In his article “All Power to the Soviets,” V.I. Lenin stated that, “democracy is the rule of the majority” and said that the Soviets had legitimacy “as a result of truly free, truly popular elections.” Repeatedly after October 1917, the government pointed to the Bolshevik majority in the Soviets in Petrograd and Moscow (and elsewhere) as evidence that the population had “chosen” the socialist road. Even until the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders like Gorbachev would say that the country had made the “socialist choice.” This “green light” to socialist revolution is central in Trotskyist defences of the October Revolution, in saying that the Soviets were more representative of the working class and therefore more legitimate. The Red Terror that followed and concentrated power into the Bolshevik dictatorship was, then, acceptable because of that initial spark provided by the pro-revolution majorities.
An alternative view, which was supported by early council communists like Rosa Luxemburg and Georg Lukacs, was that any socialist revolution was legitimate in itself to start with, but that the task of the party was to “build” a majority for socialism. That is, revolutionary forces ought to set up the basic structures of a socialist society, and then let those systems be directed by participatory/direct democratic institutions like worker’s councils. Contrary to the Bolsheviks, then, one shouldn’t “wait” for a majority, but should use whatever means necessary to seize power and reform society along socialist lines.
Ironically, Stalinism (orthodox Marxism-Leninism) essentially follows the Luxemburg line of thinking in some important respects. Stalinism largely rejects traditional democratic representative institutions in favour of a sort of front of social interests as filtered through party institutions. The reason for this is that socialism is non-negotiable. Socialism, which follows from historical laws, is so necessary that any public resistance must be crushed, not facilitated. Yet the same systems depended heavily on popular mobilizations in their building of socialism, which created a sort of paradox where official Stalinism held that democracy did in fact exist in an advanced form, while at the same time repressing any independent politics.
Lukacs pointed out very early on that Stalinism has a flaw: The new level of participation in the system promised for the future will probably never come about. That’s because there are powerful forces within contemporary society, even one that is revolutionary, that motivate against socialism. The most important of these is the constant reinforce of the logic of the commodity – prices, buying, selling, hoarding, debts and so on. In the neoliberal period this has been seen as part of the process of financialization and numerization of social life. So socialist revolutions reach a limit where the public is being told by the economic structures to be selfish and being told by the government pronouncements to be altruistic, and it isn’t hard to know which side wins in everyday life.
Faced with the limit of the commodity, there were a number of radical attempts at transforming society beyond such relations in the 1960s. The first was the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where radical leftists contended for power around a limitation of the use of incentives in the economy and new direct popular control over, or even against, the state. Another was the events of May ’68 in France, where students and workers formed the basis of a rebellion that also contended for state power, although in a more limited way. Both of these revolutions failed when the state appealed to traditional institutions and economic normalcy against the potential for an alternative society. In both, Communist Party members played a leading role in the suppression of the revolutions, because of their position as trusted members of some sections of society.
After the failure of the events of the 1960s, and with the failure of the Fordist pact that had preceded it in the Western world, there was a convergence towards more classically bourgeois economics and the rise of financialization. Corresponding to this was the condition known as postmodernism. Postmodernism included the rise of new social movements that displaced class as the unchallenged center of leftist political subjectivity, such as race, gender and sexuality. With the fracturing of the subject, which had, of course, never been fully unified, new arguments arose among socialists about how to structure disagreements. The main way this happened was through the rise of Eurocommunism, which emphasized Gramscian modes of politics that saw the possibility of building majorities through parliamentary means. This was seen as an adaptation to the disappearance of the traditional homogenous working class. Leftist parties across Europe and much of the world reconstituted themselves as defenders of liberal-democracy and committed to various coalitions with social-democratic parties. While the entire left weakened in the absence of strong Keynesianism, those groups that had focused on revolutionary leftism became tiny sects. Later, when Latin American populists started to label themselves as socialists, much of their work was still within the basic coordinates of social-democracy, with only limited experiments outside the core system of representation.
As social movements developed, many took on anarchistic practices, drawn from a variety of sources, which emphasized horizontality and the possibility of renewing direct democracy through respectful deliberation. This culminated in the various people’s campaigns against corporate globalization at the turn of the century, facilitated by new technologies and distrust of traditional institutions that seemed captured by neoliberalism. As old line Stalinist parties faded away in much of the world, there was a rise of smaller parties that emphasized connection with social movements and modeled their alternative as one that was deeply participatory. Old-style central planning became disliked by most of the radical left, while alternatives that focused on worker’s councils and other systems of popular input became popular.
I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The three jurisdictions I have listed there correspond to three levels of government, each of which have held elections in the past year. In the mayor’s race, the right-wing Rob Ford won. Then, in the federal election, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives won. This October, the large majority of seats in Ontario were won by right-wing or moderate candidates. In other words, contemporary representative institutions in my locality are dominated by people who have no interest in radical socialism. So what claim do I have to overturn these three decisions, let alone overturning the basic structures that facilitated these decisions? What constitutes a mandate for socialist revolution?
Obviously such questions as the above only make sense given the failure of representation. But is it fair to act against representation because it produces the wrong choice? Or do we accept the limits of liberal-democracy in order to propose alternatives within it, considering democracy a value worthy of adhering to. Perhaps direct democracy is “more” democratic, but it seems odd to suggest that everything could be subordinated to this logic in a straightforward way. More importantly, it suggests that the large number of people who are largely content with voting for rightists would act differently if new institutions were forced upon them. But the history of actually existing socialism suggests that isn’t true.
The problem with proposing radical alternatives within a democratic framework is that parliamentary democracy is premised on majority-building. If you can’t show how your radical faction can influence the center of power, it falls apart. Therefore most of the traditional democratic left, such as social-democratic parties, are only vaguely left now, and shape their entire argument in terms of resisting some worse right-wing project against the state. But these parties will not move left unless the center moves left, which creates a vicious circle which paralyzes any resistance to capitalism within the existing order. But small movements outside of power, however dramatic they might be, can only be of grand importance if they can contest the power of the state itself, either through conversion to a popular political movement (like the Latin American and Carribean left) or through direct seizure of state dictatorship (the old Marxist-Leninist states). Yet even people like Hugo Chavez insist that their parliamentary states are transitory and that a new worker’s state must be created.
A strong point made by Peter Hallward is simply that “waiting” has never made a revolution happen. If you consider capitalism a transformation of slavery, and existing capitalist society to be unjust, then it doesn’t matter if the legal paperwork has been done. John Brown didn’t leaflet for abolitionism, he tried to arm the people and destroy the institution he despised. “Waiting” for a parliamentary majority, or a well established consensus around some economic alternative, seems like it concedes all the ground to the opposition. Likewise, no pro-capitalist force ever fully adheres to democracy when it loses its majority, so it is a bit of an unfair fight. As Emma Goldman said, “If voting changed anything, it would be illegal.”
The question of the state is central to revolutionary strategy, and I haven’t reached any firm conclusions on it yet. My instinct, though, is when I see people fighting the police, I support the people, despite whatever legitimacy the agents might have as connected to a liberal-democratic state. If there is an absurd choice to be made by intuition at the base of things, then I would support a worker’s revolution. But I’d like to see what other people think and work through it in more detail.