“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can be made only in the imagination. They are real individuals, their activity and their material conditions of life, including those which they find already in existence and those produced by their activity.” – Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, (1845-46)
Contrary to what you might think, or have been taught, Marxism is not antithetical to democracy. Historical events notwithstanding – for these can be argued over endlessly – it is undeniable that scientific socialism articulates the possibility and necessity of democracy.
What could be more democratic than Marx’s materialist conception of history? The idea that it is ordinary people that truly make history, not bosses or rulers, is one aspect of Marxian theory which points towards democracy being possible, the critique of profit and production geared towards generating a surplus value adds moral weight to the argument that there should be not only political democracy but also economic democracy.
One other misapprehension is that Marxism is doctrinaire; that it possesses a static view of human affairs being directed by economic activity. It is not that Marxian theory is reductionist, as its critics would suggest, with the economic organisation of society determining every aspect of human activity.
The economic base does not equal the political superstructure. Rather, there is a dialectical relationship between the two, a feedback loop. Changes in the economic base start to be highlighted by changes in the superstructure, and so superstructural innovations impact upon the base.
Another way of putting it might be to say that the economy does not control the polity; and conversely, the polity does not determine the economy. This would appear clear enough today, when the ability for the working class to utilise the existing state for its own ends is even more limited by the neo-liberal structure of the modern state.
With the conquest of political power it becomes apparent that the old government was not strictly in power, but rather in office. Workers’ gaining political power does not translate into workers’ gaining economic power. The first seizure of power by workers, which was the Paris Commune of 1871, did not immediately lead to attempt to attain economic power. In this instance, the seizure of power was of necessity rather than design.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to a determined attempt at working class control of the economy, the forms of which emerged out of the struggle. Political democracy was acquired via the soviets – the workers’ councils – and so, for a time, was full economic democracy.
That the revolution took place in this manner and was successful was down to the theoretical strength of the Bolsheviks. It goes without saying that such mental power would have been nothing without the power of the working class; the two factors, theory and organisation, are symbiotic.
In the period prior to the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks soldiered on in theory and organisation. They were not awaiting a revolution, or expecting that their party would be the protagonist in creating a revolutionary situation. Material conditions only went so far in determining the Revolution; from there the conscious activity of the party was decisive.
Organs of working class self-government are usually established for the continuation of struggle, out of necessity rather than by conscious design. Their striking feature is the manner in which the wall dividing politics and economics is demolished.
Proletarian democracy is direct and participatory; its purest forms have been embryonic, material conditions, security issues and bureaucratisation have in the past prevented the full development of the council system. The institutions of a proletarian democracy are situated in the workplace and the neighbourhood; they are embedded in everyday life and yet connected to the economy and polity on a national and international scale.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, there exists a wealth of knowledge and experience which can and will be utilised to build economies that are ecologically sustainable and equitable. Socialism in the 21st Century starts with a higher level of material development and expertise, and can be more responsive and efficient than prior economic arrangements by means of a system of democratic planning and management.
“Why won’t you learn anything?”
A lack of understanding of the processes of historical development can lead the even finest thinkers into constructing an imagined future that embodies their principles but can never be attained. Utopian schemes have been put into place, of course, with varying degrees of success and can be separated them from revolutionary formations by their unscientific nature, their introspection and isolation.
The limits of action must be made apparent with any endeavour; frequently, the utopian ventures have been without an awareness of the limitations of isolated social experiments. To be sure, utopian schemes and dreams have been influential upon historical movements which have succeeded. This does not detract from the lack of awareness inherent in utopianism.
At the risk of sounding a little dreamy, I will say that dreaming is a necessity, but lucidity is essential for desires to be realised. This balance, between dreaming and waking, is like the balance of theory and practice: dialectical, interpenetrated, and iterative.
Without the counterweight of reality, the blueprints for a better society are not only shallow doctrines, but actually counterproductive. Because one starts off with such a clear vision and without the capacity to process new information, there can be no learned experience, and hence, no progress.
In terms of reforms to improve living conditions within capitalism, whilst these can succeed, this is not without disempowering some at the expense of others or retaining the existing mentality rather than advancing an understanding of class struggle. Without the concomitant rising of consciousness, working class self-organisation is not possible, and so the reform intended to aid the working class does not entirely succeed because the source of violence, poverty and illness remains.
This is why the reformist is also a utopian and why it can be said that utopianism is a variant of reformism: to leave aside the question of which class rules is to neglect the fact that most social problems are arising out of the class system or are exacerbated by it, rather than existing alongside and being unaffected by capitalism. Thus if one is oriented towards effecting gradual changes or creating social experiments without any understanding of the limitations of these approaches, the centrality of the class struggle becomes displaced, and there is then no prospect of creating a permanent change in social conditions.
And I quote…
To end, Karl Marx, from his work of 1847, The Poverty of Philosophy:
“Just as the economists are the scientific representatives of the bourgeoisie, so the socialists and communists are the theorists of the proletariat. As long as the proletariat is not sufficiently developed to constitute itself into a class, as long therefore as the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie has not acquired a political character, and while the productive forces are not yet sufficiently developed, within bourgeois society itself, to give an indication of the material conditions necessary for the emancipation of the proletariat and the constitution of a new society, these theorists remain Utopians who, in order to remedy the distress of the oppressed classes, improvise systems and pursue a regenerative science. But as history continues, and the struggle of the proletariat takes shape more clearly, they have no further need to look for a science in their own minds; they have only to observe what is happening before their eyes, and to make themselves its vehicle of expression. As long as they are looking for a science and only create systems, as long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty only poverty, without noticing its revolutionary and subversive aspect, which will overthrow the old society. But from this moment, the science produced by the historical movement, and which consciously associates itself with this movement, has ceased to be doctrinaire and has become revolutionary.”