I couldn’t resist sending the above seasonal/political greeting to a few friends, etc. who I felt wouldn’t be offended. The idea came when I told a vicar I know who invited me to a Carol service followed by a Christmas lunch that the service wasn’t really my cup of tea if I was expected to sing about jolly angels around a manger, and three wise men from the East – commenting ‘presumably not Marx, Engels and Lenin?’ Fortunately this vicar, whose views seem to be slightly to the right of Attila the Hun on some issues, and extremely liberal on others, can take a joke.
But there is a serious point behind my joke Xmas message. These three men were wise, in my opinion. But not infallible, that’s the point. Lenin in particular made many mistakes when actually trying to set up and establish the Soviet Union in a very difficult situation of first World War and then Civil War, with the capitalist states trying to crush the new Socialist entity.
The main difficulty was in the area of freedom versus the necessity to safeguard Socialism from attempts to undermine and overthrow it. It had long been realized that it would be necessary to establish a ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, but what exactly does this phrase mean?
In its broadest sense, any democracy, even so-called bourgeois democracy, could be described in such terms. Given that the proletariat or working-class forms the majority in most countries, they will always in a truly democratic society have the majority vote, which could also be described as the ‘Dictatorship of the Majority’. In practice, of course, this is not the case at all. In countries like Britain and USA where ‘first-past-the-post’ elections rule, most governments are elected on a minority vote, so more people voted for other parties than voted for the one in government.
Also freedom of choice is effectively limited to two main political parties in these two countries, a vote for any others in a General Election or Presidential election is a wasted vote. Also votes in non-marginal constituencies are non-effective because of the huge majorities for one particular party, so in practice only a tiny minority of voters in marginal seats have a vote which carries any weight – these voters actually decide which party will be elected to government.
A system of proportional representation or alternative transferrable vote is more democratic, but leads to coalition government.
In effect this is what existed in the Socialist countries, a coalition. Some actually had coalitions – the GDR (East Germany) and CSSR (Czechoslovakia) for instance, even the DPRK (North Korea) I believe. Others have or had a one-party state – the USSR, PRC (China) and many others.
Inevitably, in a one-party state, all sorts of people of varying shades of opinion and varying motives are going to join that party, so it is also, in effect, a coalition. The CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and similar parties in government became not so much the ‘vanguard of the working-class’ as an opportunist bandwagon for the most reactionary self-interest groups and individuals to join in order to further their careers.
Two fundamental mistakes were made by Lenin and his comrades when establishing the Soviet Union, admittedly under very difficult circumstances and following on shortly from an autocratic Tsarist dictatorship (only briefly interrupted by the democratic Karensky government).
The two mistakes were establishing the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ as a one-party state, and the second was awarding privileges and perks to state bureaucrats and Party officials, People’s Deputies, diplomats, etc.
The ‘three wise men’ Marx, Engels and Lenin all greatly over-estimated the political maturity of the broad masses of working people and their eagerness and ability to take control of their own destiny, albeit under the leadership of the Marxist-Leninist Party. This leads us to the third mistake – revolution rather than evolution.
If you have a violent revolution to establish Socialism, then you not only get a violent reaction, but you catapult a whole population overnight from a system based on free enterprise or some autocratic rightwing form of government to a Socialist one where the reins of power are supposed to be handed over directly to the people.
In so-called ‘bourgeois democracies’ the electorate vote for political parties and their candidates to represent them in local and national assemblies and legislatures. The idea of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ was to hand over power directly to the broad toiling masses, who would govern themselves.
However it is obvious that class and other contradictions are not going to disappear overnight. Also it is clear that the broad mass of people will have no preparation for taking control of society themselves, which involves taking on great responsibility, self-sacrifice, and attending endless meetings, and possibly putting oneself up for election to various bodies.
The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ therefore cannot come in the form of a one-party state, or one-party led coalition, in the vain hope that the broad toiling masses will join and become politically active, ever vigilant and prepared to use their majorityÂ power to weed out and expel careerist, opportunist and other self-interest and anti-Socialist groups who infiltrate the PartyÂ or national coalition. Of course the privileges and perks offered to encourageÂ Party membership, etc. attracted these anti-Socialist individuals, so was also a grievous mistake.
