Saturday, July 11, 2009

Socialist Democracy, Snowflakes & the Restoration of Capitalism by Mike Ely

The essay by Rosa L. Blanc on Bhattarai’s “New Type of State” has led to an extensive discussion of forms of socialist democracy and their impact on the dangers of capitalist restoration. The following contains thoughts provoked by that discussion.

“We communists now need to creatively uncover new ways to broaden the base and mass participation in future socialist transition processes. That is one of the sharp lessons of the 20th century. It raises the need for a radically deeper appreciation and application of Mao’s concept of mass line. We should assume the need for radical departures from any ’model’ drawn from the 1930s USSR. But I don’t assume that multi-party electoral systems should be seen as universal — as if the solution to our problem is now ‘there for the taking’ before we even tried out these concepts in a new revolutionary attempt.”

by Mike Ely

Revolution often takes the form of a civil war between two sections of the people. Marxists perceive this process as the overthrow of one class by another — and seek to lead that process toward the replacement of class society by socialism and communism. But, at another level of analysis, society polarizes into those who want radical change and those who congeal around defending the old society — and they fight it out.

How that polarization goes down marks the future framework of society.

The reason the Soviet Union developed the way it did was not simply because they had an “idea” of a one-party state — but also because the polarization from which they emerged was a particularly punishing one: they seized the cities for socialism, but had little root among the majority of the population (the peasants), and in the course of the civil war, the flower of the working class’ revolutionary generation died at the front. This created particularly severe choices — and you found one part of the population arming itself to impose the socialist society on other (and rather large) parts.

In some ways, Soviet society remained a society locked in civil war — and the side of the revolutionaries found themselves deporting, jailing and silencing large numbers of people. That is not great conditions for the flowering (and preservation) of socialism.

The Allignments of Revolution Impacting the Forms of Power

So in some ways, I think that the one-party state emerged from the particular conditions of that Russian revolution…. conditions that also framed the decline of forward revolutionary energies, and produced conditions in which capitalism was restored (without visible resistance within the party or the population).

And looking at that process, first Mao and now we have understood that somehow — through various decisions, preparations, modifications, changes in our forms of organization and work etc. — we need to develop a revolutionary polarization in which far broader sections of the population can be engaged (actively and over time) in the process of socialist transformation. And the polarization of a revolution has deep roots in the pre-revolutionary developments. (Example: the initial decision of the early social democrats in Russia to focus almost exclusively on urban workers, had long range implications for their lack of later post-revolutionary roots among rural and peasant people).

With that in mind, the Nepali Maoists have chosen to alternate military and political offensives — and give time and attention ( before the seizure of power) to broadening the base of the revolution. I think they believe if they seize power with too narrow a base, they will effectively be forced to continue to rule by pointing the gun at large sections of the population — with all the implications that has for the revolutionary process.

We have had two major socialist revolutions (Russia and China), and a number of smaller attempts at power (Vietnam, Cuba, etc). And, in ways that seem rather obviously mechanical, some communists say there are two models for revolution (i.e. a Soviet-style October Road, and a Chinese-style protracted peoples war). However I suspect that each future socialist revolution will be startlingly different (in its forms of approaching power, and perhaps in its forms of wielding new state power) — and so, while learning from the October Revolution and the Chinese revolution, I don’t think we should universalize their paths, or their forms of state power.

(Look at the diversity of capitalist rule: constitutional monarchies, fascism, military juntas, presidential democracies, parliamentary democracies, religious theocracies, racial apartheid, revisionist-style state capitalism and more….. Why would we assume that socialist societies won’t have its own remarkable diversity of forms, reflecting both some inherent dynamics of socialist transition but also very particular histories and conditions producing various revolutions?)

On Models and Universalities

While I disagree with the main thrust of the Indian Maoist polemical critique of the Nepali Maoists– i agree on this secondary point:

I think it is a mistake for communists to quickly “universalize” their own particular strategic and tactical choices — i.e. to declare that their own particular ideas and methods apply “universally” throughout the world.

Nepal has (to put it mildly!) rather unique political conditions. It has a dozen or more communist parties (of very varied political and class complextions). It has a revolutionary process that has been focused on overthrowing an autocratic, monarchist and feudal state structure. It has had a history where Indian-style parliamentary democracy and Mao-style revolutionary peoples democracy have been twin, competing visions of future Nepal, and so on.

