Ask a communist what they think about democracy, and you’re likely to get an answer similar to the one Mohandas Gandhi allegedly gave when he was asked for his opinion of western civilisation – “I think it would be a very good idea.” And yet communists are often thought to favour a dictatorship, similar to those ruled by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others who wrapped their state terror in the red flag. As I stated in my ‘What Is Communism?‘ article last month, such dictators “advocated and organised state control of production and distribution, which has nothing to do with communism, and has only dragged its name through the mud.”
A lot of the confusion is bound up with Marx’s use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat“, which became dictatorship over the working class in the cases I’ve just mentioned. The term originated in a letter Marx wrote to a sympathetic journalist, which was quoted in the New York Times, as follows:
“Now, as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”
In other words, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be the period where the working class itself seized political power, and exercised it in its own interests, as a necessary stage in abolishing class society and establishing full communism.
But what would this mean in practice? Following the Paris Commune of 1871, both Marx and Engels were certain that the Commune had blazed a trail for other workers to follow. Engels declared that detractors should “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” He explained that:
“…the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts — administrative, judicial, and educational — by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates [and] to representative bodies”.
Anarchists dispute the need for such a transitional stage, and argue that “the state and capitalism must be dismantled simultaneously.” In my view, this is sometimes due to an entirely understandable (given the anti-Marxist propagandising in the capitalist media and education system) misconception of what “dictatorship of the proletariat” would mean. At other times, it can be put down to balking at the word ‘state’ for the post-revolutionary self-organisation and self-defence of the working class.
If this all sounds a bit dry and theoretical, maybe it is at this stage. For me, the important point is that the new forms of society will necessarily develop from the forms of struggle which overthrow capitalist society. Since we have not reached that point, we cannot accurately predict exactly what they will be. However, horizontal self-organisation does seem to be the ‘natural’ way of organising resistance, once more liberal options have been exhausted. It has been happening in Tahrir Square, Egypt over the last few weeks, as part of the movement to overthrow the Mubarak regime.
Whatever precise form it takes, democracy (from the Ancient Greek for rule by the common people) is and must be in opposition to both the thinly-disguised oligarchies of the western world, and the kleptocracies of the majority world.