What did Marx and Engels imagine when in 1848 they wrote in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, “WORKERS OF ALL LANDS, UNITE!”? In the same manifesto, they wrote, “We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy.”
Looking back, half a century later, Frederick Engels said:
“The Communist Manifesto had already proclaimed the struggle for the general franchise, for democracy, as one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat . . .” (Introduction to Class Struggles in France 1895)
Only four years after the Communist Manifesto Marx emphasised the point in an article in the New York Tribune (25 August 1852):
“The carrying of universal suffrage in England would . . . be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent. It’s inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.”
In their early years of political activity Marx and Engels had been optimistic about the speed with which developments would take place. With greater experience they had to recognize that the obstacles—the resourcefulness of the ruling class, the adaptability of capitalism, and the slowness with which socialist ideas were accepted by the workers—were much greater than they had supposed.
Engels, in the work already mentioned summarised this:
“The time is past for revolutions carried through by small minorities at the head of unconscious masses. When it gets to be a matter of the complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must participate, must understand what is at stake and why they are to act. That much the history of the last fifty years has taught us. But so that the masses may understand what is to be done, long and persistent work is required . . . . Even in France the Socialists realise more and more that no durable success is possible unless they win over in advance the great mass of the people, which, in this case, means the peasants. The slow work of propaganda and parliamentary activity are here also recognised as the next task of the party”.
What did Engels say of socialism in “The Principles of Communism”? He said, “Above all, it will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat.”
What is the attitude of Marxism towards the question of authority and the cult of personality?
“Neither of us cares a straw for popularity. Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves— originating from various countries— to accord me public honour, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity, nor did I ever reply to them, save with an occasional snub. When Engels and I first joined the secret communist society, we did so only on condition that anything conducive to a superstitious belief in authority be eliminated from the Rules.” (Marx, Engels Collected Works V. 46, P. 288)
On the question of criticism Marx said his method of analysis embodied “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”
The Marxist view is that a socialist society cannot but be a democracy, even if its methods of attaining such a society are revolutionary. Marxism does not see the building of socialism as something that can be decreed or ordered from above, but something that can only emerge in the democratic struggle and process itself.
Such a view mirrors Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution, when she said in her 1918 pamphlet:
“The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties.
The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase. It has as its prerequisite a number of measures of force – against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot. New Territory. A thousand problems. Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts. The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. (Proof: the year 1905 and the months from February to October 1917.) There it was political in character; the same thing applies to economic and social life also. The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.”
Furthermore in another work Rosa says again,
“The modern proletarian class does not carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory; the modern workers’ struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight… That’s exactly what is laudable about it, that’s exactly why this colossal piece of culture, within the modern workers’ movement, is epoch-defining: that the great masses of the working people first forge from their own consciousness, from their own belief, and even from their own understanding the weapons of their own liberation.”
Yet somewhere along the way in the 20th century socialist experiment, this principle of mass rule and unfettered democracy was turned on its head. One of the peculiarities of Stalinism is its basis in Marxist theory, yet we see historically that a Stalinist society can only be maintained by political repression, murder, and the forcible suppression of actually existing political will. This violence is not against the “remnants” of the bourgeois class as our Stalinist theoreticians would allege but against the actually existing proletariat itself. The seasonal “renewal” of the class struggle as decreed by party bosses is not in actuality a renewal of class struggle, but of political repression against those workers and peasants who express discontent with the status quo. Its own justification for its existence is theoretical and abstract, it is the “historical necessity of progress towards communism”, “communism”, or even “history itself”. If 95% of the population (i.e. the proletariat) is opposed to the Stalinist dictatorship, it does not matter because every brutal act is justified for those who will exist under communism. But it is impossible to know just how many people genuinely support the Stalinist system of a particular country due to the repressive nature of a Stalinist dictatorship. Officially, everyone is a “free and happy people” who support the government. It is impossible to know how many people disapprove of the status quo because those who speak out are labeled as “class traitors”, “enemies of the people”, are arrested, imprisoned, exiled, or disappeared. Officially this doesn’t happen at all, but pointing out that it does “unofficially” happen is far more dangerous a thing to do than to proclaim oneself critical of the leader.
