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June 1972: Toward a Proletarian Theory of Democracy Printer Friendly Version

Toward a Proletarian Theory of Democracy

James Herod
June 1972

  This essay is an attempt to outline a proletarian theory of democracy, and to examine the implications of such a theory for revolutionary strategy. The essay is also a critique of the vanguard party strategy that has dominated the proletarian movement almost from its inception (and certainly since Lenin) and has been and still is, I believe, a key factor in the continuing failure of the revolution in the West.

  At the heart of my conception of proletarian democracy, the linchpin in the frame of reference within which I have come to think about the revolution and the new society, is the notion of a network of workers councils united on the basis of direct democracy. If this notion fails the whole argument falls apart. Its defense hinges upon the viability of `direct democracy' as opposed to `representative democracy' and upon the possibility of establishing such a system of direct democracy from the bottom of the society, directly by the proletarian majority, rather than through mediation by leaders in a top down process (a process that has never yet resulted in a proletarian society). If this notion can be successfully defended, as I believe it can, then what we have here is the keystone of a powerful communist theory of democracy which is vast in its implications for the proletarian revolution and which is critically missing, as far as I am aware, from proletarian revolutionary theory to date. This notion provides a basis simultaneously for (a) a fundamental clarification and more concrete expression of the goal of the revolution, transcending as it does the unacceptable choice between social democracy and bureaucratic state socialism, and (b) a thoroughgoing reformulation of the problem of revolutionary strategy in the industrialized heartlands of capitalism, a problem which has plagued revolutionaries in these countries throughout the twentieth century.

  The institution of workers councils has of course been a continuing concern of revolutionaries ever since the Paris Commune and especially since the Russian and Italian experiences with workers councils during the revolutionary upheavals of the World War I period. Nevertheless, workers councils, neither in the earlier period nor in the more recent experiences, have never been severed from the bourgeois practice of representative democracy. This is true not only of the practical experience of councils but even of the theory of workers councils, as seen, for example, in the writings of Ernest Mandel, among others. The distinctive feature of my own approach is that for the first time, as far as I am aware, workers councils have been united with the thoroughly egalitarian and proletarian conception of direct democracy.

  A striking characteristic of the proletarian revolution so far is that nowhere has it achieved its stated goal, the control of the society by the working class, i.e., proletarian democracy. There are instances of control on behalf of the working class (an achievement of dubious value since even the bourgeoisie claims to rule in behalf of all the people), but nowhere is there control by the working class itself.

  The Chinese revolution may prove to be the sole partial exception to this pattern. In China there has evidently occurred a limited but real shift of power away from the central party figures downward into the hands of the people as a result both of pressure from below and of a willingness or even desire on the part of some of the leaders (Mao, Chou) that such democratization take place. If there are more cultural revolutions, as Mao claims there will have to be, it is conceivable that China may eventually come close to achieving real proletarian democracy. Let's hope it does. But I remain skeptical because it seems to me unlikely that leaders, even wise ones, will ever willingly allow themselves to be completely displaced and deprived of power. Moreover, even if China does eventually reach communism, the Chinese way cannot be taken over wholesale as a model for the revolution in the West because of the vast social differences between the industrial, urban (and suburban), and thoroughly proletarianized societies at the center of capitalism and an agrarian, predominantly peasant society on the periphery of capitalism.

  I believe that the continuing failure of the revolution in the West, while undoubtedly linked to large historical forces – especially to the prolonged postwar capitalist boom, but also to things like the increased manipulative power of mass media and to the intensified worldwide capitalist division of labor – cannot be completely explained in these terms since it is undeniable also that advanced capitalist societies are, at the same time, fully ripe for revolution. Our present defeat therefore cannot be blamed entirely upon the vast integrative powers of monopoly capitalism, but must be seen also as a failure of strategy.

  The cruel fact is that the revolution has failed to win over a majority of the working class anywhere in the West. There have been proletarian majorities involved in specific rebellions, usually spontaneous and short-lived ones, but never a majority committed, over the long haul, to the revolution. That is, the proletarian majority has never yet taken up the revolution as its own cause with full consciousness of what it was doing and determined to see the project through. Winning the majority of the proletariat is at least half the battle and the failure of the European and North American revolutions in this respect is striking and staggering. If different strategies had been followed by those already committed to the revolution it is conceivable that over the years more people would have joined the cause, a few more battles would have been won, and the revolution would be much further along than it is today. After all, revolutions, as others have noted, do not simply happen. They have to be made. To make one you have to know how.

