This is a definition of ‘democracy’, but what is ‘democracy’? What, indeed, is meant by ‘government of the people,Â by the people,Â for the people’?
Perhaps the most apt description would be what Lenin and the Bolsheviks handed to the people with their motto ‘all power to the soviets!’ In principle, this was the most democratic government of all time. Marxist-Leninist theory handed power over directly to the toiling masses, to the ordinary people.
This explains why there was felt to be no need for opposition parties in the Soviet Union and the People’s Democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. Some of these countries just had one political party – the Communist Party or whatever the national Marxist-Leninist party was called in that country. Others like the GDR (East Germany) and the CSSR (Czechoslovakia) had a coalition government of many parties, led by the Marxist-Leninist party.
How it was supposed to work, according to Marxist-Leninist theory, was for the people to govern themselves directly thru these political parties and other organizations, such as the trade unions, the young people’s organizations, women’s organizations, etc.. The ordinary people were expected to join these political parties and organizations, and get thoroughly involved in the day-to-day running of society. Inside these organizations, under the principle of democratic centralism, they would discuss policies, make decisions, nominate representatives to local and national government, and then present these to the electorate as a whole who would simply endorse (or reject)Â the democratic choice of the people’s democratic organizations. There was felt to be no need for rival candidates, since these had been eliminated in the nomination round inside the political organizations, of which all people were expected to be active members.
The whole of the people, or at least the working-class and its allies which form the broad majority, would therefore be democratically governing themselves. This was also known as the democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Only the former ruling-class, the dispossessed and ousted aristocracy and capitalists, would be excluded from this people’s democracy. But even they would be re-educated, and eventually assimilated into the classless, Stateless, self-governing society of Communism proper, in which everybody would participate – ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’.
It was to prepare people for the absolute democracy of Communism that it was feltÂ unnecessary to have opposition parties. One party was really all that was needed, indeed it was necessary to have one political party at the helm, the people’s party, where the massesÂ would collectively take decisions and govern themselves. The only way to build this utopian,Â classless, self-governing democracy of Communism was by uniting the people first under the leadership of the Marxist-Leninist party, and getting the broad masses actively involved in people’s democracy.
Of course we now know this didn’t work, and for the same reason the similar aspirations of Syndicalist Anarchists won’t ever work. The majority of people are not interested in politics and never will be. They DON’T want to get actively involved in endless meetings, in membership of political organizations, and certainly not in the responsibilities of directly taking decisions and governing themselves.
So the people who joined these organizations tended to be dedicated Communists, but also, unfortunately, the former capitalist class and other careerists and opportunists who saw that the only way to further their careers and regain control of the economy and society was to join and become actively involved in the Marxist-Leninist party, paying lipservice to Socialism and the ideal utopian society of Communism. So this is exactly what happened – dedicated Communists were soon out-numbered in the Party and other political organizations by these careerists and opportunists, with no loyalty to Socialist/Communist principles at all.
In no time at all, the democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat became the very opposite – the undemocratic Dictatorship of the new ruling class OVER the proletariat and the broad masses of the people.
Aiding in this process were the unfortunate events which immediately followed the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917. First the intervention of the White Armies and Western powers to try to crush the fledgling Soviet state, then the attempted assassination and later early death of Lenin and his succession by the paranoid egomaniac Stalin. In his famous ‘Last Testament’ Lenin warned the Party about the dangers of electing ‘Comrade Stalin’ as General Secretary, saying he had a tendency to be autocratic and too much power placed in his hands would be dangerous. This warning was ignored, and Stalin took over the reigns on Lenin’s death and remained in power for almost 30 years. And absolute power, such as he had, tends to corrupt absolutely.
But even before the death of Lenin, the Revolution was starting to stray from its original principles. Elected officials and representatives were starting to award themselves higher salaries and special privileges in return for taking on these responsibilities, and some of the original supporters of the Revolution staged a revolt, known as the Kronstadt uprising or rebellion. The demands of these sailors and others were not unreasonable, and would indeed have put the Revolution back on course. They included the demand for other leftwing political parties, free multi-candidateÂ elections,Â and an end to the dominance of the Bolshevik Party, and alsoÂ the right of artisans and others to continue their craft provided they worked themselves andÂ did not sit back and exploit wage labor to do it for them.
