By James P. Cannon
And, in the course of further progressive development in all fields, as Lenin expressed it, even this democracy, this workers’ democracy, as a form of class rule, will outlive itself. Lenin said: “Democracy will gradually change and become a habit, and finally wither away,” since democracy itself, properly understood, is a form of state, that is, an instrument of class rule, for which there will be no need and no place in the classless socialist society.
Forecasting the socialist future, the Communist Manifesto said: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association.” Mark that: “an association,” not a state—“an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Trotsky said the same thing in other words when he spoke of socialism as “a pure and limpid social system which is accommodated to the self-government of the toilers...an uninterrupted growth of universal equality—all-sided flowering of human personality...unselfish, honest and human relations between human beings.”
The bloody abomination of Stalinism cannot be passed off as a substitute for this picture of the socialist future and the democratic transition period leading up to it, as it was drawn by the great Marxists.
And I say we will not put the socialist movement of this country on the right track and restore its rightful appeal to the best sentiments of the working class of this country and above all to the young, until we begin to call socialism by its right name as the great teachers did. Until we make it clear that we stand for an ever-expanding workers’ democracy as the only road to socialism. Until we root out every vestige of Stalinist perversion and corruption of the meaning of socialism and democracy, and restate the thoughts and formulations of the authentic Marxist teachers.
But the Stalinist definitions of socialism and democracy are not the only perversions that have to be rejected before we can find a sound basis for the regroupment of socialist forces in the United States. The definitions of the social democrats of all hues and gradations are just as false. And in this country they are a still more formidable obstacle because they have deeper roots, and they are tolerantly nourished by the ruling class itself.
The liberals, the social democrats and the bureaucratic bosses of the American trade unions are red-hot supporters of “democracy.” At least, that is what they say. And they strive to herd the workers into the imperialist war camp under the general slogan of “democracy versus dictatorship.” That is their slippery and consciously deceptive substitute for the real “irrepressible conflict” of our age, the conflict between capitalism and socialism. They speak of democracy as something that stands by itself above the classes and the class struggle, and not as the form of rule of one class over another.
Lenin put his finger on this misrepresentation of reality in his polemic against Kautsky. Lenin said: “A liberal naturally speaks of ‘democracy’ in general; but a Marxist will never forget to ask: ‘for what class?’ Everyone knows, for instance (and Kautsky the ‘historian’ knows it too), that rebellions, or even strong ferment, among the slaves in antiquity at once revealed the fact that the state of antiquity was essentially a dictatorship of the slaveowners. Did this dictatorship abolish democracy among, and for, the slaveowners? Everybody knows that it did not.”
Capitalism, under any kind of government—whether bourgeois democracy or fascism or a military police state—under any kind of government, capitalism is a system of minority rule, and the principal beneficiaries of capitalist democracy are the small minority of exploiting capitalists; scarcely less so than the slaveowners of ancient times were the actual rulers and the real beneficiaries of the Athenian democracy.
To be sure, the workers in the United States have a right to vote periodically for one of two sets of candidates selected for them by the two capitalist parties. And if they can dodge the witch-hunters, they can exercise the right of free speech and free press. But this formal right of free speech and free press is outweighed rather heavily by the inconvenient circumstance that the small capitalist minority happens to enjoy a complete monopoly of ownership and control of all the big presses, and of television and radio, and of all other means of communication and information.
We who oppose the capitalist regime have a right to nominate our own candidates, if we’re not arrested under the Smith Act before we get to the city clerk’s office, and if we can comply with the laws that deliberately restrict the rights of minority parties. That is easier said than done in this country of democratic capitalism. In one state after another, no matter how many petitions you circulate, you can’t comply with the regulations and you can’t get on the ballot. This is the state of affairs in California, Ohio, Illinois, and an increasing number of other states. And if you succeed in complying with all the technicalities, as we did last year in New York, they just simply rule you out anyhow if it is not convenient to have a minority party on the ballot. But outside of all these and other difficulties and restrictions, we have free elections and full democracy.
