Do democracy and dictatorship exclude or supplement each other?

A critique of Davis, ‘The Road to Anti-State, Anti-market Socialism ‘

On the 10th of June, in “Defund the police” or what? we looked back on the turn the movement of protest and riots against police repression in the USA took in the direction of reform and elections. Its main analysis was:

  • Past efforts to reform the police have proven to be ineffective. Even a radical reform of the police will end up with only more effective power of the state over proletarian neighborhoods.
  • The police were more reluctant in using violence, violence had proven counterproductive.
  • The bourgeois dictatorship must be hidden behind democracy, especially in the actual beginning of the economic depression.
  • At that moment the movement in the USA had reached its limits. Not able to bring forwards slogans and demands that express the interests of the proletariat, the movement accepted what are false perspectives, brought forwards by the left faction of the state.

As a perspective for the defense against repression, the article underlined that for the proletariat, this is not only a question of violence. As an exploited and oppressed class with a historic future it depends even more than the historic outdated capitalist class on its capacity to present itself as representing society and humanity as a whole.

The article proposed as the next step the proletariat to organize (already) unemployed in mass assemblies in the streets or in conquered buildings, in elected and revocable unemployed committees, in mass marches to places of work where redundancies are announced, and unification with the (still) working proletarians. There are several reasons why this perspective is not realized (yet).

On a mass level, the movement had reached its limits. The police terror in proletarian neighborhoods in blatant infringement of the ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ supposedly reigning in bourgeois society, was conceived from the perspective of an all-class ‘citizen’ and not of that of ‘free wage workers’, employed or unemployed, exploited in labor with fixed contracts or precarious, or held in reserve for return of ‘full employment’ during generalized imperialist war. Therefor ‘Defund the police’ opened not ‘The Road to Anti-State, Anti-market Socialism’ but a ‘citizen’ road to local democracy, to the choice between Democrats and Republicans, for or against Trump, and finally the coming presidential election campaign. Who wanted to continue in the streets was offered a symbolic struggle, storming statues.

On the level of those communist minorities that call themselves council communists or that are inspired by the historical German and Dutch communist left, we could see that most of them acted and thought the same as most anarchists. Not able to find proletarian arguments against the false opposition between racism and interclass anti-racism, or simply by joining left identitarianism, intersectionality, and privilege theory, they fell prey to bourgeois democratism, opposing democracy and dictatorship in the style of the German council communist Otto Rühle in his last years.1

The Road Yet Traveled.
The Road to Anti-State, Anti-market Socialism

The following critique uses the occasion of the recently revised and complemented edition of Jim Davis’ The Road Yet Traveled. The Road to Anti-State, Anti-market Socialism2) as far as it is an example of the democratism reigning in present council communism. When it became clear that Davis was revising his text, I send him the first draft of this critique. It, unfortunately, stayed unanswered, also when I brought to his attention that I had used the draft for the actuality article on Defund the Police, mentioned above. This is a missed opportunity to clarify eventual misunderstandings, before publishing this critique.

Frankly, I don’t quite understand why Davis evades discussion. The word ‘discuss(ion)’ cannot be found in his 32 pages pamphlet. However, I did find the following phrases: “The revolutionary group is not a political party. By this I mean, the revolutionary group is not one of those organizations, which have certain ideological interests to advance at the expense of other similar organizations.” (p. 11). May be Davis – like most followers of Rühles anti-party tendency – considers discussion amongst revolutionaries, even with an unorganized individual like Fredo Corvo, as a ‘party affair’, meaning political struggle in the style of bourgeois parliamentarism, at the market of bourgeois ideological ideas, where parties fight each other for the destruction of their competitors. But then Davis should explain how we can clarify very practical questions like that on what to say about Defund the Police, without discussing?

For a Marxist analysis of the state

For those (both anarchists and ‘Leninists’ 3) that consider council communism as ‘anti-authoritarian’ and close to or even part of anarchism, let me be clear. The historical council communism originated in 1920-ties in Germany had its roots in the Marxism of social-democracy and communism. Its position on the state is deeply Marxist, understanding the state as an emanation of a society divided into social classes, that will persist as long as classes will exist. Anarchism and some branches of council communism fight against the idea of the state, abolishing it only verbally, maintaining the market and/or evading ‘political’ struggle in the sense of the destruction of the state.