People often ask why undemocratic states like East Germany and North Korea insisted, or still insist, onÂ describing themselves as ‘democratic’: the German Democratic Repubic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is the same reason that theÂ apparently contradictory term ofÂ ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat’Â is sometimes used. It is described in the Marxist-Leninist written works as democracy for the working-class and its allies in order to crush the class enemy, and therefore is denying democracy to the enemies of Socialism.
Since Socialism, in its truest form, is a more democratic system than any form of free enterprise, then Socialist countries feel justified in calling themselves ‘democratic’. The means of production, distribution and exchange is commonly owned, which must be more democratic than being in private hands and making profits for individuals by stealing from the wage packets of the exploited workers. But of course, if a ruling clique of State bureaucrats and Party officials are getting inflated salaries, special shops and other privileges, the democratic nature of the State becomes much more blurred.
However it is true that the population of most Socialist countries (with some exceptions such as during the Stalin era, and the Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea/Cambodia) enjoyed many democratic benefits such as good health and education services, cheap housing, full employment and security in old age. If you are uneducated, unable to afford hospital treatment when ill, and out of a job then you can hardly be described as living in a true democracy. All these things are democratic rights, which by and large, the Socialist countries fulfilled.
Coming back to the idea ofÂ ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, it is not an ideal term by any means since it implies no rights for minorities. There will always be minority groups within society who have rights which need protecting – gays, religious groups, the disabled, the elderly, children, etc. These minority groups cannot just be ignored and crushed under a dictatorship that only caters for the interests of theÂ majority.
On the other hand, dialectical and historical materialism, the philosophy which underpins Marxism-Leninism, teaches that society progresses inevitably from a form of primitive communism, thru tribalism and feudalism, to capitalism and ultimately to Socialism and then Communism proper, in which the State itself finally withers away and you have the utopia of a self-governing Communist democracy. If you follow this logic, then there has to be a check to prevent society slipping backwards, as happened in the period 1989-1991, from Socialism to the more primitive, backward system of capitalism.
However this doesn’t have to take the form of a one-party dictatorship or coalition, at least not in the Socialist stage of development. During this stage there will be many class and other contradictions, and also the final Socialist model will not be necessarily agreed upon. The preservation of the Socialist State (‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ with rights for minorities if you like) can be achieved by establishing a Socialist Constitution, protected by a President and a national security force, national intelligence service, etc.
This Socialist Constitution would allow various political parties and other groups to exist and contest elections with rival candidates, as a prelude to the masses themselves becoming more politically active and eventually taking control of society directly themselves. The proviso, under this Constitution, would be that the basis of the State, whichever political party was elected to government, would be the common ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, or at least the bulk of it (some private shops and family businesses could be allowed to remain.)
We would then have a system where a corrupt government could be voted out, but where a non-Socialist government could not be elected by a small majority, or even on a minority vote as has happened in Britain many times. In order to dismantle Socialism it would be necessary to hold a referendum on the Socialist Constitution. Normally such referendums require a two-thirds majority of the entire electorate (not just those voting) to replace the current Constitution, therefore Socialism would be stablilized as the basis of the State not susceptible to small swings in the popular vote. It is just not practical to keep swinging from taking industries and services into public ownership and then back to privatizing them again, stability is required.
Many years, maybe even centuries (and this again is where the three wise men and others underestimated the length of time required) of Socialism may be required,Â with various political parties and groups trying out different Socialist models (there are many, from State enterprise Socialism as existed in the USSR to worker-consumer cooperatives and competing smaller-scale Â public enterprises as existed in the Yugoslav federation).