It is true that the Negro people in the United States, 94 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, are still fighting for the right to vote in the South, and for the right to take a vacant seat on a public bus; or to send their children to a tax-supported public school, and things of that kind—which you may call restrictions of democracy in the United States.
But even so, with all that, a little democracy is better than none. We socialists have never denied that. And after the experiences of fascism and McCarthyism, and of military and police dictatorships in many parts of the world, and of the horrors of Stalinism, we have all the more reason to value every democratic provision for the protection of human rights and human dignity; to fight for more democracy, not less.
Socialists should not argue with the American worker when he says he wants democracy and doesn’t want to be ruled by a dictatorship. Rather, we should recognize that his demand for human rights and democratic guarantees, now and in the future, is in itself progressive. The socialist task is not to deny democracy, but to expand it and make it more complete. That is the true socialist tradition. The Marxists, throughout the century-long history of our movement, have always valued and defended bourgeois democratic rights, restricted as they were; and have utilized them for the education and organization of the workers in the struggle to establish full democracy by abolishing capitalist rule altogether.
The right of union organization is a precious right, a democratic right, but it was not “given” to the workers in the United States. It took the mighty and irresistible labor upheaval of the ’30s, culminating in the great sit-down strikes—a semi-revolution of the American workers—to establish in reality the right of union organization in mass-production industry.
And yet today—I am still speaking under the heading of democracy—20 years after the sit-down strikes firmly established the auto workers’ union, the automobile industry is still privately owned and ruled by a dictatorship of financial sharks. The auto workers have neither voice nor vote in the management of the industry which they have created, nor in regulating the speed of the assembly line which consumes their lives. Full control of production in auto and steel and everywhere, according to the specific terms of the union contract, is still the exclusive prerogative of “management‚” that is, of the absentee owners, who contribute nothing to the production of automobiles or steel or anything else.
What’s democratic about that? The claim that we have an almost perfect democracy in this country doesn’t stand up against the fact that the workers have no democratic rights in industry at all, as far as regulating production is concerned; that these rights are exclusively reserved for the parasitic owners, who never see the inside of a factory.
In the old days, the agitators of the Socialist Party and the IWW—who were real democrats—used to give a shorthand definition of socialism as “industrial democracy.” I don’t know how many of you have heard that. It was a common expression: “industrial democracy‚” the extension of democracy to industry, the democratic control of industry by the workers themselves, with private ownership eliminated. That socialist demand for real democracy was taken for granted in the time of Debs and Haywood, when the American socialist movement was still young and uncorrupted.
You never hear a “democratic” labor leader say anything like that today. The defense of “democracy” by the social democrats and the labor bureaucrats always turns out in practice to be a defense of “democratic” capitalism, or as Beck and McDonald call it, “people’s capitalism.” And I admit they have a certain stake in it, and a certain justification for defending it, as far as their personal interests are concerned.
And always, in time of crisis, these labor leaders—who talk about democracy all the time, as against dictatorship in the “socialist countries,” as they call them—easily excuse and defend all kinds of violations of even this limited bourgeois democracy. They are far more tolerant of lapses from the formal rules of democracy by the capitalists than by the workers. They demand that the class struggle of the workers against the exploiters be conducted by the formal rules of bourgeois democracy, at all stages of its development—up to and including the stage of social transformation and the defense of the new society against attempts at capitalist restoration. They say it has to be strictly “democratic” all the way. No emergency measures are tolerated; everything must be strictly and formally democratic according to the rules laid down by the capitalist minority. They burn incense to democracy as an immutable principle, an abstraction standing above the social antagonisms.
But when the capitalist class, in its struggle for self-preservation, cuts corners around its own professed democratic principles, the liberals, the social democrats and the labor skates have a way of winking, or looking the other way, or finding excuses for it.