It may well be possible (as Prachanda and Bhattarai believe) to create a diverse new socialist “mainstream” to replace the old feudo-colonial “mainstream” — and so (within a larger anti-feudal and revolutionary framework) have a “multiparty democracy.” The world will learn from their attempt.

But it seems certainly premature and overreaching to assert that this very particular form of socialist political institution is a “universal” innovation — or that it should apply to a country like India (where the whole history of parliamentary democracy has unfolded differently for decades etc), or a country like the U.S. where there has never been a European-style parliament with many parties etc., and where the particular assumptions and operations of that kind of electorialism (even in the last two centuries of bourgeois politics) have no real roots.

Put another way: Perhaps two hundred years of bourgeois competitive two-party elections in the U.S. will (justifiably) discredit that form among the revolutionary people who arise in North America — and so the socialist forms of democracy will take not take the form of national, competitive multi-party elections but some radically different form. Personally, I believe that any revolutoinary process emerging in the U.S. that doesn’t include a broad, deeply felt, visceral disdain for the corrupt, manipulated, falsely-legitimizing two-party electoral system probably won’t be worth spit.

In other words, I deeply agree we communists now need to creatively uncover new ways to broaden the base and mass participation in future socialist transition processes. That is one of the sharp lessons of the 20th century.

I think that recognition will have an impact on how we communists do (and see) our organizations and work in pre-revolutionary times. And it raises the need for a radically deeper appreciation and application of Mao’s concept of mass line.

I think we should assume the need for radical departures from any ’model’ drawn from 1930s USSR. (I would think that would be obvious to anyone who has studied that experience! And here arises some of the real problems with the Indian Maoist polemic mentioned above — which fumes against sharp, deepening and very necessary critiques of the Stalin era. Their founding party documents talk about the “Great Stalin” and so on in ways that suggest deep problems of summation and conception).

But given that, I still don’t assume that multi-party electoral systems should be seen as universal. I.e. as if the solution to our problem is now “there for the taking” in that one form. And as if we can assume the problem is now been solved (before we even tried out these concepts and forms in a new revolutionary attempt!) Let’s try out and sum up this attempt at socialist “multi-party democracy” — and let’s also imagine and debate other new forms of mass agency under socialism.

[There is a general problem in assuming that solutions can be found by identifying and then universalizing specific forms — commune, soviet, institutionalized vanguard, direct workers rule at the base, multiparty elections etc. — when in fact, (as Mao said) all forms can lend themselves to restoration and the deep contradictions have to be fought out, concretely, in the particular crossroads of real life, and are generally not solved by identifying specific-forms-as-solutions. This is part of methodological issue that Redflags dubbed “structure over people.”)

On Blaming the “Party-State” for Restoration

I think Rosa L Blanc has helped spur our investigations into “Prachanda Path.” The Nepali Maoist proposals havebeen kicked about quite a bit, with few people rising to clarify those views or defend their arguments. And I think this is very important for our own theoretical work, here that Rosa jumped out to do this.

At the same time, thanks to this discussion Rosa has kicked off, I want to take the opportunity to point out a difference between Rosa’s views and Bhattarai’s.

It is quite common in some places to place the blame of capitalist restoration on the “Party State.” By extension it is argued (by Bettelheim for example) that capitalist restoration happened very early in Soviet history — certainly by the 1930s, perhaps in the 1920s, and even, perhaps, there was no socialism at all. (For Bettelheim in particular, direct control by the working people looms as such an important indicator of communist revolution that the real-world experiences of socialist revolution all fall short.)

Badiou (and many French Maoists) have always seen the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a revolt against the Stalinist (or Leninist) “Party-state” — and as the last gasp of that political form. And (by extension) they often see Mao as having betrayed the revolutionary spirit of the early Cultural Revolution half-way through the process — since he sought to rercreate the communist party on a new basis in the course of the cultural revolution, and found it necessary to call off the most unbridled aspects of the mass upheaval.

We have debated these issues before (as Land points out)in the post “Antaeus: Why Did Post-Maoist China Restore Capitalism?.” And we will certainly discuss them again.

Rosa L writes:

“I believe that in our international communist movement we are still defending the Stalinist ONE PARTY-ONE STATE model that led to the restoration of capitalism and unable to move beyond this dogma.