Social contradictions in a Stalinist society therefore, can only but build up to the point of social implosion. There is no real internal mechanism to address social contradictions and popular discontent. Thus it is only a matter of time before the whole system destroys itself. Like capitalism, Stalinism creates its own gravediggers.
The purpose of socialism is to actively and democratically address social contradictions to build a better world, not only the contradictions of the previous society, but the contradictions created in the construction of a new one. Revolution itself is an act of dissent, and that freedom of popular dissent cannot be limited without being lost. Eugene V. Debs said of this, “If it had not been for the discontent of a few fellows who had not been satisfied with their conditions, you would still be living in caves. Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”
Somewhere along the way socialism became not only something different from what Marx, Engels, or Rosa Luxemburg advocated, but entirely opposite. For example, Kim Jong Il said in his theoretical magnum opus “On The Juche Idea”:
“The core in the Juche outlook on the revolution is loyalty to the party and the leader. The cause of socialism and communism is started by the leader and is carried out under the guidance of the party and the leader. The revolutionary movement will be victorious only when it follows the guidance of the party and the leader. Therefore, to establish a correct outlook on the revolution, one must always put the main emphasis on increasing loyalty to the party and the leader…
The revolutionary practice of communists is nothing less than a struggle to implement the revolutionary idea of the leader and party policy. A man who upholds the revolutionary idea of the leader and dedicates his all to the struggle to carry out party policy is a genuine communist revolutionary with a correct outlook on the revolution.
Whether one has a correct outlook on the revolution or not is revealed particularly at a time of severe trials. People reveal their true nature in adverse circumstances. He who is determined to be infinitely faithful to the party and the leader even if he would have to give up his life and who remains loyal to his revolutionary principles on the scaffold, is a true revolutionary with a firm Juche outlook on the revolution.”
Somehow miraculously, the movement embodying “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be”, was turned into, “always [putting] the main emphasis on increasing loyalty to the party and the leader.”
The conversion of Marxism into a political religion would not only have mortified Marx, but is something intrinsically opposed to the principles of Marxism. The democratic rule of the masses as they actually exist, free to determine their own destiny, was replaced by something entirely different. As Enver Hoxha said, “Our Marxist-Leninist theory teaches us: Every revolutionary activity must be guided by the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory which the Marxist Leninist party masters, defends and faithfully applies.” It is not a question of democracy, but a question of faithful adherence to a particular ideology, to a single political party, and moreover to the central committee of that political party.
When Marx said, “WORKERS OF ALL LANDS, UNITE!” he did not by any means imagine his face next to Engels, with the faces of several other revolutionaries plastered to a wall behind a central committee giving a speech on “increasing loyalty to the leader” and “turning every cadre into ideologically sound anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninists”. On the contrary, Marx imagined that the working class, having won the battle of democracy, would be free to forge its own destiny unfettered by the past, unfettered even his own opinions and ideas. The socioeconomic system called communism was seen by Marx as a likely historical inevitability that would come about as a result of the seizure of power by the proletariat and the establishment of its democratic control of society, and not something brought about by faithfully and religiously following the ideas of Karl Marx or any other revolutionary. We again must reiterate, “That the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case.”
The point of this overemphasis on the quotes of long dead revolutionaries is not to advocate their conversion into icons, but to show to those who do convert them into icons that their ideological heroes deplore their own sanctification and the conversion of their ideas into a political religion. The future is unclear, undetermined by any one book, thinker, or theory. We can use reason and tools such as a historical materialist analysis to infer what kind of society would result from this or that measure, from this or that class seizing political power at this time or place. But we can never really know. Marx’s catchphrase was, “I do not have a crystal ball”. We must emphasize this view. In using reason we can infer that the results of the proletarian majority, or working class, seizing political power for itself and establishing a genuinely democratic society, could only be benevolent, especially if applied to a developed society where negative liberty and formal democracy are already the norm and eagerly long for expansion. The introduction of industrial democracy and community self-governance, we believe, can only be benevolent, can only expand the liberty we enjoy now, can only be a means to greater shared abundance.
“The great only appear great because we are on our knees – let us rise”. -James Connolly