  It has always seemed patently absurd to me to expect to be able to establish a communist society with only the foggiest of notions about what its institutional structure should look like. Is it going to emerge all by itself, inevitably, without anyone being aware of it or having to fight for it, because of the automatic working of objective historical laws? This is deterministic nonsense, obviously. And yet if anyone tries to specify more concretely what a communist society might conceivably look like they are usually accused of being an idealist or utopian, and slapped in the face to boot with a quote from Marx, to the effect that it is foolish to speculate now about the shape of communism before it has even come into being. It seems to me that this is a gross misreading of Marx's intentions on this point, which were, I believe, to argue that it is impossible to say what a proletarian society will really look like until after it has existed for a while, say a century or so, and has had a chance to work out its own form, one peculiar to its own dynamics. He did not mean that revolutionaries should not have a concrete program. Marx and Engels always had a concrete program, from their earliest days in the Communist League throughout the period of the First International down until their struggle against Lassallean tendencies in German Social Democracy, as represented by the Gotha program itself. The significant thing is that the Gotha document was a concrete program. Marx opposed it because it was a poorly formulated and theoretically incorrect program, not because it was a program.

  But even if those against a more concrete constitution for communism are correct in their reading of Marx I do not think that this should stop us for one minute now, one hundred years later, from trying to work out a clearer idea of what we are doing. What we need now more than anything is clarity. We need to know where we are going and how to get there. Ordinarily I would regard the `100 years later' argument as a pretty weak rebuttal of Marx's analyses, an argument used primarily by liberal social scientists who believe that the mere passage of time is enough to inevitably transform the dominant characteristics of a historical period. In this case, however, the more fully developed conditions of capitalism which permit an easier grasp of the potentialities present for a new society, as well as the desperate state of the revolutionary movement, seem to me to demand a reversal of Marx's judgement, even if that is what he meant, which I deny.

  My presentation in this essay of a specific description of one conceivable institutional structure for the new society we are trying to bring into being can be considered utopian in the positive sense of that term. It is a down-to-earth utopia. I believe in utopia. I believe in the creation of a new world where people will be able to live like human beings instead of slaves. There is, and must be, a large measure of invention in this, but this does not mean that I am an idealist. All inventions are rooted in historical reality and emerge under certain concrete circumstances, but they are nevertheless invented by someone or some group, by real people. This is just as true for social forms like banks as it is of physical inventions like tanks. The corporation as a social form was invented by the bourgeoisie at a specific historical juncture to meet specific needs; so were public schools, conscript armies, universal suffrage, income taxes, the United Nations, the Pentagon, the Common Market, and all the other social forms of the bourgeois world.

  The proletariat will have to create the social forms that will make up its world. The proletarian revolution requires an image, a concrete image, of the kind of society that is being fought for, especially now, in the second half of the twentieth century, in the industrialized metropoles of capitalism, 200 years after the establishment of full bourgeois hegemony, 125 years after the outbreak of the proletarian revolution. If we don't pretty much know now what communism is, at least initially, when will we ever know? No one can build a bridge without a blueprint. We will not be able to build a proletarian society without a blueprint. The first task is not merely to fight the ruling class. That is mindless activism. To fight blindly without a plan, without knowing what one is fighting for, except to defeat the ruling class, except to `win', is a recipe for certain defeat. The first task rather is to fight intelligently with a winning strategy that leads to communism (to have the goal clearly in mind and a good idea of how to get there). So in the positive sense of the word my proposal is utopian since I believe that proletarians have to create and fight to bring into being a world which does not yet exist. This world has to be created in the imagination before it can be created in reality.

  The question is whether my proposal (the network of workers councils united on the basis of direct democracy) is utopian in the negative sense of not being grounded in a firm grasp of the concrete historical realities facing us, and is therefore unrealistic and unattainable. I deny that it is utopian in this second sense. In fact, I argue that the failure to seize hold of and build a strategy around the utopian possibilities shackled within the fetters of late capitalism has stymied the revolution in the West about as much as anything has. The lack of a concrete vision of the possible as opposed to the actual was certainly a liability throughout the radical movement of the sixties in the United States. People would ask radicals, ``Well, what do you want? How would you organize things differently?'' No one could give a concrete answer. We could mouth the vague ideals – end all exploitation of one person by another, destroy capitalism and imperialism – but we couldn't give a detailed description of the kind of society we wanted to build. We complained about a lot of things, about the war, about racial discrimination, oppression of women, sexual oppression, destruction of the environment, waste, and so forth, but these complaints never jelled into a positive and comprehensive program. In fact, the New Left in the United States never had a program and still doesn't.

