A friend in Brazil emails me regularly, but we disagree on politics. Although he is always complaining about the terrible poverty in his country alongside great wealth, about low wages for himself and others, about the poor private health services, etc. he regards politics, and Socialism in particular, as anathema.
Hugo Chavez of Venezuela he regards as a dictator, and seems to think Socialism is by its very nature undemocratic. In complete contrast, I regard capitalism as by its very nature undemocratic, and by all accounts Chavez and some of the other leftwing leaders of Latin America have been democratically elected in free elections.
Many people have commented on how dictatorial leftwing regimes often describe themselves as ‘democratic’. Thus we have the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea for example, and we had the (East) German Democratic Republic. When working at International Telegraphs on the GDR circuit a senior operator actually queried why countries like East Germany called themselves democratic. Being a Stalinist member of the Communist Party at the time, I instantly replied that it was maybe because they considered Socialism more democratic than capitalism.
In fact I still believe, in theory at least, this is true. If the means of production, distribution and exchange is publicly owned and controlled, then the system must be more democratic than capitalism where most of these things are controlled by capitalist millionaires and faceless shareholders gambling on the stock exchanges.
However the crucial word above is ‘If’, and clearly in the Soviet Union and the Socialist countries allied to it there was no public control, but instead huge, bureaucratic State monopolies which were often inefficient and wasteful. The same is true, to a large extent, of nationalized industries in Britain and other countries, though despite this I still think the railways and utility companies (gas, electricity, telephones, etc.) worked much better as nationalized industries than they do under privatization. Not least because all the above require nationally maintained networks and grids to work efficiently, and this is surely best done by a nationalized industry.
Huge bureaucratic State monopolies, however, are not the best way to achieve public ownership and democratic control of most industries. Worker and consumer cooperatives, alongside individual publicly owned companies with worker and consumer control, are much more competitive, efficient and provide a strong incentive for the workers to be productive since they, along with the consumers, share in the profits instead of going into the pockets of faceless shareholders and company directors. The Yugoslav system of Market Socialism worked very efficiently along these lines.
In the political field it is true that Soviet and even Yugoslav Socialist Democracy left an awful lot to be desired, to put it mildly. The idea was that a single political party, the Marxist-Leninist/Communist Party (or a coalition led by the Marxist-Leninist Party), was all that was necessary to implement Socialism democratically and ultimately lead to the self-governing utopia of Communism Proper where the State would have withered away.
It was envisaged that the broad masses, the proletariat and their allies, would join the ruling Marxist-Leninist Party and other State organs and through these would exercise true Socialist Democracy. Operating under the system of ‘democratic centralism’ decisions were supposed to be taken at regular Party Congresses based on debates and discussions from the grassroots membership. Congress decisions were to be binding on the Central Committee and the People’s government. Between Party Congresses decisions would be taken by the elected Central Committee, and all Congress and Central Committee decisions were binding on all Party members.
There are many flaws in this system, which was expected to eliminate class divisions and contradictions and prepare the masses for the self-governing Stateless society of Communism. Taking the Soviet Union as an example, what happened in practice was rather different. Under the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’ or workers’ councils, Lenin and his comrades proclaimed power had been handed over to the toiling masses and their allies, and the CPSU, as it was eventually known (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) did indeed achieve a mass membership of many millions. How many of these were politically active, however, is another question, and certainly a majority of the USSR’s population never became politically active in the CPSU, the soviets or the other organs of State. Instead a ruling clique of bureaucrats and careerists/opportunists joined the ruling CPSU and quickly played on the political immaturity of the masses, on their political apathy if you like, and installed themselves in positions of power and privilege. They became a new ruling clique or ruling class, and were almost impossible to remove without another revolution. The Krondstadt rebellion early in the days of soviet power was an attempt to restore the ideals of the Revolution, but Trotsky’s Red Army under the orders of Lenin crushed the rebellion. Things got much worse when Stalin took over the General Secretaryship of the CPSU after Lenin’s death, despite the warning in ‘Lenin’s Last Testament’ to the Central Committee that placing too much power in Stalin’s hands was dangerous. Lenin advised against making Stalin General Secretary, but was ignored.