Lenin, and Trotsky who led the Red Army, put down this rebellion, suspecting a plot by the WhiteÂ Armies and Western powers to reverse the Revolution and reinstate the old Tsarist or a new capitalist regime. The civil war following the Revolution made them suspicious.
In the darkÂ years ofÂ his ‘cult of the personality’, after the split with Trotsky, Stalin became suspicious and paranoid about what he saw as Trotskyite plots to undermine and destabilize the Soviet state. Trotskyite propaganda about the need for permanent revolution and workers’ control not only threatened the status quo and the privileges acquired by the new ruling clique of Communist Party members, but Stalin no doubt suspected the Trotskyites were being used by anti-Communist factions and the Western powers to overthrow the Soviet government and establish a capitalist system to replace the former Tsarist autocracy. In view of what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Stalin was probably right in this suspicion. The vast mass of the people were simply not mature or politically aware enough to take on the huge responsibilities needed to govern the Soviet Socialist state thru the process of permanent revolution, and it would have no doubt led to a reactionary counter-revolution. So Stalin took more and more power into his personal hands, and became the Father (or Dictator) of the Soviet Peoples, trusting nobody but himself.
This is the danger of all one-party states or societies where there is no credible opposition. Absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, but tends to lead to delusions of ‘we know what’s best’ from people at the top, suppression of all opposition and factionsÂ even inside the Party, and eventually to the autocratic dictatorship of one person.
Old comrades will immediately recognize the Party jargon used in this article, and that I am an old Party member. We did indeed believe we knew what was best, having studied Marx and dialalectical and historical materialism, and we actually described ourselves, i.e. the Marxist-Leninist Party, as ‘the vanguard of the proletariat’. We believed we had the historical right to rule on behalf of the working-class as we represented the most politically aware and mature sections of that class. This was why in countries like the GDR all other political parties had to accept the leadership of the Marxist-Leninist Party, which was the SED (Socialist Unity Party) in the GDR, and why in the Soviet Union the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) had sole right to rule. We Communists, the vanguard of the working-class, would lead and as the masses became more politically mature, they would gradually join us and people’s democracy would grow and flourish.
What we failed to see was that this Dictatorship ofÂ the (vanguard of the) ProletariatÂ also provided a very convenient route for the former ruling class and would-be capitalists to gain power for themselves. All they have to do is pay lip-service to the Great Leader, join the Party and faithfully toe the current Party line. They then will get all the privileges of power, including the higher salaries and perks which come with it. These usurpers were most certainly not ‘vanguards of the proletariat’ but rather the vanguard of the corrupt, selfish and even criminal elements of society, the would-be capitalists, seizing control of the Party and other organs of State power to distort Socialism and cream off the best of its products for themselves. They not only did this, but by appointing themselves to managerial positions they caused the huge State industries and services to be inefficient. So long as they provided basic needs for the masses, and luxuries for the new ruling class of bureaucrats and Party officials supplied through special shops, then it didn’t matter how inefficient they were. There was no profit motive to spur them on, and alsoÂ little or noÂ workers’ democracy.
The sole exception was Tito’s Yugoslavia, which DID achieve a remarkably successful system of competing publicly owned companies and worker/consumer cooperatives operating in a Socialist Market economy under workers’ control. But theÂ one party state in Yugoslavia meant there too the Communist Party was infiltrated by careerists, opportunists and criminal elements who soon promoted themselves to positions of power, as can be seen by the rapid breakdown of theÂ federation into warring nationalist camps led by genocidal monsters who can never have had any loyalty to Socialism.