  Worse still, the New Left in the United States attacked working class people for their racism, sexism, and materialism, but rarely did it bother to explain how workers could be better off under a new order. This was an incredible failure in my view, especially in light of the deep hatred of work lying right below the surface in most people. It is clear to me that this hatred of the job, this enormous pent-up anger by millions of people at the grind involved in earning a living, is the primary emotional force capable of detonating and sustaining a revolution by the proletarian majority. And yet the Left has never taken much pains, to my knowledge, to explain how a rearrangement of the social order could alleviate much of the deadly oppression of work (as it appears in our society in its capitalist form as wage-labor), or what such a rearrangement would look like. Admittedly this is a difficult task, since it requires a leap of the imagination and an ability to see the society as a totality for anyone even to be able to conceive of rearranging or changing social relationships which most people take as given, as natural, as part of life. That's why I have always argued that there is at bottom something very `intellectual' (conscious) in the socialist project, which is not to say however that this consciousness can be more readily gained by reading books than by contesting the power of capital in everyday life, although contestation by itself without study can never bring one to a full vision of socialism. It seems to be a tribute to the good sense of proletarians that, not seeing clearly how they would gain through revolution, they have nowhere joined the cause in any great number. It is a mark of the short-sightedness and failure of revolutionaries that they have allowed this situation to continue for so long unremedied.

  There is this peculiar absence then, right in the middle of the revolution, of the carefully worked out theory of proletarian democracy that ought to be there. This is especially strange since, as everyone knows, the objective of the revolution and the historical destiny of the proletarian class, by now the majority class in most western societies (in sharp contrast to most colonies and neo-colonies), is self-emancipation and hence self-government. How is it then that there is no proletarian theory of democracy or a strategy for winning it? This is very puzzling.

  A few pieces to the puzzle can be found by examining the goals and strategies that have been put forward to date by the Left. The traditional goal of radicals everywhere, to the extent that they have been revolutionary at all and involved in the living movement, has been to `seize state power', to install a `socialist government' (usually made up of the leaders of the revolution, i.e., the `vanguard'), and to establish a `dictatorship of the proletariat'. This is more or less what has happened wherever communist revolutions have been made (except for the `dictatorship of the proletariat' part – it's been more like `dictatorship of the party').

  Marx's insight stemming from the experience of the Paris commune that ``the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes'' has thus remained barren everywhere. Revolutionaries have endorsed this vision of course, beginning with Lenin in State and Revolution. They have reaffirmed the ideal of smashing the state, not seizing the state, but the reality has been otherwise. The reality has been bureaucratic state machinery controlled by the party and sometimes growing to monstrous proportions, as in the case of the Soviet Union.

  Bureaucratic state socialism, in turn, is not an isolated, inexplicable fact. Most certainly it does not represent merely an intellectual failure stemming from the lack of a theory of proletarian democracy. Rather it is intimately connected to the fact that all so-called communist revolutions so far have been made on the periphery of capitalism, not in the heartland, and were made with vanguard strategies designed for the specific historical circumstances of those colonial situations. Moreover, the absence of a proletarian theory of democracy in the West itself cannot be understood as merely an intellectual failure but must be interpreted also as a social phenomenon and especially as a class phenomenon, reflecting the class origins and class orientations of radicals, reflecting, in short, the social basis of the Left. There is a marked tendency, it seems to me, for the social basis of the active movement to shift periodically and sometimes for long periods into the petty bourgeoisie, thus becoming contaminated. It may be that the `Left' in the United States has so far been predominantly rooted in the petty bourgeoisie and not the proletariat. I explore this in detail later on. (But I use the term `petty bourgeois' here in its descriptive, historical sense, as a name for a distinct class within capitalism, and not merely as a pejorative term to slander people whose views I do not agree with, as has become the custom, unfortunately, in much of the literature of the Left, probably because this literature may be, ironically, petty bourgeois.)

  It is part of my thesis that these vanguard strategies, designed for societies on the periphery of capitalism, were never appropriate, not even in Lenin's time, for advanced capitalist societies in the West. Obviously, the fault lies not with Lenin or Mao or Ho or Castro or Kim Il Sung, who led revolutions to victory, probably the best ones possible under the circumstances. The problem starts with Western radicals who try to use these strategies in situations where they do not apply. Part of the proof of my claim, it seems to me, lies in the continuing and very long defeat of our revolution. A century and a half of struggle and not one single successful revolution anywhere in the West. For more than half that period the Left has suffered under the influence of an explicit vanguard strategy, perhaps even longer.


Note, 1986 – This was written as the introduction to what was to have been a much longer essay, which was never written, but which was projected as follows: (1) A sketch of the class structure of the United States, (2) Elements of a proletarian theory of democracy, (3) A concrete image of the nature of communism, (4) Transcending the leadership frame of reference, (5) A critique of the vanguard party strategy, (6) On sectarianism and splits, (7) Intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, (8) Individualism and authoritarianism, (9) The dialectic, (10) The emerging outlines of an egalitarian strategy.