Marx and dictatorship
IN THE WORLD TODAY there are many countries under dictatorships of varying degrees of ruthlessness; that is to say countries in which the government is not responsible to the electorate, and in which political parties and trade unions are suppressed, or are allowed to exist only as organs of the government itself, and in which freedom of speech and opposition propaganda are denied.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain, in conformity with its adherence to democratic principles, is opposed to all dictatorships; but we are asked to believe by the Communist parties that while some dictatorships are to be condemned others, such as that in Russia, deserve the support of socialists.
It is of first importance that our reasons for rejecting that view should be understood.
The socialist movement in its formative years developed against the European background at a time when all of the governments were autocracies — not subject to control by electors on a wide franchise. They all in greater or lesser degree represented the interests of a landed class resisting the rise to political power of the industrial capitalists and, of course, were even more opposed to the aspirations of the working class. At the extreme was the so-called Holy Alliance, proclaimed by Alexander I, Tsar of Russia in 1815, as the protector of reactionary regimes everywhere against the industrial capitalists, against the movements for national independence, and against democracy and the working class effort to organise industrially and politically.
In the circumstances of the time it seemed logical to Marx and others that the workers in their own independent organisations should accept that for the moment their interests coincided with those of the capitalist democrats, until such time as the absolutist regimes had been overthrown, and should then continue their struggle against the new capitalist regimes. It was assumed that "the bourgeois democratic governments" could be placed in the situation of immediately losing "all backing among the workers". (Marx's address to the Communist League, 1850. Reproduced in A Handbook of Marxism, Victor Gollancz Ltd.. 1937, page 67.)
While Marx did not suppose that the working class could at once expect to gain political control for Socialism he did envisage the possibility of the workers' organisations retaining the initiative in their progress towards that end. Marx recognised that if the feudal estates on being broken up were handed over to the peasants as their private property (as had happened in France after the Revolution) this would set up a barrier against the development of the socialist movement and he urged that this should be prevented and instead the land should be handed over to "associated groups" of landless peasants.
Events failed to develop as Marx had at that time hoped. With our advantage of viewing the process afterwards we can see that Marx underestimated the magnitude of the problem of winning over the working class to acceptance of world-wide Socialism, and equally underestimated the strength of capitalism and the resourcefulness of the capitalist class in imbuing the workers with capitalist and nationalist ideas.
Later on, as Marx pursued his analysis of social development he was to formulate his view that "no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new. higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb at the old society".
In its techniques and potentialities of production. European capitalism has made vast strides in the past century. It has been oustripped by the United States of America; but there are many parts of the world in which the development of capitalism has not yet reached the form existing, for example, in Britain and America in which the social structure has resolved itself into a capitalist class confronting an enfranchised working class.
In some countries, such as Spain and Greece and much of Latin America, the struggle of the industrial and commercial capitalists to overthrow political regimes favourable to landowning classes was much later in being completed. The democratic forms that for a time existed were overthrown and replaced by authoritarian dictatorships. Some point to this as proof of the myth discussed in the previous section (democracy and dictatorship) that, faced with a revolutionary working class movement, the capitalist government would just suspend democracy. In fact, it proves the opposite. It is precisely because the working class was undeveloped that political democracy proved unstable in these countries. With a large part of their populations often illiterate and still working the land under pre-capitalist conditions of exploitation, these countries' governments were able to rule in a way they could not if faced with a modern educated urban working class. It is instructive to note that with the continued industrial development which these dictatorships are powerless to prevent, they themselves are forced to come to terms with the capitalists and ditch the more reactionary elements that originally backed them. This process can be seen in Spain and Greece.
Economic backwardness and a small working class, often smaller than in the countries just discussed (in most African countries, at present, the working class makes up
only a very small proportion of the population) also underlie dictatorships of another sort. These, far from favouring pre-capitalist privileged groups, use State power ruthlessly to sweep away all obstacles, social and ideological, to the spread of the capitalist relations of production for sale, capital accumulation, and wage-labour in the areas they control. Many of these regimes claim to be socialist but in fact they are pursuing a policy of State capitalism after the manner of Russia. The rulers of State capitalist Russia claim that their dictatorship is the instrument by which capitalism has been overthrown and replaced by Socialism.
This claim is defended in Communist Party propaganda on the ground of a statement made by Marx in 1875 that:
"Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political
transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat."
(Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme.)
A detailed study by Hal Draper of the occasions on which Marx and Engels used this and similar phrases provides convincing proof that Marx meant here nothing more than was meant by the statement in the Communist Manifesto that the working class must achieve "conquest of political power". (New Politics, Vol. I, No. 4, Summer 1962.)
This has no resemblance to the regime in Russia where for more than sixty years a party clique has exercised dominance over the population by military force, secret police, censorship and the other manifestations of absolutist rule now being more and more challenged.
That Marx should believe a transition period to be necessary, considering the level of industrial, social and political development in 1875 is understandable. Marx accepted that a more or less prolonged transition would be required also because of the mental outlook of the people and because of the productive capacity of society being not yet equal to the demands made on it under the new conditions.
As has already been stated, the Socialist Party's view from its formation has been that there can be no Socialism until the great majority of the working class fully understands and accepts the implications of what they are consciously setting out to achieve. Dictatorship in various forms exists at the present time, basically because of the political immaturity of most of the working class all over the world. Instead of being united by world-wide class consciousness they are everywhere divided: divided between the nations by the poison of nationalism; divided inside the nations by religious, racial and other superstitions; divided also by the failure of many to appreciate the importance of democracy.
When Marx wrote of the working class winning the battle of democracy he did not foresee that tbe extension of the franchise was to bring into being Labour and Social Democratic governments which would continue to administer capitalism. Instead of the odium of perpetuating capitalism falling on the capitalists it has had considerable effect in bringing democracy into disrepute, thus helping demagogues such as Mussolini and Hitler to rise to power and helping the Communist parties in Russia and elsewhere to gain support for their dictatorships.
Nationalism plays a powerful role in thwarting the growth of class consciousness; by inducing workers in the newly created countries of Africa to accept oppression for the supposed benefits they will later receive when industrial development has been speeded up; by the readiness of the workers in countries holding colonies to condone what is in effect a dictatorship imposed on the colonial peoples.
In this category falls the Russian military occupation of Czechoslovakia and other countries in the Russian sphere of interest; matched by the readiness of workers in the NATO countries to condone the similar actions of these governments on the plea that this is a necessity thrust on them by the threat of Russian military power.
Spain, in the civil war 1936-39, and Greece in the civil war and military dictatorship of later years are other examples of rival groups of powers propping up governments acceptable to their own strategic needs.
Against all these manifestations of capitalism the Socialist Party of Great Britain proclaims the need for world¬wide Socialism using the methods of democracy.
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Marx and Engels by Hal Draper
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