Democracy, socialism, and public ownership

Submitted by martin on 25 August, 2018 - 7:35 Author: Sean Matgamna
Workers' control

From Socialism Makes Sense

B. Didn’t Stalinism do what socialists advocated? Didn’t it “nationalise” the economy? Statify it? You say that “socialism” is what you say it is, and not what everyone else says it is!

A. Would you accept your politics being equated with all those who call themselves “right-wing” or “conservative”? You wouldn’t. The truth is that the self-definition of the left, in capitalist society, is always and inevitably a struggle against rabid misrepresentation and unreasoning prejudice. And even more so now, after Stalin.

B. The leftists who see future socialism as a perhaps modified version of what you call Stalinism have logic and common sense on their side. Those 20th century socialist states...

A. Stalinist states!

B. ... had what even you see as the main content of socialism, state ownership of the main means of production.

A. Do you seriously think that for socialists nationalisation is socialism, irrespective of everything else in society? Of who rules in society? It isn’t. It never was. It can’t be. What do you think those who made the Russian Revolution believed? In common with all Marxists then, they believed:

“State ownership and control is not necessarily socialism — if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the police, the judges, the gaolers, the informers, and the hangmen, all would all be socialist functionaries, as they are state officials — but the ownership by the state of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be socialism... An immense gulf separates the ‘nationalising’ proposals of the middle class from the ‘socialising’ demands of the revolutionary working class. The first proposes to endow a class state... with certain powers and functions to be administered in the common interest of the possessing class; the second proposes to subvert the class state and replace it with the socialist state, representing organised society — the socialist republic.

“To the cry of the middle class reformers, ‘make this or that the property of the government’, we reply, ‘yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property’.”

B. Who are you quoting? Lenin?

A. No, that was James Connolly, in 1899, expressing the viewpoint common to all Marxists then. Wounded in the 1916 uprising, he was propped up in a chair and shot by the British army for trying to establish the right of the Irish nation to democratic self-rule, 18 months before the October Revolution. Nationalisation without democracy and without a workers’ state, so Marxist socialists thought then, would produce only the tyranny of an elite. George Plekhanov declared: “There will not be any self-government by the people and the revolution which has taken place may lead to a political monster similar to the ancient Chinese or Peruvian empires, i.e., to a renewal of tsarist despotism with a communist lining”.

B. Plekhanov opposed the Bolsheviks in 1917.

A. Yes. But Trotsky was a central leader of the Bolsheviks in 1917. He wrote in 1936, of Russian “socialism”: “The means of production belong to the state. But the state, so to speak, ‘belongs’ to the bureaucracy.” In fact, the nationalisation of everything, even the street corner shops, was specific to Stalinism. It came out of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s drive in a backward country to eliminate all rivalry for control of resources, of the surplus product, even that of small shopkeepers, artisans and so on. In this also Stalinism was a product of Russia’s backwardness and extreme poverty.

B. Such concentration of economic, social, and political power in the hands of the state inevitably produces tyranny. You say there were people in the Russian revolution who did not like what the Russian state became? I’ll admit that socialists often have good intentions. But those intentions are not realisable. The attempt to realise them will always produce tyranny.

A. Why?

B. Because widespread public ownership inevitably gives great power to those who control the government machine. They will inevitably use that power in their own interests. Democracy can exist and thrive only in an economy where ownership is dispersed. It is bound to perish where it is concentrated.

A. That doesn’t augur well for the future of democracy if capitalism continues, then, does it? The big corporations are dominant, and becoming more and more dominant. Under modern capitalism, ownership is greatly concentrated and is becoming more concentrated.

B. With a free market there are always limits to that concentration. There are always new competitors.

A. But the big businesses dominate, even if from time to time one big corporation declines and another takes its place at the top. Maybe capitalist competition stops the general administration of society being dominated by a single fixed cartel of leading capitalists. Nonetheless it remains dominated by the general interests of all big business.

B. Not as completely as it would be with public ownership of all the major enterprises.

A. That depends...

B. On what exactly?

A. On democracy, or the absence of it. Your argument about the inevitability of tyranny under widespread public ownership is really an argument about democracy, an argument that democracy is impossible. Or rather, you concede that present-day parliamentary democracy is too weak to stop big-business bosses dominating affairs; you assume that no better democracy is possible; and so you “prove” to your own satisfaction that public ownership can only be bureaucratic ownership, and never democratic collective ownership. Here our differences hinge on the nature, extent, and possibilities of democracy — or, in fact, on whether a full democracy is realisable at all. Under your bluster, you have as little belief in democracy as you have ambition for its development.

B. It takes some cheek for you to say that — an advocate of the socialism which spawned 20th century totalitarianism, or of something like it!

A. Working-class socialism requires and presupposes a regime of all-pervading political, social, and economic democracy, where representatives and officials have no privileges. A system which allows everyone the same access to the means of information, and to free time for political activity. That will be a state in the process of withering away, losing its coercive tools and functions, in a functioning socialist economy, society, and polity.

B. You hope!

A. Yes, but with more than uninformed and passive hope. Socialists fight for that fuller democracy. We educate those whom we win to socialism in that democratic thought, spirit, and political program. We can and we will achieve it. It is central to our entire socialist political project.

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