Stalin’s brutal dictatorship succeeded eventually in eliminating almost all the original Bolshevik revolutionaries, but the careerists and opportunists for the most part survived his purges. This was easy for them as they had no ideals, and just swayed whichever way the wind blew to protect their positions of power and privilege, paying lipservice to Socialism and praising Stalin to the skies. After Stalin’s death the same system continued, though in less extreme form.
I have spoken to a former member of the Marxist-Leninist Party which once ruled Hungary. She was a diplomat, and told me the only reason she joined the Hungarian Workers’ (Communist) Party was to gain privileges and advantages for herself and her family. On a visit to East Germany in 1968 it became fairly obvious to me that our hosts, Eberhardt from the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), and Dorotee from the State-run Peace Council were far from being Socialists, but were very bourgeois. Eberhardt only seemingly interested in drinking and womanizing, and Dorotee in lounging around in silken gowns, flashing her gold teeth, pearl necklaces and jewelry. The whole Soviet-style system had become corrupted, and without opposition parties and free elections, it was impossible to remove this ruling clique without a revolution.
Nevertheless, it is my belief that even this corrupt and distorted form of Socialism had achieved a lot – raising the Soviet Umion from a feudal, backward country to one of the leading world powers, educating the masses, and in all the Socialist countries, providing good health, education and public services, a feeling of comradeship between peoples of different nationalities, providing basic essentials at low prices, creating full employment, and providing security in old age. Nearly all these things were lost in the revolutions of 1989-1981 which swept away most of the gains of Socialism and, for the most part, kept the corrupt bureaucrats and politicians in power.
The story of Soviet-style Socialism, then exported to Asian countries like China, Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, is not, of course, the full story. Apart from the relatively democratic Socialist countries of Latin America (possibly excluding Soviet-era Cuba which still survives), there has been a more democratic form of Socialism in many other countries. The 1945 Labour government in Britain delivered a fair amount of Socialism albeit involing State monopolies. The National Health Service was also established under this democratically elected government. Many Scandinavian countries have also democratically implemented many Socialist reforms.
I also question how much democracy there really is even in countries with supposedly free elections. Apart from unfair voting systems, like the first-past-the-post systems existing in Britain and USA which penalize smaller political parties and, in effect, make General Elections decided by a relatively few voters in marginal constituencies or States. These General Elections frequently result in minority governments, i.e., a political party in power with a big majority of seats but which most of the electorate have voted against.
Even in fairer PR (proportional representation) systems one has to wonder how much power really lies in the hands of elected representatives and governments, in heads of state, and how much is secretly controlled from behind the scenes by powerful shadowy organizations. Variously described as the upper echelons of Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the mysterious ‘dark forces of which we know little’ spoken of by Queen Elizabeth II, the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, etc. Indeed I wonder whether it is a world-wide network of these powerful forces which organized the infiltration of the Soviet-style political parties to insure that the rich and powerful even survived under Socialism.
So, in conclusion, I would argue that Socialism is potentially far more democratic than capitalism provided there is a system of genuine democratic control of the publicly owned industries and services, and provided elections are genuinely free. All political parties must be allowed to contest free elections, votes must be secret to prevent victimization, and if held under a Socialist Constitution, then that too must be allowed to be challenged by the electorate in a referendum. A substantial majorty in such a referendum would allow the Constitution to be amended or replaced to allow restoration of capitalism, but barring that, free elections would allow different political parties to administer their own versions of Socialism.
However no political system will work properly, and there can be no real democracy, until humankind has progressed spiritually, until corruption has been exposed and eliminated, and ultimately until people as a whole are politically mature enough to take their destiny into their own hands and govern themselves directly, instead of relying on others to do so on their behalf, thus allowing careerists, opportunists and others to create a corrupt ruling clique, either overtly as in the Soviet-style countries, or covertly as many strongly suspect exists behind the supposedly democratic governments of the advanced Western-style countries