So Tito achieved something akin to true Socialism in the economic sphere, but alas not in the political sphere. In the economy there was democratic control by the workers and also fierce competition which was a spur to efficiency, but there was no such competition or democratic control in the political arena. Here criminal elements were able to rule unopposed once they had control of the Party, and by appealing to the baser instincts of petty bourgeois nationalism were able to cling on to this power when the Soviet Union and Socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe started to collapse. Sensing Socialism would now be unpopular even in Yugoslavia where it had been successful, theyÂ became nationalists overnight with disastrous results: the terrible wars and ethnic conflicts which tore Yugoslavia apart, and saw the worst genocide since the Second World War.Â
So much for Soviet or people’s democracy. It has been tried and doesn’t work. So what are the other forms of democracy; of government of the people,Â by the people,Â for the people?
There are the various forms of democracy we know today, but some of these are more democratic than others. Basically, all of them involve, rather than the people governing themselves directly, admitting that they are not mature or politically aware enough to do this, and are not willing to do so. They are therefore invited to elect representatives to do this for them, at local and national level, or indeed at international level in bodies like the European Parliament.
This system has the great advantage of free elections with opposition candidates and opposition parties, but the details vary from country to country. In places like the USA and UK, for instance, we have the strong governments produced by the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system. But a close examination of this system reveals that it is far from democratic. It often leads, in fact, to a government elected by a minority of the people voting; Â to a government which most people have voted against.
It also means most of the people in the country don’t have a vote that carries any weight. They are, effectively, disenfranchized. In fact only a tiny handful of the electorate have any say in which government or President is elected – those who just happen to live in marginal seats or states. The rest of us have no real say at all, no matter how we vote it won’t make the slightest difference.
This is because, although all votes are counted, in first-past-the-post you only need a majority of 1 over your nearest rival candidate to win the election. All other votes for the winning candidate are therefore wasted, as are all votes for the rival losing candidates. If the area where you live is not a marginal seat, then you have very little chance of ejecting the majority party or candidate. Even in marginal seats, once the majority of 1 vote has been achieved over the nearest rival, all votes for the winning candidate are wasted ones, as are all votes for the losing candidates. None of these votes are counted up andÂ used to elect other candidates.
Other systems of democracy exist and are widely used in Continental Europe, such as some form of proportional representation, in which all votes are counted and topped up nationally. In this system the losing parties in each seat have their votes counted, and if they achieve a certain percentage of the total vote, then nationalÂ representatives of that party are elected.
Another system is the alternative/transferrable vote or elimination rounds. In these systems voters either indicate their second and perhaps third choice on their ballot papers, or else there is a second and possibly third round of elections. In both these systems the candidates with the lowest votes are eliminated, and the electors are thenÂ able to vote for their second or third choice. So, as with proportional representation, all the electorate has an opportunity to fully express their choice of candidate if their first choice is eliminated.
TheÂ only possible drawbackÂ with these more democratic electoral systems is thatÂ they usually produce hung or coalition governments rather than ones with a strong majority of one party over all the others. But this in itself is more democratic, in that coalition governments, i.e. parties working together and coming to compromises, are what most of the electorate probably want. At least most people get part of what they voted for, though perhaps not everything. It also gives minority parties and their supporters some say in the policies finally decided on, and increased opportunity for these ideas to gain popularity. Since every vote counts, even a vote for a minority party will not feel to be a wasted one.
So government of the people, by the people, for the people is best implemented thru some form of proportional representation, alternative/transferrable vote, or several rounds of elimination elections. This is the best way that representative government can reflect the wishes of most of the electorate.
Ultimately, as the electorate and people generally become more politically aware and mature, then it may be possible to move to a more direct form of democracy, along the lines envisaged by Marxist-Leninists and Syndico-Anarchists. But this, if ever achievable, would be a very long time coming, probably hundreds of years away. Meanwhile it can perhaps be seen in practice in small communes, such as the original Israeli kibbutzum. On a nationwide or worldwide scale, however, I have doubts it will ever be achievable. Football and other past-times, and the desire to make easy money, may always preoccupy the majority of people rather than shouldering the day-to-day responsibilities of attending endless political meetings and governing themselves.