On that one point, I just want to make some observations:

First (as I said above) I don’t think that the Stalin-era system was simple the result of bad ideas (though there truly extremely wrong choices made, and truly horrific acts carried out). It was also the outgrowth of the way the particular Russian revolutionary process ended up limiting the available choices — and then a result of the specific choices made by Soviet communists (led by Stalin) in that context.

Second, when Rosa argues that the “one party-one state model” LED to the restoration of capitalism — i need to point out that this is NOT Bhattarai (or Mao’s) theory. Bhatarrai thinks that the political forms under Stalin CONTRIBUTED to the EVENTUAL restoration of capitalism — but not that this political form was (itself) the moment of restoration (or even the only cause).

The Roots of Restoration Within the Contradictoriness of Socialism Itself

Sometimes the debate over the periodization of Soviet history is tiresome (when exactly was the revolution over? 1918? 1921? 1933? 1939? 1956? 1989? and so on). But that debate (which focus on different shades around “the Stalin question”) DOES concentrate important conclusions about “what is the problem? what is the solution?”

Bhattarai, like Mao, thinks that the errors and forms of the Soviet revolution contributed to the growth of capitalist elements within the party and the state. And in particular, Mao talks about the need to “expose our dark side, openly and from below” — clearly thad did not happen in the soviet union, and that “dark side” was very dark, and the broad population was driven away from political life by a very heavy hand of state repression. But Bhattarai thinks that capitalist restoration was fought in the Stalin years — just not particularly well.

Mao’s theory was that capitalist roaders emerged from the very nature of socialism — from the existance of capitalist elements in the very dynamics of socialists society (from wage differences, from the need for central management, from the pull of continuing commodity exchange, from the continuing division of mental and manual labor, from the need for a standing army in an imperialist world, and so on). And because the capitalist restoration did not SIMPLY arise from the weakness of popular agency, the solution to capitalist restoration is not SIMPLY to increase FORMS of popular participation in socialist political decision making. The problem is more difficult than that, and the solution is more complex.

Again: I think that (as a communist movement) we need to find ways to greatly expand the base of the communist revolution (including before seizing power), and the mass participation in the revolutionary process. I think that we have to deeply and creatively reconsider what socialist democracy can look like (without forgetting that post-revolutionary society needs to prevent the old oppressors from coming back). I think there is an emerging sense among many of the most revolutionary communists that this reconception must include much more free speech, free press, debate, mass decisionmaking and by greatly dialing down the repressive impulses of the new state at every stage of the revolutionary process.

And inevitably, there has to be a sharp look at the assumptions that a communist party is inherently a vanguard — that it can declare itself a vanguard before leading anyone, and that it can be assumed to be a vanguard without a continuous,critical and public process. History has not been kind to that idea.

Snowflakes: Diversity Arising from Framing Conditions Beyond Our Control

But I also don’t think we should fool ourselves that the creation of public popular democratic forms of participation is a magic bullet against capitalist restoration. Or that accomplishing this obviously necessary flowering of mass participation is simply a matter of breaking with our own dogma. The problem emerges from reality, from real world contradictions of revolutionary class struggle and class allignments, not just from our own preconceptions or from the lingering power of Stalin-era dogmas.

Revolutionary situations themselves sometimes decide what our polarization is, and we may not get one as favorable as we want — objective conditions may decide how strong our forces are, how broad our support, how tenacious the anti-socialist resistance, how isolated the revolution is internationally, how threatening outside military and covert operations are… and so on. And all of those things impact the political forms of the post-revolutionary society. Revolutionaries don’t get many chances to seize power, and should not forgo an opportunity cuz the polarization is not quite what we wanted.

That is why I think it is important:

a) not to just think that the problem in the Soviet Union was one of wrong conceptions, these were also problems of the objective class alignments within the post-revolutionary society. and

b) I don’t think we can assume that we can know or decide what our own revolutionary polarizations will be, when in fact they are often (in part) decreed by forces far beyond our control. and

c) I think we should understand that “revolutions are like snowflakes” — each one will be radically different in its presentation, and in its post revolutionary forms and so we should be very reluctant to quickly declare one form or another “universal,” and

d) I don’t think we should think that capitalist restoration SIMPLY comes from the separation of the leaders and the led, and so I don’t think we should think that our urgently necessary rethinking of political forms will be a single magic bullet preventing capitalist restoration.