Only after all these years/centuries may society be unified and mature enough for it to progress to the ultimate stage of Communism, if indeed it is ever ready to do so. This would require certain conditions to be in place: The masses would need to be politically active and mature, they would need to have eliminated class contradictions and be united as members of one political party orÂ of one political coalition, and the masses as a whole would need to be eternally active and vigilant to prevent minority would-be self-interest groups and criminal elements from taking over. In short, everybody would have to be a policeman/policewoman, a member of parliament, a legislator, a judge and everything else that the State now provides to protect and regulate society. The State could not wither away unless this universal form of self-government developed, thru years/centuries of evolution (not overnight revolution), and I am not convinced at all that it would ever happen.
The most which I would expect is that relatively small groups of dedicated individuals could set up self-governing communes, like the original Israeli kibbutzim. But if these became widespread, then possibly a Communist utopia could emerge, with this network of communes all trading with each other and cooperating on a worldwide scale. That, however, is so far into the distant future, and requires such a high level of maturity, vigilance, dedication and self-sacrifice, that human development, both spiritual and political, would have to be far in advance of what it is at the moment.
The demise of the Israeli kibbutzim from Socialist, almost Communist, mini-societies into largely capitalist enterprises prove how easy it is to slip back into the old ways based on greed and personal profit.
So Three Wise Men? Yes, Marx and Engels laid out the basis for many Communist and also democratic Socialist parties, like the original Labour Party was. They showed how all value was created by labor, and how all capitalist profit was stolen from the workers’ wage packets. Lenin had to put these ideas into practice in the most difficult circumstances and conditions existing in post-Tsarist Russia and its former empire, with the background of the First World War and then civil war to overthrow the Bolsheviks.
It is therefore hardly surprising Lenin and his comrades crushed all opposition, including Socialist opposition, but this was to prove disastrous, along with the perks and privileges awarded to State bureaucrats and Party officials to get the embryo State off the ground. Later Stalin took over, and his autocratic, paranoid dictatorship eliminated many sincere Socialists and Communists, while leaving in power the many self-interest groups and individuals who were there for the perks and privileges of office, and who held no allegance to Socialist ideals. Ultimately this led to the collapse of the whole system, with these State officials largely still in place 20 years later.
One has to ask the question whether people like Putin and the ex-Communist leaders in other former SocialistÂ countries like Yugoslavia (where terrible wars and genocides took place under the guise of nationalism) were ever true Socialists/Communists in the first place, or just opportunists seeking to further their own careers and feather their own nests.
So next time we try to establish Socialism, we must learn not only from the three wise men, Marx, Engels and Lenin, but also from their mistakes and lack of foresight, which only became apparent in the Socialist experiments of the 20th Century.
Having said all this, I believe it is nevertheless true that even the imperfect Socialism which existed in the Soviet Union and the other Socialist countries achieved a great dealÂ for the broad mass of the people, and were truly a more caring society than capitalism. Think once again of their positive achievements – full employment, security in old age, good cheap public transport systems, subsidized rents and basic foodstuffs, good education (wiping out illiteracy in places like Russia), good health services, rights for women, and many other things. They also achieved much more – prowess in sports, which also helped to keep the people healthy and fit, the Soviet Union was a leader in space exploration putting up the first artificial satellite and the first person in Space, and these countries were leaders in many other fields.
The GDR (East Germany) had a high standard of living for the Socialist countries, and was one of the world’s leading industrial nations, particularly in industries like optics. Carl Zeiss of Jena who made cameras and other optical equipment was a GDR company, looked upon with envy from its inferior sister company in West Germany. It is a tragedy thatÂ West Germany annexed the GDR, and grabbed these industries, claiming they were all ‘clapped out’, then threw millions of East Germans on the scrapheap. Unemployment was unknown in the GDR and other Socialist countries, but that’s what happens when you try to turn the clock back to an inferior, undemocratic system like capitalism where personal profit and market forces are the driving force, and where people and their rights/security come a poor second or third.
So Three Wise Men – yes. But we must build on their wisdom and learn from the practical experience of 20th Century Socialism, not repeating the same mistakes. That’s how society, and all humankind, progresses spiritually and in all other ways too. Only those who don’t learn from their mistakes fail to progress, and stagnate.