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Would socialism be a dictatorship?

This article is over 21 years, 6 months old
Hazel Croft continues our series on socialism from below
Issue 1801

THIS SERIES has argued that a new socialist society can be created and run by the working class in the interests of the working class. But many people argue that this is impossible. They point to the lack of democracy, equality and freedom in the countries which used to or still do call themselves socialist.

They look at the terror, police repression and gulag camps of the Soviet Union under Stalin. They see repression and poverty in North Korea today. In Castro’s Cuba, even though there are welfare services and literacy programmes, there are still no free elections or freedom of expression. Opponents of Marxism say this shows that socialism is fundamentally undemocratic, and will always lead to terror and dictatorship.

None of these regimes are genuinely socialist. Indeed their rulers have tried to eliminate those who stood for genuine workers’ control and democracy. In Russia Stalin entrenched his rule by wiping out the generation which had made the revolution through his show trials, executions and slave labour camps. Similarly in North Korea dissent is not tolerated.

Even in Cuba dissidents get a hard time. Socialist Worker bases its analysis on the theory developed in the late 1940s by Tony Cliff. Cliff called the Russian and Eastern European regimes ‘state capitalist’. He argued that there were differences of ideology and forms of ownership. But the underlying economic and class systems were exactly the same as in Western capitalist countries.

In these regimes, just like in Britain or the US, a tiny minority of the population owned and controlled the productive process and the state machinery. Workers had no control over any aspect of their lives. Just like in capitalist countries everywhere, workers were ruthlessly exploited, and forced to live a meagre and restricted existence.

That’s why Socialist Worker has always sided with workers and the oppressed when they rose up and challenged the state capitalist regimes. We supported the workers and students who organised and fought against Russian tanks in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. And we cheered when Stalinism was toppled in the late 1980s.

But, some people argue, didn’t Marx himself argue in favour of a dictatorship? They are referring to Marx’s phrase ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. Unfortunately this phrase has not helped win the argument for workers’ control and democracy.

The word dictatorship conjures up an image of repression, especially for anyone who has suffered under a right wing dictatorship or in a Stalinist state. Indeed those hostile to Marxism have jumped on the phrase to claim that a socialist revolution would lead to state terror and the gulag. Revolutionary socialists do not use this phrase today, but it is important to understand what Marx meant.

He did not mean a dictatorship over workers. He meant a dictatorship BY workers- the working class taking control of society and running it for themselves. Marx saw this as a liberating experience, involving the highest form of democracy and participation.

Marx wrote that the workers’ movement ‘is the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority’. The workers, organised democratically, had to ‘dictate’ to the remnants of the old ruling class.

He looked to the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 when for two months the workers and poor took over Paris, and ideas and debate flourished. Marx also saw that to be successful the workers’ revolution had to be able to defend itself against counter-revolution by capitalist and reactionary forces.

The crushing of the Paris Commune showed just how far the old ruling class was prepared to go to smash the revolt and butcher the participants. This workers’ ‘dictatorship’ would be a thousand times more democratic than the capitalist system.

Instead of merely putting a cross on a ballot paper every four or five years, the workers’ state would be based on collective debate and discussion. Workers’ representatives would be elected by genuine mass meetings in factories, in offices and in local neighbourhoods.

These representatives would be subject to immediate recall, and be genuinely accountable. Moreover for the first time workers would have real control over what society produced, how it produced it and how resources were shared and allocated. Marx also saw that this was not the end in itself, but ‘the first step’ towards creating a socialist society.

He argued it would be part of sweeping away ‘the conditions for the existence of class antagonism and of classes generally. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’


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