The Back-and-Forth of the Real-World Process of Socialist Transition

TNL writes:

“The one-party state, even supplemented with a cultural revolution has consistently led to the restoration of capitalism. It is done. The verdict is in and the people (rightly) hate it.

I think there is some important truth here. I think there are few places on earth where people will say “we want what the Soviet people had in the 1930s.” And if there had not been a cultural revolution (distrupting all that) during the 1960s, i don’t think Mao’s China would be perceived as the beginnings of a positive alternative to that Soviet experience.

It was once obvious and assumed that socialism would necessarily have a rich political life of debate, contention and popular involvement. If after the 1930s other assumptions came to the fore, well, it is long past time to reverse that. (And obviously not just because “the people” demand it — however important THAT is — but also because we can see you can’t have socialist transition without it.)

On the other hand I want to look more closely at this statement:

“”The one-party state, even supplemented with a cultural revolution has consistently led to the restoration of capitalism. It is done. The verdict is in…”

Is this causality really true? Is the victory of capitalist restoration proof that the methods adopted by revolutionaries can be discarded as wrong?

First: Can we really look at revolutions in one country so discretely? Perhaps China could not sustain a socialist revolution beyond two decades without a larger global socialist camp. Perhaps capitalist forces were going to overwhelm the socialist impulse eventually no matter how good their methods were unless the world revolution took a leap? Or perhaps, the world process inherently goes through spirals of revolution, restoration, and then new revolution — as it mode of approaching a communist world.

In the early Soviet days, socialism was seen as an expanding inkblot — the first revolution happened in central Russia, and future revolutions would be “add-ons” to an expanding Soviet federation… until the world was socialist and then communist. It was rather linear, and had no expectation of major reversal.

In practice they were not able to expand the Soviet federation continually. They annexed the baltics and parts of Poland — but they did not insert East Germany into an enlarged USSR. And certainly the Chinese revolutionaries were in no mood to subsume New China within a single Soviet federation.

But in fact, capitalist revolution against feudalism (from the 1500s to 1900s) didn’t take anything like a linear route. The early Hanseatic League (merchant capital city states within feudal Europe) rose and fell. the first real capitalist revolution (the anti-monarchist uprising in France 1789) led to Napoleon crowning himself emperor within ten years — with a wave of Bourbon counterrevolution following him as well. Then the revolutions of 1848 (which were crushed, not victorious) eroded another layer of feudal hegemony and strength.

Despite awful restorations, within two generations of the French setbacks, capitalism was calling the tune across Europe. It didn’t take a linear form, but a wavelike form that included repeated restoration, and then new revolution.

Or, look at the U.S. bourgeois revolution, which abolished slavery in 1865, and yet restored feudal sharecropping as the dominant Southern mode of production in the counterrevolutions of the 1870s and 80s — here too there was revolution and restoration, out of which a dominant and dynamic capitalism eventually emerged hegemonic).

What happens if we entertain this idea: The fall of socialism in the 20th century was not mainly the fault of the primitiveness or errors of the revolutionaries, but was mainly a result of the narrowness of the base of socialist transition in that century”?

Certainly there were errors. Certainly there were first-timer conceptions that we need to break with. Certainly there are many things in those socialist revolutions that we can’t (and won’t) repeat or uphold.

But is it really true that the restorations were MAINLY the result of our own errors?

I have come to suspect that the socialist world process will have sharp wavelike peaks and valleys. There have been tsunamis of revolutionary upheaval (in Europe after world war 1, in the formerly colonial world in the 1950s, worldwide in 1968) — and they would recede leaving some places deeply changed, but with newly-formed socialist experiments clinging for life (almost like fish stranded in tidal pools after the high tide recedes).

Could it be that this is the real-world process through which socialist victory emerges worldwide — through this complex and repeated “changing of places” of the two opposites, revolution and counterrevolution, restoration and counter-restoration, capitalism and socialism? And all of this happening while the socialization of the planet, its urbanization, its experience with socialism and capitalism, its destruction of lingering feudalism, the acutement of modern society’s ecological crisis etc — all while this larger global process increases (in world historic ways) the objective basis for communism and weakens the basis for private capitalist appropriation.

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