For example, they do not protest when the American imperialists wage war according to the rules of war, which are not quite the same thing as the rules of “democracy.” When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the most abominable atrocity in all history—the bombing of a defenseless civilian population and the wiping out of whole cities of men, women and children—the best these liberals, labor fakers and social democratic defenders of American democracy could offer was the plaintive bleat of Norman Thomas. You know, he was supporting the war, naturally, being a social democrat. But Norman Thomas rose up after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were wiped off the face of the Earth and said the bombs should not have been dropped “without warning.” The others said nothing.
These professional democrats have no objection to the authoritarian rule of the military forces of the capitalist state, which deprives the rank-and-file soldiers of all democratic rights in life-and-death matters, including the right to elect their own officers. The dictatorial rule of MacArthur in Japan, who acted as a tsar over a whole conquered country, was never questioned by these professional opponents of all other dictators. They are against the dictators in the Kremlin, but the dictator in Japan—that was a horse of another color. All that, you see, concerns war; and nothing, not even the sacred principles of “democracy‚” can be allowed to stand in the way of the victory of the American imperialists in the war and the cinching-up of the victory afterward in the occupation.
But in the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists to transform society, which is the fiercest war of all, and in the transition period after the victory of the workers, the professional democrats demand that the formal rules of bourgeois democracy, as defined by the minority of exploiters, be scrupulously observed at every step. No emergency measures are allowed.
By these different responses in different situations of a class nature, the professional democrats simply show that their class bias determines their judgment in each case, and show at the same time that their professed devotion to the rules of formal democracy, at all times and under all conditions, is a fraud.
And when it comes to the administration of workers‚ and the organizations under their control, the social democrats and the reformist labor leaders pay very little respect to their own professed democratic principles. The trade unions in the United States today, as you all know, are administered and controlled by little cliques of richly privileged bureaucrats, who use the union machinery, and the union funds, and a private army of goon squads, and—whenever necessary—the help of the employers and the government, to keep their own “party” in control of the unions, and to suppress and beat down any attempt of the rank and file to form an opposition “party” to put up an opposition slate. And yet, without freedom of association and organization, without the right to form groups and parties of different tendencies, there is and can be no real democracy anywhere.
In practice, the American labor bureaucrats, who piously demand democracy in the one-party totalitarian domain of Stalinism, come as close as they can to maintaining a total one-party rule in their own domain. Kipling said: “The colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.” The Stalinist bureaucrats in Russia and the trade-union bureaucrats in the United States are not sisters, but they are much more alike than different. They are essentially of the same breed, a privileged caste dominated above all by motives of self-benefit and self-preservation at the expense of the workers and against the workers.
The privileged bureaucratic caste everywhere is the most formidable obstacle to democracy and socialism. The struggle of the working class in both sections of the now divided world has become, in the most profound meaning of the term, a struggle against the usurping privileged bureaucracy.
In the Soviet Union, it is a struggle to restore the genuine workers’ democracy established by the revolution of 1917. Workers’ democracy has become a burning necessity to assure the harmonious transition to socialism. That is the meaning of the political revolution against the bureaucracy now developing throughout the whole Soviet sphere, which every socialist worthy of the name unreservedly supports. There is no sense in talking about regroupment with people who don’t agree on that, on defense and support of the Soviet workers against the Soviet bureaucrats.
In the United States, the struggle for workers’ democracy is preeminently a struggle of the rank and file to gain democratic control of their own organizations. That is the necessary condition to prepare the final struggle to abolish capitalism and “establish democracy” in the country as a whole. No party in this country has a right to call itself socialist unless it stands foursquare for the rank-and-file workers of the United States against the bureaucrats.
In my opinion, effective and principled regroupment of socialist forces requires full agreement on these two points. That is the necessary starting point. Capitalism does not survive as a social system by its own strength, but by its influence within the workers’ movement, reflected and expressed by the labor aristocracy and the bureaucracy. So the fight for workers’ democracy is inseparable from the fight for socialism, and is the condition for its victory. Workers’ democracy is the only road to socialism, here in the United States and everywhere else, all the way from Moscow to Los Angeles, and from here to Budapest.