking over of power by the working class. In fact, however, they were simply the barrier to the taking over of power by the tiny minority, the Communist Party. The workers did not want to take over power because they had not sufficient confidence in themselves and would not know what to do with power if they got it.

At the time of the Russian Revolution the Bolshevik or Communist Party was a small minority in a largely peasant country. By taking advantage of the favourable circumstances and by carefully planned manoeuvres they succeeded in getting control of government power; every action since that date has had behind it the aim of strengthening the hold on power of the leaders of the Communist Party. Some statements of Marx and Engels on the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” were misused to support the false claim that the workers were in control in Russia. In fact the Russian dictatorship is at present the rule of a small group, with Stalin at their head, who have so tightly organised their autocracy that it is difficult to dislodge them. In this, certain peculiar circumstances have played directly into their hands. From the beginning there was a bitter struggle between members of the ruling clique, and the successful ones imprisoned, deported or executed their rivals. The secret police, as in Germany and Italy, was, and still is, one of the principal of props of power. Lately the church is also taking a hand in the game.

With such background, to write of the Russian idea of democracy as being a sincere one is just nonsense. The rulers of Russia are solely interested in keeping their privileged position as rulers and, like the capitalist rulers here, are only concerned with democracy to the extent that it achieves this object. To write of the Russian dictatorship, as the contributors to the Manchester Guardian have done, as being a dictatorship exercised in the interests of the workers is contrary to the facts. On similar grounds they could as logically argue that Capitalists rule in the interests of the worker.

The business of the Communist parties of different countries has been to serve the interests of the Russian Government, and their “day-to-day” policies have twisted and turned and been reversed merrily in tune with the needs of Russia. On this question of democracy, so far as it concerns the parliament, their somersaults have been particularly spectacular. Starting twenty-five years ago with fierce denunciation of parliament as a sham and a snare, they have alternately denounced and applauded participation in parliamentary action. We will extricate two examples of this lunatic policy:-

In 1932 the Communist Party published a 20-page pamphlet entitled “Report on the Crisis Policy of the Labour Party, the T.U.C. General Council and I.L.P.” This report was submitted to the twelfth Congress of the Communist Party. It repudiates parliamentary democracy in the following manner:-

“Revolution for the Communists means the forceful overthrow of the capitalist and the establishment of the workers’dictatorship, this to be achieved by the organisation of the daily struggle of the workers as the road to the seizure of power” (p. 17).

Any Party which accepts parliamentary democracy, however revolutionary its phrases is an instrument of the capitalists” (p. 20).

“We must expose the sham of parliamentary democracy, and show the positive results of the workers’ dictatorship based upon the workers’ councils. …” (p. 20).

The Daily Worker of March 6th, 1943, tells an opposite story. It opened its columns to a discussion of the oft-recurring enigma “Communist Affiliation to the Labour Party.” Mr. James Walker put the case of the Labour Party and Mr. William Gallacher replied for the Communist Party. In his reply Mr. Gallacher made the following bland statement:-

“Of course we believe in parliamentary democracy. That is why I am in Parliament. That is why I am such a regular attender, and why the Party is so anxious that I should a good account of myself.”

Could blatant impudence and political perfidy go further? It might, but not very much!

In the West the capitalists find that they can rule under democracy. In Russia the Bolsheviks found they could not do so. To veil their dictatorship and obtain support at home and abroad they rigorously applied the censorship and produced quantities of literature urging the claim that the workers are the real rulers who endow their leaders with supreme power and authority on the ground that the leaders know better than they do themselves what is best to be done. This autocracy was then labeled as a new form of democracy, proletarian democracy, though the proletarians have, at the most, only the influence of the dumb, obstinate cattle who may stray this way and that along the road but are always driven home in the end. In social systems based on chattel slavery the slave either acquiesced in his slavery or went under. In Russia the position of the worker is fundamentally similar. No one before has had the brass to suggest that the slaves participated in democracy. It has been left to the twentieth-century dictatorships, with the unbounded cheek of the confidence man, to foist his fantastic view upon an apprehensive and credulous world.

With an extraordinary tenderness towards Russia the contributors to the Manchester Guardian discussion find a basis for Russian views in an idea that has been revived again. Russia, they urge, has not political democracy, but it has economic democracy. This is how Mr. Laski puts the idea:-

“Soviet Russia is a more democratic society than Great Britain. No special privilege attaches either to birth or to wealth, to race or to creed. There is a wider and more profound attempt to satisfy maximum demand than in this country. … The maddening distinction which we make between the high social prestige attached to intellectual labour and the low social prestige attached to manual labour has no meaning. … Access to the courts is not dependent upon the wealth of the parties to an action.”

Democracy is a term that is used to signify the opposite of privilege. Whatever it is called, political or economic, it either means, in the circumstances that are being considered, that everyone has an equal standing or it is meaningless. Mr. Laski is out of touch with the practical world and, consequently, his description of the economic position in Russia is a travesty of the real position.

What economic equality is there between Soviet millionaires, who can command the best food and everything else, and the average poorly paid Russian worker; between the rich, who can take their holidays in pleasant surroundings, and the poor, who must stew or freeze in the cities; between the wealthy writers and the poor manual workers; between the trembling critic of the Government and the ruling group with its ruthless instruments of oppression; between the rich, to whom all the avenues of divorce are open, and the poor, who cannot afford to pay the court procedure, between Soviet ambassadors giving sumptuous feasts and Soviet workers who can barely get enough to live on; between the prisoners in the labour camps and the Secret Police? If there is economic equality in Russia, why, and for whom, do the black markets flourish? The economic democracy that critics and servile adherents alike admire in an illusion, as the ugly facts testify.

While conditions remain such that modern society is composed of capitalists and workers, two classes with antagonistic interest, then the modern democratic state is the capitalist state, the executive committee of the ruling class, no matter what name is applied to the party in power nor what theory it masquerades under.

But the democratic state has been forced, against its will, to bring into being methods, institutions, and procedure which have left open the road to power for workers to travel upon when they know what to do and how to do it. In this country the central institution through which power is exercised is Parliament. To merely send working-class nominees there to control it is not sufficient. The purpose must be to accomplish a revolutionary reorganisation of society, a revolution, in its basis, which will put everybody on an equal footing as participants in the production, distribution and consumption of social requirements as well as in the control of society itself. So that all may participate equally, democracy is an essential condition. Free discussion, full and free access to information, means to implement the wishes of the majority which have been arrived at after free discussion, and the means to alter decisions if the wishes of the majority change.

Conditions such as these have no room to grow in Russia at present. Those who rule there to-day are essentially anti-democratic. They rule by the secret police, the concentration camp, and the executioner. They hoodwink their subjects into believing that that is the best of all possible worlds.

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