In his lifetime Marx changed his position on the state. In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, he considered the state a means to be used by the proletarian ‘party’ (meaning the proletarian masses struggling and organized as a class ‘for themselves’) to force the progress of the bourgeois revolution against the will of a reluctant and weak German bourgeoisie, afraid of the proletariat. The perspective was to change this bourgeois revolution into a proletarian revolution with the help of a proletarian revolution starting in France. Marx believed this use of the state as an instrument of the proletariat agreed with the fact that in past revolutions from one exploiters’ society to another, the revolutionary class, f.e. the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution, conquered the existing state (feudal in the example) and transformed it to its interests (market conform legislation, representation of bourgeois interests in Parliament, etc.). As far as I know, after the failure of the bourgeois revolutions of 1848, Marx never returned to this strategy of permanent revolution, nor to the idea of bourgeois revolution, even not for backward countries as Russia.4)

After the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx changed his idea that the exploiters’ state could function as an instrument of the revolutionary proletariat. In his The State and Revolution, Lenin in 1917 quoted Marx declaring this change of position:

  • … One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’…. 5)
  • “The Commune … was …essentially… the political form at last discovered under which the economic emancipation of labor could be accomplished” 6)

However, Lenin in the belief to follow Marx’ model of permanent revolution of the Manifesto of 1848, after October 1917, in fact, used the old Tsarist bureaucrats and generals as personal of the ‘Soviet’ State of ‘Peasants and Workers’, and at the same time let the management of enterprises in the hands of the old capitalist owners or in that of state agencies of economical planning (following reformist ideas), disarming the workers and depriving them of all power.

Understanding the half-state or Commune-state

This historical fact makes clear that we need not only understand the question of the bourgeois state to be destroyed in revolution but as well that of the half-state or Commune-state, as Marx called the state in a situation where the proletariat is in power, a state that will ‘die-off’ or ‘wither away’ when the classes disappear and the resistance of the old exploiting and ruling classes finally will be broken.

It is at this important point, that I believe The Road to Anti-State, Anti-market Socialism fails.
At p. 5, Davis is more clear than elsewhere on the moment of revolution:

“The revolution will see a general arming of the people [dangerous formulation, at best meaning ‘the lower classes’] during the general insurrection, breaking free of the capitalist monopoly on arms, and using them to destroy class rule & its capitalist state.”

Unclear in the fragment is what Davis means with ‘class rule & its capitalist state’. Any class rule? Does this mean that in the historical moment of insurrection classes stop to exist, and with that, the state has become superfluous? According to anarchist ideas with the capitalist state destructed, classes disappear. Davis does underline ‘The abolition of private property through the socialization of land, workplaces, and natural resources’ (p. 4) However, this is a legal act, it is words, declared by the councils, but then the real transformation only begins. The final disappearance of classes will happen only during the revolution understood as a process in which the insurrection is only a moment. As Marxists understand, it is in a process of transition that the ‘half-state’ or ‘Commune-state’ will ‘die-off’. The former capital owners and their higher corporate employees, the state bureaucracy, the army, the secret services, the police, they all will be amongst the ‘people’ and will try to regroup themselves and use the arms ‘of the people’ for the restoration of their former class power. On page 10, we can read that before the revolution the revolutionary class cannot give up the right to use violence especially when the ruling class shows no qualms ever about using it against the working class and oppressed sectors. But what about violence in the insurrection? And after the insurrection, during the period of transition, when these bourgeois elements will not simply have disappeared? What will the proletariat do to prevent counterrevolution? I will deal with this later under the heading Democracy and dictatorship.

Generally, the term ‘people’ is used in bourgeois ideology to include capital, labor, and petty bourgeoisie into national unity, with institutions like the state and the army, elections and parliament that pretended to represent this all-class ‘people’. In the case of the ‘Soviet’ Union, we know the mystification of Workers’ and Peasants’ State. In the case of China and the army, and national ‘liberation’ movements, we know the Peoples (Liberation) Army. Davis does not mean this, but when he uses the term ‘people’, f.e. in “The abolition of all standing armies through a general arming of the people” (p. 5), what he wants to express is misunderstood, or can be misused. I believe that the reality of the proletarian revolution in Russia, in Germany, and Hungary from 1917 to 1923 has shown that in revolution only the proletariat should be armed, and where the proletariat after its victory has been disarmed, as in Russia, the proletarian revolution is lost, as in situations where the armed proletarians have been defeated, as in Germany and Hungary.

This brings us to another question: will ‘the people’ be the acting subject of this process of transformation of society or will it be the proletariat 7), the first productive and revolutionary class that is at the same time an exploited class? Davis choice for intersectionalism and left identity politics brings him to abandon the working class as the revolutionary subject:

“Contrary to socialist tradition, the struggle against capitalism is not just a struggle of the working class. For as capitalism diversified its modes of oppression, the numbers of oppressed groups who feel alienated and aware of their alienation grows. Leading to a point of direct resistance across the entire spectrum of oppressed groups. Each group having different and conflicting interests [sic], yet still being able to unite in the realization that in order to end their own special oppression: the abolition of the capitalist state and economic order is required. Thus, each group undertakes the path towards its own liberation, in union with others, to bring about the liberation of all.” (page 14)

Democracy and dictatorship

Under ‘Misconceptions concerning socialism’ Davis mentions ‘That socialism means a dictatorship.’ (p. 7) To this, he opposes ‘pure democracy’ that would be unleashed immediately after the insurrection: “In place of state terrorism, councils of all types would spring up to bring direct democracy, and socialism into every aspect of human life” (p. 4). ‘Democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ are seen as diametrical opposites, excluding each other as different social systems, capitalism, and socialism, exactly as it is seen in the democratic ideology reigning in the USA, that opposes its democracy with the totalitarianism or dictatorship of ‘non-western’ countries. We should see however that in the reality of capitalism – as in exploiting societies before, be it in different forms – democracy and dictatorship complement each other as functions of the state.

In capitalism ‘democracy’ is an ideological mystification hiding the real relations of production between capital and labor and the bourgeois state repressing society as a whole. This dictatorship of capital and its state is hidden behind democratic institutions pretending to represent ‘the people’, this other mystification hiding the existence of classes. This is true for the USA and the so-called western democracies with their democratic institutions, mainly elections, and parliaments. We should see as well that the present and past ‘totalitarian countries’ like those that use a Stalinist or fascist ideology, or the present ones, from the China Peoples Republic to the Islamic Republic of Iran, can not do without a charade of a representation of the people. Stalinism legitimates the power of the state by (party controlled) elections for ‘Soviets’, of for a ‘People’s Congress’, and by elections in the party, labor unions, and works-councils. Fascism did the same in the ‘corporatist’ form. In the past of feudal societies, councils at a national (the later ‘Parliament’), regional and local level (‘Commune’) legitimated the power of the monarch or city rulers by consulting these representative bodies. Even the pope of Rome is still chosen.

Dictatorship and democracy complement each other because no mode of exploitation and oppression can lean on physical violence only. The oppressors and exploiters have to present themselves as defending the interests of society and humanity, and an expression of the will of the ‘people’. This principle is true for all exploiting societies of the past, as it will be true for the period after a successful insurrection – this most dictatorial act -, when the workers’ councils destructed the bourgeois state and lay the foundations of communist society. The general position of historical council communism is that in the period of transition there will be a dictatorship of the proletariat, exercised by general workers’ assemblies and chosen and always revocable workers’ councils. This dictatorship is based upon the working class being the only class in arms, that it will not hesitate – be it in last resort – to use armed violence against members the former capitalist class and of classes other than the proletariat trying to restore their power. At the same time, this dictatorship will be the most democratic ever seen. First, because the dictatorship that these workers’ councils exercise over society will be for the first time in human history a direct representation (by permanently revocable delegates) of the workers in the units of work, including former unemployed proletarians integrated into production, distribution, and services. Second, because the masses of the non-exploiting classes (like peasants and craftsmen) will organize in a representation by territorial councils that will be consulted by the workers’ councils.

But as far as this council democracy is ‘rule over people’ by discussion, negotiation and vote, and by what Marx called “the spontaneous action of the laws of the social economy of free and associated labour” 8), it will disappear when the classes have disappeared, and ‘taking according to individual needs’ and ‘working as you wish’ for the ‘development of ones individual unique capacities’ are realized. Democracy as one of both forms of ‘rule over people’ will disappear with the other ‘rule over people’, the violent one, the dictatorship of the proletariat. What will remain of democracy in the general assemblies, the meetings in production and living spaces is ‘ruling over matters’, i.e. the direction production and distribution, and society as a whole will take.

Fredo Corvo, September 29th. 2020

Notes

1 See for example Otto Rühle, Which Side ToTake? in  Living Marxism Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 1940, where he opposes the ‘democracy’ of the USA to the ‘dictatorship’ of Italian and German fascism and Stalinism in Russia, still maintaining proletarian internationalism, refusing to choose any of the imperialist camps in WW2

2 Davis, The Road to Anti-State, Anti-market Socialism, first published under the title On the Organization and Function of the Revolutionary Work Group (1984). The present revised and supplemented edition is published in Jim Davis, For A World In Common, Eco Publications, 2020, online at Left-dis.nl. This pamphlet includes Revolutionary Socialism as I see it andThe Bolshevik state-capitalist Revolution in Russia. The latter text is based on the theory of Otto Rühle and Helmut Wagner’s Theses on Bolshevism. For my critique see The fatal myth of the bourgeois revolution in Russia

3 See f.e. Some Elements of Response and Status of a Discussion, a text that I reply in the October 2020 issue of A Free Retriever’s Digest.

4 See F.C. The fatal myth of the bourgeois revolution in Russia

5 Lenin, The State and Revolution, Chapter 3, Experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx’s Analysis

6 Idem.

7 As Marx explains in German Ideology: “the communist revolution (…) abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognized as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society”

8 Marx, The Civil War in France, First Draft, The Character of the Commune. The council communist GIC presented this perspective in Fundamental principles of communist production and distribution (1935).

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